What I learned last week (#32)

Learned last week: big change can be done, downsizing is hard, practice alone is not enough, and more.

Big changes are possible with small incremental steps: Last week we (finally!) closed up shop in the US and started our Scotland experiment. By midweek, all of our belongings fit into the back of an SUV and a small crate sitting somewhere in the port of Seattle. Amazing to get to this point. There were countless small decisions that were made moot by making the one big decision to move, and executing that big decision was a matter of one day and step at a time.


Getting rid of things is harder than I thought: We’ve sold and given away a lot of stuff as part of our move, and we’ve invited many friends and strangers alike to go through our stuff to pick out things they might like or find useful. During this process my feelings have swung all the way from gratitude to ambivalence to resentment and back again, sometimes very rapidly, and it’s surprised me how hard this was to moderate. I often felt like someone “owed” me for something they were given, or even bought. Or I felt they didn’t “deserve” these things that I valued so much, etc, etc. I think I navigated this ok, but it was harder to keep my mindset on the right things throughout the process of shedding stuff than I thought.


Documentary I finally got a chance to watch: I’ve been waiting to watch Free Solo, and finally snuck it in while Sam slept on me in the flight to Scotland. One part that stuck with me was when Alex Honnold was reflecting on the difference between himself and his girlfriend, and he says something to the effect of “her goal is happiness, having a comfortable life. Nothing great has ever been accomplished by being happy and comfortable. My goal is performance.” It’s incredible what he has achieved by being so laser focused on performance. It is a mindset I admire, and strikes me as very similar to that of another person I hold in high regard, Josh Waitzkin.


Tips on how to become a craftsman: In the midst of everything last week I was somehow able to sneak in some reading, this time it was So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport. I love how the book is structured, how it provides summaries at the end of each section and the conclusion where he brings it together and applies the rules. The part that I’m thinking a lot about, a core idea to the book, is the section on how to become a craftsman and build valuable skills. Of particular interest is the one-two punch of putting both a structure in place that allows you to spend the time on practicing a skill, as well as being very deliberate about having that practice be stretching oneself through challenging and uncomfortable work.

In his 2007 interview with Charlie Rose, here’s how Steve Martin explained his strategy for learning the banjo: “[I thouhgt], if I stayed with it, then one day I will have been playing for forty years, and anyone who sticks with something for forty years will be pretty good at it.”

The image of Martin returning to his banjo, day after day, for forty years is poignant. It captures well the feel of how career capital is actually acquired: You stretch yourself, day after day, month after month, before finally looking up and realizing, “Hey, I’ve become pretty good, and people are starting to notice.”


Quote that relates to what I was watching and reading:

“What you do everyday matters more than what you do once in a while.”

Gretchen Rubin

Book excerpt I loved:

We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

From Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

What I learned last week (#31)

Learning last week: Managing stress, work is non-linear, practicing to express who you are, and more.

The difference between knowing something and understanding it: This past couple of weeks we’ve sold virtually everything we owned, slept in different places every couple of nights, and have had endlessly busy days going nonstop. We new it would be stressful to quit work and move country, but now we understand it! It’s been super challenging, but the next time we move (and when we do more extended travel), it’ll be easier as a result. We couldn’t be more to be more excited to get started on this next experiment.


My mind is controlled by my body, not the other way around: The best antidote to the stresses of moving have been a 5 mile run and a few sets of pushups. I’ve been trying to do “100s”, which is code for 100 pushups, sit-ups and seconds of plank position each day. I haven’t been very consistent with much of anything during the last week, but whenever I have stuck to this, I’m always better off.


Thinking about work in a non-linear way: The following thought from the excellent Joe Rogan podcast with Naval Ravikant made me think my desire to work differently in what I do next. Here is a paraphrase:

We tend to think of work as linear. We work a certain number of hours (9-5) and get a set amount of output consistently for those hours. But that’s not how we work. We’re not cows grazing, we’re more like lions. We train. We work best in intense bursts. Then we get feedback, we train to get better, and then go again.

This also seemed to be related to an idea from The One Thing that goes against the idea of “work-life balance”. The idea being that you will have bursts where you will want to be focusing on a work goal, but it’s best done in intervals. Instead of work-life balance, seek counter-balance:

Counter-balance is the process of focusing exclusively on the important task at hand, whether it’s work, teaching our kids something or working out. We have to choose what’s critical and give it as much time as it needs before switching to the next most important thing.

The hard thing here is to do what’s critical.

Also, fuck hard work (which very much aligns with work hard is not good advice). 


A little shop of things: I’ve enjoyed following Austin Kleon’s writing more closely recently, and his shop on Amazon list seems like it has some gems on it. I’m excited to check out the pencils and a few of the books on it.


Book excerpt I liked:

Zen Mind, Beginners Mind by Shunryu Suzuki greatly influenced my life. There is a line in there something like, “We practice (meditation) not to attain Buddahood but to express it.” Even though I first read it over 40 years ago, I still feel a thrill move through my body as I think about that line. I’ve often thought the best kind of teaching is an articulation of what we already know, but don’t know how to put into words or, most crucially, how to live. From the first time I read it, I sensed the vital difference between practicing to get something you think you lack, and practicing to express the fullness of who you are.

From Sharon Saltzberg in Tribe of Mentors by Tim Ferriss

What I learned last week (#28)

Learned last week: A giant of journalism, the beauty of The Alchemist, WeChat the operating system, and more.

Book excerpt I loved, very relevant to fatherhood and my parenting philosophy:

Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

From Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Author I learned about: I had never heard of A. A. Gill before last week, but after a recommendation I looked him up and the collection Lines in the Sand: Collected Journalism is on my reading list.

“The act of feeding someone,” he says as he shares a scavenged dinner in a King’s Cross homeless shelter, “is the most basic transubstantiation”, a rite central to all religions.

Such glimpses of a loftier truth are the glory of Gill’s essays, and they open metaphysical vistas in journalistic junkets or stunts contrived for the sake of a feature article. On safari in Botswana with his well-travelled twins, huddled around a sparky blaze in the bush, he hears a tribal elder call the pricks of light in the black sky “the campfires of my ancestors”. Gill takes this to mean that “Earth and heaven mirror each other, the countless generations stretching back to the first men” and extending forward, in a tiny appendix, to “me and my kids”.

Elsewhere, he tries his hand at life drawing, and while studying the nude model he’s reminded of our fumbling search for “an empathy with the human condition and the spirit that makes us sparks of the divine”. Not by chance, that image rekindles the Botswana campfire: at their finest, Gill’s essays are what he calls “votive art”, an offering of gratitude as devout as a lighted candle.

From The Guardian’s review of Lines in the Sand

I had never read The Alchemist and was surprised and delighted to discover it: Until last week I didn’t realize I had never read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, mistaking it in my head for another book. I finally read it while on a trip last week and it was one of the most enjoyable experiences in recent memory. While my reaction is certainly due in part to big decisions and changes happening in my life right now, it is, without-a-doubt, a beautiful and moving book.

“If a person is living out his Personal Legend, he knows everything he needs to know. There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”


WeChat is not a messaging app, it’s the operating system for 1 billion people: Think Facebook has a lot of power? WeChat is watching is a fascinating look at the creation of a deeply centralized ecosystem with interesting, convenient and scary implications.

Hyper-centralization makes life convenient. It also presents a worrying potential for fraud. On a typical day I’ve paid my phone bill, sent money to people, bought groceries, and even sent authorized documents to the bank, all through one app, protected by one password and kept intentionally unencrypted to comply with government data-sharing regulations.

Moreover, the data centralization that has enabled WeChat to map itself neatly onto users’ personal and commercial lives, has now created an opportunity for the government to step in and invite it into their political lives. Beyond sharing data with the government, WeChat is now rolling out a digital ID card. Every Chinese citizen is issued an ID card. It functions like a domestic passport and is needed for any interaction with the state—at hospitals, booking trains, flying domestically, or making bank transactions. In Guangzhou, the provincial government has already debuted a WeChat ID card and there are plans for it to be rolled out across the whole of China. Hijiacking WeChat in the future could grant a hacker everything from a user’s government-approved identity to his or her bank details, address, and coffee preferences.

WeChat’s role in the social-credit system (!?) that is being rolled out is pretty wild:

WeChat’s data centralization makes it a cornerstone of the government’s social-credit system that is feted to appear nationwide in 2020. Mooted in 2014 in a document entitled “Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System,” the plan is to build a system that incentivizes good behavior and punishes that deemed unconducive to the construction of a harmonious society or, as the document itself dictates, a system that will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”12 Under the pilot scheme, people with outstanding court orders or who have defaulted on loans can’t book high-speed rail tickets and can’t fly in planes.

The nationwide social credit system will be compiled by combining government records with commercial profiles. At present, Ant Financial, the finance-arm of Alibaba, China’s Internet conglomerate, has rolled out “sesame credit,” which gives people a score out of 950 based on their punctuality paying back loans, their purchase history, their social networks (having friends with high scores boosts your own score), and data shared from the government such as court-orders and fines. People with high-scores get preferential loans, can rent cars without deposits and are even guaranteed visas for countries like Luxemburg and Singapore, among other perks. China Rapid Finance, which is partnered with Tencent, is responsible for creating a similar scheme off the back of WeChat data.


Favorite quote was from Sam (as written by his teachers on a father’s day card):

“Thank you for taking me to coffee store and playing trucks!

Love Sam”

What I learned last week (#27)

Learned last week: Inspiration from NASA, how to not suck at color, and a excerpt on compensation and work.

Quote I most wanted to share:

The world needs you at the party starting real conversations, saying “I don’t know”, and being kind.

Charlie Kaufman

Favorite book excerpt from last week:

The most dangerous tradition we hold about work is that it must be serious and meaningless. We believe that we’re paid money to compensate us for work not worthwhile on its own. People who are paid the most are often the most confused, for they know in their hearts how little meaning there is in what they do, for others and for themselves. While money provides status, status doesn’t guarantee meaning. They’re paid well because of how poorly work compensates their souls.

From The Year Without Pants by Scott Berkun

For a good laugh, make sure you read the replies: The long thread that accompanies this 20 things we’ve learned from TV tweet is magic.


An endless source of inspiration (and desktop wallpapers): NASA makes their entire media library publicly accessible and copyright free. Like Lego, NASA is in the upper-echelons of cool organizations.


A great explanation on color: As someone who is really into art and design (but doesn’t have a ton of technical training), this article on How to Not Suck at Color was a really useful and interesting read.

To really know what color is, we need to understand its ingredients. Every color breaks down into three fundamental attributes: hue, saturation, and value. You might recognize these characters from your favorite design app, though sometimes they’ll be referred to as HSB.


The behind-the-scenes story of NBA team branding: The story of How the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies Revived the NBA is an interesting read and includes a tidbit about team naming contests that raised my eyebrow.

Without the hype and critical praise that accompanied the Steven Spielberg’s film, it’s unlikely Raptors would have been a unanimous selection. Instead, we might have be cheering for the Toronto Huskies against the Warriors — prior to the NBA, the Huskies represented in the city in the Basketball Association of America in the 1940s. “The pop culture context made us predisposed to following that direction,” says Mayenknecht.

That April, The Star and radio station CFRB 1010 organized a team naming contest. Several dozen potential names were nominated, a list which included the Lakelanders, the Trilliums (Ontario’s official flower), and the Canadian Eh’s, but O’Grady claims that despite the ten names that were shortlisted, the franchise already knew which direction it was headed. “They were going to be the Raptors all along, [and the naming contest] was a smoke screen to let people believe they were part of the decision making process.” Even though Bitove and others were considering the possibility of naming the team the Toronto T-Rex, O’Grady says the franchise was driven by the notion that raptors, like birds of prey, travel in packs. “If Raptors barely registered, then that may have swayed Bitove a bit — ‘Let’s do another focus group’ — but those are all about sanity checks, to make sure not making colossal mistake,” he says.

What I learned last week (#25)

Learned last week: Teams of 4-6 are most effective, a food pyramid for media consumption, and cars are changing fast.

The benefits of small teams: At Minecraft I’ve been working on a new features with a small team of 5 people (including me) and we’ve all noticed how we’ve been more effective and better organized in getting work done than any time in the last 9 months (when we were working as a team of 10). I recently learned that the military organizes this way as well, using fireteams. Teams of 4-6 seem to be the magic number by which people’s egos are able to coexist and individuals feel invested in the team instead of themselves.

A fireteam or fire team is a small military sub-subunit of infantry designed to optimise “bounding overwatch” and “fire and movement” tactical doctrine in combat. Depending on mission requirements, a typical fireteam consists of 4 or fewer members; an automatic rifleman, a grenadier (M203), a rifleman, and a designated team leader. The role of each fireteam leader is to ensure that the fireteam operates as a cohesive unit. Two or three fireteams are organised into a section or squad in co-ordinated operations, which is led by a squad leader.

Military theorists consider effective fireteams as essential for modern professional militaries as they serve as a primary group. Psychological studies by the United States Army have indicated that a soldier’s survivability and the willingness to fight is more heavily influenced by the desire to both protect and avoid failing to support other members of the fireteam than by abstract concepts or ideologies. Historically, nations with effective fireteam organisation have had a significantly better performance from their infantry units in combat than those limited to operations by traditionally larger units.

A Food Pyramid for Kids’ Media Consumption: I love the framework of this and think it makes a lot of sense. I want to create an infographic for it and hang it on the wall. 

The crazy ways that cars will change: The videos included in this article about how cars will change more in the next decade than they have in the past century are pretty cool. My daughter just turned 6, and she’ll be just at driving age when the year comes that they refer to most of this happening by (2030) .

Sun visors will become a thing of the past, with smart glass allowing us to control the amount of entering daylight at the touch of a button. The Mercedes F015 concept car’s doors even have extra screens that can function as windows or entertainment systems.

Many cars will be fitted with augmented-reality systems, which will superimpose computer-generated visualisations onto the windscreen or other suitable display areas, to ease the passenger’s nerves from relinquishing the wheel by showing what the car is about to do.

Favorite book excerpt:

Leaving some things undone is a necessary tradeoff for extraordinary results.

From The ONE Thing by Jay Papasan

What I learned last week (#24)

Learned last week: The search for meaning, tech fossils, tips on reading and my role as a dad.

Favorite book excerpt: I finally got around to reading this and finished it last week. Great read.

We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

from Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

More thinking on right to repair and sustainability in tech: The AirPods are a tragedy offers a great perspective on where we are and what we should be thinking about. I’m also listening to music on wireless Bluetooth headphones as I write this. :/ (Thanks to Ben Tamblyn

Thoughts on reading, taking notes and remembering: I came across quite a few different tips for reading (non-fiction) last week, some in opposition to each other. I’m thinking about putting some of these into practice:

  1. A framework for taking notes and reviewing/revisiting them in The Top 3 Most Effective Ways to Take Notes While Reading
  2. The book How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading
  3. Kevin Systrom’s system of first reading the table of contents to understand the basic structure, then reading the last paragraph of a section/chapter and the end of the book to get the basic arguments, then reading normally (assuming the interest is there). From Kevin Systrom — Tactics, Books, and the Path to a Billion Users.
  4. Naval Ravikant’s system of not taking notes, of scanning books and jumping into the parts that sound interesting, and of not worrying about finishing a book or even reading most of it, especially if it only has one main idea or is not particularly well crafted. From Naval Ravikant: The Angel Philosopher.

Men and parenting article that hits home: What ‘Good’ Dads Get Away With made me reflect on my complicities in our family dynamic. (Hat tip to Marcus Purvis)

Quote I was thinking about:

“What you do matters, but why you do it matters much more.”

Anonymous

What I learned last week (#23)

Learned last week: The best advice on how to set goals, how to be happy, and my idea of a good trip.

Some profound advice on the meaning of life: I’ve read and re-read and shared Hunter S. Thompson’s Letter on Finding Your Purpose and Living a Meaningful Life a bunch over the past week. It’s worth reading the whole thing (not long), but here’s the main message:

As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal), he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).
 
In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life— the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.

Filing that away in the stuff I want to tell my kids folder…

Book I started reading: Picked up Keep Going by Austin Kleon by chance at a bookstore last week and it’s a potent little book. Here’s my favorite pic so far that about sums it up:

Speaking of keeping going and of finding a chosen way of life: Check out To Spain… and …then to France. This is my idea of a good trip and one I hope to emulate.

From https://mostlydrawing.com/2019/05/04/to-spain/
From https://mostlydrawing.com/2019/05/10/and-then-to-france/

Favorite book excerpt:

In the end it all comes down to this: you have a choice (or more accurately a rolling tangle of choices) between giving your work your best shot and risking that it will not make you happy, or not giving it your best shot — and thereby guaranteeing that it will not make you happy. It becomes a choice between certainty and uncertainty. And curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice.

From Art & Fear by David Bayles, Ted Orland

New music for work: The artist djblesOne and his Soundcloud and Bboys Bboy Forever (on Spotify). It’s all break beat mixes, all flying jump kick-type energy, and it’s super conducive to getting shit done.

What I learned last week (#19)

Learned last week: the small things are the big things, robocalling sucks, a new coffee preparation, and more.

Drawing kids is hard: We were traveling all last week and I tried making some time to draw the kids at the breakfast table (in ink as is my norm right now). It was a (fun) disaster.

A book excerpt that made me think: In Draft No 4 by John McPhee lies the following quote from Cary Grant: “A thousand details add up to one impression.” The implication is that the small things really are the big things. Focus on doing the next thing the best you can, and the next, and the next. Create as many of these chains as you can. That is the definition of quality.

All about the robocall crisis: I get a few of these calls every week and my wife gets way more than I do. This gave me some backstory (and lots of interesting reading) on the cat-and-mouse game of robcalls: The robocall crisis will never be totally fixed.

A new coffee preparation: Found on the board of a coffee shop in Tofino, a cortado is a coffee preparation originating from Spain, consisting of half espresso, half milk. It’s similar to a flat white, but without the “textured” milk that is typical of Italian preparations. I still prefer my coffee black, but when I’m in the mood for something different, this is my new go-to.

My new goes-in-anything sauce: I’m super late to this party but Franks hot sauce is going in my pantry. It’s not really hot, and it’s got a acidic bite that can help balance any dish. When I was at a cooking class not long ago, they added it to anything that needed more acid (French cooking, Italian cooking, you name it).

What I learned last week (#13)

Learning from last week: the best I could hope to achieve in my creative practice, protecting my kids from pain, and a great story on solitude and strength.

  • An excerpt from a book that I’m pondering: “Some writers, as Hemingway said in Green Hills of Africa, are born only to help another writer to write one sentence. I hope this collection will contribute to the making of many sentences.” – from Ernest Hemingway on Writing by Larry W. Phillips. If I have a a goal associated with my sharing, writing, and drawing that is better than this, I can’t name it.
  • A perspective on protecting those you love from pain: A friend at work and I were talking about our kids. I was expressing a hope I have that I can provide my kids with the experience of unmooring that I had experienced as a child when my parents divorced, but without as much isolation and sadness. We were discussing whether this is a realistic, or even desired, thing to achieve. I will write about this more soon, but after our conversation she came across this Instagram post and sent it to me:
  • A great documentary and story: Alone in the Wilderness is an assembly of footage from Dick Proenneke, a man who moved to the Alaskan wilderness alone, built a cabin by hand, and lived there alone for 30 years. The footage is grainy and it’s short (and short on context), but fantastic. I recommend getting some background from the site prior to viewing.
  • A great piece of storytelling: The Amazon Race is a really fun and ingenious way for a story to be told. Actually it’s just like the stories I’ve been experiencing for 30 years, except those are almost exclusively fiction. I’d like to see more mini-video games narratives like this. (Hat tip: Steve Wiens)