Here are SIX things I learned, thought were interesting, or found useful.
You Can’t Change What Happened. You Can Change What Happens From Here.
In March 2020, Brent Underwood packed up his apartment in Austin, Texas, loaded up his truck, and drove twenty-three hours to an abandoned mining turned ghost town named Cerro Gordo. The town is a couple hundred miles north of Los Angeles. With a business partner, some investors, and his life savings, Brent bought the town in 2018. The plan was to bring the town back to life, to turn the 336 acres and 22 buildings into a historical destination. That plan largely revolved around the American Hotel, the literal and metaphorical center of town. But then on June 15, 2020, 149 years to the day it opened—due perhaps to the sweltering desert heat or perhaps to old electrical wiring or perhaps to an apparition—the American Hotel caught fire and burned to the ground. “It was probably the most devastating day of my life,” Brent would recall. “You are literally watching your life savings and hopes and dreams burn in front of you.” But as he stood atop the ashes, the town’s previous owner put his hand on Brent’s shoulder. “You can’t change what happened,” he told Brent, “but what happens from here is up to you.” More than just providing comfort, Brent wrote, those words were “a call to action. To responsibility.” And so the plan has been modified—it is not to revitalize the American Hotel, it’s to rebuild it, right where it once stood.
The Unified Theory of Deliciousness
When the now world famous chef David Chang opened the now world famous Momofuku, he didn’t have enough money to put a wall between this kitchen and his diners. But of all the variables that contributed to Momofuku’s rise, the open kitchen was the most important. “Cooking in front of my customers,” Chang wrote, “changed the way I look at food.” He got to watch what people did after tasting his food. Their facial and physical reactions signaled which recipes were working and which weren’t. This feedback led to Chang’s iterating and improvising until he landed on dishes so good that word spread so much that daily, the line is out Momofuku’s door. Early on, as Chang thought about it, he couldn’t find the thread connecting dishes that became hits. Some he spent weeks and months developing. Some he slapped together at the eleventh hour. Some were brainchilds. Some were accidentally stumbled upon. But eventually, he saw a pattern. He would come to call it The Unified Theory of Deliciousness and realize it was rooted in what the philosopher Douglas Hofstadter called strange loops. Have you ever listened to a new song that transports you back to a childhood favorite? It’s a new song but it’s like that old song, so it’s old, or the old song is new, and if the old song is new, the new one is—strange loop. A version of this, Chang argues, happens when you eat something so good you want to tell someone about it. “When you eat something amazing,” he writes, “you don’t just respond to the dish in front of you; you are almost always transported back to another moment in your life.” All good dishes evoke taste memories, Chang writes, but the great dishes do so while seeming to be unfamiliar. The Momofuku Pork Bun, for instance—Americans especially went crazy for the Pork Bun in part because it seemed exotic, like nothing they’d ever tasted before. “Most diners,” Chang says, “aren’t consciously drawing connections between what they’re eating and the favorite meals of their youth.” But the Pork Bun is an Asian spin on an American classic: the BLT. Somewhere deep down, they are “feeling that interplay between the exotic and the familiar.”
They Are More You Than You
Chang’s Unified Theory of Deliciousness made me wonder if something similar is happening when we read or watch or listen to something that particularly resonates with us. I was reminded of a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The Poet”—“The young man reveres men of genius because to speak truly, they are more himself than he is.” When I first read that, I wrote in the margin: they put words to what we felt but couldn’t articulate. I’ve always interpreted that along the following lines: when we read something really strikes us, Emerson is saying, it’s connecting to some piece somewhere already inside us. It is, to borrow from Chang, evoking some memory. For doing so, for giving us the language to articulate something somewhere deep inside us, we revere the artist. And that they put it into words means it was somewhere inside them too. And that they articulated first, they are more you than you.
It’s Normal To Be Interested In A Variety of Things
When Ira Glass tells the story of the early days of starting his radio show, “This American Life”, he says he was constantly asked the same thing. Back when to get a public radio show on public radio stations, Ira had to pitch every local program director into picking up his show. He estimates he went to 500 different radio stations to convince program directors, one by one, into airing “This American Life.” The directors would listen to pilot episodes then say they didn’t understand—one episode is funny, the next is sad, the next is journalistic, the next is storytelling. What’s the connective tissue? every director asked. How will the audience know what they’re getting? “We’d say to them,” Ira said, “‘well, it’s always us. Like it’s us, we are the connective tissue. We’re the same people looking at these things, and the audience will just understand that it’s normal to be interested in a variety of things.’ And I feel like that’s the thing that glues everything together: you can tell that I and my co-workers are always approaching it from our particular sensibility.”
Retake Control of Your Thoughts
Phil Mickelson has played golf and spent time with a long list of people who are considered among the best at what they do—Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, and Steph Curry, to name a few. He was asked if there’s one intangible elite performers have in common. “The biggest difference,” he said, “between people who get the most out of their talent and those who don’t is the ability to control your thoughts.” You can tell who does and who doesn’t have this ability when things start going bad, he said. When a golfer hits a few errant shots in a row. When a 3-point shooter misses half a dozen shots in a row. When a quarterback throws interceptions on back-to-back possessions. When a salesperson gets rejection after rejection after rejection. When things start going bad, it can quickly spiral. “When things start going bad in a round of golf,” for instance, Phil continues, “a lot of golfers start to see where they don’t want the ball to go, and they start hitting it there. They don’t have the ability to retake control of their thoughts and to focus on what they want to do…The great players have the ability to retake control of their thoughts and to refocus on what they want to do, rather than continue to let thoughts of what they don’t want to have happen enter their mind.” Every one in every field experiences rough patches. So we all need to cultivate “the ability to turn it around. Retake control of your thoughts. Refocus on what you want to have happen.”
Start in the Paint
Speaking of Steph Curry, Steph Curry is known for hitting 3-pointers from well beyond the 3-point line. So young basketball players around the globe, wanting to be like Steph, practice shooting 3-pointers from well beyond the 3-point line. But Steph worries those kids overlook the most important thing about the way he practices: he starts in the paint, just a foot or two from the basket. His dad, the great Dell Curry, taught him this. “Everything he did,” Steph said, “was in the paint. It was form shooting drills. It was working on mechanics because mechanics leads to confidence—when you go out [in a game] having the ball go in a bunch of times, that changes your whole mindset.” It helps you to—to borrow from what Phil said above—focus on what you want to have happen.