Here are SIX things I learned, thought were interesting, or found useful.
Beware The Advice That Sounds The Best
Jason Zweig, an investing and personal finance columnist for The Wall Street Journal, was once asked how he defines his job. He said his job is to write the exact same thing again and again and again but in such a way that his readers never realize he is repeating himself. That’s not the hard part, he said, because basically his job is to give advice and “good advice rarely changes.” The hard part is resisting the temptation to pander, he said, because most people want the advice that sounds the best. But: “The advice that sounds the best in the short run is always the most dangerous in the long run.” I wondered, is the inverse true? Is the advice that doesn’t sound very good in the short run usually the most beneficial in the long run?
Jerry Seinfeld grew up on Long Island and in the early seventies, he started going into New York City to see stand-up comedians at the Improv and Catch a Rising Star. Then in 1974, he writes in Is This Anything?, two things happened. He read The Last Laugh and saw the movie Lenny. The book is about the world of stand-up comedy. The movie is about the life of a stand-up comedian. “I want to do that,” Seinfeld thought. But then it occurred to him, “What if I can’t? What if I’m not funny?” So that’s what he considered: a life as a not-that-funny comedian. A not-that-funny comedian, he imagined, could probably make enough to buy a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter each week. “I could easily survive on that,” he thought. “It was all I ate in my parents’ house, anyway. And even if that’s all I had, it would be a better life than any other I could envision. I was more than happy to accept being a not-that-funny comedian over any other conceivable option.” So with these expectations, Seinfeld decided to devote his life to comedy. “Without realizing it,” he would write, “this attitude is the exact right way to start out in the world of comedy. Expect nothing. Accept anything.” (File next to: Bank On Never Getting To Space).
To care about prestige is to care about the opinion of people you don’t care about. “Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy,” Paul Graham writes. “It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” It causes you to, to put Zweig’s line in a different context, take the job that sounds the best. It causes you to think more about the short run (e.g. what will make me sound better in the ‘what do you do?’ conversations?) over the long run (e.g. what will make me happier?). If you want to lead someone down the wrong path, Graham says, “the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige.” (I Googled “prestigious etymology” and learned the word prestigious comes from the Latin praestigiae: “deceptive, imposture, full of tricks.”) Similarly, if you want to do what you were mean to do, Graham writes, “it might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.”
Do Tedious Work
An antonym of prestigious is tedious. Robert Greene was once asked how he defines creativity. It’s a word that gets thrown around. It gets mythologized and romanticized. “People have all sorts of illusions around the word that aren’t the reality,” Robert said. “The reality is that creativity is a function of the previous work you put in. So if you put a lot of hours into thinking and researching and reading, hour after hour—a very tedious process—creativity will come to you…It comes to you, but only after tedious hours of work and process.” I like this definition because it means creativity is not some mysterious form of magic. It’s not something some people simply have and some people simply don’t. It’s something rewarded to those who put the work in.
I often hear people wishing they weren’t such slow readers. This is the reason they don’t read, they’ll say. A common denominator of great readers is they give the advice to not try to read quickly. They say that speed reading tricks and techniques are mostly a scam. They say the sign of a good book is you want to take it slowly. The economist Tyler Cowen is a famously great reader. “And my philosophy of reading is that no-one reads quickly,” he says. When he’s asked how long it took him to read that book, he replies with how old he is. “The way you read well is just by reading a lot,” he says. “And then when you go to read books you’re like, ‘I know that, I know that, I know that,’ and you keep on going, and you read much more quickly. And that’s really the way to read a lot.”
Pile Up Rejections
Few have published more cartoons in The New Yorker than Drew Dernavich. He once posted a picture on Instagram of two piles of paper. One pile has a post-it. It says, “yes.” The other pile, a post-it that says, “no.” The “yes” pile is maybe an inch tall. The “no” pile is about as tall as all the Harry Potter books stacked on top of each other. And that’s not all of them, Dernavich admits. “I’m still generating a lot of crappy rejected ideas,” Dernavich writes in the photo’s caption, “they’re just in digital form now!” If you only saw what got published, you might call Dernavich a creative genius. “Drew’s not a genius,” Seth Godin writes in The Practice. “He just has more paper than us.” He just puts the tedious unprestigious work in. Seth continues, “How many cartoons would you need to have rejected before you gave up? On the other hand, how many not-very-good cartoons would you have to draw before you figured out how to make them funny? These might be related.”