I'm a big fan of the writer Steven Pressfield. I've not read any of his novels (it occurs to me I should probably correct that soon), but his non-fiction really explains something I think is in all of us.
In what can really only be described as a trilogy — The War of Art, Do The Work and Turning Pro — Pressfield notes that the thing that keeps us from our calling, our love, whatever you want to call it, is Resistance. And Resistance can come in any form. Your family keeping you away from your easel. Your day job sucking up all your energy. Your overwhelming desire for a Big Mac being one more excuse to not sit down and write.
Anything that prevents you from doing what you really long to do, that's Resistance.
I was thinking about this in terms of Platonic ideals. If you're not familiar with this concept, here's a brief simplification. If you picture a tree, you form a picture in your head of a tree. You will probably never see a real (physical) tree that looks exactly like the tree you pictured, but based on the tree you pictured, you can classify real trees as being enough like the tree you pictured to determine they're all trees.
The tree you pictured was your Platonic ideal.
Pressfield imagines Resistance as a dragon, and you, as artist or entrepreneur or whatever, must slay the dragon to do the work you want to be doing.
I feel less Resistance than I used to. I'm certainly writing consistently. I've taken on some projects that I'm actually accomplishing. My money's being better spent than it used to be. I'm not sure what Resistance looks like to me, but it's getting weaker, or smaller. I don't know, maybe I don't need it to take on a form in order to defeat it.
What does Resistance look like to you? How can you defeat it?
Here are a couple of take-aways we can apply to everyday life.
Touch. Watching the dog sniff around, I know that he understands his world by smell. If he doesn't recognize a smell, he'll taste or touch, and if he can't figure out the origin of the smell, he'll look around for it. I've thought, though, that in the way that he understands his world by smell, we understand by sight. I was wrong. We understand by touch. A tiger doesn't appear dangerous if you don't know what torn flesh feels like, but once you know what that the touch brought by a tiger is dangerous, you only have to perceive a tiger is present to get the hell out of Dodge. You're unlikely to stick around until it bites you to find out if it's a hologram or even just an audio recording.
Similarly, we only understand a coffee table's utility because we touch it and place something upon it; if we merely see it, it's useless to us – it could just as easily be a reflection in a mirror if we don't touch it.
Your starting point is arbitrary. You can start from wherever you want, or more accurately, you can call your starting point whatever you want to call it. We generally start counting at 1, but we could start at 496 with the same consequence. If you're walking 15 yards, you can start at 0 and get arrive at 15 yards, or you can start at 7,236 yards and arrive at 7,251 yards and have traversed the same distance.
Apply this to your life; let's say you're broke and want to make $1,000,000. You can call your zero point $1,000,000 and have the goal of reaching $2,000,000, as long as you understand your scale in relation to the scale everyone else uses. That sounds like a useful self-confidence boost.
Sun Tzu's The Art of War has long been a manual for field battle, and, for not quite as long, a manual for management in the business world and even sales. But reading it recently, this is what stood out to me:
7. There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.
8. There are not more than five primary colors (blue, yellow, red, white, and black), yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen.
9. There are not more than five cardinal tastes (sour, acrid, salt, sweet, bitter), yet combinations of them yield more flavors than can ever be tasted
We have, of course, found notes beyond the pentatonic (though not many), and now understand white and black not as primary colors but as, respectively, the combination of all colors and the absence of all color.
But take this point to heart. All of the wonderful variety in life can be drilled down to a few basic attributes. When these simple attributes are combined in various ratios, we get all the beauty in the world. Start with small pieces, and let it grow.
I'm an occasional admirer of Irvine Welsh's work. Not occasional as in, "some of his stuff's OK;" more like occasional as in, "OK, it's been a while. I think it's time to read another Irvine Welsh novel."
Our protagonist, Ray Lennox, is a cop on vacation in Miami Beach after finally helping bring down a serial pedophile/murderer. He's in recovery — again — from a cocaine habit and needs some time away to plan his wedding with his bride-to-be, Trudi.
But Lennox gets off his anti-anxiety medication and falls off the wagon for just one night — and finds himself single-handedly trying to bring down a child sex ring on this side of the pond.
Crime is paced a whole lot slower than Trainspotting or Skagboys – it moves at a speed that allows Welsh to develop his characters, and create dialogue that's a lot less frantic than his most famous works.
The day after the Super Bowl, the pundits were talking about Peyton Manning's legacy. How, if he'd led the Denver Broncos to victory, we had to seriously think about whether he was the best quarterback ever. But because the Seahawks won, it now relegates Manning to maybe top five of all time, but there's no chance he's the best.
Here's the thing: WHO THE FUCK CARES? No question, Peyton Manning is one of the best quarterbacks to have every played professional football. It's not just his numbers that bear that out — it's also his on-field abilities and intelligence. But it doesn't matter if Peyton Manning is the best ever, or if Joe Montana is the best ever, or if Russell Wilson turns out to be the best ever.
If Peyton Manning is the best Peyton Manning he can be, he should be proud. If he's not the best Peyton Manning he can be, then he's got some work to do.
You, too. You don't need to be the fastest runner in your office or the best salesperson on the tennis court. You don't need to hit the longest golf ball, ski the steepest slope or play the loudest horn.
You just have to be the best you you can be. And when you get there, get better.
Author Matthew Parker is old for his age, but getting younger. He grew up with a mother who taught him how to sell drugs and didn't go straight until she made some counterfeit bills and discovered they were awful. His sister managed to build a good life, but one of his brothers was murdered and the other committed suicide.
Parker himself was in and out of prisons from 1987 until 2002, when he finally got clean. And then he got his MFA in creative writing from Columbia.
Larceny In My Blood follows Parker through life, through finding his way through the culture of prison, and trying and failing and trying and failing and trying and finally succeeding in kicking drugs. Parker elucidates the problems felons have finding work, enrolling in schools and earning trust.
Parker has been off drugs and out of prison since 2002, and has had quite a journey, and is off to a flying start to his writing career. Larceny is a tough book – it's about prison and drugs and sex and real life (and Parker drew his penis a lot for the book) – and while the timeline bounces around a little bit, it was a great read. It's one of those pieces of art that will always stick with me, like Benjamin Bratt's portrayal of Miguel Piñero or the first time I really took the time to look at Picasso's Guernica.
Three quick small changes you can make in everyday habits to shave some time.
1. Loop the other way when you tie your shoes.
This takes some getting used to, since you've been tying your shoes one way for decades. It took me about a month to make this automatic, but the knot definitely holds more strongly.
2. Eat more of your apple.
Do you routinely ignore apples as a snack because they leave you wanting a little more (or alternatively because you have to look for apples that have been pumped full of steroids to get bigger and so they don't taste like anything)? You're leaving too much core. I don't know what the guy in this video did with his seeds, but leaving only the seed pouch and stem, you wind up leaving a bit of apple a touch smaller than an avocado seed.
3. Peel your hard-boiled eggs by blowing on them.
This takes some practice, and the baking soda and temperature change are both important – the first time I tried, I didn't cool the eggs very much and the shells didn't pop off. Once you get the hang of it, though, you can peel a half dozen eggs in a minute or two instead of ten.
What things do you do to increase your productivity?
If you've not been to the city of Savannah, Georgia, I can't recommend it enough. It's antebellum south – that is, it was built before the Civil War, and it's progressing in the small business and craft movement. The original city was built on a grid around a series of squares – in-neighborhood parks – that range in size from a couple of live oak trees with a half dozen benches to Forsyth at the south, with a fountain and a theater space and a cafe and plenty of space to run, play some pickup soccer or what have you.
It has a river running through it (the convention center is on the opposite bank from much of the old city, and a ferry will swing you across so you don't need to drive the bridge back and forth), and most of its eastern suburbs are islands.
Literary novelist John Jakes writes a lot of historical fiction, and his Savannah is such a book. It takes place around Christmas, 1864, as Sherman is marching from Atlanta, torching cities along the way, headed for Charleston via Savannah (Charleston, S.C., is about an hour and a half up the freeway – they would have approached by water). Its protagonists are a 12-year-old girl and 14-year-old boy; he heads to the front lines, she is a rebellious sort – the kind of rebel who kicks a Yankee in the shin and runs off yelling, "I don't care if I just kicked Sherman himself!" When, in fact, she did.
The book includes some personal exploration as regards slavery, lots of Yankee-Rebel relationships and, of course, there's war, thievery and Christmas.
My favorite historical bit, though, was something about Christmas. By the 1860s, Christmas was starting to become more popular, but the most conservative people still considered a slave holiday, instead exchanging gifts on New Year's Day. Stores were non-committal, selling "holiday" gifts instead. Sound familiar?
It's a very fast, easy read, and my local library appears to have plenty of Jakes' stuff on its shelves, so I'll be reading more this year.
I read a lot. Most of the stuff I read is absolute crap, but I read it because I'm hoping it will teach me something. But no longer. I spent 2013 consuming as many words as I could, and I figured out that there are three things I could read every week that will make me smarter.
That's not to say I don't think there are other useful newsletters out there, and that I'll stop reading books and features and news and such. I'm just going to be more picky – a little more selfish with my time.
These are the three things that I read every week, that I think you should, as well.
1. James Altucher's weekly Twitter chat.James Altucher has done a few things right in his life, and a lot of things wrong. The things he's gotten right vastly outweigh the others, though, and I think he's a really smart guy (I recommend his book, Choose Yourself!, as well). He hosts an "ask me anything" Twitter chat Thursdays from 3:30-4:30 p.m. Eastern. During that hour, tweet him at @jaltucher and he'll respond.
I tend to go to his Twitter page and refresh every few minutes so that I can monitor the answers, and then I have the option to check out the question if I wish. If you can't catch it live, you can always head to his page later and scroll back through. You get not only his collected wisdom, but also you get to read what people are asking about, which might give you some ideas as well.
I think you can get just as much from lurking here as you could participating.
2. Mitch Joel, Alistair Croll and Hugh McGuire's weekly link exchange. Each week, three entrepreneurs collect one link for each of the other two, resulting in a blog post every Saturday on Mitch Joel's blog titled Six Links Worthy of Your Attention. Some weeks you'll find more interesting than others, but that will come down entirely due to personal preference. Give yourself a little time; it's worth at least reading all the explanations, and if you wind up clicking something, you might be in for 15-20 minutes of reading or watching.
The links run the gamut from entrepreneurship to education to space exploration to music, sculpture and everything else.
3. Brain Pickings weekly. Maria Popova writes long-form blog items that are really, really interesting. She writes on writing, habits, music, language, science and a variety of other topics, and she always has interesting take-aways from people who know their fields and have names like Einstein, Fitzgerald and Sontag (that is, names you've heard).
Each Sunday, she sends out a newsletter that can help you through your first pot and a half of coffee (you can't tell me I'm the only one, especially on Sunday morning).
Other newsletters I get include a daily email from Web Urbanist, which usually includes some cool photos with a little text (recent ones included a former subterranean brewery that is now a bunch of hot tubs and heated pools, and a post on large concrete arrows in the middle of the U.S. desert that appear to point nowhere but in the 1920s helped direct mail traffic by air before the use of radar), and a weekly offering from C. Hope Clark at Funds for Writers; she writes about the craft of writing, and also about marketplaces, grants and contests.
What do you read consistently that you'd like to share?
I don't have anything to lay out on the table here and say, "I did this!" But 2014 is going to be the date on the end of a lot of hard work. Mostly, I think, I've done a lot on my way toward being a better, more well-rounded human.
If I have some stuff to pass along, it's mostly in some reading and experimentation.
My favorite books for the year – and I read 38 of them in 2013 – are all ones I'd recommend reading, and with good reason.
• Choose Yourself! by James Altucher. This is a reminder that, while it's important for you to do well by others, if you don't live for yourself first, you're not doing as well by anybody else as you thought you did.
• Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman. Feynman was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who was curious about everything. He drew, had a gallery show, played drums in Brazil during carnival and in general spent a lot of time thinking. He said no when he didn't want to do something, and he was curious about pretty much everything.
• Walden by Henry David Thoreau. A lesson in doing some things yourself and simplifying where you can. You have to get past some preachiness, but once you do, it's a wondrous tome.
• Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth by R. Buckminster Fuller. This is the only book I read every year. It really does explain what we've done wrong and what we need to do to correct our path. It's not so much an operating manual for your soul as it is an operating manual for the physical world, and I fear we've lost touch with that.
I've been writing more of late. There's a reasonable chance we'll see some product in 2014. I'm getting married this year. I have some more tricks up my sleeve, some involving compasses and bibles and live oaks.
I'm brewing beer now. It puts me in a fairly small club, apparently, but there are a lot of beer drinkers out there, and now that I sort of understand how it works, I'm experimenting more. My fourth batch is underway; my best to date is a chocolate jalapeño porter. It's a little more peppery and yeasty than I wanted it – and has a lower alcohol content than I was looking for – but drinking a couple of cases of it is easy.
I hope your 2013 was half as amazing as mine. If it hasn't, let me know how I can help improve your 2014.
And, of course, my annual posting of Dougie McLean singing Robert Burns's "Auld Lang Syne."
And there's a hand my trusty fiere
And gi'e 's a hand o' thine
We'll tak a right guid-willy-waught
For auld lang syne
Like what you see? Buy me a cup of coffee. Or a nice dinner. Or a new car. You decide what the information and energy are worth.
• Savannah, or, a Gift for Mr. Lincoln, John Jakes
• Larceny in my Blood, Matthew Parker
• Crime, Irvine Welsh
• The Art of War, Sun Tzu
• ABCs of Relativity, Bertrand Russell
• The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Michael Chabon
• Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau
• Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Franklin
• How to be Remarkable, Colin Wright
• Uncommon Sense, from the writings of Howard Zinn
• Running with Scissors, Augusten Burroughs
• The Secret Life of Numbers, George G. Szpiro