Stuck in the stream

But unfortunately, those sudden strikes of inspiration feel rarer these days than they have these last few years.

Hours spent creating things seem dreadfully lacking these last four months. Four months… Goodness me how the time shifts around us.

I feel as though, moving quickly down stream, I suddenly found myself stuck up against a large rock. Unmoving, yet being rushed past. I’m not sure if the water is time or the desire to do more, but either way it’s there and moving quickly. I just can’t seem to get myself unstuck from this boulder I’m caught on.

So some days I close my eyes and let the water run and forget all about the movement. I sit contentedly in the stillness. The rush creating a lovely blanket of noise around me. But most days, my eyes are wide open. And I am dreadfully aware of the water running past. I don’t know which is better. To keep my eyes open, or keep them closed? What different lives the two options hold.

Sometime soon, I am sure, a particularly shaped branch, or a beautiful fish will come along and knock me from my perch. And until then, I’ll try to enjoy the view I’ve got.

A One Inch Picture Frame

In her brilliant book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott describes a piece of her writing routine that has had a great impact on me. She outlines, for the reader, a day of languishing at her desk, thinking about anything and everything but the book she is trying to write. “I start to think about learning to use makeup and how maybe I could find some boyfriend who is not a total and complete fixer-upper and then my life would be totally great… Then I think about someone I’m really annoyed with, or some financial problem that is driving me crazy, and decide that I must resolve this before I get down to today’s work.” This rambling goes on for quite a while, but then she breathes, “slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.”

And so, a couple days ago, in a sudden strike of inspiration, I drew myself a one inch picture frame, and put it on my desk. Ironically in a much larger, much less ornate frame. As a reminder. That will hopefully work.

All I have to do today is describe what I can see in that one-inch picture frame. That’s not so bad, right?

LOTR: The Two Towers, excerpts

I finally finished my multi-month journey through J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers, second in the Lord of the Rings trilogies. The world needs more good trilogies. This one is fantastic, though Tolkien’s quote that it is a “book that will break your heart… good beyond hope” is certainly true.

Would you just look at that old boy lounge? What an incredible outfit.

Here are some of my favorite excerpts from the book, marked with sticky tabs while reading. Many of these will not make much sense out of context, but I hope you still enjoy them.

Swiftly now, the pursuers turned and followed the new path. As if fresh from a night’s rest they sprang from stone to stone. At last they reached the crest of the grey hill, and a sudden breeze blew in their hair and stirred their cloaks: the chill wind of dawn. (p. 29)

They turned and walked side by side slowly along the line of the river. Behind them the light grew in the East. As they walked they compared notes, talking lightly in hobbit-fashion of the things that had happened since their capture. No listener would have guessed from their words that they had suffered cruelly, and been in dire peril, going without hope towards torment and death; or that even now, as they knew well, they had little chance of ever finding friend or safety again. (p. 77)

…in the Old Entish as you might say. It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a log time to say, and to listen to. (p. 86)

All that day they walked about in the woods with him, singing, and laughing; for Quickbeam often laughed. He laughed if the sun came out from behind a cloud, he laughed if they came upon a stream or spring: then he stooped and splashed his feet and head with water; he laughed sometimes at some sound or whisper in the trees. Whenever he saw a rowan-tree he halted a while with his arms stretched out, and sang, and swayed as he sang. (p. 109)

The grey figure of the Man, Aragorn son of Arathorn, was tall, and stern as stone, his hand upon the hilt of his sword; he looked as if some king of the mists of the sea had stepped upon the shores of lesser men. Before him stooped the old figure, white, shining now as if with some light kindled within, bent, laden with years, but holding a power beyond the strength of kings. (p. 133)

A strong place and wonderful was Isengard, and long it had been beautiful; and there great lords had dwelt, the wardens of Gondor upon the West, and wise men that watched the stars. (p. 204)

‘You do not know your danger, Theoden,’ interrupted Gandalf. ‘These hobbits will sit on the edge of ruin and dscuss the pleasures of the table, or the small doings of their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers, and remoter cousins to the ninth degree, f you encourage them with undue patience.’ (p. 208)

We shall have to share pipes, as good friends must at a pinch. (p. 213)

‘Yes, yes, and Sam stinks!’ answered Gollum. ‘Poor Smeagol smells it, but good Smeagol bears it.’ (p. 299)

The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. (p. 302)

And here he was a little halfling from the Shire, a simple hobbit of the quiet countryside, expected to find a way where the great ones could not go, or dared not go. It was an evil fait. But he had taken it on himself in his own sitting=room in the far-off spring of another year, so remote now that it was like a chapter in a story of the world’s youth, when the Trees of Silver and Gold were still in bloom. (p. 319)

Above them as a dome of pale sky barred with fleeting smoke, but it seemed high and far away, as if seen through great deeps of air heavy with brooding thought. (p. 319)

Then at a great distance, as if it came out of memories of the Shire, some sunlit early morning, when the day called and doors were opening, he heard Sam’s voice speaking. ‘Wake up, Mr. Frodo! Wake up!’ Had the voice added: ‘Your breakfast is ready,’ he would hardly have been surprised. (p. 402)

Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee – but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing. (p. 411)

Linchpin, excerpts

I just finished Linchpin, written by Seth Godin – my first time consuming one of his books. Here are some of the excerpts that caught my ear while listening.

Be remarkable, be generous, create art, make judgement calls. Connect people and ideas. And then, we have no choice but to reward you. (1:12:20)

What would make you impossible good at your job? If your organization wanted to replace you with someone far better at your job than you, what would they look for? I think it’s unlikely that they would seek out someone who is willing to work more hours, or someone with more industry experience, or someone who could score better on a standardized test. No, the competitive advantage the marketplace demands is someone more human, connected and mature. Someone with passion and energy, capable of seeing things as they are. (1:12:50)

What they should teach in schools. Only two things: 1. Solve interesting problems. And 2. lead… Interesting is the keyword. Answering questions like: when was the war of 1812, is a useless skill in a always-on Wikipedia world. It’s far more useful to be able to answer the kind of question for which google won’t help. Questions like: what should I do next? (1:42:25)

Our economy now rewards artists far more than any other economy in history ever has. People who tell you that they don’t have any good ideas are selling themselves short. They don’t have any ideas that are valued, because they’re not investing in their art. (1:51:30)

Perhaps you can’t name a beloved brand of tofu is that no artist has bothered to market it to you yet. (3:21:00)

Some people are hooked on passion. Deriving their sense of self from the act of being passionate. Perhaps your challenge isn’t finding a better project or a better boss. Perhaps you need to get in touch with what it means to feel passionate. People with passion look for ways to make things happen. The combination of passion and art is what makes someone a linchpin. (3:23:00)

Over time, the gifts accrue, and you have created a reputation. (3:24:00)

The only purpose of starting is to finish. And while the projects we do are never really finished, they must ship. Shipping means hitting the publish button on your blog. Showing a presentation to the sales team. Answering the phone. Selling the muffins. Sending out your references. Shipping is the collision between your work and the outside world. (3:44:00)

Our economy has reached a logical conclusion. The race to make average stuff for average people in huge quantities is almost over. We’re hitting an asymptote. A natural ceiling for how cheaply and how fast we can deliver uninspired work. Becoming more average, more quick and more cheap is not as productive as it used to be. Manufacturing a box that can play music went from $10,000 for a beautiful Edison Victrola, to $2,000 for a home stereo, to $300 for a Walkman, to $200 for an iPod, to $9 for an MP3 memory stick. The improvements in price are now so small, they’re hardly worth making. Shipping an idea went from taking a month by boat, to a few days by plane, to overnight by federal express, to a few minutes by fax, to a moment by email, to instantaneous by Twitter. Now what? Will it arrive yesterday? So, what’s left to make, to give, is art. What’s left is the generosity and humanity worth paying for. (4:28:00)

The internet is crack cocaine for the resistance. If you sat at work all day watching Hawaii 5-O reruns, you’d probably lose your job. But it’s apparently fine to tweak and update your Facebook account for an hour. That’s connecting to your social graph. (4:50:30)

A friend of mine says something really smart every day, something earth shattering once a week. And that’s it. At the end of the year, he has some great blog posts and a pile of Twitter tweets to show for it. What if he harnessed even one of those ideas, and fought the resistance hard enough to actually make something of it? At the end of the year, he could show us a multi-million dollar company or a movement that changed the world. (4:52:15)

I’m not a work-a-haulic… By forcing myself to do absolutely no busy work tasks in between bouts with the work, I remove the best excuse the resistance has. I can’t avoid the work, because I am not distracting myself with anything but the work. This is the hallmark of a productive artist. I don’t go to meetings. I don’t write memos. I don’t have a staff. I don’t commute. The goal is to strip away anything that looks productive but doesn’t involve shipping [your work]. It takes crazy discipline to do nothing between projects. It means that you have to face a blank wall and you can’t look busy. It means you are alone with your thoughts. And it a means that a new project, perhaps a great project, will appear pretty soon because your restless energy can’t permit you to only sit and do nothing. (4:54:00)

Anxiety is the exaggeration of the worst possible what-if? (4:57:30)

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of using a spreadsheet or a time clock to measure your progress, when in fact, it’s the investment you make in your interactions that will pay off. (7:31:45)

What do you do when your art doesn’t work? What happens when the conversation doesn’t happen? The product doesn’t sell? The consumer is not delighted? Your boss is not happy? And the people aren’t moved? Make more art… Learn from what you did, and then do more. (8:00:00)

Maybe you can’t make money doing what you love – at least what you love right now. But I bet you can figure out how to love what you do, to make money. If you choose wisely. Do your art, but don’t wreck your art if it doesn’t lend itself to paying the bills. That would be a tragedy. (8:06:45)

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A Curious Mind, excerpts

I recently listened to Brian Grazer’s A Curious Mind, diving into his life and career as a film producer for such movies as A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13, and what he claims as the source of his success: curiosity. Here are the excperts that stuck out to me as I listened.

More than intelligence or persistence or connections, curiosity has allowed me to live the life I wanted. Curiosity is what gives energy and insight to everything else I do. (2:15)

Curiosity has been the most valuable quality, the most important resource, the central motivation of my life. I think curiosity should be as much a part of our culture, our education, our workplaces, as concepts like creativity and innovation. (3:20)

Life isn’t about finding the answers, it’s about asking the question. (7:55)

We are all trapped in our own way of thinking. Trapped in our own way of relating to people. We get so used to seeing the world our way, that we come think the world is the way that we see it. (1:13:45)

Nothing is as common as innovation I come up with that I think is brilliant and you think is dumb. (1:40:15)

Unlike creativity and innovation though, curiosity is by its nature more accessible, more democratic. Easier to see, and also easier to do. (1:40:25)

Here’s the secret that we don’t seem to understand, the wonderful connection we’re not making. Curiosity is the tool that sparks creativity. Curiosity is the technique that gets to innovation. Questions create a mindset of innovation and creativity. Curiosity presumes that there might be something new out there. Curiosity presumes that there might be something outside our own experience out there. Curiosity allows the possibility that the way we’re doing it now isn’t the only way, or even the best way. (1:41:00)

One of the concepts that really animates me is what I think of as mastery. I want to know what it takes to really master something. Not just to be a police officer, but to be the chief. Not just to be an intelligence agent, but to be the head of the CIA. (1:55:40)

We’re now firmly in the era of the billion dollar film franchise, and the billion dollar acting career. (2:01:25)

Curiosity leads to storytelling, and storytelling inspires curiosity. The exact same dynamic works with curiosity and persistence. Curiosity rewards persistence. If you get discouraged when you can’t find the answer to a question immediately, if you give up at the first no, then your curiosity isn’t serving you very well. (2:48:10)

As inevitable as Dr. Seuss’ appeal seems now, Mulberry St. was rejected by 27 publishers before being accepted by vanguard press. What if Geisel had decided that 20 rejections were enough for him? Or 25? Imagine childhood and reading without Dr. Seuss. (2:55:40)

I ask questions. What’s the talk supposed to be about? What’s the best possible version of the talk? What do the people coming to this event expect to hear? What do they want to hear in general? What do they want to hear from me specifically? And who is the audience? (2:57:40)

Curiosity isn’t necessarily about achieving something, about driving towards some goal. Sometimes it’s just about connecting with people. Which is to say curiosity can be about sustaining intimacy. It’s not about a goal, it’s about happiness. (4:05:45)

For me, the most valuable kind of curiosity is the kind where there isn’t a specific question I’m trying to get the answer to. The most valuable kind of curiosity is the truly open hearted question. Whether to a Nobel Laureate, or the person sitting next to you ta a wedding. (4:55:20)

I don’t have any idea where good ideas come from. But I do know this: the more I know about the world, the more I understand about how the world works, the more people I know, the more perspectives I have, the more likely it is that I’ll have a good idea. The more likely it is that I’ll understand the good idea when I hear it. The less likely I’ll agree that something is good enough. (4:57:10)

Blocks of Marble

At birth, everyone is given a giant block of marble. In our early years, our parents place in our hands a hammer and chisel, and show us how to hold them. In school, our teachers show us the blocks of marble those figures of the past carved for themselves. And give us instructions on how we can chisel away at our own blocks.

Soon, we start to lay hammer and chisel to stone, and piece by piece, we slowly chip away at the edges. As we grow older, the chips grow larger and shapes start to emerge from our giant blocks of marble.

For years we carve. Each of us making the best of what we have. Some are given more tools, some are given less. The instructions change, the chisels break, the system is not always fair. But the block of marble is always the same. And, if we’d like, we can shape it the best we can.

Eventually, we will strike the final hammer blow, drop our tools, and step back to see what we have wrought.

The Future of Learning

Nearly a year ago, amidst a new world of online learning, I made the decision to drop out of school. As my friends and peers soon made the journey back to schools across the country, I started to take Masterclass and Skillshare courses in an attempt to continue my own personal education.

I was immediately shocked by how much I was able to learn on my own, and how cheaply I could do it. The only real barrier was self-motivation. Anyone can learn pretty much anything on their own these days, if they are able to force themselves to work at it without a school or a teacher or a parent constantly looking over their shoulder.

I learned a lot, sitting down for 30 minutes a day for several months, watching professionally developed videos, taught by extremely talented teachers – often either professors or professionals in a field. I couldn’t imagine, when EVERY single teacher across the country was now having to teach in the exact same manner as these courses, through a screen, why more students were not taking gap years or dropping out all together. Why settle for a professor you might like alright in person who is now bungling their way through online coursework, when you could learn from a true professional? From some of the best in the field? That question stuck with me.

Today, I was served an ad on YouTube, from a company I’d never heard of: Outlier. The beautiful visuals immediately hooked me, and I watched through the whole thing – a very rare occurrence indeed. I even clicked to see the company’s website. An education company that looked much like Masterclass from the ad, that was aiming to bring the absolute best professors in the country right to your laptops, for a fraction of the cost of traditional university courses. AND giving you transferable college credit from the University of Pittsburgh (low and behold, it was indeed from the co-creator of Masterclass).

Scrolling through their website this morning, I was floored. This is the future of education. This is what education today should be. This is what education of the future needs to be.

I’m rooting for Outlier, and the outliers it will inspire.

Tell Stories Better

There’s a mantra coined by the famed YouTubers of the past, passed down over and over to us aspiring creators who were watching their channels: “Tell better stories” we were told. This, often accompanied by the equally problematic “Gear doesn’t matter.” But that gripe will surface another day.

I don’t think the term “Tell better stories” is a very helpful one. Casey Neistat, one of the Godfather’s of online video, did not always tell interesting stories. He often told rather mundane stories. Showing daily life, mowing his lawn. Or how to build an iPhone dock. Or a short vlog about his iconic sunglasses.

These stories are not interesting stories in and of themselves. If someone said to you, “Tell better stories,” you would probably not think to make a movie giving a tour of an expensive airplane seat or a comparison of smartphone cameras. It is how these stories are crafted that makes them interesting. It is the cinematography, the editing, the style. It is the personality and the craft.

Sure, you can find big, grand stories to tell, but those stories will be wasted if you don’t know how to tell them. The best joke in the world can be butchered by someone with no comedic timing. So, I think we should stop saying “Tell better stories,” and starting spreading the message to “Tell stories better.” It’s a slight change, but one that, to me, makes all the difference.

Focus on telling ANY story better, the more mundane the story, the harder it will be to make it entertaining, and the better practice it will be. Don’t tell better stories, tell stories better.