Against Deep Work

Cal Newport’s book Deep Work was the last book I finished in 2016.  It narrowly beat out Children of Men by P.D. James–which might give you a little glimpse of my own interior landscape at the turning of the year.  Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s the novel that will have the most lasting impact.  It’s the novel that actually embodies the deep work that Newport wants to make so rare and elite.

To hear Newport tell it, the only way to do meaningful, valuable work is to sequester yourself for stretches of time away from competing demands and the wiles of the internet.  Good luck if you’re a woman working to educate her children at home.  Add in paid work and a vital creative practice, and I’ve got nothing but competing demands.

The work of the home, the work of education is not linear.  It can’t be forced into the schedules that Newport favors.  But it is meaningful, valuable, deep work–maybe the deepest.  This repetitive, invisible, always interrupted work of raising children has traditionally been disdained by men.  This is the work that homeschooling mamas embrace whole heartedly.

Grace Llewellyn somewhat more charitably calls this the work of the glorious generalist.

The glorious generalist sees the world whole. Because she sees the world whole, the glorious generalist can communicate thoroughly with people with every profession, religion, or background. She can pick up any book or magazine and find in it a connection to her own interests. If she is an all-the-way-there glorious generalist, maybe she can do mystical/scientific things like read the meaning of the galaxies in a fistful of sand. (p. 178)

The glorious generalist champions work that is diffused but never shallow, connected to the wider world but not diluted, repetitive but not menial.

This larger vision of meaningful work is what we need to welcome and make space for.  If you are looking for real tools to harness the power of ritual and habit, read Gretchen Rubin and take the journaling class at Project-Based Learning.  If you want to think about building a practice in the midst of limited energy, Michael Nobbs writes about the meaningful progress that can be made even in short bursts.  If you’re looking for thoughtful writing about women and work then try Laura Vanderkam.

2017 is waiting.  I’ve got plans for a year of meaningful, valuable work.  What I need at the start of this new year is someone to come along side, someone to bolster my best efforts.  You too?  “Let us then be up and doing with a heart for any fate.

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