He who is not even looking

Don’t expect, then, that you can sample the masterpieces of great minds by way of summaries; you must examine the whole, work over the whole. Their structure is a totality fitted together according to the outlines of their special genius, and if any member is removed the whole may collapse.

That is why we give boys apothegms, what the Greeks call chriai, to learn by heart, because the childish mind, which cannot comprehend more, is able to grasp them. But for a man advanced in study to hunt such gem is disgraceful; he is using a handful of clichés for a prop and leaning on his memory; by now he should stand on his own feet. He should be producing bons mots, not remembering them. It is disgraceful for an old man or one in sight of old age to be wise by book. “Zeno said this.” What do you say? “This Cleanthes said.” What do you say? How long will you be a subaltern? Take command and say things which will be handed down to posterity. Produce something of your own. All those men who never create but lurk as interpreters under the shadow of another are lacking, I believe, in independence of spirit. They never venture to do the things they have long rehearsed. They exercise their memories on what is not their own. But to remember is one thing, to know another. Remembering is merely overseeing a thing deposited in the memory; knowing is making the thing your own, not depending on the model, not always looking over your shoulder at the teacher. “Zeno said this, Cleanthes that”—is there any difference between you and a book? How long will you learn? Begin to teach! One man objects, “Why should I listen to lectures when I can read?” Another replies, “The living voice adds a great deal.” It does indeed, but not a voice which merely serves for another’s words and functions as a clerk.

There is another consideration. First people who have not rid themselves of leading-strings follow their predecessors where all the world has ceased to follow them, and second, they follow them in matters still under investigation. But if we rest content with solutions offered, the real solution will never be found. Moreover, a man who follows another not only finds nothing, he is not even looking. What is the upshot? Shall I not walk in the steps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old path, but if I find a shorter and easier way I shall make a new path. The men who made the old paths are not our suzerains but our pioneers. Truth is open to all; it has not been pre-empted. Much of it is left for future generations.

~ Senece, from Letter 33, Maxims

This is Seneca at his mic-drop best. (Unlike the borderline torturous silver point style you also see quoted from on occasion.) Here he’s writing a personal letter to one of his long-time students.

If it’s made you perk up, I recommend digging into this letter further by reading, On the Futility of Learning Maxims, overs on the Stoic Letters web site. That’s also a great introduction to the nuance of translating these very old works; there are significant differences between M. Hadas’s translation circa 1958 and whatever translation Stoic Letters is using, (I looked, but it’s not clear to me.)

Obviously the thread I’m tugging on here is meta: It’s one thing to nod along in the audience of a performance— “yes yes yes I agree I’m doing that yes.” It’s quite another to stand up, and ask to speak next. It was about 10 years ago that I began this blog, and about 5 years ago that I began seriously devoting intentional effort to creating something here.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I’m not sure that I’m setting much of an example. But trying to walk-the-walk has definitely helped me.

In the spirit of the season: Go read this next, What do you do for fun?

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Don’t ask for advice

An important, but counter-intuitive, strategy we found essential in this style of research is to avoid simply asking people for advice. When you ask for advice, you’ll often get vague, unhelpful answers. Instead, you need to observe what the top performers in your field are actually doing differently. Act like a journalist not a protege. This can often yield surprising insights about what actually matters to move forward.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2017/01/16/are-you-working-in-your-career-or-on-your-career/

I’ve found this to be the case as well.

There are some people who give advice well. There are far more people who can give useful answers to good questions. Asking, “what do you think I should do,” isn’t going to get you useful guidance nearly as often as asking, “how did you do that.” You simply must do the hard work of figuring out whom to ask, and what to ask them.

In a recent conversation on the podcast, Thomas Droge brought up the idea of seeking younger persons to be your mentors; maybe not a formal mentorship relationship, but to be open to being a sort of stealth protege (my interpretation, not his words.) These two ideas dovetail: If you try to ask a younger person, literally, for advice, that’s not going to work well nearly as often as asking, “how did you do that?”

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On a mission

When I arrived at the atelier, the canvas was blank and I simply began poking at making little pin-points of color. Poking just to see each little point. Sure, I avoided some entire areas of the canvas. That top-left corner didn’t interest me, but that area above the center caught my focus. Then my gaze wandered a few inches and I found I was putting points down in another, new-to-me, blank area. Day by week by month by year by decade I wandered up to the canvas. Curiously, I now realize I never looked each day at the canvas as I walked up—or walked away or simply past. I just headed to this atelier and— Although, come to think of it, I’m pretty sure I thought it was a video game Arcade at one point, and it looked like a snowy ski slope too for a while, and I recall breaking waves and some sea smells. That’s… interesting. When exactly did I realize that this place is a true Atelier? Sure sure yes yes, the particular dots are still very [very!] interesting; the minutia seems fractal and the more closely I peer, the more interested I become.

But just the other day—although, it quickly became a couple weeks ago, soon to be a couple months, a couple years, a couple decades…

But just the other day I peered over my glasses and looked at the whole canvas for what might have been the first time ever. Holy shit, it’s a Georges Seurat painting of some afternoon on some island! I mean: The overall composition is so blindingly freakin’ obvious and banal that I’m tempted to chuck the whole thing as trivial— …until I pear closely and see all the infinitely intricately interconnected dots and—bam!— VERTIGO!

My vision is a world where everyone can flourish.

My mission is creating better conversations that spread understanding and compasion.

Will you join me?

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I try to forget my ideas

Keeping track of project ideas, in my experience, is usually a waste of time. I used to fear that if I didn’t capture and review my sparks of brilliance I’d forget them and an opportunity for impact would be lost.

The reality, however, is that most people (myself included) have waymore ideas for things to work on than they have time to work. Forgetting ideas is not your problem. Having too many ideas competing for your attention to execute any one well is a more pressing concern.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2014/11/07/deep-habits-forget-your-project-ideas-until-you-cant-forget-them/

In the beginning I didn’t try to do anything with my ideas. Even though—my mom may disagree—I had mastered bathing and dressing, I was still under the false-impression that my mind was for holding ideas. It’s not good at that. Actually it’s terrible at that.

It took me a few decades to figure out— …honestly, I never did figure it out. Rather, I started reading a bunch of stuff about how to get my arse organized, and started to write things down. College helped. 43 Folders helped, a lot. Reading Getting Things Done made the final pieces click into place.

Whereupon I entered the Second Epoch of Craig. At this time I dutifully studied, and earned my title, Wizard of Process and Organization, with a specialization in Internet Dark Arts. Do not meddle in the ways of Process and Organization Wizards; we are quick to anger and you are tasty with ketchup. As you can tell, I completely lost my marbles in the process. Near the end of this Second Epoch I reach the epitome of my list-building, (and project management setups, and universe-domination plans.) I was completely drowning in over-planned, over-committed, over-stressed, over-organization.

Cue, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and the dawning of the Third Epoch of Craig. Wherein I straight-up deleted most of my lists of ideas and plans. The really important stuff continues to live in my level-37 wizard process-management systems. I know they’re working when I forget they’re working and yet things magically appear when I need them to.

Ideas are worthless. It’s execution, (plus luck, and timing,) that makes them valuable. I’ve a few ideas that I cannot get out of my head. Those are the ones I’m working on in an attempt to make them go away. But it’s a good day any time I can manage to just forget about some idea having blissfully done nothing with it.

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The process of reflection

Much of the power of the Movers Mindset podcast’s signature question, “three words to describe your practice?” comes from thinking about one’s personal understanding of the word practice. In the podcast episodes, sometimes the guest’s discussion of that understanding is a profound part of their interview. Sometimes their surgical statement of three words is its sublime culmination.

In 2019, we posed the three-words question of the project itself. This turned out to be a surprisingly fruitful exercise. We came up with three words to describe our practice, and I subsequently adopted them as the three words to describe my practice:

Discovery. Reflection. Efficacy.

If those three words describe my practice—the journey of my whole life—then what is the purpose of this web site? Why go through all this work? It’s taken me 9 years and the previous 2,499 posts to understand:

It’s a vehicle for my process of reflection.

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Honing your craft

We’ve created this fantasy world where everyone is just 30 days of courage boosting exercises and life hacks away from living an amazing life.

But when you study people like Martin, who really do live remarkable lives, you almost always encounter stretches of years and years dedicated to honing craft.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2012/01/29/closing-your-interests-opens-more-interesting-opportunities-the-power-of-diligence-in-creating-a-remarkable-life/

This is the eternal challenge of seeing the forest through the trees; of maintaining perspective.

I’m constantly reminded of the scenes in the Hobbit where they are trying to walk through 250 miles of a forest named, Mirkwood. “Do not leave the path,” is the only guidance they are given. After what seems like endless daily struggles, they eventually dispatch a party member to climb a singularly large tree to the uppermost branches. Unfortunately, even from that lofty perch all that could be seen was more forest forever and ever in every direction. In fact, they were in a low lying area, reasonably close to the forest edge. Crushed by the misleading perspective, their journey takes a turn for the worse.

I have so many projects where I start into the forest with the best intentions. I steel myself with, “I know this is going to turn into a slog at some point, and I’m going to remember why I went into the forest to give me the strength to carry on!” Yeah, that never works out. If the project is actually worth doing, then the forest is necessarily crushingly vast and the journey through must eventually become hopeless. Of course it’s hard; that’s what makes it worth it.

The secret? You have to love living in the forest, just for the sake of living in the forest. Then every morning is an adventure. Sure, some days are going to suck, but every morning will begin a new day of opportunity.

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Put a price tag on it

Yet that insidious voice keeps whispering. “But this is an opportunity, man! You gotta network. Get out there! Everybody promotes their stuff. Be a pro. Seize the moment, dude!”

One way to look at it is through the prism of money. If someone wants you to do something and the remuneration is “exposure” or “opportunity” … you have answered your own question.

~ Steven Pressfield from, https://stevenpressfield.com/2013/01/opportunities-are-bullshit/

It’s important to learn to avoid the siren-call of such “opportunities.” I’m scare-quoting because, as Pressfield points out, they’re not actually opportunities. They are in fact a siren-call attempting to lure your ship onto the rocks. They’re a siren call because the message is exactly what you want to hear: “Your work is good. Your work is valuable. We want you to succeed.”

Actual opportunity sounds different. The message is just off to the side from what you wanted to hear: “What you’re doing is interesting. It makes me think of this thing I’m doing over here. It occurs to me that we might work together on it.” You’re left thinking about some interesting tangential idea. Instead of thinking, (as with the siren-call,) “is this going to be worth it,” you’re thinking, “that’s interesting, I’d like to be involved in that.” Certainly, true opportunities may come with money, but in your own thinking that’s an interesting nice-to-have; but it’s secondary. Take opportunities where the opportunity itself interests you. Don’t take “opportunities” where the potential, down-the-road benefit interests you.

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Getting less done

I believe I’ve mentioned that my touch-stone motto for 2020 is, “Get less done.” I’ve been working on this. I’ve been setting smaller daily goals, and I’ve been keeping the “today I should…” list shorter.

Yesterday was a curveball. Didn’t feel well the night before… very little sleep, spent some time napping on the bathroom floor, etc. Nothing serious, nothing major, just… a curveball. So Saturday was a crazy-slow start. …later than normal start. …maybe I’ll just read a little before I even stretch. …maybe I’ll do my little exercise route later. …there are a couple things I need to prepare for a small car trip, but I’ll just do them quickly, rather than my usual thoroughly. …maybe I’ll skip this. …maybe I’ll do that later.

It’s not yet my usual bed time, and I’m stumble down tired. But I’ve gotten more done today than— well, it’s like one of the most productive days in ages. What’s up with that? Was it the slow-and-steady pace that led to all-day success? Was it the complete lack of any real goals for the day; and then, well I did that one thing, so I guess I can do this next thing…

“Curiouser and curiouser,” said Alice.

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Check yourself

But in order to be to be self-aware, first one needs a self to be aware of.

~ Hugh MacLeod from, https://www.gapingvoid.com/blog/2017/12/05/check-yourself-before-you-wreck-yourself/

I see what you did there, Hugh. But aside from the clever word play, there’s an obvious level to “having a self.” Everyone certainly has a self, so this just seems banal.

But I see this as a reminder that self-awareness of a static self is not good enough. I need to be aware of my self, and constantly working to improve my self.

How do I do that?

Chop wood; carry water. Write. Read. Seek out challenges great and small.

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How to communicate

You can not not communicate. Not discussing the elephant in the room is communicating. Few things are as important to study, practice, and perfect as clear communication.

~ Jason Fried from, https://basecamp.com/guides/how-we-communicate

This article explains how Basecamp—the organization itself—communicates. If you are a human being, who ever encounters other human beings, the initial list is a great primer on how to communicate. The whole article makes me feel warm and fuzzy. As if, somehow, the world would take a big step in the right direction if more people would read this one thing.

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