Do we value deep work?
“The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind to find a person of understanding, a person mindful of God” (Psalms 14:2).
Sometimes, I worry that we drastically under-appreciate the incredible statement Jewish tradition makes when the Mishnah mandates that we celebrate the birthday of trees on Tu B’Shevat. Choosing one day of the Jewish year to recognize the spiritual importance of trees is a reminder about the need to find sanctity in all of God’s creations, as well as a call-to-action to Jews that we must pay attention to all living things, big and small, for God notices when we overlook that which is precious.
Few modern thinkers understood this idea better than Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rabbi Heschel’s writings are prescient about many things, particularly how he anticipates the environmental crises now facing our planet. In God in Search of Man, Heschel writes about what happens when people begin to treat the natural world as something shallow, something to be used and abused for everyday needs, as opposed to the greatest gift God ever gave humanity. Heschel writes:
“In the history of civilization, different aspects of nature have drawn forth the talent of man; sometimes its power, sometimes its beauty and occasionally its grandeur have attracted his mind. Our age is one in which usefulness is thought to be the chief merit of nature; in which the attainment of power, the utilization of its resources is taken to be the chief purpose of man in God’s creation. Man has indeed become primarily a tool-making animal, and the world is now a gigantic tool box for the satisfaction of needs” (33-34).
Heschel sees humanity treating everything in the natural world as having only a utilitarian purpose, meant to be torn from the ground or burned into fuel to improve the lives of people. Yet while these purposes are undoubtedly important to some people some of the time, they are largely not sanctified purposes, but shallow ones. Tu B’Shevat challenges us to raise awareness about the sanctity of everything around us, so that we might ensure that attention is paid to the things that matter most.
The Jewish community spends more time than it would like to admit dealing with commodities, whether we are talking about financial resources, professional and lay leadership, or facilities. However, we tend to spend insufficient time asking questions about how we use time as commodity, and whether or not energy is spent on dealing with issues that will determine whether or not we will write a new chapter of Jewish vitality, as opposed to getting fixated on minutiae that feel urgent in the moment, but draw time away from the deeper questions that require our full presence.
Cal Newport identifies this distinction in Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, where he argues that people functioning at their best do impactful and important work, what he calls “deep work,” yet most of us spend too much time on ubiquitous and low-stakes work, what he calls “shallow work.” However, while Newport recognizes that most leaders say that deep work is more important to them, he also points out how tempting it is to view an endless stream of shallow tasks like emails, meetings, and paperwork as the equivalent of achieving big and important things. He writes:
“…If you send and answer emails at all hours, if you schedule and attend meetings constantly, if you weigh in on instant message systems like Hall within seconds when someone poses a new question, or if you roam your open office bouncing ideas off all whom you encounter-all of these behaviors make you seem busy in a public manner. If you’re using busyness as a proxy for productivity, then these behaviors can seem crucial for convincing yourself and others that you’re doing your job well” (64).
Shallow work is a kind of mirage; the more time we spend time on shallow tasks, the more we give others the impression that we are “so busy” and have “so many things going on,” yet it is worth asking whether or not that is actually true. How much time do leaders spend thinking about mission and vision, or getting outside of their own heads in order to design new solutions to complex challenges? If every Jewish organization kept a time journal to answer this question, I imagine that the results would sadden, but not surprise, anyone.
The big questions facing the Jewish community are not tedious; they are complicated and consequential. To successfully meet those adaptive challenges will require our leaders to be at their best, yet it is worth asking whether the way we run our organizations day-to-day allows anyone to be at his or her best. This Tu B’Shevat, we need to take a self-critical look at ourselves, our institutions, and, most importantly, our time, in order renew our commitment to deep work. Because like natural resources, it is easy to think that we have an endless supply of time to focus on what matters until one day, seemingly out of nowhere, we run out of it.