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You Are Not a Talent Agent (So Why Do You Work Like One?)

The CAA Way

I’m currently reading Michael Ovitz’s engaging new memoir. Even if you don’t know Ovitz, you definitely know his clients’ work. He’s the super-agent who co-founded the domineering CAA talent agency, and during the 1980s and 90’s become one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood.

In his memoir, Ovitz emphasizes the importance of communication in the talent business. For a talent agent, he notes, your time is one of the primary resources you have to offer, so to succeed in this field, you have to constantly talk to clients, potential clients, ex-clients you might want back, and all the assorted figures in the entertainment world orbit who might have information helpful to your clients.

One of the cardinal rules during the early years of CAA was that you always returned every call the same day. Ovitz personally exemplified this rule. He would start making calls as soon as he woke up and continue making calls until right before he went to bed. He would make hundreds of calls every day.

The importance of these touches were so important that he had a small sign that read “communicate” placed on every phone in the I. M. Pei-designed CAA headquarters.

Here’s what struck me as I read about this: in the late 1970s, when Ovitz was helping CAA gain a toehold in the entertainment industry, the need to be constantly communicating was an artificial and unnatural behavior — something that had to be purposefully instilled and enforced in his agents.

Today, by contrast, almost every knowledge worker acts like a CAA agent. We may have replaced telephones with email and instant messenger, but the underlying behavior is the same: a constant whirring of contact from when we first wake up to right before we go to bed.

The problem, of course, is that most knowledge workers are not CAA agents. Indeed, for most knowledge workers, constant communication probably makes them worse at doing the thing they supposedly do best.

Viewed with some objective distance, this is a puzzling development.

I can’t help but wonder when some new Michael Ovitz-style figure will arise, in a sector like computer programming or academia where unbroken concentration unambiguously produces value, and once again help drive his or her organization to immense success by putting small signs on each employee’s desk — except this time, they’ll read: “think, don’t talk.”

17 thoughts on “You Are Not a Talent Agent (So Why Do You Work Like One?)”

  1. I love the last part. I work as a computer programmer, and once in a while I would get suckered into conversations with colleagues about things not related to work. It’s just amazing how much people prefer talking than working and creating value.

  2. “THINK” is one of our slogans at IBM. It was used first by Thomas Watson in 1911. Its application has guided IBMers to contribute to the countless innovations that have come out of IBM in the last 100+ years, and it drives our corporate culture today!

      • I didn’t know about Apple’s “Think Different”. It’s a good approach — look for ideas that are different, not necessarily better, because the “better” arises when the idea is applied as a potential solution to a need or problem.

        The Wikipedia entry for “Think (IBM)” provides Watson’s original quote. It aligns well with Cal’s deep-work principles: “The trouble with every one of us is that we don’t think enough. We don’t get paid for working with our feet — we get paid for working with our heads.”

  3. I am not sure the slogan “think, don’t talk” really gets at what you’re saying. There are different types of communication, right? the talent agent uses communication in an instrumental way – as a tool for his job. That’s not the only way to use communication – people talking to each other in their workplace is a way to create a sense of community, develop meaningful relationships, and sometimes a plain coping mechanism. I have been following your blog for a long time now, but it is the first time I see that instrumental productivity logic – we all must be productive all the time in a particularly damaging way. Of course, not all communication is meaningful (particularly not the one on Facebook or Google). Do you really think the problem is communicating too much or pseudo-communicating? People do not have to “produce value” every waking second. If that all we do, it’s kind of meaningless life and not a very human one.

  4. Maybe I’m too cynical, but I think extreme responsiveness as symptomatic of a lot of people being insecure in the value/competence they bring to the workplace. As people forget that rare and valuable skills come out of deep work, they fixate on surface-level things like responding right away.

    • An excellent observation, James!

      Translated into Newportian, those people haven’t put in the work necessary to become “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”, and that makes it hard to shift their resources to “Deep Work.” So they try to stay afloat with a flurry of frivolous emails.

  5. Hello Prof. Newport

    I really love your book Deep Work and have applied thee principles to my work. It has helped me a lot to feel less stressed, feel more productive and get better results.

    One thing I’m struggling with is knowing realistically what I can achieve in one day. I’m about to start an MBA, what is a realistic target for reading in one day? How many articles? How many chapters? This might seem like a really basic question, but I find this really difficult due to my below average reading speed.

  6. For the last 15 years of my office/work life I’ve written “STFU” on a whiteboard corner, or a scrap of paper pinned to my wall.
    A reminder for me to Shut the F… Up
    (Only one person in all that time has ever asked what it means)
    I still feel myself finishing calls or discussions and looking up with dismay to realize I didn’t STFU minutes ago.

  7. I think this is an great post that really nails the pin-point.

    I think that, one way to ensure that people are comfortable with this, and to ensure that it does not eat away at the sense of community is to also enforce a regular “fika” (Swedish word having a coffee together with someone) and lunch. At first glance it might seem counter-productive to have two 15-min breaks + lunch break every day where you just “talk and bond” with your colleagues. But at a closer look you see that during this time the workers get to communicate and talk about all things between heaven and earth. Quite often also work, and spontaneous collaboration opportunities. When they then go back to their desks to work, they have the sense of community and it becomes very easy to do two hours of uninterrupted deep work. Then they’re exhausted from hard work and ready for another break 🙂


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