Ryan Holiday and Cal Newport Talk “Digital Minimalism”

This week, subscribers to Cal Newport’s email list were given an opportunity to listen and participate in a call between author Ryan Holiday and Newport, to discuss Newport’s latest book, “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.”

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Photo by Tom Swinnen from Pexels

Here are some interesting quotes from that conversation, and some key takeaways.

Disclaimer: I was not on for the entirety of the call – and the content below was developed from notes taken on my phone while on a bus! I hope I have not misrepresented Newport and Holiday’s thoughts and words, but please understand I have combined my understanding with what I remember they said. No quote below is necessarily a direct quote.

Everything in italics is either “direct quotes” or drawn heavily from Ryan and Cal’s conversation. [My notes are in regular font, with brackets for clarity].

“We’re all Roman emperors – bombarded by more information on our phones than the president received in his daily briefing decades ago.”

It’s no wonder we suffer from information overload. While most of us lack the power and resources of a president or emperor, we consume, receive, and are bombarded by more information than they had access to – but now in real-time. This recalls the phenomenon of 19th-century telegraph operators who experienced information processing overload, a pre-cursor to the modern day emergency phone dispatchers.

Now, it’s not only emergency or telecommunications personnel that pay the cost of high dose information consumption – all of us have the potential access to a literal world of information at our fingertips.

[There was a reference to a book I’d never heard of, but am interested in reading: Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now by Douglass Rushkoff. I really resonate with the language of the blurb, editing mine:

“People spent the twentieth century obsessed with the future. We created technologies that would help connect us faster, gather news, map the planet, and compile knowledge. We strove for an instantaneous network where time and space could be compressed. Well, the future’s arrived. … (yet) the dissonance between our digital selves and our analog bodies has thrown us into a new state of anxiety: present shock.”

It’s that dissonance between our minds and bodies that is of concern, here at Hybrid Consonance. Like other forms of dissonance: cognitive, emotional, musical, relational, cultural – just to name a few – resolving dissonance to reach consonance, especially when faced with two juxtaposing concepts, people, ideas, or cultures, is a compelling, complex, and creative challenge. It’s why I’ve called this blog Hybrid Consonance.]

Celebrities, leaders, high-value individuals.

These people have the means and choices to delegate their information processing so they can afford the cost of connectivity while reaping the benefits of high rates of social-digital connection, exposure, and communication. But what about the rest of us?

Costs vs benefits of connectivity.

We pay the high cost of connectivity, in the form of giving our time, energy, and attention to social-digital media. The benefits gained from this are less apparent, and at times, not worth the high cost of attention that we pay.

Tyler Cowan. “Average is over: Powering America Beyond The Age of the Great Stagnation”

[Another reference to a book previously unknown to me]

What if the richest and most well-connected members of a society were to quit smoking 100 percent. But the rest of the population kept using cigarettes. This is, roughly speaking, what happened in recent history. Isn’t it the same for other trends? Meditation. Healthy eating, and so on? What about social media and digital detoxification? Ryan said he’s been on a Facebook detox since January.

[I’m not clear if he was on a complete break or a drastic reduction in usage. As you might glean from the rest of this conversation, the level to which you reduce social-digital media usage is not the point: it’s to what end that matters. See my takeaways at the end for action points that emphasize this.]

Cal: As a nonfiction writer I read loads of books. I didn’t realize how much young people were fearing the abyss of a non-digital life. So I have revised my advice. I say, get your analog house in order. What will you focus on, not just what will you reduce or cut out of your (digital) life. Limiting these (digital) inputs is about freeing up time for other things – including doing nothing.

The intrinsic value of solitude.

Not necessarily physical solitude, but intellectual solitude. Note that the current generation of children and teenagers are constantly on phones; they suffer a background hum of anxiety, stress, and worry. The cure: your brain needs a lot of time and space to process thoughts and emotions.

We’ve lost sight of the baseline of stillness, calmness, confidence in knowing how the world is. They have trouble distinguishing between an offensive tweet from a world leader and a tweet from an acquaintance.

The benefits of social media for Holiday, versus the benefits of offline work for Newport

Ryan: what’s kept me on social media for so long is the ability to expand my network and get beyond my bubble. Do you ever feel like you’re missing out on potential connections?

Cal: Not really. I might miss some connections, but I still meet lots of people through my work, my publisher, my speeches, etc. I call it The Matthew effect. The more interesting things you do, the more interesting people you meet. It’s drawn from something in the Bible.

[There was a reference to network science from Silicon Valley – I’m unclear as to whether this was a contributor to the problem or the solution. I do know that Newport’s professional work as a computer scientist has lead him to reference these topics in powerful ways – ways that throw light on how we process information and connections within ourselves, and amongst each other: in one-to-one as well as larger network interactions.]

[As to ‘The Matthew Effect,’ here is not the space to comment on Newport’s Biblical allusion – suffice to say, I found an interesting article on this verse here: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004100.html If you’re interested in the ‘social and linguistic history’ of a verse that has been quoted in presidential speeches – and now alluded to by Newport – it makes for thought-provoking reading.]

Newport: I’ve met a lot of interesting people (without using social media)… so is this – online social media – the best way to meet people? Through social media? Or not? Is it the best way?

Holiday: I met this powerful NYC radio DJ… through social media – we ultimately connected in real life and became my friends. 

Minimalism – a spectrum or a constellation?

Holiday: The operative word is minimalism. A spectrum of people and ways of doing things. E.g. James Altucher sold practically everything but now has an apartment and works across the street from there.

Newport: I see minimalism less as a spectrum and more as a constellation of discreet possible configurations.

Newport: There are no good or bad technologies. There are, however, good or bad approaches.

What kind of social media choices will you make based on what you value? Keeping in mind, you want to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs. So for Newport, meeting interesting people is fine and good, but it is not a high priority. “I’m more of a deep work kind of guy.” However, for Holiday, then it looks different.

Podcasting – especially long form, and why Newport likes it so much.

Newport sees long form podcasting as a great way to see and hear deep ideas worked out. He sees a hunger for it.

Holiday sees podcasting as subject to less or none of the issues of other media online. It’s deep, narrative-based, voice or audio only, and planned. “It doesn’t go viral.”

Question from a listener about reading on Kindle versus analog.

Newport reads on all platforms. Digital and analog. “Kindle is basically physical. It uses magnetic technology to physically recreate a page on the screen, and even when you turn off the device, that page still exists. He likes Kindle for its instant accessibility. He gets impatient and wants to read a book right away. He does like a physical book to read more in depth, and ‘there’s something in that.’

On listening to audiobooks, especially at faster speeds e.g. 2x. 

Holiday: I don’t think books are meant to be crammed into your life. Don’t use technology to ruin your engagement with books – you still need that space, that time, to absorb, think, and reflect.

[At this point, I had to leave the call. I don’t know how much longer it continued, but I believe they continued to discuss minimalism, stoicism, and answer questions from the approximately 150 listeners on the call.]

The Hybrid Consonance Action Points Based On the Newport-Holiday Digital Minimalism Conversation.

My Key Take-aways:

1. Consider your goals, vision, and values in life. What is it you are focused on? Where do you want to get to – and how?
2. Consider your social media and digital devices. How does your use of these add to – or detract – from your goals, vision, and values from step 1?
3. “There are no good or bad technologies. There are, however, good or bad approaches.” Whether it’s technologies, devices, or apps, virtually none of them are inherently bad – however, how you approach these matters. What is your approach – do you let the app drive you, or do you set up boundaries, limits, whether physical, time, or within the configurations of the app? I have turned off all notifications and limited my Facebook feed to less than 5 percent of my friends. The rest I see when I want to, not whenever they post or the mysterious algorithm decides! I’m trying to work on doing something similar for Twitter and LinkedIn.

Consider the monetization models of each, and how most of them derive their profits from driving users to stay in the application / network / interface for longer periods of time. Which leads to…

4. Consider deleting any app from your phone that is monetized – this would include the ’scrolling feed’ apps like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Use these on your laptop or desktop, instead.
5. Consider where you are now – and where you will be. Know that your digital engagement now will likely change and adjust as you move through life changes, both professionally and personally.

I believe, like I do throughout the Hybrid Consonance approach to Holistic High Performance – whether personally or professionally, in my domains as a musician, educator, cross-cultural professional, or beyond – that doing so with the right mindset, right actions, and right mentors, is key.

6. What is your overall mindset? What actions are you taking today? Who are your mentors? And, if any of these need to change, are you being intentional about it? Do you reach out to others in person, online, or through resources such as books, blogs, and courses?

Like a good musician, establishing and maintaining Hybrid Consonance is a dynamic, living, ongoing process.

Think it through on Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or comment below! Also, be sure to check out Ryan Holiday’s site here and buy his books (I’ve heard lots of good about “Ego Is The Enemy”). And, of course, go and get your hands on “Digital Minimalism” by Cal Newport.

P.S. I’m working on a presentation about this Harnessing High Potential – see my post here about Harnessing High Potential: Meeting the Social Needs of High Potential Learners. Thanks!

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