Going deep

ON MOST SUBJECT MATTER, there is no shortage of information and analysis. What’s missing, by and large, is reliability and depth. Facts must be checked, theories tested and stories well-researched, no doubt. Beyond that, however, is a quest for greater perceptiveness and more humanity—a profundity that is hard to define and harder to attain, but which we must nonetheless try to intuit. Indeed, that is where we are being asked to make a difference, not least in reaction to increasing volumes of ambient noise.

Meeting the demand for higher quality is a thankless undertaking. Virtually no one—from employers to potential clients to consumers of your work—will fully appreciate just how resource-intensive first-rate fieldwork and analysis can be, let alone foot the bill. Don’t we all grumble about “fake news”, sensationalist journalism, shallow punditry, redundant expertise and introverted academia, while simultaneously complaining about paywalls and other supposedly overpriced content? As such, seeking depth should be understood as a vocation—a private undertaking more than a salaried job. Your success will be a function of how much you are willing to do on top of what is typically rewarded within the current laws of the intellectual marketplace.

The bedrock of any quality analysis is a strong general culture, which in itself is an enormous personal investment. Reading a significant number of fundamental books, in the relatively short span of a lifetime, can only be done with iron discipline. Although you could get away with it, you don’t want to be a journalist, a think tanker or an academic who browses only what colleagues write or, worse, forms a quick opinion via excerpts and commentaries. Given how “busy” we all seem to become, the risk of incestuous intellectual cross-pollination is growing.

Precisely because our professional circles and social media networks lock us into echo chambers, our reading habits must serve as a window into the wider world—an exit that, again, demands resolve. Our prison-break is a patient, determined effort, which we won’t realize unless we steal a couple of hours a day and work to a plan. The latter amounts to systematically compiling and updating a reading list, which can be structured around three principles. First, there is no excuse for circumventing the classics in our immediate field of activity. Second, eclecticism is the greatest source of enrichment, providing counterintuitive avenues for inspiration. Third, we are part of a “civilization,” which for generations has weaved a tapestry of knowledge: tapping into that collective depth will define our own.

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But knowing lots doesn’t necessarily mean much. On one hand, your culture is not something you put on display, on spectacular bookshelves designed to impress visitors, or through multiple scholarly citations at the forefront of your writing or public performances. Genuine culture is a far subtler backdrop to your persona: it gives you more and better references to draw on discerningly—not to shine, but to shed light where need be.

On the other hand, bookish erudition is no substitute for human experience. However smart and cultured you are, you’re at your wisest when you write and talk about things that you have actually engaged with or endured. And here the depth and breadth of your practical exposure is critically important. We learn most from people we have least in common with, who take considerable time to access and comprehend. We learn from encounters that transform us, and that generally doesn’t happen fast. We learn through repeated trial and error, and by overcoming our own biases and inhibitions, which we only uncover gradually as we delve into deeper layers of understanding. Topics that challenge us, or even seem impossible to grasp, likely will be those that pay off the most.

In other words, learning about things is about giving them an opportunity to change us. That may be a straightforward statement, but for most people it is not an easy undertaking. It is also a tricky process, which leads some to lose their own judgment. It is hard to choose, indeed, which is preferable: a person unremittingly projecting him or herself onto the “object” of research, or an individual who ends up dissolving into his or her topic, by parroting the views of the “subject.” All too often, these extremes represent the bulk of available commentary—especially when it comes to complex and polarizing issues that beg for nuance, such as the Syrian war in recent years.

“Going deep” exists in a dialectic, back-and-forth relationship with “pulling out.” Extensive fieldwork is a must, and there is virtually no limit to how far it can go. We often feel that we have reached a plateau and that there is little more to learn. Almost always, however, another ridge and another dive are waiting for us just over the horizon, simply requiring a journey on the flat before we are ready again to plunge. A topic’s profundity will further reveal itself once our thinking has matured; when chance encounters open fresh perspectives; as the context shifts to create new dynamics; because our pent-up frustration at roadblocks spurs creative solutions; or if the work of others presents us with an unexpected tool, data-set or analytical breakthrough.

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Pulling out and doing other things is just as important, though. It seems we genuinely process experiences and information when we stop thinking too deliberately about them. And our analysis will sharpen as we engage in diversified “cycles” of learning instead of focusing narrowly on a particular area of expertise. The best specialized scientist may have an extraordinarily restricted understanding of the world, if he or she failed to combine an exhaustive grasp of a minuscule corner of it with the necessary roving of a rich intellectual and personal life.

Within this general approach to deepening our insight, more specific pieces of advice bear mention. They revolve around what depth isn’t.

  • To start with, objectivity is a hoax. Of course, any sound analysis must be thoroughly backed by methodology, research and evidence, but simply assembling these components requires multiple subjective decisions. Our subjectivity is an asset, if properly recognized, objectified and harnessed. It gives value to the human dimension that is integral to good work.
  • Big words, fancy concepts, elaborate frameworks frequently obscure more than they illuminate. We don’t need more people saying rather simple things in esoteric ways; the real need, challenge and talent is to be found in articulating complicated ideas in accessible language. We are deep when our thoughts resonate deeply, not when they are impossible to decipher.
  • This also means that being deep is not an individual attribute: it defines a certain style of interaction with others. It entails a good measure of selflessness, the aim being to highlight the depth of a topic rather than of oneself. To touch upon the universal, your ego must fade away.
  • This is easier to do if you embrace the untold amount of analysis we borrow from others, through readings, fieldwork, mentors, colleagues and even unrelated casual conversations. Our contribution is often a matter of how we organize things, take them just a step further, tweak them somewhat: your value-added is what you alone can provide given your specific experience. We are part, in other words, of a humbling collective process.
  • That is also why depth is both much more and much less than extensive knowledge. Certainly, you should have covered all possible bases. But sharing too much only confuses an issue. Analysis is a distilling process, in which large volumes of material are brought down to an essence, that nonetheless captures the topic’s complexity. Here your subjectivity, your intimate experience of your subject, your instincts as to what aspects are most important to your target audience, will come decisively into play. It is a tough and ad hoc determination, that typically requires much thought. A topic we know well will present numerous layers of analysis. Take war: it can be apprehended through individual itineraries, collective narratives and dynamics, day-to-day tactics, broader campaign strategies, a fluctuating geopolitical equation, historical precedents, the technological factor, the making and unmaking of social contracts, etc. An analyst would ambition to understand all these facets, but ultimately must decide which combination of discrete conclusions helps create more clarity in the melee.

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All told, depth will hinge on picking, informed by all that intense reading, rich experience and hard work that disappears into the background, a particularly pertinent angle. What may that be? A safe bet is to speak to the public’s desire for making sense of something troubling. What is disconcerting about a topic? How can such disquiet be defined, addressed and perhaps overcome? And what in our research process gave us some keys for doing so? That is what may resonate deeply—a lived but unconventional and otherwise unavailable wisdom.

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Illustration credit: Sigmund Freud by Wikipedia; gradient by Pixabay; layers in the sand by Geograph; citric acid crystals under polarised light by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.

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