Louis CK, the Carlin strategy, and inviting the awful

Plateaus happen. Regularly.

Years ago, in the midst of what was at that point an unremarkable career in stand-up comedy, Louis CK was frustrated with the creative rut he found himself in.

And then he learned the Carlin strategy, and everything changed.

It turns out that George Carlin would record a comedy special every year and then, the next day, throw out that material and start over from scratch.

Louis was stunned by that approach. He had worked long and hard to come up with the material for his show, and he had never imagined throwing it out and starting over.

But he was discontent with his work and the arc of his career, so he gave the Carlin strategy a try.

It was hard. Awful and hard at first.

But that void summoned better work eventually. And he kept doing it every year—scrapping his tried and true material and forcing himself to begin with a blank page once again.

And, in the process, Louis CK became Louis CK.

I do a version of the Carlin strategy with the presentations I give every year. I start over with new themes and slide designs and new ideas and stories.

It’s frustrating and a bit unsettling at first. I love the security of doing what I’m confident will work.

You have to sit with the awful for a while. Trick yourself if you have to by saying “I’m going to start by intentionally making this as awful as I can.”

Any action, even atrociously bad work, will at least propel you forward. You likely will surprise yourself, though, if you persist, and find that your awful starts getting better.

New ideas will appear that you would have never imagined if you had stuck to your old material.

Some of my best work came only after letting go of the good stuff I had been clinging to.

If you need a jolt in your creative life, consider the Carlin strategy. What if you started from scratch and created something completely new?

HT: Cal Newport — How Louis C.K. Became Funny and Why It Matters


Alexander Hamilton: Too good to be ignored

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We are at peak Hamilton.

The broadway musical is all the rage. Tickets are impossible for the foreseeable future.

The cast just graced the White House for a mini performance.

And the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has a compelling story of his own along with charisma galore.

I’ve had the soundtrack on repeat on my Mac at work. It’s excellent music whether or not you’ve seen the show or even know the basics of the story.

I’ve been reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, and it’s clear why Miranda found inspiration in the life of one of our (previously) more obscure founding fathers. Hamilton was an intense, charismatic personality with a knack for putting himself in the center of the most important events.

And he was a baller whose titanic work ethic and oversized ambition rocketed his talent to inevitable greatness.

Hamilton was a poor kid whose father abandoned him and whose mother died and left him in poverty on a hellish island in the Caribbean. Objectively, he should have been just another anonymous kid whose life was derailed by misfortunes beyond his control.

But Hamilton was too talented and too determined to be ignored. Largely self-taught, he was a prodigy with a quill and ink. The kid wrote his way off that island and into American history. (Go read the book or somehow see the show. It’s a killer story.)

What’s striking to me as I read about Hamilton is how his talent and effort and sheer audacity created the opportunities that made him and ended up helping to make our nation.

Whatever task he was given, he gave it his all. As a junior officer when the American revolution began, his competence and attention to discipline and detail in the midst of what was generally a ragtag band of half-hearted soldiers caught the eye of George Washington. His effort and resulting insights and instincts made him indispensable as General Washington’s young assistant.

Hamilton had a prodigious ability to just do work. As the architect of some of the nation’s primary government institutions and philosophies, he would write late into the night and get back at it early the next morning. He was young, but he was no overnight sensation. He  worked hard and earned his seat at the table.

I regularly refer to the comedian Steve Martin’s admonition: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” This worked for Steve Martin in stand-up comedy in the 1970s and for Alexander Hamilton in nation-building in the 1770s.

The surest way to success is focused, smart, persevering, old-fashioned effort.

You can’t control what others do or what opportunities are offered to you, but you can control what you do with what you’ve been given.

Pursue mastery. Settle in for the long haul of gradual, continuous improvement. Be awesome, and be ready to take your shot if it comes.



Focus on what you can give, not what you want to get

It’s easy simply to go through the motions and do your work without giving much thought to the difference you can make.

But what’s the point? Why do something that won’t make an impact, that won’t change anything?

Even a commonplace task you do regularly can be filled with meaning, though, if you fill it with the awareness of possibility and potential transformation or simply authentic, in-the-moment presence.

When I’m on autopilot, which is too often my default state, what I make seems hollow and my interactions with others feel superficial.

But when I actively connect what I’m doing to the potential to make a difference, no matter how small, in someone or something—when I consider my work a gift that has meaning and my interactions opportunities for genuine connection—then I find energy and purpose that otherwise would be missing.

I want to do work that matters. I want to connect with fellow humans in meaningful ways.

Approaching each opportunity for creation and connection as though I’m offering a gift changes everything.

Our minds regularly cycle through the desires of the moment. “What do I want next?”

But, imagine asking instead: “What can I give next?”

“What can I contribute?”

“How can I offer something meaningful?”

This shift—asking what can I give rather than what can I get—upends our programming.

What do you have to give? What can you contribute that would make a difference?

Who are you not to share your gifts with the world?

Don’t worry about how your generosity will be received. Just be bolder and kinder than seems reasonable.

Keep giving and connecting and creating possibilities that didn’t exist until you took action.

Show your work: The Force Awakens edition

I love seeing how creators create.

I appreciate a master pulling the curtain back and letting us see at least a bit of the behind-the-scenes process. The chaos and messes and wayward first drafts that lie behind the art are just as instructive as, if not more than, the inspiration and perspiration.

I preordered on iTunes the digital download of the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, so it was waiting on me when I woke up last Friday. My family enjoyed a movie night together as we watched the film again for the first time since we saw it in the theater on Christmas day.

And it was entertaining the second time through. But the next morning I got even more enjoyment out of watching the documentary that was packaged with the extra features, Secrets of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey.

It’s an hour-long documentary about the making of the film, and it was better than most “making-of” films I’ve seen.

The documentary spotlighted a visceral enthusiasm among the film’s makers. They all seem like kids let loose in the toy factory, from the young lead actors to the veteran director and producers and writers.

There’s a great scene in the documentary of the key cast members reading through the entire script together before the shooting began.

I was most intrigued, though, by the way designers and artists were let loose to create compelling images, of potential characters and sets and scenes, even before a script was in place.

The director and writer were inspired by these images which often ended up informing the story.

A light saber duel in the snow? How cool would that be? How can the story take us there?

And, indeed, that was my favorite scene in the film, and the turning point in the plot.

When I’m creating a presentation, I’m often inspired by disparate, seemingly unrelated ideas and images. Even honing the typography of a slide or stumbling on a compelling image I find online can propel my narrative in a different direction than I originally imagined.

In the discovery phase of your work, feel free to ramble and collect and follow what delights you. Consume voraciously. Make note of every little thing that sparks your curiosity.

The small details can support the big picture, but it’s possible for those details, even seeming tangents, to give life to a big picture you haven’t yet imagined.



The thrill of fresh work from Dan Carlin


I scanned through my podcast queue in Overcast yesterday and got a little thrill to see a new Hardcore History episode.

If ever there were an artisanal, hand-crafted podcast it’s Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History.

Who knows how much time he puts into crafting the multi-hour series that covers expansive topics such as all of World War I?

Each episode plays as a single seamless, intricately detailed narrative with Carlin holding forth in his uniquely captivating style.

Three-and-a-half hours fly by. I seek out reasons to drive so I can listen some more.

When it’s over, I’m left waiting weeks until the next installment, waiting patiently until my comfortably familiar podcast queue is interrupted with that little thrill once more.

Carlin is, in essence, performing a sort of extemporaneous yet exhaustively plotted audio book with each series. And his work is remarkably compelling. He shines a light on the tragic foibles of our species.

Seeing terrible headlines today seems less shocking when you consider the even more awful things humans have been doing to each other since history has been recorded.

Carlin is a craftsman who clearly cares deeply about what he makes. He goes deep and creates work that adds real value to my life. 

Care deeply. Go deep. Make something worth talking about, something that might cause even a little thrill for someone, somewhere. 

(If you want to get started with Carlin’s work, my favorite series are his World War I deep dive, Blueprint for Armageddon, and his take on the fall of the Roman Republic, Death Throes of the Republic.)



Why Seinfeld keeps touring

My wife and I are going to see Jerry Seinfeld perform here in our hometown tonight.

He’s set for life financially, and his reputation as one of the comedy greats is already a lock.

But he keeps touring because he loves the work.

I wrote about this previously, but I love his craftsman approach. From a 2012 New York Times profile:

For Seinfeld, whose worth Forbes estimated in 2010 to be $800 million, his touring regimen is a function not of financial necessity but rather of borderline monomania — a creative itch he can’t scratch. “I like money,” he says, “but it’s never been about the money.” Seinfeld will nurse a single joke for years, amending, abridging and reworking it incrementally, to get the thing just so. “It’s similar to calligraphy or samurai,” he says. “I want to make cricket cages. You know those Japanese cricket cages? Tiny, with the doors? That’s it for me: solitude and precision, refining a tiny thing for the sake of it.”

When he can’t tinker, he grows anxious. “If I don’t do a set in two weeks, I feel it,” he said. “I read an article a few years ago that said when you practice a sport a lot, you literally become a broadband: the nerve pathway in your brain contains a lot more information. As soon as you stop practicing, the pathway begins shrinking back down. Reading that changed my life. I used to wonder, Why am I doing these sets, getting on a stage? Don’t I know how to do this already? The answer is no. You must keep doing it. The broadband starts to narrow the moment you stop.”


Obama’s excellent advice: Focus on what you want to do, not what you want to be

The White House posted this video on Facebook last night of the President talking to White House interns. (ht Ryan Scates)

Here’s a transcript of his message:

“Worry less about what you want to be, and think more about what you want to do. Because this town is full of people who want to be a congressman or want to be a senator or want to be president.

And if that’s your focus, if that’s your moral compass, then you’re consistently going to be making decisions solely on the basis of how do I get, for me, what I want.

If you think in terms of what do I want to do? ‘I want to solve climate change’ or ‘I want to employ disadvantaged youth’ or ‘I want to fix a broken healthcare system’, then even if you don’t get to the place you wanted to be or the office you wanted, during that entire time you’re going to be working on stuff that’s real and getting stuff done…

Do great things.”

So good.

The question to ask yourself is not “What can I get?”

The question that will propel you the furthest and offer the most meaningful and satisfying course of action is “What can I give?”

Take more time to do better work

The author of Deep Work, Cal Newport, has upped his activity on his blog in the wake of his new book.

Today he shared this quote from a book published by an academic in 1912:

“To save time, take time in large pieces. Do not cut time up into bits…The mind is like a locomotive. It requires time for getting under headway. Under headway it makes its own steam. Progress gives force as force makes progress. Do not slow down as long as you run well and without undue waste. Take advantage of momentum. Prolonged thinking leads to profound thinking.”

I’ve found this to be true for me. I would have a lot more profound thoughts if I more regularly carved out big swaths of time for focused work sessions.

Getting started on doing serious work, work that really matters, can be completely uncomfortable. And then sticking with a hard thing for the first 20-30 minutes takes patience and diligence.

But once the distracted part of your brain gives up and allows your mind to get into a focused flow, the work actually becomes a delight.

The key is having the will to trudge through the initial resistance and overcome the pain and friction required to get into a groove.

Be strong. Be patient.

Your best work is just past that godawful hill you’ve got to climb to get started.

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Flow states and peak moments

IMG_0039Cal Newport’s new book, Deep Work, is doing some deep work on me. His challenge to focus more intently and work with more depth is hitting a nerve.

We are living in a shallow, distraction-filled age, and those who can defy the pull of the shallow and the frivolously urgent will be able to stand out and create more meaningful work.

And those who go deep will fill their lives with more happiness.

Newport quotes famed psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who did groundbreaking research on what he called “flow states”:

“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

The resistance to getting into such a mind or body stretching activity is strong. But the payoff to overcoming that resistance could be the peak moments of your day, your week, your life.


What can you give?


It’s typical to start a new year with grand plans for your life, with goals and dreams and visions of a better you just around the corner of the next month or four or ten.

Well, yes, aim to get better and to fill your life with more meaningful pursuits.

But such goal planning can get a bit self-indulgent.

“What do I want?”

“What can I get?”

“How can I be happier, better-looking, richer…?”

What if instead you asked, “What can I give this year?”

“How can I contribute and make a difference?”

“What do I have to offer the world that only I can offer?”

“What is a significant problem I can begin to help solve?”

These questions spark in me a more engaging level of curiosity and enthusiasm than the self-focused questions.

Imagine winning the ultra-mega-awesome lottery jackpot. It’s fun to dream of what you would buy and to envision how the financial freedom would change your life. (For me, I’ll take a couple of Teslas and one of everything from the Apple Store and a long trip to Hawaii.)

But it’s even more fun to imagine what good you could do for others and for your community and for the world with a sudden fortune at your disposal.

It’s in giving and serving and offering something useful to others that we truly get satisfaction and joy.

Where can your voice, your creativity make a difference? How can you be distinctly useful? How can you help awaken possibility in others this year?

By focusing on what you can give, you’re also more likely to end up getting something more meaningful in return.

Imagine looking back on the year 2016 and delighting in what you contributed rather than in what you acquired.

So, if you’re feeling stuck or lost or you’ve abandoned your resolutions already, consider crafting your days around what you can give. 

*I couldn’t find the source to credit for the lovely photo above. Thank you, anonymous photographer. 

Cal Newport on the power of “deep work”

I read this Cal Newport post today and was inspired to lock in for a session of what he calls “deep work”.

He suggests that when most of us think we are truly focused at work, we actually are far from it. We tend to work in tiny bursts that are regularly interrupted by distractions—checking email or browsing online or talking with colleagues. 

In fact, the distractions probably occupy more of our time than actual work. 

So, taking up his challenge, I closed my office door this morning and quit the apps on my Mac that are most likely to distract—Mail, Tweetbot, Reeder, Slack, and Chrome. 

I then spent close to an hour at my whiteboard thinking through and mapping out ideas for the keynote I’m scheduled to give on Friday. After a brief walk outside to stretch my legs and get fresh air, I shut myself back in my office for another hour, this time at my desk using the Keynote app to synthesize those ideas and design and tweak the slides. 

Two hours of focused, distraction-free, “deep” work made a huge difference in my day and in an important project.

Resistance to getting started and to staying engaged with this level of focus is strong. At the first sign of boredom or discomfort it’s easy to bail and go get a hit of pleasure from some less important activity. You rationalize by saying you need a break or you’re just staying on top of other tasks. And you don’t want to seem inaccessible to others or unresponsive to requests that might be coming to you.

But there’s a momentum that comes from staying with a task in depth and pushing through the temptation to let your mind wander elsewhere. Some ideas are shy and only show up when they trust you will have the patience to allow them to appear. The flow state may only come after a prolonged period of seemingly fruitless drudgery. 

If you’re looking to rejuvenate your work life as the year begins, consider regularly blocking off two to three distraction-free hours at a time to focus and plunge into deep work on things that matter most.

Coincidentally, after those two hours of deep work ended this afternoon, I saw that Newport’s new book on this topic, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, was released today. Purchased. 


Make something you like

Today was my first day back at work after a week off for the holidays. 

I had a long meeting in the middle of the day and, of course, spent some time catching up with colleagues.

I wasn’t very productive. 

But I did make this one slide for a keynote I’m giving on Friday night. 

Just one slide. 

But I like it, and it adds some visual punch to a key point I hope to make in my talk. 

If you can make just one thing you like, that’s not a lost day. 

I’m calling this day a modest success. 

Tomorrow, maybe I can make two things I like. 

Why are we punting?

My friend Alec knows I’m intrigued by the Arkansas high school football coach whose team doesn’t punt and always kicks an onside kick for every kickoff. He tweeted me a link to this new ESPN video about Coach Kevin Kelley and his remakable success going against the grain of conventional football wisdom.

This short, 11-minute film is worth watching whether you’re a football fan or not. It’s an inside-the-locker-room/on-the-sidelines look at a key moment in this high school team’s season.

In the film Coach Kelley tells why he defies accepted doctrine and takes risks no other coach will and wins big in the process.

Kelley explains that when he took over the coaching job the team had a history of being good, but never great. So, he began questioning everything. Here’s Coach Kelley talking about the mindset that changed the team’s outcomes from good to great:

“We started asking ‘Why?’ about everything. Though ‘Why are we punting the ball?’ came up, and it just sounded silly at the time.”

Just questioning something that seemed silly to question led to a big epiphany and ultimately to success beyond anyone’s expectation.

Watch the film and ask yourself what assumptions in your work or your life seem “silly” to question. Then ask “Why?” anyway.

Paul Graham on good procrastination

“Unless you’re working on the biggest thing you could be working on, you’re procrastinating.” –Paul Graham

via Mikael Cho


But, right on.

That quote is from a Paul Graham essay from ten years ago—Good and Bad Procrastination.

Graham makes a solid and sobering case that most people occupy their time with “small stuff” at the expense of work that really matters:

There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I’d argue, is good procrastination.

That’s the “absent-minded professor,” who forgets to shave, or eat, or even perhaps look where he’s going while he’s thinking about some interesting question. His mind is absent from the everyday world because it’s hard at work in another.

That’s the sense in which the most impressive people I know are all procrastinators. They’re type-C procrastinators: they put off working on small stuff to work on big stuff.

What’s “small stuff?” Roughly, work that has zero chance of being mentioned in your obituary. [Emphasis added] It’s hard to say at the time what will turn out to be your best work (will it be your magnum opus on Sumerian temple architecture, or the detective thriller you wrote under a pseudonym?), but there’s a whole class of tasks you can safely rule out: shaving, doing your laundry, cleaning the house, writing thank-you notes—anything that might be called an errand.

Good procrastination is avoiding errands to do real work.

Would the work you spend most of your time on be something that merits a mention in your obituary or at your memorial service?

But, “small” doesn’t always mean “small”. Just being fully present with and kind to a colleague or friend or child or stranger is actually big stuff, and if those small moments shine throughout your life, they will indeed shine in your obituary.

However, most of us do spend our days focused on very small stuff. I know it’s satisfying to “get things done” and go to bed with a completed to-do list for the day. But a collection of checked off to-do lists doesn’t lead to a meaningful legacy if those to-do’s were just a lot of small stuff.

I keep putting off big stuff that I know I want to do eventually. The big stuff is the hardest stuff, with the most at stake and the potential for the most satisfaction and meaning. Yet there’s a fear factor that ratchets up the resistance when I try to tackle the big stuff—a fear of coming up short or revealing my inadequacy or just the fear of the pain that comes with doing hard things.

I regularly feel like I need a certain mood or the right conditions or a vast expanse of unscheduled time to get started on truly important work. That’s the resistance whispering to me, though. It’s sneaky clever like that. But just starting on something big, even if it’s a tiny action, can reveal the resistance as the hollow fraud it really is.

So, put off the superficial, inconsequential work. Procrastinate if you have to on things that ultimately matter least. Figure out what the big stuff is for you and then get busy taking action on what will matter most. 

Consume good stuff to make good stuff

Austin Kleon on what he does if he’s feeling blocked creatively:

“When I stall out, it’s time to start taking things in again: read more, re-read, watch movies, listen to music, go to art museums, travel, take people to lunch, etc. Just being open and alert and on the lookout for That Thing that will get me going again. Getting out the jumper cables and hunting down a battery.”

When I’m in a creative lull, I usually find I’m in a reading lull as well.

I need to consume good stuff in order to make good stuff.

Flipping your mindset

I took a seminar style freshman English course in college. There were just twelve students, and we sat around a conference table with Professor Patterson, a distinguished teacher who was in his final year before retirement. 

We had an eight page paper due every week. I don’t think I had a paper that long due over any single semester in high school. 

The first assignment was to analyze a sonnet. Sonnets are fourteen line poems. How was I going to write eight pages about about such a short poem?

Dr. Patterson noticed the collective chagrin and low level panic around the table as he explained the assignment. 

I remember his advice well, almost 33 years later. He smiled and encouraged us to make this a pleasant experience. He suggested that as we tackled this project over the weekend we should find a comfortable chair and a tasty beverage and savor the work. 

Somehow, his unexpected suggestion encouraged me and dulled the dread. I ended up doing just fine on that paper and throughout that class. 

A comfortable chair and a tasty beverage. That image arises regularly when I’m confronted by an overwhelming or seemingly dreary task. 

It’s a matter of mindset. Instead of resisting and dreading, I was able to see the work as an experience to be enjoyed. 

It’s worth giving this a try when you face something difficult or unappealingly tedious. Find a way to flip your mindset and make it a pleasure. 

Go to a happy place. Listen to lovely music. Find a comfortable chair and a tasty beverage. Act as if the unwanted task is something you chose and eagerly anticipate, and then delight in completing it. 

Don’t wait

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The best way to know something is to try to express it.

I’ve heard people say they don’t want to pursue a relationship until they figure themselves out first. There’s nothing like being in a relationship, though, to reveal yourself to yourself.

And don’t wait till you feel inspired to start creating. It’s the starting and the doing that summons the inspiration.

Have a bias for action, for doing and making, even when—especially when—you don’t think you know enough or feel it enough to get started. 

Just start. 

“Incredibly different incredible people”

“The best way to increase the odds that your team will see things you don’t is to assemble incredibly different incredible people.” –Scott Belsky

This is a great post by Scott Belsky

The team members that have pushed me further and helped transform our work are usually the ones that ask the most questions and express their discontent most effusively. 

Groupthink is comfortable, but it’s deadly to innovation and meaningful improvement. 

Gather contrarians and outliers and annoyingly curious people into your team. 

Embrace the hard questions and the counterpoints to make sure you don’t coast into complacency.