Lines of excellence

In a press conference just weeks before his death, President Kennedy was asked by a reporter if he liked his job. Kennedy’s response:

“Well, I find the work rewarding. Whether I am going to stay and what my intentions are and all the rest, it seems to me it is still a good many, many months away. But as far as the job of President goes, it is rewarding. And I have given before to this group the definition of happiness of the Greeks, and I will define it again: it is full use of your powers along lines of excellence. I find, therefore, the Presidency provides some happiness.”

The “full use of your powers along lines of excellence”.


I’m late to the Marvel Cinematic Universe party, and the last few films have had me wondering who many of the superheroes are and what exactly are their powers.

Well, what exactly are your powers? I’m not completely sure what mine are.

Whatever they are, I know I’m not putting them to their “full use”.

Passive mode prevails over active mode way too often and the easy distractions of this age make it even harder to muster the will, to fully tap into my powers.

The looming regret just around the corner will be that of unfulfilled potential and unlived life. Powers wasted, left dormant and unsummoned.

Snap out of it, this half-slumber that most of us are muddling through. Fully use your gifts. Make them true gifts that offer value beyond yourself.

And be awesome in the process. Aim for excellence. Be discontent with just good enough.

Full use of your powers along lines of excellence.

“To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.” –Robert Louis Stevenson

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


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. 

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.

Don’t wait

Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 3.55.56 PM


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.