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On Thinking, Creating, and Working Deeply:

The Ethics of Deep Work, Invention, and Living in a Distracted Digital Age

By Jackie BarrowsPublished 2 years ago 10 min read

An author by the name of Cal Newport recently came out with a popular book entitled, Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success in a Distracted World, which outlined in great detail the concept of deep work, how it is utilized even by famous thinkers at different points in history to organize their thoughts and further their careers in knowledge, and ways to apply this to one's lifestyle to better enhance productivity. As someone who has listened to the audiobook version of Newport's work on several occasions, I found the concept of going deep incredibly fascinating and helpful for my projects and career as a graphic artist, illustrator, and writer.

While this essay will not be a review of Newport's book, I will reference its key points, as this book is what helped inspire my epiphany on how to go deep and truly bring out the best in my work.

I'll start by stating what is the most blatantly obvious: we live in a decidedly distracted digital age that is only going to become more of a hindrance to deep work as time goes on. Even now, we are seeing the silicon world making everyday appliances connected to the Internet to produce a sort of global brain, as it were. Google has been developing glasses for people to where that allow users to access social media right before their very eyes (pun intended). Our phones are not only smartphones with 5G connectivity, but are, quite frankly, attached to us to the point where it is difficult to imagine life without this form of technology.

What does this do for the concept of deep work in a person's career when it is clear the digital frontier is only going to be more prevalent as time goes on?

I. Deep Work Will Be Viewed as a Super-Skill in the Workplace

In a nutshell, the concept of deep work becomes increasingly rare, as fewer people are likely to be using it regularly. It will, in other words, take more effort to go into deep work mode in order to develop anything of substance in one's career. I would wager that (although there are definite benefits to this new digital age we all live in) the longer we remain in this distracting digital world, the farther removed we shall be from those who practiced deep work in decidedly easier times. It will likely appear as more and more of a sort of superpower in the eyes of those who regularly do shallow work (or even choose shallow jobs and low-level employment) specifically to earn a paycheck, and do nothing for their career; that is, of course, if they even have one.

Now, let's be clear on this point: you can choose to do deep work on just about any career that isn't somehow based on social media or other forms of shallow work. The basic point of deep work, as stated by Cal Newport in his book, is to be able to get into a state of intense focus accomplishing tasks that are difficult to replicate and require actual skill to complete. This could be as simple as reworking certain tasks to get them done more efficiently. A janitor, for example, could intensely focus on making sure that he or she cleans the facility in such an efficient manner that not only does the work get done faster, but everything is truly clean and sanitized for the next day. Such a janitor may also be keeping in mind ways to train new people on the job so that they are also doing highly efficient work, thereby building trust with the company they work for as well as the consumers needing their services. It may even be that such a janitor develops more of a say in the company in terms of how to do certain tasks more efficiently to make the company stand out. In other words, it doesn't always have to be work that is lofty to qualify as deep work. It just has to be a development of skills and focus that make you stand out in whatever field you work.

What I mean by the concept of deep work becoming more and more of a superpower is for those who do shallow work every day solely for the sake of a paycheck, and do nothing to develop further skills to make themselves more useful to the company, generate other means of income outside of their daytime work, or even to develop themselves personally. These are the sorts of workers who, out of a place of complacency, create for themselves a level of satisfaction with meager lives. They don't pursue anything outside of their regular 9–5s. They only do the job they are hired to do, offer little to no skills or ideas outside of that (many times to escape doing more work), and once home, they sit and watch television or surf the web. Such people willingly choose to live lives of mediocrity to not have to work as hard. While it is true that everyone is free to live however they see fit, I would like to suggest to people that, if you wish to create a better life for yourself, or perhaps a better version of yourself, then you should make an effort to practice deep work.

When I say that deep work is being more and more regarded as a super skill, I mean that this is a skill that will become so increasingly rare amongst today's and future workers, that for anyone to have mastered it will surely carve a path to true success. Not just financially, by the way; this is a skill that will lead to a more fulfilling career! One that allows you, the master of such a skill, to go deep in thought and focus, and bring out of yourself the best ideas that could solve real-world problems, and have the power to execute plans for such ideas to succeed.

It is, quite frankly, the secret to how great thinkers and creators made their careers happen, and why we still know them today.

II. Deep Work is the Skill That Builds What We Know Today in Digital Media Production

Most people associate social media and digital media in general with mindless video clips and posts on various platforms, or young people who make a living ranting online about whatever it is they want to talk about to their audience. It is today's most definitive version of shallow work as a concept, as such work "takes virtually no real skill to make, and is easily replicated", as stated by Cal Newport in Deep Work.

However, it was indeed deep work that built the social media platforms commonly used today. It took teams of people working night and day to develop the complexities of the web applications, the layouts, the marketing campaigns, and the continuous maintenance that keep people using social media with little worry of it breaking down. Such work is complex on its own, requiring great skill in web and application development, and is incredibly difficult to replicate. Those that do the work of developing their own mobile and web-based applications as well as programming in general, open-source or not, find out rather quickly that they can't even do such work entirely on their own; it takes a team of people with different skill-sets all doing deep work to develop such platforms.

This is also true for those who develop programs such as Adobe Creative Cloud and its equivalents; their deep work helps those in the graphic arts, gaming arts, animation, film, and multimedia industries do the deep work their careers require of them.

Because this is such a highly valuable skill, it is worth noting that being able to do deep work and find solutions to problems is one that will make a person very financially secure in our future. This is the sort of skillset one should teach to their children, as it will set them up nicely for life more so than what they will learn in any school environment.

III. Deep Work is Not Just the Work Itself—It’s The Ethics of the Work, Too

Now that the world is increasingly headed to an even more distracted digital state (especially now that Facebook has decided to transform into Meta, a completely online illusion of a world that pulls people out of reality itself), it is important to note that these skills, while necessary for our digital age, need to be used for the sake of good and not evil. I know, I know…it’s a very simplistic view of the world with all its nuances and varying shades of gray.

However, we do still need to keep in mind certain things many of us have technically been learning all our lives (through the movies and video games no less); we have to live in the real world. We can choose to develop a lot of apps and put everything we do online, but not without severe consequences. I daresay a good part of deep work is not merely the complex work itself of developing content, apps, websites, and the like, but also the ethics of said work. We are constantly moving towards a world that has only been envisioned in sci-fi films, television shows, video games, and books. These actions are not without consequences, and we should always ask ourselves what the pros and cons are for each work and invention we do with our deep work capabilities.

What would happen to our society if certain natural disasters or celestial disasters were to impact our world? The supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park, for example, is acting (shall we say) rather suspicious these days. If it were to erupt, much of our nation would be doomed. There's also the threat of an EMP that could take out our digital world entirely. Still more, there's the idea of artificial intelligence, created through deep work in studies on the brain as well as robotics and computing, taking over the world. The sheer level of connectivity we are seeing occur in everyday household appliances these days, which easily could culminate into a global brain of sorts, could backfire in ways great and small.

The point is not to strike fear into people's hearts so much as it is to help people see the ramifications of what we develop in our world today. We still live in a universe centralized on cause and consequence. To do true deep work is to consider the consequences of all ideas, good and bad, should they be brought to the light. Each idea when fully developed has the absolute potential to leave a lasting impact on those around us. It's simply the truth.

Deep work allows those who practice it to think and work in such a way that all parts of an idea, a concept, an invention is considered and brought forth. It pays to use this important skill for the good of those around us instead of for selfish gain. Selfish gain has only one goal in mind - to make something that may not work long term, and to do it as quickly as possible to turn a profit. Selfish gain in turn produces only the shallowest work and generates poor results.

Deep work is slower, but considers all aspects of a project or product before it hits the market, shall we say, which helps to ensure that everything about it is in good standing.

In short, deep work is an exceedingly valuable skill that people should learn for themselves how to do, as it will serve them well in the long term. Mastering the art of deep work in this modern digital age, while also noting the ethical side of the skill itself, is paramount in the area of all things invention and creative work. It is a powerful discipline that enables us to work around the modern day distractions of our world, which grow greater every day. That being said, we need to use this means of work in ways that help benefit our society, rather than further distract it with false realities and pull everyone further from that which is good, such as the truth of everything. 

I encourage you to read Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport when you get the chance, as it will help motivate you towards practicing and mastering this concept for yourself.

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About the Creator

Jackie Barrows

Jackie Barrows is an artist, a writer, and all around creative soul who enjoys bringing new ideas and stories to life. She wears many hats as a Graphic Designer, a blogger, and Lead Production Artist for R.A.W. Productions.

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