I have been a longtime subscriber of The Mad FIentist and he recently did an interview with Cal Newport of Deep Work fame. Cal just released his latest book Digital Minimalism and this interview was a mix of many things I’m interested in: meaningful work, productivity, and financial independence. I enjoyed the podcast so much that I went back and listened to it again while taking notes.
My notes are below along with the timestamp of where that topic starts in the podcast. This is not a transcript just my interpretation of the interview. When a block of text is italicized, that’s me putting in my own two cents about how it relates to my life.
Listen to the full episode here: https://www.madfientist.com/cal-newport-interview/
0:00 Why Cal Newport on this podcast? His work has been incredibly influential to Brandon (The Mad FIentist) who has FIRE’d and helps ask and guide you on those questions of what to do with your time and what will bring you happiness. So not a ton of direct FIRE relation but tangential.
There are a lot of people in the FIRE community who believe all they need to do is retire and then they’ll be happy. So while Cal’s advice is not about living frugally or early retirement — it is about the other side of the coin: how to be happy by finding meaning in the things you do.
2:48 On pursuing your “passion.” The pursuit of passion is overrated and the advice of “follow your passion” is trite and overdone. This was basically the premise of Cal’s 2012 book So Good They Can’t Ignore You — where he delved into the dynamics of really loving your work.
So how do people end up loving what they do? As kids you’re sold this bill of goods. “Oh if you just follow your passion you’ll be fine” but research doesn’t support that people have preexisting passions. You career satisfaction is not a matching game and there is very little evidence that people who find fulfillment in their jobs already were interested in the topics
I’m an operations professional who has fallen deep into Salesforce — I can vouch for this being true. “This” being I wasn’t born with an inherent interest for this stuff.
5:48 If passion is bogus, then what? Happiness comes from getting good at something not doing something you think you like (it’s the craftsman mindset vs. the passion mindset). The more you work the better you get and then the more you like it. It’s a virtuous cycle.
People who report high satisfaction at work experience autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
7:24 Don’t ask people for advice, ask them for their story. You’ll quickly learn that they didn’t have some preexisting thing they loved. More often to not they fell into one thing or another and they got really good at it and that is what unlocked freedom, flexibility, etc. All the things that the FIRE community wants.
8:09 So FIRE enthusiasts might be misguided in “rushing to the finish line?” Most definitely, yes because they are probably giving up career capital and the work that actually might make them happy.
What are you trying to get to? That you have these passions and if you just had more time to do them you’d be happy? Well that isn’t what the research says. It is not a major source of satisfaction. You need sense of autonomy, impact and competence and that comes from meaningful work not from scrolling on Instagram all day.
There isn’t a term for it (maybe I’ll try to invent it, how about Flex FIRE) but instead of focusing on stopping work, try to get so good that you have flexibility and focus on work you want. Then you’ll have a high sense of satisfaction and be well compensated.
Autonomy + Impact + Competence = Happiness
11:03 Okay, so we need to get good at something to find our passion and be so good we can’t be ignored. How do I do that? This question sprung out of So Good They Can’t Ignore You and is what inspired the book Deep Work. Deep work is just concentrating without distraction and in today’s age of open offices, Slack, etc. this is becoming increasingly rare. Rare things are often valuable and the ability to put your head down and focus on something that matters is becoming high point of leverage. If you are one of the few people who can cultivate the ability to concentrate without distraction, you’ll have a huge competitive advantage.
Shutting down email, putting away Twitter, etc. It’s incredible how much you can get done when you shut off the distractions.
High Quality Work = Time Spent + Intensity of Focus
I personally am amazed with how much I can get done in just an hour when I put my head down listen to Lo-Fi Beats and have my phone physically away (in my backpack or a drawer) and Slack turned off. It’s scary.
A formula that works is batching deep work. So work undistracted for 2–3 hours and you’ll really get a lot done. What doesn’t work is the sprinkling your day with appointments. It’s really hard to ramp back up from even a quick little context switch and the way a lot of knowledge workers have set up their day makes them basically work with a self-imposed cognitive handicap. It’s like we’re taking a reverse nootropic that is making us dumber.
15:22 Less work & more relaxation doesn’t actually make us happier — which is sort of a troubling concept for the FIRE movement.
Choice quotes from Deep Work: “Relaxation does not result in happiness.” “People are happier at work.” “More flow experiences = more life satisfaction.” “Flow happens when your mind is stretched when you’re trying to accomplish something worthwhile and difficult.”
So all of the above could be at odds with the FIRE movement which basically wants to work as hard as possible so they can relax forever. But is that necessarily good?
People actually like doing hard, meaningful things and it’s just not true that we need to veg. Meaningful work is engaging and rewarding. Cal spoke with Mr. Money Mustache and The Frugalwoods — these people don’t sit around and watch TV. They fill it with difficult, engaging work (building stuff, pouring concrete, chopping wood, etc.) They actually didn’t crave more relaxation.
High quality leisure is key for satisfaction. So Cal recently picked back up guitar playing — which is a quintessential quality leisure activity: high-skill, requires concentration, not easy to do, yet done purely for the pleasure of it.
So as a knowledge worker, it’s not really helpful to think that if you could chill on the couch and scroll through IG all day that you would have a better life. You need to strive to get engaged in something and seek progress in it — that will make you happy. Even my hobby — pottery — is something that I wouldn’t say is particularly relaxing. It’s actually really hard but I derive a lot of joy and satisfaction on working on something difficult and seeing results.
19:35 Skillful management of attention and choosing what you pay attention to
There is so much stuff flying around out there and so your world is really constructed based on what you are concentrating on. If you are focusing most of your attention on things that are difficult to accomplish and meaningful to you, you’ll have a life that is higher in satisfaction. What you pay attention to really influences your attitude and outlook on the world.
Take the above and compare it against scattering your attention across email, lots of apps, content that is frustrating or alarming, etc. and it can be easy to feel like your life doesn’t have a lot of meaning or focus. So that is a hidden benefit of deep work — you’re only focusing on stuff that matters to you and focusing on what matters results in happiness. Which rolls in nicely into Cal’s most recent book Digital Minimalism.
21:50 Maybe I buy these claims about technology in our professional life but what about technology in my personal life? Thus Digital Minimalism was born.
A lot of Cal’s writing is focused on work, but people are addicted to their screens in their personal life as well. Minimalism says that it’s almost always better to focus on fewer things that are the most important (which ties in perfectly with the FIRE movement).
So Marie Kondo is helping you declutter your physical life and Cal’s book is helping you declutter your digital life. Essentially taking all the apps, etc. and rebuilding but only keeping the things that matter. Step away from all the technology in your personal life for 30 days (this helps reduce the compulsive urge to check apps, etc). But what you need to do during these 30 days is get back in touch with what you are really about: what you value, what you want to spend time outside of work doing. Because you’re not just mindlessly scrolling during any second of downtime you can now sit with your thoughts and think critically and answer these hard questions.
And once the 30 days are over, you evaluate each app and thing you want to bring back into your digital life and ask if it is going to help you works towards the goals that you have outlined during these 30 days. And if the answer is no? Be cool with missing out on it, because it is probably not making your life better.
Similar with the FIRE community where people give up lots of little luxuries (i.e. a panini press) because it is not at the core of what makes them happy and moving them towards their goal of FIRE. There might be some value there, but the little bit of value you get isn’t worth the tradeoff of being distracted, anxious, etc so you should just do without it.
This is a small example but I deleted my Snapchat account a couple years ago. I only sometimes used it but I still felt a pull to check it, post with it, etc. I deleted it and sure I might be missing out on some funny Snaps from friends — but overall I’m happier because it’s one less thing to deal with.
20:42 Connection between digital minimalism and the health and fitness industry
Cal has never suggested a “plan” for his readers prior to this 30 day digital detox and he realized that it was necessary because we’re just so inundated with apps, news, alerts, etc. Basically, it’s a fresh start. There are some parallels between our technological consumption and the hyper-palatable food that was invented at the second half of the 20th century. It’s no longer enough to say “just watch your portions” because this stuff (both technology and food) has been designed to be really engaging and addictive.
The people who are most successful with the health usually have a strong guiding philosophy (keto, vegan, paleo, etc) that helps them make consistent decisions. Cal’s aha moment was that technology forces are strong enough that people need a guiding philosophy around it as well. You have to have a strong change in behavior. You have to have the dramatic break to create a reset and create clarity in your choices.
32:00 Downsides of social media
I’m only interjecting in here to say that I think social media and the internet is a huge boon for humankind. The ability to connect with like-minded people that are thousands of miles away on esoteric topics has been greatly facilitated by social media. I personally have made lots of connections with really cool people because of it. With that said, I think it is important to balance your online and offline relationships but I want to go on record to state that I think on the whole social media brings a lot of good with it.
People are constantly looking at their phone and we are making the mistake that it is the phone that has us addicted but that’s not actually true. It’s the applications on the phone that have created this behavior, mostly Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Facebook was coming to their IPO and couldn’t figure out how to make money, even with the amount of users they have. And this is because social media was a static experience prior to them re-engineering the social media experience. It used to be “Oh, I’ll post something and maybe check to see if my friend has posted an update about their life.” The experience now is not about posting and reading other people’s posts but about creating a constant steam of social approval indicators. It has become an incredibly addictive formula to see if people are liking things that you do and because it is about you of course you are interested and it’s random. Sometimes you log into the app and there is stuff to see and sometimes there isn’t and that also creates desire for you to constantly check. The whole social media experience is a slot machine and there is nothing fundamental about the iPhone that makes you want to do that, it’s all because of social media apps.
We don’t need the constant companion model of social media. We are doing this for no real good reason and that is why people are getting frustrated with it.
37:50 Impact of social media on young people and our mental health
Cal spoke to a woman who worked in mental health services for college kids and she said that she has tons more kids coming in related to anxiety and anxiety related orders. She believes this is because these kids grew up with smartphones.
Jean Twenge wrote a book on this called iGen where she measured how the rise of mental health issues between Gen Z and Millennials and the key factor between the two was that Gen Z had widespread smartphone usage starting as kids. And Cal sees this as the digital canary in the coal mine — Gen Z does this behavior that we all do, but to an extreme. So if we start looking at what happens when this behavior is maxed out, when basically all discretionary time is spent looking at a screen, we see massive issues with mental health.
So the message we get out of this experiment is that our brain is not meant for this kind of consistent behavior and that constant low level sense of anxiety that we have is our brain crying out for help, “I’m not supposed to be doing this kind of high-octane, low bit-rate level of digital interaction.” This isn’t what the brain is supposed to be doing and it’s not natural.
But one thing worth mentioning: It’s hard to fill your time when you don’t have digital distraction. A lot of people use social media as a crutch so they don’t have to face the void, face themselves, answer the hard questions of “What do I want to do with my life?” So you need to get disciplined about high quality leisure activities and how you want to spend your time (like Mr. Money Mustache and The Frugalwoods and they got that straight before they added all of this free time to their lives).
Figuring out what you want to do with your life is harder than you think, especially if you don’t have the crutch of the screen.
For the FIRE crowd: You don’t want to work this hard to be “free” just to be scrolling and refreshing a screen. You better start thinking because otherwise you won’t be happy. It’s hard work to figure out what you want to do instead, but it is work that is really worth doing. These screens have been filling in for answer to this question.
Even without social media, humans have a drive to be social. Cal doesn’t have social media but still has a desire to talk to and interact with people. And that is one of the big costs of social media, you think you’re talking to people all day but your brain doesn’t recognize that as socializing and that is why we have these research studies of people saying the more they use social media the lonelier they feel. It’s because it displaces the real world socializing and seems just real enough that you think you’ll be satisfied with just internet relationships but that’s not true.
Another FIRE crowd shoutout: FIRE people are weird and willing to do drastic stuff to achieve their financial goals. Cal is sort of like that with his digital life (see: Why you should quit social media) Taking drastic steps digitally can also have massive positive impact on your life.
46:30 What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone who is pursuing financial independence?
Skill is your greatest weapon. If you relentlessly hone a skill that is very valuable you will generate more financial options. You’ll get flexibility and freedom. A magic elixir for career satisfaction is being really really good at something. Even if that requires an in the desert apprenticeship mindset. The better you are at something the market values the more control you have over almost every other variable.