The world of orderly decency, harmless ceremonies and modest expectations, i.e., family life, is not the writer’s. One morning at breakfast, when she was in the first or second grade, E. L. Doctorow’s daughter, Caroline, asked her father to write a note explaining her absence from school, due to a cold, the previous day. Doctorow began, “My daughter, Caroline… . ” He stopped. “Of course she’s my daughter,” he said to himself. “Who else would be writing a note for her?” He began again. “Please excuse Caroline Doctorow… . ” He stopped again. “Why do I have to beg and plead for her?” he said. “She had a virus. She didn’t commit a crime!” On he went, note after failed note, until a pile of crumpled pages lay at his feet. Finally, his wife, Helen, said, “I can’t take this anymore,” penned a perfect note and sent Caroline off to school. Doctorow concluded: “Writing is very difficult, especially in the short form.”

Computer programmer Garry Hamilton articulated the following “Game Rules.” Give examples of how they have worked in your life.

1. If the game is rigged so you can’t win, find another game or invent your own.
2. If you’re not winning because you don’t know the rules, learn the rules.
3. If you know the rules but aren’t willing to follow them, there’s either something wrong with the game or you need to change something in yourself.
4. Don’t play the game in a half-baked way. Either get all the way in or all the way out.
5. It shouldn’t be necessary for others to lose in order for you to win. If others have to lose, re-evaluate the game’s goals.

So my point is that you can learn about yourself by seeing what you focus on day to day. That’s what you’re going to do well in. And the stuff you hate thinking about? That’s the part that will never improve.

I once interviewed Tiziana Casciaro, professor at Harvard Business School. She does research on social skills in the workplace. Midway through the interview, I started to panic and I asked her how I could tell if I have terrible social skills.

She told me that it’s nearly impossible to judge one’s own social skills. But there’s one good way: Measure the amount you care about your social skills. If you care, and think about ways to make them better on a daily basis, you probably have decent social skills.

This is true for most things in life: It doesn’t matter so much exactly what action you choose in working toward improvement, it just matters that you’re trying, with genuine intention. The common problem is not wrong action so much as it is no focus.

It’s important to feel I’m running my work instead of letting it run me; so I’ve forced myself to get into the habit of daily meditation for 30 minutes in the mornings, even on days when I’m itching to get on with things. Meditation isn’t a productivity tool, but the productivity benefits of stopping and putting things in perspective every day are huge.

A cleareyed Malcolm Gladwell discusses the American penchant for reducing all activity to a moral lesson that can be imparted through the powerful cocktail of stage presence and rear-screen projection. Drawing a line from Benjamin Franklin to the homilies printed on Celestial Seasonings tea boxes, Mr. Gladwell says that even knotty concepts from fields like quantum physics and philology can be made attractive to large groups of people if the concepts are rendered as anecdotes involving a cabdriver, a small child or an obscure Flemish botanist. “Start with a personal anecdote,” Mr. Gladwell suggests, “and then extrapolate to the 18th-century cocoa trade in Malta.”