Book Review – Superforecasting

I’ve spoken a few times with The Last Rationalist regarding Superforecasting; they were quite bullish on it, and suggested that it contained basically every lesson worth taking from the Sequences or AI to Zombies. It finally rose to the top of my stack, and I got to see if I agreed with TLR’s opinion.

I don’t know that I’d go quite that far, but it certainly does have a lot of overlap.

Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner have written a serious page-turner, packed with fascinating insights about the fine art of being right. While they focus on predictions (shockingly, going by the title) much of what is said applies to being right in any domain – collecting information from many sources, not being bound to one ideological viewpoint, weighing differing perspectives, adjusting grossly or finely depending on the data one acquires, and actually updating when new data comes in – these ideas will take you far if your goal is epistemic accuracy.

Superforecasting doesn’t fear shooting sacred cows, either. Tetlock and Gardner point out several pundits, experts, and pontificators who aren’t following these processes to accuracy, and how their method (or lack thereof) has come up short when trying to predict the real world. They dig into the predictions that come up short, too, and they’re not afraid to point out how and why they fail.

Something held up comparably with the Sequences should of course have a fair amount to say about heuristics and biases, and Superforecasting doesn’t disappoint here, either. The availability heuristic, motivated stopping and continuing, the contrasting questions of “Does this require me to believe?” and “Does this allow me to believe?” are covered in enough detail to make their relevance to your ability to be correct clear.

Overall, I think Superforecasting was an excellent work, information-rich and well-written, and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s interested in the fine art of being less wrong.

On Misophonia

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, the sounds people make while eating and drinking drive me nuts. That satisfied, “Aaah”, after a long drink, lip smacking, the sound of swallowing, it all makes me want to shout at people, or imitate them, but louder, and while glaring.

I don’t, usually. My anger management’s improved over the years, and it’s been quite some time since I chewed back at someone. That’s not to say it’s stopped bothering me, though. I don’t know of a way to make that happen – the best I’ve been able to find in years of looking into it and trying things is to have coping strategies. Good headphones make good neighbors, as does moving away from people who are eating.

On the whole, I don’t really like this as a solution set. I want it fixed, not just well-adjusted-to. I tried for a while to do exposure therapy on myself, intentionally exposing myself to people who were eating and smiling hard to manipulate my mood. A month of that didn’t make me any less sensitive, and I ended up dropping that project. From what I’ve read on /r/misophonia, it seems to be a sensory issue, like textural issues for some autistic people, in a way that doesn’t really allow for treatment the way a phobia does. Of course, we don’t have a Turing-complete understanding of the issue, so this may need to be updated, but for now it looks like something I’ll have to live with.

It’s annoying from a meta level to want to snap at people for things like open-mouthed chewing – the issue is still a thing in cases where I know they can’t help it – a friend of mine’s mouth really doesn’t work that way and they can’t chew with closed lips, but the anger rises all the same.

What cannot be cured (yet growth mindset!) must be endured, the song says, and I guess it’s true for the moment. It’s another reminder of how we’re trapped in physics, and how biology is far from perfect. In the Glorious Transhumanist Future I won’t be subject to this, but for now, I guess “Glarer at the Chewing” would be as reasonable as any of the other titles I claim when I’m feeling that particular sort of whimsy.

What can’t you help but get mad at, Dear Reader?

Why I wrote “Against Cryo-Defeatism”

Earlier this year I wrote an essay-length email to be sent to a cryonics mailing list I’m on. While I’ve hopes that I’ll survive until singularity, there are no guarantees in this world. While I’ve dreams that involve recovering our dead, the ability to do so is even less assured. Certainly there are differing viewpoints on this, and I don’t have adequate reason to support my belief that we can to outright dismiss all others.

So I’m on a mailing list, and I pay attention to advances in the state of the art, because it is an improvement in the chances of people to live in a world in which we’ve won – ended involuntary death, put down suffering suffered unwillingly, and ensured that everyone has a path to satisfaction of their values. Cryonics-interested people are future oriented and think that technology can solve problems.

Knowing this, I found the conversation that essay is a response to, to be a painful one. There was a thread discussing one of the old canards about living forever, of how terrible it would be because of things changing, and people dying, and how really, immortality wasn’t something to strive for. Reading that was really quite hurtful.

People who are interested enough in survival to be talking about technologies that most people consider to be science fiction acting like immortality would be a burden was both unexpected, and touches an exposed nerve for me. The sour grapes attitude most people bring to the fact that death has been a constant throughout history is something like nails on a chalkboard to me. That was only amplified when I had my filters regarding it down because I expected this list to be about the desirability of life and how to get more.

In response, I spent several hours crying and crafting that essay, trying to convey the true depth of my views and feelings, because if anyone should know better, the cryo community certainly should. I then spent another week having people I know with writing experience comment on improving it, compressing it from the original four pages down to the two it now occupies, and I think increasing the punch a good deal.

I don’t want anyone to have to die, and I had some hopes that maybe the attitude that losing is inevitable could be beaten back here.

It didn’t have all the impact I’d hoped, but I think I swayed some people, and I think it was a helpful step forward in my acquisition of agency – gotta build up that expectancy, right?

For now, though, back to working on alignment, because I think if we don’t solve that, we’re really screwed.

Book review – Tempo: Timing, Tactics, and Strategy in Narrative-Driven Decision-Making

Tempo is a book with a lot to say and not quite enough space to do it in. Purporting to examine narrative-driven decision-making through the lens of narrative time, it digs deeply, if somewhat narrowly, into how we see time in the context of our individual lives.

Initially, it began life as a cookbook, an outgrowth of the author’s use of food preparation as unwinding time. Cooking remains a theme, showing up again and again as the author discusses the manner and timing of our decisionmaking process. Tempo, a measure of the rate of events, is the “thin red line connecting all of the ideas, but for all that it retains the “discursive, grab-bag feel to it” that it had as a course.

This isn’t to say that Tempo is a bad book, or a useless book. Tempo has a number of fascinating things to say, but it’s sometimes difficult to judge how Venkatesh Rao is making the leaps between these ideas that they are. Having read the Gervais Principle, my expectations were higher than Tempo was able to reach. That said, it has enough interesting thought on narrative time for me to have quoted it more than once, and I suspect I’ll reread it to see if I can’t get more on a second pass.

Tempo leads with a breakdown of what exactly is meant by ‘tempo’ – “The set of characteristic rhythms of decision-making in the subjective life of an individual or organization, colored by associated patterns of emotion and energy.” From a restaurant kitchen, to the workplace, to a well-optimized date, examples are given and discussed, and the skill of tempo-doodling is introduced, a means of illustrating the state and rate of interactions.

It further delves into rhythms, the sense of timing, the narrative timing carried in the state of a kitchen, and flow – going with it and disrupting it. The relationships of events in time take a section, illustrating the different ways the time of different events can be laid out. From momentum and mental models, we discuss the kind of conversational narrative that makes it possible for humans to have fast-paced high-density interactions, rather than conversations punctuated by minutes of silent consideration.

While I found Tempo somewhat disjoint, I did not find it without value. If you have time to invest in the contemplation and perhaps rereading, and you want a better understanding of time as we experience it as creatures of narrative, Tempo is worth the investment.

And if not?

Well, there’s always next week’s review…

On Being Awesome

Long ago during College 2 one of my now-exes told me that he used to be depressed, but then he decided to be awesome instead.

At the time I didn’t get it.

It took me a long while to understand that ‘be awesome’ was a state-shift that I could undertake at will. During the Lost Decade it definitely didn’t feel like something I could choose to do. It’s only been this year that I really Got It.

I’m talking about it now because I was helping Nat put a bunk bed together at the REACH and I got a finger slammed between a couple of pieces, hard enough to draw a blood blister. I then also had a piece break underfoot and drop me to the floor, bruising my ankle as I went. I continued to smile and cracked a joke about it, and Nat commented how much they loved my attitude.

I think it’s a choice anyone can make, although I understand full well not thinking that it’s a mental motion available to you. Certainly when you’re in the depths of despair, it doesn’t feel like a move you can make. It’s not something I really know how to serialize but I’ll try.

There have been times, semi-recently, when I looked at the work that I think is necessary for me to do, and part of me wanted to be terrified and feel inadequate. When I felt that starting to happen, instead of just letting it, I refused. I called on the power of my name, and remembered that there is a “place” in my mind I can “stand” against anything.

I’m not sure if I built it, or recognized something that already existed, but I don’t think my cognition is unique enough that this is something special to me. I think most people can do this, but also most people don’t, because they don’t think it’s an action they can take.

In any case, here’s what the mental move “looks” like for me:

“I’m Ratheka Stormbjorne, and this is not going to be the thing that breaks me. Not even close.”

I invoke this for difficult things, things it doesn’t seem to me like I can do. I learned from David Goggins that we have within us a governor, whose purpose it is to preserve resources. To keep us from spending resources that we don’t have to. It makes sense as an evolutionary adaptation – if we spent all of our energy and effort all the time in the ancestral environment, we’d come up short fairly quickly. That said, in the modern era we’re not resource poor, and we can usually manage time to recover.

Still, the governor keeps us weak in meaningful ways. We become “exhausted”, and think we have to stop. We think we can’t win, and we give up without really giving it our best. We don’t have to be like that in extremis, and it’s a lesson that carries over to the less extreme times too.

So I felt some pain from squishing my finger. So I dinged up my ankle falling. So what? It’s not enough to stop me, not even enough to slow me down. I’m Ratheka Stormbjorne, and the universe thinks that’s enough to stop me from improving the world?

Sh’yeah, as if!

So I make a joke, I smile, and we move on. It seems surprising if you don’t know you can make that move but really, it’s not all that much.

Also, it makes everything easier. Assembling those beds wouldn’t have been easier if I got mad, or stopped to feel bad about the pain. It just would have been harder on my friend, even if I didn’t do anything else to help. It would have been easy to fume off in a huff, but I would have felt bad and less would have got done.

I’d rather be awesome. It’s more fun for me, and for the people around me, and I get to have more of an effect on the world.

Choose right.

Be awesome.

We’re looking at now, now

At the start of this year, we moved. The place where we’d been living had issues, chief amongst which was that there was some sort of compound that it leaked into the air. Several people had noted it, that there was an increase in depression and a reduction in executive function and motivation while they were there, and I’m fairly sure it hit me, too. Certainly I got depressed while I was there, and it shot my production level to hell. Admittedly, I had reason to be sad, having lost a longtime friend, but not like that.

So we moved. Found a place at another rationalist house, known as Tesla House, which is short for Doctor Tesla’s House of Electrical Fun. It acquired its name with an electrified towel rack to start. Not, to be clear, an electric towel rack, which heats to dry the towels. A towel rack that when hung had penetrated electrical cabling, and now provided a shock when touched. That was exciting.

There’s also the interesting way about half of the outlets were wired backwards; less exciting, but still annoying. The house has a few other ‘features’, but I don’t want to spend all of this post talking smack about a place that I’m actually fairly happy in.

As I had time away from Liminal, and with some antidepressants from my doctor, things started to clear up, and with some ADHD meds, I even started to be productive, but it wasn’t until I started a polyphasic sleep experiment that things really went FOOM. I tried an E2 schedule, with 5 hours and ten minutes of sleep daily, and those three hours per day really started to add up.

As well, I think my expectancy started really building during this time. Suddenly I was doing things, in a way I hadn’t before. Instead of being a drag to get things done, it was exciting! I had hope of doing meaningful things in the future, which is a truly novel experience to me – I’ve been used to thinking that I could be useful to others, but that my role was still largely support – to help others rise.

As I’ve mentioned, I record the work I do, and I went from managing 20 hours in a week, barely (and not that, in the worst of my depression) to 40, to 60, to 80. I’ve done 90 in a week, although that feels like an unsustainable amount right now. I average 60-80 now, regularly.

During the first polyphasic adaptation attempt, I was kind of a mess chemically. I was on antidepressants and ADHD meds and THC and nicotine and stimulants – I’ve described it as “running myself like a chemistry experiment,” because I was. This came back to bite me in the ass. 60 days into the attempt, I hit a nasty depressive patch. While snap depressions like that hit me sometimes, I’ve always been able to sleep them off, which wasn’t the case with this. My current belief is that due to all of the things I was on, my sleep quality was too screwed with to be able to manage proper compression, and the stimulants were papering over the sleep debt accumulation, so I looked adapted if you didn’t look too closely, but I clearly wasn’t.

It was during this experiment that I had my falling out with the Fleet crew. They had decided to double down on veganism, and my boots caused an argument that led to us parting ways and my talking to some of my partners about their philosophy. We discussed some of the errors they saw, and on the whole, I think despite having provided some of the elements of my powering up, I’m better off having gone my own way. I’m grateful for what I got from them, but I don’t think that their philosophy or action plans are going to lead to FAI; since that’s what I’m after, it doesn’t really make sense for me to be following along with them.

Instead, I’m working on my own projects. I’m studying math, music, programming, and of course all of the books I’ve been reviewing. I lead an AI safety reading group, I’m still doing experiments to gain more time in my days, I’ve been doing an insane amount of stuff compared with any other time in my life. I quit THC and nicotine, and while the residue stayed in my body long enough to mess up a second polyphasic adaptation attempt, I’m sleeping much better now.

The frustrating thing is that it feels like it’s still not enough. I’m not learning fast enough, not growing fast enough; I have so very far to go to ascend to the level I need to be at. All I can do is keep pushing and trying to grow stronger. At the least, I know I can keep pushing, and I know that that’s the secret to getting anywhere – keep going.

But I need to go faster. I need to get stronger.

One day at a time.

Book review – The Talent Code

Following Deep Work I was hungry for something that would help me make the most of the time I spent trying to get better. I didn’t have this thought foremost in my mind when I scrolled through my priority reads folder, but… lucky, remember?

So I pulled The Talent Code from my stack and set to it. It turned out to be another one of those books I get hooked on, and I read most of it over the weekend. The prose flows, and the ideas are interesting. Daniel Coyle takes us on a tour of several “chicken-wire Harvards”, places in the world where “talent”, defined as, “the possession of repeatable skills that don’t depend on physical size,” spring up with the profusion of dandelions.

So, what is talent made of?

If you read my review on Deep Work, you won’t be surprised when I say, “myelin”. Neurons fire together and wire together, and this sets the basic circuit diagram, but it’s not the whole picture. As you practice, ideally focusing on exactly the skill you’re trying to build, ogliodendrocytes wrap the axons in the circuit in myelin, reducing the signal leakage, and tuning the circuit to fire faster or slower, as needed, adjusting it to work in an exact pattern of sequence and timing.

How do you build up your myelin? Practicing at the edge of your ability, and in such a way that you get fast feedback. The example held up as a central one early on is of a girl learning to play a clarinet piece, doing so in a somewhat halting fashion, trying a little, stopping to consider what wasn’t right, and then trying again. What looks from the outside to be fractured and useless is in fact high level practice – so much so that Daniel says the video could be called, “The Girl Who Did a Month’s Worth of Practice in Six Minutes”.

Struggle and difficulty are the key to becoming great. Brazilian soccer is the example here – Brazilians often have limited space in which to practice, and a version of the game that takes this into account known as “football in the room” with a smaller, heavier ball, is held up as the secret to great soccer. Football in the room, or ‘futsal’, puts much more pressure on the players to maintain ball control, to think quickly, to deal with tough situations, and it shows when they get out on the larger field with the lighter ball.

The myth of the genius performer, brilliant from the start, is dissolved as well. The Brontë sisters come up here – for a long time, they were considered to be inexplicable prodigies, springing up with expertise as if given by the gods. Instead, they spent their childhoods cooperatively writing, starting with nearly direct copies of the magazine articles and books around them. Over time, their skill grew, and they eventually became the great authors we celebrate to this day.

A particularly interesting example is the artists of the Renaissance. A small place and a brief time produced many of the greatest artistic works of human history. Why? Practice. Vast, vast amounts of practice, optimized under the guild system. Children were apprenticed to masters, who taught them their craft from the bottom up with endless practice. The great artists of the time spent their youth mixing paints, preparing canvases, and sharpening chisels, surrounded by inspiring works and other experts. Directly from the mouth of one who lived it –

“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery,” Michelangelo later said, “it would not seem so wonderful at all.”

The Talent Code is an excellent examination of where talent comes from, what it’s made of, and how to get some of your own. It delves deeply into how to grow your talent, and I’d heartily recommend it to anyone who cares to become great.

On Hard Work

I did a bunch of cleaning today. More than I’d do on my own, which is what makes it notable. Some friends of mine are moving, and they need the place clean in a hurry, and I need math tutoring, and with one thing and another, I cleaned a shitload of their dishes and some of the kitchen.

“But Rath, that doesn’t seem like, ‘a bunch’?”

I spent five hours at that sink / counter area. I took a few short breaks to grab a drink and rest my legs, but mostly I was on my feet and doing stuff that whole time. Considering all the relevant factors, I was making about seven times what I did when I did this as my primary job, so that was satisfying, but damn am I sick of dishes now.

Mind you, that won’t stop me from going back tomorrow and doing more dishes and more cleaning. I really need that tutoring!

Aside from that, there’s also a certain satisfaction in doing hard work. A clean dish is a clean dish. You know you’ve done something, when you’ve cleaned a dish, and that’s satisfying. There’s also a certain je ne sais quoi in having and exercising an unusual ability.

For whatever reason, dishes seem to be the bane of my weird tribe. I’m not sure why, but most rat houses I’ve been to have a dish backlog. Some people have sensory aversions, but I know that’s not everyone’s jam, and yet, somehow, dish stacks. Dish stacks everywhere.

It’s not just rationalists, either. It was a thing when I worked for Martina, and trust me, most of my fellows there were not rationalists. Yet somehow, the dishes stacked up. I spent a good deal of time cleaning dishes because I lived there, and I couldn’t just let it slide until I went home. With enough time in front of the sink, it’s honestly not that bad, and I get crawls from having dry skin after soap strips the oils from my hands.

It also wasn’t just dishes. People would go out of their way to dodge doing things that weren’t even that hard to do. I don’t know if it’s strange, or maybe unethical, to get the enjoyment I do from doing stuff that other people won’t, but there’s also a sense of, “Seriously?” confronting something someone could have done, but for whatever reason didn’t.

Maybe it’s a part of the dread disease, “Adulthood”, to find this stuff both easy to do (in the sense of having low EF costs, there’s still effort involved of course or it wouldn’t be “hard” work) and be somewhat vexed when other people don’t do the thing. I’m not sure. The idea of being an adult is still pretty novel to me – a few years ago I didn’t think I was ever going to grow up (while exhibiting the seeds of this).

However it came to be, I’m pretty happy I can do this stuff. I don’t want to spend my working life cleaning, but being capable of doing so seems pretty advantageous; it’s a decent subset of the Jack of All Trades Trait. It’s nice to be able to help friends and make gains from trade.

Sorry for the lightweight post, but I’m kinda tired ^_~

Boats, Heroes, and Sith

2017-12-31: I arrive in San Francisco. I am as far west as I have ever been, in a place that has been semi-mythical to me for most of my life, and, I realize, standing in the BART station, I am LOST. Not in the sense that I have wandered off my path somewhere, but in the sense that my sense of direction doesn’t get my location.

I’ve always had a fairly strong sense of direction, I’ve surprised people by being able to point in the direction of things in places I’ve never been, but most of my travel has been on land. When I’ve flown to other places, people have picked me up, and I start locating myself by being moved, or following the directions supplied me by others. I am for the first time navigating with only my phone in a strange place.

This is unsettling to me; I had a minor freakout, but eventually made it to my AirBnB, a converted garage, my home for the next few weeks. I spent the next few weeks shivering, even with a heater turned on me, and trying to find a place to live. Between being cold, the difficulty of finding accommodation, and the earthquake that happened a few days after I arrived, I wonder if I’ve made a terrible mistake by coming here.

All things considered housing didn’t take that long to find. I took over a room in Milvia House, a rationalist house on, in a shocking turn of events, Milvia street. Being one of the first, the tradition of names optimized for interestingness hadn’t hit it.

I got settled in, started attending LessWrong meetups, and trying to figure out what to do with my time. I no longer really wanted to game or read fiction all the time, but I wasn’t really sure what I could do. Meeting people was a good start, and made acceptable contributions to my time log, an agreement between my partner and I that I will do at least 20 hours of work that is worthwhile per week, but it was only a start.

When I was in Colorado looking for my next place, I’d looked into rationalist groups doing housing, and one had caught my eye – Rationalist Fleet. I’ve always had a desire to live on a boat, and while I’d found another place to live in Colorado at the time, I was in the Bay Area now. I decided to reach out and see if I could help their project along.

That was how I ended up having one of the more important conversations of my life thus far, and began one of the stranger associations. Someone at a meetup knew the Fleet founders and put me in touch with them towards the end of February. We spoke, and I described myself as I saw myself at the time: a natural sergeant. Someone who was in the middle layer, who made things happen without being on the pointy end of decisionmaking – I was an implementer, not a decider.

Ziz(the titular Sith(her word, not mine)) made it quite clear in that conversation that they had no interest in sergeants. They were only interested in heroes, people who could take the project over if necessary. We ended that conversation, and I thought for a week on the matter, about who I was, who I wanted to be, and what I wanted to do.

A week later, I had decided: I was a hero; I had limited myself, having a lower opinion than I should have due to my backstory, and the limiting effect of thinking of myself as a supporting cast member rather than a main character. I would step to the front, be on point, and come what may, I wasn’t going to back down.

This began an association that got me several shipside experiences on the Robert Gray, which sometimes took us out to Caleb, the Fleet’s tugboat. I got to do a lot of physical work putting things into a workable order there, cleaning up and epoxying a rowboat, prepping zincs, playing little Dutch Boy at one point with my finger in a hull-hole while I waited for the cement to be prepared. It was good experience for me, but the primary purpose of my being there was to collect the philosophy and mental tech that Ziz and Gwen had gathered / originated.

This was… less successful.

I did pick up some things from them, mostly in terms of self-actualization, and it took a long time – for basically all of 2018, I was in a state I described as ‘inert’. I had a lot of trouble moving myself to do things without outside pushes. It was increasingly frustrating to me, and from my current perspective, looks very much like a mindset problem.

I think my time working with Z&G before we parted ways earlier this year was good for me, but I can’t recommend it as a general thing for people to do – their philosophy has major issues, their mental tech seems flawed, and I basically picked out and incorporated the bits that were helpful to me, while not being wedded to the rest (I also had a very clever girl help me to see some of the issues).

Aside from time spent on ships, other interesting things happened that year – the REACH opened in March, and I reached out to Stardust about volunteering for it. I got to help set the place up, and I spent a lot of 2018 before late fall hosting coworking in the space. I’m a large fan of community spaces, and I think the REACH has added a lot to Berkeley. I’m pretty proud of the time I’ve spent here (currently typing this on a couch in the REACH).

The next major event was probably the end of Milvia House. There had been interpersonal events which I don’t feel it’s my place to set on the internet and several members decided that they wanted to move on rather than continue living with one of the housemates. As nobody still residing there was on the lease, and the landlord had been included in a post to the mailing list about how he was screwing us on rent, he was disinclined to rent to us again, and we went our separate ways.

I moved to Cactus House, subletting a half-room for a few months. It was at least still convenient to host at REACH; I didn’t spend much time at home, since I had places to be and things to do. It was around this time that I decided to try being vegan. I am capable of doing so, but it’s got a high overhead for me, and the place I’ve come to on it is that I’d rather keep my optimization power for upskilling to save the world. These days, I’m mostly vegetarian – I drink milk, eat eggs (choline!) and I have roughly one meat meal per month, because I seem to work better when I do so.

My sublet at Cactus was strongly time-limited, and by the end of it, my primary partner still hadn’t arrived (we’d planned to get housing together, but he needed to be here for that). I spent much of the next month couchsurfing, sleeping at a friend’s or at REACH, and coming to a realization: I had a problem.

Specifically, I was dissociating from my emotions, and I noticed it because it was starting to eat into my positive emotions. I’d started having trouble feeling anything at all.

The friends I was crashing with were, luckily for me (remember I mentioned being lucky?) they were actually quite good at this kind of issue – they’d worked through some of their own CPTSD and that of others.

A lot of what helped was remembering a time I’d been in an emotional state, and telling that story. While I was, it was pointed out that I was outputting anger – my movements, my body language, my tone had all changed. With events like that, and some therapy through intoxication, I was able to get a lot more connected to my emotions, which was great, because shortly after that my partner arrived.

I started sleeping at the REACH every night, because he’d taken a room temporarily, and we began looking for housing in earnest, eventually moving into Liminal house. While the room was reasonable for us, Liminal has an emissions problem. Some kind of VOC seeps into the atmosphere, and it screwed up my motivation and put me into a depression. Being depressed and unmotivated was not a great state to be in, when I heard about Martina dying. While our relationship had been strained, I still cared a lot about her, as I’ve described elsewhere. I closed out my year crying a lot, and wishing I were stronger, because the world was on fire and the fire had just consumed someone I cared about.

Book Review – Deep Work

Deep Work is very nearly the book I thought I was picking up last week. This book makes the case that our modern, distraction-soaked environment has immense costs in terms of sundering our ability to do meaningful work. Deep work is the second of Cal Newport’s books I’ve read, and both Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You were good enough that I’m going to delve further into his list at some point. Cal writes good books.

In the first section of the book Cal makes the baseline case: most of us are being trained by unfettered and unfiltered internet access into doing shallow, rote type work, that has little real value aside from making us seem “busy”. He makes a good case for it – [support from the text, comparison w/jung and other deep workers]

Given these points, it’s actually kind of surprising we’ve bought into the online-all-the-time, concentration sundering world we’ve built. Certainly the internet has many virtues and allows us to do many things that we couldn’t have before, but it is a bit strange that we’ve accepted the “internet is always good” philosophy. I’m not leaving myself out of this, either – I’ve been a big promoter of the idea that being more connected is always better.

I’ve been convinced otherwise. I’ve started putting my instant messengers on “Away” for periods of time while I work on things. I ignore new email announcements. I’ll be starting some of the other techniques in the book soon as well.

Carl Jung, Woody Allen, and Bill Gates are held up as exemplars of deep work. Jung had a retreat he would go to, with a retreat-within-a-retreat in the form of an office to which no one was allowed:

“In my retiring room I am by myself,” Jung said of the space. “I keep the key with me all the time; no one else is allowed in there except with my permission.”

Woody Allen rejected computers for a typewriter, and wrote and directed 44 films in 44 years, taking 23 Academy Award nominations with his Olympia SM3. Bill Gates, for his part, regularly took “Think Weeks” during which he disconnected to read and think. Similarly, he pounded out BASIC for the Altair in eight weeks, often falling asleep at the keyboard in the middle of a line of code for an hour or two, then waking up and continuing from there.

Cal brings forth example after example of the value of deep work – Nate Silver’s prediction expertise, David Hansson’s Ruby on Rails, John Doerr’s venture capital success. These are the sorts of things that don’t come of writing emails and sitting in meetings all day, but from focusing, hard, on that which actually matters.

There are three prominent ways to win in the economy that pervades our current lives:

  1. Be a highly skilled worker.
  2. Be a superstar, famous widely enough to have people coming to you.
  3. Be a member of the ownership class.
    As wealth is a bit hard to come by, Cal identifies two core abilities available to anyone, in a way that wealth is not – the ability to quickly master hard things, and the ability to produce at an elite level, both quality and speed-wise. Deep work, he contends, is the path to these abilities. Anyone can take the time to focus, free of distraction, and begin to raise their skill level. Talent is dispensed with – while we love the idea of the prodigy who finds it easy to perform wondrous feats, greatness is said to come from deliberate practice and tight focus.

Why does deliberate practice work? Myelination. Deliberate practice involves exercising one neural circuit, again and again, in isolation from others. This causes the cells to wire together more tightly, and causes oligodendrocytes to wrap those neurons in myelin, causing that circuit to fire more quickly and cleanly.

Deep work also causes you to be able to produce at an elite level – here we discuss Adam Grant, a full professor at the Wharton School of Business. Grant produces papers at a rapid rate, and of high quality – in 2012 he wrote seven, all published in major journals. He does this by focusing, hard, on what he’s doing at any given time. In the fall, he teaches, getting all of his obligations in that realm cleared at once, and well enough to be the highest rated teacher at Wharton. In the spring and summer, he researches, with his teaching obligations completed and not distracting him.

There is also a chapter of part one dedicated to meaning – deep work is experienced as being more meaningful than shallow. What your life is, is made up of what you pay attention to, as supported by Winifred Gallagher’s experience with having cancer as detailed in her book, Rapt. When she received her diagnosis, she decided to focus on her life, that which she chose, rather than the forced actions induced by her cancer. Despite exhausting and terrible medical treatment, her life was often “quite pleasant”.

What you focus on is what your experience is made of, and deep work has a sense of gravity and importance lacking in sending a series of emails. Focusing, therefore, on deep work, will lead your life to be composed of meaning and worth – a claim supported by my experiences of late. I’ve certainly found my life feels more meaningful having dedicated myself to growth in difficult areas.

The bulk of the book lies in part two, in which are outlined four rules to become an expert in deep work:

First, Work Deeply. Focus yourself on the meaningful work by eliminating distractions, rather than requiring yourself to resist temptation again and again. Decide on a strategy of deep work (monastic, bimodal, rhythmic, or journalistic) and follow it. Have set times to check your email, set your instant messenger to ‘Away’, ritualize your work periods, make grand gestures (the example of JK Rowling renting a hotel room to work in away from distractions is given here), and work with a partner, if possible, so you can both drive each other forward.

Secondly, Embrace Boredom. We are used to, in moments of boredom, being able to summon immediate entertainment, a habit that weakens our ability to focus for long periods. Instant gratification is the enemy of deep work. The ability to concentrate is trained, not innate, and by distracting ourselves continuously we train the opposite – to be as focused as a pinball, being driven from amusement to amusement with no lasting impact.

Third, Quit Social Media. Social media is optimized to keep us clicking, scrolling, upvoting and liking. It’s designed to addict us, and it justifies this addiction by providing some small value – so much so that to observe that one is not on Facebook will bring on a deluge of reasons why people use the service, sounding much like they are trying to convince themselves – at least, that’s how I read the comments Cal received when he so observed in an article. They sound very much like justifications I was making a few years ago for my media use, and I was definitely trying to convince myself.

Finally, Drain the Shallows. To drain the shallows, limit the amount of your working time you spend on shallow work. Batch clearing your email inbox, and when you do respond to emails, do so in as much detail as possible, rather than in a series of short messages that invite an extended back and forth conversation. Schedule your day every morning, and if events force you to change your schedule, reschedule it. Quantify the depth of the activities you engage in, and lean towards the deeper ones. Request or set a shallow work budget, and stick to it.

As I’ve said, I quite enjoyed Deep Work, and I think I got a lot of value from it – enough that I’ll likely be referring back to it again and again quite a bit in the coming month. If you want to do something, Deep Work is a book you’ll want to add to your ‘read’ list – it’s full of useful tools and research, and well worth the time investment to read it.