Here are SIX things I learned, thought were interesting, or found useful.
Live Your Life So You Don’t Have To Say Sorry
Bill Whiteside, who you might know as my Uncle Bill from my about page, was on a podcast recently talking about his forthcoming book on a little-written-about incident triggered by Winston Churchill during World War II. A great reader and a great admirer of Churchill, Uncle Bill’s interest in a story “that jumped out at me as totally incongruous with everything else Churchill had ever done” propelled the calculated transition from a sales and marketing executive to a software salesman to a writer of narrative non-fiction. I recommend the entire conversation (around 13:46, he is asked about “the incident”), but I want to share a story I hadn’t heard Uncle Bill tell before. His hockey coach at Notre Dame had a hard-and-fast rule: if you get thrown out of a game by a referee, you get suspended for the next game by the coach. Uncle Bill got thrown out of a game. He went into the coach’s office the next day. “I knew I couldn’t talk him out of suspending me,” he said, “I wanted to apologize. After I apologized for him having to suspend me, he looked me in the eye and he said, ‘instead of saying you’re sorry, why don’t you play the game and live your life so that you don’t have to say you’re sorry.’ And that stuck with me. I do apologize and have to apologize for things every day, but I keep that in mind, and I know that has made an impact on my life.
A Fact Is Not A Truth Until You Love It
As he’s worked on his book, Uncle Bill has done anything that might make him a better writer or his book a better book. You might remember, again from my about page, that it was Uncle Bill who sensed my own developing interest in writing and introduced me to the work of Ryan Holiday with the recommendation of Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work that Lasts. And back in 2013, Rick Atkinson was on a tour for the 3rd volume of his WWII Liberation Trilogy. Uncle Bill drove the some 120 miles from Lancaster, PA, down to the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C., to ask him a question. The Liberation Trilogy spans 3687. Uncle Bill asked, as you can watch here, about his reading and researching process—how do you keep track of it all? “The heart of your question,” Atkinson replied, “is really, ‘how do you distinguish between this that you use and this that you don’t use?’ I’m always looking for fine brush strokes that bring something or someone to life. John Keats once said, “a fact is not a truth until you love it.” Oft quoted by Shelby Foote, who wrote a trilogy about the Civil War. A fact is not a truth until you love it. And so somebody like me and narrative writers—we’re looking for facts to love.” Uncle Bill is now in the process of tightening up a +100,000-word manuscript, and he said, as he makes some hard decisions about what he keeps and what he cuts, he is constantly thinking, a fact is not a truth until you love it.
The Red Pill
It’s like the famous scene. In The Matrix, Morpheus offers Neo a choice between the Blue Pill or the Red Pill. “You take the Blue Pill,” Morpheus says, “the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the Red Pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” When Neo reaches for the red pill, Morpheus says, “All I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.” I recently heard the entrepreneur Shaan Puri talk about how he thinks about the Red Pill when it comes to what content he puts out in the world. Shaan once asked Andrew Finn, co-creator of Wait but Why, a Thielian question: what do you know about making great stuff that most people don’t get? Finn prefaced with the red/blue pill scene and said great work is like delivering a Red Pill moment. It’s passing along a truth that you uncovered. Or, to borrow from Uncle Bill, Rick Atkinson, Shelby Foote, and John Keats—a fact that you love. Nothing more.
Add Your Branch To The Tree
When writing, I listen to one song on repeat—a habit I picked up from Ryan. For the past couple of weeks, it’s been a Jack Harlow song. As I typically do when I first get into an artist, I searched Spotify and Podcasts app and listened to a few interviews with Harlow. In his conversation with Zane Lowe, he talked about the quality of work he strives towards, and it makes us wonder if he’s heard about The Red Pill approach to making great. “I know I have to make contributions,” he said. That’s his goal, he said, “to do new shit, to push this sht forward. I’ve done some things, I’ve had some success, but I haven’t fully added my branch to the tree of hip hop yet. I haven’t brought the branch that people can point at and go, ‘Here’s Jack Harlow’s branch. Here’s what he added that no one was giving us before.’ And I fully plan on doing that.”
Progress Motivates Progress
A couple months back, I talked about Brandon Sanderson, the bestselling author of a couple dozen fantasy novels, and how he hacks his brain to do the things he wants to have done. Since then, I’ve kept an eye for strategies for doing things you want to have done. In The Messy Middle by Adobe’s Chief Product Officer and Executive Vice President, Scott Belsky, I came across the following. At Harvard Business School, Belsky studied under Teresa Amabile, who has conducted extensive research on creativity in business. In one study, Teresa had participants track their thoughts, motivations, and emotions in a simple diary format for four months. From more than twelve thousand entries, “of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday,” Amabile concluded, “the single most important is making progress in meaningful work…The more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference.” Progress begets progress.
A Stint A Day Does It
Similar to Amabile’s study, John Steinbeck wrote in a journal every morning before he wrote what became The Grapes of Wrath. I was struck by how often Steinbeck reminded himself that progress begets progress. “There are so many things to go into this book. An astonishing number of things,” he writes in one entry. “This is a huge job. Musn’t think of its largeness but only of the little picture while I am working.” Dozens and dozen of times, he jots some version of, “just a stint every day does it.” “Just do the day’s work.” “Just work a certain length of time and it will get done poco a poco.” “Just a matter of doing the daily stint.” “Just a stint every day does it. I keep forgetting.” “Just worry about the day’s work. That’s the only way to do it, I have found. But damn it, I have to learn it over again every time.” It is easy to forget that just a stint every day does it.