Here are SIX things I learned, thought were interesting, or found useful.
Nobody Ever Takes This Advice
Steve Martin is one of the most wildly successful comedians/performers/entertainers of all time. Reading Martin’s Born Standing Up very powerfully crystallized something in my brain: the prize never goes to the person who shows up with the most talent, it goes to the person who sticks around longest. “Despite a lack of natural ability,” Martin writes, he would go on to put together one of the most decorated careers in the history of entertainment (five Grammy Awards, an Emmy Award, a couple of Lifetime Achievement Awards, an Honorary Oscar, and so on and so on). Someone stood up in an audience once and asked, how do you become successful? “You have to become undeniably good at something,” he said. “Nobody ever takes my advice, because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear…but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’”
How A Woodpecker Gets Dinner
In the slog from starting to becoming so good they can’t ignore you, you inevitably experience what Seth Godin calls “The Dip.” The Dip happens somewhere between being mediocre and being great. It’s when you get frustrated, you can’t perceive any progress, you don’t seem to be getting a return on your investment of time and energy. So you think about quitting, or worse, diversifying. “Hard-working, motivated people find diversification a natural outlet for their energy and drive,” Godin writes. “Diversification feels like the right thing to do. Enter a new market, apply for a new job in a new area, start a new sport. Who knows? This might just be the one,” the thinking goes. “And yet the real success goes to those who obsess.” As Martin showed, the prize is typically rewarded to the stick-to-it-ive, not the experimentative. “A woodpecker,” Godin writes, “can tap twenty times on a thousand trees and get nowhere, but stay busy. Or he can tap twenty-thousand times on one tree and get dinner.” (File next to or below: Kip Fulks’ advice to “go deep.”)
Stay On The Bus
Staying on the topic of stick-to-it-iveness, the photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen once gave a commencement speech to the New England School of Photography. In Helsinki, Finlad—where Minkkinen was born and raised—there is a bus station. It’s in the heart of Helsinki and has some twenty-four platforms where buses leave from The buses make the same first few stops on the way out of the city. “Let’s say,” Minkkinen said, “metaphorically speaking, that each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer.” The third stop is the Museum of Fine Arts, metaphorically speaking, and you present the best of your three years of photographic activity. The curator suggests you check out the work of [insert more experienced artist]. [Insert more experienced artist] took off from the platform you took off from, only years earlier. Realizing that what you’ve been doing has already been done, Minkkinen says, “you hop off the bus, grab a cab, and head straight back to the bus station looking for another platform.” You spend another three years working on a new style. You go back to the Museum of Fine Arts. The curator takes one look and asks, haven’t you seen the work of [insert a different more experienced artist]? You get off the bus, grab a cab, and head back to the bus station looking for another platform. But this time, Minkkinen himself is there waiting with some advice, “Stay on the bus. Stay on the f**king bus…In time you will begin to see a difference. The buses that move out of Helsinki stay on the same line but only for a while…Then they begin to separate, each number heading off to its own unique destination…Work your way through those who inspire you, ride their bus route, and damn those who would say you are merely repeating what has been done before. Wait for the months and years to pass, and soon your differences will begin to appear with clarity and intelligence, your originality will become visible, even in the works from those very first years of trepidation when everything you did seemed to have been done before.”
Know How (And When) You Work Best
Researchers from Microsoft recently published a study about the rise of the so-called “triple peak day.” With the flexibility of at-home work, many knowledge workers are adding a night shift to the two main pre-pandemic peaks: pre-lunch and post-lunch. When you can work at any time, people are tending to work all the time. It first made me think of what my dad always says: not much good happens after the sun goes down. It second made me think of the composer Samuel Andreyev. Andreyev was asked to ballpark how much time he spends composing per week. He knew precisely. He schedules and tracks it: 3 hours per day. “It’s difficult for me to go too much beyond 3 hours,” he said. “It starts to be a question of diminishing returns after that point. When I’m working, I want to be in a state where I’m razor sharp, where I’m completely present, where I have all of my forces marshalled and ready for the task at hand. You can’t be sort of half there and kind of checking your email. You really have to be focused on it. And that sort of focus takes a lot out of you. So I would find it difficult to go beyond about 3 hours.” Past 3 hours, he says, you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul. He says he constantly tells his composition students: “In addition to the obvious musical skills and all the work that goes into composing, you have to know how [and when, I’ll add] you work best. And you have to get that right as early as possible because it’s incredibly important. And it’s different for everybody. Some people can sustain that focus for 45 minutes. Some people can do it for 3 hours. Maybe some people can do it a little bit more than that. I don’t find it credible when people say to me, ‘I compose 12 hours a day,’ which you occasionally hear. But I suspect it’s a bit of an elaboration of the facts.”
What Andrew Carnegie Learned From His Near Failure
When he was a teenager, Andrew Carnegie worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad Company as a secretary making $4 a week. In his autobiography, Carnegie writes about an incident in those early years that almost “blasted my career.” On a trip to Pittsburgh to deliver payroll checks, Carnegie, “a very enthusiastic railroader at that time,” sat in the open deck near the train’s engine. After the train jolted at one point, Carnegie patted his coat pocket to make sure he still had the checks. To his horror, his pockets were empty. The checks were shaken out. Carnegie knew the stakes: if he failed to deliver the checks, “I could no longer have enjoyed the confidence of those whose confidence was essential to success,” he wrote. “There was no disguising the fact that such a failure would ruin me.” When the train reached its destination, Carnegie asked the engineer to reverse the engine to go look for the lost goods. “I watched the line,” Carnegie wrote, “and on the very banks of a large stream, within a few feet of the water, I saw that package lying. I could scarcely believe my eyes. I ran down and grasped it. It was all right.” Such good fortune could have taught him a number of lessons. It could have taught him to be overly careful. It could have taught him that he must have the gods looking after him. It could have taught him nothing—it could have just been a good story. But it taught Carnegie empathy: “I have never since believed in being too hard on a young man, even if he does commit a dreadful mistake or two; and I have always tried in judging such to remember the difference it would have made in my own career but for an accident which restored to me that lost package at the edge of the stream.”
The Value In Taking Away
Before he reached the top of the culinary world, chef Wylie Dufresne apprenticed under the legendary Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Asked the most important lesson Jean-Georges taught him, Dufresne said, “Simplicity. He showed me the value in taking away, taking things off of a plate. He always talked about two, three, four elements on a plate. That’s it. The more you put on the plate, the easier it is to hide. The more you take away, there’s nowhere to hide—it has to be good.” (File next to or below: filmmaker Casey Neistat’s aspiration to be like the very best steak houses).