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Will You Get Tenure? Replicate the Academic Promotion Process to Get More Value Out of Your Work

September 8th, 2013 · 23 comments

The Depths and the Shallows

I worry a lot about deep work (giving sustained attention to hard things that create value). As a professor, deep work is required to produce new results. Therefore, the more I do, the better.

I often envy the schedules of professional writers — like Woody Allen, Neal Stephenson, or Stephen King — who can wake-up, work deeply until they reach their cognitive limit, then rest and recharge until the next day.

The simplicity of this rhythm is satisfying. I could never emulate it, however, because, like most knowledge workers, I’m also saddled with quite a bit of  shallow work (task-oriented efforts that do not create much new value). You’d be surprised, for example, how much time you spend after you write an academic paper, formatting it properly for publication (a scene they seemed to skip in A Beautiful Mind).

Most knowledge workers face this same battle between what’s needed to make an impact in the long term, and what’s needed to avoid getting fired in the short term. Professors, however, are particularly good (or, at the very least, particularly concerned) about preserving deep work in the face of mounting shallow obligations. The reason for this attention is simple: tenure.

A Referendum on Depth

During tenure review, a professor’s body of published work is put to scrutiny by a panel of experts. Their goal is to assess how much new (intellectual) value you created in your field. There’s no hacking this process (the panel contacts multiple academics from your same research niche and says: “tell us honestly — and confidentially — is this guy’s work really that impressive?”). There are no points given for the fact that you always respond to e-mails quickly or built up a lot of Twitter followers.

At the end of the review, if it’s decided you’ve made a major contribution to the world of ideas, you get a promotion. If not, you’re fired.

Most knowledge work fields, of course, don’t have the equivalent of tenure review. But an interesting thought occurred to me recently: What if they did? Imagine that after a few years a panel of outside experts in your industry was going to scrutinize the contributions you’ve made — not to your company, but to your industry — and fire you if they’re not impressed with what they find. How would this change your daily habits? My guess is that you’d spend less time checking e-mail.

Personal Tenure

I won’t suggest that you formally replicate all the elements of tenure review in your own work life, but there’s something to be said for replicating the basic idea. Every two or three years, for example, consider stepping back and assessing the actual amount of new value you’ve created in your field. If your hypothetical tenure committee is not impressed with the results, fire your current habits.

I suspect that there’s a large number of well-educated and ambitious knowledge workers out there who would come away from such a review realizing that their attention has been dedicated almost exclusively toward mastering the shallow: doing what they’re asked as quickly as possible, and occasionally suggesting new “initiatives,” like setting up social media accounts for their company, that are satisfyingly accomplishable, but also easy to replicate and not a source of new value in the world.

This is why this type of review is important. Deep work is not natural. It’s not going to be your first instinct when asking “what should I do next?” But this is also what makes it so effective when you succeed in making it a priority.

(Photo by tsmall)

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My friend Dan Schawbel just published his latest book: Promote Yourself. Dan is an expert at something I know very little about (and wish I knew more): making sure your skills are appreciated once you’ve put in the time to develop them. His expert take on these soft skills arguably provide a nice counterpoint to my relentless drumbeat focus on hard skills. If it sounds interesting, you can find out more on his book site…

23 thoughts on “Will You Get Tenure? Replicate the Academic Promotion Process to Get More Value Out of Your Work

  1. PhDHacker says:

    Great article, Cal. After reading “So Good” I tried to integrate more and more deep work into my schedule (I’m a PhD student in Statistics). One of my problems is that when I think deeply about a problem I sometimes need to look something up online, like a certain theorem or a paper I remember which could be useful. Obviously this sort of breaks my flow in deep thinking and also often seduces me to check email, browse to a webpage, etc. DO you have a solution to this? Did you find a way to completely separate deep work from online information search?

  2. Tri Cao says:

    Cal, do you plan to write some book about grad school or deep work?

  3. Areeb says:

    PhDHacker, thanks for asking that question, I’m also interested in what strategies Cal recommends for overcoming these distractions.

    1. Emile Essent says:

      Stephen King says : get yourself a door (and close it).

  4. J says:

    second that notion!

  5. Mo says:

    Cal – I’m currently growing a hobby into a side business and this is a very good way of looking at the market – am I doing something unique and different that will attract the interest of those on the lookout for the next new thing.

    Of course, it also brings to mind Indiana Jones Discovers His Bid For Tenure Has Been Denied. Raiders of the Lost Ark shallow work? Sad, but true.

  6. Patrick says:

    A small comment to :

    You’d be surprised, for example, how much time you spend after you write an academic paper, formatting it properly for publication (a scene they seemed to skip in A Beautiful Mind).

    I’ve really been big into outsourcing things that you shouldn’t be spending too much time on, such that I can focus more of my time on deep work and work that is important that I am skilled at, or required to do. Is it possible to outsourcing something like formatting for a publication, or similar things?

  7. Study Hacks says:
    Great article, Cal. After reading “So Good” I tried to integrate more and more deep work into my schedule (I’m a PhD student in Statistics). One of my problems is that when I think deeply about a problem I sometimes need to look something up online, like a certain theorem or a paper I remember which could be useful. Obviously this sort of breaks my flow in deep thinking and also often seduces me to check email, browse to a webpage, etc. DO you have a solution to this? Did you find a way to completely separate deep work from online information search?

    Here are the hygiene factors I always have in place when I “go deep”:

    1) Energy-rich food and drink
    2) Declutter environment
    3) If there’s a computer, then LeechBlock e-mail (I don’t do any social networks, but, if you do, block those as well).
    4) A clear vision of what outcome I’m pushing toward and why it’s important.

    The third item from the list should help with your concern. I too often have to grab papers online when working. The blocking removes the possibility that a take a quick look at e-mail.

    Cal, do you plan to write some book about grad school or deep work?

    I’d probably do the latter before the former because a general book on deep work would apply to grad school, where as a book on grad school would not apply to anyone else.

    What would you want to encounter in a book on deep work?

  8. Deborah Owen says:

    I love this Cal. I am working very hard to add new value to my field – education – but you are right: it is VERY easy to fall into the trap of shallow work. It is easier to get in and out of, both in time and mental energy. But ultimately, it’s not as satisfying as having contributed in a more concrete way.

    Thanks for this reminder to stay focused on the value and contributions of deep work! I have already “fired” some of the habits I had last year, and hope to make inroads with new ones!

  9. Taylor says:

    What would you want to encounter in a book on deep work?

    Cal – something I’d like to see interrogated is the relationship between capacity for deep work and pre-existing passion in a field. I largely agree with your thoughts on passion and success, but I do think there is a case for pre-existing passion in riskier endeavours that involve an almost inconceivable amount of deep work over decades. In other words, deep work that is (initially) neither remunerated nor advised by the culture, and often springs from childlike obsessions that can’t be suppressed. The Steve Jobs example that’s cited frequently is, I reckon, slightly misleading for your more “artisanal” audience (say, artists, writers, composers, some mathematicians, etc).

    Put as a crude contrast, for lack of space: as you say, management is largely shallow work (task-oriented) and, by virtue of being shallow, I would also say it is easier to accomplish and achieve in the absence of pre-existing passion. Task-oriented work is, by nature, gratifying and responsive. Thus, on one hand, we have the biographies of Steve Jobs and Co. (the managers), while on the other we have the almost blind passion-obsessives & deep workers pursuing ‘callings’ from childhood or late adolescence, initially in the face of mounting lifestyle obstacles, good accounting and common sense. (Of course later it becomes monetized.) Mozart, Shakespeare, and William Blake all have this in common. Even Einstein and Charles Darwin, to a certain extent. Yet they are the ones our culture most profoundly admires for their capacity for deep, profound work in their fields.

    My hypothesis is that pre-existing passion may boost tolerance to failure/rejection longitudinally, while also limiting distractions. That is, its delusional qualities are, in fact, useful : a sort of career hybrid of horse blinders, caffeine, and holy instruction. The kind of thing that keeps a failure going through harsh circumstances – perhaps the difference between being ‘so good’ and ‘so great’.

    This may just be a blog post, but nonetheless it’s a small (albeit seemingly unresolved) issue I’ve encountered.

  10. J says:

    What would you want to encounter in a book on deep work?

    Just as this article on how to get deep work done while shallow work has closer deadlines. A long the lines of your current articles but with more real world applications.
    At least this reader would love to read more about that.

  11. Michael Bowen says:

    I totally get this! My university holds resume makeovers before every career expo, and this forces me to look at my resume and see what accomplishments, if any(sadly), I have done to add.

  12. AC says:

    I think there have always been distractions that have prevented people from doing deep work, and it has always been something that has been tough to get into.

    However, I think if someone is trying to break into the world of deep work (which is, at a basic level distraction free focus) in the modern world, they face two major obstacles that many men throughout history wouldn’t have had to contend with.

    1. Television.
    2. Internet.

    Mozart, Blake, Shakespeare, Einstein and Darwin wouldn’t have had to contend with these things, both of which have altered our brains without us realising it, and exert a huge dopamine driven pull over us.

    Yes these guys were talented, but in a time where the two biggest wastes of time in the history of man were yet to be invented, they had a head start on anyone from today’s world. Thinking about it some more, even the radio hadn’t been invented in their time, with the exception of Einstein.

    Mozart also had a very strict and controlling father who basically marshalled his early efforts, so that would have definitely helped him get on the road to greatness.

    Just some thoughts.

  13. weak stream says:

    I think the society also reinforces the error of pursuing enormous amounts of shallow work instead of sharp focus intervals. So it is more respectable to be ‘so busy’. The celebration of workaholism is widespread. I even think that highly successful artists/scientists will lie about ‘busyness’ to avoid being called a slacker. Profound ideas can take decades to develop so those of us that are pursuing these things have to be a bit defensive/evasive with others. Only after massive success is achieved will brilliant people come clean about their techniques and sometimes not even then. And to Taylor’s point about preexisting passion giving one the strength to persevere, I think that’s also very true. Cal, maybe you could do some digging on the topic of the adversarial relationship between profound thinkers/achievers and the rest of the ‘drone’ society. I find a lot of friction between the world of instant gratification and the reality that progress only comes with deep work and time. Yeah, so, in other words, keep doing your deep work so I don’t have to….Thanks.

  14. Taylor says:

    Yes these guys were talented, but in a time where the two biggest wastes of time in the history of man were yet to be invented, they had a head start on anyone from today’s world.

    Agreed, AC. When, for instance, the only thing one can do is read a book, it makes it easier to write one. This may have some explanatory power. Same with familial background.

    However, when reading the biographies of these individuals, it struck me that, more or less, each of them were doing the only thing they could imagine doing. That is, following some core passion despite better, more lucrative, or more congenial lifestyle opportunities elsewhere.

    Shakespeare left his family to become an impoverished actor in London (akin to a prostitute’s status), Darwin went against ‘objective’ best interest and promising lifestyle opportunities to become a biologist, Blake almost actively worked against his own business interests and viewed his career as a ‘divine’ calling, etc. None of these are wise decisions if we downplay the role of pre-existing passion. And all of the above were able to live with failure for significant periods of time.

    Basically I think there is a case to be made for pre-existing passion in profound (more than just ‘good’) deep work and achievement. While still agreeing with Cal’s general theses on the subject.

  15. Jtminnesota says:

    Interesting take. I’ll challenge it a little coming from my perspective in “the corporate world.” Deep work has immense value and also produces satisfaction but unlike the acedemic world succes is measured by contribution to the corporation not the industry as a whole, so I would perhaps reframe the personal tenure analysis to the contribution to the company for a corporate view.
    Also just to point it out, in the corporate world some of the shallow work, like management actually has as much if not more impact than the deep work. That is because deep work does not scale. Deep work is limited to the individual contribution that one person can have, where as shallow management tasks scale across all of the people that one manages. Just a different perspective from the corporate world.
    I’ll definitely be checking out Promote Yourself

  16. Euripides says:

    While I agree on the value of deep work and seek it, as a fellow academic you know that administrators are expecting that you also excel at “shallow work.” This shallow work also often has lots of value–but perhaps more for others than oneself. One must be careful to try not to shirk on this type of work.

  17. J.D.C. says:

    Deep work is a great book subject – please pursue that idea, Cal.

    One comment about TV/internet: we restricted tv and prohibited video games with our kids not because of any bias against violence, etc., but simply because, as we told the kids, tv and video games are too much fun. Our 13 y.o. son protested, but then got into programming instead and now is much more interested in dsigning his own computer programs and thinking about designing his own games. Our 11 y.o. daughter spends hours drawing, sculpting, and painting and has already achieved significant recognition as an artist. Our kids are not that exceptional. We’re just giving them the time they need to build real skills and to go deep into subjects they love. We are not spending time ferrying them around to soccer practice etc., in pursuit of goals they don’t care about. In other words, deep work can happen at any age.

    The question I’d like to see addressed in the book is the drain family commitments can have on the ability to get deep work done. I’m sure the problem is experienced in different, albeit equally excruciating, ways by men and women, but I think that women in particular can be prevented from getting into deep work by the significant social pressures to be available to kids, family, and co-workers. I think women are also likely to exert such pressure on themselves, feeling guilty about taking the time necessary for deep work when they perceive that that time comes at a high social cost. I’d like to see the book pursue this question with a goal of getting people to see that women, especially, need to be granted the space and time to be fully immersed in their work. Laundry, cooking, driving, scheduling, and childcare ain’t gonna get anyone tenure.

  18. Dave says:

    > because, as we told the kids, tv and video games are too much fun.

    As a life-long gamer trying to be more productive, I couldn’t agree more.

  19. Adam says:

    First, as a CEO, I love learning productivity Hacks from you (among other things). I’m fascinated by the pic for this blog. Is that your screen? If so, what program is it? Have you written about the specifically task process you follow (other than your books)?

    Second, thanks for sharing your valuable insights. Would learning about groups of people who systematically spend time daily in deep work be of interest to you?

    Thanks.

  20. Tricia says:

    I’m fascinated by the pic for this blog. Is that your screen? If so, what program is it?

    I don’t know for sure, but it looks like it’s OmniFocus from Omnigroup. They are currently working on Version 2 for the Mac, but it’s only out in beta (afaik). There is also an iPad version.

    (No affiliation, etc.)

  21. This is called skin in the game. It’s something that I’ve encountered in Taleb’s book : “Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder”, and it’s one of the most important rules of ‘thumb’ I know to date.

    If you don’t have skin in the game, you simply transfer fragility ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-fragility#Philosophical_theories ) from yourself to others.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Cal !

  22. Marc says:

    Thankfully, I am already a tenured professor. I started reading your posts thinking they might give me some good ideas for students, but I’ve enjoyed them as inspiration for myself as well. I hope you continue to develop the “deep work” theme.

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