Robin Cook’s (Literal) Deep Work


Cook’s Colloquium

While I was at MIT, I lived for two years on Beacon Hill. One of my neighbors, I discovered, was the medical thriller writer, Robin Cook (to put things in perspective: I lived in a 500 square foot apartment while he lived in a six-floor, 1833 townhouse).

I didn’t run into Cook, however, until he agreed to give a speech at the Beacon Hill Civic Association. Eager to hear more about the life and times of this mega-bestselling author, I marked my calendar and attended the talk.

Cook didn’t disappoint. But there was one anecdote, in particular, that caught my attention.

Going Deep

Soon after finishing his general surgery residency, Cook was drafted into the Navy, where he ended up stationed as a ship’s doctor on the USS Kamehameha.

The Kamehameha, it turns out, is a nuclear ballistic missile submarine, which means that Cook spent much of his tour underwater, with little to do while the sub made its slow circuits. It was here, in his cramped office, that he began writing his first novel, The Year of the Intern — engaging in what I think we can agree to be some of the (literally) deepest ever sessions of deep work.

After his stint on the Kamehameha, Cook continued seeking out settings conducive to depth. He managed, through a fortuitous connections to Jacques Cousteau (a story for another time), to become involved in the Navy’s SEALAB program, where he had occasion to live for weeks, as an aquanaut, in an undersea habitat.

Each stretch in the habitat required up to 13 days in a decompression chamber after surfacing. It was here that Cook saw another, perhaps even more extreme, possibility for deep work. As he recounted at the Civic Association, he had a typewriter brought into the chamber, so that once him and his cremates were locked inside, he could pound away, making progress on his book.

This deep work training soon served Cook well. In the mid-1970’s, Cook was undergoing a second medical residency, this one in Ophthalmology at Harvard. In a period of six weeks during this residency, he worked deeply every night on a thriller he eventually titled Coma.

Once published, this book became a massive bestseller. One of the first things he purchased with the money was his historic townhouse in Beacon Hill (at the time he was renting an apartment there). The skill, in other words, that made Robin Cook my impressive neighbor was his well-practiced ability to go deep.

14 thoughts on “Robin Cook’s (Literal) Deep Work”

  1. As a medical resident, I can relate to how difficult balancing work/life can be. I am amazed by Robin Cook’s ability to work deeply, despite a difficult schedule. Great post per usual, Cal! I have a question for you…I’m currently focused on 2 separate research areas within my field of medicine. Both have incredibly upside, but are unrelated. Based on your principles, I should be choosing one and putting all my efforts into it. However, my heart says that I should try to do both. What are your thoughts?

    • Cook was insane as a medical student. He worked a job at a blood gas lab that essentially lasted overnight. This continued during his intern year: he would be on duty in the day, then working overnight. When he had night shifts, he would do both concurrently. Looking back, he says he has no nostalgia for that period.

      As for your issue: yes, eventually you need to own one direction. What might be holding you back from commitment at the moment, however, is that you’re unsure which is the more promising. I think it’s okay to keep both alive until one shows clear momentum…but don’t be afraid to go all in, Cook-style, when the time is right.

  2. An accomplished colleague of mine suggested So Good They Can’t Ignore You and I found my way to your site (I’m listening to the ebook now, it’s great, already recommended it to two young friends).

    As a current resident of Beacon Hill, I had no idea Robin Cook was a neighbor of mine. I wonder who else I should be keeping an eye out for?

  3. I bet if one could go deeper than that.

    Apart from the deep-work philosophy, Robin made sure that he owned the property unlike others, he didn’t get swayed by the factors that we usually look for when buying a property.

  4. FTFY: Perhaps “crewmates” rather than “cremates”? Or is the latter a technical term I don’t know about (admittedly I thought of “cremation”)?

    Cook is evidently not claustrophobic; he has my admiration for his fearlessness as well as his fierce commitment and follow-through.

  5. You have great examples of creators (Chris Nolan, Robin Cook, etc) who do deep work, disconnect from email, and spend hours focused on a task. I have a few tasks that require that level of effort, and learning often requires it, but much of my work is shallow: connecting with people through the phone or email, or working on something for 30 minutes to an hour, or several other tasks that are similar in nature.

    My question is, and I think many of your readers are in the same boat, do you find examples of people who aren’t in a deep-work friendly field (research, the arts, programming, and other areas seem to lend themselves to hours of focused work)? I want to be a world-class hospital administrator/executive, and I recognize that identifying “world-class” is tricky in that area. I really like the example of Robin Cook, but I’d also love to hear your insights or see some examples of people who work in fields that require communication and email by their very nature.

    Bill Simmons did a great podcast with the comedian Bill Burr, and Burr gives many examples of his approach to comedy and how he stays on top of his game. I think you’d find it interesting.

  6. Cal — I agree with Dan. We’d love any insights you may have on deep work in the context of fields where there is a lot of client demand and interaction required — i.e., where you can’t bury yourself in a sub or in a quiet corner of the library for hours. Thanks!

  7. I would be curious to know more about times when you are able to do intensely focused deep work day after day. I find that doing long blocks on subsequent days (for me, academic writing against deadlines) can only be done for a few days at a time before I start to become mentally worn out. I find weekends invaluable for mental rest, but even during the week I find that I often have to take Wednesday off from deep work (doing grading or other tasks) in order to produce focused ideas and writing on Thursday and Friday. Is this a matter of building up mental muscle/endurance?

  8. I am from sydney and really interested in getting ‘How to become a straight A student’ but I could not find the book on main local stores. Also, not sure how to buy the ebook version for this. Any advice would be highly appreciated. I have an advanced calculus exam on 23rd feb for the summer term and i am looking forward to find and implement the valuable strategies offered in the book. Thanks

  9. Fantastic post !
    And I thought I was the one having a tough time with my exams ..can’t imagine doing two residencies and being a bestselling author…truly an inspiration !


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