A Conference of One

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The huge room and extra chairs are optional. Image courtesy of Unsplash.
While reading Cal Newport's Deep Work, I ran into an extreme example of a work strategy I have blogged at least a couple of times. (Sort of. More on that shortly.)

In a discussion of a strategy he calls the grand gesture, Newport tells of an inventor who basically scheduled himself for an entire conference -- alone:
Not every grand gesture need be so permanent. After the pathologically competitive Bell Labs physicist William Shockley was scooped in the invention of the transistor -- as I detail in the next strategy, two members of his team made the breakthrough at a time when Shockley was away working on another project -- he locked himself in a hotel room in Chicago, where he had traveled ostensibly to attend a conference. He didn't emerge from the room until he had ironed out the details for a better design that had been rattling around in his mind. When he finally did leave the room, he airmailed his notes back to Murray Hill, New Jersey, so that a colleague could paste them into his lab notebook and sign them to timestamp the innovation. The junction form of the transistor that Shockley worked out in this burst of depth ended up earning him a share of the Nobel Prize subsequently awarded for the invention. (loc. 1339)
The parallel with hiding out in a "meeting" with oneself made me smile, but the result is impressive to say the least. Aside from the length of time, anyone who checks my earlier blogs might notice another difference between what Shockley did and what neither of those posts really indicate is an option. Shockley worked with single-minded purpose on one thing. Indeed, one of my posts mentions the idea as a way of catching up on whatever tasks one is behind in, and the other isn't explicitly about what kind of work one could be doing in these uninterrupted blocks. Indeed, it leans the wrong way, if anything.

That said, the fact that one sometimes might require blocks of time to catch up even on mindless tasks underscores Newport's thesis, which is that concentration is an increasingly valuable and rare commodity these days. Newport's book has been very stimulating so far -- I am almost half-way through it now -- and is motivating me to reevaluate the way I work. It also, fortunately, offers advice on how to emulate such success along with the reasoning behind it.

-- CAV

P.S. Regarding the nature of what Newport calls a "grand gesture," it pertains to a high level of commitment one one's part, and is more directed inward than outward. Another example of a grand gesture from the book is J.K. Rowling's use of an expensive hotel for writing the last of the Harry Potter books. The setting provided both inspiration and freedom from distraction, and the expense probably made it hard not to do what she came to do.

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