Sunday, October 25, 2020

Thinking About Thinking


I've been busy reading a book about thinking. I've mentioned it before—the Cal Newport volume entitled Deep Work—but like any book which grabs my mind, it inevitably entices that mind to stumble upon and scamper down rabbit trails.

So much for "focused success."

In my defense, I've been mulling over the book's content as the rest of life unfurled itself. Concurrent with the concentration I have been devoting to the book this past week, the opportunity came up to teach two genealogy classes in which I used as case studies some of the articles published at A Family Tapestry in past years. Reviewing the stories I had gleaned so long ago from research reminded me of my intention, years ago, of expanding those details and perhaps publishing them in book form.

For one—the story of a wayward descendant of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, whose international crime spree led that safecracker to be charged with murder—to complete the story would require much more research than I've been able to accomplish from home. Particularly helpful would be the ability to access family letters and recollections from others involved in the case, as well as legal documents from the capital of neighboring Canada. In short, not only would the task require time and travel, but it would require depth of concentration to synthesize the disparate strands of that story.

For the other story—admittedly more charming in content—there is also much more to dig up in resources than I've been able to access so far. Once again, many of those records are retained in a specialized archive collection on the other side of the continent.

Each of these stories, I've been reminded this week, need to be properly told. There's one detail standing between me and such an end goal: concentration. Or, as author Cal Newport might put it, "deep work." As he observes in Deep Work, this 

thinking about thinking points to an inescapable conclusion: To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction. To learn, in other words, is an act of deep work.

Likewise, I might add, composing a book weaving the many strands of a person's history would be a task requiring that very level of learning.

What do we do when we are synthesizing the many points in an ancestor's history? Genealogy expects us to correctly document points on a timeline—birth, marriage, death, for instance—but a comprehensive family history must provide a sense of the whole, not just pinpoints and episodes in generation after generation. Our stories can bring to life a multi-dimensional recounting of the subjects of our research. But to discover, condense and deliver the essence of an entire life lived will take the input of many reliable resources, the skillful blending of many themes and variations, and the art of judicious representation—none of which can adequately be delivered without the aid of deep concentration.

It all starts with thinking about thinking. 


  1. Good for you and your thinking...what a wonderful project you are thinking about !!

  2. I look forward to your books. I hope a third one is on the table, also - about your Florida kin.


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