Cal Newport on Work Culture and Books
January 21, 2016
In the second part of our interview with Cal Newport, we ask him what his biggest question about work culture is, and what books have influenced him.
"Here’s a thought experiment that’s been commanding my attention recently: what would happen if an organization eliminated email? And I don’t mean replace your email inbox with an always-on Slack chatroom, but actually got rid of the ability for people to command each others time and attention at any moment."
I love talking to authors about their books, so getting the answers back for the first part of this interview was fascinating. It is the this standard second part of all our interviews that I feel like I get a glimpse into who they are as people, at what has shaped their thinking and perhaps where they'll go next. I was especially interested in Cal Newport's answers to the questions about books, because his book Deep Work, like any good work of research and scolarship, is chock-full of references to the work and books that came before it. A very quick list I made while reading of the more recent books he references includes:
- The Shallows
- Hamlet’s Blackberry
- The Tyranny of E-mail
- The Distraction Addiction
- Race Against the Machine
- Average is Over
- The Talent Code
- To Save Everything Click Here
- All Things Shining
That is a very incomplete list of just the more recent books. He also discusses the work habits and work of Carl Jung, Mark Twain, and Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges's 1934 book, The Intellectual Life—among many other historical figures and examples.
But how's about I stop blabbering and get us back to the interview?
Cal Newport on Work Culture and Books
800-CEO-READ: What is the one unanswered question about business (or work) you are most interested in answering?
Cal Newport: Here’s a thought experiment that’s been commanding my attention recently: what would happen if an organization eliminated email? And I don’t mean replace your email inbox with an always-on Slack chatroom, but actually got rid of the ability for people to command each others time and attention at any moment.
We place so much attention in our current work culture on communication being priority one, that this experiment might sound disastrous at first. But I’m not so sure. I think it would instead bring into sharp relief the key division between real work and talking about work that we’ve seemed to blurred beyond recognition.
8cr: What book has influenced your work the most?
CN: I’m not sure that I could identify the most influential book (I read a lot of books), but there are many that have had a clear impact. One unexpected source of insight was William Lee Miller’s wonderful “ethical biography,” Lincoln’s Virtues. Miller does a great job explaining Lincoln’s “purposive” intellect, with which he would drill down to first principles in important matters, then use these principles to guide practical action, trusting the conclusions they supported (even if surprising or unpopular). I aspire to this type of thinking in my business writing.
8cr: What is the book you wish you had written (or admire the most) and why?
CN: In the world of business books, I greatly admire Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget. I think they both saw key trends in our shifting digital culture before most other people were aware the trends matter, and got out in front of them with insightful, bold commentary.
8cr: What book(s) are you reading right now?
CN: This is a hard question to answer concisely, because I tend to read several books concurrently, switching back and forth until I finish them. At the moment, I’m actively working on Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, Robert Reich’s Saving Capitalism, James Gleick’s biography of Richard Feynman, Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys and The Big Short (re-reading after seeing the movie), Anita Elberse’s Blockbusters, and a history of the video game industry.