Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.
— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
In his autobiography, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, reflecting on his innate knack for prolific writing, suggested that producing important work required more than just talent and well-honed skills. “A creation of importance,” Goethe wrote, “could be produced only when its author isolated himself. My productions which had met with so much applause were children of solitude.”
Cal Newport coined the term “Deep Work” in his 2016 book of the same title. In the book, Newport defined deep work as, “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” In the book, Newport makes the case for why deep work is especially valuable for professionals in today’s technology-driven and distraction-rich world. Deep work, according to Newport, allows one to learn complex new things and to produce high-quality work based on this learning in a relatively short time, giving knowledge workers a competitive advantage.
Perhaps ironically, it was my desire to engage in deep work that years ago had prompted me to resign my well-paying technology job for a less lucrative vocation: professional photography and writing (or whatever it is I do). To be clear, although the term “professional” seems to have become somewhat ambiguous and self-serving in recent years, for many years now I have earned my income entirely from activities related to photography.
No doubt, one may earn an income in photography without the need for deep work. My desire to engage in deep work in fact had nothing to do with wanting to become a professional photographer, certainly not with hoping to improve my earning potential. In some ways, I knowingly chose the opposite: I knowingly gave up some comforts and financial security for the privilege of being able to invest deep work toward more meaningful experiences, knowledge, and understanding.
To better explain my choice requires a confession I suspect will not come as a great surprise to many: photography plays an important, but comparatively small part in my life. My goal in leaving the urban, career-driven life was not just to become a professional photographer. My goal was to become a professional photographer as a way of sustaining a more rewarding, less frenetic life: an intellectual life—a philosopher’s life.
I wanted to claim as much time and cognitive capacities as I could for reading, learning, exploring, contemplating, experiencing, and creating in the most unconstrained way I could afford to. I wanted to extricate myself from so many distractions and mundane preoccupations that plagued my former life, so I could dedicate prolonged times to grappling with philosophical ideas, deepening my understanding of science and art, exploring more remote and hard-to-reach places, engaging with the natural world in more deliberate, enduring, meditative, mindful ways, unhindered by limited time, with few distractions.
Photography, both as an artistic pursuit and as a vocation, fits well with these goals. I can practice photography alongside and as part of my contemplative times outdoors, and I can then use my photographs to accompany writings about the photography-related (and other) aspects of my experiences. But my experiences are not about photography, nor is photography my primary reason for engaging in these experiences.
My goal in adopting the principles of deep work—protecting my solitary times from distractions, disengaging for the most part from social media, contemplating complex ideas for prolonged periods, writing journals and rich narratives about these ideas and the conclusions they may lead me to—is not to gain any professional advantage nor specifically to make photographs, but to deepen my living experience.