“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”
- Ernest Hemingway
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“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”
- Ernest Hemingway
Whenever you start a project, you should have a plan for finishing it.
One outcome is to declare victory, to find that moment when you have satisfied your objectives and reached a goal.
The other outcome, which feels like a downer but is almost as good, is to declare failure, to realize that you’ve run out of useful string and it’s time to move on. I think the intentional act of declaring becomes an essential moment of learning, a spot in time where you consider inputs and outputs and adjust your strategy for next time.
If you are unable to declare, then you’re going to slog, and instead of starting new projects based on what you’ve learned, you’ll merely end up trapped. I’m not suggesting that you flit. A project might last a decade or a generation, but if it is to be a project, it must have an end.
This is the 500th post on this site. Nearly a year and a half ago, I started this blog to as a way to explore creativity, art, work, and life. As life changed dramatically during that time, with less and less of my time spent on art and more and more of my time spent on law, this blog quickly turned into a repository for all of the great advice I’ve been given and lessons I’ve learned over the years.
Seth’s advice, quoted above, is one of the pieces that I didn’t take to heart. I didn’t define in advance what would make this endeavor a success or a failure. I just went. Some good things have definitely come as a result, but we could have accomplished more here if I had a clearer focus from the outset, if I had defined what victory meant.
So today I’m declaring failure, in a sense. The blog’s not going anywhere, but I will be monkeying with some things. Announcements will follow, but exciting times are ahead. Thanks for joining me.
The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.
A Jewish man was sitting in a Starbucks reading an Arab newspaper. A friend of his, who happened to be in the same store, noticed this strange phenomenon.
Very upset, he approached him and said: ‘Moshe, have you lost your mind? Why are you reading an Arab newspaper?’ Moshe replied, ‘I used to read the Jewish newspapers, but what did I find? Jews being persecuted, Israel being attacked, Jews disappearing through assimilation and inter marriage, Jews living in poverty… I got so depressed!
So I switched to the Arab newspaper. Now what do I find?
Jews own all the banks, Jews control the media, Jews are all rich and powerful, Jews rule the world. The news is so much better!’
Paul McHenry Roberts (1917-1967) taught college English for over twenty years, first at San Jose State College and later at Cornell University. He wrote numerous books on linguistics, including Understanding Grammar (1954), Patterns of English (1956), and Understanding English (1958). Paul also wrote this essay, which is a fantastic read not only for those looking to improve their writing, but for those looking to improve their thinking as well. Some of my favorite bits:
Avoid the Obvious Content
Say the assignment is college football. Say that you’ve decided to be against it. Begin by putting down the arguments that come to your mind: it is too commercial, it takes the students’ minds off their studies, it is hard on the players, it makes the university a kind of circus instead of an intellectual center, for most schools it is financially ruinous. Can you think of any more arguments, just off hand? All right. Now when you write your paper, make sure that you don’ t use any of the material on this list. If these are the points that leap to your mind, they will leap to everyone else’s too.
Be against college football for some reason or reasons of your own. If they are keen and perceptive ones, that’s splendid. But even if they are trivial or foolish or indefensible, you are still ahead so long as they are not everybody else’s reasons too. Be against it because the colleges don’t spend enough money on it to make it worthwhile, because it is bad for the characters of the spectators, because the players are forced to attend classes, because the football stars hog all the beautiful women, because it competes with baseball and is therefore un-American and possibly Communist-inspired. There are lots of more or less unused reasons for being against college football.
Sometimes it is a good idea to sum up and dispose of the trite and conventional points before going on to your own. This has the advantage of indicating to the reader that you are going to be neither trite nor conventional. Something like this:
We are often told that college football should be abolished because it has become too commercial or because it is bad for the players. These arguments are no doubt very cogent, but they don’t really go to the heart of the matter.
Then you go to the heart of the matter.
Take the Less Usual Side
One rather simple way of getting into your paper is to take the side of the argument that most of the citizens will want to avoid. If the assignment is an essay on dogs, you can, if you choose, explain that dogs are faithful and lovable companions, intelligent, useful as guardians of the house and protectors of children, indispensable in police work — in short, when all is said and done, man’s best friends. Or you can suggest that those big brown eyes conceal, more often than not, a vacuity of mind and an inconstancy of purpose; that the dogs you have known most intimately have been mangy, ill-tempered brutes, incapable of instruction; and that only your nobility of mind and fear of arrest prevent you from kicking the flea-ridden animals when you pass them on the street.
[These] are intellectual exercises, and it is legitimate to argue now one way and now another, as debaters do in similar circumstances. Always take the that looks to you hardest, least defensible. It will almost always turn out to be easier to write interestingly on that side.
Call a Fool a Fool
Some of the padding in freshman themes is to be blamed not on anxiety about the word minimum but on excessive timidity. The student writes, “In my opinion, the principal of my high school acted in ways that I believe every unbiased person would have to call foolish.” This isn’t exactly what he means. What he means is, “My high school principal was a fool.” If he was a fool, call him a fool. Hedging the thing about with “in-my-opinion’s” and “it-seems-to-me’s” and “as-I-see-it’s” and “at-least-from-my-point-of-view’s” gains you nothing. Delete these phrases whenever they creep into your paper.
The student’s tendency to hedge stems from a modesty that in other circumstances would be commendable. He is, he realizes, young and inexperienced, and he half suspects that he is dopey and fuzzyminded beyond the average. Probably only too true. But it doesn’t help to announce your incompetence six times in every paragraph. Decide what you want to say and say it as vigorously as possible, without apology and in plain words.
Linguistic diffidence can take various forms. One is what we call euphemism. This is the tendency to call a spade “a certain garden implement” or women’s underwear “unmentionables.” It is stronger in some eras than others and in some people than others but it always operates more or less in subjects that are touchy or taboo: death, sex, madness, and so on. Thus we shrink from saying “He died last night” but say instead “passed away,” “left us,” “joined his Maker,” “went to his reward.” Or we try to take off the tension with a lighter cliché: “kicked the bucket,” “cashed in his chips,” “handed in his dinner pail.” We have found all sorts of ways to avoid saying mad: “mentally ill,” “touched,” “not quite right upstairs,” “feebleminded,” “innocent,” “simple,” “off his trolley,” “not in his right mind.” Even such a now plain word as insane began as a euphemism with the meaning “not healthy.”
Modern science, particularly psychology, contributes many polysyllables in which we can wrap our thoughts and blunt their force. To many writers there is no such thing as a bad schoolboy. Schoolboys are maladjusted or unoriented or misunderstood or in the need of guidance or lacking in continued success toward satisfactory integration of the personality as a social unit, but they are never bad. Psychology no doubt makes us better men and women, more sympathetic and tolerant, but it doesn’t make writing any easier. Had Shakespeare been confronted with psychology, “To be or not to be” might have come out, “To continue as a social unit or not to do so. That is the personality problem. Whether ’tis a better sign of integration at the conscious level to display a psychic tolerance toward the maladjustments and repressions induced by one’s lack of orientation in one’s environment or — ” But Hamlet would never have finished the soliloquy.
Writing in the modern world, you cannot altogether avoid modern jargon. Nor, in an effort to get away from euphemism, should you salt your paper with four-letter words. But you can do much if you will mount guard against those roundabout phrases, those echoing polysyllables that tend to slip into your writing to rob it of its crispness and force.
I highly recommend reading the whole thing.
Chris Guillebeau was interested in building a lifestyle business (i.e. something that requires little startup capital and lots of flexibility). Instead of picking a business at random, Chris did what we should all do.
In The $100 Startup, Chris started by surveying 1500 entrepreneurs about their businesses. From there, he systematically interviewed several hundred of those entrepreneurs to find out what made their businesses work.
That’s a lot of work. But if you’re going to invest a big part of your life, and possibly a big part of your bank account, why wouldn’t you do that work? Why don’t we?
As students, why don’t we study the most successful students to find out what made them successful?
As teachers, or accountants, or doctors, or lawyers, or whatever it is you want to do, why don’t we systematically study the most successful people in our professions to find out why they were successful?
Why don’t we do what Chris did?
A couple thoughts: (1) This takes a lot of upfront work. It’s much easier, at least at first, to just go into things and wing it. (2) This also adds a lot of pressure. It’s easy to have a big idea or a grand plan to dream about. But, once you break something down to its component parts and figure out exactly what you need to do to succeed, you set yourself up for a lot of work. If you don’t do that work, you don’t have anyone to blame but yourself. That’s ultimately pretty scary.
Bruce Lee’s Definite Chief Aim
Dennis Dutton on the Barnum Effect and Cold Reading: How the persistent tendency for people to embrace fake personality descriptions as uniquely their own allows cold readers to defraud not only their clients, but themselves.
Why do we wear pants? Horses.
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
Most of us live our lives as if we’re in a restaurant. There’s a menu, with only so many things to choose from. Sure, you can ask for pasta with olive oil instead of marinara, but what’s on the list is more or less what you can expect to get.
But life isn’t a restaurant. Yes, there’s a list of things to choose from; you can still pick doctor, or lawyer, or teacher, or construction worker. But that list is nowhere near exhaustive. Just think: 30 years ago, there was no such thing as an IT department. Only 6 years ago, there was no such thing as an app developer. Those choices were added to the list by people who weren’t satisfied with the other choices. Now, both those choices are on the list and there are millions of IT specialists and developers around the world.
When someone hands you a list of choices, the remarkable ones are never on the list. If they were, they wouldn’t be remarkable.
Sir Francis Bacon was a true Renaissance man. A lawyer, statesman, an educator, a philosopher, and perhaps the first modern scientist, Bacon is also accused of authoring some or all of Shakespeare’s works. This fringe theory fits well because of Blake’s prolific writings.
Most of his writings remain relevant, but perhaps none more so than Of Studies:
STUDIES serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight, is in privateness and retiring; for ornament, is in discourse; and for ability, is in the judgment, and disposition of business. For expert men can execute, and perhaps judge of particulars, one by one; but the general counsels, and the plots and marshalling of affairs, come best, from those that are learned. To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar. They perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need proyning, by study; and studies themselves, do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience. Crafty men contemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them; for they teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them, and above them, won by observation. Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know, that he doth not. Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtile; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend. Abeunt studia in mores. Nay, there is no stond or impediment in the wit, but may be wrought out by fit studies; like as diseases of the body, may have appropriate exercises. Bowling is good for the stone and reins; shooting for the lungs and breast; gentle walking for the stomach; riding for the head; and the like. So if a man’s wit be wandering, let him study the mathematics; for in demonstrations, if his wit be called away never so little, he must begin again. If his wit be not apt to distinguish or find differences, let him study the Schoolmen; for they are cymini sectores. If he be not apt to beat over matters, and to call up one thing to prove and illustrate another, let him study 197 the lawyers’ cases. So every defect of the mind, may have a special receipt.
No matter what position you’re in, whether it’s janitor or CEO, a huge part of your day is spent doing “small work”. This includes the clerical stuff, the scheduling, the filing, the organizing, and all the other things that just needs to get done in order for your business to function.
For most people, it’s hard to find time to do the big work. The kind of work that improves things and makes a difference. There’s too much small work to be done, and it’s so easy, and tempting, to fill up our days that way.
Even if you were hired precisely to do the big work, you likely spend only a tiny portion on it. If you only hope to one day do the big work, you may not spend any of your day on it.
That’s problematic for both of you. If you were hired to do a job you’re not doing, you won’t last long. If all you do is dream about the job you want to be doing, you’ll never get there.
The good news is you don’t need anyone’s permission to do to big work. It’s always there, and since it’s usually hard and scary (since you often don’t even know where to start and the chance of failure is high), there’s usually not a lot of competition. After all, it’s hard and scary, so most people never even try. Just by showing up, by sitting down and trying to do big work, you’ll be way ahead of 98% of people.
From Ronald Regan to his son Mike, via Letters of Note:
Enclosed is the item I mentioned (with which goes a torn up IOU). I could stop here but I won’t.
You’ve heard all the jokes that have been rousted around by all the “unhappy marrieds” and cynics. Now, in case no one has suggested it, there is another viewpoint. You have entered into the most meaningful relationship there is in all human life. It can be whatever you decide to make it.
Some men feel their masculinity can only be proven if they play out in their own life all the locker-room stories, smugly confident that what a wife doesn’t know won’t hurt her. The truth is, somehow, way down inside, without her ever finding lipstick on the collar or catching a man in the flimsy excuse of where he was till three A.M., a wife does know, and with that knowing, some of the magic of this relationship disappears. There are more men griping about marriage who kicked the whole thing away themselves than there can ever be wives deserving of blame. There is an old law of physics that you can only get out of a thing as much as you put in it. The man who puts into the marriage only half of what he owns will get that out. Sure, there will be moments when you will see someone or think back to an earlier time and you will be challenged to see if you can still make the grade, but let me tell you how really great is the challenge of proving your masculinity and charm with one woman for the rest of your life. Any man can find a twerp here and there who will go along with cheating, and it doesn’t take all that much manhood. It does take quite a man to remain attractive and to be loved by a woman who has heard him snore, seen him unshaven, tended him while he was sick and washed his dirty underwear. Do that and keep her still feeling a warm glow and you will know some very beautiful music. If you truly love a girl, you shouldn’t ever want her to feel, when she sees you greet a secretary or a girl you both know, that humiliation of wondering if she was someone who caused you to be late coming home, nor should you want any other woman to be able to meet your wife and know she was smiling behind her eyes as she looked at her, the woman you love, remembering this was the woman you rejected even momentarily for her favors.
Mike, you know better than many what an unhappy home is and what it can do to others. Now you have a chance to make it come out the way it should. There is no greater happiness for a man than approaching a door at the end of a day knowing someone on the other side of that door is waiting for the sound of his footsteps.
P.S. You’ll never get in trouble if you say “I love you” at least once a day.
Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.
- Salvador Dali
Or, as Mark Twain explains in more fervent prose:
Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque was that ‘plagiarism’ farce! As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul – let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances – is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men – but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his. But not enough to signify. It is merely a Waterloo. It is Wellington’s battle, in some degree, and we call it his; but there are others that contributed. It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or any other important thing – and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite – that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.
Plagiarized from: Brainpickings
Where does trust come from?
Hint: it never comes from the good times and from the easy projects.
We trust people because they showed up when it wasn’t convenient, because they told the truth when it was easier to lie and because they kept a promise when they could have gotten away with breaking it.
Every tough time and every pressured project is another opportunity to earn the trust of someone you care about.
How much does it cost to help your friend move on a Saturday? What if you had planned to take your son to a ballgame? What if you had planned to work overtime?
There’s a cost to everything you do, even if that cost isn’t immediately obvious.
Lawyers know this better than just about anybody. Taking on that questionable case for your buddy may be the friendly thing to do, but it might cost you serious money if it means you need to turn down an important and/or high paying job. For the same reason, if you charge $100 an hour and are turning away work, it makes little sense to paint your office or mow your lawn, even if you have to pay someone $75 an hour to do it for you.
Now that more and more people are charging for their time, it’s important to realize that saying “yes” to things can cost you just as much money as saying “no”.
How do good hotels stay always feel so fresh and clean? Lots and lots of manpower.
How the cast of friends banded together to leverage their per episode salaries into seven figures. Great negotiating story. Ctrl+F “breakout”.
7 Useless Money-Saving Tips People Were Paid to Write. This basically sums up 99% of the advice on the internet.
Aspire not just to be a part of the 1%, but of the 0.1%? 4 out of 10 people who earn more than 99.9% of other Americans each year run a business.
Reinventing the mundane: some fun street art photos.