On the Structured Pursuit of Depth

Early in the pandemic, driven by the dislocation that characterized the moment, I began writing about a topic I quickly came to call “the deep life.” Though the name was new, the underlying idea was not, as few impulses are more ancient than the pursuit of a richer existence.

The instinct when talking about this topic is to resort to the lyrical: tell motivating stories, or present scenes that spark inspiration. This instinct makes sense because the deep life is nuanced and too complicated to be fully reduced to practical suggestions or a step-by-step program.

And yet, this is exactly what I attempted.

Less than a month after my original post on the topic, I introduced a “30-day plan” in which you focus on four main areas in your life, identifying for each: one habit to “amplify” and one behavior to “reduce.” I even presented a sample table to demonstrate the plan in action:

Later that spring, on my podcast, I elaborated this idea into something I called the “deep life bucket strategy,” which presented a two-stage process for systematically overhauling your life.

Then, over that summer, Scott Young and I completed a new online course called Life of Focus (which, I should probably mention, opens again next week to new students), that included a major module on engineering more depth into your regular routine.

To explain my contrarian shift toward the pragmatic in my treatment of this topic, I should first note that I agree that the deep life cannot be fully reduced to a system. But I’ve also come to believe that systems still have a role to play in this context, as they can help you understand this goal better than simply being exposed to sources of inspiration. This idea is familiar in theological circles. Many religions believe that although the concept of God cannot fully be understood by the human mind, certain ritual practices, such as daily prayers, can spark intimations of the divine that are otherwise unavailable to written accounts.

Something similar (though less grandiose) is at play with systematic attempts to pursue the deep life. Identifying buckets, or amplifying habits, cannot by themselves fully access the life well-lived. But they do require you to take focused action toward this objective, and it’s in this action–including the missteps and surprises–that you gain access to a richer comprehension of what this goal means to you and what you need to achieve it.

The deep life cannot be reduced to concrete steps. But without concrete steps, you’ll never get closer to it.

5 thoughts on “On the Structured Pursuit of Depth”

  1. The Rules of St. Benedict could be considered a systematic approach to the deep life.

    If you haven’t given them a read, check it out. You might find some insights there for this project.

  2. Cal,
    I know this is not easy for you (or anybody), but the more you provide personal concrete examples, the more helpful it is. For example, I know you’re not an automaton, but you’ve got your “Root Document” that you’ve only teased us with; you’re admirable in combining humanity and discipline. I’d love to see a slightly bigger reveal— even w much blacked out or altered — of the document, rather than just a photo of the back. This pic was very helpful for that reason.

    • In general I feel like I need to hunt these things down in various places and don’t have enough concrete examples to be able to make it actionable. Feels like I am being led down a sales funnel but you never close the deal.

      Show me the goods.


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