Here are SIX things I learned, thought were interesting, or found useful.
Get To Boring
In 2012, after a little over two years of marriage, the musician Ben Gibbard and the actress Zooey Deschanel divorced. Gibbard was asked about it—when did things start to go sideways? He could not point to anything specifically. It wasn’t a sudden falling-out. “It was very, very exciting,” Gibbard says of the early going with Deschanel. When the two met, Gibbard’s music career and Deschanel’s acting career were taking off. Their individual lives were very exciting—fame, fortune, and the rest. When their two worlds collided, excitement levels doubled. “And we didn’t do what I think everyone needs to do: you need to get to boring. I wouldn’t call anything in relation to our life together a mistake. But if there was one thing that would have been good to do, it would have been to get to boring first. Get to boring and then determine if you really are compatible.” This struck me as a good way to assess career compatibility. Instead of find your passion, it should be: find the thing where you like even the boring parts.
Ask The Right Questions
In the opening scene of Grant Achatz’s episode of Chef’s Table, we watch him create a tabletop dessert that looks like a Jackson Pollock painting. Nick Kokonas, Alinea co-owner and co-founder, explained that the Pollock-esque tabletop dessert is representative of the process underlying many of the creations that helped Alinea become one of the best restaurants in the world. “It shows how, in any business, you have to ask the right questions,” Kokonas said. “So one of the questions we wanted to answer was, when in your life do you feel like something’s new? The older you get, the fewer new experiences you have. So when you have one, you crave that. But at the same time, you become more closed to new experiences as you get older. So then we asked, how do you become more childlike? What is a way to make an adult feel like a kid again? A number of the dishes at Alinea came out of that question…That encapsulates a lot of our thinking…It’s the process of three or four or five people talking about, How do we make people feel like kids again?”
How To Create A Sense of Awe
Later in Grant Achatz’s episode of Chef’s Table, he talks about one characteristic of children: they have more moments of awe because they have no “flavor memory”. I was reminded of the director, producer, and screenwriter Sidney Lumet. In Making Movies, Lumet writes about why he didn’t cast a star like De Niro or Pacino as the leading role in his movie Prince of the City. He was aiming for that movie to lean towards the tragic, for audiences to feel a sense of awe. “That sense of awe,” he writes, “requires a certain distance. It’s hard to be in awe of someone you know well…By their nature, stars invite your faculty of identification. You empathize with them immediately, even if they’re playing monsters.” So Lumet casted an unknown actor as the lead and as many unfamiliar faces as possible in the other roles. This created the distance and the lack of associations necessary for an audience to be awe-struck. When you have nothing to associate or compare someone or something to, it creates the distance or unfamiliarity required for something to be novel, exciting, awe-some.
Take Notes For An Ignorant Audience
Speaking of unfamiliarity, one of the things I’ve routinely gotten asked about since starting this newsletter is my note taking system. Aside from writing everything on index cards that get stored in this box and reviewed often, the most important principle for me is the following. The German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, who was famous for his “slip box” or “zettelkästen” method, called his box of notecards his conversation partner. He made each note card as if someone else were going to read it. Because, he would point out, by the time he came to a card a couple days/weeks/months later, he would be someone else. You may have had the experience where you flip through a book you read and marked up some time ago, and you have no idea what you were liking about something you underlined or what you meant by this or that comment in the margin. So I make every note card with the assumption that I will later have forgotten just about everything about the book/article/paper/interview from which the note card comes from. The note card should be able to communicate a complete thought or idea or story or lesson that an ignorant audience (me) can understand, learn from, or be surprised by. “One of the most basic presuppositions of communication,” Luhmann writes, “is that the partners can mutually surprise each other.”
Trick Yourself Into Doing What You Want To Have Done
Brandon Sanderson, the bestselling author of a couple dozen fantasy novels, was asked how he motivates himself to write everyday. Half with a laugh, he says he tricks himself. He said he hacks his brain to do the things he wants to have done. “Success, in all aspects of life,” he elaborated, “can often be traced to this: learning how to make yourself do the things you want to have done…Your job is to figure out how to have done things, how to make yourself do the things you want to have done.” For Brandon, he wants to have written a book. But it takes him six to eighteen months to write a book. Most days, he said, “I have to force myself to start writing. As much as I enjoy writing, playing a video game would bring me much more pure joy in the moment than working on my book.” So he tried to figure out how to make writing nearly as attractive as playing video games. For instance, he realized that watching word-count numbers count up on a spreadsheet gave him a similar dopamine hit as watching the little bar count up towards the next level in his favorite video games. On his website, he has progress bars counting toward the completion of a book—the thing he loves to have done. “Success,” he says, “is partially about hacking your brain.” (File next to or under: The Common Denominator of Success)
I was bummed this week to watch Shaun White compete in his fifth and final Winter Olympics and not go out with a medal. As I watched his three runs, I felt nervous for him—the way one feels when they watch a field goal kicker who has to make the kick or his team’s season is over. And I was thinking about something I heard Shaun once say. He was describing his routine before he drops into a halfpipe. The most important part of the routine, he said, is the last thing he says to himself before he takes off. “I say, ‘who cares?’ At the end of the day, who cares? What’s the big deal? I’m here, I’m going to try my best, and who cares? I’m going to go on from this regardless of what happens. Even though my whole world is wrapped up in this, who cares?”