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Art & Fear: The ceramics class and quantity before quality

This story from the book Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland popped up in a favorite technology blog yesterday:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Brilliant. And I’ve been having this lesson delivered to me repeatedly over the past year. Quantity leads to quantity. I don’t know if I’m learning it. I still get stuck overthinking, delaying, waiting for inspiration. When what I need to do is just show up. Do work. And keep showing up.

Attempt mediocrity, even. Dare to write one really awful sentence if you have to. It takes the pressure off. And mediocre might just lead to good, which every now and then might get me to awesome. But if I start by expecting to begin with awesome, I might just sit there instead, waiting for lightning to strike. Or, more likely, start scrolling Twitter and RSS feeds.

Quantity. Hammer away at the thing you want to get good at. Not to the point of grooving an easy path or just mailing it in. You need to challenge yourself routinely with hard things, by stretching your skills. But the more you do, the better you’ll be.

Don’t wait for the muse to show up. Your showing up is more likely to summon the muse than the other way around.

The ceramics class story, by the way, has been linked in several places (Cool Tools, Herbert Lui, and Coding Horror are three I found), and then I saw that book recommended today in a Chase Jarvis post, 6 Books Guaranteed to Make You More Creative. I have five of his recommended six books. The one I’m lacking: Art & Fear. The internet, great and powerful, clearly, is telling me to get that book.

Offscreen Magazine: Analog treasures for digital denizens


After being intrigued by a Shawn Blanc post about it, Offscreen Magazine, Issue 10, arrived in my mailbox yesterday. It’s a delight, a touchable treasure of insights about and for people whose work revolves around the internet. The creator, Kai Branch, decided he wanted to do more than push pixels and digital wares that seemed to have no meaningful shelf life. He wanted to make something real, that you could hold and share tangibly and that might have some staying power. From Offscreen’s “About” page:

Originally a web designer by trade, Kai Brach launched the first issue of Offscreen in early 2012. Feeling disconnected by the fast pace and the ephemeral nature of digital, after ten years of freelance work Kai wanted to create something more tangible. With Offscreen Magazine, he combines both his love for technology and the web, and the unique experience of printed magazines.

In the span of three months, Kai “converted” from a UI designer to an editorial art director, not only publishing and editing Offscreen but also designing the magazine from the ground up. As such, Offscreen is still a one-man operation, and a proudly authentic indie magazine supported by amazing contributors and curious readers. Kai hopes to reinvigorate printed magazines as a choice of media that provides a welcome break from our always-on society.

I’m impressed by the content in this magazine. And that it’s a one-man operation makes it even more impressive. There are insights on seemingly every page. It’s stuffed with meaty interviews with interesting people and is scattered throughout with thoughtful touches like this:


THIS was on the page following the table of contents! (The obstacle is the way.)

And this…

FullSizeRender 2

A wise insight from Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield in the current issue of Offscreen Magazine

And it’s beautifully made and a pleasure to hold. Quality paper, crisp print. The size is just right, too. Clearly, a lot of thought and care has gone into making this magazine.

Those of us who share on the internet are regularly reminded how fleeting our creations are. Of course, there’s poetry in the impermanence. Online creations are like a mandala, a Buddhist sand painting that’s intentionally scattered after being painstakingly created as a reminder of the impermanence of all things.

But there’s a grace in great things, things you can hold and tuck under your arm and put on your shelf to enjoy again and again. A thoughtfully crafted thing has a beauty that endures and offers a distinctive pleasure that a flickering screen cannot adequately match.

What will my web site, for example, have to offer of value to anyone ten or twenty years from now? I suppose I could still be adding to it regularly. I envision making this as long-term a repository of my writing as is possible. And the intrinsic value of notching new posts every day has meaning for me whether anyone else reads or not.

But the web is like a river. You never surf the same web twice. It’s constantly changing. On the internet, everything flows and nothing abides for long. Such is life, of course.

Enjoying this magazine has sparked a bit of curiosity about making more permanent things. I don’t know if “Excellent Journey: The Book” is in my future, but it’s worthwhile to consider what I might create in a more fixed form. Seth Godin’s recent book along with this magazine are great examples reminding me of the value of the touchable and the beauty of old-fashioned words on paper.

The printed word will, I venture, have a much more enduring presence than, say, vinyl records, which seem more of a novelty for a narrow niche of aficionados. No technology is required to use a book. But, I think people eventually will treat paper books more like souvenirs of ideas and memories. Electronic reading will be fine for most occasions. Real books, though, will become more special, for selected experiences and more valued ideas, for gifts that endure, that touch and can be touched.

Pre-ordered: Becoming Steve Jobs

I enjoyed Walter Isaacson’s massive, authorized biography of Steve Jobs. It was a big bestseller when it was published in 2011 so soon after its iconic subject died. The book was filled with sensational stories highlighting Jobs’s infamous temperament, and it was a decent history of the early days of the technology revolution. (Though, the author didn’t always seem to get technology.)

But the book seemed like a missed opportunity. Isaacson was granted access to Jobs in a way no other writer had been, but the “why’s” weren’t explored nearly as well as I had hoped. For such a thick book, it was surprisingly thin on takeaways, other than knowing I didn’t want to be Steve Jobs or to work for anyone like him.

I was hoping to see more into the day-to-day life of one of the key business innovators of our time. How did he structure his day? How did he spend his time? Why did he think so differently? How did he grow from such an idiosyncratic and often childishly cruel young entrepreneur into arguably the most dynamic and successful CEO and technology visionary of our generation?

My favorite writer on all things related to Apple, John Gruber, just posted on Daring Fireball about a new biography coming out later this month: Becoming Steve Jobs by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. It looks like exactly what I was hoping for in a Steve Jobs biography. From the book’s description on

Becoming Steve Jobs answers the central question about the life and career of the Apple cofounder and CEO: How did a young man so reckless and arrogant that he was exiled from the company he founded become the most effective visionary business leader of our time, ultimately transforming the daily life of billions of people?

The authors interviewed key people from Steve’s life, including his wife. Gruber read an advanced copy and raves about the quality of the book while calling it “an essential reference for decades to come”.

Pre-ordered. Hardcover. (That shows how high my expectations are. I’m thinking it’s a keeper, one my kids might want eventually.)


Sunday evening Stoic: Do good, expect nothing in return

Meditations 5.6:

“Some people, when they do someone a favor, are always looking for a chance to call it in. And some aren’t, but they’re still aware of it—still regard it as a debt. But others don’t even do that. They’re like a vine that produces grapes without looking for anything in return.

A horse at the end of the race …

A dog when the hunt is over …

A bee with its honey stored …

And a human being after helping others.

They don’t make a fuss about it. They just go on to something else, as the vine looks forward to bearing fruit again in season.

We should be like that. Acting almost unconsciously.”


Jason Silva: The Power of Ideas

I like the twist in style in Jason Silva’s latest short video, The Power of Ideas:

Great stuff, as usual, from Silva. It’s nice to see him varying the forms of his videos.

And this line in it from Tom Tobbins:

A cyclone of unorthodox ideas capable of lifting almost any brain out of its cognitive Kansas.

Nice, right?

Being willing to not just allow new ideas to reshape your view of the universe, but to actively seek out mindscape-shifting, dogma-crushing insights… courage –foolhardy, old-fashioned, to-hell-with-the-collateral-damage courage– is required.

The power of ideas, though, is worth the bumpy ride.

Walt Disney’s vision and defying his father

I’m reading a biography of Walt Disney. Interestingly, Walt’s father did not exactly encourage his dreams. The author describes a conversation between father and son when Walt was in his late teens and just getting started on his career:

“That evening after dinner, Walt’s father called him into the living room for a serious discussion. “Walter,” Elias said, “I have a job for you at the jelly factory. It pays twenty-five dollars a week.”
“Dad,” Walt replied, “I don’t want to work at the jelly factory. I want to be an artist.”
“You can’t make a living drawing pictures,” Elias said. “You need a real job.”

And that was just one small moment of a theme in their relationship, a pattern of Elias Disney trying to impose his version of reality on his son regardless of Walt’s interests and inclinations. Walt Disney’s father was stern, harsh even, with all of his children. His personality seems in many ways the opposite of the personality of Walt. Those who knew Walt universally acclaimed his personality as optimistic and kind and fun-loving, and it’s certainly possible that he crafted his persona, consciously or not, in opposition to his father’s.

But Disney, obviously, defied his father’s expectations for his career more than even he could possibly have imagined. Maybe his father’s opposition helped fuel Walt’s ambition. Maybe Walt was that much more persistent and committed because of the resistance he knew he would face from his father.

I don’t want to be that kind of father, though. I would like to think I will encourage the dreams of my children when they begin to wade through the dilemmas of building a career. My kids should get their obstacles elsewhere. Not from me.

Maybe, though, my fears will turn me into a wet-blanket of an old man who pushes my kids to the safe option rather than the one with the chance for awesome. We want security for our children. I know that is what motivates so much parental meddling and micromanagement of their adult children’s lives. Working with college students I see this frequently and posted this previously:

I heard a commencement speaker last year say that your parents do not want what is best for you. They want what is good for you. They want you to be safe, secure, successful, and have all your needs met. But what’s best for you might be risk and struggle and failure, key components on any path to mastery and awesomeness. Respect your parents, but lead your own life. And know that one day you might be that parent wanting what is just good for your child. And that’s okay. Parents are wired by evolution to protect their babies. Of course, the way you live your life will inform your children more than anything you say to them.

If, like Walt Disney, you face opposition to your path within your own family, you can be like Walt, and move yourself to action in spite of the resistance. Walt was not directly disrespectful to his father. He was just determined to go it alone if he had to, and he did. Turn your obstacles into fuel.

Just keep scrolling

Rands in Repose linked to Michael Sippey who linked to Anil Dash’s post from last fall, 15 Lessons From 15 Years of Blogging and this particular insight:

The scroll is your friend. If you write a bad post or something you don’t like, just post again. If you write something great that you’re really proud of and nobody notices, just post again. One foot in front of the other, one word after another, is the only path I’ve found to an overall body of work that I’m proud of. Push posts down the page, and the good and the bad will just scroll away.

Make a home for yourself on the internet. Own your URL. And tend to your site regularly, daily even. Express yourself. Observe. Analyze. Stand for something. Share what you’re learning.

Maybe no one ever reads it. But the practice of expressing yourself in public, where at least there’s the potential for others to read your words or see your art or hear your music or watch your videos, that practice is good for you, for your mind and for your heart.

And the good posts and the bad and the mediocre will line up and will fill your screen with your work and guide you to a better understanding of who you are and where you can go.

Kind of like life, a regular habit of showing up and sharing online will build, bit by bit, a body of work. Some days are better than others. Occasionally, something with truly shine. Just keep scrolling.’s 57 cooking tips

I cook breakfast and dinner for my family almost every day. Nothing fancy or too sophisticated, but it’s real food. And I enjoy doing it. After a day of work with not always a lot of tangible outcomes, it’s satisfying to come home and actually make something real.

Here’s a list of cooking tips that’s actually helpful I found linked from 57 Things You Can Do to Be a Better Cook Right Now 

I learned a few new cooking tricks from that list, and it also confirmed that a lot of things I already do make sense for a reason.  

Cooking is such a fundamental, primal skill. There are so many resources available to help you learn some basics, and you don’t need a lot of tools to get started. A good chef’s knife, a cutting board, a skillet (cast iron is great)… 

Buy real food from the outer aisles of the grocery store and start making your own meals. 

I wish I had started taking cooking more seriously when I was 20-something. Host a dinner party. Invite friends over. Force yourself to start mastering your kitchen. 

(And it turns out that cooking might have been the X factor that made humans the Earth’s dominant species.)


The value of sharing your thinking

From Seth Godin today:

There’s a lot to admire about the common-sense advice, “If you don’t have anything worth saying, don’t say anything.”

On the other hand, one reason we often find ourselves with nothing much to say is that we’ve already decided that it’s safer and easier to say nothing.

If you’ve fallen into that trap, then committing to having a point of view and scheduling a time and place to say something is almost certainly going to improve your thinking, your attitude and your trajectory.

Posting on this site every day is a challenge, and most days don’t give birth to art. But expecting myself to come up with at least a small thing to share adds a bit of juice to my days. My brain wakes up each morning scanning for ideas, more eager to learn something new knowing I need to find something to express before the day is over.

And showing up every day with an attempt to express myself moves me to better understand what I do think. “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”, right?

I recommend this daily discipline. Whether it’s a journal or a blog or a YouTube channel or an Instagram account, find a place to make something worth sharing on a regular schedule. It will frustrate and discourage you regularly, in the best way, as you grapple with the challenge of crafting something worthwhile. But it will enliven your mind and stoke your creativity and mark your days with mystery and with meaning.

Pick a path and get moving

A thought worth considering from Donald Miller’s memoir about relationships, Scary Close:

“I wonder if what might help couples build great families is to pick a place for their family to go and then hit the gas, to work toward their vision and build it out. Relationships have a way of stabilizing when in motion. Until then, they just feel like a road trip to nowhere.”

A direction to go in and action to move you in that direction can invigorate not just a couple or a family, but an organization or an individual. Even if you’re not completely sure which direction to pursue, just start. Pick a path you wouldn’t mind pursuing and get moving. You can then course correct as necessary.

Just existing in a relationship or an organization or a life without direction and motion will suck the energy from everyone involved.

Alto’s Adventure: A great iOS game

I’m not much of a game player, but occasionally one will come along that is just delightful. The newly released Alto’s Adventure for iOS is that game.

It’s two bucks and well worth it for its gorgeous design and satisfying, immersive experience. You ride a snowboard down a mountain and collect stray llamas. Really.

I loaded it on my kids’s devices today and all of us have been locked into it. So good.

I remember having a similar feeling playing Canabalt on the original iPad five years ago.


Oliver Sacks: “There will be no one like us when we are gone”

A couple of years ago the author Oliver Sacks wrote an insightful essay about his delight at growing old. He was surprised to find himself in his eighties and to find how gratifying it was. I posted about what an encouragement that essay was to me. 

However, Sacks recently found that he is terminally ill and wrote about facing his rapidly approaching demise. Go read the whole essay in the New York Times. He is eloquently reflective as he shares his news and explores his response in his final days. He closes with a measured and gracious appreciation for having had what he clearly considers a meaningful, well-lived life:

“I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

That’s a fine epitaph for anyone. Imagine facing your own imminent death with such poise and perspective, not flailing or grasping futilely in panic.

Of course, to make it past 80 after a notable life of accomplishment might have a calming effect as death approaches. I would like to think I could have such a healthy acceptance of my fate even without the gift of all those years and accomplishments. (Personally, I’m fine with not having to ponder this more directly until I approach, say, the century mark.)

However, none of us know our expiration date. But we all, like Oliver Sacks, have the privilege of being alive and aware right now and able to make our unique mark on this human experience like no other human ever has or ever will.

I suppose the best way to be prepared for a gracious end is to keep living as excellent of a now as you can–delighting in the mystery, loving deeply, making this place even a bit more beautiful with the art that only you can create.

Live your life on your own terms

Donald Miller, in his new book, Scary Close, refers to a story I saw last year about a nurse who worked with patients as they approached death and the lessons she learned about their regrets:

“Remarkably, the most common regret of the dying was this: they wish they’d had the courage to live a life true to themselves and not the life others expected of them.”

You’ve got one shot at life. Don’t live on someone else’s terms. Their life is enough for them. Your life is your life. Live it as best you can.


The sacred status of design at Apple

The New Yorker profile on Jony Ive I posted about yesterday is rich with detail about the primacy of design at the world’s most valuable company. It’s such a long feature it took reading it over two days for me to finish it.

I’m struck by the near sacred status of design at Apple. The design studio seems to be the axis of action for the entire company. Instead of analyzing markets and matching products to the greatest profit potential, Apple enables the design team to dream up products that delight them and allows the time to let those ideas mature and to refine them meticulously.

There’s art AND science involved. Jony Ive clearly is THE taste maker. His eye and his raw, unfiltered intuition–his gut–are determining the way our world will end up looking and working.

Yet this story also highlights the precision Ive and his team apply to every iteration of every possible idea they explore. From pencil sketches of random ideas to intricate measurements of the angle of corners on app icons, these designers explore the possibilities with detail and depth and care that set their final products far apart from the rest of the industry.

A former Apple designer was quoted in the article on the reverence for design within the company:

when a designer joined a meeting at Apple it was “like being in church when the priest walks in.”

Apple has made design its driving force and built its culture accordingly. Every organization has a pecking order of its values, whether that order is intentional or not, spoken or simply implicit in the way the leadership focuses attention and resources.

It’s worth revisiting regularly what you and your team (or family) should value. What is most important and will make the biggest difference in your work? Is that getting the attention and respect and resources it deserves?

Jony Ive and upping our design standards

This New Yorker profile of Apple’s design chief, Jony Ive, is a fascinating look at not just the man, but also into the mysterious, vaunted design lab he orchestrates inside Apple.

Design has moved to the forefront of our culture in a way it never has been before, and Apple and Ive are at least partly responsible. Simplicity and clarity and utility and beauty are more valued in consumer experience than ever. My eyes and my sensibility feel a bit insulted now when I come across sloppy, ill-conceived design, from a web form that looks like it was made in the 1990s to the clunky user interface on the self-serve pump at a gas station.

Apple has made design a distinguishing feature of both its software and hardware products. And as the cultural and corporate juggernaut of our time, it seems to be raising expectations for what we should expect from not just our products, but from experiences as well.

It ultimately comes down to caring. Who cares enough to fully inhabit the user’s experience of a product or service and make it is as intuitive and as delightful as possible? Here’s Ive from the New Yorker feature:

“At the risk of sounding terribly sentimental, I do think one of the things that just compel us is that we have this sense that, in some way, by caring, we’re actually serving humanity,” he said. “People might think it’s a stupid belief, but it’s a goal—it’s a contribution that we can hope we can make, in some small way, to culture.”

The whole, very long article is well worth reading. And it makes me even more aware of the potential to design my work and the experiences I create with even greater care.

Sunday evening Stoic: The good fortune of bad things

Meditations 4.49:

“So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.”

Even the saddest, most emotionally painful turn of events can be considered good fortune if you use it to grow and get stronger and to live a more wholehearted life.

This is no easy lesson, and I keep forgetting to welcome the seemingly unwelcome, to embrace what I am inclined to resist.

What is, is. I can only control my response. I can take action toward a course I prefer, but much is out of my hands.

Accept what you can’t control. The world isn’t striving to make you feel good. Welcome to reality.

But why not use even “bad” fortune, especially bad fortune, to propel you a little further on your journey to becoming a more excellent version of yourself?

Action hero, no excitement required

Oliver Burkeman has a great post this week on embracing discomfort. If you’re waiting for the right feeling to get busy, you are not truly free. If you need to be excited before you take action, you are no action hero:

It’s eye-opening to think of excitement this way: not as the thing we should all seek in life, but as a mildly embarrassing affliction that’s as likely to distract you from what matters as guide you towards it. “The only way to really deal with the problem of excitement,” Krech writes, “is to stop becoming dependent on it”: it’s after excitement fades that you discover what you’re made of. This needn’t mean resigning yourself to a relationship or job you hate; it just means not relying on excitement, or the avoidance of discomfort, to decide what to do next. Life (to paraphrase the Buddha) is inherently unsatisfactory. And that’s liberating: you never have to wonder if the path you’re on will lead to unbroken thrills and zero frustrations, because you can be certain it won’t.

What if you didn’t wait to get excited about that thing you want to do, or to feel like doing the work you know needs to be done to be the person you want to be? To be the hero of your own life takes action, whether you feel like taking action or not.

As Chuck Close says, “Inspiration is for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

“To be able to do what needs doing, whether or not you feel like it, is pretty close to a superpower.” –Oliver Burkeman

Keep typing

Screen Shot 2015-02-13 at 4.24.20 PM

AP Photo/Stephen Chernin

David Carr, the New York Times writer on the media beat, died suddenly last night. He had a distinctive voice, literally, with a gravelly edge and a sharp bite to it. But his voice as a writer was just as distinctive and bold and authentic.

His advice to writers, and creators of any sort, is right on. When he was asked for “his favorite cure for writer’s block”, he responded: “Typing.”

That’s the one word cure and very much the same sentiment as Seth Godin’s take:

Writer’s block isn’t hard to cure.

Just write poorly. Continue to write poorly, in public, until you can write better.

I believe that everyone should write in public. Get a blog. Or use Squidoo or Tumblr or a microblogging site. Use an alias if you like. Turn off comments, certainly–you don’t need more criticism, you need more writing.

Do it every day. Every single day. Not a diary, not fiction, but analysis. Clear, crisp, honest writing about what you see in the world. Or want to see. Or teach (in writing). Tell us how to do something.

If you know you have to write something every single day, even a paragraph, you will improve your writing. If you’re concerned with quality, of course, then not writing is not a problem, because zero is perfect and without defects. Shipping nothing is safe.

The second best thing to zero is something better than bad. So if you know you have to write tomorrow, your brain will start working on something better than bad. And then you’ll inevitably redefine bad and tomorrow will be better than that. And on and on.

Write like you talk. Often.

Just keep typing.

Good days are the material of a good life

The Art of Manliness just concluded an excellent, in-depth series on Winston Churchill, The Churchill School of Adulthood.

What a remarkable life. Churchill was THE linchpin in keeping the free world free in the darkest years of the twentieth century. And he was arguably the authentic and original most interesting man in the world. Scholar, prolific author, adventurer, humorist, iconic orator. With his incredible intellectual depth and transparent, colorful personality, he defied the stereotype many hold of politicians.

In the last post in this web series, there’s this quote from Churchill:

“Every night,” he said, “I try myself by court martial to see if I have done anything effective during the day. I don’t mean just pawing the ground — anyone can go through the motions — but something really effective.”

This is much like Benjamin Franklin who began each day by asking himself “What good shall I do this day?” and ended each night with “What good have I done today?”

I don’t need to have accomplished big, Churchillian things in a day. But I do want to have been intentional about doing something meaningful, even a small thing. A genuine connection with someone, a memorable conversation, an act of kindness. Making something or moving a valued endeavor a little further toward completion.

If I can get to the end of a day with something to look back on with satisfaction, it’s a good day. Good days strung together more often than lost days will ultimately lead to a good life.

Churchill’s life was epic. I don’t need an epic life. Yet taking stock at the end of each day and holding myself to a standard of quality, like Churchill and Franklin did, can point me more effectively toward the good life I do aspire to lead.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” –Annie Dillard

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