September 18, 2016

The nature of deep thinking and deep work

Once in a while, someone will ask me how to "go deep" in their work or studies. Usually, my answer to this question is mediocre at best: spend lots of time studying, spend lots of time practicing, work hard, be courageous, be disciplined, share your work, pay attention to what you can learn from others, don't give up.

Those things are all important. And there are countless tactics you can learn in order to put them into practices. But taken in aggregate, all these tactics and high-level strategies are just a shed full of tools, and the work does not take care of itself no matter how many tools you accumulate.

So how then, can we go deep? I still don't know how to explain it, but I am going to try to demonstrate it right now. Bear with me, because this requires a bit of a strange angle of approach. Ready? Here we go.

* * *

You are walking down a dirt road. It cuts through a serene forest that is the stuff postcards are made of, and there is a palpable silence that pierces the air. There are sounds, of course… the crackle of stones beneath your feet, the babble of a brook off in the distance, the cool wind rustling the leaves on the trees. But the incredible quiet of this place is what allows you to hear them at all.

You stroll along peacefully, alone with your thoughts, surrounded by all of these wonderful things. You eventually make your way up a hill, and come around a bend, and there you find a garden path leading up to a small cottage on a hill.

The garden is like none other that you have ever seen. Rich, lush, and varied… its kaleidoscope of colorful blossoms and vibrant green leaves are so striking that you stop in your tracks, and without even thinking about it, begin to walk along the garden path up the hill.

As you climb this hill, you for a moment realize that no one told you that you could be on this particular path, and that makes you wonder whether you should head back. But as you get closer and closer to this rustic little cottage, you notice that the door is ajar. At this point, you cannot help yourself, you simply must take a look inside.

"Hello," you call out, "Is anyone in there?"

No answer.

"Hello? Is anyone home?"

Still no answer.

You know that it's time to move along. But before you do, you open the door, ever so slightly. Just enough to peer inside. And then you see…

* * *

Well, what did you see? It really could be anything, but this is probably the part of the story where you'd see something important, right? Maybe, maybe not. Suppose for the sake of argument that upon opening this particular door to this particular cottage, you saw very little of interest. A few wooden chairs and tables, some pots and pans, maybe an old shelf with some books on it, and lots and lots of dust.

So maybe you linger there for a little while, hoping to spot something that you may have missed. But in the back of your mind, you know there's nothing there; you had just let your curiosity get the best of you. At that point, you might retrace your steps back to the dirt road, and just continue on with the lovely walk you were on in the first place.

End of the most boring story ever, right? Perhaps not! Suppose that some time passes (a few weeks or so) and you find yourself back on the dirt road again.

* * *

The forest is still every bit as beautiful as it was, but because you've walked its pathways before, it is now quite a different place to you. You begin to notice some of its imperfections: today is a bit too warm, and there are gnats that keep buzzing around your ears. You are hungry, tired, and a bit annoyed that it'll take you an hour to get yourself back to civilization even if you started heading back right this moment.

Your mind starts to wander, back to the mundane tasks of life. Did I remember to take out the trash? What should I say in that email to that client who asked me a question yesterday which somehow slipped through the cracks? Will my daughter have trouble sleeping tonight?

Soon, you are no longer walking through the woods, but walking through your thoughts. And once you reach this point, you might as well not be out in the wilderness at all, because it makes no difference where you are once you start this endless spiral of one worried thought after another.

You are about to head back home, and then you realize… you're standing right in front of that mystical garden path from earlier. You hardly even noticed it was there, which is surprising even in your current state of mind because it had made such a strong impression on you the first time around. You pause, just for a moment, to look at it.

Something has changed. It is impossible at first to put your finger on it, but you can feel it. What is it?

No. This can't be right. How could it be?

You double check, and then triple check. You sit on a rock, and you think, and you think, and you think. You wonder what it is that could have possibly happened. You run up and down the garden path, between the road and the cottage. You find the door slammed shut, boarded up.

But the cottage is not what caught your eyes. It is the flowers, and the leaves. They have… somehow… reversed their direction of growth. Where there once were rich, vibrant blossoms, there are only buds. Where there once was sprawling ivy and lush greenery of all sorts… there are only seedlings and sprouts.

And with this single revelation, you know once in for all that you are not in the forest that you thought you were in. You are somewhere quite different, somewhere you've never been before.

* * *

And this, my developer friends, is what the nature of depth really is. It's not the ten-thousand tools you master to be able to do your work, it's not the ten thousand minor details you accumulate as you begin to explore a problem space, and it's definitely not the ten thousand tasks that you take on in your day-to-day work. It is the one critical detail that was invisible or overlooked at first, which then changes your entire perspective on the environment you are operating in, as well as your own role within it.

For the more serious folks on this list, I will follow this essay up with something much more tactical and much more practical that expands on the ideas I've expressed metaphorically, probably within the next few weeks. I used a story to illustrate the point here, but the same kind of patterns appear in studying computer science, mathematics, business modeling, architecture, you name it. It's not all whimsical!

That said, if you're one of the weird and wild ones who really enjoy exploring creativity for its own sake, I think I'll split out my writing on that topic, and share that stuff via a new list, called Unconditioned Explorations.

So, as far as *this* list goes, we'll be back to our regularly scheduled (and less frequent) programming effective immediately. But I do hope to see some of you on the other side as well. :-)

Thanks,
‚Äč-greg