Here are SIX things I learned, thought were interesting, or found useful.
Turn Off The Reading Brain
John Mayer was asked how he defines writers block. “Writers block,” he said, “is when the two people of you—the writer and the reader—when the reader doesn’t love the writer. Writers block is not a failure to write. It is a failure to catch the feedback loop of enjoying what you’re seeing and wanting to contribute more to it.” One takeaway, one potential cure for writers block is to work to turn off the reading brain when writing. Later in the interview, he unintentionally gives a good reason for doing that: our reading brain is often wrong. “This is the most important part of the conversation creatively,” he says. “I made [Sob Rock] only to coax something out of me that I wouldn’t normally have done: shitpost a record. It’s called Sob Rock because it’s a shitpost. More importantly, it’s what I thought was a shitpost. And this gets down to when artists sit in front of you and play what they think is their garbage, and you go, ‘that’s the best thing I ever heard you play.’”
Everyone Is Working With The Same Material
In the 1950s, the double-helix structure of DNA was discovered. Biologists thought the DNA structure might map to the genetic structure of specific organisms. They expected the structure of the DNA to give away the organism—in the way you can look at a blank map of the U.S. and point, that’s Texas, and, that’s California, and, that’s Pennsylvania, and, etc. It turned out, though, that you can’t look at a double-helix structure of DNA and be sure the organism it corresponds to. Biologists were surprised to find, for instance, that the DNA for the human and the DNA for the chimpanzee are 99% identical. The difference between the human and the chimpanzee is the order in which the pieces of information in the DNA are stored and the rates at which that information is activated over time. “My point,” film editor and sound designer Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather I, II, and III, American Graffiti, etc.) writes in In The Blink Of An Eye, “is that the information in the DNA can be seen as uncut film and the mysterious sequencing code as the editor.” If you give two editors the same material, one will make a human and one will make a chimp. “Each is going to make different choices about how to structure it,” he writes, “which is to say when and in what order to release those various pieces of information.” All creators—writers, entrepreneurs, musicians, etc.—are working with 99% idential pieces of information. But each makes different choices about what pieces to include and in what order. These different choices pile on top of another, and writer “X” writes a human and writer “Y” writes a chimpanzee.
The Moment The Bulls Became A Championship Team
Michael Jordan’s first six seasons with the Chicago Bulls created speculation: will Michael Jordan be the greatest NBA player to never win a Championship? Jordan was a bonafide superstar and, after the rookie signed a sneaker deal with Nike, the biggest name in pro sports. But his Bulls—back to back to back losing seasons, three head coaching firings, and twice swept in the first round of the playoffs. Then in 1988, things looked to be coming together. Jordan led the league in scoring. Scottie Pippen was emerging as the superhero’s sidekick. The Bulls ended the regular season 47-35 and then knocked off two favored opponents in the first and second rounds of the playoffs. But then, they lost to the Detroit Pistons in the Conference Finals. And after one of the best seasons in franchise history, head coach Doug Collins was fired. He was replaced with Jordan’s fourth coach, Phil Jackson, who lead the 1989 Bulls back to the Conference Finals where, again, they lost to the Pistons. After back to back to back appearances in the Conference Finals, expectations for the 1990 Bulls were high. But on December 19, 1990, after a 21-point loss to the Pistons, the Bulls were sitting in ninth place in the conference, out of playoff contention. The following day, Phil Jackson announced, and the Chicago Tribune reported, “The Bulls have named center Bill Cartwright a co-captain along with Michael Jordan, who had held the job by himself.” In his eleventh season, Cartwright was, to many, a stunning choice for co-captain. Medical Bill, as some teammates referred to him (because he was always nursing some injury or another), played in just four games in the season before he joined the Bulls. He didn’t score a lot of points, was good but not great at defense, didn’t say a whole lot, and always looked kind of sad. He wasn’t a paragon of leadership. But the moment Bill Cartwright was named co-captain was the moment the Bulls became a championship team. As Sam Walker, author of The Captain Class: A New Theory of Leadership, said, “If you looked at the numbers, just purely the numbers and asked, what’s the moment the Bulls became a championship team? You would point to that day. It was that day. It’s clear as a bell. That’s when Jordan became good—when he was allowed to be the star and someone else was taking care of the duties of management.” The Bulls didn’t lose another game that December, winning twelve of their next thirteen games. Then after 11- then 9-game winning streaks, they finished first place in their conference with a franchise-best 61-21 record. After sweeping the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs and knocking off the 76ers in just five games in the second round, the Bulls swept the Pistons in the Conference Finals. They lost game 1 against the Lakers then won the next four to win the 1991 NBA Finals. “Bill,” Jordan wrote of that ’90 season, “made all the difference.”
Break Down What You Love About What You Love
In his creative writing courses, Brandon Sanderson talks about the difference between a chef and a cook. With food, a cook can look at a recipe and make the dish. A chef can look at a dish and make the recipe. With writing, he said, “I encourage my students to think of themselves like chefs rather than cooks. Train yourself to look at something you love and break it down to why you love it and then rebuild it into something that is your own. That’s just a very useful skill for creators to have. You start to make these connections where you go, ‘wow, a buddy cop movie and a romantic comedy often have the same plot structure—why is that? What are we loving about these things? How can I use an element from that? Sanderson references inception and how Christopher Nolan broke down what he loves about heist movies to then make a movie that feels new and original. “If you can learn to do that,” Sanderson says, “if you can learn to boil it down to what you love and take that core element and build something new around it, you will be a successful story teller. I am convinced.”
Don’t Be A Perfectionist. Be Striving For Perfection
The improvement loop that creates excellence requires feedback. Feedback requires shipping the work. In Work Clean, Dan Charnas points out that there’s a difference between striving for perfection and being a perfectionist. Their aims are the same—the highest quality—“but the striver knows that excellence is not about creating something of the highest quality,” Charnas writes, “it’s delivering something of the highest quality, with all the constraints that delivery entails—deadlines, expectations, contingencies, feedback.” These constraints don’t allow you to tinker forever. Deadlines force you to ship the work. SNL’s Lorne Michaels likes to say, “we don’t go on because we’re ready. We go on because it’s 11:30. If you always wait til your ready, you’ll never go on. And if you never go on, you’ll never get to perfect.”
Every Strength Has A Corresponding Weakness
After spending over 10,000 hours working with billionaire entrepreneur and venture capitalist Reid Hoffman, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Ben Casnocha wrote about what he learned from Hoffman. All are worth reading, but the most thought-provoking for me was number four: Every weakness has a corresponding strength. After a meeting where Casnocha explained to Hoffman what he believed were his personal strengths and weaknesses before sharing how he planned to compensate for those weakness, Hoffman warned Casnocha, “Most strengths have corresponding weaknesses. If you try to manage or mitigate a given weakness, you might also eliminate the corresponding strength.” And if you try to increase a strength, you might also increase the corresponding weakness.