As I am reading Deep Work by Cal Newport, I realize that perhaps I am trained to do good work because of my studies at Vrije Universiteit Brussel. I’ve written before about the large amounts of material students at VUB need to chew through before an exam, and that therefore the exam period in Belgium is longer than in the United States.
While we could discuss the value of all the theory we chew through in Brussels for a practicing engineer, I consider my years in Brussels as the period when I learned to do deep work like never before. If you have three weeks to work your way through a pile of paper that reaches from the floor to your knees, there’s no space for distractions. You need to buckle down and master the complex ideas.
I struggled with learning to do deep study. I never had to study much at all during secondary school, so I never had to concentrated for long hours on end on difficult problems. At the beginning of my years in Brussels, I struggled with distractions. In those days, it was internet forums. I got so distracted by these and by browsing the internet that I had to hide my network cable in a drawer and allowed myself only to take this out at the end of the day.
As I learned to concentrate for longer stretches of time, I also learned how enjoyable it can be to enter a state of deep concentration and flow. Time flies when you are really “into” it.
After my studies in Brussels, I never had to work through such large amounts of paper anymore. But I’ve noticed that my concentration muscle has remained strong, and helps me in my research. When I decide to study a new topic, whether that be the action of fibers in fiber reinforced concrete, or the literature related to doctoral defenses, I find that I can still get into a new topic, study the state of the art, and then develop my own ideas.
So, I am very grateful that I studied at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (and it’s a very fun place to be as well!).