Here are SIX things I learned, thought were interesting, or found useful.
Three Rules From Frank
On a flight a couple weeks ago, I sat next to a 86-year-old named Frank. Frank is a retired firefighter who now serves his city on City Council. He was sharp and spry and so, as we were about to land, I asked Frank the secret to his vitality. He said: “Keep moving. Keep learning. Keep loving.” He was on this flight to see another district court judge for another consulting job, and he was flying back home later that evening—Frank keeps moving. He had nothing else with him but a tote bag carrying a few books—Frank keeps learning. He told me his sixty-sixth wedding anniversary is coming up in May—Frank keeps loving.
Spend Energy To Have Energy
It’s a paradox (and so familiar from experience): your energy level is often proportional to your energy expenditure. After a relaxing vacation, you’re exhausted. After weeks in quarantine doing nothing, you’re exhausted. After a day idly watching Netflix and scrolling and tapping a screen, you’re exhausted. On the flip side: after a hard workout, you’re energized. After straining your brain with a good book, you’re energized. After practicing an instrument then a hike with your dog then a couple hours of deep work then cooking for and hosting some friends, you’re energized. This intuition-reversing idea—that you have to spend energy to have energy—is something Arnold Bennett talks about in his short volume How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. In it, Bennett zeroed in on the question on how one realizes the full potential of the hours outside of work. Essentially, bias towards mentally or physically strenuous activity. “What? You say that full energy given to those [non-working] hours will lessen the value of the business eight? Not so. On the contrary, it will assuredly increase the value of the business eight. One of the chief things which my typical man has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want is change—not rest, except in sleep.”
Treat Your Brain As If It’s A Cupboard
The much consequence of parallel processing was fresh on my mind when I came across this short article by biographer Andrew Roberts about Napoleon’s “extraordinary capacity for compartmentalizing his mind. For over a quarter of a century, Roberts has studied and written extensively about many titanic figures for other biographies, books on military commanders, books on the leaders of history-shaping events, and on and on. More than anyone else, Roberts writes, “Napoleon was capable of a ruthless control over what he wanted to think about at any one time.” (File next to or below: Retake Control of Your Thoughts). With the enormous demands on Napoleon’s mind, energy, and time, Napoleon was proud of his ability to sequentially process—always and only devoting his concentration to one thing at a time. “Different subjects and different affairs are arranged in my head as in a cupboard,” he said. “When I wish to interrupt one train of thought, I shut that drawer and open another. Do I wish to sleep? I simply close all the drawers, and there I am—asleep.” On the night before what would be the bloodiest battle in history up to that point and for the next century, for instance, Napoleon shut that drawer and opened another: he spent the night dictating over a hundred rules for a girls school he was preparing to open in the outskirts of Paris. Napoleon raised France to heights it’d yet seen thanks to his “capacity to compartmentalize his brain and focus entirely on each subject at a time of his own choosing.”
Minimize The Cognitive Killer: Attention Target Switches
You are concentrating on a task then in a moment of cognitive challenge, you click the email icon for just a quick check of your inbox. There’s an email with a reminder of that call you agreed to jump on, there’s an email with a new assignment/obligation, and an email with an irrelevant notification from LinkedIn. After just a quick check, you bring your attention back to the task. A few minutes in, you realize your attention is divided: while trying to focus on the task, your mind is also writing potential replies to get out of that call or cursing that new assignment dropped on you or wondering what you did that led LinkedIn to believe you might be a good fit for that Pharmaceutical Sales Representative job in Missouri. This psychological effect has a name: attention residue. When you switch your attention from one target (task) to another (inbox), there’s a cognitive cost: a “residue” of your attention doesn’t make the switch. Every time you shift from attention target to attention target, you’re reducing your cognitive capacity. “If, like most,” Cal Newport writes in a blog post about attention residue and the classic arcade game snake, “you rarely go more than 10 – 15 minutes without a just check, you have effectively put yourself in a persistent state of self-imposed cognitive handicap. The flip side, of course, is to imagine the relative cognitive enhancement that would follow by minimizing this effect.” I have it written on a notecard where I can see it when I need to: try to minimize residue-slathering attention target switches.
Feedback Is Almost Always Right and Wrong
In 1977, the science fiction writer Orson Scott Card sent a draft of his later-to-be award-winning and film-adapted Ender’s Game to the science fiction magazine Analog Science Fiction and Fact. The magazine’s editor Ben Bova wrote back to Card. In the letter, Bova said he liked Ender’s Game, but it needed a new title and to be cut in half. Card is a writer whose mantra is “don’t write a first draft.” He believes in writing final draft quality, approaching everything he writes with the mindset that there won’t be a next draft, there won’t be a chance to change things in future drafts. “If something could be cut out,” he says, “I didn’t put it in.” And so Card thought about Bova’s note. What he realized was this: when Bova says the story needs to be cut in half, what he’s also implicitly saying is, ‘to me, it feels way too long.’ So Card asked himself, why did it feel too long? What did I do that made it feel too long? “I realized I probably had too many battles in it,” he said. “I went in and cut out one battle entirely. I cut another one in half. Then I realized a few places where I wanted to elaborate on things. So the manuscript I sent back to Ben was a page or two longer than the one he had told me I should cut in half. But I didn’t remind him that he told me to cut it in half. What I said was, ‘I addressed the problems you mentioned. I would like to leave the title as Ender’s Game. Let me know what you think of it.’” Bova replied back with a contract and check. Ryan Holiday has written about the line that proves true again and again, and not just in writing: “When people say that something is wrong, they are almost always right. When they tell you how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
Be Content To Sound Foolish and Thought Stupid
We’ll round out this Sunday’s SIX with another all-time great science fiction writer. In the late 1950s, Allied Research Associates (ARA) received a grant from the Advanced Research Projects Agency “to elicit the most creative approaches possible for a ballistic missile defense system.” ARA contracted a few “out of the box” thinkers for the project. One of those was Isaac Asimov, who contributed this essay on creativity, creativity-promoting environments, and where the best ideas come from. Reminiscent of the expression from Randall Stutman that you’re only as good as you’re willing to be bad, Asimov stresses that to be creative and to come up with ideas “requires a certain daring.” “First and foremost, there must be ease, relaxation, and a general sense of permissiveness,” he writes. If in a group setting, “if a single individual present is unsympathetic to the foolishness that would be bound to go on at such a session”—remove that individual. “The unsympathetic individual may be a gold mine of information, but the harm he does will more than compensate for that. It seems necessary to me that all people at a session be willing to sound foolish and listen to others sound foolish.” Some two thousand years before Asimov, Epictetus: “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.”