Here are SIX things I learned, thought were interesting, or found useful.
The Most Stories Wins
I spent this past week at Cerro Gordo, a mining town a couple hundred miles north of Los Angeles. Back in the 1800s, Cerro Gordo was the largest silver mine in California’s history. In 2018, Brent Underwood spent his entire life’s savings on the town. Since, Brent’s been working on understanding, preserving, adding to, and getting millions of people excited about the history of Cerro Gordo. Sitting in an abandoned mining cabin overlooking the town, I asked Brent about the decision to buy Cerro Gordo, his two years living in it alone, how he’s built his YouTube Channel to nearly 1.5 million subscribers, and more. When I’ve thought about that conversation the past couple days, I almost always first come back to how he summed up his decisions since leaving his first job out of college at an investment bank: “For better or worse,” he said, “I’ve been following interestingness.” If choosing between two opportunities, he goes to what will be the most interesting. That’s his rubric. “I want to live an interesting life,” he said. “If I make it to 80, I want to have a lot of stories.” For the full hour-long drive down the mountain and out of town with the two friends I travelled with, we shared stories of the week—about the crazy lady who dressed head to toe in St Patricks Day wear and didn’t go anywhere without her iPad playing an episode of the Joe Rogan podcast. And the 2WD Jeep that got stuck then dug out on the sunsetting ride down into Death Valley National Park. And the hikes to mines. And the dirt bike rides to peaks. In writing, it’s said that the best story wins. In life, it might be said that the most stories wins.
Surround Work With A Halo of Leisure
On that drive down the mountain, we also talked about the routine we slipped into: up with the sun, work for a few hours, go explore, work for a couple hours, go explore, watch the sun set, dinner, sit and talk around a fire, bed. We all agreed: we worked less and got more done. It made me think of the following: “The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal. “He is only earnest to secure the kernels of time, and does not exaggerate the value of the husk. Why should the hen set all day? She can lay but one egg, and besides she will not have picked up materials for a new one. Those who work much do not work hard.”
Don’t Find/Follow Your Passion
If it were a couple years ago, one of my takeaways from Brent would have been to have the courage to follow your passion. I now believe that people who give the advice to “follow your passion” either 1) are far removed from the complex origins of their current occupational happiness or 2) have misdiagnosed how they made their journey to occupational happiness. There’s good research from the organization psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski, who found that people identify their work one of the three ways: a job (a way to pay the bills), a career (a path to increasingly better work), or a calling (a vital part of their life/identity). To explore what leads people to experience work as a calling, Wrzesniewski studied college administrative assistants—a group you’d expect would, by and large, experience their work the same. Surprisingly, there was about an even split in how these employees identified with their work. And the strongest predictor of experiencing work as a calling was the number of years worked. Passion, in other words, is a byproduct, a side effect, spun out of a complex web of elements that are agnostic to the specific type of work a job requires. Competence, autonomy, connection, a sense of accomplishment, a sense of usefulness, a sense of continual improvement, a sense of (as Brent put it) “feeling yoked to something bigger”—these are some of the ingredients in the concoction that make one content. Which reminds me…
In his twenties, Tim Urban—now one of the most popular writers on the Internet—was having fun and hating himself. He was, for the most part, micro-content and macro-miserable. He worked with fun people in a fun job that didn’t demand too much of him, that had clearly defined hours, that allowed him to take weekends off. “And if I didn’t have this one thing,” he said, “burning inside me since I was young—I wanted to do something creative, I wanted to make stuff, and I wanted to connect with thousands of people through stuff I was making—I think I would have been very happy. But this burning think was ruining it for me.” He delayed and delayed and delayed, but eventually, he started a blog (Wait But Why), and eventually, he had millions of readers visiting that blog. Now, he is, for the most part, macro-content and micro-miserable. “Now,” he said, “I’m making stuff and I’m connecting with lots of people with that stuff—that’s all I wanted. I have it. In a macro sense, I have no complaints. But in a micro sense, like on a typical Tuesday, it’s a nightmare.” The writing never comes easy. Progress is ambiguous. Hours are too—no weekends completely off. No fun coworkers. No one holding him accountable. “So I just fight against myself a lot of these days,” he said. “But I will always take macro-contentedness over the micro, if I have to choose one of the other.”
Is This A Floor Tile?
For their first wedding anniversary, legendary film editor and sound designer Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather I, II, and III, American Graffiti, etc.) and his wife went back to her childhood home in England. One night, one of her friends asked what he does for a living, and he told him. “Oh, editing,” his wife’s friend said, “that’s where you cut out the bad bits.” Walter explained that there’s much more too it—structure, color, dynamics, manipulation of time, and so on. A couple decades later though, Walter would “come to respect his [wife’s friend’s] unwitting wisdom,” Walter writes in In The Blink Of An Eye. “Because, in a certain sense, editing is cutting out the bad bits.” And the job of the good editor is to be able to answer the tough question: what makes a bad bit? “In fact,” Walter writes, “the process of making a film [is] the search to identify what is a uniquely ‘bad bit.’ So, the editor embarks on the search to identify these ‘bad bits’ and cut them out.” The good editor (like the good writer, musician, YouTuber, entrepreneur, illustrators, and artists ad infinitum), Walter writes, “is paid to make decisions.” Artists are paid for their “discernment,” he writes, for their taste, their knowing what to cut and not to cut, what to publish and not publish, what is a good idea and a bad idea. The good tour guide points out the Sistine Ceiling, Walter analogizes, not the floor tiles. And so, the job of the good artist is to be able to answer the tough question: is this a floor tile? (File next to or below: The Hidden And Ultimate Skill of the Master).
Try To Crack Cultural Codes
A question I’m increasingly interested in, how does one develop taste? How does one get better at distinguishing a Sistine Ceiling from a floor tile? Tyler Cowen—the economist, polymath, Marginal Revolution blogger, and the best curator of talent in the world—often ends his podcast with the question: “What is your production function?” In economics, a production function is equation that expresses the relationship between inputs and outputs. Tyler has written about his production function. Tyler has developed his taste over years and years of practice in “cracking cultural codes.” “I figured the best way to understand culture was to try to understand or ‘crack’ as many cultural codes as possible,” he writes. “As many styles of art. As many kinds of music. As many complex novels, and complex classic books…Religions, and religious books. Anthropological understandings.”