So Good They Can’t Ignore You

Borrowing from an expression used by Steve Martin as a title for his most recent book#, Cal Newport explores the differences between finding the right work and working right and the importance of deep work to develop skills.

Focusing on the work and making that the center of attention is a good idea, because it takes time and deliberate practice to achieve results.

Newport's definition of deep work:

Cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve.

Reminds me of the concept Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi articulated in Flow; we find pleasure and lasting satisfaction in activities that bring about a state of “flow.”

When we are involved in the completely engaging process of creating something new, we don't have enough attention left to worry about other stuff. This is what I call being in the moment. 

When you're involved in the completely engaging process of creating something new, you don't have enough attention left to worry about other stuff. Existence is temporarily suspended.

Czikszentmihalyi says that creation at that level happens after 10 years, the 10,000 hours of practice.


From the video transcript:

15:02 — In our studies, we represent the everyday life of people in this simple scheme. And we can measure this very precisely, actually, because we give people electronic pagers that go off 10 times a day, and whenever they go off you say what you're doing, how you feel, where you are, what you're thinking about. And two things that we measure is the amount of challenge people experience at that moment and the amount of skill that they feel they have at that moment. So for each person we can establish an average, which is the center of the diagram. That would be your mean level of challenge and skill, which will be different from that of anybody else. But you have a kind of a set point there, which would be in the middle.

15:50 — If we know what that set point is, we can predict fairly accurately when you will be in flow, and it will be when your challenges are higher than average and skills are higher than average. And you may be doing things very differently from other people, but for everyone that flow channel, that area there, will be when you are doing what you really like to do — play the piano, be with your best friend, perhaps work, if work is what provides flow for you. And then the other areas become less and less positive.

16:28 — Arousal is still good because you are over-challenged there. Your skills are not quite as high as they should be, but you can move into flow fairly easily by just developing a little more skill. So, arousal is the area where most people learn from, because that's where they're pushed beyond their comfort zone and to enter that — going back to flow — then they develop higher skills. Control is also a good place to be, because there you feel comfortable, but not very excited. It's not very challenging any more. And if you want to enter flow from control, you have to increase the challenges. So those two are ideal and complementary areas from which flow is easy to go into.

17:20 — The other combinations of challenge and skill become progressively less optimal. Relaxation is fine — you still feel OK. Boredom begins to be very aversive and apathy becomes very negative: you don't feel that you're doing anything, you don't use your skills, there's no challenge. Unfortunately, a lot of people's experience is in apathy. The largest single contributor to that experience is watching television; the next one is being in the bathroom, sitting. Even though sometimes watching television about seven to eight percent of the time is in flow, but that's when you choose a program you really want to watch and you get feedback from it.

18:17 — So the question we are trying to address — and I'm way over time — is how to put more and more of everyday life in that flow channel. And that is the kind of challenge that we're trying to understand.

You get to flow from mastery and the presence of passion for the challenges you are tackling.

In his work, Csikszentmihalyi contrasts pleasure with enjoyment. He says pleasure feels good, but it's conservative, and leads to status quo.

While enjoyment is like happiness in action, leading to greater skills. Enjoyment leads to a “triumph over the forces of entropy” and is like building psychological capital.

We're living in times where both great arousal and the ability to control how we create are plentiful.

Marrying the two ideas of deliberate practice and flow, this kind of work is both motivating and rewarding.


Valeria is an experienced listener. She designs service and product experiences to help businesses rediscover the value of promises and its effect on relationships and culture. She is also frequent speaker at conferences and companies on a variety of topics. Book her to speak here.