Jesus and the deep, focused life
Jordan Raynor sits down with Cal Newport, Author of A World Without Email, to talk about how we can escape the tyranny of our email inboxes, how his career as a writer started with a college dare, and why he hears from pastors more than almost anyone else about Deep Work and Digital Minimalism.
[00:00:05] JR: Hey, everybody. Welcome to the Call to Mastery. I’m Jordan Raynor. This is a podcast for Christians who want to do exceptional work for the glory of God and the good of others. Each week, I host a conversation with a Christian who is pursuing world-class mastery of their craft. We talk about their path to mastery, their daily habits, and how their faith influences the work they do in the world.
Today's is guest I could not be more excited about. Cal Newport has been in my list of top five, maybe top three authors for years. He's the author of mammoth bestsellers, like Deep Work, Digital Minimalism, So Good They Can't Ignore You, and his newest, A World Without Email. Cal is also a Computer Science Professor at Georgetown University.
So, Cal and I recently sat down, we talked about how we can escape the tyranny of our email inboxes. How his career as a writer started out with a college dare, and why he hears from pastors more than almost anybody else about Deep Work and Digital Minimalism. You're going to love this thought-provoking conversation with my new friend, Cal Newport.
[00:01:28] JR: Cal, thanks for being here.
[00:01:29] CN: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
[00:01:31] JR: So, we were just riffing before we start recording on video, podcasts, and audio, I was like, let's save it for the conversation because my audience doesn't know this. We don't do video when we're recording the Call to Mastery, because here's my philosophy. Tell me what you think about this. I want to do what the audience does. Like when you have video, you kind of have an unfair advantage over the audience. Have you found that recording podcasts?
[00:01:57] CN: That's true. You get to see the face, you get to see what's going on. I mean, I'm surprised about the degree to which people, for example, are interested in watching video podcast recordings, but I think it goes to something human. Our brain loves the whole, I guess we're tempted by the whole information stream. We want to see facial movements, we want to see whatever. So, you're right. If we're seeing each other, or the audience is not seeing us, then we're working on a different information stream.
[00:02:25] JR: Yeah, totally. So, that's the only reason why we do it. That's my philosophy and I'm sticking to it. Hey, so I love reading acknowledgments of books as an author, because I always find like some interesting tidbit and when I was reading the acknowledgments for your new book, A World Without Email, I read that you signed your first book deal with Random House when you were 21. What's the story behind this?
[00:02:49] CN: Yeah, I've been at this a while.
[00:02:52] JR: We won't say how long?
[00:02:54] CN: Yeah, it's my seventh book. So, my first book was an advice guide for students and I wrote it as a student. I wanted to write a book. I looked into it. It's hard to get a book deal for 21 years old. So, basically, I talked to a family friend who is an agent, and was basically asking, what would it take and show me the lane, and the lane is pretty narrow. The lane involved, it better be something that has the fact that you're young makes sense. First of all, right? Like, you can't say I'm going to write a biography of FDR when you’re 21 and you better been writing a lot too. You better have chops, better be something that makes sense for you to write, and actually, probably, if you can do a lot of the work up front not writing it, but a lot of research upfront, because you need to convince them that the ideas, you're going to write about are full-fledged and not amateur. So, I did that and then that's how I got the book deal.
[00:03:50] JR: You were in college at the time.
[00:03:50] CN: Yeah. Right after my junior year. So, I signed with my agent who's still my agent to this day. I signed with her, I was 20 years old, right before my birthday in the spring of that year, then that summer, we sold the book.
[00:04:03] JR: That's amazing. Did you just want to write a book? You were just like, “I want to publish something. I'm not sure what the idea is.” It sounds like that was your story. What was that desire in you to want to publish? Were you just a big book nerd? Like, what was that?
[00:04:17] CN: I mean, I was a big book nerd. I also was an entrepreneur. So, I had run a company in high school and I was used to advice guides, for example, because I ran a business. If you're in business, you read a lot of advice books, because you need to know like how do I do this? How do I do that? So, I was used to that and I had this idea that student advice guides should be written more like business advice guides, because I was a business advice guide guy going to school, taking on loans, and said, “Okay, how do I do this well?” And I go to the bookstore and the books about student life were light, put it that way. There's a sense of, “Don't be too serious. You'll scare off the kids.” They didn't understand the market. I mean, college kids take themselves too seriously.
This idea that, “Oh, you got to be kooky and cool.” Like you had some mindset of 1970s high school kids or something like the culture thing.
[00:05:09] JR: So, it's The Breakfast Club?
[00:05:10] CN: Yeah. And then I was a writer in college. I wrote for the student newspaper. I was a columnist. I wrote for the Humor Magazine. I ended up the editor in chief of the Humor Magazine. So, I was a writer, like, had some basic chops on how to write. I did a semester in New York City and I was hanging out with entrepreneur friends, and I was mentioning this idea, but these were entrepreneur friends that flipped a couple companies, they had taken on a bunch of investment. And so, their mindset was like, “Well, just go do it.” Do it. Of course. What’s the big deal? You have an idea, write the book.
They basically dared me. This was the winter of my junior year and I took the dare to heart, because I signed with the agent that spring. So, this one friend of mine in particular, I read it was at the Russian Samovar in New York, where you would get homemade flavored vodkas. I wasn't even 21 yet, but I think I had a good fake. And he was like, “Just write the book. What's the big deal? Is it really that hard?” And so that nudge is what, “Okay, I'll figure out how to do it.” And I did that. But it helped, I had an idea, I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew how to write — so that that helped.
[00:06:12] JR: It's that why not me quality that talk a lot about with entrepreneurs. It's like, yeah, like, do you want to write a book? Why can't you pull it off, just go do it.
[00:06:21] CN: Yeah. And this was the culture at this time, this was the early 2000s. We had just had this dot com boom, where young people got way too much credit. So, just to lay that out. I had a business as a 17-year-old, I don't know, you're young, you should know about computers. We gave way too much credit. So, we were all very overconfident back then. That worked to my advantage.
[00:06:40] JR: Yeah, totally. So, one of the books I recommend most frequently to students to this day, maybe my favorite of yours, I don't know, is So Good They Can't Ignore You. In fact, the passion mindset versus craftsman mindset was really the core of one of the chapters of my previous book Master of One. I’m curious, can you break down those two different mindsets for us, the passion and the craftsman mindsets?
[00:07:04] CN: So, the passion mindset, which is a mindset that really grew during my generation. So, I'm 38, I was a child of the ‘80s and the ‘90s and this is when this idea – yeah, there we go. So, you recognize this as well. We were taught to follow our passion, with –
[00:07:18] JR: Do what you love, do what makes you happy.
[00:07:20] CN: Yeah, and we think of this as a timeless thing. But in that book, I tracked the etymology. No, it arises in the 1990s. I mean, that phrase, follow your passion in this context. It rose when we were in elementary school. So, this idea rose, and it led to what I call the passion mindset, for understanding your career, which said, I need to keep asking, what is it that I want to do? And if I haven't found that match, I'm not going to be happy. So, I need to keep asking, like, what does this job offer me? Is this really my true passion? And I'm going to answer that question, in part by just interrogating how I feel day to day. Do I have this sense of passion? If I don't, then it must be the wrong job. I need to then switch to another job. I got to find the job that offers me this sense of passion.
[00:07:59] JR: Instantly.
[00:08:00] CN: Instantly. It's a matching problem. The logical conclusion of the advice to follow your passion is that you have this thing called the preexisting passion and is the matching of that to your work that then generates career satisfaction. The craftsman mindset, which of course is much older, is don't ask what your job is offering you, ask what you are offering your job. Am I useful? Am I good? Am I getting better? Am I contributing to this team, to this organization? Am I getting better? What I'm offering? What is my craft? How valuable am I? How can I be more valuable? That's the craftsman mindset. So, it has very little to do with, what does this job offer me? Or is this the right job for me? More about how good am I? How can I get better?
[00:08:40] JR: Yeah, and like the big takeaway for me, and I wrote a little bit about this in my book, Master of One, is like, passion is a side effect of mastery, right? You get to love what you do by getting really good at it. We're talking to an audience of Christians who this shouldn't come as a huge surprise to. Like we are modeling our lives after Jesus who came to serve not to be served, right? The passion mindset is all about like, what value does a job offer me? And I would argue the craftsman mindset says like, “No, how can I serve others really well?”
[00:09:14] CN: Yeah, I would say some of the most more interesting conversations I had about this concept. So, I wrote this book when I was at MIT and it was with various Catholic lay communities. For example, MIT had a house that I think was Opus Dei. And I remember like having lunch with the sort of Catholic lay leader of this house, I don't know quite exactly how the Catholic positions work, or this or that, but I remember coming away thinking, “My God, they have a very sophisticated understanding of calling.” And just by contrast, how we simplified this, for you and me when we were kids, what we're hearing from our teachers, it's almost insulting.
The degree to which we took this nuanced concept of a calling and corrupted it to – when you were born, you have a gene that says you're meant to be a social media marketer. And if you express that gene by being a social media marketer, it will produce good feelings. If not, you need to change to that job, and then you go and you look at the classic Christian notion of calling and it's – well, first of all, it has a huge component of service and sacrifice to it, which is completely anathema to the passion mindset of I want to feel positive physical effect, which I get by matching my job.
Anyways, Christian thought was and there's some interesting Jewish thought on this as well. I think there's interesting Islamic on this as well, I just haven't been able to interrogate it as much. Let’s just say, Judeo Christian thought on this topic is incredibly rich. And it was influential to me when I was working on the book and then after the book to help understand the ideas of, “Oh, these are things that have been really well thought through.” So, I'm at a Jesuit university. Jesuits have a lot of interesting thoughts on this as well, you know, all these orders do. So, anyways, I'm a with you, that religious people have a sophisticated notion of calling and this thing we came up with in the ‘90s, and I have some ideas of where it came from. Simplified it to the point that it caused more harm than good. That's basically what I think happened.
[00:11:16] JR: It's just terrible advice. It leads to discontent in you because you're constantly switching to find that instantaneous satisfaction. You can't stick with something long enough to get great at it, to serve other people well, and find sustainable vocational joy for yourself.
Speaking of which, you have this rich idea of calling and this is a lot about what this podcast is about. If you have this rich construct of calling, it leads you to be incredibly ambitious for your work. Not for success. We don't talk about success on this podcast, but as a means of serving other people more effectively. I would argue Deep Work, which I mentioned, every other episode of this show, is one of the keys to doing that really well in the 21st century. But just in case somebody missed me talking about Deep Work in that episode, break it down for us, what is deep work? And why is it so critical to the pursuit of mastering our calling, our craft?
[00:12:10] CN: I mean, deep work is when you're giving something unbroken concentration. It’s a cognitively demanding thing and I'm doing just this thing. I'm not doing this thing while also checking this. I'm not doing this thing while also scrolling this. I'm just doing this hard, cognitive thing. My main argument is in almost every endeavor, that's what moves the needle.
Now, there's other things that matter, I call it shallow work. I mean, you need to answer the email from your accountant because they need to know the answer to shall I move this money? And you know, you need to do payroll, and there's stuff that's important, but it doesn't move the needle. It doesn't make you better at what you do. It doesn't make your company more successful. It doesn't get you promoted. It's the if you're in a non-manual field, where your brain is your primary tool, it is the unbroken concentrated thought that is your number one activity that's going to move you ahead.
The mindset I preach in that book, is that should be a priority. I mean, it's like you're the athlete, you're prioritizing your training. And then you want to make sure of course, I put aside time because I have to deal with my agent, my accountant and my endorsement deal and this and that. But of course, my training is going to be at the center of what I do, because if I don't train, I'm not going to perform, and it'll all go away.
In knowledge work, we forgot that. We let the shallow stuff is going to just take over the whole day. And then we are worshipped at the altar of busyness, as opposed to actually honing craft and applying craft. So, there's a plea for, I know all this stuff is exciting, especially with digital tools, and Slack and email, and social media, and there's all these things you can be doing and t's all very exciting. But just remember, none of that moves the needle. None of that is going to make you better. None of that's going to make your company more successful. None of that's going to get you promoted, that is almost always going to be the long contemplative, undistracted deep efforts.
[00:13:46] JR: Yeah. And you started working, I didn't realize this, you sort of working on A World Without Email right after Deep Work? I'm assuming that's because email is enemy number one in our fight for depth. Is that right? Is that why you started working on that manuscript next?
[00:14:02] CN: Yeah. Because in Deep Work, I just said, let's just stipulate that it's things like email that are making this hard. And let me get into my argument for like the value of focus, and really, the feedback from that was, don't be so hasty. Don't be so flippant. You don't understand the degree to which we can't escape having this email inbox. I said, “Well, that's crazy. Like, what's going on here? What an interesting question.” Hundreds of millions of people around the world had work experiences where they're just constantly tending these chattering inboxes. I was like, “Okay, so what's going on here? Why do we work that way? Is it a good idea? And if not, you know, what should we do instead?” It was an epic question. It took me five years to untangle.
I stopped in the middle of working on that book, to write Digital Minimalism, which is the book that came out two years ago. That's about our life outside of work. It's about our smartphones and social media and YouTube and the stuff we do outside of working, distracted on our phones. And I stopped to write that book because it was incredibly timely. There was this shift that happened right around late 2016, early 2017 where people went from exuberant to uneasy about their smartphones. This was happening fast. All right, I got to write about that.
I wrote that book and then I turned back and kept working on the email book, because the ideas, no one was asking these questions about email, so I had no fear that I was going to be scooped. I had no fear, well, there are three other books that are going to come out. Everyone had just accepted.
[00:15:21] JR: It’s a status quo. It’s always going to be this way.
[00:15:23] CN: Yeah, this is just what work is, and no one was questioning it. So, paradoxically, that gave me the confidence to take my time. I was the only one on that beat —
[00:15:29] JR: Yeah, that makes sense. So, the title is terrific, A World Without Email, but you make it really clear early on in the book that this is about more than email. It's about what you call the hyperactive hive mind. Define that for us, real quick, before we move on?
[00:15:47] CN: Yeah, exactly. So yeah, I actually don't care about email, the tool, the whole story is email spread in the ‘90s, because it was better than fax machines and voicemail. In its wake, came this new way of collaborating that I call the hyperactive hive mind, where we said, “Oh, now that we have low friction, digital communication, we can just do all of our collaboration with back and forth unscheduled messaging.” Just like, “Jordan, grab this. What about this? You want to jump on a call? Now, that doesn't work? What about this time? Hey, we just got this question from a client. What do you think? Should we do a meeting?” We began collaborating and coordinating with these unscheduled back and forth messages. I call that approach to collaboration the hyperactive hive mind.
Email enabled it, but it's not synonymous. You can't do the hive mind without email, right? Unless you're just two people in the same room. You don't necessarily have to do the hive mind just because you have email. So, it's important to separate those two things. So, the real title of this book should be as you pointed out, a world without the hyperactive hive mind workflow is the dominant way that we collaborate.
[00:16:43] JR: Terrible book title.
[00:16:44] CN: My publisher did not allow that one. But I'll hear it when people hear the title that like, “Oh, so what tools we use instead?” I'm like, “Oh, no, no, no. This is so much deeper than that. It's so much deeper.”
[00:16:56] JR: Yeah, you did a masterful job of like spelling out the case in the book, and you got like really practical. You offered bunch of strategies for how we can work smarter and kind of escaped the madness of the hive mind. I am curious, like, which strategy has been most influential, impactful for you personally, in your work?
[00:17:17] CN: It's the mindset. So, the mindset that I have inculcated in my own mind, I'm trying to push in other people's minds is that the productivity poison is context shifting. So, if you have to keep changing your attention from what you're doing, to an inbox or a Slack channel, or Microsoft team's channel, and then back to what you're doing, every time you do that change, you pay a cognitive cost, especially if you just glance for a few minutes, then come back to what you're doing. Because you initiate a context shift and then aborted halfway through, it creates cognitive confusion, you can't think clearly, you get mentally exhausted, and it creates anxiety.
Context switching is poison. What creates context switching? Well, if I am organizing things with unscheduled messaging, I'll just shoot you something. At some point, you'll shoot me something back, and I need to kind of respond to that relatively quickly, because we have a little ping pong match going on here. That's going to force contact shifting, because I have to keep checking the inbox to see if you've written back.
Once you understand all of that, then the whole game becomes, how do I do the coordination and collaboration I need to do to do my work well, with a minimum of those unscheduled messages? And that mindset shift changes everything. It’s a completely different way of looking at it. Everyone thinks about email overload from the perspective of, “Oh, I need better habits for how I deal with my inbox.” No, you need to stop stuff from going to that inbox in the first place. You don't need batching rules or etiquette or norm or here is my – I turn off my notifications.
It's not about your interaction with an overstuffed inbox. It's getting that inbox to be less overstuffed. And the only way to do that is to start asking, “Can I put in place other rules or systems or processes for all these things I do on a regular basis that allows us to get our work done without unscheduled messaging?” And I think that mindset shift, where we begin to think about unscheduled messaging, like a dirty word — opens up everything. And then it's just a matter of like, “Oh, there's a hundred different ways we can do this. All sorts of tools. All sorts of best practices. All sorts of insights.” And as you said, I get a lot of principles in the book. They're just basically ideas.
For once you know, that's what you're doing. Let's get into some ideas about how you can do it. But that fundamental mindset shift, unscheduled messaging as a four-letter word, let's replace the hyperactive hive mind with ways of doing the things we do every day and every week that doesn't require that.
[00:19:23] JR: Yeah. And you're the perfect person to write about this, right? You're a CS professor, computer science professor. It is about systems and protocols and systematizing this communication. I also like this thread that you pulled in the book, the specialization principle, and it's very much in line with the message of the book I referenced a few minutes ago, Master of One, can you break down the specialization principle in a little bit more detail and how it can help us do more deep work?
[00:19:54] CN: Yeah, it's smart that you pointed that out, because there's a deeper thing going on here, totally.
[00:20:01] JR: I wish you there in the book. I was like, “Go there. Go there.”
[00:20:02] CN: Well, it might be another book. You can kind of tell in that chapter, it's relevant to this practical goal of how do we reduce unscheduled messages. But there's also something so much deeper there, and you get into this in Master of One, for sure. So, the idea with a specialization principle is in modern knowledge work, for the most part, we do too much. And what I mean, is we put too much on people's plates that like the amount of things that you're responsible on your plate is probably too much. By too much, I mean, if we want to optimally – let’s use computer science for a second. If you want to optimally allocate tasks to human brains to get things done at a high level, we're putting too much stuff in these buffers.
Now, I partially blame email for this. I mean, I document the book, when you remove the friction involved in handing something off to someone, you make it easy in terms of time, but also in terms of social capital, let's not undervalue the social capital cost of having to look someone in the eye and say, “I want you to spend time on this thing.”
[00:20:54] JR: When you wrote that, I was like, “This is actually a really good test.” Because the case you make, sorry, I'm interrupting you. But the case you make is like, would you go into the person's office, look them in the eye and ask them to do the thing that you're asking them to do via email. And a lot of times, like probably no, but because it's so lightweight, that's the problem, right? The medium is the problem.
[00:21:17] CN: I mean, that's one of my favorite stories I uncovered in the book was from that research study, where they took people and took them off email for a week, and it was the guy who was saying, “Every day or every week, I forgot what it was, I have to set up this lab, because we're a research company, it takes me hours. And my boss just hammers me with emails with questions and task, it's all urgent, and he needs it right away and it makes it impossible.” And then this individual took part in an experiment where they say, “Okay, for this week, no email.” And all the questions coming from his boss. The crazy thing about it is that his boss was two doors down from where he was sitting.
The friction was, I have to walk down and poke my head into the door and say, “Hey, Jordan, what’s the answer here? Can you do this for me real quick?” That little bit of friction, it all went away? I think we see it during remote work in the pandemic, with, why are there so many more Zoom meetings, then we didn't used to have that many meetings were in the office? There's a social capital cost, the setting up a meeting. If I then have to sit in a room, we all came to this room, and we all sat down and we all look at me and like I brought you all here, you have to physically expend energy and come here. There's a capital cost, we think twice. Maybe I'll just poke my head in your office and ask you the question. But Zoom, now, I just type it and this Google Calendar invite shows up, and then I don't have to worry about this thing, because I always go to meetings if they're on my calendar. So, if I set up a meeting, then it's off my plate for now and I don’t have to worry about it. Next thing you know is seven or eight zoom meetings a day.
Social capital matters. I'm going to talk about in the book from a nerd perspective. Engineers are very familiar with this fact that if you have a system, and you go from some friction to no friction, crazy stuff happens. It’s like feedback loops with a PA system, turned into a squeal. If you don't have enough friction in gears, they spin out of control. You need some friction. Email got rid of friction. And so, I think we're doing too much and for no good reason. I mean, no good reason, just because it's possible and human social dynamics and this weirdness of social capital, and no one's ever stepping back and saying – well, let me say, there are some exceptions to this. I'll say it in a minute.
But for the most part, we're not stepping back and saying, “Well, how much is on your plate right now? How many things are you responsible for? Is that too many?” And the one group that does care about this, are software developers, they're much more structured in how they organize and assign their work. And once they got very intentional about answering these questions, they got incredibly minimalist. If you use a system like Kanban to organize your software development team, they have a thing called the works in progress limit.
They're like, “Okay, how many things we want one individual to have to worry about at a time?” And the answer turned out to be one or two is optimal. Do this and then we'll talk about what comes next. It's the opposite what we do in almost all other work, which is like, its obligation, hot potato. This thing is on my plate stresses me out. If I shoot off an email to you, it's off my plate. And I know it's going to come back because I sent you a very vague email that doesn't explain anything. It's not at all clear what I meant. But you know what, in the moment, it's off my plate, I don't have to worry about it. Now, of course, it bounces back 20 minutes later. So, then you shoot it over to someone else and you say, “Thoughts?” And it's not the right way to utilize human brains.
[00:24:20] JR: You said in the book, “The optimal way to deploy our human brains is sequentially.” I've known for years, that's certainly true within the context of a day. This is the essence of deep work. One important thing at a time. But over the last few years, I've been finding that it's also true in a broader sense of sequencing my goals, my major projects, my key results that I'm tackling within a given quarter. So, as much as I can now, I focus on one big new thing at a time until it's done, rather than working on three new projects in tandem. Do you do something similar?
[00:24:58] CN: Yes, or I try, and I should, because I think you're onto something there. This is not in this book. But it's something I'm thinking about now, as a new topic, is understanding, I don’t have the right way to explain this, but we have an instinct towards action, just like we have an instinct about hunger. Like boredom feels really bad. Being hungry feels really bad. So, the hunger instinct is trying to drive humans to eat. The boredom instinct is trying to drive us to do things. All right, great. Let's understand that instinct. How do you actually satisfy that properly?
I’m really fascinated by this question and I've just started researching. I've talked to some paleoanthropologists. I’ve been looking at the psychology of boredom. And so, this is all very tentative, but I think you're onto something that's probably the right answer. We want to be doing meaningful activity almost all the time. Humans get bored, as soon as they sort of lack engagement or activity. We want to be doing things that are meaningful all the time. But if we give ourselves, if we put on our plate, more things than we can easily imagine getting done, we overload that system. Just like we're hungry, and we go eat a bunch of junk, we feel terrible, it's not great for us.
What is the most human pace of action and productivity, is probably exactly what you're talking about. You have a huge variety of things you know how to do and can do, but you're only doing a very small number at a time very sequentially, and you do not have what we've created modern knowledge work, with this looming list of here's 50 things that need to be done because we can't conceptualize, that's like more things that we can imagine getting done. It needs to be fixing the fence on my farm today. Now, I'm done with that, yes, hey, I think I'm going to go work on my tractor. And tomorrow, I'm going to go – you know what I mean? It's like skilled, engaging, meaningful work with variety, but not at any one time, this looming list of all these things need to be done, and there's no way you can get them all done in time. That is the cognitive equivalent of eating all the junk food, it is taking a drive we have and subverting it.
[00:26:57] JR: That's really good. I can't wait for you to explore that question, further. That'd be a fun follow-up conversation. So, Cal, I'm curious. Sun up, sun down, the moment you wake up, moment you go to bed, what does a typical day look like for you?
[00:27:09] CN: Well, there isn't a typical day. I time block plan. So, I make a plan for each day, to make the most of the day. But it's very dependent. I'm a very seasonal worker. So, I have two jobs, basically. I'm a professor, and I'm a writer and they're both very seasonal jobs. So, if you asked me about that today, well, I'm in the middle of a book tour. What does it look like? We can look at today, I was up pretty early, because I was doing BBC, and that's five hours ahead.
I'm doing a radio interview there, but then I had three hours, which I spent entirely outside, because it's very nice out. I worked, I was reviewing papers for a program committee, and I did it outside by field, had lunch with my wife outside, at a restaurant. And then I've been an at interview since. But that's very different than what a month from now is going to look like, where I'm not teaching, I'm not promoting a book, that's going to be a day where I'm going to be probably largely outside, and I'm going to have some sort of CS problem I'm thinking about, a small block of administrative work. And some days, but not all, then later in the day, do some writing. That's probably like, the ideal day for me but it just depends on what season I'm in.
[00:28:17] JR: You like to write later in the day?
[00:28:20] CN: Well, yes. So, I have various writing time. So, I try to do is have set times I just always write then. And so, from the middle of an article, it's obvious what I'm doing. If I'm not, then I'm working. I mean, after I get off this call with you, I'm working on art I'm reading, but I have a book I'm reading for an article I'm working on. And so, a lot of those times, some of those times are in the evening, I do it sort of in the sort of happy hour time, it's just something I'm kind of used to, and then some of it is in the morning. I have some mornings I always write, but it's set times because I want that just to be a background rhythm. If there’s a deadline coming or a book, then like a lot more time gets also added to that. But I want to keep a background rhythm of always thinking, always writing.
[00:28:57] JR: Yeah. So, we were exchanging emails, I told you a big part of this podcast is about how the faith of our guests influences their work. And your grandfather, your grandfather was John Newport, right?
[00:29:08] CN: Yes.
[00:29:09] JR: Yeah. Baptist preacher, theologian. What impact did he have on you and your faith? I'm really curious.
[00:29:16] CN: He was a really interesting character and there's actually a biography coming out. So, I've read an early copy of it, but Baylor University Press as a biography coming out of him, and it was really interesting to read that recently, because it gave me a lot more insight on things I didn't already know. But he was a really interesting guy, because he was one of the few Southern Baptist apologists.
He was really interested in building an intellectually coherent worldview off of evangelical Baptist principles. He wanted to engage with the world of ideas. And it was amazing to learn such a brain with the people he would go and see and hang out with. Reading this biography, it'd be like, “Well he was over in Zurich, working on whatever and was hanging out with Carl Jung.” He was studying at so and so in New York and was just doing long walks every day with Abraham Heschel. They were like just people from all sorts of different intellectual backgrounds. He was a huge Paul Tillich fan, he was at Harvard at the same time as a neighbor, and so he was really interested in engaging the world of ideas, understanding different ideas, and trying to understand them through a framework, a religious framework that was informed by internal faith and integration.
Through his internal faith and intimations, you have this fundamental framework, but instead of trying to hide it from the world of ideas, he would use it to try to understand the world of ideas like, “Well, okay, Jung has interesting ideas, but we can understand that through this an evangelical Christian framework. Heschel, this is really interesting, let's go back where that comes from and we can understand that through this framework.” And that's what he was known for. But he was one of the only people doing that, in that particular faith. At the time, in the seminaries, there grew up this sort of fear of engagement and we circled the wagons, and et cetera, et cetera, all the stuff that ended up happening.
That was always inspirational, his intellectual openness. I think he found revelation in intellectual engagement. He created this whole generation of – he had so many PhD students. This whole generation of scholars who took this biblical worldview out in the world, and were so energized by saying, “There's this whole world of ideas out there that can be a source of energy, as opposed to like a source of threat.”
[00:31:31] JR: And that's the difference, right? I'm so grateful. I didn't know he is your grandfather until I read the book. But I'm like, of course, I knew, John Newport. But people like him, people like Keller, Tim Keller, in our modern day. People like C.S. Lewis, who did not see ideas as a threat, but as a way to strengthen the very rational Christian explanation of the world. So, I love that. I'm curious if you see a connection for you between your faith and the work that you do, either as a writer or as an academic, is there a link there?
[00:32:05] CN: I mean, I'm sure all of these things have to be connected. I mean, it's a good question. I'm trying to think if there's an explicit link. So, I'm actually thinking about the explicit content. I think you could take the explicit content and you could interpret it through a lot of different views, right? Though I don't know if that's intentional or not. But the very notion, I mean, to do any sort of intellectual production, like I want to put an idea out there into the world, I try to have an impact on the world.
What you're doing in microcosm, is a mini expression of a faith. I mean, what is like a religious faith, if not, you have these strong internal intimations like what Lewis would call the signpost, and there is this structure, delivered typically through scripture about how to make sense and understand and work with this and understand where this comes from, and how to harness it and what it's telling you and how to build your life around it. And you know, scripture is ancient, so this information is going to be conveyed in terms of combinations of, it's going to be story, it's going to be ritual, it's going to be creed, and all this comes together. And it's like an operating system for these deep human moral intuitions.
That's obviously a very powerful operating system. But in a microcosm, in a very small scale, this is what any intellectual endeavor is. I mean, ultimately, I have these sorts of intuitions based on what I've seen in the world about what's happening with career satisfaction, or the workplace or et cetera, and let me now try to build and understand a useful operating system around that.
How do we get past, this doesn't feel right that I'm checking my inbox at lunch, and how to get past and actually build an operating system around that intimation that sort of explains like, this is the way the world works? This is why you feel that way, and once you understand that, it gives you some sense about what you should do. Okay. This is most the hubristic thing I've ever done, I guess, compare my advice on email to a world religion. So, that's what I'm trying to say in many microcosm –
[00:34:00] JR: Listen, like we talked a lot about this on the podcast, if you believe the biblical narrative that we were created in God's image, as his image bearers, then the work that we do bringing something out of largely nothing is a way of imitating that character. So, that's what you're doing with ideas. So, no, it makes total sense to me. I remember, this must have been a couple of years ago, you blogged about the fact that digital minimalism had been really widely adopted within religious circles. Have you thought any more about why you think that is?
[00:34:35] CN: Well, and deep work too, for sure.
[00:34:38] JR: Oh, really? Interesting. I didn’t know.
[00:34:41] CN: So, deep work got picked up a lot by Protestant pastors and they thought about it a lot –
[00:34:46] JR: I like to think I have something to do with that. Probably not, but I'm going to give myself a little bit of credit.
[00:34:52] CN: You had a big influence on that. It's like one of the groups I hear from most consistently. I mean, I hear a lot from professors. Professors are overwhelmed, but I hear a lot from Protestant pastors. And I mean, you know why, I hear a lot from some pastors because they recognize the contemplative power of undistracted concentration and they feel like they've lost it because they're also running basically what feels like you're running a midsize business. You have all of these parishioners, you have the budget for the church, everyone needs your attention. And for them, it's often the sermon writings where this gets clear. That's the touch point.
I hear from various Catholic thinkers, Catholic fathers, and some lay leadership of this or that. The Catholics, it’s a little bit different because they're a little bit more, I don't want to say smug about it. But like, “Oh, yeah, we've been doing this for 500 years. We think a lot about this.” Especially if they're in an order. Let me tell you how the Jesuits do this and we sit down, we have these big rituals, and we do the prayers, and we set it up aesthetically, and the candle is going and we blah, blah, blah. So, the Catholics are more like, “Yeah, welcome to the party.” So, that's kind of interesting. And then, of course, the Jews are like, “Oh, come on, this is all we do.” So, it's really been interesting hearing from like, some of the Jewish Talmudic traditions of concentration, partner-based study of Torah, to try to get the deeper levels. There are fascinating layers.
Various religious communities. In the Islamic community, I've been hearing more from too. There's a really big tradition in the Islamic community of contemplation and Quran study that's very structured. But I think it's really interesting, that the ancient religions have thought about so much the value of contemplation. So, we're just like rediscovering at the surface, stuff that we've known in our soul for a really long time.
[00:36:30] JR: I haven't told you this yet. I got a book coming out with Random House this October and part of the case that I make is the part of the reason why Digital Minimalism and Deep Work specifically, are so prevalent within the Christian community is because you can see it in the life of Christ. We read the Gospels almost exclusively for their theology, and for their ethics, which obviously, there's a lot of that there. But we rarely have ever looked at the way that Jesus walked. We forget that God became flesh in Jesus and was time bound. He was a human being. But when you look at the Gospels as these little stories here and there, they show him fully present with whatever the task is.
There's this great scene where he's preaching and he's preaching, he's teaching in the synagogue or in someone's house, I can't remember exactly where it was, and one of his disciples comes up, he was like, “Hey, Jesus, your mom and your siblings are outside.” And he essentially says, he preaches this mini sermon on who's my brother, who's my mother, whatever, but we missed the fascinating B story there. He ignored them. He's said, “No, I'm fully focused on the task at hand. I'm like preaching the sermon.” And then like elsewhere, through the Gospels, he's fully present with his family and fully present with his friends. In terms of solitude, I mean, digital minimalism is really about solitude. Would you agree with that?
[00:37:53] CN: Solitude and intention.
[00:37:57] JR: That's the story of Jesus.
[00:37:59] CN: That's interesting.
[00:37:59] JR: The number of times the scripture says he withdrew to lonely places, is pretty startling. Hey, one more question. So, I've been thinking about this. I think we love to complain about it. I think we love complaining about nonstop email, texts, Slack messages. We hate these things. But we love to hate these things, because I think it makes us feel needed and important. I think there's something spiritual going on there. Have you seen that in your research?
[00:38:29] CN: Yes. I mean, I think that's definitely there. Busyness is a good proxy for productivity, and therefore a proxy for meaning. But I believe we crave that because it's filling a vacuum created by the ambiguity that we've allowed to surround these jobs. The reason why we crave, let me just do something, we react to Slack real quick, let me get these emails sent really quick, is because it's a bewildering job landscape, sometimes, right? I don't really know exactly what my job is. I mean, I know I'm the Vice President of Compliance for the HR department, but it's not 100% clear. I'm not building boats. I don't say, “Here's the boat I built this year.” And it floats pretty well. I know what I'm working on. No, it's like I did a PowerPoint deck in a Zoom meeting, like I don't quite know, as a human what that means.
But the answer to that, I think, is get rid of the ambiguity. Let's get clear about these jobs. We probably need more specialization, we need more clarity, we need more processes, we need more. And I got to say, this is scary thing. And I'll say why in a second, but we need more.
Now, this is what you do for us. This is your skill, we're going to invest in you to hone this craft. And like, this is the main thing you do for us. We've kind of built your work life around it. Here's how it happened. Here's what the information is. And it's like the main thing we have you doing. That's probably what we're wired for. Now, it is scary because one of the benefits of the ambiguity of a hyperactive hive mind shop is that you can kind of just get away with whatever. I’m busy, I answer emails, I do whatever and it's very scary, this is what you do, where's the boat? Does it float? I think that is a scary question for a lot of people, but it's a scary thing we need to face because when you get over that, and you learn how to build the boat, and it does float, that's a really deep sense of satisfaction. And then you're getting that calling sense of, you know, I am putting my skills to use to create something useful in the world.
It's a scary hurdle to jump, but I think we have to do it. We're going to have to trade accountability for autonomy. I think that's going to be the fundamental trade, if we really want knowledge work to be a meaningful satisfying thing, but also grow that part of our economy, we have to have this fundamental trait of accountability for autonomy. You're not going to answer thousands emails a day, you're not going to have 20 different things to do, you're not going to jump on Zoom all day, you're going to do this. And you can do it however you want, you're going to do it well and it's going to be very satisfying, but we're going to hold you accountable. Are you actually doing the work? Is it good? And it's a scary transition, but I think it's probably where we need to get.
[00:40:57] JR: Yeah, I think that's right. So, I lied when I said one more question. I forgot. We have three questions. We wrap up every conversation with real fast. First, books that you tend to gift most frequently to others to recommend and they can't be your own books. It's cheating.
[00:41:10] CN: Yeah, that's a good question. So, I can answer what I gift most often because I'm the real matcher. And you, this is the book, but no, okay, let me think about this for just a second. When it comes to books, like what is it that I talk – a book, I talk a lot that, that a lot of people haven't heard of. I'm big Lincoln-o-file. Abraham Lincoln, for a lot of reasons is very inspiring to me. So, I talked about this little-known book called Lincoln's Virtues, it's an ethical biography. So, trying to understand how his ethical positions developed.
Another book I have been talking up a lot. It shouldn't be more well known. It was at the time, but Karen Armstrong wrote this book called The Case for God. It's written from a nonsectarian standpoint. But it's an incredibly insightful, I think, take on religion. It's in part, a very sophisticated rebuke of the new atheist, which is interesting, especially since it's coming from a nonsectarian place. But also, I find it fascinating because the idea it has that is really stuck with me is the way that the enlightenment kind of messed up our understanding of religion, that a lot of this was developed in a world before we had this sort of enlightenment principles of empiricism, or this or that, and it really gets into how a lot of – there’s a lot of misunderstanding or critiques people have on religion actually comes from applying an enlightenment frame to something that is pre enlightenment. And trying to understand something like scripture through the lens of your assenting to empirically validatable truths and where's the data.
This book talks about that notion is nonsense when you go before, like, 1500. Also, it goes deep into the ineffability of religion, and how we sort of forget the degree to which, through ritual, through creed, through story, that we're trying to actually connect to something that's ineffable. So, literally, the human brain can't comprehend it in its fullness. Our brain can't handle it and so we have all these brilliant ways of trying to just gain insight into something that we can't fully understand and how all of that just falls away when you have a very simplistic sort of post enlightenment type analysis of like, “Okay, what are the empirical observations that you're sensing true?”
Anyways, that book I think, is really, really smart. So that's one, it's another sneaky one that I recommend a lot.
[00:43:21] JR: Alright, last question. One piece of advice to leave this audience with. You have so much to give about career and work, but it's an audience of people who want to do great work, because they believe it's a means of glorifying God and serving other people. What one thing do you want to leave them with?
[00:43:36] CN: Well, the primary piece of advice that guides all this is what goes back to that first career book from 2012, which was this notion that be so good, they can't ignore you. And if you do that, all the other good things will come. And to be so good, they can't ignore you requires a sort of diligence, which means not just to returning to something of value, but the saying no to the other things that are of lesser value, but would take your time from it. So, this willingness to stick with and hone a craft that's useful and apply it. That idea has been foundational to almost everything I've done and everything I've thought about the world of work.
[00:44:06] JR: I love it so much. Cal, I want to commend you just for the exceptional work you do in the world helping us think through these topics. Thank you for serving your readers, our shared publisher, everybody well through the work you're doing. Thank you for helping us be more purposeful and present and productive like Jesus.
Hey, guys, the new book is A World Without Email. It's terrific. I read it cover to cover like I do everything Cal writes. And of course, you could always find Cal at calnewport.com. Cal, Thanks for being here.
[00:44:36] CN: Well, thanks, Jordan. I enjoyed it.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:44:39] JR: In the words of my friend, John Mark Comber, in an email to me recently, Cal Newport is a gem. I could not have said it better myself, John mark. Man, that was a fun conversation. Hey, if you enjoyed this episode, make sure you subscribe to Call to Mastery so you never miss an episode with one of our terrific guests in the future. If you're already subscribed, do me a favor, take 30 seconds, go rate the podcast so more people can find it. Guys, thank you so much for tuning in to the Call to Mastery. I'll see you next week.