July 28th, 2015 · One comment
The Wondrous Water Wheel
Writing in the first century B.C., Anitpater of Thessalonica made one of the first known references to the water wheel:
“Cease from grinding, ye women who toil at the mill; sleep late even if the crowing cocks announce the dawn. For Demeter has ordered the Nymphs to perform the work of your hands, and they, leaping down on the top of the wheel, turn its axle….we taste again the joys of the primitive life, learning to feast on the products of Demeter without labor.”
I recently encountered this quote in Lewis Mumford’s seminal 1934 book, Technics & Civilization. As Mumford points out (drawing some on Marx), the striking thing about Anitpater’s reference to the water wheel is how its beneficiaries responded: This tool reduced their labor, so they reinvested that time in non-labor activities (“sleep late even if the crowing cocks announce dawn”).
This is a point that Mumford makes elsewhere in the book: in many times and cultures (and especially in ancient Greece), there was a notion of the right amount of work to support your profession. Once you reached that level, you were expected to turn your remaining attention to other matters like food, play, politics, and the intellectual life.
If new tools helped you reach that level sooner, then you had that much more time to yourself.
Labor and Culture
This idea caught my attention for two reasons.
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July 8th, 2015 · 26 comments
The Curse of Process Inefficiency
A couple weeks ago, I posted some ideas about why we have such a love/hate relationship with e-mail. In this post, I want to return to the conversation with a thought on how we might improve matters.
I argue that a major problem with our current e-mail habits is interaction inefficiency.
In more detail, most e-mail threads are initiated with a specific goal in mind. For example, here are the goals associated with the last three e-mails I sent today before my work shutdown:
- Getting advice from my agent on a publishing question.
- Moving a meeting to deal with a scheduling conflict.
- Agreeing on the next steps of a project I’m working on with Scott Young.
If you study the transcripts of most e-mail threads, the back and forth messaging will reveal a highly inefficient process for accomplishing the thread’s goal.
There’s a simple explanation for this reality. When most people (myself included) check e-mail, we’re often optimizing the wrong metric: the speed with which you clear messages.
Boosting this metric feels good in the moment — as if you’re really accomplishing something — but the side effect is ambiguous and minimally useful message that cause the threads to persist much longer than necessary, devouring your time and attention along the way.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone. For example, look at this terrible reply to a meeting request that I actually sent not long ago:
I’m definitely game to catch up this week.
Ugh. As I sent the above I knew that in the interest of replying as quickly as possible, I probably tripled the number of messages required before this meeting came to fruition.
What’s the solution?
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June 26th, 2015 · 25 comments
Last winter, I posted a quote from Barack Obama where he discusses his commitment to honing his craft. Earlier this week, we received more evidence of this presidential craftsmanship.
With three minutes and twenty seconds left in his interview with Marc Maron, (released Monday), Obama said the following:
The more you do something, and the more you practice it, at a certain point it becomes second nature. What I’ve always been impressed with about when I listen to comics talk about comedy is how much of it is a craft. Right? They’re thinking it through, and they had a sense of when it works and when it doesn’t. The longer you do it the better your instincts are.
A strong endorsement for the simple pleasure of putting in the hours to do something well.
(Image from Humans of New York.)
June 18th, 2015 · 10 comments
A Mixed Response
Late last year, Pew Research found that online workers identified e-mail as their most important tool, beating out both phones and the Internet by sizable margins. Almost half of the workers surveyed claimed that the technology made them “feel more productive.”
As Pew summarized: “[e-mail] continues to be the main digital artery that workers believe is important to their job.”
Around the same time this research was released, however, Sir Cary Cooper, a professor of organizational psychology, made waves at the British Psychological Society’s annual conference by identifying British workers’ “macho,” always-connected e-mail culture as a factor in the UK’s falling productivity (it now has the second-lowest productivity in the G7).
Cooper went so far as to advocate companies shutting down their e-mail servers after work hours and perhaps even banning all internal e-mail communication.
This bipolar reaction to e-mail — either it’s fundamental to success or terrible — extends beyond research circles and often characterizes popular conversations about the technology.
So what explains this oddly mixed reaction?
I propose that the productivity curve at the top of this post provides some answers…
The E-mail Productivity Curve
The above curve shows the rise and fall of productivity (y-axis) as e-mail use (x-axis) increases from a minimum of no e-mail to a theoretical maximum of non-stop e-mail use.
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June 16th, 2015 · 19 comments
Three Measures of Success
I’ve been thinking recently about the metrics we use to measure success when pursuing self-motivated ambitions. These metrics tend to fall into three major categories, which I’ll list from easiest to hardest to achieve:
- Participation Metrics: The goal here is to simply invest regular time toward the ambition. For example, if you want to become a writer, this might involve creating a daily writing ritual.
- Unconventional Custom Metrics: The goal here is now clarified to specify concrete outcomes, but these outcomes tend to be custom-built and not widely recognized as marks of success in the field. Returning to our writer example, a custom path to success might steer toward self-publishing, with much of your focus now directed on mastering the technical mechanics of Scribner, KDP, freelance cover designs, and well-paced e-mail marketing campaigns.
- Conventional Competitive Metrics: The goal here is to achieve outcomes that are widely recognized as impressive. In our writer example, this might be a big book deal with a major publisher.
The Power of Competition
When it comes to the three categories from above, I think the first category is reasonable for dabbling with a topic, but it won’t take you much farther than that, so you shouldn’t be satisfied with this measure of success for too long.
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June 10th, 2015 · 30 comments
Not long ago, a reader pointed me to an article written by Josh Linkner, a jazz guitarist turned tech entrepreneur. In this article, Linkner recalls a piece of wisdom common among professional musicians: a new (musical) technique takes six months to master. As he expands:
I may have understood the scale, riff, or chord…but it took a good six months to internalize it and make it my own. If I wanted to perform something fresh, new, and bold, I needed to begin the learning process six months prior.
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June 4th, 2015 · 73 comments
My friend Dale Davidson runs the excellent Ancient Wisdom Project blog, where he chronicles his experience with 30-day experiments, each dedicated toward living a practice from an ancient religion or philosophy, pursued in the service of deep personal growth. I’m always impressed by Dale’s thinking, so I asked if he would provide me something provocative to post for graduation season.
Fortunately for us, he obliged. Below is an open letter Dale wrote to the graduating class of 2015.
Don’t Trust Anyone Under 500
By Dale Davidson
To the class of 2015,
With graduation season upon us, you have likely been hearing a lot of advice about how to live your life. Regardless of what anyone tells you, I ask that you do one thing: consider how old it is.
I graduated college in 2009 fully intending to become a Navy SEAL. I was accepted into SEAL training, and several months later, for reasons I’m still not sure about, I quit.
I was thrust back into “civilian life” and felt aimless. What should I do now? I first turned to the Internet in search of wisdom (always a risky endeavor). I read The Four Hour Work Week, a book by lifestyle designer Tim Ferriss who advocates becoming incredibly productive and minimizing doing work you dislike and spending most of your time doing only things you enjoy. I followed travel bloggers who quit their jobs to spend a year traveling around the world and fantasized about doing the same. I discovered the pop psychology advice genre that turns psychological research into advice on becoming happy.
This advice didn’t work. I ended up more confused and lost about what I should be doing with my life.
So last year I decided to try something different. I decided to look to ancient sources of wisdom for advice on how to live a good and meaningful life and created what I call The Ancient Wisdom Project.
The rules of the project are simple:
- Choose one ancient religion or philosophy that is 500 years old and that stills exist in some form today
- Select one practice from the religion or philosophy that would help cultivate a desirable virtue (compassion, humility, etc.)
- Perform the practice for thirty days and write about it
The results of these experiments were powerful, certainly far more powerful than anything I found in modern self-help literature. Here are just a few of the lessons I learned that I hope will encourage you to take a similar approach to evaluating the advice you receive in the coming months.
Pursue virtue, not success
The core belief in our meritocratic culture is that you can achieve great success if you work hard enough. The risk of this thinking is we become too attached to our desire for success, rather than the cultivation of a coherent and virtuous moral character.
Stoicism, an ancient Greek philosophy, is premised on the idea that there are certain things within your control, and far more things that are not.
My practice and study of Stoicism, which included daily ice baths and negative visualization exercises, confirmed that this ancient insight is still relevant to our modern lives.
Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.
You can control how hard you work and how virtuously you behave; you cannot control how fast you receive promotions. You can control how you treat others; you can’t control how well others treat you. They knew the rewards for cultivating strength in heart and mind are far greater than the rewards of pursuing worldly success, which will always remain just outside of your control.
Modern advice tells us to pursue accomplishments.
Ancient wisdom tells us to live virtuously.
Last year, I wanted to quit my job. It wasn’t that it was particularly hard, rather, it was incredibly boring and seemingly meaningless. Though it was tempting to follow modern career advice and quit to do something more interesting, I resisted, and dived into my Catholic month.
My experiment with Catholicism, which included Jesuit spiritual exercises and daily attendance at Mass, taught me that giving oneself to the service of others is far more gratifying than pursuing self-interest. I came away acknowledging how much energy I was spending on obsessing on my own desires for the perfect job, energy that could be better spent, perhaps, thinking of ways to serve others.
A few weeks later I started volunteering at Miriam’s Kitchen. A few hours per month serving breakfast to the homeless, while certainly a small contribution, has made me feel like at least some of my work is doing some good in the world. More importantly, doing something for others lets your forget your own desires, which is a relief! Thinking about what you want all the time is exhausting.
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.
– Galatians 5:13
It’s also important to not think too highly of yourself. During my Islam month, I practiced Salat, or prayer, five times per day with the goal of cultivating humility. These prayers, inconvenient by design, acted as a sort of check against my arrogant tendencies. I became aware of how much I resented my co-workers as idiots or sheep. Though I can’t say that those feelings are gone, I find that simply acknowledging them allows me to be more open and less frustrated with others.
Bring anger and pride under your feet, turn them into a ladder and climb higher…
Don’t become its victim you need humility to climb to freedom.
A commitment to humility and service requires a systematic emptying of the self, a practice in which ancient religions excel.
Modern advice tells us to enlarge the self.
Ancient wisdom tells us diminish the self for others.
Get a real life
As new graduates, you will have to work hard as you start your careers. But at some point you will realize that work can’t fulfill all your needs. You might think you need more “work-life balance,” but simply reducing the amount of time you spend at work is not sufficient for creating a life.
During my Judaism month, I attended daily Minyan services (a type of prayer service) at a local synagogue. The Minyan was mostly filled with retired people (it was a 7:30 AM service, after all), and it mostly consisted of regulars.
While they all began attending for different reasons, they all found that actively setting aside time each week to communally study and pray added a layer of depth to their lives that is increasingly rare in a rushed society that promotes passive rest rather than spiritual recovery.
These voluntary obligations outside of work are necessary and difficult. I attempted to observe Shabbat (the Sabbath), which begins at sundown on Friday and ends at sundown on Saturday. Shabbat advocates a powerful combination of removing the profane distractions of everyday life and adding active participation in sacred rituals that allow us to connect more deeply with our humanity.
Ban yourself from using your laptop or phone during Shabbat and you will find time to read, take long walks, and contemplate. If you make the necessary preparations to host a Shabbat dinner, you will renew your relationships with your friends and family over food and wine without the distractions of a noisy bar.
The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work. ‘Last in creation, first in intention,’ the Sabbath is ‘the end of the creation of heaven and earth
— Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath
While not as easy as ordering a pizza and turning on Netflix on a Friday night, committing to this ancient system of sacred rest and spiritual renewal is far more rewarding.
Modern advice encourages us to achieve work-life balance.
Ancient wisdom tells us to work hard at building a life.
I chose the 500 years criterion somewhat arbitrarily. I figured if a particular philosophy or religion has survived at least five centuries there must be some value to it. It’s not perfect, but after a year of experimenting with this heuristic I find it works remarkably well for evaluating the advice I receive.
So the next time you are looking for advice on the way forward, you might turn to a theologian, prophet, philosopher, or saint before any modern-day blogger (except for me, of course).
Don’t trust anyone under 500.
(Photo by Hartwig HKD)
May 19th, 2015 · 36 comments
The Inspiring Story: A Brilliant Mind “Thinks Different”
In a pivotal scene in the Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything, the physicist is staring into the embers of a dying fire when he has an epiphany: black holes emit heat!
The next scene shows Hawking triumphantly announcing his result to a stunned audience — and just like that, his insight vaults him into the ranks of scientific stardom.
This story is inspirational. But as the physicist Leonard Mlodinow points out in a recent New York Times op-ed, it’s not at all how Hawking’s breakthrough actually happened…
The Stubborn Reality: A Highly-Trained Mathematician Works Hard
In reality, Hawking had encountered a theory by two Russian physicists that argued rotating black holes should emit energy until they slowed to a stationary configuration.
Hawking, who at the time was a promising young scientist who had not yet made his mark, was intrigued, but also skeptical.
So he decided to look deeper .
In the (many) months that followed, Hawking trained his preternatural analytical skill to investigate the validity of the Russians’ claims. This task required any number of minor breakthroughs, all orbiting the need to somehow reconcile (in a targeted way) both quantum theory and relativity.
This was really hard work.
The number of physicists at the time with enough specialized training and grit to follow through this investigation probably wouldn’t have filled a moderate size classroom.
But Hawking persisted.
And to his eventual “surprise and annoyance,” his mathematics confirmed an even more shocking conclusion: even stationary black holes can emit heat.
There was no fireside eureka moment, but instead a growing awareness that gained traction as the mathematics were refined and checked again and again.
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