The meetings that Mary Oliver suggested and I discussed last week are ones that I am familiar with, but needed to be reminded of.
I am lucky to have come to know those meetings of the conscious and cautious selves as a grew up. My parents led me (and perhaps I was drawn to) activities that required focus, and risk, and challenge.
Day after day my mom and I would meet the violin head on, working patiently without distraction. I gave my entire self out on countless rugged cross country courses when the pain felt unbearable, but also liberating. I came to know my selves in preparing my first few research papers and *real* tests in high school. As I started meditating in college I felt that marriage of conscience with a higher, nobler self.
I’ve had the fortune to understand the connection, and the power of connection, of my selves to my work that comes in seriousness and in stillness. I understood it physically, kinesthetically, emotionally, and perhaps even mentally. But not intellectually.
I didn’t have the words to name the power of this connection until I read Joshua Waitzkin’s incredible book The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence.
He describes his experience mastering chess, tai chi and now stand up paddle surfing by uniting intellect with instinct. In order to become an excellent performer, he argues with the evidence of his own experience, one must turn the technical into the intuitive. This process happened for him during the hundreds of hours he spent hunched over a chess board and on the wooden floors of his beginner tai chi class. It is during these meetings that Waitzkin discovered a depth, a quality to life that I believe matters to him more than anything else.
Because he believes in that depth he warns us of the tragic risk of never finding it.
Our obstacle is that we live in an attention deficit culture. We are bombarded by more more more. Information on television, radio, the internet. The constant supply of information can turn us into addicts always hungering for something new and prefabricated to keep us entertained… if caught in these rhythms we are like tiny surface bound fish, floating along a two dimensional world oblivious to the gorgeous abyss below.
I deeply resonate with this statement, as I have seen the power of depth in my life. Indeed, I think it is safe to say that though opportunities have come from discovering bits of novel information and serendipitous occurrences, the most important work and the ability to pursue (not depend on) serendipity has come from my bank of deep skills.
The fact of the matter, however, is that people stay in touch with me electronically, I like watching Sherlock and Wes Anderson movies, and information spurs me on to make connections and decisions that shape my life. Yes deep work is incredibly powerful, but there is an amount of surfacing/floating/surfing that my life will require if I intend to engage with it (i.e. with other people).
It was at this uncomfortable intersection — where I was severely skeptical of “floating” but also needed to do it — that I stumbled upon the insight of Cal Newport. A computer science professor at Georgetown, Newport writes on the work it takes to craft a career around expertise, quality, and a love of what you do.
His book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, critiqued the “find your passion” philosophy by proposing that passion for work is derived from the skills, autonomy, and freedom you forge for yourself in a given field. His follow up book, DEEP WORK, explains how deep work is the way to build those valuable skills that eventually bring you passion and renown. Deep work for Newport is what practice was for Waitzkin and those appointments were for Mary Oliver.
But the most helpful part of DEEP WORK for me is not the plea for us to engage in deep work, I already understand the need to do that, but the distinction between working deeply and working shallowly.
Newport defines shallow work as “non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks often performed while distracted. The tasks tend not to produce much value and are easily replicable.”
I’m sure you are as familiar with these shallow tasks as I am. Some examples include
- email, text, phone conversations
- official catch up or “brainstorm” meetings
- catching up on social media
- buzzfeed, blogs, news sites
- monitoring site analytics, responding online to comments, rewriting your bio or landing pages
- preparing slides for class, transferring written notes to typed notes
- writing letters of rec, filling out forms, writing reports
- books, podcasting
- cleaning, chores, shopping, mending, laundry
- making copies, organizing information, filing
But DEEP WORK does more than just identify differences between deep work and shallow work, it recognizes the function they both serve.
Shallow work is how you keep your job, and deep work is how you get promoted.
In other words, some shallow work is necessary to get you where you want to go but it is worth doing only the shallow work absolutely necessary in order to make room for depth.
I’ve embraced the methodology of Oliver, Waitzkin, and Newport in my daily life and studio routines. I commit to deep work as often as possible and drain as much shallow work out of my life as I can.
By carefully managing my deep work and my shallow work I’ve been able to grow my studio to 25 students while finishing my undergraduate degree, posting my thoughts here three times a week, practicing four hours a day, and still making time to read, travel, and spend time with friends.
Over the next few weeks I will detail the way the depth philosophy can map on to the life of a violin teacher.
I hope that by carefully studying and sharing strategies in protecting depth and draining the shallows in my own life as a violin teacher I will further develop my ability to produce value, to live quality. Indeed, I’m convinced I can go far deeper. But perhaps in detailing the relationship I have with the types of work we are all doing as private violin teachers, you might be inspired to consider your relationship with depth too.