All posts by

Book Summary: Deep Work by Cal Newport

Without concentration there can be no learning, and today our ability to concentrate is taking heavy fire from the armies of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, clickbait links, and plain old email and text messages. Just as we begin to get something important done, our phone vibrates—or we check our inbox, or scan our Facebook feed—and we are pulled away into another world, losing our focus over and over again.

Though I consider myself a hard worker and self-directed learner, I am completely guilty of the above crimes. I leave my inbox open while working, ready to be distracted by the most mundane incoming message. I check my phone multiple times an hour (sometimes dozens). I respond to momentary boredom by opening Facebook. And I go down internet black holes more often than I care to admit, checking back into reality many hours later.

So when I heard that Cal Newport had written a new book called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, I was curious, but also hesitant. I had serious issues with Cal’s previous book where he argued that following your passion is a bad idea. Eventually I succumbed and read the book—and I’m so glad I did.

Deep Work is a really great book.

Cal has tackled a giant problem in the modern world—how we have invited distraction and fractured attention spans into our lives—and offers many practical ways to deal with it. He makes a strong case for “deep work” being both a major asset in the information economy and a more satisfying approach to getting important work done.

For self-directed learners who don’t have a teacher peering over their shoulder to keep them on task, Deep Work offers practical advice that’s more coherent and actionable then whatever you’ll pick up from browsing online articles about productivity.

Below you’ll find the notes I took while reading the book. They don’t offer a complete summary—because my goal was to write down things that felt highly applicable to my own life—but most of the big ideas are here. Enjoy, and happy focusing. Continue Reading

The Problems with the 10,000 Hour Rule

In 2008, Malcolm Gladwell published Outliers, which popularized the work of Dr. K. Anders Ericsson through the “10,000 Hour Rule”, suggesting that expert-level performance in any field can be achieved through ten thousand hours of practice. Based on Ericsson’s 1991 study of violinists at a music academy in Berlin, this now-famous rule has taken on a life of its own. But it’s not so simple.

This year, Ericsson published a book (Peak) clarifying his research and explaining the caveats to this so-called rule:

  1. There’s nothing special about the number 10,000: that’s just the number of hours that the top violinists Ericsson studied had accumulated by age 20. And while these were very promising students, they were not yet masters of the violin. “Pianists who win international piano competitions tend to do so when they’re around thirty years old, and thus they’ve probably put in about twenty thousand to twenty-five thousand hours of practice by then; ten thousand hours is only halfway down that path.” Ericsson also cites his first major research subject, Steve Faloon, who he helped become “the very best person in the world at memorizing strings of digits after only about two hundred hours of practice.” Certain obscure types of expertise don’t require 10,000 hours.
  2. Ten thousand was only an average number of hours that the top violinists had put in by age 20. Half of the violinists in the group had put in less than 10,000 hours; so 10,000 is not some hard minimum number as the rule implies.
  3. Most crucially (in my opinion), Gladwell didn’t properly distinguish between the general notion of “practice” and Andersson’s very specific definition of “deliberate practice”, which involves focused, individualized, goal-oriented training under a teacher or coach. (Here’s the chapter from The Art of Self-Directed Learning where I explained the difference.) The Beatles, for example, put in many hours of “practice” by playing shows in Hamburg, but that’s not the same as “focused, goal-driven practice that is designed to address certain weaknesses and make certain improvements.” (The Beatles success may be better explained by their songwriting, so it’s more relevant to identify what John Lennon and Paul McCartney did to develop their songwriting skills.)
  4. Although Gladwell didn’t say it himself, the rule implied that almost anyone can become an expert in a given field by putting in 10,000 hours. But to prove this, Ericsson would have needed to “put a collection of randomly chosen people through ten thousand hours of deliberate practice on the violin and then see how they turned out.” His original study just showed that those admitted to the Berlin music academy, the best students had put in more hours of solitary deliberate practice.

Given all these caveats, Ericsson acknowledges that the general spirit of the rule is correct: “becoming accomplished in any field in which there is a well-established history of people working to become experts requires a tremendous amount of effort exerted over many years. It may not require exactly ten thousand hours, but it will take a lot.” There are no shortcuts, and there are no insta-geniuses. Everyone needs to put in their time.

(All quotes from Chapter 4 of Peak.)

Do I Own My Business, or Does it Own Me?

A friend recently shared an article that describes Unschool Adventures, my little travel tour business, with scary precision:

Let me ask you a question. If you went overseas for six months leaving your business behind, when you came back would it be in better or worse shape than you left it? Would you even have a business left?

If your answered negatively to either of these questions, then it’s likely you don’t have a business – rather you ARE the business. . . .

Don’t get me wrong, [such a business owner] may be financially successful. Their business may be thriving with a loyal base of customers but the problem is they are stuck – shackled to their business.

If they were to leave or get sick for an extended period of time, their business would cease to exist.

Yup, that’s pretty accurate. Unschool Adventures is me. Although I hire staff assistants on the trips I run—and once in a blue moon an entire trip happens without me—if I completely ignored my business, ceased my marketing efforts, or attempted to outsource everything, it would soon fold. Continue Reading

Trip Report: Kings Canyon High Basin Route

My friends Julie, Fred, and I just completed a 49-mile backpacking trip—mostly off-trail—through the California High Sierra, crossing the range from west to east. Here’s the report.


Something I’ve wanted to do for a long time is hike across the Sierras, one-way. There are many ways to do this on-trail, but that’s boring.  I wanted to do something that left the valleys and reached the highest of the High Sierra, going deep into the rugged granite peaks that line the region. When Andrew Skurka published his Kings Canyon High Basin Route guide last autumn, I found a section of it that matched these goals. My friends Julie and Fred—both former assistant directors of Deer Crossing Camp like myself—enthusiastically joined. (Another friend and former assistant director, Morgan, got sidelined by a work emergency last minute. We missed you Morgan!)

Disclaimer: This route is hardcore! Don’t attempt it unless you have significant cross-country backpacking experience, map and compass skills, strong ankles, beefy thighs, and a sick love of getting pummeled by gnarly mountain terrain over and over again.

All photos by Julie McPherson and yours truly.

Day 1: Lodgepole to Silliman Lake

  • Hours: 3
  • Miles: 4.5
  • Starting Elevation: 6,800′
  • Final Elevation: 10,000′
  • Highest Elevation: 10,000′ (Silliman Lake)

We spent most of Day 1 getting a 6-hour ride (thanks Dana!) from South Lake Tahoe to our starting point, Lodgepole campground in Sequoia National Park on the western side of the Sierras. Two days prior we dropped Julie’s car at the terminus, Onion Valley Trailhead, on the eastern side of the Sierras.

(Can’t see the map? Disable your ad blocker!)


Getting back to Julie’s car from the west side (without a vehicle) would have been incredibly challenging, which meant that we were fully committed to this hike after started. Onion Valley or bust!


The first few miles followed the Twin Lakes trail, and then we cut up Silliman Creek following an easy use trail and smooth granite slabs.

We camped by Silliman Lake (SPOT coordinates) near a Sierra Club group. Our thighs ached from gaining more than 3000′ in three hours, but this was a mere taste of things to come. Continue Reading

Announcing: Off-Trail Learning & How to Live Nowhere

I just launched two big new projects!

Off-Trail Learning

Off-Trail Learning is a new website I’ve created for young people (ages 14-21) who aren’t satisfied with traditional education and want to blaze their own trails through life. I’m also restarting my podcast under the same name—listen to the first new episode here. If you know a young person who wants to take more control of their education, send them to Off-Trail Learning! (Thankfully this means I’m not paying $1000 to Trump.)

How to Live Nowhere

How to Live Nowhere is an online book I’ve created to explain the nomadic way of life that I (any many others) lead. It’s for twenty- and thirty-somethings who want a location-independent lifestyle that’s mentally, emotionally, financially, and romantically sustainable. After writing the initial content in January I spent the last few months polishing it and creating a gorgeous new website.