Jim Clark knows how to create valuable things. He’s one of the few people in the recent history of American business to start three different billion dollar companies.
Clark also knows about technology: all three of his billion dollar companies were Silicon Valley startups.
We should, in other words, take his thoughts seriously when he discusses productivity in the digital age, which he did, a few years ago, in an interview with Stanford president John Hennessy (see above).
Kaufman was responding to Peak: Anders Ericsson’s recent book on expert performance.
At the core of Kaufman’s critique is the idea that deliberate practice does not work well for “almost any creative domain” [emphasis his].
As he summarizes:
Deliberate practice is really important for fields such as chess and instrumental performance because they rely on consistently replicable behaviors that must be repeated over and over again. But not all domains of human achievement rely on consistently replicable behaviors. For most creative domains, the goals and ways of achieving success are constantly changing, and consistently replicable behaviors are in fact detrimental to success.
This discussion caught my attention because my day job is the quintessential creative endeavor. As a theoretical computer scientist, I solve math proofs for a living. To conjure something that makes it past the brutally competitive peer review process in my field usually requires an original approach that makes progress where other really smart people have been stuck.
This reality is why I’m able to draw with some confidence from a well of personal experience when I note that I strongly disagree with Kaufman.
Earlier this month, I demoed the HTC Vive virtual reality system. I was impressed. The Vive uses wall-mounted sensors that track your movements as you walk around a virtual space and interact with it using handheld wands.
The effect can be quite immersive.
At one point in the demo, I found myself in a small science lab. I could walk around and explore whirring gadgets on shelves. On a whim, I crouched down and peered under a sink and examined the pipes underneath.
Yesterday, however, I had a revelation about this technology. After giving a speech about deep work, I participated in a discussion with local entrepreneurs. Someone asked me what role virtual reality might play in supporting deep work.
A light bulb went off in my head. The answer was clear: potentially a lot!
Last fall, Scott Young and I launched the first session of Top Performer — an online course we spent over three years developing. As you might recall, Top Performer provides a systematic curriculum for:
identifying the skills that matter most in your profession;
constructing a deliberate plan to improve them rapidly; and
finding the time in your already busy schedule to consistently make progress on this endeavor.
If you’re interested in finding out more you can visit the course web site which contains: detailed descriptions of the motivation, curriculum, and FAQs. There is also a video walkthrough and numerous video case studies from first session students. You can also view the overview video above.
I’ll post another short note around 24 hours before the end of the sign up period. But that’s the last I’ll talk about this for a while.
I know online courses (and the sales process surrounding them) is not everyone’s cup of tea. If this includes you, please ignore this — we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming shortly.
Edwin Land is famous for co-founding the Polaroid Corporation, but he’s also known as one of the twentieth century’s most innovative inventors. In addition to his famed work on instant film development, his research on polarizing filters led to many breakthroughs.
“What was Land like?…He was a true visionary,” is how his friend Elkan Bout described him.
Rushkoff is a media theorist, but this book falls comfortably into the area of big think economics. Its premise is that the underlying “operating system” of our economy — capital growth above all else — is not a fundamental law of markets, but was instead something selected four hundred years ago for some less than noble reasons.
(For a more grounded take on the same premise see Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy, which, if you’ll excuse a bit of trivia, was also a titular inspiration for my most recent book.)
Its Implications on Distraction
I’m not as interested as Rushkoff in making a moral judgment on the nuances of our market economy — a discussion above my pay grade.
What caught my attention with respect to our conversation here was the conclusion, implicit in his argument, that many of the features that have built the Internet into a weapon of mass distraction are not intrinsic to the medium, but are instead a side-effect of its cooption as a tool for capital growth.
That’s a heavy sentence. Let me attempt to unload it…
Rushkoff notes that after the biotech crash of the 1980’s, investors needed a new sector that could continue to fuel capital growth.
The Internet filled this role. Among other things, it exposed net users’ attention and personal data as an under-exploited resource that could be extracted and sold, and therefore support growth much in the way colonizing a country and extracting minerals from the ground once did.
As in any extractive industry, the more resources you can mine, the better. This led the way to attention engineering and the general/inevitable push to make applications and sites as addictive as possible.
This capital-driven push toward maximum addictiveness led to the shiny tangle of apps and infotainment sites that have become the bane of potential deep workers worldwide.
This is an important distinction.
When I take a stand against social media, in other words, I’m not taking a stand against the contents of your feed, but am instead taking a stand against these large companies’ insistence that the intrinsic value of my attention should flow into their coffers instead of being directed by me toward deep work on things I find important.
Rushkoff’s observations, however, do more than fuel righteousness. They also provide hope.
The Internet can and should be a source of peer-to-peer connection, serendipity, interestingness, and even revenue generation. But we shouldn’t necessarily expect the venture-backed corporations sprinting to generate 100x returns to be the best source of these rewards.
About Cal Newport
I'm a computer science professor who writes about the intersection of technology and society. I’m particularly interested in the impact of new technologies on our ability to perform productive work and lead satisfying lives. If you’re new to my writing, a good place to start is the about page. You can access over a decade's worth of posts in the blog archive.
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