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Theodore Roosevelt’s Focused Advice

One of my colleagues at Georgetown recently pointed me toward a 1902 letter that Theodore Roosevelt sent to his son Kermit, who at the time was at boarding school.

Here’s the passage that caught my attention:

“I am delighted at all the accounts I receive of how you are doing at Groton. You seem to be enjoying yourself and are getting on well. I need not tell you to do your best to cultivate ability for concentrating your thought on whatever work you are given to do—you will need it in Latin especially.”

As readers of Deep Work know, I’ve previously highlighted Teddy’s fabled powers of focus as playing a critical role in his rise, so it’s not surprising that he’s emphasizing this same skill to his son. What strikes me, however, is that this recommendation isn’t standard for all students.

The connection between concentration and effective thinking is well-understood by this point, and yet few curriculums, at any level of education, aim to help students cultivate this ability. I can think of few meta-skills more important in an increasingly symbolic and complex culture than the ability to lock in on an abstract challenge and see it through to a useful conclusion. But we rarely talk about what it actually feels like to think hard, and how to get better at it.

Teddy prefaced  his letter to Kermit by saying “I need not tell you.” The implication being that his advice on concentration was well-worn. I’m not sure that it remains so obvious in our current moment.

17 thoughts on “Theodore Roosevelt’s Focused Advice”

  1. That’s super interesting. He framed it as if it was like any other obvious advice like “eat your vegetables” or “get plenty of sleep”. I think that’s a good way to look at it, though one could argue that people (especially kids) usually acknowledge obvious advice the same way: “Yeah yeah yeah, I get it Dad; eat my greens, get more sleep, improve my concentration, I get it.”
    thanks for sharing Cal

  2. Roosevelt’s advice is well stated. I teach high school (specifically newcomer ELLs who are not necessarily familiar with school), and one thing that I emphasize well to my students is the ability to focus on something uninterrupted as a core life skill. To that end, I am “that teacher” that truly, vehemently does not allow phones, headphones, or other distractions during independent work (which can last for up to the entire 75 minute period some days, but is at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted time every day). All they have is themselves, their binders, a dictionary, and a seat partner or myself if they need it. If the school isn’t burning down or there isn’t an urgent student issue, I close the door and I turn people away when my students are focusing. At first students think they can’t do it, but with just a few weeks of gradual practice they are on it, and the quality of their work is outstanding. Students often return to me and say they are grateful that they learned to focus on difficult work in my class.

    I have gigantic windows on 3 walls, so we don’t even need lights on – the natural light is just enough.

    It is so calming and peaceful to watch my students work. We are remote now and I miss it. I am having a hard time resisting the fragmenting of my mind. The students I taught before still have a bit of this discipline, but the ones I didn’t know beforehand are struggling the most.

    • I wish I had you as a teacher!

      The yeshiva I was in was pretty good at removing distractions though, to be fair. No radios, newspapers, magazines or TVs were allowed anywhere on campus. (This was a little before the internet and mobile phones became widespread, so no one there had phones or laptops or iPads anyway.) All that was in the study hall were the students studying in pairs, rabbis/teachers, books, benches, chairs and shtenders to put our books on (and a Torah scroll inside the ark).

      This article and your comment are reminding me I should try to get back to that kind of distraction-free setting when I’m trying to focus.

    • I just started teaching a highschool class and my feelings towards technology in the classroom (cellphones, headphones, etc.) are the same as yours. The ability to concentrate for long periods has become increasingly difficult with my generation (Millennial) and the current generation (Zoomers) because of the addictive nature of social media and all the tools packed in our cell phones. I saw it in my students how difficult it is for them to not be on their phone or electronic device during small transitions of lecture and I think your approach to not allowing technology altogether in the classroom is excellent.

      The rules for technology have become laxer since I went to high school and I think we will re-examine that again once. Having set times for phones and then having times when you work is a crucial skill that should be developed early. I know I am repeating a lot of what Cal says but I am doing so to reinforce for myself and connect your pedagogy practices together with Cal’s argument for living a deeper life.

  3. I recently just finished, “So Good, They Can’t Ignore You” in which I was introduced to this way of approaching learning. Or, in other words, obtaining career capital. I am a registered nurse. I didn’t go to college to become an RN until I was 40. I obtained a BSN from a prestigious private university in Seattle, WA. You wanna know what astonishes and somewhat scares me now that I have learned these concepts and am looking at returning to school to become a Nurse Practitioner? That you are absolutely right. This type of advice IS NOT obvious any more. When I was obtaining my BSN I was never taught or even encouraged to think deliberately about nursing care or how to be an intelligent nurse. I was taught to read through power points and regurgitate the concepts and key points that my professors knew that if I could remember long enough I could pass my RN licensure exam.

    Initially when reading through SGTCIY, I thought, this all sounds really awesome but how can I apply this to my practice as an RN, how does this apply to a field like nursing? How can I refocus my current view of my job as an RN from my old, “I’m tired of going to work, I wish I could find my dream passion job” to “I want to approach my job with my new mind set of how can I bring value to my family, my, job, and my community?”

    No I see, it’s all clear as day. Most people I work with were taught to just get by, now I see them looking at their Facebook as much or more than they look at their patients and I realize, it will not take me long with ‘Deliberate Practice’ to have value and be rare.
    As I am now super excited about going to school to become a nurse practitioner–previously I was only doing it dreadingly because I thought I needed to–I am excited to continue to grow my value. And I’m looking forward to Deliberately Practicing what I need to learn.

    Thank you Cal for your willingness to share what you’ve learned and for reminding us to be deliberate. But I believe you’re right, I don’t think it’s obvious advice.

  4. Great advice, Cal. Thanks for all the value you shared this year. I won’t forget the daily posts at the beginning of this sad pandemic when everybody was confused and anxious. Now i’m waiting for the new book. Que el 2021 sea mejor para todos. Un fuerte abrazo.

  5. Cal, thank you for writing Deep Work and for reinforcing the same with this quotation. I wish I had had your work when I began working on (and finally earned) my PhD. I’m inspired to try to work in some of your recommendations for the coming year as I seek to get some mileage out of my dissertation and publish an article. Happy New Year!

  6. Cal, your book Deep Work changed my life. I read it in Nov 2016! I live by this book. Also read So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Digital Minimalism (pre-order) . Also transformative. Looking forward to the next in March and will buy it for the new team.

    Thank you for answering my question in your 12/21 podcast. Great way to start the year.
    I hope I get to meet you some day face to face. You are one of my favorite humans, I need some autographs and photos!
    I would have loved to be your student at Georgetown.

    People like you is what gives me hope for the human race.

    Btw I’m a Data Scientist, I learned how to write code in 3 languages and growing because of your techniques, went from stagnant engineer to getting into one of the best STEM institutions in the nation and thus far only one A-. There is no doubt in my mind getting into an elite company next. I had no confidence in my abilities, you gave this to me and for that I’m eternally grateful.

    • JR, what an inspiring comment! What were the most impactful techniques that put you on another level? I also read Deep Work, but would love to have your insight.

      • @Galia, I’ll preface with I’m not a good writer and sometime can get wordy, so my apologies 🙂
        I identified the time where my cognitive performance is best, for me it’s early mornings after a cup of coffee. I also tried to deconstruct how it is I learn best (meta-learning). Also, on top of Cal’s books I read: Essentialism, Make it Stick, Mastery, Atomic Habits, Ultralearning (I highly recommend these books as well).

        1) Quit Social Media, ask yourself uncomfortable questions: Is this actually helping you get closer to your friends and love ones? Why are you using it? Do you really think that what people post in social media is not curated and doesn’t have an agenda?
        Other than YouTube which I used to supplement gaps in my learning, I try to avoid social media at all costs. The people that love you and care about you will want to stay in touch with you and won’t require Facebook, Instagram, or other social media platforms to do so.

        2) I used spaced repetition and I quiz myself on prior learned skills at different time intervals, this helps flatten my forgetting curve because unfortunately I have bad retention capability especially if I’m not using in those skills at work.

        3) I note down in a journal areas where I’m lacking deep understanding and then I prioritize how it is that I’m going to improve my knowledge in that area and if it’s time worth spent improving in that area or they are other better opportunity costs.

        4) Find people with higher ability than you and observe what they do and don’t do, and how they think, knowing that perhaps your innate ability is not as high as theirs (an unfortunate reality of biology) but this shouldn’t discourage you. Don’t compare yourself just do the best you can.
        Once you start mastering hard skills, you forget about comparisons and you focus on producing.

        5) Be rigorous about your time-block: zero distractions, zero meetings, zero email, zero other stuff, etc… Immerse yourself fully on the task at hand. The equation from Deep Work is simple but fantastic and very true:
        Intensity of Focus x Time = High Quality Work.

        6) Active Rest – walk or hike, exercise, read fiction, spend time with love ones (other than watching TV), cook, etc… Try to eliminate digital input.

        7) Question pre-existing knowledge your culture, country, other people have imposed upon you:
        That you need x, y, z material possession to be happy. Instead of consume how about you produce?
        That in order to do good work you need to be a natural genius. Again some of it is just people that worked hard, the geniuses are very small proportion of the population.
        That you need to compare yourself with others. Just be the best you you can be. This is in itself fulfilling.
        I know it sound “kumbaya-ish” but honestly I found that these things have improved my overall happiness in life.

        There will be days where you probably not have the will power to learn a skill or you feel unproductive or just plain blah. It happens we are human. As long as you are moving in the right direction that’s all that matters.

        • Thank you so much for your reply, JR! I have implemented some of the points you mentioned, but I still have progress to do on other ones. Your comment gave me great motivation to improve on these techniques / principles for 2021. I just made a weekly plan and incorporated a lot of what you said. Thank you!

        • I was moved by your comment JR and immediately ordered the aforementioned books you recommended. However, I am at a dead-end and honestly feel it is biological. What are your thoughts on pharma? I am not an American- my Uncle is a doctor in the US and he says there are two supplements- adderall and vyvanse that work like magic. These are illegal in my nation and upon looking around online I see that it works like magic for many.

          What are your thoughts on pharma products? Have you ever tried wellbutrin, ritalin or adderall?

      • Keep up the great Deep Work Cal! Love your stuff. I wish I could understand your CS publications, but let’s not fool ourselves hahaha.


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