Define your fears instead of your goals

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Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

— Steven Pressfield, The War Of Art

Echoing Seth Godin, “Habits are more important than fears.” Or as Tim Ferriss says, “Define your fears instead of your goals.”

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The Lazy Guru’s Guide to Life

9780316348706_p0_v3_s1200x630 What if we could be, or at least feel like we were on vacation all the time?

That vibe is at the core of Laurence Shorter’s new book The Lazy Guru’s Guide to Life, a book he wrote by being bored out of his mind.

Instead of practicing mindfulness and meditation, Shorter took 3 months off let his brain just wander, taking walks and unplugging from the internet, just waiting until an idea struck him. That idea was drawing.

Since releasing his book, he’s developed some core tenets that are central to his philosophy of living in relaxation mode.

“To live life not just in pursuit of our dreams, but as if we have already achieved them. To put it plainly, I am declaring myself on permanent vacation: relaxed, at ease, creative — always.

In his manifesto, he outlines three ways to help inculcate the feeling of doneness.

1. Don’t try to fix things

2. If you can’t be bothered with something, there’s always a good reason

3. Give yourself space

As I wrote a few months ago, we try too hard. We push ourselves for no reason other than to live up to the habit of always being on. As Shorter puts it, “We live in a world obsessed by action and success. And in a world hooked on action, the only way to be different is to stop.”

We need to be more like the tortoise rather than the hare. It’s not for lack of care, but in slowing down, disconnecting, and not letting the small things eat away at us, we’re able to liberate our sense of fulfillment and unleash our creative thinking selves.

 

Writing by walking

41NKNoExnqL“With writing as with walking you often find that you’re not heading exactly where you thought you wanted to go. There’ll be missteps and stumbles, journeys into dead ends, the reluctant retracing of your steps. And you have to tell yourself that’s just fine, that it’s a necessary, and not wholly unenjoyable, part of the process. It’s an exploration,” writes Geoff Nicholson in his book The Lost Art of Walking.

Writing, like walking, is getting lost but at the same time, trusting that wherever the pen and feet go as you ramble and amble around will be met with strange discoveries.

As Rebecca Solnit writes in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, “Language is like a road; it cannot be perceived all at once because it unfolds in time, whether heard or read.”

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The value of making up stuff

Art is what we do with our extra time. It is more leisure than life. “Art is everything you don’t have to do,” as Brian Eno put it.

The starving artist is compelled to have a day job. We can’t make art without the backbone of cash. 

However, the cashless value of writing a poem, painting a picture, or photographing the trees could save your life. 

It is in making up stuff we find meaning. The canvass enhances our lives, inspires us to express ourselves. That freedom can be liberating. 

Writes Louis Menand in his latest New Yorker piece entitled Can Poetry Change Your Life?

“But I got the same painful pleasure out of writing prose that I did out of writing poetry—the pleasure of trying to put the right words in the right order. And I took away from my experience with poetry something else. I understood that the reason people write poems is the reason people write. They have something to say.”

Art translates life. It takes us places. We need stories and memes in order to keep the everyday exciting. 

“Stare at the world, not at your model.”

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Photo by José Martín

Continually learning, constantly changing. The human mind is as fickle as the seasons. It is not mathematical models that predict the future but the law of nature.

Writes Richard Bookstaber in his book The End of Theory“The world could be changing right now in ways that will blindside you down the road.”

Nothing is linear and predictable; rather, everything emerges from its highest, heuristic probability — the upshot of the freedom of trial and error.

“Humans are not ergodic, however. We move through the world along a single path, and we get only that one path. Where we are on that path, our experiences, our interactions, the view we have of the world at that moment all determine the context for our actions. That path is not repeatable; we are not taking draws from a distribution.”

Even the rare anomaly becomes the impetus for our actions. People try stuff on a whim to check their pulse.

It is futile to aggregate behavior so we can algorithmicize systems. The world is unpredictable, especially the economic one.

“Chaos is the law of nature; order is the dream of man.”

— Henry Adams

Read The Practitioner’s Challenge


This is my daily collection of interesting reads and new music. I spend a lot of time digging the web for cool stuff and remixing them here. If you dig the blog, please consider making a donation or buying a book. A cup of coffee to helping out with hosting goes a long way.

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We’re all weird

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We’re All Weird by Seth Godin

Inspired by Alain de Button’s tweet, below is a collection of highlights of the word weird from Seth Godin’s 2011 book, We’re All Weird.

Weird by choice, on the other hand, flies in the face of the culture of mass and the checklist of normal.

The epic battle of our generation is between the status quo of mass and the never-ceasing tide of weird.

It’s human nature to be weird, but also human to be lonely. This conflict between fitting in and standing out is at the core of who we are.

The way of the world is now more information, more choice, more freedom, and more interaction. And yes, more weird.

The weird are weird because they’ve foregone the comfort and efficiency of mass and instead they’re forming smaller groups, groups where their weirdness is actually expected.

The next breakthroughs in our productivity and growth aren’t going to be about fueling mass. They’re going to be relentlessly focused on amplifying the weird.

Pre-historic cultures, not nearly as productive as ours, show little evidence of the weirdness our culture has recently developed.

When you don’t feel alone, it’s easier to be weird, which sort of flies in the face of our expectation that the weird individual is also a loner.

We don’t care so much about everyone; we care about us—where us is our people, our tribe, our interest group, our weirdness—not the anonymous masses.

The weird are now more important than the many, because the weird are the many.

There’s a long tail of channels, and at least one matches every person’s precise definition of weirdness (if there’s no match, go ahead and start another channel).

My proposed solution is simple: don’t waste a lot of time and money pushing kids in directions they don’t want to go. Instead, find out what weirdness they excel at and encourage them to do that. Then get out of the way.

It’s human nature to be weird, but also human to be lonely. This conflict between fitting in and standing out is at the core of who we are.

→ Stop: San Luis Obispo, CA

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Photo by Wells Baum

He circumnavigated the station, ready to go no place but where he ended up. But the more he paced, the clearer his thoughts became. All of a sudden, he had an epiphany which awakened his inner scribe.

The above is an excerpt from my latest book Train of Thought: Reflections on the Coast Starlight, which you can download for free for Kindle, iBook, Nook, or read online.

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Buy a copy on Amazon

The Lindy Effect

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Similar to the Zeigarnik Effect in resuming motivation, the Lindy Effect in economics explains the likeliness of durability. Lindy’s deli/restaurant, which the effect is named after, is celebrating nearly a century of existence since its Manhattan debut in 1921.

As the author Nassim Taleb describes it:

“If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But, and that is the main difference, if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another fifty years . . . Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy.”

Writer Walter Isaacson recently alluded to the longevity of books in his chat on Leonardo Da Vinci, arguing that anything in print will always outlast a Tweet.

Hat tip to Ryan Holiday who’s new book Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work that Lasts examines the reasons why some art endures while others disappear. PS. No one will be listening to Taylor Swift nor caring about the Kardashians in fifty years.  

The imagination of Leonardo da Vinci

“To truly be creative, you have to work across disciplines,” says author Walter Isaacson on Leonard da Vinci’s creative genius.

After five years of writing and research (‘gathering string’) comes the eponymous book Leonardo da Vinci, due out this October but available for preorder on Amazon.

Two things stuck out at the most in the above conversation:

    1. Even Leonardo da Vinci left projects unfinished. He didn’t have the luxury of a Steve Wozniak to execute all his ideas. Nevertheless, the art of delay means that procrastinators can still be finishers.
    2. Some say the Mona Lisa is really just da Vinci in drag. Leonardo was gay, and Florence, where he resided, was a safe haven for homosexuals.

Chaos and order in NYC

Photo by Wells Baum
Below is an excerpt from my book Train of Thought which you can read online for free. If you want to support my work, please snag a copy on Amazon.

Paul tried to make every one of eighty-plus daily phone pickups count. The more he shot, the more photos he had to play with. The only challenge in photographing New York was the bombardment of sensory stimulation; stories oozed with opportunity in every open corner and alleyway, yet nothing, not even Broadway, felt staged. The city thrived off chaos, and it worked like a pre-programmed video game. Those who ignored the beauty of its complexity were the most aloof rats in the cage. The City struck all the right neurological notes, but you had to learn how to see to catch the profound silence in between the disorder. 

From Train of Thought: Reflections on the Coast Starlight

Timeless lessons

Some books are timeless.

This is because someone spent the time to aggregate all their notes and thoughts to tell a story or teach a lesson. 

News, Instagrams, etc, all expire. Like fast food, we forget about them just as fast as we consume them.

The difference between expiring and long-term knowledge is the educational intent. Says business writer Morgan Housel on the timelessness of The Intelligent Investor penned by Ben Graham in 1934:

It’s amazing how much of the information we consume has a half life measured in days or months, and how little is like Graham’s book – cherished for decades because it teaches something with permanent relevance.

It’s nearly impossible to know what works authored today will go on to have relevance forever. Surely, no one will care either about the Kardashians or a Taylor Swift song decades from now? The acme of selfie-based culture and formulaic tunes won’t last forever. 

Technology and culture are always evolving but the simple truths remain the same.

Who out there in today’s world is doing deep work and why we should we care? The sure test of a seminal piece of work will be its applicability now and then.

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, 1964

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And after a long time the boy came back again.
“I am sorry, Boy,” said the tree, “but I have nothing left to give you-
My apples are gone.”
“My teeth are too weak for apples,” said the boy.
“My branches are gone,” said the tree.
“You cannot swing on them-”
“I am too old to swing on branches,” said the boy.
“My trunk is gone,” said the tree.
“You cannot climb-”
“I am too tired to climb,” said the boy.
“I am sorry,” sighed the tree.
“I wish that I could give you something… but I have nothing left. I am an old stump. I am sorry…”
“I don’t need very much now,” said the boy, “just a quiet pleace to sit and rest. I am very tired.”
“Well,” said the tree, straightening herself up as much as she could,
“well, an old stump is a good for sitting and resting. Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.”
And the boy did.
And the tree was happy.

— Shel Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree (1964)

 

What do we read next?

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Algorithms resolve two things: Indecision fatigue and the wisdom of crowds.

The elevator is programmed to manage simultaneous requests while picking up passengers in route on the way up and down. If runs on a series of complex “if and then” statements to influence its movements.

What to read next bears a similar issue. We suffer from the infinity of choice, to what type of books we’re interested in, all the way down to the format we want to read it in.

Amazon’s recommended books algorithms removed the barrier to indecision. Taking into account your past reads and what other have read, it makes relevant recommendations on the next book to pick up. Spotify Discover Weekly works the same way after it gets to understand your habits and preferences.

The mind hates thinking about what’s next. Such is the reason Obama settled on wearing the same outfit every day. Algorithms free up our brain space to do rather than toggle between the options.

Algorithms free up our brain space to do rather than toggle between the options. They are the antidote to the chaotic linear 21st-century feed. The more time we spending consuming rather than deciding what’s next is time well spent. By outsourcing our digging, we create more time to learn.

On the other hand, playing the tastemaker can also be deeply satisfying.

Whether we’re providing or consuming lists, it’s better not to push out or take in everything at once. Keep some of the hidden gems in stock.

Train of Thought: Reflections on the Coast Starlight

In celebration of World Book Day, I’m previewing a sample chapter from my forthcoming book Train of Thought: Reflections on the Coast Starlight.

You can pre-order it now on Amazon


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The train represented that ‘third place’ between work and home, a space for both productivity and relaxation. It could hum with the ambient sounds of a coffee shop — a scientifically proven pitch for productivity — yet lull people to sleep in the quiet car. While most passengers relaxed in private, their habits were all too revealing. Snorers, nail-biters, and loud eaters all advertised their flaws in public space.

Paul spent the past four years commuting in and out of New York City on the Metro-North Railroad. While most people considered the commute routine, Paul viewed it as a journey. Instead of pursuing the structured procrastination of work email, he used his free time to watch people, to catch up on reading, and to listen to music. He wore a pair of noise-cancelling headphones to avoid fated eavesdropping, especially on Friday nights when the entire train turned into a rowdy bar car. Paul nonetheless enjoyed all the stimulation.   

As a noticer, he rode the train with the eyes of a restless photojournalist. He liked to document everyday life: the Wall Street executive folding the newspaper in quarters, a teacher fastidiously marking up papers in red pen, the intern shuffling between playlists on her iPad, and the 9-to-5-er using the Fordham Station tunnel reflection to preen their hair. The mobile camera condemned Paul to record and remix the world around him. He felt compelled to recast his surroundings into new patterns and abstractions. A wannabe outsider, he piloted a future that strived to fight genres.

But the train also offered him one of the few moments in the day where he could disconnect and prime his brain for the day ahead. First, he wrote for five minutes in his journal trying to answer the eternal question — ‘what would make today great?’ Then, he meditated to induce a slow, purposeful experience to link his presence up to the train’s centered locomotion.

Every day, the New Haven Line slithered through the woods, passing colonial style homes before crossing into graffitied Bronx ghettoes. The train traveled over the Harlem River Bridge into Manhattan at 125th street before sliding underground into the Park Avenue tunnel to dock at Grand Central Station.

________

Paul liked the way railways seemed to skim the world, stitching together the surrounding landscape like pictures in an Instagram feed while the experience on the guts of the train was unedited and all too real like an Instagram Story. Every passenger adhered to the mores of their business world. Yet, the train was the engine of progress, the great social equalizer among the plurality of classes.

Paul looked for commonalities amid business people, custodians, and tourists in this shared space. Regardless of their bank account, everyone occupied the same-sized seat, a pitch of 39 inches b 23 inches in width, still roomier than most airline economy seats. On the Metro North, there was no such thing as the first class. Everyone was a temporary resident with Wifi.

Nearly every passenger stared into an electronic widget of some sort annihilating space and time of the world around them. No one appeared to care what reality they were living in as long as technology and the internet inured them to boredom. Paul hashtagged the phenomena–#neverlookup–to his Instagram photos although he too fell victim to screen culture.

Train-spotting bled into all Paul’s work. It helped him see patterns of conformity in all movements of capitalist realism. Climbing the ladder meant jumping through hoops and doing what you were told. While the corporate racetrack paid the bills, it drained creativity. Paul often felt too tired to “rage into his art” after a day of obedience.  Work beat the rebelliousness out of him.

His persistence ebbed and flowed. Like a true millennial, he refused to become another cog in the system yet he couldn’t quite nail down what his career had in store for him. The only thing he knew was that mediocrity was the antithesis to leading a meaningful life. At the end of the day, he wanted to do something that mattered.

He had reached an inflection point in his career. Unlike his friends peaking in their thirties, he was concaving downward. Working in the internet space shifted life too often to make five-year plans. He needed to get ahead of the next software upgrade; to be nimble and adapt, and fight like hell to develop a lifestyle that allowed him the freedom to do what he wanted.

One of the supposed answers to Paul’s mid-life crisis, at least in his head, was to write a book. The only thing stopping him was making time and doing the work. He struggled in facing the resistance but knew at the end of the day, the only thing that counted is if you could finish. People only remember what ships. 

One November morning Paul picked up a newspaper that had been left on the seat. One of the headlines read “Now Boarding: Amtrak Writers Residency.” Amtrak was gifting authors multi-stop tours across the United States. Paul felt excited but instantly dismayed by his lack of merit. He operated a blog in which he was the sole subscriber; the rest were paid bots. He built himself up just as quickly as he tore himself down. Stuck in a crisis of confidence, he never treated himself like a friend. 

The web leveled the playing field — you no longer needed permission to call yourself an artist — but it also unleashed mediocrity and created more noise than signal. The SoundCloud and Instagram generation seemed to over filter their work, making it all sound and look the same. You were better off making something unique for the long-tail instead of striving to become a celebrity in a hits business.  

Ever the amafessional or well-informed professional, Paul was more than happy to steal the travel writing concept to fund his own Amtrak experience. He googled Amtrak routes and discovered a West Coast adventure called the ‘Coast Starlight.’ It traveled daily between Seattle and Los Angeles. Paul’s brother lived in Los Angeles so he planned on staying with him there for a few days. 

He reserved his ticket online, snagging one of the last sleeper rooms on the bottom car. He emailed his boss to let him know he’d be gone the first week in December; days he had to use anyway before they expired at year-end. He forwarded the email to his girlfriend to get it on their shared Google calendar. 

Little did he know, this thirty-six-hour train ride was going to be an experience of a lifetime. But would he finish the book he so desired to write?

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