Skip to main content

applying deep work

When I was 35, I took my first position as a professional writer, creating manuals for a company that built secure servers. The new job meant moving from my hometown to Atlanta. As a going-away present, my brother bought me a book called, "A Writer's Time," by Hollywood agent and script merchant Ken Atchity.

In that book, Atchity espouses the philosophy that talent, by itself, won't get you anywhere. He suggests that you need perseverance, as well as connections and an ability to get along with people, but his main point is this: Discipline is the core of success as a writer. No matter how much talent you have, if you don't apply it, daily, you won't see your face in the bookstore window unless the sun is behind you.

An Expanding Thread

In the twenty years since I first read his book, the digital revolution happened. We went from index cards -- which Atchity still recommends -- to e-mail, to soundbites, to Vine-covered social media. Recently, a Georgetown professor named Cal Newport has expanded on this idea of discipline. Been following him for a while, and I like some of his thoughts.

My favorite is his concept of "deep work."  He published a book by that title in January, although he's been talking about the concept for a couple of years in his blog. Read a sample last night, and I'm buying the book this weekend, when there's time to read it.

Each of us internalizes messages differently, based on our temperament and experience. My evolving understanding sort of bridges the gap between these two authors. While Newport describes the active creative process, Atchity puts the whole thing in context. Here's the new understanding I'm starting to pick up.

A Man of Three Minds

I have found a lot of resonance in Atchity's model of how our minds work. He suggests we start out with two minds: the logical, rational mind which he calls "the continent," and the free-flowing, creative mind, described like a series of volcanic islands that sort of come and go spontaneously. If you let either one rule your life, you won't make progress. The trick is to develop a third mind, a "managing editor" that mediates between the two extremes. There's a lot more to this idea, but these are the essentials for me.

And I can identify with what he's saying. I do have these impulsive, floating elements to my thinking, and I also have this authoritarian voice that pushes me around sometimes. My own managing editor has been too weak for too long, but that's another blog entry for another time.

Based on reading Newport's work, I think I've come to agree that, lately, we've become a world without a managing editor. We let our islands rule, and then we kick in the continent when we get stuck or broke. Have a passion? Folow it. Have a different passion next week? Change directions. Get an e-mail? Stop and surf where it leads you. Having trouble paying the bills, but Mom and Dad won't let you move back in? Get serious about a real job for a while, but only just enough to keep the lights on.

Discipline is Hard

Jesus may have already told us this, way back in the day, when he said, "No man can serve two masters."  Yet that same Bible reminds us that, " a multitude of counselors there is safety." In other words, we need both parts of our mind to work at full throttle, at the same time, in order to get to excellent work. That means mediating, which implies a managing editor. No way around it.

It also means that we can't cater to either logic or creativity when we work. This is physically difficult to do, and hard to sustain for more than a few hours at a stretch. Our artistic side wants to drop a "happy little tree" right over there, and then move on to checking e-mail, and from there surfing the news. By contrast, our linear brain prefers to just keep drawing grid lines until we filled up all the paper we have handy. Neither approach works.

Yes, we've kinda become a society that takes a shallow cut at everything. Which means, as Newport points out, there's a real opportunity for someone willing to go deep, to develop the discipline, to grow and train their managing editor, borrowing Atchity's concepts.

What About Sewing?

So what about sewing? How am I going to apply any of this to my hobby, passion, and calling? 

Well, first I have to document how I got here. I came to sewing because I just couldn't find an Every Day Carry (EDC) backpack that I like. The perfect backpack, in turn, stems from wanting to have everything I need with me most of the time, with each item readily accessible without digging. Carrying my life, in its own turn, was my response to a very messy, scattered childhood -- a response that actually worked well, got me high marks with lots of scholarships, trophies, and respect.

In other words, just like Newport explains, my passion followed my skills, which were borne out of the utter confusion of growing up with a terminally-ill sibling being treated once a week at a hospital four hours away. You can imagine the chaos, the scattered stuff, the constantly getting to St. Jude in Memphis and forgetting something and needing to go buy, beg, or borrow. I didn't have a passion for organization, I just had to make some kind of rational, palliative response to my parents constantly being a day late and a dollar short for everything, which turned out to be good organization. Likewise personal comfort, but that's -- again -- another blog.

Needing to Get Good

Now I've reached the point in my sewing where I need to get really good. I can't get to the bag I want, because I just don't have the correct equipment, skills or experience. My technique still feels nearly newbie in a lot of ways. 

But here's the weird part: People are buying my bags out from under me. What I consider just "thrown together" as a "frustrating stopgap" until I get what I want? People are offering me serious money on the street for them. More than once, I've dumped my stuff into the nearest plastic grocery bag and come home looking like a homeless person (something I never ever wanted to do), but $100 richer. Or $50. Or $150. 

Here's the point: My standards, driven by a need to fix the past, have pushed me beyond nominal quality already, but I'm not satisfied. I already know that I need some deep, serious work practicing seams, and learning how to put in webbing, and adding waterproof zippers, and getting the equipment to be able to sew six layers of Cordura. In short, I need to go to school, but there's no teacher around, so I'm going to have to teach myself.

Maybe This Will Help Explain

Maybe the foregoing will help explain what I'll be doing over the next few months. I'll be posting regularly, but it won't all be finished work; I'm working toward something specific that I'll only know when I see it. And probably toward a freelance career. After all, if I can get $150 for something that doesn't even begin to meet my standards, certainly I can command $500 or even $1000 for a bag that I'd be proud to display. Especially if I add in some interesting electronics that are designed to be included in fabric constructs. 

Keep watching this space. And buy some books from the two guys mentioned above. They're both worth reading at least once in your life.

Popular posts from this blog

Conserving Willpower

A little time management goes a long way.

At this particular moment, 90% of my projects are waiting on somebody else. Maybe it's a decision, or some data, or something I just can't do, but the work is idled just the same.  It would be easy to feel frustrated, but it's really an opportunity for gratitude.

First, I'm grateful that I can actually know where my work stands. The whiteboard in my workroom has a brief list of priorities, down the right side. All I have to do is look, and I remember the current status of that project.

Second, I'm working my priorities. Every day starts with me trying to move #1 forward. Every phone call or e-mail has me checking the list to see if I should switch to a higher level project.

Third, my willpower reserves are "pressed down and overflowing." Since my brain isn't in spin mode, trying to figure out what's next, my head is clear, and I don't have that feeling of an unknown task in an unknown state looking ove…