The List #24

Photo by Len Matthews

After a bit of a hiatus I'm bringing back my weekly link roundup, The List. Kick back with a tasty beverage of your choice and enjoy the best of what I've read recently.

P.S. Did you know you can see everything I love in Instapaper? I only share a tiny segment of everything I thought was pretty great each week. Check out that link for more great stuff to read.

To Stop Procrastinating, Start by Understanding the Emotions Involved - The Wall Street Journal

"Dr. Sirois and Dr. Pychyl also have focused on short-term mood repair as an anti-procrastination strategy. They teach people to recognize that they might have strong emotions, such as anxiety, at the start of a project but to not judge themselves for it. The next step is just to get started, step by step, with a narrow focus."

Amazing how most advice regarding self-development is some flavor of, "Feel the fear and then do it anyway." It's the simplest yet hardest advice to actually use.

Oliver Sacks: Sabbath - The New York Times

"And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest."

With Dr. Sacks recent passing I've been devouring his writing across the internet (and plan to dive into his books soon). This article is profound.

Commuters, unite! Why cities around the world need to design better routes to work - Quartz

"Poor or lengthy commuting has been linked to (in no particular order): weight-gain, neck pain, unhappiness, anxiety, lower life satisfaction, lower sense of worth, divorce, depression, stress, mental health issues, and other health issues from increased exposure to air pollution. A 2014 study of 60,000 UK commuters correlates commuting with depression and anxiety."

I've been extremely lucky in my career so far to avoid lengthy commutes (not hard to do when you are a full-time graduate student living near campus or working for yourself). I've done enough driving in Los Angeles traffic, though, to have my heart go out for everyone who has to sit in that day after day after day.

A Big Little Idea Called Legibility - Ribbonfarm

"Here is the recipe:

  • Look at a complex and confusing reality, such as the social dynamics of an old city
  • Fail to understand all the subtleties of how the complex reality works
  • Attribute that failure to the irrationality of what you are looking at, rather than your own limitations
  • Come up with an idealized blank-slate vision of what that reality ought to look like
  • Argue that the relative simplicity and platonic orderliness of the vision represents rationality
  • Use authoritarian power to impose that vision, by demolishing the old reality if necessary
  • Watch your rational Utopia fail horribly

The big mistake in this pattern of failure is projecting your subjective lack of comprehension onto the object you are looking at, as “irrationality.” We make this mistake because we are tempted by a desire for legibility."

As someone interested in organizational change this made me pause and think about my assumptions. Meaningful organizational design and change needs to avoid this trap.

A Look at the Painstaking, Intricate Art of Globemaking - The Atlantic: City Lab

"Ask Peter Bellerby, one of the few people left who still makes globes by hand. Nowadays, globes are mostly made by machines, and Bellerby says he knows why. “It’s horrendously difficult. You have to retrain your body to work in a much slower and guarded way,” he says. “They’ve got to want to do it and not be beaten by the process.” It took him more than a year to learn the art."

I never realized I wanted a globe. Now I do. Also, in the realm of people making awesome things by hand, I'm not sure how I wasn't aware of Anthony Bourdain's little web series, Raw Craft. Ignore the product placement and enjoy these short little episodes of craftspeople doing their thing.

The List #20

This week's The List is all about making things. For some reason I stumbled across several great videos over the past week that feature people in the act of creation. I'm always fascinated by watching people in their element and each of these videos do a great job of scratching that itch.

Omega Speedmaster Watchmaking Demonstration

Ok, actually, this video is more about someone taking something apart. But still, it's worth checking out. The amount of practice and memorization it must take to deconstruct and construct something this complicated is absolutely mind-blowing.

8 Videos About the Making of Monument Valley

Monument Valley is one of the best iOS games I've played in a long time. It's like an interactive piece of art. A new expansion pack just came out and these are some videos from various members of the team talking about different aspects of creating the game. This behind the scenes video is nice and short and fascinating.

The Birth of a Tool. Part III. Damascus steel knife making

Beautiful video. Fascinating process. I want to make a knife.

Aaron Draplin Takes on a Logo Design Challenge

This is what knowing your tools looks like. Mr. Draplin cranks out some pretty awesome logo ideas over the course of 16 minutes and talks about his mental process the entire time. So, so interesting.

What's the best stuff you read or saw this week? Shoot me a link on Twitter (@samspurlin) or leave a comment below!

Photo by Cindee Snider Re

The Builder's High

I often think about the ratio between creation and consumption in my life. My moods can be fleeting and sometimes I'm not sure what causes me to have a productive week and then a week where I feel like I'm working at half power. The closest I've come to cracking that code in terms of my own self-knowledge has to deal with how much time I spend brining new things into the world versus how much time I spend consuming things other people have brought into the world.

When I feel like crap it seems that my create/consume ratio is skewed completely toward consume. When I'm on top of my game then I'm in creation mode. The scientist in me won't let me confuse correlation with causation -- but I think there's definitely a chance that my creation spurs good moods and is not simply the result of one.

Rands seems to agree:

"When I am in a foul mood, I have a surefire way to improve my outlook – I build something. A foul mood is a stubborn beast and it does not give ground easily. It is an effort to simply get past the foulness in order to start building, but once the building has begun, the foul beast loses ground."

I can get behind his rallying cry:

"Turn off those notifications, turn your phone over, turn on your favorite music, stare at your blank slate and consider what you might build. In that moment of consideration, you’re making an important decision: create or consume? The things we’re giving to the future are feeling increasingly unintentional and irrelevant. They are half-considered thoughts of others. When you choose to create, you’re bucking the trend because you’re choosing to take the time to build."

Lessons on Work From Sushi, Video Games, and Television

Over the past three nights I've watched three documentaries that are directly relevant to the process of work. I didn't explicitly seek them out because of their topics but it seems like my subconscious was trying to tell me something about where my focus should be right now. Each documentary offers a different aspect of working meaningfully and working well. I'd like to explore each of these with you and maybe extract some useful nuggets for you (and definitely for me).

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

In Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) you're introduced to 85 year old Jiro Ono, a world-renowned master sushi chef. He runs a tiny restaurant that only sits ten people and he is recognized as quite possibly the greatest living sushi chef. Jiro approaches his working life with the utmost simplicity. A long time ago he decided he was going to be a sushi chef. Constantly improving and growing within his occupation is a given for him and since he's been doing this job for 75 years, he has had a lot of time to develop his skills. Once the occupation of sushi chef had been decided, the ancillary skills that allow someone to be a great chef were also decided. He dedicated himself to developing his sense of smell and taste. He dedicated himself to being able to identify and select only the very best fish. He dedicated himself to constantly pushing and developing his technique in the kitchen. The end result is somebody that oozes the value of craftsmanship. Creating sushi is not just a job -- it is an expression of how he has decided to live his life.

Indie Game: The Movie

In Indie Game: The Movie (2012) this documentary you meet a handful of independent video game developers. The movie follows most closely the developers of Super Meat Boy (Edward and Tommy), Fez (Phil), and Braid(Jonathan). Edward and Tommy are deep into "crunch time" as they rush to finish Super Meat Boy in time to be included in a marketing push by Microsoft. Phil, perhaps the most compelling storyline in the documentary, is mired in a 4 year development cycle for his game, Fez. After winning a major award for an early version of the game he has been struggling under personal and public expectations. Jonathan's game, Braid, has been out for a couple of years prior to this film and is considered to be one of the greatest video games ever created. While each of these developers is obviously very different from each other, there are fascinating similarities. The primary obsession with creating something that is true to their personal vision is inspiring. None of these guys are working for a big game studio that has analyzed the market and assigned a game to them to create. Each of these guys has an intimately personal reason for crafting the type of game they want to create. It seems that their very identities are tied to their games, for better or worse.

6 Days to Air

Finally, 6 Days to Air (2011) is the story of how the animated television show South Park is created. Despite being one of the most watched shows on TV, an episode of South Park is conceptualized, written, animated, and edited in 6 days. Like the other two documentaries, this one focuses on the process of how interesting work is created. I'm not sure how I envisioned famous creators working or how television shows were actually made, but I wasn't prepared for it to look like any brainstorming session I've had with a group of classmates. Creating something interesting doesn't suddenly become mysterious or complicated once you've found success. The time pressure of having to create a new episode that millions of people are going to watch, from scratch, seems incredible. Failure is not an option, ever. I'm going to think much more carefully the next time I feel like I'm under a time crunch.

Key Points

I'm obsessed with the process of work. These three documentaries gave me some great insight into how I work and how I can help my clients with the challenges they face in their own work. I think the first interesting thing to think about is why I felt compelled to watch these in the first place. Working in the knowledge economy as a coach and full-time student leaves a certain sense of tangible creation missing. I can work really, really hard on preparing for a coaching session, it can go really well, but I'm not left with anything to point at and say, "Yeah, this one was really hard to create but I'm super proud of it." Or, "Look at how bad I used to be at this." I think I'm craving the tangible aspect of creation that creating sushi, making a video game, or making a TV show allows. I'm not quite sure how to get that in the work I do. Obviously, my writing provides this feeling to a certain extent but is there more I should be doing? Should I develop a hobby that allows me to get this feeling of accomplishment? So much of my work is seemingly ephemeral -- coming up with ideas, conducting research, having coaching sessions -- and I think I crave the simplicity of making a piece of sushi. I imagine I'm not the only knowledge worker to feel that way and I suspect this is something I will pursue further in my ongoing research.

Once you decide on your occupation... you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That's the secret of success... and is the key to being regarded honorably. - Jiro Ono

I loved this aspect of Jiro Dreams of Sushi. I think it also fits in line with what I really love about Cal Newport's approach to developing a passionate work life. Jiro doesn't think about what career he should be doing instead and whether or not making sushi is really his passion. He started making sushi 75 years ago, realized he enjoyed the process, and decided to dedicate himself to becoming the very best at he could possibly be. Making sushi seems like a simple enough occupation but Jiro shows how there is so much to consider, so many techniques to master, and so much to learn to do it well. He's been doing it for 75 years, his restaurant has a 3-star Michelin rating, and he still thinks he's not as good as he could be. We can take the same approach to our own work. What aspects of your job have you not mastered? How can you constantly be growing as a person and improving what you do for a living?

I will kill myself if I don't finish this game. - Phil Fish, creator of Fez

Indie Game: The Movie shows the dark and light sides of passion. These video game developers have a vision for the type of game they want to create and since they don't work for established video game companies nobody stands between them and their vision. Their identities are tied so intimately to the games they are creating they don't think twice about sacrificing their social lives, working insane amount of hours, or pushing themselves to the brink of physical and emotional wreckage. The end results are products that are financially successful and critically acclaimed. However, as the quote above shows, it's possible to take it to an extreme. I'm a huge advocate of people developing (notice, I didn't say "finding") passion for what they do for a living but it's equally important to have an identity separate from your work. You are not your work. Take a breath, take a break, rejuvenate.

There's a show on this Wednesday. We don't even know what it is. Even though that's the way we've always done it. There's this little thing going, 'Oh you're screwed.' - Trey Parker

If the creators of South Park can create a new episode from idea generation to airing in 6 days I can certainly do more than I expect. The power of deadlines can be a powerful motivator as any procrastinator knows. How can you use a deadline to push yourself to create something? There's a delicate balance between perfecting something and getting it to the point where it can be respectably released. Going up a few paragraphs it may seem like I'm actually disagreeing with the idea of craftsmanship and stressing the details. Maybe I am. Maybe being able to identify when something requires a touch of polish versus when it just needs to be sent out the door is something that comes with time and practice. Either way, try setting some insane deadlines for yourself and see what you're able to accomplish.

Develop simplicity and a dedication to personal growth like Jiro the master sushi chef. Cultivate obsession and passion, weigh the benefits and the risks, like the developers of Super Meat BoyFez, and Braid. Commit to focus and efficiency like the creators of South Park. Each of these documentaries offers something (and even more than I described here) for the modern worker. They're all available on Netflix and I'd love to hear what you learned from them in the comments below.

Learning to Work From a Sandwich Artist

I just finished having lunch at Subway near my campus and I have to share the experience. I don't usually go to Subway because of the overwhelmingly good service. I go because it's quick, easy, and really one of the only fast food options I have as a vegetarian. Most of the time the employees I interact with are understandably bored. They don't really seem like they want to be there, and to be honest, I don't really want to be there either. Just give me my sandwich and let us both carry on with our days.

Today's experience was completely different. Nina welcomed me to the store as soon as I entered (this seems to be corporate policy) but everything was different from that point on. I always get a toasted veggie sub. When she asked me about the type of cheese I wanted she reminded me I get double cheese as part of the sandwich and then asked me if I wanted two different kinds of cheese on the sandwich. Two cheeses?! I evidently hit the jackpot in Subway employees today.

What happened next, though, made me temporarily forget I was even at a Subway. "Would you like to put some veggies on the sandwich before I toast it? It really helps to draw the flavor out of them." "Uh, sure!" "Awesome, do you mind if I put some salt and olive oil on the bread too?" "Sounds good to me." She then proceeded to carefully place my toppings evenly across the sandwich and then massagedolive oil into the bread. Seriously. Massaged it. This sandwich was being transformed from a cookie-cutter and utterly forgettable experience into something borderline gourmet right before my eyes. While it was toasting she "made" me try one of the new sauces to see if it might be a good fit for my currently toasting sandwich. She put the final touches on the sandwich by hunching over the sandwich and applying the Chipotle Southwest sauce like she was plating the main course of Top Chef.

And, as you might expect, the sandwich was better than usual.

What's the point of even telling this story? So what if I got a good sandwich at Subway?

The way this woman approached her work was incredibly refreshing. It reminded me of two articles I've written recently. She brought a certain level of dignity to the process of working at Subway. I've always scoffed at the fact that Subway used to call their employees "Sandwich Artists" but this woman actually earned the title. Secondly, she reminded me of a craftsman (or craftswoman, I suppose) in the way she approached making this talent. She took the tools available to her and made the absolute best sandwich that she could. She wasn't getting paid any extra to offer me the option of having two different types of cheese or putting vegetables on the sandwich before toasting it, but she did it anyway. Why?

As I sit down with my computer in front of me and my belly filled with carefully constructed sandwich I'll strive to bring the same level of dignity and craftsmanship to what I'm doing. The final result was definitely better than what I normally get, but that's not even what impressed me the most. I was left in awe of her attention to the process of making that sandwich and I hope that's something I can learn to develop as well.

Photo via Kerri Lee Smith

Mastering the Tools of Knowledge Work: A Craftsman's Approach

I received a great email from Jörn Meyer in response to my article on living with dignity in which he described living with dignity as doing your work to the very best of your ability, no matter what. Whether that means arguing a case in front of the Supreme Court or flipping burgers at McDonald's -- both jobs can be done with and without dignity. This ties in with the theme of Read & Trust's latest issue on craftsmanship. I'm fascinated by the idea of knowledge workers treating their work as craftsmen (and women). Is it even possible to be a craftsman when you aren't creating something physical like a piece of furniture or some other lovingly crafted physical object?

I think knowledge workers can approach their work in the same way a craftsman approaches theirs and it starts with the attitude taken toward tools. A craftsman's livelihood relies heavily on their tools. At the same time, a craftsman's livelihood does not rely on endlessly tinkering with their tools. There is a delicate balance between mastering tools and tinkering for the sake of tinkering. While I think most expert woodworkers understand that distinction pretty well, I wonder if the average knowledge worker has the same level of understanding? People have been crafting beautiful physical objects for hundreds of years but the phenomenon of knowledge work, or working with information instead of physical material, is a relatively new one. Perhaps the same ethos that drives craftsman has not yet reached its way to the knowledge workers' collective consciousness?

The Tools of Knowledge Work

Make no mistake about it, though, the tools knowledge workers use to do their job are just as complex and important as any traditional craftsman's. The effectiveness of the knowledge worker is limited by their understanding and skillful use of the tools at their disposal. Your tools may be different from mine depending on the nature of the work you do, but some examples probably include both software and hardware:

  • Word processing software (like Open Office, or MS Word, or Write Room)
  • Task management software and systems (like Things or OmniFocus)
  • Reference management software (like Evernote)
  • Email and other communication/scheduling (like Gmail or or Skype)
  • Project management (like Basecamp)
  • Laptop/desktop/tablet
  • Cell phone
  • Desk chair
  • Pens and notebooks
  • Desk and other physical organizational components

These are the tools that allow us to do our work efficiently and effectively. However, how much time have you taken to truly master the tools you use for hours every day? Do you even like the tools you use?

Mastering your tools shows respect for the work you do because it allows your attention to transcend the actual using of the tools in favor of focusing on the true task at hand. A skilled woodworker does not focus on the plane when using it on a piece of wood. His utter familiarity and mastery of the tool allows him to focus on using the plane with full awareness on what he is trying to create. Are you familiar enough with the software and hardware you use every day to let it fade into the background?

A Thought Experiment

Let's run a quick thought experiment: Let's say you are working on typing up a memo and you have an idea for another project you're working on. What do you do? Do you try to hold it in your mind because you know it's annoying to have to find your task management software, click whatever button you need to click to add a new item, type in the item, and then get back to what you were originally working on? Or, even worse, can you not even really decide where that piece of information should go? This is an example of a lack of mastery of the tools at your disposal.

Since this is likely an occurrence that happens many times a day (let's face it, if you're a knowledge worker it behooves you to make sure you capture good ideas you have for other projects throughout the day) you need to be able to handle it in the swiftest way possible. True mastery would be able to recognize immediately where that information should go in your system, open the required software without ever having to take your hands off the keyboard, quickly type in the idea or piece of information, and return to your original task again without ever touching the mouse. With a minimum of effort and thought you have efficiently captured the idea to use later and returned to your original task. Like a master craftsman.

The Craftsman Knowledge Worker

Craftsmen take pride in their tools not because they are the flashiest or most expensive but because of what they allow them to create. They do the research necessary to make sure they have high quality tools but once that decision has been made there is a minimum of tinkering and fussing with alternatives. The ability to adeptly and skillfully use the tools at your disposal is much more valuable than constantly using the latest and greatest tool available. For a knowledge worker, that means not tinkering with every new list management app that's released or downloading yet another distraction free writing app. It's about picking one and learning its ins and outs to the point where you know everything about the app. Every keyboard shortcut, every feature and ability, and inevitably, every shortcoming (which then allows you to identify when you need a new tool to fill a specific gap).

You probably don't go into a workshop every day and it's unlikely that you're regularly producing beauitfully handmade objects for other people to enjoy at your day job (and if you are, you have a cool job). However, that doesn't mean that you shouldn't approach your work with the same care and consideration as those who do. Learn keyboard shortcuts. Wipe down your computer screen every week. Make sure your software is up-to-date and you've learned how to use it as efficiently as possible. These seem like small tasks but they can truly make you feel more professional and more likely to produce better work.

The craftsman mindset is complex and multi-faceted, but I think it starts with a healthy respect and love for the tools that let you do your job. Taking pride in knowing how to use your tools as a knowledge worker and taking pride in the work they help you produce go hand-in-hand and are key ingredients in a happy and healthy professional life.

Photo via inhabitat

On Living With Dignity

A certain aspect of personal development has been rattling around my head for the better part of a couple weeks. The concept of carrying oneself with dignity isn't something I see written about very often.

In episode 60, "Writ in His Boots," of the podcast Roderick on the Line, John tells a story about a man he saw on a train in New York. The man (and the boots he was wearing) projected some sort of overwhelming sense of dignity (without ever saying a word) that left John speechless. This is largely a comedic podcast but any longtime listener will be able to discern the earnestness in John's voice while he tells this story. This man truly affected John in a pretty profound way. This leads into a discussion with Merlin about what it means to live with dignity.

I think part of the reason this won't leave my head is because I'm having a hard time operationalizing what dignity actually means. Before much can be done with a concept scientifically it must first be operationalized. Basically, there has to be a consensus about what, precisely, we mean when we say a certain word. Despite all my best efforts, "dignity" is evading my best efforts to operationalize it.

The obvious cop out answer is to see what Merriam Webster has to say about it, or, "Bearing, conduct, or speech indicative of self-respect or appreciation of the formality or gravity of an occasion or situation." That's a good start, but I think it's so much more than that.

A helpful starting point may be laying out what dignity or living with dignity certainly isn't. My incomplete list includes:

  • Stylishness
  • Wealth
  • Sarcasm
  • Bravado
  • Loudness

I think a misunderstanding of someone who has dignity would be equating it with some kind of swagger built around stylish clothes, a nice car, or other consumer goods. The dignity John talks about in the podcast and the kind that intrigues me so much has nothing to do with owning luxury (as far as consumerism goes) goods. While it's certainly possible to be dignified and wealthy (or any of these other characteristics), it would be a mistake to think living with dignity is some sort of amalgamation of these traits.

Unfortunately, describing what something is not isn't enough to really hone in on what it is. If dignity isn't any of those above words or ideas what gets us closer to a workable concept? What words come to mind when I think of someone who lives with dignity?

  • Respect(ed)
  • Quiet
  • Confident
  • Deep
  • Kind
  • Deliberate
  • Wise

I think being dignified as having a quiet confidence about the way you interface with the world. It's not something you announce or attain after attending a class. You don't get a certificate after going through "dignity school." I think it's something that accumulates over time when the right decisions are made over and over (and enough bad ones are learned from). I think it represents a certain level of "skillfulness of being" that is slowly earned over time. Maybe that's why my default mental image of a dignified person is someone much older than me. While that may be my default I don't think it necessarily holds true that you have to be elderly to be dignified. I'm intrigued by the idea of living with dignity even as a 25 year old. It seems to me that living with dignity is a much more meaningful goal than productivity, efficiency, or any other favorite concept of personal development writers.

As a student of positive psychology I tend to lean toward the mindset that almost any ability can be developed with conscious effort and practice. Positive psychology has shown there are concrete things we can do to increase our happiness and well-being. Gratitude journals, mindfulness practices, and exercise have all been empirically shown to affect how we feel about ourselves and the world around us. But what is the equivalent intervention for developing the quiet dignity that will make someone sitting across from you on the bus think, "I don't know what it is... but something about that guy is awesome."

I don't know exactly what it is either but I can't help but think if we all had more of it the world might be a little bit better place.

Send me a link if you write a response on your own blog or send me a tweet with your thoughts. I welcome your ideas. This isn't a simple concept and I'd love to expand my understanding of what dignity really means.

Photo courtesy of United Nations Photo