Hokusai’s great wave: a lesson in pertinacity

Can we improve our craft over time? The Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) seemed to think so.

“Until the age of 70, nothing I drew was worthy of notice. At 110, every dot and every stroke will be as though alive.”

He only lived until 89, but he proved his theory of incremental improvement. He finished his most famous work, The Great Wave, at the age of 71. Van Gogh, an artist that only sold one painting during his lifetime–to this brother– remarked: “These waves are claws, the boat is caught in them, you can feel it.”

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Under the Wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave)” (1831)

Hokusai’s other works also revolve around Mount Fuji in series that became to be called Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. 

3. Pink-Fuji
“Clear Day with a Southern Breeze (Pink Fuji)” (1831)

Story short: age is but a number. Life is about continuity. You may have more energy to practice when you’re younger, but the only difference between you and others will be how long you’re willing to stick with it. Hokusai played the long-game, acting like professional with pertinacity.

You can check out the Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave exhibit at the British Museum, London, until August 13th.

 

 

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Fidget spinners

via Gizmodo 

Fidget spinners are having their biggest moment since their emergence in the 1990s.

Except this time the main problem isn’t ADD or anxiety relief but rather our mobile phone addiction.

The main reason fidget spinners are hitting mainstream is to help escape the glow of our devices.

Our smartphones are dopamine producers. When something is your wallet, camera, phone, and computer it’s nearly impossible to resist.

Boredom is scarce. People rather zap themselves than deal with their own thoughts.

Have we forgotten the benefits of solitude? The best ideas come when we’re disconnected, such as in the shower or going for a walk.

The fidget spinner is a real plea for help.

Draining the knowledge worker

The 8-hour workday goes back to the Industrial Revolution. We used to put in 10 hour days before the unions demanded reduction and the Adamson Act got passed.

But now we’ve moved on from hand work to head work, which is mentally draining.

We are told to think all the time, pushing on the brain like we used to push on a machine. It’s draining, made worse by the lack of time we get to step away.

Writes Morgan Housel:

“Tell your boss you found a trick that will make you more creative and productive, and they ask what you’re waiting for. Tell them that your trick is taking a 90-minute walk in the middle of the day, and they says no, you need to work.”

Rest almost never happens in knowledge-based jobs. Vacation is only granted maximum two weeks a year. We can’t even take walks. We run our brains into inanition.

We feel fresh after vacation because we get to step outside the routine. Our operations only become clearer when we stop doing them and hit pause to reflect.

We can’t gain perspective and think creatively when we’re stuck in the day to day, moment to moment, grind. We need some time to be in solitude and think more deeply about our roles.

“the secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.”

Make time to relax, unwind, and ponder. It may be the most important shift we do all day.

Put some pep in your step

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If you want something done, it’s better to ask someone who’s already in motion. That, or ask someone with a sense of purpose.

It’s the lull and lack of desire that puts people to sleep.

Case and point are the DMV. Both the customer and employees expect slow service. The DMV has developed a reputation as backward, government operated red tape, quite the opposite of a busy shop or restaurant where busyness necessitates speed without hurting the quality of the product. Starbucks is the paragon of a mediocre cup of coffee delivered in a timely manner.

Speed doesn’t guarantee customer happiness nor cleanliness. McDonald’s once used powdered milk. But there’s no doubt that a little hustle produces a dose of flow.

It’s the slow, methodical, non-autotelic folks that just role with the motions.

A robot is as the robot does. Ship faster, or at least act like it.

Do small things, slowly

Take your time. (Image via Ray Hennessy)

The hare makes mistakes for speeding through the process. The tortoise doesn’t finish things frequently enough.

But who do you think makes the better end-product? Someone who ships quickly or someone who pokes away at their work? Author Malcolm Gladwell thinks that it takes at least two years to write a proper book, recommending that writers even shelve their manuscript for six months and come back to it to make more edits.

“We need to be a little bit more tortoise-y and a little less hare-ish.”

— Malcolm Gladwell, On Speed And Power

When it comes to code, it may be beneficial to move fast and break things. You can always release a software patch to resolve an issue. But there should be ever more reward for postponing gratification to make deeper work that results in greater quality.

If you do small things, slowly, they’ll add up to something timeless. The rapid pace of production tends to burn out just as quickly.

Don’t let social media use you

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Attention is a gift that the social networks want to steal from you. Here’s a simple trick to ward off their magnetism and catch yourself: put the social apps on the fourth home screen.

That’s right: make it harder to access Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Pinterest with just a couple taps. The design hurdle allows the mind to pause before engaging into a sinkhole of distraction and emotional envy.

Take back control of your time and don’t let social media use you. Direct its intention by redirecting your attention. Let the story be about your presence.

‘Sleep is the cousin of death’

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“I never sleep because sleep is the cousin of death,” spits Nas in his Illmatic track ‘N.Y. State of Mind.’

What he may have overlooked is that sleep, and indeed rest can make you even more productive.

It’s a canard to think that all successful people do is just work. It’s more complicated than that. Scientists Charles Darwin and writer Ernest Hemingway excelled at relaxing. They put in a few deliberate hours of effortful work and just as equally, took their foot off the gas to do other stuff: socialize, spend time with family, walk. They were wise slackers.

24/7 connectivity exacerbates our always work-leisure problem. Like a doctor, we make ourselves available to everything from the trite to the important, treating work and freedom as continuous instead of mutually exclusive.

Integrating task and play backfires. Availability is a game of neediness, we want to show people what we’re up to but then get sucked into the abyss of distraction. We are addicted to the endless stream impressions to alleviate the anxiety in our heads.

What if our productivity depends on the ability to chill out? What if we could practice more deliberately so we could slow down afterward. The work is vital; to master it, we need to free the mind from labor’s oppressive demands.

Read Darwin Was a Slacker and You Should Be Too

Pockets of attention

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Issac Asimov used to spend four hours a day writing. He wrote nearly five hundred books in his lifetime. Warren Buffet says he spends hours a day reading in his office.

What does this say?

There’s a time for consuming and a time for producing.

Those that will thrive in the 21st century are those who can toggle between the rapid digital pace yet still create little pockets of attention for themselves to write a blog post or read a book. Single-tasking intends to go deeper.

Attention is scarce. But the abundance of information is also helpful. It feeds you with ideas and makes you realize there’s so much to learn and so much more to do. But without moments, even half-hour, of single-tasking it’s almost impossible to obtain the deep insight you’re looking for. For that, you need to chew on something for a while.

The ability to weave in and out of pockets of concentration, to get some stimulation and then come back to your work is the key, per say.

 

67 million viewers

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“It’s such an American thing that nothing is real until it’s on television.” – Tom Nichols

It doesn’t matter what books we write or discoveries we make. People only remember us if we appear on TV. In Tom Nichols’ case, succeeding on on Jeopardy superseded his professional accolades as a published author, foreign advisor, and professor at Naval War College.

Television is magic. It informs large audiences that we exist. That’s where talents like Will Smith established their brand. But TV also generates the antithesis: it makes stupid people famous.

The Kardashians pollute the news with their meaninglessness. The President too is a product of the mass marketing machine that is TV. The tube amplifies our status, but it rarely legitimizes the importance of work. Just ask Professor Robert Kelly whose video will forever be remembered as the poster parent for those who work from home with kids. And yes, online is an extension of TV, including YouTube, SnapChat, and Facebook Live. The future of storytelling is pervasive and persuasive video.

Like a social media following, appearing on TV lends instant credibility. Fame is forever tied to visual media. What’s universally more important though is what we build with our bare hands off-screen.

Incomplete paths

Image by Averie Woodard
Sometimes the path to discovery begins with a roadblock.

We end up going a different direction because our daily route is under construction.

Suddenly, that simple redirection refocuses our attention. Our surroundings appear new again. We’re woke.

It doesn’t take much to release the shackles of inattention and break free of our conscious automaton.

The second we think we’ve explored everything is also the moment our environment expands into more depth.

Routine is just a gesture to a ‘directed’ pathway that is the least straightforward. 

The roads we walk are as boundless as the desert. 

 

Stuck in the industrial mindset

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That’s more like it. (Photo by Nick Turner)

The factory mentality is society’s attempt to numb the weird out of you and replace it with average. It’s easier to mold someone and make them normal than give them the freedom to be themselves.

9 to 5 is a relic of industrialization which has nonetheless persisted through to today’s equivalent of the railroad, the internet.

There’s still incredible value in showing up and conducting face to face meetings. But with Facetime, email, and Slack I don’t see why it’s necessary to be in each other’s presence all the time.

The misalignment between our virtual and physical worlds has the opposite effect: we feel the need to be available all the time. Always on culture is a recipe for burnout, as we work ourselves into inanition.

To escape the industrialization of the corporate mold, we need new rules. Working from home on Fridays is just the start. Digital detoxing on the evenings and weekends should also be a mandate.

We work best in solitude, when we can relax and focus, otherwise our thoughts just perpetuate someone else’s. Stagnancy stifles innovation.

Idle humanness

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What else is there to do but…walk? (Photo by Wells Baum)

Humans are organic algorithms. We are cardiologists, historians, and taxi drivers that represent a bank of knowledge and reproducible skill.

In 2005, Thoms Friedman famous proclaimed that the World is Flat. What he didn’t foresee is that the democratization of phones and web access would render human thinking useless. Cars will be autonomous, robots will conduct surgeries and give Spanish lessons to kids. Pattern recognization.

Intelligence is pattern recognization, whether it comes from the mind of a human or through the voltage of a computer. But the latter is 10x times faster and doesn’t tire out.

What will we do when we have nothing to do? Art, too, will be robotized — books will write themselves, paintings will mechanized. We are condemned to innovate for the sake of human self or will be left scrolling in boredom.

Read The rise of the useless class