There’s a certain Slant of light/ Winter Afternoons … although the picture above was taken at 9:30 a.m., and it’s not yet winter, it captures the limns and shadows of my thinking this morning. The picture includes my now old-fashioned way of keeping track of chaos: my planner; a takeaway from yesterday’s tremendous Annual Symposium on Race and Education at Beacon Academy focusing on the emotional health of students; and a copy of Cal Newport’s Deep Work, which my friend Adele told me to read. How these three things relate I’m not exactly sure, but I’m getting a little closer to understanding after walking my dog for 45 minutes while trying to achieve an emptiness of mind that I have a lot of trouble achieving.
First, my planner. It is chaotic inside. I always write in pen, and because my daily schedule is full and sometimes unpredictable, the pages that chronicle my days are filled with scratched out shorthand, visuals that make sense only to me, and numbers that I rarely attach to people or places and therefore only make sense in context. In many ways, my planner is a bird’s eye view of a life rippling with distraction. The plans I make on any given day are usually upended in at least three ways, and even when my plans remain in tact, they still echo with distraction, as I am juggling a number of projects, work places, cohorts of people, personal commitments, and graduate school deadlines. I don’t imagine that I am any different from anyone else in this.
Second, a handout from the Beacon Academy Symposium on Race and Education featuring two case studies: one about “Mike” and one about “Vivien.” Mike and Vivien bring socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, and other kinds of diversity to their respective independent high schools. However, both feel that they do not really belong. Mike works outside of school to contribute money to his family and without more active support, begins to both miss school and college application deadlines in his senior year, resulting in a host of physical ailments that are ultimately deemed psychological. Vivien’s grades slip in her freshman year when she struggles to balance her mother’s concerns about money at home with her need to order textbooks online. These case studies are powerful because they come from the true lived experiences of students and touch on some of the unconscious and systemic inequalities within organizations including schools.
Third, Cal Newport’s Deep Work. I love the cover, with its simple lamp and single beam of light. This, metaphorically, is what Newport thinks we need most right now: a laser-like focus on our work like the habit of mind that Carl Jung adopted years ago when he retreated to Bollingen Tower in Switzerland to think and write. Jung had a busy counseling practice and a busy life. As Newport writes, Jung “wasn’t satisfied with busyness alone. He wanted to change the way we understood the unconscious, and this goal required deeper, more careful thought than he could manage amid his hectic city lifestyle. Jung retreated to Bollingen, not to escape his professional life, but instead to advance it.” In his tower, Jung developed the theories that challenged those of his mentor, Sigmund Freud.
At first blush, the three things captured in my photo do not immediately appear to relate to one another. After some focused reflection, however, I think they really do. One captures the busyness of a 2019-2020 life; one captures a difficult challenge that needs focus; one offers a number of ways that we can tap into our most creative and focused selves by putting ourselves into distraction-free places. Cal Newport’s hypothesis resonates: “the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable … as a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.” And not just thrive personally or professionally, but thrive in terms of the contributions made to and on behalf of others.