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.

Thoughts on a Career Worth Having

"How can we explain this? Certainly factors like the sluggish economic recovery and stuck wages play a role, but I think the real answer is even more straightforward: It’s not clear how one designs a satisfying career in today’s professional culture, especially if lasting fulfillment (as opposed to salary maximization) is the goal." - Nathanial Koloc

The quotation above is one of the main ideas that's driving my research efforts as a Ph.D student. People move jobs more than ever nowadays and the traditional plan of getting a "good job" and working your way up an organization over 40 years is largely a relic of the past. There needs to be new ways to think about what a successful career looks like in today's more fluid job market.

Koloc argues that we should seek legacy, mastery, and freedom (in that order). I have qualms with that order, but fully support those concepts otherwise. I think mastery often drives freedom and legacy but I'll leave my quibbles with the specific order for another time. I'm particularly interested in the idea of freedom and how more and more people are consciously choosing careers as freelancers to fulfill this need. A career of conscious freelancing or solopreneurship is becoming more and more viable and I want to understand the forces that preduct and support success in this kind of work.

The final point of the article is one that I predictably throw my full weight behind: treat your career like a grand experiment. 

"I use the word “grand” to describe this experiment because the reality is that your career is not just a way to earn a living. It’s your chance to discover what you’re here for and what you love."

It can be easy to lose sight of this in the quest to make enough money to keep food on the table but I think we do so at our own peril. I think work should be more than a transaction where you shut off your brain and emotion and dreams for 8 hours a day in exchange for a modicum of security. 

We can do better than that.

The Process of Boring Work

" sells insurance. Again, it’s tough to find anyone with a “passion” for insurance. Seth Kravitz of says, “Insurance is not an exciting industry, but that doesn’t mean the work can’t be meaningful. We had to find ways to make the work more fun, make the environment more family like, and show people the positive impact of what they do.” -- Matt Linderman

There are a lot more jobs in this world that fall into the "Well, that sounds boring," category than the, "Woah. That's an awesome job," category. And this is why I think focusing on the process is so important. Even in the amazing jobs, there are going to be tasks that must be done and projects that must be completed that are straight up BORING. If you only feel satisfied with your job when you're doing objectively "cool" things you have put a ton of pressure on your job (and subsequently absolved yourself from a lot of responsibility -- convenient, eh?) to keep you entertained. The key to the craftsman mentality is finding joy in the process of doing the work. I think this is a key difference between those people who view their work as meaningful and those who are constantly dissatisfied with what they're doing. 

A Letter To The Freshmen

My second youngest brother is starting his first year of college in a week. Consider this my letter to him and everyone else starting college (or grad school or any other new phase of life):

Hey Joe,

How's it going? As your big brother I feel obligated to impart all my endless wisdom to you. You lucky, lucky man. Here's the deal, I know you've picked a major already and that's awesome. I'm sure you're getting a taste of this already, but everybody's favorite question after they've figured out what you're studying is asking you what you're planning on "doing with it." Are you going to be a chemical engineer? Go to med school? Do cancer research? What does one actually do with a chemistry degree?

I'm sure more than one person is going to sit you down and say, "Just follow your passion." On the surface, that sounds like decent advice. Who doesn't want to do their passion for a career? But I'm here with my big-brotherly advice to tell you it's bullshit. That kind of thinking makes it sound like your passion is out there somewhere, maybe hidden in a tree or under a rock, and all it requires is climbing enough trees or turning over enough rocks to find it. One day, when you least expect it --there will be your Passion. It'll be shiny and exciting and the solution to all your professional problems for the rest of your life. Unfortunately, it doesn't happen that way.

The only way you're going to "find" your passion is if you stick with something for long enough to actually build some skills and expertise. It's not about finding the perfect thing for you right now. By picking a major that you're interested in you're already on the right path. You're avoiding the multi-year search for the "perfect path." Good. You're on a track and that's the first step. But what do you do next?

At this stage in the game, your focus should be on building the skills needed to move forward in your area of study. All of those things that your classmates find annoying or really hard -- those are the things you should master. The stronger you are in the basic skills of your profession the better foundation you'll have for tackling bigger questions later on. When you get things wrong on a test, find out why they're wrong. The hard question at the end of the problem set that nobody seem to get right; figure it out.

Once you've developed the habits to truly become a master of the techniques and skills that allow you to do well you must turn your attention to a question. Instead of plotting out a career path based on a specific job, pick a question that fascinates you. Figure out what you should do, what classes you should take, what skills you need, and what connections will help you answer that question and let that guide your decisions. Chances are you aren't going to feel passionate about a "job". But a question -- a question that burns at the base of your skull -- that will sustain you into a truly interesting career.

When it comes to passion most of us have been using the wrong verb. "Finding" seems to be the verb of choice when it really should be "building" or "developing". When you get to my age (you know, the ripe old age of 25) you begin to see the difference between people who are looking for a passion (most haven't found it) and those who have developed a passion (they're some of the happiest and most interesting people you'll meet). You've got plenty of time to change your mind and make mistakes. Just always remember that you're constantly building your passion and that conceptualizing your future career as some kind of proverbial game of hide-and-seek will likely leave you looking under rocks and climbing trees. You're a chemistry major -- not a professional tree climber and rock explorer. Get in there and build the skills that will let you develop, not find, your passion in that domain.

Have fun in your first year of school and try to make as many mistakes as possible. Mistakes imply action, and like a good hockey player, it's easier to change directions when you're already moving.

Good luck dude,


edit: A few people have expressed disappointment that I appear to be criticizing my brother's major choice in this letter. I apologize for not being clearer in my writing-- that's not what I'm trying to say at all! I'm just saying that he shouldn't worry about finding a specific passion within chemistry right now. If he focuses on building general skills and abilities relevant to his major he will end up building himself a passion. I'm super proud of him and excited to have a chemist in the family!

What is your message to someone starting college this fall? What do you wish you had known when you started your freshman year of college? Interested in this conceptualization of passion? Read more from Cal Newport at Study Hacks -- the writer who first turned me on to this new way of thinking about passion.