Here are SIX things I learned, thought were interesting, or found useful.
Accept the Initial Agitation
You’ve experienced it any time you’ve tried to drop into a highly focused state. You might be experiencing it right now as you try to focus enough to read these words. Initially, it’s a little agitating, the mind is a little scattered, you get a little frustrated with your inability to lock in and focus. But you keep at it, you resist the temptation to pull out your phone or pull up twitter, and you funnel into a groove of concentration in which the rest of the world disappears. What’s going on there? I always wondered. “It’s because,” Dr. Andrew Huberman says, “the circuits that turn on before acetylcholine [a neurotransmitter released when focusing intensely] are of the stress system.” He used three analogies throughout the interview, and I liked all three. 1) It’s like when you try to lift your max amount of weight on the bench press—it takes time to work up to that weight. 2) It’s like your best work is on the other side of a door at the top of a long and steep staircase—it takes time and effort to get up those stairs to pass through that door. 3) It’s like you have to wade through sewage before you can swim in clear water. So I’ve been finding it helpful to remind myself when I’m a little frustrated with my scatterbrain-ness: accept the initial agitation. The brain has to warm up too! We’re going up the staircase to our best work. After we wade through this sewage, we’ll be swimming in clear water!
When You Take A Week Off, It’s Really Two Weeks
Vince Vaughn estimates he got hired one in every one thousand auditions when he was starting out as an actor. For the most part, he was able to handle that rejections were part of it. If he got rejected for a role today, usually, he’d wake up tomorrow and get back to working on his craft—he’d watch movies, read books, practice monologues, take classes. Unless the rejection came after the screen test. The screen test is the final audition before casting directors decide. After seven or eight rounds of auditions, they’ve narrowed it down to two or three to screen test. If you make it to the screen test but don’t get the job, you spent a lot of time and energy to ultimately do nothing to further your career. “To get that close and have nothing happen,” Vaughn said, “at first, I would get down. I would take a week, and I would just not do anything. I’d lose my energy.” No working on his craft—no movies or books or monologues or classes. “But then I started to realize,” he said, “that the week I took off was really two weeks. It was a week of not getting better, and it was a week of getting worse. I gave myself two weeks less to improve at the things I’m in control of.”
Anybody Who Sticks With The Banjo For 40 Years Will Be Able To Play It
The comedian Steve Martin told Charlie Rose he began to try to learn how to play the banjo because he realized it would be a good way to fill time in his stand up routine. He said he began to think of ways to fill time in his stand up routine because he realized he wasn’t very talented. “Well you must take great pride,” Rose said, “if you didn’t feel like you had any talent, to learn to play a musical instrument.” Well, Martin said, that’s another display of his lack of any natural talent. He got a book called How To Play The 5-string Banjo by Pete Seeger. One of the first lessons was how to make a C-chord. Martin put his fingers down on the strings and strummed a C-chord. “I couldn’t tell the difference,” he said. To him, his fingers making a C-chord sounded just like when he didn’t have any fingers down on any of the strings. “But I just stayed with it and I kept saying to myself, ‘Well, if I just stay with it, one day, I will have played for forty years…Anybody who sticks with [the banjo] for forty years will be able to play it.” Martin stuck with it and in 2001, he and his banjo won a Grammy for “Best Country Instrumental Music Performance.” (File under or next to: Progress is a Magnitude of Consistency)
Cultivate The Archive In Your Head
In Game 1 of the 2018 Eastern Conference NBA finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Boston Celtics 108-83. After the game, Cavaliers’ star Lebron James was asked about a stretch where the Celtics scored seven straight points. “What happened?” James repeated back to the reporter. He paused, and it seemed like he might dismiss the question, but then, “the first possession, we ran them down all the way to 2 [seconds] on the shot clock. [The Celtics’] Marcus Morris missed a jump shot. He followed it up, they got a dunk. We came back down, we ran a set for Jordan Clarkson. He came off and missed it. They rebounded it. We came back on the defensive end, and we got a stop. They took it out on the sideline. Jason Tatum took it out, threw it to Marcus Smart in the short corner, he made a three. We come down, miss another shot. And then Tatum came down and went ninety-four feet, did a Eurostep and made a right-hand layup. [We called a] timeout.” In Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon, Malcolm Gladwell analogizes James’ exacting memory to Simon’s. In the way James has precise recall of basketball game situations, Simon has it of sounds and songs. “Simon’s memory is prodigious,” Gladwell says. “There were thousands of songs in his head. And thousands more bits of songs, components, which appeared to have been broken down and stacked like cordwood in his imagination.” The archive of situations James has in his memory function as reference points to decipher new but analogous game situations, to enable intelligent decisions, to facilitate anticipation. For Simon, those reference points facilitate his creative output. He cultivates an archive of sounds he likes. Then, Gladwell says, “songwriting is the rearrangement and reconstruction of those pleasurable sounds.” Simon is called an original, a creative genius. But everything he creates is largely an amalgamation of bits from his musical memories. Similar to that creative genius label, “people always say of great athletes that they have a sixth sense,” Gladwell says. “But it’s not a sixth sense. It’s memory.” Simon isn’t so much a genius as he is a consumer and collector with really good taste. (File under or next to Tinker Hatfield’s line about how creativity is a function of the “library in your head.”)
Pay Attention To What’s Absent
In the early 20th century, the biochemist Frederick Gowland Hopkins reversed the perspective doctors held for centuries. Instead of considering diseases exclusively as something that attacks the body from outside-in, Hopkins thought, what if the problem was what was missing within the body? In this case, studying the effects of scurvy, Hopkins discovered what was missing was what became known as vitamin C. “Thinking creatively,” Robert Greene writes inMastery, “he did not look at what was present but precisely at what was absent, in order to solve the problem. This led to his groundbreaking work on vitamins, and completely altered our concept of health. In business, the natural tendency is to look at what is already out in the marketplace and to think of how we can make it better or cheaper. The real trick is to focus our attention on some need that is not currently being met, on what is absent.”
The Money Shot
The father of electronic gaming Nolan Bushnell’s favorite game is an analog game called “GO.” A game of GO is played with black and white stones on a 19×19 matrix. The matrix is empty at the start. Players take turns placing stones one at a time. The objective is to control more area or territory. The rules are simple, but it wasn’t until 2016 that an AI program, AlphaGO, defeated the human GO world champion. For comparison, IBM’s Deep Blue defeated the world chess champion in 1997. That’s what Bushnell loves about GO— “it’s a great game,” he said, “because the rules are so damn simple you can learn them in a minute, [but nearly impossible to master]. That’s what I call ‘the money shot.’ That’s the formula of real excellence.” Today, it’s known as “Bushnell’s Law.” As Bushnell put it in 1971, “All the best games are easy to learn and difficult to master. They should reward the first quarter and the hundredth.” This reminds me of something Ryan Holiday says about the best books. The best books work on multiple levels, they have a low floor and high ceiling, they are the favorite of someone who hadn’t read a book since high school and someone who earned their PhD on the topic. That’s the money shot.