Flourishing / Books, Books, Books

Mind, Body and Spirit of the Hero

. 9 min read . Written by Russell Smith
Mind, Body and Spirit of the Hero

Book Mashup of Deep Work (Cal Newport) and Natural Born Heroes (Christopher McDougall)

Introducing Book Mashups

Late last year, I developed 10 ideas for articles I wanted to write. I tentatively titled one idea, “10 Lessons in Real Estate from James Clavell’s Tai-Pan.” That idea, in turn, spurred another idea – bringing two books I’d recently read to mind, and mashing them together. “Mashing them up” means to ponder the lessons of each book in relation to the other book, and see what emerges. Do new insights catalyze as a result of the mashup? Does a book come to have new meaning when compared, contrasted or juxtaposed against the other? Do hidden lessons come to the fore when subjected to reflection inspired by the other book?

I have no idea what will emerge here. Perhaps this experiment will release a fascinating set of articles on Solvitur Ambulando. Or maybe this will become vanity publishing at its most self-indulgent. Come what may, let the experiment begin.

Mashup #1: Cal Newport’s Deep Work and Christopher McDougall’s Natural Born Heroes

Overviews of the Books

Since reading it in 2015, I have gifted Natural Born Heroes to friends more than any other book. I’ve read it nearly every year since then, and frequently pick it and read passages from it. In it, McDougall weaves together two main stories and several minor ones, somehow into a coherent whole. In one main story, McDougall tells the history of Cretan and British oddball resistance fighters kidnapping one of the main German generals on Crete during the Second World War. The second main story relates to ancient Greek-Cretan strength and wellness, which McDougall connects to their notion of the “hero.” More about the minor narrations later. Again, while I have read the book about seven times, each time I pick it up, it swallows me in its tapestry of interlocking chronicles.

In Deep Work, Cal Newport defines “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 skills, and are hard to replicate.”1 He contends that most knowledge workers today do not operate in settings – professional or personal – conducive to deep work. At work, busyness serves as a proxy for productivity.2 In daily life, constant distraction overlords our free time and family relations. The inability to perform deep work results in diminished value creation in work environments, but even more importantly, in quiescent lives. 

Characters from the Shadows

In pairing these books, two people from Natural Born Heroes stand out more prominently: Chris White and Phil Maffetone. In previous readings of the books, I noted White and Maffetone, but they come across as mere guides to McDougall in his research. They possessed knowledge he sought in writing the books, and so he connected with them. In the context of Deep Work, they each stand out as intriguing personas, whose unique lives teach valuable lessons.

McDougall introduces Chris White early in the book. “No one alive knows more about what happened to General Kreipe than Chris White, which is odd, because there’s no reason Chris White should know anything about what happened to General Kreipe. Chris isn’t a scholar or military historian. He doesn’t speak Greek or German.”3 White is a social worker, “[b]ut at night and on weekends, he’s buried in a stack of topographical maps and out-of-print books….In the grand tradition of British amateur obsessives, Chris has spent the past ten years piecing together the mystery the Butcher faced on the morning of April 24, 1944.”4 White clearly engages in deep work. “I’ve always been a man who’s had projects, always tunneling into something[.]”5 

That word “tunneling” stands out, and clearly denotes White’s singular focus. White brings out more lessons related to Newport’s idea of deep work too. In his podcast, Deep Questions, Newport encourages listeners to approach deep work expansively. The concept isn’t limited to one individual trudging away in his office or her library. Deep work can occur among multiple people – indeed, sometimes the best work comes forth from such efforts. White didn’t simply work alone in reconstructing the events of the kidnapping on Crete – his brother Pete helped, as did “fellow escape sleuths, Alvin Davies and Christopher Paul and Tim Todd” who all played key roles in finding old maps and books as they pursued the historical heels of the Greek and British misfits.6

Later in Natural Born Heroes, McDougall meets Phil Maffetone to discuss health and nutrition secrets of ultra-high-performing athletes, and humans in general. In my previous readings, Maffetone came across as a quirky character. I found his perspective intriguing enough that I later read his The Big Book of Health and Fitness. In the light of the Deep Work mashup, Maffetone takes on a new aura as a man profoundly dedicated to deep work.

Maffetone comes to represent this lesson: construct your life to allow deep work. McDougall has enormous trouble finding Maffetone. Here are a few quotes describing that difficulty and Maffetone’s life:

  • “Phil [Maffetone] was so out of touch.”7

  • “[No one] knew where he [Phil Maffetone] was.”8

  • “Phil Maffetone knows how to make himself scarce.”9

  • “The only online presence for a person by that name when I went looking for him was a bare-bones Web page, a placeholder for some singer-songwriter that provided no contact info.”10

  • “I received an email from “pm.” No name, just the two lowercase letters. Our home [around Oracle, Arizona] isn’t that easy to find. Call when you get close and I’ll talk you in. If your cell phone works. Don’t count on it.11

  • [After working on issues of health and nutrition for decades, Maffetone] “rambled across the country until he found a place where he wouldn’t be disturbed or tempted back into endurance sports.”12

Maffetone may seem eccentric, but he wanted a life to do his work, and to do it to a superlative standard. And to work without the distractions of shallow work of constant connection. Newport advocates this approach – developing a strategy of becoming hard to reach, precisely to prevent intrusive and deep-work-killing distractions.13

Chris White also exemplifies this deep work virtue, and highlights another Newport idea: having separate space to do deep work. In Newport’s podcast, he frequently offers listeners updates in his “Deep Work HQ,” where he records his podcast, and where he retreats to do some of his most focused work. This “Deep Work HQ” is separate from his office at Georgetown University and his home office. At times, he has banished email and other shallow work entirely from his HQ. In recent blog posts, Newport has highlighted the work of artists, writers and others who, like Maffetone and White, have established their own versions of a “Deep Work HQ.” In the last year, Newport has elaborated on George Lucas, Eoin Colfer, Quentin Tarantino, Sebastian Junger, Peter Benchley, John Steinbeck, and David Mellinkoff, among others. Add White to that list: he did his detective work “in a little wooden shack behind his country cottage.”14 

One other aspect of White’s work emerges in the light of one other Newport idea: Productive Meditation. “The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally – walking, jogging, driving, showering – and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem.”15 Chris White applied this notion on the ground in Crete: “Chris has been exploring on foot over the past two years with his brother, Pete…He and Pete had punished themselves searching for the cave on their last trip.”16 When McDougall joins Chris in Crete, he remarks in wonder about the intensity of his detective work: “[Chris] dropp[ed] to a crawl” to find a “faint goat track” as a clue to retracing the path of the kidnappers.17 All this productive meditation resulted – stunningly – in the Whites knowing what the kidnappers had done better than the kidnappers themselves in some cases.18

By keeping the lessons of Deep Work in mind as I re-read Natural Born Heroes, Chris White and Phil Maffetone materialized as never before – and they demonstrated potent examples of Newport’s ideas in action.

Life Amid Hardships: “Quite Pleasant”

Going the other way – reading Deep Work in light of Natural Born Heroes – highlighted a person I had completely missed in my previous readings of Deep Work: Winifred Gallagher. Gallagher, a science writer and the author of How the Post Office Created America and Rapt, suffered a cancer diagnosis but curiously found that life during her treatment was “quite pleasant.”19 How was this possible? She paid particular attention to “the good in her life – “movies, walks and a 6:30 martini.””20 Newport quotes Gallagher: “the skillful management of attention is the sine non qua of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.21

In Natural Born Heroes, you have the distinct sense that the Cretan and British misfits enjoyed all their running around, playing hijinks on the Germans. Not literally every moment – this was war after all, and the Germans pursued them relentlessly. Nonetheless, McDougall gives the impression that they felt these were great days for them – they loved their comrades, their contribution to the war effort, and their immersion in that effort. Writing about one of the misfits, Patrick Leigh Fermor: “Now, finally, he was in a situation perfectly suited for his natural gifts, a place where imagination and resourcefulness mattered.”22 Despite the war around them – or perhaps because of it – Fermor and the other misfits prevailed and made an enormous contribution to the war.

Conclusion: Praestantia Cum Humanitate

Mashing these books together brought me back to the (good ole days) motto of my high school: Praestantia Cum Humanitate, or “Excellence With Humanity.” Ultimately, Natural Born Heroes and Deep Work concern human flourishing and what it means to live a good life. And I didn’t realize this key theme in either book until I read them in parallel.

In a sense, both books stand as a bulwark to a modern assault on human excellence. McDougall quotes Daniel Lieberman, author of The Story of the Human Body: “I would argue that many of the ways in which we get sick have a corporate, almost capitalist origin. We’ve also got this bizarre notion that finally came true, that our bodies don’t really matter.”23 We load them with industrialized foods, consume huge amounts of sugar and salt, and we stress the hell out of ourselves. Newport would contend that we have this bizarre notion that our minds don’t really matter either, given their impairment from constant attention-demanding pings, bells, sounds, lights and buzzers; the interactive hive mind compelled by today’s businesses; and shiny-object syndrome

How can we thrive again as humans? McDougall points to the physical and moral: prepare to become a hero. McDougall reminds us that “For much of human history, the art of the hero wasn’t left up to chance; it was a multidisciplinary endeavor devoted to optimal nutrition, physical self-mastery, and mental conditioning. The hero’s skills were studied, practiced, and perfected.”24 He calls “the foundation of both Greek theology and Western democracy: the notion that ordinary citizens should always be ready for extraordinary action.”25 Or, from the motto of Georges Herbert’s Natural Method: “Be fit to be useful.”26 

The word “useful” points to the key foundation of heroism: ethics. “Heroes care. True heroism, as the ancients understood it, isn’t about strength, or boldness, or even courage. It’s about compassion….Empathy, the Greeks believed, was a source of strength, not softness; the more you recognized yourself in others and connected with their distress, the more endurance, wisdom, cunning, and determination you could tap into.”27

And it’s hard to feel true empathy through the pixilatedly-moderated screens we crane our necks over every day. We humans are built to perceive slight shades, tonal nuance, and “the other.” Here, Cal Newport guides us. We must concentrate. We must focus on “the other” or we will miss the hints and inklings of true meaning. “The other” may mean other people. How many times do we misjudge an innocent question from our spouse as an attack? “The other” may mean ideas – I had missed so much richness in these two books until I spent the time focused solely on them – office door closed, noise-cancelling headphones on, phone and email and text off. Deep Work brought out this wonder and beauty in my world.

“Great moments are born from great opportunities,” said U.S. Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks. Newport and McDougall would add “by people prepared for those opportunities.” The summary lesson of Natural Born Heroes and Deep Work centers on that philosophy: “entire wars could pivot on the performance of one or two extraordinary individuals.”28 By properly cultivating our bodies, spirits and minds, each one of us can unleash the extraordinary in our own worlds. 

  1. Newport, Cal. Deep Work. New York, Grand Central Publishing, 2016. p. 3.

  2. Ibid. p. 64.

  3. McDougall, Christopher. Natural Born Heroes. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2015. pp. 6-7.

  4. Ibid. p. 7.

  5. Ibid. p. 52.

  6. Ibid. p. 246.

  7. Ibid. p. 269.

  8. Ibid. p. 281.

  9. Ibid. p. 282.

  10. Ibid. p. 282.

  11. Ibid. p. 283.

  12. Ibid. p. 283.

  13. Newport. p. 242.

  14. McDougall. p. 7.

  15. Newport, pp. 269-274.

  16. McDougall. p. 246, 248-249.

  17. McDougall, p. 247.

  18. Ibid. p. 328.

  19. Newport, p. 76.

  20. Ibid. p. 76.

  21. Ibid. p. 77.

  22. McDougall. p. 148.

  23. Ibid. p. 260.

  24. Ibid. p. 12.

  25. Ibid. p. 30.

  26. Ibid. p. 205.

  27. Ibid. p. 29.

  28. Ibid. p. 18.

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