“Take Antoninus as your model, always. His energy in doing what was rational … his steadiness in any situation … his sense of reverence … his calm expression … his gentleness … his modesty … his eagerness to grasp things. And how he never let things go before he was sure he had examined them thoroughly, understood them perfectly … the way he put up with unfair criticism, without returning it … how he couldn’t be hurried … how he wouldn’t listen to informers … how reliable he was as a judge of character, and of actions … not prone to backbiting, or cowardice, or jealousy, or empty rhetoric … content with the basics—in living quarters, bedding, clothes, food, servants … how hard he worked, how much he put up with … his ability to work straight through till dusk—because of his simple diet (he didn’t even need to relieve himself, except at set times) … his constancy and reliability as a friend … his tolerance of people who openly questioned his views and his delight at seeing his ideas improved on … his piety—without a trace of superstition …
So that when your time comes, your conscience will be as clear as his.”
Whether Antoninus (Marcus’s predecessor as emperor) was really this together or not, this description provides a great model of character for anyone to aspire to.
I just finished two Walt Disney biographies, and I’ve started the new Steve Jobs biography. Those two men, Disney and Jobs, compare and contrast very interestingly, and it’s particularly compelling to read their stories back-to-back.
I can’t seem to stick to just one book at a time, of course, and I started another book this weekend: Born To Run by Christopher McDougall. I had heard of the book a few years ago, though I’m not a runner and have no plan to become one. But it has gotten rave reviews both for the phenomenal story and provocative ideas as well as for the excellent writing. I just started reading it yesterday, and it’s already grabbed my attention and will be a nice change-up from the Steve Jobs book.
My consumption of fiction is down significantly from last year. I need some good novels to mix in with all this non-fiction.
I continue to have plenty of unread books in my iBooks app. Some have been sampled. Others have been begun and put on hold. And a few are untouched. (I’m probably, though, on my fifth reading of Meditations.)
Just looking at this stack of books to read delights me. There’s such potential for new ideas and possibilities yet to be awakened and, certainly, the anticipated pleasure of the reading experience.
The unread book count doesn’t hold the cognitive burden of, say, your unread email count. It may be just the opposite kind of tension in the way that “Here it comes!” compares to “Here it comes.”
The new, much-hyped biography, Becoming Steve Jobs, was released yesterday, and my pre-ordered copy was on my porch when I got home last night. This is the rare book that I’m choosing to purchase as a physical book instead of an ebook. The advance praise was sufficient enough and the topic is one I find fascinating. I’m thinking it will be a keeper.
The book explores how someone who seemed so insensitive and reckless at the beginning of his career could end up as THE visionary business leader of our time. I just started reading it and came to this passage in the prologue:
“We can learn as much, if not more, from failure, from promising paths that turn into dead ends. The vision, understanding, patience, and wisdom that informed Steve’s last decade were forged in the trials of these intervening years.”
The greatness of the company that Steve Jobs fashioned in his last decade would not have been possible without the failures and shortcomings of his first couple of decades.
I’ve been fascinated recently by those who have turned adversity and failure to their advantage. We all seem to know that facing difficulties and enduring setbacks make us stronger and better. Yet we resist even the thought of coming up short or of taking on hardship.
Maybe we all should regularly and intentionally fling ourselves into the teeth of surefire heartbreak and dismal failure just so we can grow and learn faster.
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 quality. 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.
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:
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.
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 Amazon.com:
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.)
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.
Adding to your library is no guilty pleasure. It’s your obligation as a human living in a vast and mysterious universe to feed your mind and spur on your curiosity and your yearning for wonder and delight. When in doubt, buy the book.
“When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.” ―Desiderius Erasmus
Orbiting the Giant Hairball is the kind of book that stays with you. I read it many years ago and still think of lessons from it. The author, Gordon McKenzie, worked at Hallmark, and the book explores his efforts to retain his independence and nurture his creativity within an often stifling bureaucratic organization.
In the most memorable story in the book McKenzie tells of his annual visit to an elementary school to share his art. He would start by presenting to the Kindergarten class and work his way up, talking to each grade level, all the way to the fifth-graders to finish the day. At each grade level he asked the students, “How many of you are artists?” Every Kindergarten student would quickly put a hand up. At the next class, though, a few first-graders did not raise a hand. A few more second-graders didn’t. Progressively, as he moved up in grade levels, fewer students raised a hand when he asked who were artists.
By fifth grade, no hands went up at his question. He then told the fifth-graders that every Kindergarten student had claimed to be an artist. “What is happening?” he asked them. “Are all the artists transferring out of this school?”
Of course, the point is something is happening to convince kids they are not artists. Parents or peers or teachers or culture or the system or some combination is turning off the default setting for creativity.
It’s on us to keep drilling back into the settings, our own settings and those of people we can impact, and turning back on the “I’m an artist” setting.
You don’t have to make a living off your art to be an artist. Just make something that only you can make – an experience, a photo, a meal, a poem or post, a song or video, a note to a friend. Express yourself. Make art. Go back to the Kindergarten default that you are an artist.
“Applying tougher criteria to life’s big decisions allows us to better tap into our brain’s sophisticated search engine. Think of it as the difference between conducting a Google search for “good restaurant in New York City” and “best slice of pizza in downtown Brooklyn.” If we search for “a good career opportunity,” our brain will serve up scores of pages to explore and work through. Instead, why not conduct an advanced search and ask three questions: “What am I deeply passionate about?” and “What taps my talent?” and “What meets a significant need in the world?” Naturally there won’t be as many pages to view, but that is the point of the exercise. We aren’t looking for a plethora of good things to do. We are looking for the one where we can make our absolutely highest point of contribution.”
I need to remember to continually eliminate the good to hone in more clearly on the better. And then keep going, editing and discarding even those better options until I get tothe best.
Be precise with your questions. Get specific, as detailed as possible, to find the best possible answer.
“Nature did not blend things so inextricably that you can’t draw your own boundaries—place your own well-being in your own hands. It’s quite possible to be a good man without anyone realizing it. Remember that.”
It’s quite possible to be a good man without anyone realizing it.
What if your character was so strong, your virtue so impeccable, your goodness so subtle that you flew completely under the radar?
What if you were practically invisible, with no awards or glory or killer job offers or huge number of Twitter followers?
Be good, be honorable and virtuous and strong, not for any external reward or acclaim, but just for the virtue of the action itself. Don’t do this for that. Do this for this.
And don’t be discouraged or distracted from your focus on excellence if no one acknowledges you. This thought from Marcus is mirrored in this passage (chapter 17) from the Tao Te Ching:
“When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists. Next best is a leader who is loved. Next, one who is feared. The worst is one who is despised. If you don’t trust the people, you make them untrustworthy. The Master doesn’t talk, he acts. When his work is done, the people say, ‘Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!'”
The Master doesn’t talk, he acts. When his work is done, the people say, “Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!”
I find myself photographing memorable portions of books, actual paper books. It seems a bit odd, but it’s a way of collecting and noting thoughts that stand out to me. And since most of my notes are of the digital variety now, photos are a way to get these analog bits into my digital system.
The thought above, though, is well timed as a new year approaches. We tend to want to cling tightly to an illusion of certainty and stability. But the universe is energy, constantly in motion. Nothing stays constant except the fact that everything changes. Resisting this fact is futile. And the default for most of us.
Those who lean into the uncertainty of life are the ones most likely to make cool stuff happen. Why not brace yourself for not knowing and for insecurity and for uncertainty in the year ahead? Go with the flow of life’s crazy, unconstrained energy. Be a pathfinder.
I enjoyed this feature in the New York Times by Wil S. Hylton on author Laura Hillenbrand, who has written two great books, Seabiscuit and Unbroken. Hillenbrand suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome and is mostly homebound with intense episodes of vertigo. She cannot travel to do research or interview her subjects, but she’s turned what seem like obstacles into advantages.
This portion of the article is about Hillenbrand’s research for her book about World War II hero, Louie Zamperini:
“I thought it was actually an advantage to be unable to go to Louie,” she said. Because neither of them had to dress for the interviews and they were in their own homes, their long phone calls enjoyed a warmth and comfort that might otherwise be missing. She could pose the deeply personal questions that even her father had trouble answering. “I would ask a lot of questions about his emotional state,” she said. “ ’What did you feel right in this moment? Were you frightened?’ ” The distance also allowed Hillenbrand to visualize Zamperini in the time period of the book. “He became a 17-year-old runner for me, or a 26-year-old bombardier,” she said. “I wasn’t looking at an old man.”
She goes through periods where her vertigo makes it impossible to read, so she turned to audiobooks and found an advantage:
“It has taught me a lot more about the importance of the rhythm of language,” she said. “Good writing has a musical quality to it, a mathematical quality, a balance and a rhythm. You can feel that much better when it’s read aloud.”
She could easily have given up on trying audacious writing projects. She had a pretty solid excuse. But, instead, she used what should have been disadvantages to produce remarkable work.
And, then, there’s this from near the end of the piece:
“I feel so fully alive when I’m really into a story,” she said. “I feel like all my faculties are engaged, and this is where I’m meant to be. It’s probably what a racehorse feels like when it runs. This is what it’s meant to do, what its body is meant to do.” She paused. “This is what my mind is meant to do.”
To find work, or even a hobby, that produces this kind of flow should be everyone’s aim. When are you most “fully alive”, and what are the circumstances that make you feel like all your faculties are “engaged”? What is your mind meant to do?
“There is indeed a limit fixed for us, just where the remorseless law of Fate has fixed it; but none of us knows how near he is to this limit. Therefore, let us so order our minds as if we had come to the very end. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s account every day.
One who daily puts the finishing touches to his life is never in want of time.
…begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life. He who has thus prepared himself, he whose daily life has been a rounded whole, is easy in his mind.”
Seneca wrote these words just after telling his friend about an acquaintance who had risen from poverty to wealth and prestige and was on the verge of great accomplishment. And then he suddenly died.
Nothing is promised. We ultimately are fragile and mortal. It is foolish and reckless to assume we have time unlimited for our grand plans and for our intention to eventually live an excellent life.
As we end a year and begin a new one, it’s tempting to want to make grand plans for the distant future. While there is value in aiming your life in a general direction, coming up with specific goals and detailed plans for the long-term seems pointless.
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. –Annie Dillard
But what if you make grand plans for the quality of each day? Do as Seneca says, and “Count each separate day as a separate life.” String together enough great days and you will live your way into a great year. Instead of resolutions for the year, come up with resolutions each day. Instead of New Year resolutions, hold fast to “new day” resolutions as you awake each morning.
Consider daily habits and routines instead of goals. Screw up? You get a fresh start, a clean slate, every 24 hours. And as you prepare for bed each night, take an accounting of your day and prepare to adjust as necessary for the new day you hope to wake up to in the morning.
Yesterday I received Seth Godin’s new book, What To Do When It’s Your Turn. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s a delight to hold and thumb through. The design is rich, colorful, and compelling, with big photos and pulled quotes and blog-like bursts of wisdom throughout.
It is giving me new hope for the printed word, for books with real pages to turn. If you’re book is going to just be words, I can appreciate it just as well on an iPad or a Kindle. But if it aims to connect beyond just words, if there is a feel to it you hope to convey, an aesthetic quality that moves the reader visually and kinesthetically, then digital bits won’t be enough.
Godin’s new book has a pleasing heft, literal and metaphorical weight that you wouldn’t feel if you were reading it on a device. This is the kind of book that’s a bit like a souvenir for ideas. You’ll want to show it off and pass it around, and that’s his aim. Spread great ideas. Ideas with depth deserve a vehicle, a medium, to match.
As we consider the spread of ideas in the internet age, don’t pour one out for physical books just yet. When you make the whole book a work of art ––not just the art in writing the words, but in crafting the physical container of those words (and images)–– possibilities emerge that take the connection between a creator and an audience to a new level.