June 19, 2018

The Unexamined (Work) Life is not Worth Living

Cal Newport’s recent book Deep Work inspired a slight variation on Socrates’s classic charge: the unexamined work life is not worth living. Deep Work is a practical antidote to the challenges of finding work/life balance amidst seemingly infinite personal and professional demands and distractions. Newport begins with an excoriating observation of current business culture, characterizing most people’s work as busyness as a proxy for productivity. He calls this “shallow work” and details how it’s low on positive impact, both on companies and individuals.

The book goes on to provide useful anecdotes, research, and suggestions on how we can be remarkably more productive if we engage in a rigorous evaluation and refocusing of our time and energy. Newport describes his own prodigious gains in productivity based on a systematic effort to reduce shallow work and replace it with deep and sustained focus. This all reminds me of the way other business classics like The Talent Code or Outliers inspire a more ambitious approach to life, both work and personal. That said, the biggest value of Deep Work is the way his findings and reflections reinforce a point he makes early on in the book:

In our current culture, we place a lot of emphasis on job description. Our obsession with the advice to “follow your passion”…, for example, is motivated by the (flawed) idea that what matters most for your career satisfaction is the specifics of the job you choose. In this way of thinking, there are some rarified jobs that can be a source of satisfaction.” (90)

Newport goes on to conclude that the specifics of a job don’t matter, the nature of the work does: “You don’t need a rarified job; you need instead a rarefied approach to your work” (91). The process of engagement in the work is what leads to a sense of satisfaction and has the beneficial side effect of higher production and quality. While tempting to seek the “perfect” job that speaks to a “passion” or area of expertise, it turns out that those characteristics are far less important to both satisfaction and production than how you do the work. This has broad implications to a person’s life, professionally and beyond, and to the way that company’s engage employees. For me, the takeaway from Deep Work, is an affirmative (if less eloquent) revision of Socrates’s famous advice: a rigorous examination of work life makes for better living.

At NAI Elliott, where “we’re about being human as much as doing business,” we strive to live the spirt of this advice in our evaluation system. It is our culture and practice to push each employee, manager, and leader to examine our individual and collective work lives and look for opportunities to refocus, increase efficiency, eliminate wasteful effort, and nurture continuous growth. It’s an ongoing process but we know intuitively and objectively that happy and fulfilled employees are happier, more productive, and add value to the company.

- Jordan Elliott

  VP, NAI Coordinator


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