Pay Attention To What You Pay Attention To
Towards the end of 2017, the author/YouTuber/podcaster John Green was rummaging through drawers when suddenly he lost his balance and felt like he was on a small boat in a high stormy sea. He was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with labyrinthitis. For weeks and weeks, his world spun and spun. All he could do was lay in bed with his eyes closed—no reading or writing or watching TV or playing with his kids. Alone with his thoughts in those weeks, he increasingly thought about what he wanted to do with his life, and he was increasingly panicked to realize he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. Novels like The Fault In Our Stars and Paper Towns had made him famous, but he didn’t want to write novels anymore. As he began to regain his sense of balance and his ability to keep his eyes opens for an extended period of time, he reread the work of Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Something Amy had once written gave John some needed guidance. “For anyone,” Amy wrote, “trying to discern what to do with their life: PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT YOU PAY ATTENTION TO. That’s pretty much all the info you need.” “It’s been my experience that almost everything,” John writes in The Anthropocene Reviewed—his first work of nonfiction, which spawned out of his trying to pay attention to what he pays attention to—”turns out to be interesting if you pay closer attention.”
Let Go of Your Willful Will
Phil Mickelson talked through some of the thoughts and considerations that run through his mind before he hits the golf ball. If the course is wet because it rained that morning, for instance, before he hits an iron, say, Phil’s thinking about how the ball is going to spin more when it returns to the surface because the dimples in the fairway are like suction cups and when there’s water in there, it creates more suction and therefore more grip on the surface area, so, depending on the iron, you’re going to get another 1000-1500 RPMs of spin, which is going to make his ball pull up shorter than it does when he hits this iron so maybe he should hit that iron, but…”See, Phil, Phil,” the interviewer interrupts, how can you possibly hit a golf ball with all this going on in your head? How do you not develop a case of the yips by doing so much thinking? At the pro level, doesn’t the entire game of golf come down to who can best manage the inner game, who can play best between the ears? Yes, Phil confirms, managing the inner game is huge. “And you’ve heard many people say, ‘it’s about the process. Enjoy the process.'” He references the archery master Awa Kenzo’s line about letting go of your willful. Parenthetically, I first read this quote in a Word document that became Stillness is the Key. Ryan quotes Kenzo is his chapter titled “Let Go”— “What stands in your way,” Kenzo once told his student Eugen Herrigel, “is that you have too much willful will.” Back to Phil, “let go of your desire to control the outcome—that’s the way I interpret that.” When Phil’s factoring in all these variables before he hits a shot, he explains, “I’m in the process. I’m enjoying the process.” He said he’s not thinking so much about where the ball ends up, he’s not trying to control the outcome. He’s more thinking about how to get the ball to where it ends up, he’s trying to control the process. He’s like the archer focused on everything up to the moment they let go of the bowstring.
Creativity is Combinatorial
Each month since 2007, some half a million people visit Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings (recently renamed The Marginalian) blog. When once asked why she started it, she said, “for the same reason I still keep going—my belief that creativity is combinatorial, that we create by combining and recombining existing pieces of knowledge and insight and information that we gather over the course of our lives. Our capacity for creativity hinges on the breadth, diversity, and richness of that mental pool of resources. Brain Pickings is, and always has been, about enriching that pool with diverse, cross-disciplinary building blocks for creativity.” (For more on this: The Principles of Process: The 5 C’s to Consistent Creative Output)
Progress is a Magnitude of Consistency
I was surprised to learn that it was only in the early 19th century that humans began to conceive of the possibility that Earth was once covered by a sheet of ice. It began when French and European geologists and naturalists asked the question of massive granite boulders sitting three thousand feet up mountainsides in Switzerland: how could these possibly have gotten here? After the theory that floods carried the boulders was falsified by one geologist’s observation that all of Earth’s water couldn’t make such enormous objects float, the possibility of glaciation began percolating. The term ice age was coined in 1837. And for the next six decades, the question slowly evolved from if the planet was ever frozen to how the planet became frozen. In the early 1900s, the expanding research became an unexpected interest of Serbian academic Milutin Milankovitch. Studying the cyclical changes in the shape of Earth’s orbit and angle of orientation to the Sun, Milankovitch wondered if the see-sawing between elliptical and circular orbits and/or the degree between Earth and Sun might explain the process of ice ages. It took some twenty years of drawing angles and computing solar radiation intensities and durations, but Milankovitch was right: ice age’s comings and goings depend on planetary wobble. I know what you’re now assuming: Earth tilts a degree or two away from the Sun, Earth gets less solar radiation, winters get extremely cold, ice sheets form then spread. Milankovitch assumed the same. Here, he was wrong. The ice age process is more subtle. In the 1920s, Russian-German meteorologist Wladimir Köppen discovered it is not extremely cold weather that causes ice ages. It is consistently cool weather. The process depends on consistency across seasons. If it stays cool enough that this winter’s snow sticks around until next winter, sunlight rebounds off the snowy or icy reflective surface, perpetuating the cooling effect and increasing the odds that next-next winter’s snow accumulates, perpetuating, perpetuating, perpetuating, perpetuating. “The process is self-enlarging, unstoppable,” John McPhee writes in In Suspect Terrain, “and once the ice is really growing it moves.” Little by little, day by unbroken day, year by unbroken year, a little snow grows into a planetary ice sheet. “It is not,” glaciologist Gwen Shultz writes in Ice Age Lost, “the amount of snow that causes ice sheets but the fact that snow, however little, lasts.” As my friend said when I told him about our friends Milankovitch and Köppen, “All major changes evolve slowly over time. It’s like that Thomas Jefferson idea that ‘the ground of liberty is to be gained in inches.'” Progress is a magnitude of consistency, not a magnitude of intensity.
Prepare The House To Paint
When asked what she knows about writing now that she didn’t know in her 20s, Elizabeth Gilbert said that she now knows flow states and flashes of inspiration are rare, that most of writing is arduous, boring labor. But what about the story about you writing The Signature of All Things (528 pages) in four months. That must have been a sort of feverish flash of inspiration. No, Gilbert says, she spent close to four years researching and preparing before she wrote a single word. “The best and most practical metaphor I can think of,” she says, “[when I was younger] it was as if I was trying to paint my apartment by coming in with a roller brush and a bunch of paint and just starting. And then you do one sweep on the wall and then you hit a mirror, or a couch didn’t get moved, or you didn’t tape the windows or cover the carpets…Now the way I write is I spend three and a half years preparing that house to paint. And by the time it comes time to paint, it’s just sweeping up on the wall because you did all the work before. And that’s what I didn’t know when I was 22 but what I know now.”
Don’t Let Others Set Your Temperature
Antonio Brown did his first interview after stripping off his gear and running shirtless out of MetLife Stadium. It was an hour and twenty-seven minutes. It was hard to decipher fact and fiction with everything around that mid-game walk-off. But I liked this answer to a question about all that’s being said about him in the media and the thirty thousand (disproportionately negative/hateful) comments on his one instagram post and so on—does it bother you? “You can’t let nothing like that bother you. No one else sets my temperature on how I feel. There’s a certain part of your brain you gotta have that people can’t get there.” He clarifies that you gotta have a small group of people who can get there, whose opinions do matter, who you do listen to when they say you messed up. He comes back to it towards the end of the interview, “There’s got to be a part in your brain where you don’t let nobody get to. You gotta have good people in your corner who ask you, ‘AB, how you feel?’ I feel good. Because I got good people in my corner.”