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What I learned last week

What I learned last week (#55)

Two book excerpts I’ve been thinking about:

“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets… it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.” (Cal Newport, Deep Work)

Very apt for the holidays this week and next.

“I happen to be in a very tough business where there are no alibis. It is good or it is bad and the thousand reasons that interfere with a book being as good as possible are no excuses if it is not. You have to make it good and a man is a fool if he adds or takes hindrance after hindrance after hindrance to being a writer when that is what he cares about. Taking refuge in domestic successes, being good to your broke friends etc. is merely a form of quitting.” (Larry W. Phillips, Ernest Hemingway on Writing)

Those are some tough words and also got me thinking about this post on how Tyler Cowen practices to be better at his work. To extreme for me but I agree that you have to practice deliberately anything you want to be better at.


New music is such a great gift: The KEXP DJs top albums of the year, along with the listeners top 99.3 albums, offers an annual avalanche of good tunes that carries me into the next year on a high. Here are some new albums I have discovered already from these lists:

The Black Tones – Cobain & Cornbread – blues mixed with hard/grunge rock

Preservation Hall Jazz Band – A Tuba to Cuba – upbeat latin-inspired jazz

Nicola Cruz – Siku – instrumental album with a tribal, ancient feel

Rudy Willingham – Dunk Reactions – really fresh mix of instrumental beats and samples


My favorite music of 2019: This year was full of change, here is the music that kept me company throughout.


A beautiful poem and thoughts on marriage: From Margaret Atwood on Marriage, really liked this poem and lots more in the link.

HABITATION by Margaret Atwood

Marriage is not

a house or even a tent
it is before that, and colder:
the edge of the forest, the edge

of the desert

the unpainted stairs

at the back where we squat

outside, eating popcorn
the edge of the receding glacier
where painfully and with wonder

at having survived even

this far
we are learning to make fire


Common sense that’s often ignored: The seven sins of meetings with remote participants


The crazy surveilled reality we now live in: One Nation Tracked is a fantastic exploration of the tracking devices we all carry with us each day.

Within America’s own representative democracy, citizens would surely rise up in outrage if the government attempted to mandate that every person above the age of 12 carry a tracking device that revealed their location 24 hours a day. Yet, in the decade since Apple’s App Store was created, Americans have, app by app, consented to just such a system run by private companies. Now, as the decade ends, tens of millions of Americans, including many children, find themselves carrying spies in their pockets during the day and leaving them beside their beds at night — even though the corporations that control their data are far less accountable than the government would be.


The dark world of online murder markets: Click Here to Kill. Woah, great read.


Quote for the new year:

No matter how big and tough a problem may be, get rid of confusion by taking one little step toward solution. Do something.

George F. Nordenholt

Free tools for images and illustrations for your site, docs, presentations, and more:


This is the last post of the year for me and I’m going to explore a new destination, read a bit, and play. See you next year!

In the meantime, check out what we’re up to now.

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What I learned last week

What I learned last week (#35)

Nope, we’ve not settled yet: Most of the last week was spent partially connected, having no internet service at home yet (along with somewhat spotty plumping service). That’s made for lots of reading and traveling around local spots, which is mostly great despite being spiked with the frequent unnerving feeling of not being able to do something that requires a connection. It’s been a good lesson in accepting and appreciating reality instead of worrying about expectations…hard to do consistently.

Other proof of our settling is the fact that I’ve amassed the following set of Allen keys as a full-time builder of basic home furnishings.

But a few of the tools I’ve amassed from furniture boxes.

Quote I am thinking about:

“Whatever you hold in your mind on a consistent basis is exactly what you will experience in your life.”

Tony Robbins

Book excerpt(s) that I loved:
Here are a couple from last week’s read, Born Standing Up by Steve Martin.

At age eighteen, I had absolutely no gifts. I could not sing or dance, and the only acting I did was really just shouting. Thankfully, perseverance is a great substitute for talent.

I related to this to how I’ve been successful in certain areas of my life and career, which I think has been through sheer persistence in doing what I’m interested in rather than any given talent.

Consistent work enhanced my act. I learned a lesson: It was easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical: Like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the abominable circumstances.

The sheer amount of work (we talkin’ about practice) that Steve Martin did being a musician/magician/comedian prior to becoming known for it is both reassuring and intimidating. He spent years doing 2-3 shows a day when he was working, in every kind of condition imaginable. Talk about becoming bulletproof (an leaving a lot of lessons to learn from).

As I finished So Good They Can’t Ignore You and think more about my habits and attitudes towards what I do next in terms of work, the underlying ethos of consistent work, deliberate practice, and (as everyone from Seth Godin to Steven Pressfield writes about), being a professional and a craftsman are what I’m most reading and thinking about at the moment.


Purchase I’m most enjoying since moving: Having a place to write at in the morning, and having the Jarivs adjustable height desk, has had a big impact on my daily routine. Even though I have little structured time to work there (and no internet), having the space primed for standing and writing in quiet is something I didn’t have in our old home and am surprised how much I value it.


New music: The Circle Remains Unbroken by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, picked up from a reference in Born Standing Up, is, I learned, a heralded country blues (triple!!) album from the seventies and superb with morning coffee, evening dinners, and setting up life in another country.


Thing I learned about Scotland: St Andrews is more than a golf course. My wife took us all for a day trip last week and it was spectacular. The cooperative weather certainly played it’s part by providing full sun, but the combination of the bustling restaurants and shops, the castle, the beaches, the university (founded in 1413!) and the golf courses made for one of the most memorable outings since we’ve arrived.

The view of St Andrews castle from one of the beaches.
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What I learned last week

What I learned last week (#32)

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