The Dignity of an Iceberg
In Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway writes, “The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
This week’s theme is icebergs: the seven-eighths of things…
The Pinnacle is Over in an Instant
In 2008, “In The Heights” won a Grammy and four Tony Awards. At Radio City Music Hall, the entire cast and crew went up to receive the final Tony award presented: Best Musical. Two of them picked up the writer and star of the musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and put him on their shoulders. There was fist-pumping, waving, screaming, and smiles. Then the lights shifted and everyone in the audience got up and started exiting. But “In The Heights” director Tommy Kail stopped on stage and stood there by himself. As everyone emptied out of Radio City Music Hall, they talked about what after-party they were attending and what they were going to eat and what they were working on next. Kail stood on stage alone and thought, “Well if this is a pinnacle, and it’s over in an instant, and people are already talking about what’s next, it can’t be about this. It has to be about something more than this.” The “In The Heights” cast and crew stood on the Radio City Music Hall stage for forty-four seconds. That’s 0.000017% of the eight years Kail spent working on it. To let 0.000017% of an experience determine his happiness or satisfaction with the work, Kail realized, would be insane.
Love The Long, Unheralded Journey
Most astronauts never go to space. “I took this job,” astronaut Chris Hadfield writes in An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth, “knowing that I might be one of them.” Once asked what the life of an astronaut is like, Hadfield said, “Here’s a quick snapshot: I served as an astronaut for twenty-one years, and I was in space for six months.” It brings to mind Ben Gibbard’s advice to “get to boring” and its broader application: find the thing where you like even the boring parts. Hadfield writes An Astronaut’s Guide, “If the only thing you really enjoyed was whipping around Earth in a spaceship, you’d hate being an astronaut.” The ratio of prep time to time in orbit is years to single day in space, at best. And many of the variables and circumstances dictating who gets selected for a mission are beyond the astronaut’s control. For instance, after thirty years in service, The Shuttle was retired and replaced with The Soyuz, a much smaller vehicle. “Some astronauts hired during Shuttle era are simply too tall to fly in the tiny Soyuz. The possibility that they’ll leave Earth is currently zero.” So Hadfield viewed getting to space merely as a potential bonus, and like any potential bonus, “it would be foolhardy to bank on it.” And this “pessimistic view of my own prospects,” Hadfield writes, “helped me love my job…throughout the long, unheralded journey that may or may not wind up at the launch pad.”
How Many Drafts Did You Do?
Shortly after the release of Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon, Malcolm Gladwell talked about the many lessons he learned in his exploration into Simon’s creative process. Simon, Gladwell said, believed that creativity is built on top of craftsmanship. That creative work is a culmination of hours and hours of studying, learning, and practicing. “I responded to that,” Gladwell said, “because writing—to my mind—if you sit around waiting for inspiration, you will wait for your entire life. It’s not what you do. You have to put in the work.” That reminded him—“one of my favorite things I used to do,” Gladwell said, “is whenever I read something I really loved, I would ask the person who wrote it, how many drafts did you do? What you would discover is the stuff that you like the most, that you think is of the highest quality, has the most drafts.” (File next to or below: Robert Greene’s definition of creativity—“creativity is a function of the previous work you put in.”)
Be On The Bottom Of Things
On his Stanford faculty page, computer scientist Donald Knuth writes, “I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990.” That was the day Knuth stopped using email. “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things,” Knuth writes. “But…my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.”
What’s Essential Is Invisible
On the wall of his production studio, Fred Rogers framed a print with one of his favorite quotes: L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux. “What’s essential is invisible to the eye.” We don’t see the seven-eighth of things. We don’t see the eight years Tommy Kail worked on “In The Heights.” We don’t hear about the twenty-years that an astronaut isn’t in space. We don’t read the many drafts that led to the works we really love. We mostly see the top of things (the awards show, the space launch, etc.), but what’s essential is on the bottom of things (the work put in, the unheralded journey, etc.). Be on the bottom of things. Love the seven-eighths of things.