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The Charmed Career of Yuval Harari

The 41-year old Israeli historian Yuval Harari has enjoyed a career rise that any academic would envy. He earned his doctorate at Oxford, specializing in medieval military history. He went on to publish a prodigious number of well-respected books and articles on the topic, winning, along the way, several important awards in his field, a place in the Young Israeli Academy of Sciences, and a tenured professorship at Hebrew University.

In 2011, he published (in Hebrew) his first work of “macro-history.” It was called, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (which I read and recommend), and it offers a sweeping history of our species organized, in large part, around our unique ability to make things up.

The book was a bestseller in Israel and was soon translated into 30 different languages, becoming an international phenomenon. In America, both Barack Obama and Bill Gates publicly recommended the title. Mark Zuckerberg choose it for his online book club. Last month Harari published his follow-up, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, which became an instant New York Times bestseller.

Given the magnitude of these accomplishments and the diminutive status of Harari’s age, you might assume that the young historian must be phenomenally busy.

But as he revealed in a recent interview on Ezra Klein’s podcast, he’s working less than you might expect…

A Mindful Schedule

In particular, during this interview, Harari revealed that he’s a serious practitioner of Vipassana mediation who spends 2 hours every day meditating, and goes on a 1 or 2 month meditation retreat every year.

Harari’s not exaggerating about the latter: he didn’t learn that Donald Trump was elected President until January 20th, when he arrived home from an off-the-grid session that began in early November.

What’s interesting to me about this story is not the power of meditation (though Harari makes an interesting point in the interview about his practice helping him identify problems that matter), but instead what it tells us about the reality of producing valuable things.

In his recent book, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang argues from historical examples and scientific findings that a four hour “creative work day” is about optimal for producing important new things.

Beyond that, a busy workday consists primarily of busywork.

In other words, Yuval Harari can sacrifice a non-trivial fraction of his working hours without blunting his impact because the hours he’s sacrificing are not the relatively small number dedicated to cultivating his next big idea.

(It’s important to note that this concept is not confined to rarified fields like academic historians. In Deep Work, for example, I tell the story of a software company that observed no reduction in productivity when they dropped to a 4-day work week for most of the year: people simply sacrificed non-productive shallow work to compensate for the reduced schedule.)

I don’t have concrete advice to offer as an implication of this observation, but it’s something that has come up often in my research and writing in recent years, leading me to believe it’s worth re-emphasing.

We’re currently busier than ever before, but this doesn’t mean we’re more effective. As Yuval Harari teaches us: there’s a difference.

Cal Newport

March 17 2017

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