Deep Work and Alexander Hamilton

Right now Alexander Hamilton is all the rage. The smash-hit musical that bears his name continues to attract and delight audiences. I don’t know what Hamilton would have made of his newfound notoriety in the 21st century, but I suspect he’d be shocked by the many forms of diversion available to sap our attention.

I have written before about the importance of balance (go here) and deep work (go here). Although I’m a huge believer in the importance of balance, it’s ok to be out of balance in pursuit of a worthwhile goal; but we have to know that we’re out of balance and snap back into balance when the short term need for exclusive focus passes.

Hamilton evidently felt that his son Philip‘s impending study of law after graduation from Columbia College was one of those times requiring balance to be set aside. His letter to his son below:

Rules for Mr Philip Hamilton(:) from the first of April to the first of October he is to rise not later than Six Oclock—The rest of the year not later than Seven. If Earlier he will deserve commendation. Ten will be his hour of going to bed throughout the year.
From the time he is dressed in the morning till nine o clock (the time for breakfast Excepted) he is to read Law.

At nine he goes to the office & continues there till dinner time—he will be occupied partly in the writing and partly in reading law.

After Dinner he reads law at home till five O clock. From this hour till Seven he disposes of his time as he pleases. From Seven to ten he reads and Studies what ever he pleases.

From twelve on Saturday he is at Liberty to amuse himself.

On Sunday he will attend the morning Church. The rest of the day may be applied to innocent recreations.

He must not Depart from any of these rules without my permission.

I wonder how that conversation would go today. The fact that we wouldn’t expect a parent to make such demands upon a young adult today isn’t an indicator that we’ve lost some sort of societal resolve. Times are different, and for the most part we wouldn’t view such strictures as healthy, since they deny the child the ability to sort it out for himself, plus they also raise the likelihood the young student will ignore his father’s advice completely.

You can detect a strong sense of obligation in the letter. We don’t know if young Philip wanted to study law, but as it turned out whatever promise he showed was stupidly wasted in a duel with a critic of his father’s – predestining his father’s death in the same circumstances and at the same dueling site at Weehawken, N.J.

But before that tragedy was the letter, and the vivid example of what Alexander Hamilton understood “deep work” to truly be.

If a time-traveling Alexander Hamilton came screeching to a halt in Marty McFly’s souped up DeLorean today, he might lament our inability to focus, just as we lament the fruitlessness of early 19th century duels. Things change from one generation to the next, but the value of deep work remains, regardless of time or place.

Good luck!

HT to Cal Newport’s blog