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Amplifying Meaning with Environment

In my recent post about work and the deep life, I mentioned that some practitioners of this philosophy seek ways to amplify the meaning they derive from their craft. There are many strategies to accomplish this goal. One that’s always intrigued me is the use of radical environments to induce more inspiration and extract more satisfaction from one’s work.

For example, Adam Savage’s cave:

Or Laird Hamilton’s house in Hawaii:

Or Killiechassie, J.K. Rowling’s Scottish country estate (on the grounds of which she supposedly built a replica of Hagrid’s Hut).

These are grand examples, but there’s a tractable principle lurking. A craft can be more than a way to make a living; if properly cultivated, it can also become central to your sense of meaning.


A couple logistical notes for those seeking high quality distraction:

  • My friend Scott Young just re-opened his popular course Rapid Learner. Seems like a smart time to brush up on your ability to learn hard things fast.
  • Last month I read a fascinating article in Smithsonian Magazine (yes, I subscribe) by a biomedical engineer named Rachel Lance about her quest to understand the final moments of the ill-fated confederate submarine, the HL Hunley. I was excited to find out she has a new book about this work titled In The WavesI just ordered it. If you love these scientific-historical detective stories as much as I do, consider doing the same.

21 thoughts on “Amplifying Meaning with Environment”

  1. My dad is a panel beater and spray painter. He’s had his own shed and worked from home since I was ten.

    This whole shed is a product of the necessity of his craft, but is also a unique environment that speaks to the work he does.

    I imagine there’s something similar at play in knowledge workers who seek out their own workspace.

    It helps to cultivate an environment designed to help us focus, but also out of a desire to ground the abstract nature of knowledge work in something real, a unique workspace or environment which is uniquely connected to the work.

  2. Hamilton should use some of his time in that island getaway to take a few basic nutrition courses and stop selling his antiscience woo garbage.

  3. I do find I’m a bit sad that as a knowledge worker, whose works lives entirely in the digital realm, that I wish had the physical connection people like Adam Savage have to their work. Not only does the code I write have no way to be made physical, but it will also most likely be unusable in a few short years. There’s no case I could set it in to look at fondly at a later date.

    Perhaps when Virtual Reality becomes as real as Reality, it will open up ways to capture our digital work in a more ‘physical’ representation. Maybe it will allow everyone to create their ‘perfect’ workspace and not be limited to .01%.

    • I’ve written about this topic before and I think it’s an important one. Right now conversations about “productivity” and VR focus on finding ways to give you access to more information and better haptic interfaces for the information. I think, however, that there’s a cognitive productivity to be gained by putting people into virtual environments more conducive for work.

    • Interesting. As a structural engineer working in bridge design, we often create mathematical analysis models of structures. Lately I’ve been using a powerful program with a “coding” input language rather than a graphical interface (of course the results can be given graphically). We also work with CAD technicians to make the construction drawings. So we work in a very digital environment, while our designs are often turned into very tangible, long lasting public facilities.

  4. How can we incorporate these ideas in the military?

    As an officer in the military, we are expected to find a balance of a creating content to convey information and risk while being responsible for the leadership of an operations unit. Probably not too far from a project manager.

    However, our environment is typically open office, with no electronic devices allowed (for security ). This means no headphones to create a pseudo-closed office and forced use of “company” provided equipment.

    Love to hear your opinion or any experience you’ve had with military knowledge working.

    • The one thing the military can do well is create cultures of meaning around your work; centered, for example, on honor and duty. (Jocko Willink’s podcast is a great example of these efforts in action.) If environment is one tool for amplifying meaning, then the ability to build these cultures of meaning are another useful tool.

    • Alex,

      It’s really interesting to me that you bring this up. Is your comment about crafting your environment to create meaning for your work or about doing deep work in the military?I’m an Army civilian with zero uniformed experience. My initial thought would have been that the military is actually a place that does this really well because it seems like every single building you walk in has military artifacts that remind you of what people and units have done and why you’re there. However, I think you’re right that the environments you actually do your work in aren’t conducive to going deep for the reasons you listed. However, I think that sort of environment is also pretty typical in most corporations as well (or at least that’s been my experience). I would suggest reading Deep Work if you haven’t already. It’s got several suggestions that may be of help. One in particular is negotiating with your boss about the type of work you do and why it would benefit them to help you come up with a solution that allows for more concentration.

  5. I have some kind of fetish for office spaces. I often find myself googling for stuff like “Darwin’s office”, “Kissinger’s office”, “Bill Gates’ office” etc. It’s pretty incredible to see how people adapt the environment. It seems that most successful people like physical stuff… just look at Bill Gates’ office: it’s very orderly, but it’s a far cry from being the paperless office we were dreaming for in the 1990’s.
    By the way, now that I have an actual office, I can see its true value. I have never been as productive as I am now.

  6. I am calling to mind artist’s studios: painters, potters, sculptors. Their work absolutely necessitates the “cave”. I also pictured Thomas Jefferson’s bedroom and study at Monticello. So compact and elegant and all designed by him for him.

  7. Hi all,
    I think this is also a good example:
    “Paver takes her research seriously, getting to know the wolves at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust, swimming with orcas, eating raw seal liver and whale blubber to better imagine how her characters would have experienced life. Torak’s world is a long way from her home on Wimbledon Common, where she’s currently writing the next two books in what will be a trilogy. She still starts out in longhand, before typing up her books on her 21-year-old computer, backing up on floppy disk and steering well clear of the internet and email”.

  8. Hey Cal! Med student here. Do you believe the deep life can be cultivated as a surgeon? Interested to hear your thoughts. Thanks for everything you do.

    • It’s doable. Surgeons, of course, are well set up to dominate the “craft” piece of the deep life formula, but have to work hard to ensure they leave time for the other aspects.

  9. Hey Cal,

    Thanks for the blog. Great content.

    I’ve noticed that musicians and composers often have a special connection to their studio. Many serious musicians have these dedicated work spaces either in their house or in small unit on their property. Many of them go to great lengths to create these onsite deep work chambers.


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