“The relationship between deep work and collaboration is tricky,” writes Cal Newport in his recent book on focused productivity. That’s for sure. The goal of deep work is to expand your cognitive abilities in a distraction-free working environment. But many people don’t work alone. And as anyone who has worked on a team can attest, co-workers can be a source of distraction. How can we reconcile deep work goals with the need for collaboration?
If you already have the job you want, you still need to decide what you want to work on. The job description that you might have perused before applying for the job could tell you something. For a programming job, that might include technologies you’ll be using, background you should have, and a general idea of the product you’ll be working on. But within those general boundaries, you have some control over your daily work. That allows you to customize a general job description to fit exactly what you want to do.
In a 2005 interview, computer scientist Guy Steele Jr. recounts this story about applying for a programming job at MIT in the early 1970s:
I was naïve enough to go over there on the Fourth of July and put my head in Bill Martin‘s door and said, “I hear you’re looking for LISP programmers.” I wasn’t 18 yet. Bill looked at me seriously and said, “You’ll have to take my LISP quiz.” He reached in a file drawer and pulled out a three- or four-page quiz and sat me down in his office, and I spent an hour or two doing this quiz. He graded it and said, “You’re the first person who has ever gotten it 100 percent right. You’re hired.”
That’s a fun anecdote about a young computer whiz. It’s also an early example of the type of interview now familiar to every software developer. But what I wanted to know after hearing this story was the same thing that piqued the interviewer’s curiosity: “How did you know that much about LISP?”