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.
I once heard a writer say that the only punctuation mark that we ever need is a period.
The truth is, nobody in their right minds doesn’t want to punch the Whos in the face around the third “Dahoo Dores,” cloying little snots that they are.
From Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust, the Rule of 50 will change your life:
Nobody is going to get any points in heaven by slogging their way through a book they aren’t enjoying but think they ought to read. I live by what I call ‘the rule of fifty,’ which acknowledges that time is short and the…
When to give up on a book you’re reading
It’s a cycle. You start a story, and it’s stupid. You don’t have any ideas. You’re washed up. Finished. And then you get a sliver of an idea, but it’s kind of dumb. Ugh. Then you start working it, and it becomes, oh, maybe. Alright. Yeah, I am going to finish this story. I did finish it! It’s not terrible! [Then] you don’t have any ideas. Is that what life is? It’s just a series of enacting the cycle. Lately, it’s become kind of wonderful to say, ‘Yeah, so now I’m at the point where I don’t have any ideas. Is is a crisis? No, it’s not a crisis. You’ve been here before. And maybe even you could enjoy that moment when you’re bereft of ideas… The goal would be to keep enacting that [cycle], live to 190, and put the period on the best story ever.
One of the things I learned about the world of art,” Teller says, “is there are people who really want to believe in magic, that artists are supernatural beings—there was some guy who could walk up and do that. But art is work like anything else—concentration, physical pain. Part of the subject of this movie is that a great work of art should seem to have magically sprung like a miracle on the wall. But to get that miracle is an enormous, aggravating pain.” To see Vermeer as “a god” makes him “a discouraging bore,” Teller went on. But if you think of him as a genius artist and an inventor, he becomes a hero: “Now he can inspire.
Do not mistake coincidence for fate. Also, never ignore a coincidence. Unless you’re busy, in which case, always ignore a coincidence.
“Our whole life is an attempt to discover when our spontaneity is whimsical, sentimental irresponsibility and when it is a valid expression of our deepest desires and values.” Helen Merell Lynd
If I step back from it, then of course it’s complete nonsense. But I always think that it’s important that when you watch Doctor Who, you are completely invested in it. You’re emotional: wiping away a tear, frightened, laughing your socks off. All that stuff.
There’s a saying about fridge logic - that when you go to the fridge afterwards, you’re thinking ‘ah, that didn’t really work’. My response always to fridge logic is: who fucking cares? If you’re still thinking about it by the time you’ve got to the fridge, the show has already won.
They say be careful what you wish for: no. Don’t be careful what you wish for. Absolutely wish for stuff. It’s good. Nothing wrong with that.