Engaging in Deep Work: Aditya Sondhi Explores New Horizons
Aditya Sondhi: Fosters A Living Room Theatre Group
On a Saturday night in January, the wind has a biting snap to it. About twenty people, some with stoles wrapped around their necks, others sweater clad, file into the yellow glow of a living room. There are signs of a party: the clinks of beer-filled bottles, the splash of wine in glasses, water smushed into paper cups. But few other sounds. The conversations are hushed, the voices deliberately muffled. At ten-minutes past 8:00, Aditya Sondhi ushers a pin-drop quiet. For the next hundred minutes, the visitors listen in silence. As three masterly actors read from the playwright Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold and the Boys,” the Bengaluru room is ferried into a tea-room at Port Elizabeth, South Africa. As the white, adolescent Hally and his black help, Sam and Willie, play out the complex fissures of race, age and class in the apartheid country, the audience engages in a collective act that is uncommon in modern living rooms: deep listening.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Sondhi conceived of this. With his full-time law practice, he knew he couldn’t engage as intensely with theatre as he would have liked to. He decided, instead, to create a group with theatrically-oriented others to read aloud conversational plays that traverse fascinating histories and locales. Such acts that plumb the human capacity to pay attention have always marked Sondhi’s life. After graduating from the pedigreed National Law School, Bengaluru and while engaged in a demanding law practice, he embarked, at the age of 29, on a Master’s in Political Science. He was later inspired to goad himself further, to pursue a Doctorate from Mysore University.
Cal Newport: The Significance of Deep Work
When examining the lives of pathbreaking thinkers, one finds that the ability to sequester oneself and engage in “deep work” often separates the elite mental athletes from the amateur ones. In the 1920s, the psychologist Carl Jung built a two-storey house called ‘The Tower’ in the village of Bollingen, in Switzerland. The purpose of the house was not to facilitate a break from work, but rather to enable a more intense engagement with his material. Jung knew, in order to formulate his own breakthrough ideas, he needed a retreat from the busyness of cities.
Retreats like Jung’s have been common in history. Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer inside a shed on the property of Quarry Farm in New York. Even in contemporary times, Bill Gates retreats into an isolated cabin in order to spend time thinking, armed only with papers and books.
Today, most knowledge workers respond to emails, browse the internet, Instagram their images or chat on Facebook, engaging in interactions that might erode their capacities for such work. Because according to Newport, spending large chunks of time on “shallow work” precludes our ability to produce deep work. In an article in The Atlantic, the journalist Nicholas Carr said, “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration.”
The author, Cal Newport, has been a personal beneficiary of his fierce focus. As a doctoral student at MIT, he was struck by the image of a Professor who would stare at the markings on a white board for relentlessly long hours. That Professor, of course, did not inhabit Twitter and Facebook. Newport also observed that the Professor had authored sixteen papers in one year.
Cal, who holds a Doctorate in Theoretical Computer Science from MIT, and is currently a Professor at Georgetown University, offers insights to anyone who would like to build their attentional capacities. Ironically, at a time, when seductive distractions are eroding our deep work abilities, Newport remarks that the need for such work is only growing. After all, we are being told to become lifelong learners, and prodded to produce invaluable and novel ideas, regardless of the titles we hold, or the functions we perform.
Aditya Sondhi: Inspired by a School Teacher
Just as Newport himself mimicked the personal habits of an MIT Professor, Sondhi gleaned early lessons from a Hindi school teacher. Dr. Iqbal Ahmed, unusually for a school teacher, held a Doctorate in Hindi. His thesis had compared the Indian mystic, Kabir Das, with the prominent Urdu poet, Iqbal. The young Aditya could sense not only his teacher’s discernible passion for Hindi literature, but also his deep commitment to transmitting his fervor. “He used to handwrite our question papers,” he says.
Late into adulthood, and till date, Aditya stayed in touch with his teacher. It was Dr. Iqbal, who encouraged Aditya to pursue a Doctorate in Political Science. Since Aditya had discovered an interest in military history, he planned to study the “The Interface Between the Army and Democracy in India and Pakistan.”
Though the nature of his reading materials expanded with his PhD, Aditya had already bolstered his cerebral circuits to engage in such an endeavor. Besides, his lawyerly reading and writing, he had also elevated his Kannada, in order to read Government documents.
Cal Newport: Practicing Like the Experts
According to Newport, performance psychologists have always been curious about the mental calisthenics that differentiate experts from laypersons. In the early 1990s, K. Anders Ericsson, a professor at Florida State University coined the term “deliberate practice.” Ericsson believes that innate abilities and talent are overrated, and that most elite performers simply practice more intensely than others.
Deliberate Practice requires “focused attention” on the material you are trying to master and feedback on whether the areas you are attending to will significantly alter your abilities. Moreover, continuous practice spawns neurological benefits. As you keep practicing a particular skill, those particular circuits in the brain get covered by a layer of fatty tissues (called “myelin”). The myelinated circuits, in turn, enable you to perform the skill faster and better.
Cal cites the example of Adam Grant, Wharton Professor and author of the bestselling Originals and Give and Take. By 2014, the young Grant had already written 60 peer-reviewed publications and his best-selling book.
How does Grant achieve so much? Firstly, he batches his work: teaches during the fall term, conducts research during the spring and summer terms. Furthermore, during the research period, he often isolates himself completely for 3-4 days, becoming inaccessible to students and colleagues.
Aditya Sondhi: Expands his Focus
Like the prolific Grant, Sondhi pushed himself to complete other feats of focused attention. As a proud alumnus of the Bishop Cotton Boys’ School in Bengaluru, he penned two books – Unfinished Symphony, published in 2003, and The Order of the Crest, published in 2015 – that compile the trajectories and achievements of other alumni. The second book, published by Penguin during the school’s 150th year – reaches into the institution’s storied past, covering periods as far back as the First and Second World wars.
As a Senior Counsel with a thriving law practice, Aditya is also cognizant of the deep work performed by judges at Indian courts. While many citizens might carp about judicial delays, Sondhi has a more empathetic, insider view: “Good judges in India do a lot more work than judges in the courts of other countries.”
Cal Newport: The Neurological Benefits of Depth
Besides professional rewards, Newport suggests that deep work results in greater life satisfaction. The science writer Winnifred Gallagher, in her book Rapt (2009), dwells on the relationship between attention and happiness. Gallagher herself stumbled on this connection during a rather distressed period in her life. She was diagnosed with cancer, and she realized, during her treatment, that she felt better when she focused on “life” rather than on her diagnosis or treatment. When she thought about “movies, walks and a 6:30 martini,” she seemed to recover faster. She realized that her own training as a nonfiction writer in the past had enabled her to channelize her attention into positive directions.
To confirm such a view, the Stanford psychologist, Laura Carstensen showed a series of negative and positive images to subjects whose brains were being observed by an fMRI scanner. She noticed that with younger subjects, the amygdala lit up equally intensely for both negative and positive pictures. But with older subjects, the amygdala lit up more intensely with positive pictures, and less so with the negative ones. In other words, the older (and wiser) subjects had trained their brains to pay less attention to negative images.
Athol Fughard’s “Master Harold and The Boys”: Attention Seeds Compassion
In Master Harold and The Boys, the black helper Sam, despite being a victim of various oppressive forces, still retains the capacity to attend to the white Hally’s feelings. Fughard’s play reinforces, like Aditya’s and Cal Newport’s lives, the poet Mary Oliver’s exhortation: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”
Newport, Cal, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Piatkus, Little, Brown Book Group, London, 2016.