Here are SIX things I learned, thought were interesting, or found useful.
The Trickle-Over Effect
When Orson Welles got started in the movie business, deals were made on a handshake. With no contract. And they were all honored. Word was bond. But over the course of his career, things changed. People became less trustworthy. Lawyers and agents got more involved. And, he liked to say, the deal became the great new art form in Hollywood. “My theory,” Welles says in My Lunches With Orson, “is that everything went to hell with Prohibition, because it was a law nobody could obey.” Prohibition, Welles believed, normalized shady behavior. It normalized saying one thing over here but doing another over there. “When people accept breaking the law as normal,” Welles said, “something happens to the whole society.” It’s an interesting theory. But I’m less interested in Welles’ Prohibition theory than I am in what I will call “The Trickle-Over Effect”—which stems from a belief that behaviors are generic, that nothing happens in isolation, that small things incrementally compound into big things, that how you do anything is how you everything.
Standardize Then Optimize
Welles’ Prohibition theory is a version of what James Clear calls a “gateway habit.” In Atomic Habits, Clear shows how just about everything you would want to do can be abstracted down to a “gateway habit”—a behavior that is so small as to be trivial. Say you want to run a marathon. That can be abstracted down to running a 5K, which can be abstracted down to walking ten thousand steps, which can be abstracted down to walking ten minutes, which can be abstracted down to putting on your running shoes. “Your goal might be to run a marathon, but your gateway habit is to put on your running shoes…The point is to master the habit of showing up. The truth is, a habit must be established before it can be improved…You have to standardize before you can optimize.” Normalize it then let it trickle over.
Become The Kind of Person Who…
The screenwriter Brian Koppelman talks about his gateway habit: morning pages—three pages, longhand, stream of consciousness journaling. It’s a practice that comes from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. (fwiw: I tell anyone who will listen to pick up a morning pages habit). “The reason I did morning pages originally,” Koppelman said, “was to become a creative person.” He analogizes it to wiping off the weight machine after you use it—because then you become the kind of person who tries to improve everything you touch. Koppelman wanted to write screenplays, but he first had to become the kind of person who writes every day.
Move The Furniture
Michael Lewis is known to be really good at getting to know the people he goes on to write about in his books. Unlike most journalists, Lewis doesn’t like to sit down with a subject, turn on a recorder, and ask a series of prepared questions. He prefers a technique he picked up from his first job interview. When he graduated from college, Lewis applied for a job to tour groups across Europe. He got an interview and when he showed up, the hiring manager said he didn’t have time to do the interview because he was tasked with rearranging the office furniture. He asked if Lewis would help him and for the next hour, Lewis helped move furniture around and then went home. Lewis got a call the next day—he got the job. “It turned out he did this with everybody,” Lewis said. “So the next guy or girl who went in for an interview, they moved the furniture back. Because he wanted to see how you’d respond—how you deal with problems, how you collaborate and cooperate with others.” Because, Lewis said, “the seemingly trivial parts of a person open up the bigger parts of them.” Because a person getting frustrated when asked to move some furniture gives you a pretty good sense of how they’ll respond when things go awry on a tour across Europe.
To borrow from the very first SIX at 6, the world famous chef Heston Blumenthal was once asked, if, before trying the food, can he tell if a chef/restaurant is good? Almost immediately after he sits down, he said. As soon as the butter is brought to the table. The butter, he said, is an indicator. If the butter is rock solid, if you tear the bread as you try to spread the butter, it signals that the chef/restaurant is not very good. If the butter is placed on the table, it’s room temperature, not so soft it looks limp but so soft it spreads easy—it signals that the chef/restaurant is very good. It signals that they care about their craft and their guests. It signals what they’ve normalized—high quality, attention to detail, the desire to create a great experience start to finish.
Everything Is Hitched To Everything Else
After hiking Yosemite’s Cathedral Peak, John Muir wrote in his journal, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Nothing happens in isolation. Small things are connected to big things. Running a marathon is hitched to first putting on your running shoes, writing screenplays is hitched to first doing morning pages, and the great chef is hitched to first getting the butter right.