Improving Academic Performance

Focus: The New Key to Academic and Professional Success

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Fri, Dec 02, 2016 @ 01:32 PM

deep-work-cal-newport.jpgI just finished listening to a great podcast episode from Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman’s Psychology Podcast (one of my favorite podcasts because it’s generally, entertaining, informative and practical as it relates to helping you better understand the world around you) about the concept of Deep Work.

In this blog article, I’ll offer a very brief summary of the podcast episode (very brief, because I want you to listen to the podcast) and two key takeaways: 1) that focus is one underappreciated key to success in today's world and 2) that skill and mastery are derived from sustained, deliberate practice, not inborn talent.


Quick Summary

The podcast was a discussion between Dr. Kaufman, who is a professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and Cal Newport, a professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, about Newport’s new book, Deep Work.

The theme of the book is that in the new “knowledge” economy, the most successful students and professionals will be those who cultivate the ability to be highly focused so that they can think about issues on a deep level to be able to solve complex problems.

Newport and Kaufman hit on many topics, including some that we talk about regularly on this blog and some that we do not. Here are a few examples:

  • The importance of deliberate practice in building skill, and the differences between deliberate practice and deep work (though they are related)
  • The relative importance of IQ in determining success (it’s perhaps much less important than is commonly assumed)
  • The downside of trying to “find your passion” (few people have pre-existing passions; people end up loving what they do as a result of a complex mix of factors, and instead young people should focus on studying hard, acquiring knowledge, being curious, and building skills)

First key takeaway: focus is the key to making yourself indispensable

Newport argues that focus is the key to creating value in today’s economy.

He points out that any task which is easily automated is ultimately going to be outsourced or performed by a computer or a machine. So, students should get comfortable with the notion of building a career in which you are solving complex problems that require you to engage with your work in a deep focused way to design unique, valuable solutions. Kaufman notes that, in his research, designing something unique and different is the definition of creativity. So, in that sense, creativity is the key to being valuable in an increasingly globalized and technology-driven world.

Critically, Newport points out that you don’t have to have a very high IQ to do this, and that focus is a skill that can be cultivated. I would argue that it’s a skill you should begin to cultivate in high school and college, not only because you’ll need it in the workforce in the medium to long term but because it will lead to better grades in the near term.

You can probably imagine the types of behaviors that don’t lead to deep and sustained focus: checking your email constantly, multitasking, social media usage, etc. Newport recommends some simple strategies for building your ability to focus, including trying to schedule time FOR social media, and avoiding it for the rest of the day (for example).

Second key takeaway: skill and mastery come from sustained, deliberate practice (even in the hard sciences like mathematics and physics) not talent

Because I’m familiar with Newport’s Study Hacks blog, I know that although he has a PhD in Computer Science from MIT and is now a professor at Georgetown University, in high school he wasn’t in the most advanced calculus class available at his school (he took AP Calculus AB, not BC. If I remember the story correctly, he didn’t even get a score of 5 on the AP Calculus AB exam). So, he didn’t really consider himself a math person. But, something clicked in college, and he realized that with practice and focus, he could become increasingly good at math.

Newport himself is a good example of the importance of sustained, deliberate practice. The average person would probably agree (though note, I think they would be wrong) that by senior year of high school, the math class you’re in tells a lot about whether you’re on a path to a PhD in Computer Science. But at that point, a lot of schooling remains. That perspective assumes that talent and natural ability plays a much more important role in the process of learning math than it actually does.

Sure, some minimum amount of ability/talent/IQ is necessary to get a PhD in Computer Science. But more people probably have that minimum amount than is commonly assumed. Why? Because deliberate, focused practice is more important to building math skills than most people realize.

In the podcast episode, he notes that mathematics undergraduates are always somewhat amazed by how “smart” the graduate students are who teach them. Those same graduate students are always amazed at how “smart” the junior professors are with whom they interact. And, the junior professors are amazed at how “smart” the senior tenured professors are.

But Newport’s point is this. Any given person at each point in the chain I just described used to be at a different point in the chain.  The graduate student was at one point an undergraduate.

They didn’t “get smarter.” They just kept building their skills, and were thus better equipped to solve increasingly complex problems, which made them seem more naturally gifted to those who hadn’t put in that hard work.


Whether you’re a high school or college student, young professional, anyone else really, it’s important to realize that focus is what leads to the ability to solve complex problems. So, instead of worrying about how “smart” you are in a given area at school or at work, worry about how focused you are on the required work in that area.