True Work is that which occupies the mind and the heart, as well as the hands. It has a beginning and an ending. It is the overcoming of difficulties one thinks important for the sake of results one thinks valuable.
True Work is that which occupies the mind and the heart, as well as the hands. It has a beginning and an ending. It is the overcoming of difficulties one thinks important for the sake of results one thinks valuable.
Serious reading, after all, should be active, focused, engaged—and Cooper suggested some ways to make it so.
First, read aloud—at least some of the time. “Every line of Shakespeare, every line of Milton, is meant to be pronounced, cannot be duly appreciated until it is pronounced.”
Second, read slowly. “Take ample time. Pause where the punctuation bids one pause; note each and every comma; wait a moment between a period and the next capital letter. And pause when common sense bids you pause, that is, when you have not understood.”
This led to the third dictum: “Read suspiciously. Reread. What a busy man has time to read at all, he has time to read more than once.”
Elsewhere, he added another piece of advice: Learn by heart at least a few poems and passages of prose.
I like embroidering my plainspoken, earthy, everyday, quotidian speech with particularly Victorianesque embellishments and verbally diabolic adornments that I dredge up from profligate readings of literature, ephemera, and old Monty Python sketches. Or maybe I just like words with lots of syllables.
To that end, I sometimes clot my electro-mails and casual conversation with antique or rarely heard (among my peers, anyway) vocabulary.
One that I use when I want to exaggerate my concern is fraught. It’s a word that I will see or hear often in the news yet hardly anywhere else. In the news, as with this story, it’s one of those received words, like “firestorm,” that is trotted out as verbal shorthand by newscasters for “a terrible situation” yet that I hardly ever hear in regular conversation. Fraught is a great word to use in headlines, like this one from the New York Times, because it’s only six letters. It packs maximum anxiety into minimal space.
My MacBook’s handy New Oxford American Dictionary defines fraught in its predicate adjective form (fraught with) as “filled with or destined to result in (something undesirable)”: marketing any new product is fraught with danger. The second definition is “causing or affected by great anxiety or stress,” as in she sounded a bit fraught.
Here’s the fun part:
ORIGIN late Middle English, ‘laden, provided, equipped,’ past participle of obsolete fraught [load with cargo,] from Middle Dutch vrachten, from vracht ‘ship’s cargo.’ Compare with freight.
So fraught is a cousin to the word freight! And freight is descended from a variant of vrachten. Fascinating. Freight itself is a neutral word — cargo, transport — though freighted with can be a figure of speech for “be laden or burdened with.”
Interesting how word meanings diverge. The world of commerce needed a word for cargo and baggage, the inner world needed another.
I wonder if the vowel sound in fraught, with its similarity to awful, may somehow help to twin those words in our minds. Awful is more immediate and personal, whereas fraught sounds a bit distant, higher up the hill from the fray. Awful grabs the guts, fraught keeps the mess at arm’s length while acknowledging the high emotions.
I hope this disquisition on fraught has not been for naught nor has made you overwrought. (What rot.)
The StrengthsFinder is a 100+ item test that purportedly feeds back those parts of your personality that most dominate your outlook and behavior.
The test items are not questions, really; they’re choices along a spectrum. So, for example, a pair of statements for an item might be “I have a commitment to growth” and “I have a commitment to values.” You then select whether either statement Strongly or Somewhat describes you, with Neutral there in the middle.
(For the record, I already know what my values are and I believe I live my life according to them. So I’m not worried about my values. I am more worried about stagnating and not growing. So I strongly identify with a commitment to Growth.)
Knowing one’s strengths, one can then theoretically leverage them more consciously and not fight against oneself. Knowing that my strength is Achiever rather than Deliberative, for example, means I can stop beating myself up for not thinking things through and instead take pleasure in action, which probably comes more naturally to me. This echoes an idea from business success literature I was reading 10-15 years ago, to make your strengths stronger rather than spend precious time and energy to shore up your weaknesses. You’re better off finding a partner or delegating to someone else those activities that do not play to your strengths.
There are, as there should be, skeptics of this test with well-founded criticisms. These strengths do seem skewed to the business world and isn’t there some value in finding, for example, that Empathy may be a weakness? Isn’t a sense of humor a strength? But, as the saying goes, “all models are wrong, some models are useful (some of the time)”. I chose to look at the test as perhaps providing a perspective on me that I might find useful.
My top 5 (oddly worded) strengths:
So, having received this wonderful information collected before me, what learnings and ideas can I draw from it to solve my life’s little problems? (See what I did there, didja, huh, didja?)
Dave gave me some good advice on how to use this information in my goal of starting a side business. Look at past jobs I’ve had, for example, and make lists of what I liked and didn’t like, then map those to the strengths. Chances are that the tasks I most enjoyed relate back to my strengths. Can I use that information to create a business that therefore plays to my strengths?
Or, similarly, pick any thing that I might want to do, and then look at solving the challenges through the lens of my strengths. I would not be a good car salesman, for example. But I would be good at researching, being a subject-matter expert, and perhaps sharing with others who need to know what I’ve learned.
Good, tidy stuff. But of course, I can’t stop ideating and intellecting all over the place. When does a strength become a weakness? As Dave said, when it’s misused. My strengths would not help me at cold-calling, for instance.
The strengths would not help me if I’m in the wrong environment. My Learner strength was strongly opposed to the PhD environment I put myself in because I’m a student, not a scholar.
I see a dark side to too much thinking and ruminating, not enough action; too much input, not enough reflection; too much emotion, not enough detachment; too much problem-solving, not enough problem-understanding. (Too much blog writing, not enough money-making? But I digress, which is another of my hidden strengths…)
I’d say the StrengthsFinder did highlight what I indeed feel are the dominant aspects of my personality. What I do, or don’t do, with my strengths, is up to me. However, as I daydream about what I might want to start doing later this year, I will be keeping these strengths in mind.
The tech writer’s job is to present, to select, to shape. As with art, it’s not just about what you put in, it’s about what you leave out.
One of my freelance jobs was to create a help file for a program on crop genetics, a knowledge domain that was literally beyond my ken. I could not hope to understand the ins and outs of how to use that program in the six short weeks I worked on the project because I couldn’t understand what it output and what you could use the output for.
In that case, I opted for my standard fallback plan: make the help file procedural (describe the mechanics of using the program) rather than conceptual (the big ideas and concepts on crop genetics that inform the program’s design). If you don’t know where to start, go with procedural first: most users are simply bewildered by a new application’s user interface and appreciate any sort of road map that helps orient them to basic operations.
Then, after you’ve played with the application for a while, you can begin to divine a little more of its purpose, what it could be used for, and perhaps how to write topics that make more specialized operations easier for the user.
I’m not a scientist, but I am an avid user of applications. I can play with an app, push buttons, look at file extensions, note the preferences options, and pretty much plot the entire outline of a procedural help file in my head. I was lucky enough to have the developer and some expert users at hand, so I could quiz them on common workflows or on what a beginner would need to know vs. an expert user. Through playing around, reading old documentation, and interviewing experienced users, I created a help file/user guide that I think got most users 80 percent of the way there. For a product that had no help file before I got there, I think it was a good start.
What would have sunk the project was to pretend to know more than I did. Had I simply dumped my notes onto the screen, in the hopes of conveying the false impression that I knew what I was writing about, then I would have done the user a disservice. If an application’s interface is inscrutable and upside-down, then a help file that is equally obtuse or eccentric is simply another insult thrown in the user’s face. It means I have not served as their stand-in and advocate. Instead of me making sense of the application so that they could use it to meet their needs, I have instead forced them to do the sense-making.
The old saying goes “if everything is important, then nothing is important.” It’s up to me to select what’s important for the user to know, what is less important, what is not important. I put those choices into the document, release the document into the world, and wait for the feedback that tells me whether I got it mostly right. If I’m lucky, I get another chance to make the next version a little better.
It has been only very recently that I’ve thought about how this lesson applies to life. Or my life, in particular.
The way I’ve typically spent my time and filled my head is to stuff myself full of projects, both urgent and non-urgent, real and imagined: acting, arts classes, writing groups, neighborhood board, yoga class, reading, writing, brainstorming a new side business idea, watching every episode of “Parks and Recreation” or “Clatterford,” moving every icon on my MacBook desktop 10 pixels to the left, opening every PDF downloaded in 2013 to judge it worth keeping – in short, an insane amount of activity.
As I’ve pared away my responsibilities outside the home, and in general slowed down my analytical thinking, I’ve noticed how I’ve splattered my energy and attention all over the place. I enjoyed myself, no doubt about it, but I was always a little frantic too.
Because, I think, I had not done my job and selected what was important, what was less important, what was not important. I did not choose. Choosing was actually quite terrifying because I have always had a case of FOMO (“Fear Of Missing Out”) (Wikipedia, Article). The series of posts I did on being an information packrat echo this theme: the present-day discomfort of hoarding anything – information, experiences, books, salt-and-pepper shakers – is easier to bear emotionally than any supposed pain of missing out on something in the future. The chaos in my head of trying to DO IT ALL, of making sense of all this stuff, of attempting to manage it, was stressing me out.
Recently, on re-reading and re-listening to the works of Michael Neill, George Pransky, and Sydney Banks, I decided to reduce my multiple input streams and multitasking and multiple-priorities. As best I could, I chose to sit quietly a little more often than I do. And have a little less on my mind. My mind is forever a-buzzing with ideas and projects and strategies, and I was exhausted. It was time to choose and edit which thoughts to listen to, which ones to let go, and which ones could wait for a while.
Letting my thinking settle down has, to a degree, also slowed down my manic need to fill my day with activity. I don’t know why that is, but it is. I’m not initiating many projects or meetings nowadays. I’m not furiously brainstorming my next side-business idea and trying to figure it all out. I’m re-reading a book instead of rushing to the next one. I try not to chase the next thing I simply must do before doing the next thing. Everyone has preferences and I’m able to hear them a little better now that the noise in my head has subsided.
As for distinguishing between mindful activity and mindless web surfing, well, I’m still working on that. It’s like distinguishing between craving and hunger; I know what will make me feel more satisfied later so I know what choice makes sense now. Sometimes I do binge, and that’s OK.
Another saying in the self-help world: “how you do anything is how you do everything.” I hope I can learn how to do in my life what I’m able to do pretty successfully in my work. It takes time and practice. There are false starts and do-overs. I’m on the lookout for feedback that tells me whether I’m getting it mostly right. I hope to make the next version a little better.
It’s easy to remember Doomsday for the even months. To remember the day for the odd months, use the mnemonic, “I work 9-to-5 at the 7-11.”
Isn’t it wonderful knowing stuff like this? I can never know enough fun stuff like this. I don’t remember where or when I first stumbled across the Doomsday algorithm, but I have always enjoyed it and it’s quite handy when someone asks “what day does September 24th fall on?” So…
A bit of mental math never hurt anyone. That said, I have not gone down the rabbit hole of learning all the rules of the algorithm so that I can mentally compute the day for any given date. Whilst I appreciate that it would make my mind a little more nimble mathematically, I prefer the lazy man’s way of simply looking at a calendar.
However, there are no shortage of sites where you can learn the full algorithm if you want. My favorite site for the algorithm includes lots of background information and additional resources. But maybe you need your hand held till you build up your confidence (and there’s no shame in having your hand held). In that case, use timeanddate.com’s remarkably well-hidden Doomsday Calculator. which steps you through each calculation till you can learn it by heart. Click the “Show/hide all steps” link to see all the steps on one page.
As for me, I will continue to check each new year’s calendar for the last day of February and start my calculations from there.
Secret from PostSecret.com
As with all truly stupid things, there’s no responding to it, no engaging with it. Stupidity exists on a strata far below argument, out of the reach of right and wrong. Stupidity can’t be countered – it can only be mocked and shunned.
Oliver Burkeman writes the weekly This Column Will Change Your Life for the UK Guardian. The column is a brief, cheeky, well-researched survey of self-help topics of all sorts, from philosophy to life hacks. Burkeman is himself an author of a self-help book that is on my personal wishlist.
The “iron triangle” is that eternal triad of choices from which only two can be selected. The classic triple constraint is “You can have it fast, good, or cheap. Pick two.” Burkeman lists constraints for other domains, such as home cooking (“tasty, nutritious, or easy to make”) and vacations (“exotic, cheap, or relaxing”). Resources are limited and choices have to be made. As Burkeman says,
…[H]istory is littered with the corpses of businesspeople and politicians who foolishly thought they could ignore [the triple constraint]. Respect it, on the other hand, and even the sky may be no limit. When JFK promised to get a man on the moon within a decade, he wisely didn’t also promise to get it done cheap.
But the triple constraint isn’t the only model for this kind of choice theory. David Sedaris writes about meeting a woman who went to a management seminar where she was told that everyone has four burners in life: family, friends, work, and health. Turn off one of those burners, and you’re a success. Turn off two of those burners, and you’re a big success. The woman Sedaris described had chosen to focus on work and friends — and she was a big success.
James Patterson wrote about juggling five balls: family, friends, health, spirit, and work. The work ball is made of rubber while the others are made of glass. If you drop the work ball, it’ll bounce right back. But if you drop any of the other balls, they’ll scuff or scratch or shatter permanently.
As Burkeman says, the idea is to realize that you can’t have it all, that life is about trade-offs and you have to make choices. But some people, when faced with this menu of choices, paralyze themselves and decide not to choose. And because they refuse to choose, they may endure suffering worse than the momentary pain of having to give something up. Even if the giving up is only for a little while. And so instead of moving forward even a little bit, mindful of constraints, they choose to stay in place.
Is there a way to make that choosing easier? In an earlier column, Burkeman described the psychology of the “goal-looms-larger effect”: that burst of extra energy you get finishing all that work just before leaving on vacation. By the same token, the further away a goal is, the less urgent it appears and so the less hard you work towards it. This inclines us to slack off and think, “Oh well, that’s months in the future — I’ll start tomorrow. Or next week.”
The 12-Week Year argues that a year is simply too long of a timeframe to work with. The goal is so far away that one never feels the emotional juice to run toward it. And too many unpredictable events — health crises, home emergencies, sick family members — over the course of a year that you can’t predict or plan around.
So the authors instead suggest breaking the calendar year into smaller 12-week “years.” Scale your goals and tasks to fit inside that smaller box, create a list of weekly tasks that you can check off, and you stand a greater chance of meeting your scaled-down “annual” goals. By the end of the calendar year, you’ll have likely accomplished far more than if you’d spread the work out over the standard 12 months.
This isn’t a new idea to me. JD Meier, in his book Getting Results the Agile Way, and on his Sources of Insight blog, has long recommended adopting three major accomplishments for the year, each quarter, each month, each week, and each day. It’s not hard to see how one can take a large goal, such as losing weight or finding a new job, and then break those big amorphous goals down into smaller, more concrete quarterly, monthly, weekly, and daily tasks. The 12-Week Year authors have taken that chunking-down idea and packaged it in a smarter way. (I’ve not read their book, so I’m sure they’ve added their own flourishes and enhancements to the process, too.)
So maybe one way to reconcile oneself to tough choices — whether triple constraints, four burners, or five juggling balls — is simply to timebox. Pick a period of time — whether it be 12 weeks, from now till July 4th, from March 15 to April 15 — make the hard choice and try it out. Play with it. Leave one of the burners off, drop one of the balls. You can do it knowing that it’s possible to pick them up again in the next time period. This way, you can rotate through each area of focus throughout the year, knowing that your choice is both firm and not forever.
This reminds me also of Steve Pavlina’s “one week on, one week off” idea, which he attributes to Napoleon Hill. Go full out for an entire week — writing, programming, cooking — and then take the next week off.
These issues are alive to me at the moment because, of course, I have choices to make and focus is sometimes hard for me to achieve. Too many wonderful things to do, not enough time for everything I’d like to do, and no optimal blend that will balance everything on a daily basis. So the solution that bubbles up for now is to not try to balance things. Pick an area or project, focus on it during my evening project-time, and let go of those things that don’t fit in the timebox. When the project is done or at a place where it can be maintained with minimal effort, then see what else in my life needs that attention. Look for balance in the long-term.
That’s the plan, anyway. We’ll see how it goes.
If you have concluded that “Ignorance is bliss” and prefer to cater to your perverted appetite with your favorite predigested food, which is so tempting, so sweet in the mouth, so easy to gulp, so smooth to swallow, so stimulating, and so fashionable, then lay this book aside until you have learnt through disease and pain that it pays to adopt the natural and moral diet.
The great haiku artist Kobayashi Issa wrote this:
New Year’s Day–
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.
In all the year-end roundups on the various blogs, I enjoyed David Cain’s 16 things I know are true but haven’t quite learned yet. I already knew and practice #2 but several, like #s 1, 3, and 6 – I still struggle with those. (But substitute MacBook for smartphone.) It made me think of a few things I know that I am still learning are true for me.
I also find it sad that because his book is filled with a whole bunch of nonsense, that’s why it’s a bestseller; that’s why we’re talking. Because that’s how you get on the bestseller list. You promise the moon and stars, you say everything you heard before was wrong, and you blame everything on one thing. You get a scapegoat; it’s classic. Atkins made a fortune with that formula. We’ve got Rob Lustig saying it’s all fructose; we’ve got T. Colin Campbell [author of The China Study, a formerly bestselling book] saying it’s all animal food; we now have Perlmutter saying it’s all grain. There’s either a scapegoat or a silver bullet in almost every bestselling diet book.
Unforeseen things will occur and you will inevitably deviate from your plan, this is organic, and it is a good thing. It is what keeps the game interesting.
Kenneth Koch reading “You Want A Social Life With Friends“ (2000)
One of my favorite poems appears in the book on page 144. It is called So You Want A Social Life With Friends, and it is by Kenneth Koch. In the fall of 2000, I had the privilege of recording Mr. Koch reading this poem in his Upper East Side apartment for an audio magazine project I was working on. I used a tiny Radio Shack tape recorder, and take full responsibility for the lack of high sound quality. (But I do admit I like the crackling and soundproof-lessness.) He was an impeccable, flawless reader—we were finished in two or three takes. Though he had been reluctant to agree to our session, once underway, he was a gracious, charismatic host. He had set up a nice tray with glasses of grapefruit juice. Fitting, because the whole thing was bittersweet. Mr. Koch died a year later. I believe this is one of his last recordings.
Amazing! One of my favorite poems, too.