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Calvin Newport: One Comedian’s Quote Away from Becoming a Bestselling Author

Cal Newport is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University. In addition to researching cutting­ edge technology, he also writes about the impact of these innovations on our culture. Cal is a New York Times bestselling author of seven books, including A World Without Email, Digital Minimalism, and Deep Work.

Cal’s work has been published in over 35 languages and has been featured in many major publications, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, Washington Post, and Economist. He regularly writes articles on these topics for a variety of outlets, including the New Yorker, the New York Times, and his long-running blog Study Hacks. He also discusses these topics in detail on his top-ranked Deep Questions podcast.

Takeaways

  1. Diligence is being able to say no.
  2. Email is productivity poison.
  3. Stay in a small number lanes, but be flexible with experimenting within those lanes.

Transcript

BRYAN WISH: What’s your One Away moment that you want to share with us?

CALVIN NEWPORT: Something that comes to mind a lot – I ended up writing a book about this 10 years ago – was coming across a book. The book was Steve Martin’s professional memoir Born Standing Up. I came across this relatively early in my training as an academic. I was a computer science graduate student at MIT at the time. The thing that caught my attention and changed the way I thought about a lot of things is that he talks in the book and I’m conflating this slightly with an interview he did about the book.

The quote comes from an interview about the book but the sentiment was in the book. I’m mixing these two things but the same idea. Martin was talking about this book which was all about how did he get successful as a standup comedian. His whole point for this book was he said he was tired of reading these professional biographies where you’d hear about the performer’s childhood and the next thing you know, they’re performing at the COPA. He’s like, “What about all the in-between?” Once you’re famous, how did you get there?

When he was talking about his summary of this book, he was saying in the interview that people always ask him, “How do you succeed in entertainment? They’re always expecting I’m going to have some answer about here’s how you get an agent or here’s how you get your big break.” He said, “What I always tell them, and they’re often disappointed by this, is be so good they can’t ignore you. If you do that, all the other good things will come.”

That hit me strongly. That’s kind of the whole point of his book was about this many year-long, very focused effort he made to try to hone a new style of comedy. He just worked at it, worked at it, worked at it. He talked in the book about diligence. He said, “I define diligence as not just about what you do repeatedly. It’s about saying no to everything else so that you can keep doing that one thing diligently.”

Those ideas were influential for me. As I said, I wrote a book about it called So Good They Can’t Ignore You. I title the book after that phrase. I had been an entrepreneur. I’d been a precocious, young guy. I was the college kid with the book contract. I’d been in a mindset, as I moved into grad school, of you can optimize. You can figure out the angle, figure out the trick. Like most people aren’t thinking creatively. You get the right idea, have the right energy, get the right marketing and you can make all this interesting stuff happen.

Martin just turned that all around for me. It’s, “No, you’ve got to figure out what’s important to you, what’s going to matter and commit to it for a long period of time. Stick to that. Say no to everything else. Over time, lots of good things will happen.” It calmed down a lot of my work on writing. It calmed down a lot of my academic work. I got more skill and craft-focused. That’s been at the core of the way I’ve lived my life ever since. 

BRYAN WISH: You found some accomplishments and achievements early and that was exciting to you. When that happens, it’s easy to kind of spray focus everywhere because a lot of things are exciting and you’re not thinking about how things compound over time with a lot of intentional effort. With Steve’s book, it seems it made you reflect on your own life and say, “How can I do things a little bit differently?” Once you read that book, what were the changes that you started to make? How did you start to see the differences in your own life?

CALVIN NEWPORT: In my academic work, I do theory. I do math proofs, for the most part. I spent a lot less time thinking about how I was presenting my results or even what topics I was looking at, trying to find a cool project that the idea would catch people’s attention. I spent more time doing the hard work of learning math, learning people’s results, learning hard stuff, thinking hard about trying to expand it. I got into what’s the actual grind for math proofs. Most of it is trying to understand existing people’s work so that you can build on it.

It’s just hard. I realized this is what was going to matter is producing hard results that are important. Not marketing. Not the idea so much. You had to do the work. In my writing, I set this goal. I realized I want to write – because I’d grown up on these types of books – hardcover, sort of front of store idea books. I couldn’t just do that. At the time, I’d been writing sort of paperback original student advice guides. I laid out, “I’m going to Steve Martin this” and I began a training program. I’m going to improve my writing skills until I can do one of these books and relentlessly focus my efforts towards building towards that type of writing.

One of the things I did this time is the third book I sold was a student advice guide but I very purposely structured and formatted the book to be in the idea book genre so I could start practicing that. I also began to deconstruct long-form articles. I’d deconstruct a lot of The New Yorker stuff, a lot of New York magazine stuff. I’d try to understand how to build one of these 4,000-5,000 word The New Yorker articles. Then I’d get a commission for a small web-based magazine or whatever. It just had to be a place that had editing and was somewhat competitive. Then I’d say, “Great, I’m now going to practice what I’ve learned here.” It was a systematic, relentless process practice. 

Because I had that mindset, when other things came along like social media and these other types of things, I was doing the whole Steve Martin thing. Diligence is saying no to the things that aren’t really what you’re trying to do. I just never really got into that world. Never really got into an influencer culture. Never got into a Twitter follower culture. I was just writing, writing, writing, solving, solving, solving.

It changed that mindset. It made all the difference because I got better at writing. Ironically, my first hardcover idea book was inspired by the Steve Martin advice that got me going down that path in the first place. I used to deconstruct The New Yorker articles. Now I write The New Yorker articles. I was trying to get more serious about my math proofs as a student. I’m now a tenured professor doing math proofs. It was right. Do something well, give it a lot of energy, and over time interesting things will happen. 

BRYAN WISH: I want to lean into your background in writing and yet you have a very engineering and math type of background as well. You’ve merged that right and left brain. Give us a back story of how that craft for writing started when you were maybe initially more left brain. 

CALVIN NEWPORT: As a kid, elementary school, middle school, even coming into high school, I was identified and known more for my verbal writing ability and my quantitative ability. It was one of the classic stories of a very young reader who read a ton and got all the benefits that that gained for them. The classes I was being selected into, like the CTY program where you take the SATs when you’re in middle school and then if you score high, you get to go to this camp at Johns Hopkins with other high scorers. There’s a math camp and a writing camp. There’s a verbal section and a math section.

I was invited to the writing camp, not the math camp. I didn’t even take BC calculus in high school. That was more my background because I was a precocious reader. I was in these gifted and talented reading and writing programs as a kid. That was what I was more comfortable with. I was also into computers. I was like a writer kid who wasn’t super into math but was good at computers. I had both of those things going on. It wasn’t really until I got to college that I got very serious about mathematics and realized that I had some aptitude for that once I tried. 

Almost right away, at college, I was writing. In my first year at college, I was rowing crew. Then I got a heart condition and had to stop rowing crew after my freshman year. I said, “Maybe I’ll write.” Almost immediately, I became a columnist for the newspaper. I was a humor columnist. I started writing for the Humor magazine. I ended up editor-in-chief for the Humor magazine. I was doing a lot of writing in college concurrently with my computer science education. Then I sold my first book right before my senior year of college. They’ve always been concurrent. 

BRYAN WISH: When you were younger, did you know or have an idea of what you wanted to be?

CALVIN NEWPORT: I should preface this by saying that 2012 book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, one of the core ideas was pushing back on the notion that most people are wired with a preexisting passion. This is what the shocking premise of that book was that following your passion is bad advice. I got into trying to study. This advice to follow your passion has led a lot of people astray because when you study people who end up passionate about their work, it’s a more complicated path. The notion that I knew in advance that I knew this is what I should do and that’s what gave me all the motivation to do the work oversimplifies it. It only applies to 5% of people or something. I’m making that number up. For most people, passion is cultivated and the path is harder to predict. That certainly matches my experience. 

The main thing I felt when I was young was impatience. I didn’t quite know what it was. I had ideas. My ideas for what I wanted to do were not good. You’re 18 or 19, what experience you have, you don’t know the possibilities. You’re not taking advantage of opportunities that have arisen. I’d have these ideas like we have a family connection to Anderson Cooper who was just coming up at the time. I was like, “Well, maybe what I need to do is be in cable news.” Then I had a college friend who started a production company, was doing movies. “I need to be in the movie industry.” I was a Humor magazine writer at an Ivy League school.

Of course, there were lots of people coming out of this pipeline into professional comedy writing for the New York shows. I was like, “Maybe I need to be like…” Like Mindy Kaling was a year ahead of me. I remember talking to her right after she was in New York and making her breaks. I was like, “Maybe I need to be in comedy writing.” Just random ideas. The main thing I felt was this impatience. That’s what I remember in high school and especially in college, this impatience to want to do something big and important. I remember the frustration very vividly because I couldn’t yet do something really big and important. I could do some things.

I’d had a business as a high school student. It was interesting but it wasn’t a huge business. I wrote my first book in college which is good but it wasn’t like a huge book. I was hungry to make a mark but my sights were all over the place. I think this Martin-style settling down of, “Here are my two things.” At some point, I just realized writing, computer science. Let’s put the head down. Let’s do our sets. The 3 AM set at the comedy store type thing.” That made a big difference. 

I was at Dartmouth which is a fratty place. I’m not a real frat guy. I pledged a frat and that first day I was down there, I left and quit. We’re in the basement and they’re like, “Hey, pukes, you’re going to..” The hazing or whatever. One of the main reasons I quit is I was thinking, “This is nonsense. This is going to take a lot of time. I have things to do.” I’m not a big drinker. If I have to do this – it was a gross school. You’d drink food coloring so that you could have rainbow-colored vomit. These are the leaders of the world we’re talking about here. I was like, “Then I’m going to lose a whole day being hungover. I’ve got to do stuff.” I was so impatient. I was like, “I can’t even be in a frat because I can’t lose that time.” It’s just so vivid to me. This memory of I doesn’t know what I’m going to do. I just feel I have potential and the frustration of that.   

BRYAN WISH: I dropped out of my frat at Georgia. I quit after I accepted the bid.

CALVIN NEWPORT: Me too. I went to the first day as a new pledge. 

BRYAN WISH: Yes, I remember that. It was the big parade on Georgia Street. I got the worst feeling in my stomach. In my gut, this was wrong and like you, very impatient. Big aspirations. I didn’t think this was the best path and use of time. And I got this “smell the roses” a lot in college but I didn’t think that college was the time to smell the roses. It was just four years. You could dick around and be miserable for a few years after and then figure it out or start figuring it out early. 

CALVIN NEWPORT: And the loans were the other thing. I was paying for half of it with personal loans. I was like, “Man, this is expensive.” I had this feeling of I don’t want to waste this. I’ve got to make this money back. A lot of my friends at Dartmouth had come from professional families and private schools. It was like, “This is how it works. You’re going to go here. You’re going to go to Harvard Law School. You’re going to get the law job.” They had it all figured out but I wasn’t from that background. I was like, “This is expensive” and I wasn’t going to become a lawyer or a doctor. I was like, “How am I going to make this back?” I felt literal pressure. I didn’t want to dick around for four years. 

BRYAN WISH: You said you were impatient and felt like you always had things to do. Did anything happen to you growing up or the way you were raised or events or sports teams you didn’t make that drove that insane, unwavering focus to get somewhere? What caused that? I realize some of its innate but I also think there’s a lot of nurture involved. 

CALVIN NEWPORT: I don’t remember an event that was a chip on the shoulder style motivation. That “I’ll show you.” I didn’t have anything like that. There wasn’t a parental pressure thing. The way I think about my childhood is I had three siblings. A lot is going on. I had a ton of autonomy. That’s the main thing about my childhood. It wasn’t a problem. It was like, “Great, we’re glad we don’t have to worry about you.” It wasn’t like people were looking over my shoulder at my grades or what classes I was taking.” I ran this business in high school and the high school just let me leave in the middle of the day and go to business meetings.

I was taking computer science courses at Princeton because our high school was near Princeton and they had an agreement if you ran out of courses to take, you could. I had a lot of autonomy and that probably helped. My impatience got much bigger once I got to college. I was a bright kid. I think I felt I was kind of bored a little bit by things. I was seeing the world and seeing things and understanding people. My brain was picking up on lots of opportunities. That all came together in college. I was a relatively lazy student until college and then it all just came together. I was like, “Let’s go. It’s time to make a mark.” There’s not any clear thing that pushed it but I liked it.

The other thing that’s coming to mind is I was fortunate enough that I started as a big fish in a small pond and then later, that swapped. I think if it had been the opposite first, that also might have changed things. I was at a relatively small public school where we send a handful of kids to Ivy League schools. I was sort of like a big fish in that small pond. I went to Dartmouth. Was probably not the right school to go to for computer science but this is what happens when you let 18-year-olds choose where they go to school. They choose randomly and they’re dumb about it. It’s not a computer science powerhouse. I was sort of just a step above all the other students. I think that probably gave me a lot of confidence. 

Now when I went to MIT, all of that swapped. Then you’re the smallest fish in the ocean. I think if I had started that way, like if I’d been at a powerhouse private school like there are lots of like really smart, high achieving kids here or if I had gone to MIT for undergrad it’d be like, “Oh, these people are moving things with their brain across the table.” That might have been different. Luckily, I started as a small fish in a big pond which got me incredibly confident, motivated, and that carried me through once I jumped into the ocean and realized I wasn’t much of anything. 

BRYAN WISH: Take us post-graduation. How did the path unfold when you picked a lane of focus?

CALVIN NEWPORT: So, I sold and wrote this book as a senior in college. It was a student advice book and it was written in a short contrarian chapter format. I thought that’d be easier and it was. I turned around and sold the follow-up book. Started writing it while at Dartmouth and finished it pretty early on the next year in grad school. I kind of, right off the bat, had these two student books which I had this whole idea behind it. Entrepreneurial because I’ve been an entrepreneur. My whole thing was I read all these business books. I was like, “Student advice guides should be written like business books.”

At the time, student advice guides were written to be kind of kooky and fun. I was like, “No, write this thing no-nonsense. Here’s how you do well. Here’s what road scholars do. Let’s roll.” That was my big idea. They were out for a while and they were doing their thing. I started blogging around that time. I began to work on my craft. This was like 2007 by the time I started that. It was a way to talk with and communicate with my audience. It was some point right around then as to where I had the Steve Martin moment. It was somewhere around then before I wrote my third book. That was the transition where I said I’m going to take this much more seriously. That’s when I began the training and writing. There was a magazine that’s no longer around called Flack Magazine. It’s an online magazine that had some sharp editors. I was working with them to hone my craft. 

I sold this third book and it was supposed to be on college admissions for high school students. I wrote it like a Malcolm Gladwell book. We’re talking about counter signaling theory and the neuropsychology of impressiveness. I was using it as training. It’s a crazy book. I love it. That came out but I felt kind of stuck because these books were all in that late. My skills were improving but I was writing these paperback originals for students. My blog audience had kind of grown but it wasn’t huge. I kind of had a fandom but they were all students who were looking for student advice. I chose to be ready to move over to hardcover. I had this idea of following your passion being bad advice. It was an idea I’d been working on for a while. I still have the notes in a notebook.

When I was thinking through, “Can I do this? How do I do this? I know in the student space. I’m pretty high up in the small hierarchy of student writers of people who write for students. I’m a well-known writer here. I have a big audience. Do I want to leave this? I could own this space. I could be the top guy in this space.” I was going back and forth. I knew it didn’t sound optimal at the moment but I needed to move out of it. I had a plan that I executed where I switched my content to be 50/50. Student advice. Career advice. Just to start to transition my audience. I worked on this idea for a while. Had honed my skills at this point. I’d built my audience up.

As I did this back and forth with the career advice, it kind of worked. It grew my audience because I was talking to people beyond just students and I finally put this proposal together. I was right at the end of grad school or right when my post-doc started. It went to a little mini-auction. There was interest. It was like, “You’re going to get a $200,000 book deal.” For a grad school, this was way more money than I would normally get. That was the transition. It was like, “Okay, you jumped over now and you’re in the space of hardcover idea books.” I felt stuck for years because my third book which I wrote years into grad school was the same amount of money I got for my very first book as a student. Like they were just happy. “You can have this nominal amount of money to keep writing these books.” I just felt stuck as I was training. Then finally it all came together. I built out the audience, built out the new idea, really developed it, pitched it, and it caught. The publishing industry was like, “Okay, we’re ready for this. You’ve done your apprenticeship. We think you can handle it now.”

BRYAN WISH: There’s a quote by Will Smith and I’m going to say it very poorly but it’s like people get so caught looking at the wall but they don’t know how to lay the first brick. You got good at laying the bricks. Knowing the wall you wanted to get to, you kept putting the bricks down piece by piece so you could show up and the wall was there and you could take the next steps.

CALVIN NEWPORT: It’s scary. At the moment, it’s scary. To move out of student stuff was scary. This is what I’d fly around the country and give talks at all these schools on. I was Mr. Student Advice. I was doing a lot of stuff on student overload and stress. I had a lot of original ideas. I was on panels. I was going to Harvard, going to Princeton giving talks. It’s always scary but I keep doing it. I think you’re onto a real point.

Otherwise, stasis is hard in a lot of these industries. Then you just end up like the person who does X. If you’re the person who does X long enough, then after a while, you’re having infomercials and selling. It loses its steam. You lose your steam. That was a hard transition. After that book, I wrote Deep Work. At some point, I realized, I’m a tenured professor now. I think I need to move much more into the semi-academic philosophy of technology, social criticism of technology, and culture. I made that jump with my book Digital Minimalism. That’s when I changed. Instead of being “I’m a professor unrelated over here. I write these books.” I brought the two worlds together.

That was very intentional. I’m now going to present myself to the world as a Georgetown professor who studies technology and writes books about the impact of tech on society. That was a big thing and that was kind of scary. My last two books have been in that context. That’s when I started doing more writing on tech and culture. That’s when I started more for The New Yorker and The New York Times. I need to evolve into being a public intellectual on these topics and use my education credentials. That’s the only way to keep this moving. Now I’m probably going to move out of this tech and culture in a particular tech and business. I’m sort of done with that but it’s scary. Whatever I do next, my next book cannot be about the world of work and tech and optimization. I know I have to do something new. I’m laying down more bricks right now but at the moment, you’re not quite sure where you’re piling them. You’re not quite sure what’s on the other side is where you’re trying to go.

BRYAN WISH: I love your intentionality. It’s very clear and evident. It’s the only way to succeed authentically in this world. I appreciate your perspective. You just came out with a new book. I’d love for you to talk about it, promote it, and let’s dive into it for a bit. 

CALVIN NEWPORT: This new book, I started right after Deep Work which came out in 2016. I put this book on hold to write Digital Minimalism just because I saw this cultural change happening about our relationship to our phones that was very timely. I was like Digital Minimalism needs to be written right now. I wrote that and it was very timely. It was right as we were shifting from exuberance to unease about our phones. I returned to A World Without Email. It is the natural follow-up to 2016’s Deep Work. In Deep Work, I was talking about focus is important. We shouldn’t ignore it. We should do more time with it.

The big follow-up question that came out of that book is why is it so hard to focus? In the book, I just stipulated, “Yeah, we’re on email and Slack but we should be wary about doing too much of that because focus creates more value than that.” People would come back and say, “Cal, I don’t think you understand how trapped we are constantly tending to these communication channels.” I was like, “I want to know the answer here. Why do we work this way? Does it make sense? Is there an alternative?” All three of those questions turned out to have really big answers. That’s why it took me five years to finally get this book out. The way we worked after tools like email arrived, I call it the hyperactive hivemind workflow is largely arbitrary as I document in the book. Email spread in the early 1990s because it was replacing fax machines, memos, and voicemails. It did that very well.

In its wake came this hyperactive hivemind mode of collaboration where we said, “Let’s just figure everything out on the fly with back and forth messaging because it’s low friction and easy.” I document how no one thought that was a good idea. It was just a natural reaction once the tool was available. You can document companies that three days after emails have been introduced, they’re communicating 5X-6X more. Just the presence of the tool changed the way people started working in a very emergent, unplanned way. You get into the neuroscience of this and its productivity poison. The damage of all the content shifting required keeps switching from what you’re doing to checking the channels to what you’re doing is productivity poison. One of the big ideas in that book is you can’t solve this problem in your inbox.

You can’t just say, “I’m going to check my email less or I’m going to have better habits or tips” because the underlying issue is the fact that this hyperactive hivemind is how we collaborate. If the unscheduled back and forth messages are your way that you collaborate, you have to keep checking because all of those digital ping-pong balls are coming back over the net and you have to hit them back. If you’re using this way of collaborating, you have to keep checking channels. Creates the content shifts. Productivity poison. This is this really bad situation we’re in. Then the book makes this proposal of we could fix this not by inbox habits but by getting rid of the hyperactive hivemind and saying, “For this type of work we do, here’s how we collaborate and it doesn’t involve unscheduled messages. For this thing we do repeatedly as a company, here’s how we do this.

It doesn’t involve unscheduled messages. For this type of thing, we do regularly, here’s how we do it and it doesn’t require unscheduled messages.” You can completely dissipate the pressure in your inbox by getting rid of these unscheduled back and forth; transforms your inbox back to a physical inbox. I’ll check it once a day to see the files I was expecting were sent. People get way more productive and way happier.

It’s a huge epic story. I had to pull apart all these pieces but the conclusion is, this is the way we’re going to be working in the future. This is way more productive and has way less turnover than this hivemind nonsense. It’s only about if you’re going to get out ahead of that or you’re going to be trailing. The book is almost like a future predictor. Here’s the problem we’re in. It’s worse than you thought. It’s more arbitrary than you thought. Here’s what it would look like to get rid of it. For sure, we’re going to get rid of it. The question is just how soon until you do it? 

BRYAN WISH: I love what you said about digital ping-pong within emails and getting back and forth to it. If you’re not careful about how you use the time intentionally, you can get sucked into it. For a startup of 2 or 3 people, how do you add those habits to your culture from the start? Then let’s say Google or a Fortune 500 company and you want to make some massive shifts internally for more productivity, what do you see there?

CALVIN NEWPORT: I think the right way to think about it is whether you’re a solo entrepreneur or a small company or working for a really large company, you’re a factory that has a couple of different product lines. Instead of being Model T’s and microwaves, this product line is answering client questions and this product line is writing computer code and this product line is working on marketing campaigns. The things that you do repeatedly. The whole approach here is to have what a factory owner would have – a process engineering mindset.

If these are the things we do, these are the things we produce as knowledge workers in this particular job, company, or team, what’s the best way to do it? That’s the question that unlocked all this productivity in the industrial sector in the 20th Century. They started asking the question, “Is there a better way or what’s the best way to build this?” It started process reengineering as a concept and it created massive growth. The assembly line was 100X better than the crafting method for building cars. We need to bring that mindset and realize you’re not an email answering machine. You’re not a general-purpose computer processor that gets tasks thrown at you and you try to turn through them fast. No, you’re involved in probably 17 different processes.

Things you come back to again and again where you collaborate with other people and it produces some sort of valuable outcome. It’s time to write them down and one by one ask the question, “How do we want to implement this process? What rules? What systems? What is the structure for this process?” With an eye towards minimizing, the thing that’s the biggest poison for people’s happiness and productivity is unscheduled messaging. A message will come at some point that I have to see and respond to and I don’t know when.

If you’re in a really small company, it’s like, “Great, we process engineering. What are the things we do? How do we want to do them?” Just be explicit about it. Maybe some of the things are for now, “We’re spending most of our time on this and there’s just two of us. Let’s hyperactive hivemind it. We’re on Slack. We just need to rock ‘n rolling on this. Just working on this all day. Let’s not overburden it.” But let’s be clear that’s what we’re doing. Over here, “Oh, we still have to deal with our new clients. Let’s put a process in here so we don’t have to do this back and forth.” It’s process engineering. 

When you move up to a really large company, the sweet spot is to do this at the team level. You can’t, as a C-Suite executive, say, “I’m going to come up with implementation, systems, rules, and structures for all the different things that people do in our company and I will tell us how we’re going to do it.” That’s bureaucracy. There’s no way you’re going to get that agile and proper enough. It will become bureaucracy which will make things worse.

But at the team level, you can do this. Let’s work together to figure out what our rules are for all the different things we do together with an eye toward minimizing unscheduled back and forth messages. That’s very agile. Everyone has a stake in it. Everyone is involved in it. You can be flexible and change things when they’re not working properly. That’s what I think should happen at the big companies. Because it’s at the team scale, the size of the company doesn’t matter. It all comes back to this mindset of, “I’m a factory. I have a bunch of different product lines. I need to think about how am I implementing each of these product lines and is there a better way to do it?” Once you have that mindset, you begin to tinker and you begin flexible experimentation. You begin shifts and changes. You see what works and what doesn’t. You can get that same 50X growth that the industrial sector saw in the 20th Century. You can start to tap into that potential but in your brain-based work.  

BRYAN WISH: You said something about bringing process work to the knowledge working individual and I think you’re right. The best businesses are very clear on the process and on how. It’s that system thinking over time. I can see how that book, back when you were much younger, with Steve Martin, really set the tone for you around process and how that goes in. I applaud you for the way you think about your effort and how you go about your life. I’m guessing you’re like that with everything you do. It creates a level of predictability that I think is worthwhile for your life. 

When it’s all said and done, what’s the legacy behind your work?

CALVIN NEWPORT: In my professional life, I want to do things that are original and of impact. You take whatever gifts you happen to have. You hone them. You sharpen them. You build them and try to do things that might move the needle on something or might make a difference. That’s what I’m fired up about doing is producing good things that are at the peak of my current skills and have an impact when they get out there. Everything else is sort of noise professionally speaking, around that. That’s why I’m very suspicious of almost anything else in the world of business. That’s why I’ve never had a social media account.

That’s why I don’t spend much time on the internet, and why I only work 9-5 and the rest of the time is with my family. That’s what I want to do. Relentlessly go after a small number of lanes that I think are valuable but be flexible and experimenting within those lanes. I have to evolve. You have to keep moving. Use good systems and process thinking to keep the noise at a minimum so that you can keep relentlessly going after things you think are important and just doing that Steve Martin thing. Try to be so good they can’t ignore you. Once you think you got there, raise your definition of good and repeat. 

BRYAN WISH: Plan, do, review, get better over time. What an inspiring interview. Where can people get in touch with you and buy your books?

CALVIN NEWPORT: You can find my books wherever books are sold. I have a website calnewport.com. That’s where I’ve been writing those weekly essays since 2007. I also have a podcast Deep Questions where I just take questions from my readers about all these types of issues from the nitty-gritty of email management to big picture questions about the deep life. We just rock ‘n roll a couple of times a week on questions as well. You can hear from me there. I’m otherwise kind of hard to find to reach. I’m not on any social media. I don’t have a general-purpose email address. I just try to focus on the things I think are worth doing, give it some good attention, and then when I’m doing, shut down, log out. 
BRYAN WISH: Man, the simplicity. I love it, Cal. Thank you for your time. Best of luck with the new book and everything hereafter.

One Away Podcast
Bryan Wish

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