The Concrete Satisfaction of Deep Work

ShopClassBookDeep Work as Soulcraft

I recently reread Matthew Crawford’s 2009 book, Shop Class as Soulcraft. Though Crawford’s primary goal is to make a philosophical case for the skilled trades (think: Mike Rowe with footnotes), a lot of what he writes resonates with my thinking about deep work.

Consider the following quote, which caught my attention:

“The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world.” (page 15 of hardcover edition)

Cannot the same thing be said about any deep effort that results in the production of something too good to be ignored?

The reason, I think, that deep effort holds an appeal is that so much in modern knowledge work reduces to Crawford’s chattering interpretations — responding quickly to e-mail threads, bullet point self-promotion in PowerPoint slides, relentless online branding and ceaseless networking.

At some point, we tire of the shallow – necessary as it might be – and foster a desire to retreat into depth, create the best possible thing we’re capable of creating, then step back, point, and remark simply: “I did that.”

19 thoughts on “The Concrete Satisfaction of Deep Work”

  1. Great insight. When I’m in a productivity slump I feel the urge to boast and point my fingers at something I’ve done in the past so I can feel good. But while I’m actually engaged in creating work I’m proud of that urge disappears. I know that the work that is coming will be proof enough and nothing else needs to be said.

  2. Cal, I agree.

    The modern officeplace is often not a proper environment for deep work. I am more productive working from home, but my supervisor scolded me every time I did it. The command-and-control structure of corporations makes it very difficult for true deep work to occur. They micromanage low-level details, inhibiting the ability to focus on high-level goals, producing only shallow satisficing. They demand frequent status updates, interrupting whatever you’re focused on. They demand you be available and respond to emails instantly. They establish goals, then change them before you can accomplish anything of note. All serve to shatter true deep work.

    That’s why I bailed out of the horrible corporate system, went back to school, and have never been happier. I think there are academic types (suited to deep work) and corporate types (suited to shallow work). I am the former type.

  3. The problem is that different people define “chattering interpretations” differently.
    Some people consider “winning a Nobel prize in Economics”, “raising a child who is able to think about his/her life and world”, “being a lead manager at NASA”, “writing a book/paper/blogposts that has changed the way people think/live” and “solving an open problem in mathematics” as “chattering interpretations”, while some other people consider “singing at World cup opening ceremony”, “getting 34000+ points in 2048 game”, “traveling to and playing basketball in every continent of the world”, “watching all episodes of Game of Thrones/NBA matches twice” , “being able to date with 5 girls at the same time” and “having 500+ friends in Facebook” as “chattering interpretations”.

    In other words, almost many people agree with that saying, but they interpret it differently.

    Best regards.

  4. I’d say that this is similar to Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, which was published many years ago. Creation is not only in the mind, but is reinforced by bringing objects into being. Be they transient like a great meal, or more permanent as a sculpture, painting, tool, or good.

    I find that time for contemplation and introspection as being difficult to obtain in today’s culture, so that the choice of a manual skill, can leave one some time to contemplate the self. Personally, I find a number of mundane chores allow for this. Cooking, combines both “Art”, and skill, and over years of practice, allows one to be creative, fearless, and generous, while giving one some time to ruminate on life. But so does most manual chores over time. Cleaning, laundry, gardening, all have their fans.

    More properly, the issue is cultivation of the attitude, combined with opportunity. The result can be great creative output, objects of permanence, or simply the satisfaction of accomplishment of a task that needs to be done each day.

    There should be pride and validation for that product or service, and it should be a part of reinforcing the self resilience.

  5. I currently work as a logistics technician, setting up and managing a shipment return program for biotech products. When I simply focus on the work, its the responsibility and collaborating with others who view me as an important asset to the company that make the job worth sticking to.

  6. While I agree there is something special in creating as its own reward, the reason I think I could not sustain a career in skilled trade is that the climb to greatness or recognition of any sort is just more treacherous in them.

    Perhaps that is the tradeoff when we go for the quiet life of skilled trade: the distractions are fewer, but it is harder to stand out in the same manner as a modern knowledge worker.

  7. When I have the need to boast as Vincent says, or “offer chattering interpretations …… to vindicate……worth;” for me it’s an indication to my attention on product or service excellence, and the audience receiving it.

    Also I don’t think enough of us, myself included sometimes, “step back, point, and remark simply: “I did that,” which ought to come with territory of “manifesting oneself concretely” before moving on to the next thing.

  8. It just sort of bugs me that the entire quote is about men and how valuable “men’s work” is.

    The message is great but you don’t see the example being “a man can point at the sink. The dishes are done” or “the laundry is clean.” And those are the things men expect to be lavished with appreciation for doing, but those are the things that need to be done consistently and often. I guess it’s only going to make you feel quiet and easy when your mundane achievement is traditionally male?

    • I just think he’s commenting as a man, a man’s unique perspective on work. I don’t take it as a one up work perspective. I could extrapolate that I would be less than qualified to comment on the uniqueness that women bring to manifesting.

      • No matter how many silent hours, deep in work, that I spend washing dishes and cleaning the home, I’ve become so good that I’m completely ignored.

  9. Cal, another great post, though I wonder whether you’re saying the satisfaction comes from the deep work itself or from the accomplishments proceeding from it.

    My experience is that deep work can be grueling, frustrating and that it doesn’t always bear fruit. On the other hand, it is intensely rewarding to persist through this and come out the other end with a rare and valuable accomplishment.

    But since we don’t work in a vacuum, don’t we have to also answer emails, promote our accomplishments and balance our checkbooks?
    Isn’t it true that these extraneous tasks can also provide a sense of accomplishment if they align with and forward our main line of work?

    I think the problem is that they often don’t, whether it’s because we are part of a dysfunctional organization or because we pursue such actions and delude ourselves that we are being busy and productive while avoiding the inevitable travails of the deep worker.

  10. Indeed. And how difficult it is to get into doing deep work. An example: I managed to stay away for like 6 months from a research project I had invested a lot work on. When I tried to get back into it, I had forgotten a significant portion of what I had done. It took days of chasing every thread and scribbled margin note just to get current on where I left it. And in those days, I felt like shelving it for good. But the last sheet of paper in this thick folder had a record for the dates and all the hours I had spent on it. That motivated me to keep digging until I got current and drafted a plan on how to complete the project in the short run.

  11. Hi Cal,

    Strange question. Would a family tragedy affect whether or not you can do deep work and deliberate practice and force you to switch gears for a while?

    Recently, my elderly dad passed away. Two weeks ago, my dad was admitted to the hospital and was pronounced brain dead due to the cardiac arrest he had. During the four months prior to this, I’ve been helping take care of my dad after my family found out he had kidney failure on top of his other health problems and needed dialysis.

    I’ve noticed that I’ve been doing more flow-based work (yet not so much work) ever since he was admitted to the hospital recently. It’s just been so emotionally and mentally distressing at the moment that I haven’t had the energy to go through mentally-taxing work. And as an aspiring artist for the entertainment industry, I guess the flow-based work I’m doing is making paintings in honor of my dad. They’re going to be conceptually driven by the themes of death and afterlife. Unlike the other personal projects I’ve been doing for my portfolio, I think there’s going to be a way more intuitive, looser approach.

    Are there periods in a career craftsman’s (and artist’s) life where being in a flow mode will just take over for a while in lieu of deep work and deliberate practice?

  12. It is a deep human desire to “create” something – with our own hands.

    The problem with knowledge workers and answering to emails all day is that in the evening, we have nothing to show for it. What did we create?
    In the digital world, everything has become so elusive, yet we yearn to use our hands, and be creative in the most original sense of the word: We want to bring something new to the world.


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