Having fun with the fantastic Robert Palmer song "Johnny and Mary."
I’m talking to myself a lot these days.
Part of it is I’ve been sick. Last week I spent three days cooped up. Tuesday I was in bed the whole day. It made for a strange week.
Writing has also been more difficult. Two weeks ago I realized my current draft had gone off course. I threw out two-plus chapters — more than 40 pages. It was a brutal reckoning.
Worse, the big edit created doubt. How can I trust anything I write when I can produce 40 pages of wrongness without knowing it? Self-doubt is tough to crawl out of when there’s nothing but you and your brain.
On Thursday I got so frustrated I literally yelled out “I want to quit!” That was a first.
But the yelling helped. I didn’t quit. I kept pushing. And later that afternoon I had a breakthrough. I was reading a new draft when I started talking to myself again: “We’ve got something here we’ve got something here.” I actually said this.
Yesterday I built on that momentum. It felt great. My own ideas surprised me. A good sign. I turned a corner.
But I have to remember: two weeks ago I was also feeling great. I even wrote an unsent email to my list about how solid the book felt. Before I could hit send, the ground fell out from under me.
So even as I turn this corner, I recognize that the book has more of them waiting for me. But surviving this last one was significant. I say it out loud because I know it’s true: I can do this.
When I started losing confidence, my focus went. I wasted time on distractions.
So I installed an app that a friend recommended called Self Control. It lets you block websites for a set amount of time. I added a half-dozen distracting places and set the blocker for 24 hours.
It helped. I found the zone. More interesting was what happened after it ended.
When my first 24 hours were up, I celebrated by visiting the blocked sites to see what I had missed. It took less than two minutes to look at them all. It was a big letdown.
Right then I turned Self Control back on. The next night the same thing happened. The blocker ended, I looked at the half-dozen sites for two minutes, then blocked them again. I’m now at five straight days of this. I recommend it.
Brute force inconvenience has been my most reliable weapon against technology addiction. More than a year ago I unfollowed everyone on social media. That way even when I did fall victim to temptation (which of course I would), there would be nothing rewarding about it.
Twitter/Instagram are still there for me if I want to publish. And I can manually search for people or things when I have a reason to. What I’m trying to stop is technology deciding for me about what I think about. That's not a permission I'm willing to give anymore.
Things I Like This Week (and that includes you):
— Solo was a lot of fun. My favorite of the post-original Star Wars movies. We’re suffering from Star Wars fatigue thanks to Corporate America bleeding a good thing dry. But don’t let that deter you from a great movie.
— Four-Hour Weekends. As parents of a two-year-old, my wife and I don’t get as much Us Time as we need. But lately we’ve blocked off Friday afternoons just for us. A nice lunch, go to a museum, or just explore. Even though it’s only an afternoon, we feel like we’re getting away as our young-couple selves. My favorite part of the week. Parents, give it a try!
— My latest mix of good music has a little something for everyone. Along with old favorites, it includes two recent finds: Comet Is Coming and Spellling. Recommended if you like: talking to yourself, stop-and-go traffic, and watching the world fall apart.
Six weeks ago I set a May 1st deadline to send a new book draft to my editor and a few others. It was my first time sharing since early in the process.
When I set the deadline, I'd written ~2.5 chapters that felt right and many more that didn’t. So I set an additional May 1st goal: have four great chapters ready to share then too.
I’m happy to say that both deadlines worked. On May 1st, I sent off four chapters I felt anxiously proud of. The feedback has been positive and helpful.
I also learned something unexpected in the process.
It turns out that my round number deadline of May 1st was a Tuesday. Which meant that last Tuesday night, I accomplished my major goal for the week. Woohoo!
But once that box was checked, my work ethic tanked. The rest of the week I struggled to follow my normal discipline. I couldn't convince my brain to get back into gear.
This week was much better. I was focused and happy with what I was writing. Phew.
I haven't set a date for my next deadline yet. When I do, I’ll pick a Friday.
One of my inspirations for coming to LA was a book called City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s by Otto Friedrich.
Part of the book describes how many of Europe’s most important writers and composers came to Los Angeles in the 1930s and '40s to escape the Nazis and the war. Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Bertol Brecht, Igor Stravinsky, Thomas Mann, and others came to LA around this time.
I was surprised to learn that some of Adorno and Benjamin's key texts -- theories the world still considers dangerous -- were written in Los Angeles. Reading them, you would never guess. They feel as far from the sunshine as something could possibly be.
A notable figure in City of Nets is the novelist Theodor Dreiser. He came from the Midwest, not Europe, and was one of the most popular and controversial writers of his day. He’s most famous for the acclaimed novel Sister Carrie.
I learned this week that Dreiser wrote his most popular novel in 1920 in the same house where we're staying in LA.* And it's not a big house. There aren't many places to put an office or study. Which means there's a good chance I’m writing my book in the same room where Theodor Dreiser wrote one of his. How cool is that?
*The book is called "An American Tragedy." Initially I thought, “Oh wow I’ve got to read it!” And then I discovered that it’s nearly 1,000 pages and Dreiser is famous for writing extremely long and detailed descriptions of things. Taking a raincheck for now.
I’ve never been to Burning Man. And I turn 40 later this year, so my window for going is closing fast. But almost a decade ago I had the privilege to meet Larry Harvey, one of Burning Man's founders. It was a memorable experience.
It was the early days of Kickstarter. One of the first trends on the site was people launching projects to make “art cars” for Burning Man. There were so many that someone from Burning Man reached out. I spoke with a woman named Marian the next day.
A month later, Marian emailed again. Larry, founder of Burning Man, would be in New York. He wanted to meet. (“We won't be functioning too well before 11 am though,” her email added.)
Larry came to the Kickstarter office in the Lower East Side a few days later. He wore a white Stetson hat. He had dark leather skin and his blue-green eyes seemed like they were lit up from another world.
I don't remember exactly what we talked about, but I remember the feeling of it. I liked him instantly. He listened and asked good questions. We talked big ideas. We sat with two of my coworkers in our makeshift kitchen-conference room for well over an hour.
After he left, my colleagues and I looked at each other. Umm, did you feel that? Yes, we did. We all had a strong sense that we’d just met someone extraordinary.
I’ve been fortunate to meet many incredible people in my life, but few made an impression like Larry Harvey. Two weeks ago Larry passed away at the age of 70. Rest in peace, sir.
The world is too wonderful to leave Sup Y'all on a down note. So, as always, we close with good music.
I've been loving the new album from Eleanor Friedberger, called Rebound. Sly, smooth, and surprising. Give the first four songs a try.
Yesterday I had lunch with a friend.
My friend had recently spoken with the CEO of a company that he wasn’t a big fan of. After talking to this person, the friend was pleasantly surprised to discover that the CEO was smart and nice. My friend was reassessing his feelings about the company as a result.
I listened to the story with interest. Then I asked a somewhat odd question. How important did he think it was to be smart and nice?
Look around. Aren’t most people you know nice? Aren’t most people you know smart?
There's data to support the idea that people are smarter than they used to be. The Flynn Effect observes that our IQs have increased significantly over the past century. They're still rising. According to that metric, we’re smarter than ever.
And yet consider the world around us. The problems we’re creating. The problems we’re ignoring. This happened even while people were getting smarter by the generation. And being super nice about it, too.
There’s no easy Other that we can honestly point to as the root of all evil. It’s not like there’s some island of supervillain a-holes who are responsible for everything bad in the world. (No Manhattan jokes, please.) There’s just us.
This means that nice and smart people have played central roles in making the world worse. That might not have been their intention, but it was the outcome. Nice, smart people have done and will continue to do bad things.
In one of Hunter S. Thompson’s books he writes about a night in the late ‘60s when he picked up a longhair hitchhiker. Not long into the ride, Hunter discovers that the guy is a jerk. Hunter can’t believe it. Long hair had always been a signal for who he could trust. Now even the jerks had grown their hair out. His compass had to change.
Could it be the same with smart and nice?
Maybe social evolution — in overdrive thanks to social media — will make everyone nice. Being nice works to our advantage, so “nice” genes become more dominant.
Sounds chill. But then how will we know what’s going on underneath the surface? Who’s really inside?
The media framed the 2000 election between Bush and Gore as the contest to find “the guy you’d rather have a beer with.” But this is arguably the least meaningful lens through which to make a decision. It’s just the path of least resistance. Tell someone that what they feel is also what's right and rarely will they disagree.
In the long run, “nice” and “smart” might be traits we have to recalibrate on. If someone isn’t nice or smart that’s a negative, but if someone is nice or smart maybe it’s only a neutral quality rather than a positive one.
Like long hair, once everybody’s got it the signal means less.
Last month my family and I left New York. As of a week ago, we’re living in Los Angeles.
Leaving NYC was a big deal. I lived there for 18 years. I love the city. I am a New Yorker.
When I think about what in life I’m most proud of, it’s moving to New York. I moved there right after college. Getting there had long been my dream.
New York was never easy but it treated me well. It’s where I started my career as a writer. It’s where Kickstarter happened. It’s where I made many great friends.
New York and I had a perfect goodbye. My last dinner was with an old friend at St. Anselm, my favorite restaurant. Afterwards we want to a DIY show in Queens. I was 26 again.
For my last meal the next morning, I went to the same deli in the Lower East Side where I went everyday for 15 years. I ordered the same egg-and-cheese sandwich on a toasted everything bagel. I said hi to the same guys who have worked there since I moved to Ludlow Street in 2002. I told them it was my last day.
After hearing the news, the two men came around from behind the counter and warmly patted me on the back and shoulders. They said they hoped this would be a good decision for my family and wished us well.
I cried. Standing there in the deli holding an aluminum foil-wrapped egg and cheese while two men showed me love, I had tears in my eyes. The only time I cried during my departure.
Shoutout to Happiness Deli, shoutout to egg and cheese sandwiches, and shoutout to New York City.
Our reasons for coming to LA are unoriginal. A mix of weather, wanting change, and recognizing that this is a window before our child starts school when we can take chances. LA probably isn't our last stop but we’re having fun with it.
And while we’re here, I’m writing a book.
Late last year I signed a book deal with Viking Press. I’ve been working on it full-time since November. My deadline to finish is the end of this year.
I’m enjoying the experience very much. I’ve given myself fully to it. When we were in New York, I spent day after day isolated in an empty apartment with no internet, just writing and reading. The depth of the work is pure pleasure and unlike anything I've done before. I look forward to working on it everyday.
So what's the book about? Well, it’s not a memoir and it’s not about Kickstarter. It’s a manifesto, and still in progress. I'll leave it at that for now. The book should come out late next year.
Before coming to LA, my wife and I went to the TED conference in Vancouver. Of all the talks, something that a philosopher named Will MacAskill said about the age of humankind stuck with me the most.
MacAskill said that if you compare Homo Sapiens to other species on Earth, humans are the equivalent of ten years old in our lifespan. We are very early in our lifecycle. Not even adolescent.
There should be many tens of thousands of years of human history ahead of us. But we act like this is the last party — who cares if anybody cleans anything up? Which, now that I think about it, does sound like the behavior of a ten-year-old. I guess I shouldn't be surprised.
Seeing life on the right timescale is very valuable and hard to do. Jeff Bezos shared something in the most recent Amazon annual shareholder letter that puts it well. He writes:
A close friend recently decided to learn to do a perfect free-standing handstand. No leaning against a wall. Not for just a few seconds. Instagram good. She decided to start her journey by taking a handstand workshop at her yoga studio. She then practiced for a while but wasn’t getting the results she wanted. So, she hired a handstand coach. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but evidently this is an actual thing that exists. In the very first lesson, the coach gave her some wonderful advice. “Most people,” he said, “think that if they work hard, they should be able to master a handstand in about two weeks. The reality is that it takes about six months of daily practice. If you think you should be able to do it in two weeks, you’re just going to end up quitting.” Unrealistic beliefs on scope – often hidden and undiscussed – kill high standards. To achieve high standards yourself or as part of a team, you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be.
To do anything as well as it should be done will take all of your effort. It means giving all of yourself until it's right. It means humbling yourself before it.
This is the thing that we — multitasking our way through life — find hardest to do. We respect our own time but disrespect the time of the things that need doing. We do too much, we do it too fast. And when it doesn’t work we wonder why.
The alternative is to give all of yourself to a small number of things. To turn things off, to say no, even to opportunity. It's a scary prospect. But it’s only through sacrifice and dedication that someone can make something worth making.
When I was a music critic, the end of the year was a banner time. I spent Decembers making lists of favorite albums and mixes of favorite songs. It got so deep I even made a top ten list about top ten lists.
So what’s meaningful to “list” at this moment in life? For me, ideas and books. Here are nine that impacted me this year.
1. Sapiens by Yoval Harari
2. The KLF: Chaos, Magic, and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds by John Higgs
Sapiens is a mind-expanding history of the human race. Harari is our species' Tocqueville, writing with a startling distance about the history of humans. It’s like reading Mars’ greatest historian analyze our planet. It’s no exaggeration to say it changes how you see the world.
John Higgs’ kinda-bio of the ‘90s electronic group The KLF creates a similar eureka about ideas and art. A good friend gifted it to me, describing it conspiratorially as “the little yellow book.” He was right. Alan Moore’s concept of the Ideaspace, which I learned about here, is something I became an instant believer in.
Sapiens and The KLF establish that ideas are more powerful than anything. Ideas uniquely change how we relate to one another, how we craft our physical environment, pretty much everything. These books helped me better understand their power. They filled me with optimism — even in 2017.
3. Generation X by Douglas Coupland
I knew the name (which this book introduced) but until this year I never read this 1991 novel. It’s a series of conversations between three formerly status-oriented people who dropped out and moved to Palm Springs to work in jobs “beneath” them. The writing is crisp and the ideas challenge three decades later. Short, funny, and very alive.
I’m two books into the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, a series by Chinese sci-fi author Liu Cixin. The story is unlike anything I’ve read. If you have interest in sci-fi, read these. So far the series has changed the way I think about contacting non-Earth life, the potential of indirect forms of communication, and the living soul at the heart of true fiction. These books visited me in my dreams and still do.
6. Beatles 1966 by Steve Turner
A monthly diary of the year the Beatles released Rubber Soul; wrote, recorded, and released Revolver; and wrote and recorded a chunk of Sgt Pepper’s. The greatest single-year artistic leap in modern times.
How did it happen? Read this and you get a feel. The anecdotes are tremendous. John and Paul playing “Tomorrow Never Knows” for Dylan and the Stones in a hotel suite shortly after recording it. When it ends, Dylan says to them with a sneer, “Oh I get it — you don’t want to be cute anymore.”
Paul’s first vacation as a Beatle is another. Paul changed his appearance before driving across Spain and parts of Africa to be incognito. Upon returning, he told the other Beatles they needed to change their identities before getting back into the studio. Making another Beatles record would be too hard. They needed the freedom of being someone else. This is where Sgt Pepper's came from.
It will inspire you to open your antennae up wide.
Age of Fracture recounts the academic and social battles that drove the rise of feminism, individualism, racial identity, and other seismic social changes. The POV is unique: both broadly historical and a closely tracked blow-by-blow of ideas and counter-ideas. No book created a bigger or more meaningful reading list.
Stranger Than We Can Imagine is the second John Higgs entry on this list (he also wrote the KLF book). It details the emergent ideas of the 20th century that transformed the Victorian world into the industrialized, democratized, and way more confusing universe we live in now. Everything from physics to the avant-garde to sex.
Both titles come to a similar conclusion: the theme of the 20th century is relativity. A growing realization that the values and ideas many assumed were universally “true” were anything but. Some may say these are aberrations of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. These books counter that the universality of certain beliefs in the past was the aberration, and that we should expect more of this in the years to come. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
9. The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Jack Reis and Al Trout
A wise and useful book from the ‘90s about putting things into the world. Each “law” is a short chapter in clipped, seasoned prose. You can smell the chainsmoke through the page.
Three laws that stayed with me: The law of line extension (when launching a new product don’t reuse your existing brand). The law of sacrifice (if you’re asking people to do something new, you must first make a sacrifice of your own). And the law of fads and trends (a trend is a fad with unsatisfied demand; when experiencing success keep them wanting more).
I’d love to hear what you read and learned this year. What books moved you?
I like to think (and
the sooner the better)
of a daily pledge
honoring the marvels
cultivated by our ancestors
believing that all
I like to think
(right now please!)
of the breaking news alert
reading the corruption is total
and the only ones
with the courage to
end it are
and Robert Mueller
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of millions of bodies
walking in silence
expressing shame for
our waste of
the gift of life
just to make
a little more money
Last weekend my wife, son, and I went to storytime at the library. Fifteen kids, twenty parents, a big mat on the floor. A perfect Saturday morning.
Then class starts.
“After storytime today,” the teacher begins, “we would appreciate it if everyone could fill out a survey about our performance.”
My head jolts up.
“We would further appreciate you texting this number to give consent to be surveyed in the future,” she continues.
“All of this is so we can make evidence-based decisions.”
My mouth falls open.
Trust is dying right now. It’s dying by side effect and design.
Distrust is at the heart of modern marketing. Trust our product not theirs. Trust this candidate not that one. Podcast ads preach fear of the middle man.
This kind of marketing is nothing new. What is new is that the competition they’re advertising against is humanity itself. Talk to Siri and Watson not each other. Trust data not intuition.
These messages undermine trust in each other in order to increase trust in corporations and systems. The meta-message: Trust companies not people.
We’re so hungry for validation we go along with it. How hot did the algorithm say you are? Show me your score and I’ll you show mine.
Human trust is an aging incumbent. Commercial trust is a hot category. Last month Facebook acquired a company called tbh that lets people give each other anonymous feedback. The deal was reportedly for tens of millions of dollars.
Verification and data tracking systems create a new frontier for trust. There’s no need for clumsy interactions like the one in the library — the networks know everything.
But who trusts those networks? After the Equifax hack, even trusting trust is an issue. We’re trending towards a climate of default distrust.
Not to worry, thinks the technocratic product manager. We’ll whiteboard a new global verification system of truth and trust to fix it.
God help us if they succeed. Today’s solution is tomorrow’s bureaucracy.
An ideal approach trusts others enough to not demand trust in return. It acknowledges the importance of trust without trying to commoditize it. It promotes good decisions, not fear.
The blockchain is an encouraging platform for new concepts of trust. I root for a future that looks like Keybase, not a Black Mirror dystopia.
In the end we didn’t fill out the librarian’s survey. Our son took off running the second storytime ended. We didn't look back.
Until recently I felt too busy to think about how I was getting things done. It was all about crossing off the next thing on the to-do list.
This is one of the first things I wanted to adjust after my job change. Here are eight shifts I've made to better direct my time and energy.
When I’m writing I keep Wifi turned off. This creates enough friction to keep easy temptations at bay. It’s like I’m buying my brain flowers to apologize for all the times I mistreat it with schizophrenic multi-tasking. My brain is grateful. Yours will be too.
No pinned Chrome tabs
Chrome used to be my mind map. Pinned tabs for various email accounts, calendars, Google Docs, articles I intended to read, etc. This resulted in me working almost solely inside Chrome, which made the distracting between-tabs-clicks way too easy.
I approached breaking free of Chrome in a few ways:
1) Separate email and writing from Chrome.
2) Use bookmarks to design my browsing habits rather than mindless surfing.
3) Bookmark articles I’m interested in but don’t immediately read (to date I’ve gone back to read exactly zero of them, which says it all).
4) Keep open tabs to a minimum (no more than three or four, ideally).
After these changes my Chrome usage has plummeted. It’s no longer a default state. Now I look at the web when I have a reason to.
To separate email from Chrome I shopped around for an email app. I picked Airmail because of its basic UI and how it handles multiple accounts. Parts of Gmail I miss, but overall the ability to be focused about correspondence has made a noticeable difference. Apple Mail can also do the trick, it’s just buggy for me.
I started using Outlook at the recommendation of Craig Mod. The design is soothing and non-attention getting. Calendar and contacts are effortlessly folded inside the app. Top notch.
For writing I moved from IA Writer (which I like) and Google Docs to Bear Writer. I like Bear because of how easy it is to access my directory of writing, how quickly I can start a new note/doc, and syncing between the desktop and phone apps.
One thing Bear has not helped as much with is recording spontaneous notes and ideas. I spend a lot of time walking around NYC finding inspiration. I’ve tried using Siri, notes to self, and other ways to take down a quick thought. None have worked the way I want. I’m considering going back to keeping a notebook in my pocket. Other ideas?
"The portable whiteboard"
I spend my working time with three things in front of me: my laptop, a stack of books I’m reading, and a 8.5" by 10” sketchpad and set of colored Sharpies. I call the sketch pad and markers my portable whiteboard.
Whenever I need to outline an idea or think through something deeply, I turn to the portable whiteboard. The ability to think in a flexible, physical space is liberating. I have more breakthroughs using the portable whiteboard than my laptop or any other tool. Highly recommended.
Unfollow everyone on Twitter
It took me several tries to defeat my Twitter addiction. The first move — made a few years ago — was to remove Twitter and all social media from my phone. This ended my mobile usage, but increased how often I used Twitter on the desktop.
I would get trapped in Chrome loops: check Gmail, check Slack, check Twitter, check Gmail, etc. I could (and did) spend hours this way achieving absolutely nothing. It’s the productivity version of "playing" an arcade game without putting in a quarter.
Eventually I came up with a more drastic solution: unfollow everyone. This has been the best answer. Now Twitter is such an unsatisfying experience I rarely go there. I’ll continue to keep my account for self-promotion, but it’s no longer a source of information. To date I have experienced literally zero ill effects and many positive effects from not reading Twitter.
I’m a longtime Tumblr fan but the writing tools just aren’t great. I’ve used Medium but I don’t want to be associated with the startup/life hacker zeitgeist. The only way I could think to have a truly neutral space was to create my own. I tried Wordpress but the setup process was too involved (maybe the tenth time this has deterred me from WP). While not cheap, Squarespace is great. I'll keep using them.
Any habits or gear recommendations to share? I’d love to hear them!
We’re so good at undermining our confidence. We let imaginary voices water down our true nature. We live in a story where we’re the center of attention.
There’s an even scarier truth: Nobody cares about you. Nobody is thinking about you. Everyone is too self-obsessed to care about anyone else.
Sure, your family and partner care. Some of your close friends. But even many of them care only to a point. They're too busy worrying about their own stories.
We fear people are waiting for us to trip and fall. Let's say that's true. Maybe 10% of people you know are happy to see you fail. So what? You’re probably happy to see them fail too.
The other 90% of people? They already forgot your thing ever happened. They’re too busy thinking about themselves to think about you.
Go for what you really want. Nobody cares about you.
There will be turbulence. Do not be alarmed.
I had to remind myself of that this week after an emotionally challenging day interrupted a growing momentum.
I’m proud to say I didn’t ignore this feeling. I didn’t let it sideline me. But I felt its effects.
That night my wife asked me to talk about it. I sat there for a very long time in silence. Then I said the truest thing I could.
“There will be turbulence.”
Last week I linked to a negative story about the mattress company Casper. In the days since I’ve felt anxious about that. Why?
I’ve come to see that because of my job as CEO, I became a part of a club: tech founder/CEOs. As a member of this imaginary club, I feel an instinct to not be critical of other members.
It’s not a conscious thought. It’s more of a feeling. Part of it is that I don’t want people to be critical of me. Part of it is that maybe one day I’ll need something from one of these people. So I — like members of most clubs — toe the party line.
Though it may not serve the “public interest,” I think this kind of tribalism is a good thing. We all need security. Getting it from informal groups — rather than relying on institutions — seems the most desirable option.
But I’m not as much in that group anymore. My allegiances will change, and my instinct of what to feel protective of along with it.
Andrew Sullivan’s New York Magazine column is the writing I’ve enjoyed the most over the past year. His positions are distinct and articulated. Sullivan sees the matrix.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that such clarity comes from someone who communicates on a weekly basis. Up close in the stream you can only see the chaos. Just as real, but useless for knowing the way forward.
That weekly rhythm feels ideal. Have a deadline each week by which to produce a thought. Spend the week leading up to that passively collecting, feeling the air. Power comes from stepping back.
I enjoy the column’s format: three separate thoughts collected into one piece. Milan Kundera — my favorite writer — writes this way. A snapshot of a feeling, a line break, and onto the next picture.