Cal Newport opens the introduction to his book Deep Work by describing Carl Jung’s simple, two-story stone house in the Swiss town of Bollingen; a refuge where Jung could retreat from his bustling practice in Zurich to write the scholarly articles that would support his new style of analytical psychology.
Even in 1922, when an invisible sky-mesh of information and connectivity that would blanket the entire planet was nothing more than science fiction, Jung sought to remove himself from the distractions of the city in order to create and enforce habits of intense concentration.
Newport posits that one must learn how to concentrate deeply in order to master the difficult tasks and produce at the level necessary to be a “winner” in our emergent ever expanding tech-based economy. I immediately recoil at the thought of being a winner if that would place my name alongside those referenced by Cal Newport…tech giants, creators of programs like twitter, hulu, and basecamp…programs that in my more technophobic moods may seem to be the reason so many people must relearn how to concentrate in the first place. I don’t want my name beside people who have irrevocably changed how our brains function; who were, as Dr. Ian Malcolm would suggest, so preoccupied in seeing if they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.
Of course, I am not suggesting that because I don’t necessarily see my own version of winning as it is described by Mr. Newport, I should throw the baby out with the bathwater. This week has taught me that I will absolutely need to learn how to go deep, shut down distractions, and perform at my best if I want to get ahead – in my studies, in my job, in my relationships. It has shed, brightly, a light on a truth that I had previously ignored. As author Michael Harris states in his Op-Ed I have forgotten how to read, “For a long time, I convinced myself that a childhood spent immersed in old-fashioned books would insulate me somehow from our new media climate…because my mind was formed in pre-internet days.” I have fooled myself similarly. Yet even as I write these words, aware of my task at hand and my looming deadline, my phone beckons to me…the siren song of Instagram, of scrolling, of wasting time.
Unlike Carl Jung, I have no tower; just a spare bedroom turned music room turned pandemic office. And anyway, I am not naive enough to believe that the tower would fix my flighty, hectic nature. And unlike Michael Harris, I cannot simply depend on relearning how to read “patiently, slowly, uselessly,” because I never possessed his deep emotional connection with books to begin with. Twenty-five years of hustle-and-grind culture won’t be unlearned by a few hours a day alone in my office, but I can practice boredom and disconnection and patience. I can leave my phone in the bin outside the door to give myself a fighting chance at remapping those synapses which scream for distraction. And, in the end, perhaps I can learn the kind of deep work Cal Newport suggests will rocket me toward my own version of winning – which, if I’m being honest, is a tower in the woods where I can work and live: patiently and slowly.
Feature photo of Carl Jung’s tower by Patricia Kucmanova via Visiting Carl Jung’s Tower in Bollingen.