#42: who gets to be a knowledge worker and isn't it all of us?
5 things we all need to study
In this letter:
📒 5 answers to the question: If we collectively spent more time developing our thoughts and skills around big questions, what would they be?
Book: Deep Work
How to Care Less About Work (The Atlantic)
Anne Helen Peterson’s crowdsourced Instagram story on the ideal week
Book: The Lost Art of Dying
NYT’s Headway Initiative
We Need a New Science of Progress (The Atlantic)
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This week, I’ve spent time re-reading Deep Work by Cal Newport, and I’ve been drafting how I would apply his deep work approach to news consumption. I’ll share those notes when finished.
In the meantime, I wanted to share a few quick thoughts on the following question that keeps coming up for me.
Who qualifies as a knowledge worker and why isn’t it everyone?
A knowledge worker is defined as a person whose job involves handling or using information. But the way we generally think about knowledge workers (at least in my experience), is people who deal with a lot of information: academics, researchers, journalists, content creators.
And countless productivity tools, books, and frameworks for work are being created for them.
Meanwhile, most of my friends outside of media and academia would not consider themselves knowledge workers.
But the reality is, they are dealing with, sifting through, hoarding, exchanging and creating knowledge all the time.
And yet, most of them don’t have any tools or practices around their creation or consumption to make navigating the load any easier or more effective.
For this reason, I think we need to move away from viewing a certain class of professions as knowledge work, and treat the exchange of information as a life skill.
A birds-eye view on the work week
I bring this up because to read Deep Work through the lens of news consumption, my starting assumption has to be that everyone is a knowledge worker. Whether the exchange of that knowledge generates creative, professional or social value doesn’t matter. The fact is, we live in a world where everyone is in the business of exchanging knowledge for some sort of value, be it gossip, news, social content, or a white paper. It’s what modern society is.
That said, in the second half of the book, where Newport presents his four rules for doing more deep work and less shallow work, he shares the following words of Arnold Bennett.
Bennett was an English writer who, in the early twentieth century, wrote of his concerns about how the white-collar worker’s schedule was affected by the advent of the salary-based office job.
“Take the case of a Londoner who works in an office, whose office hours are from ten to six, and who spends fifty minutes morning and night in travelling between his house door and his office door,” Bennett writes in his 1910 self-help classic, How to Live on 24 Hours a Day.
This hypothetical London salaryman, he notes, has a little more than sixteen hours left in the day beyond these work-related hours. To Bennett, this is a lot of time, but most people in this situation tragically don’t realize its potential.
…The “great and profound mistake which my typical man makes in regard to his day,” he elaborates, is that even though he doesn’t particularly enjoy his work (seeing it as something to “get through”), “he persists in looking upon those hours from ten to six as ‘the day,’ to which the ten hours preceding them and the six hours following them are nothing but a prologue and epilogue.”
This is an attitude that Bennett condemns as “utterly illogical and unhealthy.”
Bennett goes on to advocate prioritizing intentional use of leisure time for self-improvement activities. But we’ll leave that aside for now.
The key point still holds true: we have many unused hours in a day. They don’t need to revolve around work.Structuring them effectively matters.
Along these lines, I read this excerpt from Anne Helen Peterson and Charlie Warzel’s forthcoming book about the future of work in The Atlantic today.
…the pandemic has created an opportunity to reconsider and reimagine the structure of our lives and, perhaps, remove the vestigial, extractive elements. We believe that flexible work—not flexible work during a pandemic, not flexible work under duress—can change your life. It can remove you from the wheel of constant productivity. It can make you happier and healthier, but it can also make your community happier and healthier. It can make the labor in your home more equitable and it can help you be a better friend, parent, and partner.
…So ask yourself this: Who would you be if work was no longer the axis of your life? How would your relationship with your close friends and family change, and what role would you serve within your community at large? Whom would you support, how would you interact with the world, and what would you fight for?
Anne also crowdsourced answers to the following question on Instagram: If you could design your ideal week, what would it look like?
The responses are saved as a highlight on her Instagram, and I resonated with so many of them because many people described what I have worked hard to make my week a balance of: paid work, knowledge work and care work, all of which I value equally, whether they are paid equally or not.
Knowledge Work as a Life Skill
Now, back to the question at hand.
If an undeniably significant amount of our time is spent on the exchange of information, why not view knowledge work as a life skill?
What would it look like if we took some sort of collective action that extended beyond industry silos and class, to learn how to manage information together in a better way?
This extends beyond the critical thinking, media literacy and news literacy taught in K-12 and college. I’m thinking of things like Tiago Forte’s Second Brain course (highly inaccessible to most people), the principles in Deep Work (gets only slightly closer in terms of access), and all the conversations about the future of work being collectively imagined in a post-pandemic world.
In this vein, I thought it would be fun to put together a quick list of what I think the objectives of “knowledge work” should be for the ordinary person.
What does a human being need to know today in order to live well in a rapidly changing world? If we collectively spent more time developing our thoughts and skills around big questions, what would they be?
Here are 5 ideas I’ve written down, straight from my notebook.
The objectives of “knowledge work” for the ordinary person
1️⃣ How to die well:
Religion has long owned the market on this one and our views on life and death, intentionally developed or not, drive a lot of our behavior. Even if fewer people are getting their answers to these questions from religion, shouldn’t we have the chance to wonder together about how to approach death?
I recommend the book, The Lost Art of Dying, as a great place to start. It is rich with perspective on how to approach health and life.
In particular, I have been taking notes on what an effective shift away from a paternalistic relationship with medicine can look like (i.e.: being a passive recipient of someone else’s expertise) because I think we need to shift away from paternalism in the media too. More on this in a future issue.
2️⃣ How to become comfortable navigating plurality:
Per last week’s issue and ongoing questions about how to navigate a world in which we have access to multiple versions of reality, multiple value systems and multiple preferences in our modes of survival, navigating plurality is something we need to actively teach ourselves.
I think there are a few entry points to this: intrapersonal (what makes us as individuals feel safe or unsafe), interpersonal (where do our biases lie and which ones are useful?), and sociological (how do we exchange norms as groups?). Asking ourselves any of these questions would provide important clues about how we can feel better in a diverse society.
3️⃣ How to define value for ourselves
I think we’ve inherited way too much language from economics and politics to define our value systems, without realizing how archaic most economic and political framing is. Value can be measured in so many ways — in money, in time, in consensus, in action, in health, in social fulfillment, and so forth. We don’t all have to optimize for the same things or be angry at the dominant value system. We can choose our own values and optimize for those.
4️⃣ How to measure and understand progress
I was happy to see NYT’s new Headway Initiative this week because I think journalists and historians can play an important role in this one, and both professions could lend their skills to building a more robust knowledge base on how things have changed, rather than what’s true or false. Here’s an interesting read from a couple of years ago on progress studies.
5️⃣ How to structure our time intentionally
In Deep Work, Newport writes in Rule #4: Drain the Shallows:
To summarize, the motivation for this strategy is the recognition that a deep work habit requires you to treat your time with respect. A good first step toward this respectful handling is the advice outlined here: Decide in advance what you’re going to do with every minute of your workday. It’s natural, at first, to resist this idea, as it’s undoubtedly easier to continue to allow the twin forces of internal whim and external requests to drive your schedule. But you must overcome this distrust of structure if you want to approach your true potential as someone who creates things that matter.
I love that he calls out the distrust of structure because it is so real. Who wants to do the hard work of structuring our time and knowledge intentionally?
How limiting this can feel in a world that romanticizes freedom and serendipity, especially in the discovery of content.
But: this is the very reason that the most insightful guidance on health, well-being, time and information management is marketed exclusively to “knowledge workers” as productivity advice. Guidance that all of us could benefit from.
In summary: Knowledge work, which requires the skills to manage time, information, contradictions and the feelings they produce in us is an absolutely necessary life skill for today’s news consumer and news producer. And most of us are now both.
I’ll dig more into each area in future issues. Do feel free to reach out if any interest you.