Explore a better way to work – one that promises more calm, clarity, and creativity.

More Thoughts on Amplifying Meaning in Your Work

Earlier this week I explored how practitioners of the deep life sometimes use inspiring environments to amplify the meaning they derive from their work. Today, I want to briefly elaborate on two other strategies I’ve observed for accomplishing this same goal…

The first is establishing cultures of meaning. This is common, for example, in many military communities which emphasize a shared narrative about the honor and noble sacrifice of martial endeavors. If you want to see a contemporary example of this strategy in action listen to basically any episode of former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink’s podcast. He doesn’t dispense advice or opine about the state of the world; he instead mainly interviews war heroes to discuss the gritty reality of their experience. I’ve noticed similar cultures of meanings among teachers, fine craftsmen, and, relevant to recent events, medical professionals, who time after time demonstrate they are willing to keep returning to dangerous and unbelievably trying circumstances. That’s a powerful culture.

The second strategy I’ve noticed for amplifying meaning is to cultivate communities of common purpose. The veteran officers of the Continental Army formed The Society of the Cincinnati to maintain their connection to the revolutionary spirit. Within my circle of youngish non-fiction writers, there’s a semi-regular gathering that takes place at a rented cabin to talk shop and trade advice (though, regrettably, I’ve not yet been able to attend). As I’ve written about before, long tail social media has enabled numerous niche groups to leverage the internet to maintain virtual bonds among those with shared vocational interests. The ability to regularly gather with others who are developing and deploying the same craft helps ground these efforts on a more solid foundation of meaning.

This list of strategies is not comprehensive, but it underscores the general point. The deep life contains an emphasis on craft. Just developing and leveraging your rare and valuable skills, however, is not enough. To maximize the sense of fulfillment they generate requires a continuous and concerted effort toward activities designed to amplify meaning.

(Photo by Jelle.)

12 thoughts on “More Thoughts on Amplifying Meaning in Your Work”

  1. Professor,

    Since this past summer I have fantasized about the deep life after reading Deep Work, and Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. Entering my sophomore year of college, I wanted to establish my own deep life to find my purpose, and produce. I was accepted to work in a cancer research lab before the start of this academic year, and pushed myself to use the opportunity to grow in experience and facilitate my yearning to go deep. I did the same in my regular courses, taking them as opportunities to learn rather than the chance to get a good grade. In many ways I did go deep. There were moments where my ever-drifting mind became so present in my work it was addicting. I was experiencing the true meaning of education and the uniqueness of my own potential, yet it was so incomplete. Those deep moments were lost in weeks of being overworked by my slammed schedule and over commitments to research, reducing my overall performance academically and as a researcher. All the meanwhile, my desire to separate myself into solitude and go deep grew so much that I was in crisis about not having the time to do so. Then came the virus, which completely interrupted all aspects of life. After moving back home, and having my more than 20 hours / week of time spent in laboratory immediately cut from my schedule I found the opportunity that I was looking for, the chance to go deep. Yet we are three weeks into quarantine, and the best I could manage to do is fall behind on my now online classes and have an even less deep life than before. Was I not ready? Where did I go wrong? The answer is in this blog post, and after sniffing around your posts silently, I have decided to speak up. To all those seeking to go deep, creating an environment of meaning creates the greatest opportunity for depth. My question is, how can we create an environment to go deep in these times of pandemic where the tools that we typically rely on have been taken away and the easiest thing to do is be sad about the whole situation and do nothing.


    • As a current student interested in depth, there’s a lot in my older blog archive that you should read. In particular, my articles about “The Romantic Scholar” are all about crafting a deep life as an undergraduate. As are my articles on “The Zen Valedictorian.” They focus on minimizing your schedule, giving yourself more than enough time to handle your work, then building up a sense of true intellectual curiosity around it…

  2. Interesting how both seem to be hyper focused versions of Wenger’s Communities of Practice Theory, almost a hearkening back to what they were before the modern digital age.

    If you haven’t seen it, I’d love your feedback on how he compared Communities of Practice to formal work groups, project teams, and informal networks.

  3. Hi Cal,

    If you’re interested in deriving meaning from work, you should definitely read some of Adam Grant’s early research on task significance (i.e. how much impact you have on others through their work). A lot of his early work from my perspective was coming up with creative ways to help people realize the positive impact that they were having on others through their work (e.g. having fundraisers listen to someone who had been helped through their efforts) and then measuring subsequent boosts in motivation and performance. Seems aligned with the stuff you’ve been writing about lately.

    Take care!

  4. Professor Newport,

    Could you please elaborate on how teachers cultivate structures of meaning around their craft?

    Many thanks.

  5. Cal’s post on creating meaning reminds me of a chapter in “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle in which “guilds” of like minded craftsmen created an explosion of talent and art in the renaissance period. These guilds had large groups of skilled crafts share and create a culture of deep work together in the arts and were wildly creative the likes of which have never been seen again. Many of Cal’s deep work concepts seem to parallel techniques used to maximize talent that have foundations in neurobiology which are used in “talent hotbeds” around the world. (Neurobiology is not my field of study so I will have to depart here and again refer you to Daniel Coyles books.)

  6. Hi Cal, I love your blog. I don’t always agree with you on the point regarding following your passion. I do believe in doing something you’re actually interested in. One of my biggest interests is politics and political science related topics (econ, international relations, public policy, etc.). I agree with you on developing useful in demand skills and I don’t know what skill to develop to allow me to work in those fields. I currently work in IT (very dissatisfied with my career choice) and I have come to really detest working with computers. I don’t want to become a software engineer or any tech guy. Do you have any advice on figuring out WHICH skill should one pursue? Appreciate your advice.

    • The skills you already have are valuable, have you thought about how you could leverage them to work in a more poly sci related sphere? My impression overall is that the fast pace of technology advancement has left a lot of questions or blind spots both in public policy and in legislators’ understanding of this issues. Maybe just your background knowledge is a valuable asset in some situations. I’m thinking particularly of a friend’s daughter who is a CPA. She’s good at her work but felt drained and uninspired. She moved to get involved with a political movement, and ended up doing the books for a non-profit organization supporting work she thinks is important. This job has meaning built-in, and it has allowed her an entrance into a field (non-profits and advocacy) that she is interested in.

  7. You may already be aware since you live/work in DC, but the national headquarters of The Society of the Cincinnati is located on Massachusetts Ave in Dupont Circle. It is housed in the Anderson House. If you haven’t been, it is worth a visit for a tour when they reopen. Or to visit the library with the largest collection of Revolutionary War materials anywhere.


Leave a Comment