Response Crafting

our experience with things we encounter every day


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Managers are not Leaders.

And, in fact, the two approaches and philosophies fundamentally contradict each other on many fronts.

So. Unless you’re making conscious, deliberate steps toward leadership and away from simply managing, chances are you’re only a manager, and not a leader.

THE DIFFERENCE:
The difference between managers and leaders has been growing in popularity across management teams, with many articles and books offering guidance. Wall Street Journal wrote a management guide about the Difference Between Management and Leadership, offering some distinctions between the two:

  • The manager administers; the leader innovates.
  • The manager is a copy; the leader is an original.
  • The manager maintains; the leader develops.
  • The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people.
  • The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust.
  • The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.
  • The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.
  • The manager’s eye is on the bottom line; the leader’s eye is on the horizon.
  • The manager imitates; the leader originates.
  • The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.
  • The manager is the classic good soldier; the leader is his or her own person.
  • The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.

This last bullet is one of the most famous distinctions between managers and leaders, originally asserted by Warren Bennis, an American scholar, organizational consultant and author who is widely regarded as a pioneer of the contemporary field of leadership studies.

The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.

A manager busies himself with thinking about tasks and how-tos; with defining a process – “the way it’s done” – or, more often, simply aligning his work to it as closely as possibly, with an almost anxious obsession with “doing it right” and little regard to the bigger picture of what is going on. Doing the right thing, however, is a much more philosophical concept and makes us think about the future, about vision and dreams. This. This is a trait of a leader.

Leadership is about asking the questions, ‘what’ and ‘why’ and empowering people (followers) by giving them the responsibility to do things right. Leaders therefore work with people and their emotions. Managers ask, ‘how’ and work mainly with processes, models and systems – things.

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A Manager: administers and maintains. He or she has a near-obsession with consistency, control, and sameness and a reverence for “the way things are,” an innate fear of change and an anxiety around risk. A manager focuses on systems and structure in attempt to protect that sameness and prevent change (which inevitably happens anyway, subjecting the manager to “surprise” and anxiety.) A manager controls. And, frankly, seeks to be controlled, only passing the control on down the ladder. To subordinates. Which is how the manager sees his or her team.

A Leader: innovate and develops. Seeks to improve the things that are being done, the ways in which they’re being done, and the treatment and morale of those doing them. The focus is on people, and they have not only an acceptance of change, but a love for it – they pursue evolution and improvement. In fact, a leader seeks to inspire it, and spends a lot of energy questioning “the way it’s done” and “the way things are,” and encouraging his or her team members – who are every bit his or her equal – to do the same. The phrase “it is what it is” is by no means an explanation for anything, and the leader seeks to make all things greater.

In demonstrating the difference, I’ve always liked this:

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“LEADERS” SORT OF SOUND TOO TOUCHY-FEELY. WHAT’S THE REAL VALUE? MAYBE WE DON’T NEED THEM.
Uh. Okaysure. Maybe not. Maybe all of us can live in places where we are permitted to pretend that all things will forever stay the same. That we can control all things. And that, above all, the commitment to consistency and convention is the only professional pursuit worthy of our time.

Or. We can admit that all things inevitably change. People change, contexts change, clients change, markets change, technology changes. Things evolve. All things are forever shifting. And if you commit yourself to trying to define things, point in time, and then keep them that way forever, you’ll inevitably find yourself either left behind, run over, or ignored. And, above all, frustrated.

Leaders embrace change. They pursue change. In the least, they respond when the world evolves around them; at best, they’re at the forefront of it. They hear the pleas of the team, they lead the charge, they create a better world. (The world will never be “better” if you are instead trying to control it and keep it the same.) They collaborate with others for great ideas, they inspire rather than force. It is the leaders, not the managers, who yield greatness from a team.

“You are breathing life into what would be otherwise a mere machine. You are creating a soul in your organization that will make the mass respond to you as though it were one man. And that is espirit.” – Napoleon Hill

Napoleon Hill wrote of leadership, using the military as an example, that:

“Great results are not achieved by cold, passive, unresponsive soldiers. They don’t go very far and they stop as soon as they can. Leadership not only demands but receives the willing, unhesitating, unfaltering obedience and loyalty of other men; and a devotion that will cause them, when the time comes, to follow… to hell and back again, if necessary.”

Indeed. To hell and back again. Because this, in turn, is the limitation of how far a good leader goes in carrying out what’s important; the way in which he approaches his responsibility to his team in his work. To hell and back again.

OKAY. #LEADERS… BUT HOW DOES ONE LEAD?
Again, Hill offered quite a bit by way of guidance, writing that leadership was built of a few key characteristics…

A leader serves the team, rather than expecting the opposite, and commits himself to this role with utmost seriousness. He watches out for the team first, himself second. “You must be far more solicitous of [your team’s] comfort than of your own. You must look after their health. You must conserve their strength by not demanding needless exertion or useless labor.” And if something is owed to one of your people, you must “turn heaven and Earth upside down to get it for him.” You are last to eat; last to reap the benefits of the work of the team: “Give the man under you his due. the man who always takes and never gives is not a leader. He is a parasite.” And, perhaps most importantly: “do not ask any man to go where you would not go yourself.” A leader takes the first and heaviest blows, accepts any benefits last.

(A manager, it should be said, typically does the opposite.)

BUT MANAGERS STILL HAVE STRENGTHS! WHY CAN’T WE BE BOTH?
Indeed.

Typically, our natural inclinations and comfort zones cause us to fall in one of the two categories and exist there in perpetuity. Using something like the Myers Briggs assessment, which breaks us down across four dichotomies, we might realize that, with regard to our preferred interactions with the outside world and our level of tolerance of change and spontaneity, we fall into categories that lend themselves to more “managerial” or more “leader.”

a.) A preference for order, structure, programmed responses, formality, systems, contingency planning, schedules and scheduling, standards, familiarity, routine, planning, dates, deadlines, details, metrics, organization, caution in action, and a discomfort in all things that challenge these… this describes the “Judging” preference, which lends itself to merely managing.

b.) A preference for informality, organic changes, adaptability, casual interactions, variety, spontaneity, flexibility, freedom, ad hoc approaches, speed in action, and, above all, a comfort in unexpected changes, in making adjustments as situations require, and in taking risks… this describes the “Perceiving” preference, which lends itself to leading.

(Want to know which you are? You can take a Myers Briggs assessment and see where you land in all four dichotomies, including “Judging vs. Perceiving,” here.)

That being said, you can pull in strengths from each side. Someone who is a natural “big-picture thinker” can learn how to implement their ideas, an introvert can learn to build a network, and a manager can learn to lead.

You won’t strike a successful, effective balance between the two by accident alone – you cannot put on airs of evolving, say, from transactional to transformative relationships with your clients (or your customer or your teams) while simultaneously still approaching them as subordinates to be controlled, and expect that all to just magically work out.

That’s not to say that we can’t take pieces from each realm and combine them – to commit ourselves to those lofty aspirations from the leader’s realm while also driving them to completion via the manager’s commitment to detail.

SO WHAT’S THE PROBLEM? 
The problem, typically, is not the theory of joining forces, but rather the practice of it…

it would be easy to offer a condolence to each party; to pretend that both are playing equal blocking force in the progression of the other. Ultimately, however, that’s really not the case. In reality, the manager is typically uncomfortable and fearful with the leader’s approach, and becomes anxious and tense with what he perceives as a “cowboy.” The leader, in turn, feels stifled by the manager’s metrics, and becomes angry and restless with what he perceives as a “simpleton;” a “stick in the mud.” In other words, it’s the manager who resists change, and it’s usually the manager who’s resisting evolution here.

In my experience, the leader is asking very little of the manager other than the invitation to come along. The leader is fundamentally invested in finding the best approach; in evolving. It’s the manager, conversely, who is, by his nature, afraid.

A manager must overcome his or her natural fear in implementing some of the leader’s approaches and relinquish his death-grip on the system. In turn, a leader should take time to see some of his initiatives through, strengthening the discipline and detail necessary to make the high-level, end-goal things happen.

If, that is, things are not already happening. 

WHO WINS IN A STAND-OFF?
Answer: Whoever is achieving the business objectives more successfully. (Or, if applicable: whoever’s overshooting them.)

Sure, if a leader is simply causing trouble, and leaving his or her team in ambiguity and confusion, with very little to show for the big ideas and innovation and change he or she is so hot on pursuing, then, okay, wrangling may be needed. In this case, it’s on the leader to learn the system – to take a seat, pipe down, and fall in line.

But if a leader’s initiatives are happening – if his “grandiose plans” and “big ideas” and “reckless ways” are paying off – then, frankly, it’s on the manager to let it go. To get on board, pipe down, and buckle up. To embrace some of the leader’s approaches, relinquish his compulsion to control, accept the inevitability of change and embrace the greatness of the team at large.

And frankly, it’s this latter one that’s more often the case.

TL;DR
Managers are, by their very nature, a dime a dozen… I can say this because, if they were honest, they would have to agree. Their very subscription to the system means that they are a part of it. They embrace it, fit themselves into it, and simply follow suit. In aligning themselves to the structure, they reduce themselves to mere parts of it. Leaders, however, fundamentally exist outside of it. They are constantly searching for better. Their value is in their individuality. And while they can be created through good mentorship and training (and a bit of empowerment), are far, far more difficult to come by.

So the goal, ultimately, is to build a team of leaders who can also manage. Rather than building a team of managers and pretend that they’ll one day, somehow, make out as leaders.

Want a great team? Learn to lead.

Want a great company? Learn to let your leaders lead.


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Is your work even worthwhile?

When it comes to work – how we view it; how we do it – there are some important points to make on what is actually worthwhile, and what isn’t.

The confusing thing is that we are, overall, sometimes convinced – deliberately led to believe or otherwise infer – that the latter is the former; that activities that add no value whatsoever are, in fact, the value-add tasks that we should be doing. And then we end up dedicating our energies to these and overlooking the world beyond them, in which the real value can be made.

Here’s the difference between value-add work and work that isn’t – a very brief, probably over-simplified scale of adding value in our work, from the lowest point on the scale to the highest.

Level I: the taking and putting of things in places.
Documentation. Organization. Collection. Categorization. Administrative tasks. “Let us put this book on this shelf;” or, more commonly: “let’s save this document to this folder.” “Let us take this thing and put it somewhere, presumably for future use. Not today.” The storing and securing and stowing away of things rather than an immediate, let alone worthwhile, application of them. It’s embarrassing, really, how many people fill up their entire days – months, years, lives – busying themselves with tasks such as these, with little more to show for it at the end than a curio cabinet of trinkets found. With little consideration for their actual use.

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Level II: the over-simplifying and summarizing of things.
This one we learn in school, so I understand, partly, why so many of us cling to it in practice, in our day to day adult lives. This is the regurgitation of things heard. The simplification of things into bite-size pieces; the TL;DR of other’s thoughts so as to avoid the act of chewing on them, in their entirety, for oneself. The reduction of other’s viewpoints to easily-accessible, malleable things; the sometimes frantic, anxious compulsion to “just get to it already;” to have some rule, some drilled-down thing, that can be (see previous) tucked away. For future use.

19dvc4zmyf4r2gifLevel III: the blind, mindless application of things.
The taking of a new process or policy or practice and applying it, without question, probably because someone “higher” in the corporate (or social) hierarchy suggested it. The binge-eating and then force-feeding of a concept because you read it in a book or your boss wants you to do it. The eager acceptance of a thing as handed and the anxious application. “That’s just the way it’s done,” we say. Or “it is what it is.” “We’ve always done it this way,” or “do as told.” There’s no reason and, so far as we care to comprehend, there’s no real reason for a reason – suggestion alone is reason enough to carry on.

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Level IV: the analytical dispute of things. 
Critical thinking. Sure, critique even. You’re not sure why, but something doesn’t sit quite right. You can scrutinize, dissect, find the holes in logic. You haven’t quite worked out what should replace these things, so you don’t. All you know is that you think or may even be convinced that, as they stand, they don’t work.

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Level V: the analytical application of things. 
Note: analytical. This is not the blind, mindless application, as previously noted. You work through the angles and you figure out which pieces make sense, and then you use them. Pick and choose intelligently, make sense of things, and get things done. (Nordstrom’s customer service is famously summarized in this way, offering their employees one single rule: “Use good judgment in all situations.”) Use your brain.

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Level VI: the origination of things.
No, not documentation. Not the capturing of things in a different place and then trying to pawn it off as a new thing. No, “origination” like actual originality. Ideation. Creation. Creativity. The real and substantial putting of something new out into the universe. The taking of risks. The doing of novel and useful.

And no, this new thing is not always good. In fact, more often than not, it’s rather not good. And a good new thing is certainly of higher value than a not-good new thing. Obviously.

Point here is: creativity trumps simple critique. And both of these trump simple cumulation.

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What is good design? Fork vs. Garlic Press

Why a fork is a better design than a garlic press:

Once upon a time, I interviewed with a very good local design firm. I was meeting with one of the directors, and he asked me: “what’s your favorite kitchen utensil?”

“Probably a fork.” I said.

He was not impressed. “Well. How about more of a… gadget?”

So I told him “my blender,” adding as explanation: “because I use it almost every day.”

“Okay…” He said. “Is it… a cool blender?”

“No,” I said. “Just a standard one.” (And if that does the job (it does), then why would I need more?) 

He nodded slowly; almost sadly. Though the interview had only begun and would go on for another hour, it was apparent that I had already “failed” in his mind.

The problem, I knew, was that he wanted my answer to be far more cool – like a coffee pot that also functioned as a dishwasher and could tell me next month’s weather forecast – in Dutch. In other words, something “interesting” or “unusual.”

Desperate for me to offer a better answer, he suggested, “okay, how about a garlic press?”

I didn’t take him up on this. Mostly because I very.strongly.disagree.

Frankly, not only do I think “garlic press” is a horrible answer, but it may be one of worst (e.g., least-loved) kitchen utensils, a realization that dawns on anyone who has ever a.) used one or b.) endeavored in serious cooking. (Note: I did not say this to him, because he was actually a pretty nice guy and the context did not call for this.)

Here is the thing:

The garlic press does not actually do its job.

And if it does, it certainly does not do it quite as well as we envision.

Many the most novice user, trying the garlic press for the first time, will watch in dismay as the garlic just becomes mashed into the utensil rather than chopped and deposited on the other side, as we want to imagine. (I personally bought a garlic press and used it a whole two times before I grew frustrated of having to wipe all the garlic mush off – and out of – the utensil.)

Chefs and cooking aficionados don’t use garlic presses at all, evidenced by their absence in any Food Network show. In fact, the garlic press is somewhat abhorred within the culinary world, for a number of viable reasons: the press taints the garlic in much the same way silver spoons taint caviar. It is also a “one trick pony,” taking up more space than its limited utility warrants. And some of the garlic – the part too small to be pressed entirely through – is inadvertently wasted.

If you check out “garlic press” on Wikipedia, you will see that chef Anthony Bourdain calls them “abominations” and British cookery writer Elizabeth David once wrote an essay titled “Garlic Presses are Utterly Useless.”

(Interestingly, the utensil most beloved by many chefs? Their knives. Which, in addition to innumerable other uses, enable them to prep garlic far more efficiently than they could with a press… Fancy that! That we could possibly ever love something so stupidly “simple.”)

So if most people detest using garlic presses, the design is fundamentally not good… instead validated only by the imagination of a.) its inventor(s) and b.) the consumers who are seduced into buying them.

It is not at all warranted by reality.

And yet here I come across a designer who suggests to me that the garlic press is somehow a “better” answer to his question of favorite utensil – one more “deserving” of my adoration – than the fork.

And I think that this is the wrong approach to design. That the merit of “good” design and our esteem of it is largely based not on how “unusual” it is, but how well it functions in our life.

Good design is not about being “cool.”

It is about improving the quality of our lives.

Beloved products are those that help us do something. And when we are talking kitchen utensils, those that actually help us get by in our day to day lives and accomplish our everyday needs are obviously far more influential on our happiness. We cherish things that work for us. And a fork is a great example.

A fork always does its job.

You will never hear people complaining about a fork. It gets food into our mouths – e.g., it works – and it does it efficiently, without ruining or wasting the food in the process. It is intuitive – it doesn’t make us think. Even the most “uncouth” user, holding the fork all wrong, can effectively muddle through.

This, to me, is the mark of a great product – one deserving of our adoration.

(For a deeper testament to its appeal, consider this: the fork became ubiquitous despite being considered “vulgar” in the 11th Century.)

Consider your “favorite” of anything – pair of shoes; website; shirt; show. Cost aside, is it not the one you wear, visit or watch most? (If not, you may have a skewed sense of priorities.)

We love the things we use most. And we use the things we love most.

To suggest that anyone should (or would) feel otherwise is a bit unrealistic.

And this is really not so much an exercise in trash-talking a designer – or design in general – so much as it is an illustration of the troubling disconnect between what designers think is “good” and what users actually favor. Designers think nuclear mousetrap. Users prefer a baited empty bucket. This is, in fact, one of the primary reasons I am drawn to design and product – and building beautiful solutions that elegantly, painlessly solve problems and make us happier – happy to the point that we promote them to ubiquity, making them “real” rather than shelving them somewhere.

I think there is so much to be said for the elegance of simplicity; the quiet and subtle sheer joy that a user experiences – but may never vocalize – when something works just exactly as he wanted it to and, in doing so, resolves a want or need. And I think there is great work to be done in building solutions that strive to quietly create long-term satisfaction (that is, under-promise and over-deliver) rather than disappoint us with the opposite.


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The irony of accuracy

Projects often require timeline or effort estimates – part of this drive toward “traceability” and “accuracy” and whatever else, and so we answer the question:

“When will this be done?”

And when it comes to actual and indisputable accuracy, the irony is that the most accurate answer is, quite literally:

“It’ll be done when it’s done.”

But we can’t say that. Because just as the answer of “we’ll get there when we get there” infuriated a whole generation of kids stuffed into the backseat for long-haul family road trips, this answer can have a similar effect on those who hear it now, who, understandably, expect a degree of diplomacy and professionalism and effort and Playing of The Game.

And so? We don’t say that. We instead offer an actual estimate. We evaluate the factors, weigh them against what we know, and, just as Dad probably could have done, give a better number; a best guess.

And the accuracy here depends not so much (not solely, anyway) on the guesser’s expertise alone, but a whole slew of endless factors, including consistency of project objectives, requirements, players, stakeholders, financial resources, timeline, market demands, technical constraints (or, more likely, breakdowns), culture, communication efficiency… the list goes on and on.

But somewhere in there, someone can take a look at things and say:

“Given all that we know (and some things that we don’t), this is our best guess.”

And typically, that’s enough to get us where we need to go.

But there are some – project managers and developers and clients alike – who want estimates to have “All Of The Accuracy.” All of it. All possible dependencies (ideally, known and unknown alike), all possible risks, all possible things that might happen and, furthermore, all of their possible consequences – not just the outcome alone, but the impact on The Number.

They spend hours, days even, generating the initial artifacts, and then hours and days more tending to their perpetual upkeep, using everything from basic algebra to homegrown algorithms to prescribed methodologies – like parametric estimation – to do the task. And when they’re done, they can drop a document on your desk and, for a short time only, point to it and say:

“Here in this 50-page document (isn’t it beautiful?), given this comprehensive list of all possible risks and dependencies (we thought of everything), their severity and the possibility of them happening, as well as their possible consequences (we know it all), this is most certainly (well, no. most likely) when this will be done.”

But here’s the thing: how many times have you seen any estimate, to any degree of granularity, actually prove out perfectly? If this stuff was truly accurate, wouldn’t we be hitting those timelines more often? Wouldn’t we never have to update the estimates ever again?

But we do. Because the irony, of course, is that no amount of algorithm will change the fact that, at the end of the day, they are fabricating fantasy. That’s what this always is.

Projects don’t succeed because of the accuracy of estimates. They succeed because of actual work, albeit on many levels. 

So rather than accuracy, maybe we should strive for action. And if we want to win, recognize that once the project really starts going and those risks really start manifesting, you’ve got two groups of people:

  1. Those who manage artifacts, burning through uncounted hours (yeah wait, just how many?) to perfect their plans, updating risk lists instead of actually resolving them.
  2. Those who actually manage the project, overturning the earth to get the team what they need, knocking on doors, going up against adversaries, whatever. rolling up sleeves and actually resolving the risks.

Timelines aren’t nailed by managing a project plan or obsessively re-algorithm’izing estimates, by re-measuring over and over until you’re at project-end and, low and behold, there’s your number (and just look at how well-documented it is!)

Timelines are nailed by stepping away from the spreadsheet and actually working. And it’s not that project managers need to program, but if things are falling behind, there’s probably something else we can actually do rather than sit down to type out: “Day 87: yet another day behind.”


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Lately I’ve been looking at whiskey

I go to a whiskey tasting, find one that’s new and different and sort of blows my mind, and spend several hours over the next several days intermittently a.) thinking about getting my hands on a bottle and b.) nursing a newfound motivation to research “flavors of whisk(e)y” and, more importantly, how they map – to each other, and other things.

We fill up glasses with grapes, with wheat, with rice and hops and barley. We come at these things and want to like them, and at first we don’t, but then we do. And then we’re living and also dying, though we were already living and dying either way.

On the spectrum of travel down so many different paths, it is actually – apparently – quite common that our palates in one place intercept or complement our palates in others. A preference for richness, earthiness, and smoke lends itself to dark-roast coffee (black), cabernet, dried fruit, dark chocolate, wood-fire and planks. Those who prefer freshness – the delicate, even the precious are instead drawn to florals, herbs, grass, pinot grigio, light roast, fresh fruit (especially citrus.) You can map the flavors against the seasons, with spring representing one end (floral, herb and grass) and winter at the other (metal and wood, leather, tobacco and smoke), bridged by summer (leafiness, ripe fruit) and then fall (dried fruit and pepper.) And also somewhere in there, things like toffee and honey; vanilla and clove.

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It might not be so far-fetched to imagine that these preferences might transcend our flavor palate and seep into many other things – that those adjectives used to describe one thing can reliably lead us to suitable discovery in many others. (As the jokes go, after all, “I like my __ like I like my __.”)

Those that enjoy the light, delicate end of the spectrum might describe the appeal as “polite,” “discrete,” “subdued,” “harmonious,” “nice” and “clean,” with the other end of the spectrum tasting “dirty,” “overpowering,” “aggressive,” or “offensive.” Those who prefer the “rich” end might describe their values as “complex,” “bold,” “strong,” “deep,” and “unique” with the “delicate” qualities seen as “trite,” “superficial” or “austere” at best; “sterile” or “stifled” or “simple-minded” at worst.

Oddly, the “rich” end, with its decay, can taste a little like “death” but also a lot like earthiness and “dirtiness,” which offers the environment for new growth, while the “delicate” end can come off a bit like sanitizer – i.e., a fake fresh, actually meant to subdue if not destroy. Soil lives at one end; at the other, tile and fake florals.

And this spectrum that we just defined is actually a gross oversimplification. There are at least two spectrums that are commonly used for single malt whisky alone (light vs. rich, delight vs. smoky), and endless others offered for whisk(e)y in general. And these, I am trying to learn.

I like whiskey, as many do, and when I find the words to describe each whiskey I find that many of them are similar, if not the same.

I often find myself wandering through a field. It’s all nice but all sort of the same – the bright, light, itchiness of wildflowers, the prickliness of thistle and nettles, the smoothed scratchiness of hay bales, their flat flanks patted down, the metallic echo of tin. There’s a tidy lightness to it that can seem astringent, even chlorinous – all sanitization without sensation. This is much of American whiskey.

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And then I come upon Defiant, and it’s this usher into a forest from a wash of field; a beacon in the night. I find it at a whiskey tasting event and then it’s the only thing I want to drink; the only thing that still even tastes drinkable towards the end of the night. (And apparently I’m not alone –  Rebecca Orchant wrote “Defiant whisky is the first one we’ve ever wanted to drink straight.”)

And the difference with Defiant begins right from the start: it smells like… something.

This happens to me a lot, with smell. Something hits me and latches on to something, somewhere – I know there’s a memory without knowing it, like when you stare at a face without recalling a name; point to a thing but unable to utter its word.

I smell it again. Something.

It’s got a soil sweetness, a warm decay. A “sweet” putrid in the way moss and mud are putrid – the sensation of lifting a log from a forest floor, rolling it from its hollowed place on the earth, watching as earthworms wiggle away, and there’s a smell there – a richness. Something happy. On the spectrum of “sodden earth” and real sweet dirtiness alone, where so few whiskies really play, Defiant is one of the few in the direction of having it, in the direction of Laphroaig, which defines some of the fullest saturation, though Defiant is not nearly that far on the spectrum (and, of course, not on the spectrum at all when it comes to peat.)

Photo courtesy of Teagan at  ADVENTURE, RETURN, REPEAT

Photo courtesy of Teagan at ADVENTURE, RETURN, REPEAT

Photo courtesy of Teagan at ADVENTURE, RETURN, REPEAT

Photo courtesy of Teagan at ADVENTURE, RETURN, REPEAT

(As an aside: it’s interesting for me is that the flavors of peat and earth and moss apparently wind up as neighbors with the cleaning agents – “medicinal,” “astringent.” The chemists and whiskey experts can organize them however they want, but to me these flavors drastically contrast each other – a thing is either dirt-like or sanitary; decaying or clean. My favorites are all earthen; my least favorites astringent.)

And yet, back to Defiant, there’s something else.  The forest floor decay is the closest I get on my first pass, but it’s still not quite the right place in my mental mapping, and I do the thing we do when we’re mental scrambling in the dark, feeling for something we’re certain is there. You get as close as you can and then hold on to it, watching for the thing as the water continues to rush around you, clutching this root amid the current, waiting for it to present itself so you can take hold.

I don’t finish it right away. I carry it with me and wander to another table; holding the tiny, stemmed tasting glass with my arms crossed, the glass resting against my other elbow. And I’m listening to someone talk about some other whiskey, scarcely thinking about the one in my hand when the smell finally registers and hits me. Brewery.

It smells like brewery. More specifically, like brewing. More specifically, Summit County.

There was the micro-brewery I used to frequent, all seasons, in Summit County, Colorado. I had been there dozens of times, had eaten, drank, laughed and listened to stories, and the scene was always, sensory-wise, more or less the same. But one day I walked in and was hit with this olfactory bombardment. Something new; something “wrong.” It was a smell that violated my olfactory canvas, broke it down, began restructuring – it overpowered everything; simultaneously offensive and let intoxicating; almost sensual, a bit like sweat. And I turned to somebody and asked, “what is that?” and they told me: “that’s the barley.”

And it was that smell, that putrid violation, that I was now holding in my hand; this glass of Defiant.

A reviewer wrote that Defiant “tastes a bit youthful and rough around the edges.”  And it’s “youthful,” sure, if what’s meant by “youthful” is not so quickly discounted as “childish” or “naïve” (other reviewers describe it as “summer camp locker room” and “saturated blue jeans”) but instead recognized as the “rough and tumble” recklessness just beyond boyishness. It is the deliberate rather than mindless muddying of clothing from pioneering off a beaten path; the smell of body and sweat; the adolescence quality of experimentation and gall; the eschewing of convention. (And on the finish, the faint appall from the traditionalists, aghast at this indiscretion.)

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The breaking down and rebuilding; decomposition and creation. A putridness; a sweetness; something new.


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The cultivation of a self and our pursuit of change

ON REAL ESTATE AND CITIES

Life is change. Everything is always fluid and evolving. And cities, the physical representation of our collective lives and every bit alive themselves, of course must change as well.

Often, the change in cities is slow and not scary, but sometimes the change is jarring or unknown, and that leaves its residents and watchers disoriented, even distraught. One such city, in particular, is Detroit.

Rebecca Solnit writes, in The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousnessthat “Detroit is a cautionary tale about one-industry towns: it shrank the way the old boomtowns of the gold and silver rushes did, as though it had been mining automobiles and the veins ran dry, but most of those mining towns were meant to be ephemeral. People thought Detroit would go one forever.” Of course they did. Many people do, regarding their own places. But nothing goes on forever. All things change. (Revolution, remember? Evolution, too.)

Solnit writes that “blocks of new condos that have been dropped here and there among the ruins: why there were built in the first place in a city full of handsome old houses going to ruin has everything to do with the momentary whims of the real estate trade and nothing to do with the long-term survival of cities.”

It’s clear that Solnit is anti-housing development. What is not clear is why.

On the one hand, regarding the “whims of the real estate trade,” she’s very right. It’s true that those in real estate often operate in accordance to their own discipline-specific ideals: architects want something beautiful, developers want to develop quickly and cheaply before selling to investors; investors primarily measure numbers (occupancy, sales or rent rolls.)

What’s not true is that housing is one for one – that a city could somehow pick itself back up and attract newcomers without offering anything more than empty lots or charred siding in which to house them. And of course there are a good number of houses – some of which are, it’s true, even handsome – but that doesn’t mean that newcomers yet feel comfortable enough in this new city to frontier their way on the blocks where this handsome house is neighbored by arson. Or, that aside, that these newcomers are at all motivated to the domestic tasks that owning a house – however handsome – requires. (Many newcomers attracted to Detroit are artists, after all. Didn’t we want them to do art?)

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Solnit seems to draw a line in the sand between who is permitted to catalyze change, and who isn’t. Newcomers – as long as they’re artists – are welcome to change things, and of course the locals have every right to. But she turns her back on corporations – not organized bodies in general, but… what? those that make money, too? It’s a bit arbitrary. After all, we want the locals and the artists to take matter into their own hands; we want them to reshape Detroit, and yet we’re discouraging anybody from housing them, or from giving them housing that’s reshaping the landscape as well? We are instead insisting that they subscribe and tether themselves to the very landscape we are also urging them to mold?

“Artists in particular see the potential,” as they are apt to do. And, Solnit seems to suggest, that seeing potential means that one is forever privy to it; that one has domain over the course of a path if one gets to it first. This, of course, being the argument against the newcomers she is instead taking a stand against in San Francisco – those technologists (whom she sees as a different group than artists altogether) who do nothing but raise rents and ruin the market.

“All this is changing the character of what was once a great city of refuge for dissidents, queers, and experimentalists.” Well, of course it is.

Artists must know their place in the world. Like mothers, they sort of pave the way – lay the foundation – for what’s to come; nurse a place along and see it for its potential in its infancy. And when the place finally – almost inevitably – develops the ability to walk and then run and then work and develop economically, and the space for those earliest care-givers shrinks and then ceases to exist, an artist must understand that evolution gives way in this way.

“I think of it as frontierism, with all the frontier’s attitude and operational style, where people without a lot of attachments come and do things without a lot of concern for their impact.” Is this always true? And is it always bad?

ON HOUSES AND HOME

Solnit, I miss you.

I found you once upon a time when you enveloped me in Field Guide. I found it – found you – precisely when I needed it, and I devoured it and it encased me and it was exactly right. And since then, I’ve been searching for more of that, whatever that was, wandering across the plain, dutiful; devout, looking for this thing to come again. And at the risk of being admiring but also childish: I miss you, a “you” that I crafted, as we are so often apt to do, with those writers we most admire. (This being, of course, part of the plight of the writer.)

But my missing you is because your writing – so much of it – is political now (“now,” of course, being simply the timeline on which I am trailing you, book by book and essay by essay; a path that does not at all mirror your chronological publishing path.) There’s nothing wrong with political writing – in fact, I would be the last person, writer to writer, to suggest that you should use your craft to do anything other than what brings the most meaning to you. Selfishly, though, for myself alone: I found in Field Guide something I have never found in any other writer – and, so it seems – any other work. I found you – or perhaps you found me, simply in the way that I was waiting and wanting. But then, just like that, you were gone. Apart from the occasional essay, Field Guide seems to stand alone in what it is – you “are” – for me.

From my (again, selfish) vantage point: anybody can write about politics and events because anybody can search for facts. Fewer can do it as comprehensively or with as much passion as you… but nobody can write these esoteric, philosophical pieces like you do. Nobody writes like you do. At least no one I’ve found.

I wanted to read you and then write and, in my dream world, you would find my writing and tell me that you liked it. In my head, I imagined that I wrote in a way that complemented your thinking, and vice versa; that our writing went together; that your writing fueled my own.

I won’t try to harness you. And god forbid, should you ever find this, I most certainly am not trying to complain. All I say here is that the world is such a tremendously vast place, and we are all such different people, and some of us quite complex – perhaps even “troubled” – and have these thoughts that sit simmering on a back burner, and then we trip across another being, somewhere way off, in another time and space, and for a brief moment we see some light in their thinking – a flash of recognition that validates our own – and isn’t that what we all want anyway? – and though our rational side of course knows that it’s not fair, the emotional side of us flutters a bit and cannot help but think, “be still, my beating heart” and, by extension, “be still, my stranger.” Be this thing for me.

In “Inside Out, Or Interior Space,” I found an echo of this “you” I had molded for myself, and found condolence. And it’s ironic and pleasing, of course, that I should “re-find” you here, in this piece. (And I think the irony in this is clear.)

We tack tapestries and postcards and mementos onto walls. We do this with our homes and spaces and, you point out: “You feel it too, you who hold this book that is both a bundle of ideas and another twig to lay on the future fire of your home.” Yes, this is true. Of course this is true – each book, a twig. Of course I won’t pretend – won’t insult either of us to pretend – that it isn’t.

But don’t kid yourself, Rebecca. You are anything but a simple woman. And if I want to hold Field Guide close to my chest – if this twig alone sits on top of the bookshelf rather than in it – then… according to your own admissions of our existence and these little things we’re apt to do… then doesn’t my claim alone make it true? At least in my own little reality, which is how this works.

We do this. We collect things – gather up the things we see; things we cherish or disdain – and categorize their qualities, break them down in order to better understand them, even crush them a little in our delight. We search for things. We take them with us. We claim them as our own.

We build out these models to live into, “as though building itself could redirect and support an ideal life, the life we dream of when we look at houses… Spaces so elegantly negotiating inside and out.”

We do this, in particular, with our homes. The house is “a container for the uncontained… We sit surrounded by objects which perpetually express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience.” And, of course, remind us of our hopes and aspirations.

We surround ourselves with the stuff that symbolizes what we seek.

It’s not enough to call this out, however; not sufficient to make a point and pretend that all “the stuff” is the same. What’s important is not in recognizing that we collect it or even inhibiting ourselves from doing so, but in cultivating a mindfulness in the process.

“Houses are cluttered with wishes, the invisible furniture on which we keep bruising our shins. Until they become an end in themselves, as a new mansion did for the wealthy woman I watched fret over the right color for the infinity edge tiles of her new pool on the edge of the sea, as though this shade of blue could provide serenity that would be dashed by that slightly more turquoise version, as though it could all come from the ceramic tile suppliers, as though all lay in the colors and the getting.” 

There is a frantic nature to my search of “you,” too. But not all frenzy and pursuit is the same. There is something more to the want of ideas and words, and I’d like to believe that that’s different.

ON FOCUS AND PRIORITIES

So many of us distract ourselves with petty nothingness, most of us not realizing that we’ve succumbed to leading lives of glorified administrative tasks. We have these “assumptions that our lives require lots of management and that being managerial is our highest goal. Is it?”

We have embraced “the pettiness of keeping score” and cultivated “the souls of bookkeepers” in both our work and our personal lives. And we commit a lot of attention and resources to minutia – moment by moment updates, rather than the consideration of bigger ideas.

We have calendar invites and push notifications, but none of them remind us to live meaningful lives. On the contrary, they distract us from it. It’s not that reminders are inherently evil – I forget practical stuff all the time – but I also want to be reminded “to look at the distance and contemplate the essential mysteries of the universe and the oneness of all things.”

And it’s not just a depth and breadth of mindset that we’re missing, but a mindfulness overall.

“The slow food movement was often missed. It wasn’t food. It was about doing something from scratch, with pleasure, all the way through, in the old methodical way we used to do things. That didn’t merely produce better food; it produced a better relationship to materials, processes, and labor, notably your own, before the spoon reached your mouth. It produced pleasure in production as well as consumption. It made whole what is broken.”

In turn, by bringing these concepts to light, it also inspired consideration of them. This is not true for all who cook, of course. Or all who read or write or think. It is about deliberate focus rather than distraction – the use of a task to direct rather than divert from one’s day; the pursuit of understanding rather than, as in cooking, the anticipation of others’ delight and approval.

ON ART AND MARKETS AND CHANGING THE WORLD

We can change the world through both art and markets. These things do not stand alone, and neither one inherently contradicts the other.

Art – the creation of something; the communication of an idea through creativity.
Technology – the ever-evolving ways in which we create or do things
Market – the forum in which value is measured and/or defined. The only place, to be clear, in which the aforementioned creation is validated; the place in which its merit is established. 

These concepts need each other – the creative energy, a change; the receptivity. Artists and markets do not stand in opposition, markets do not consist of technology alone, and artists and technologists are comrades, not rivals. Yes, artists can love tech and tech can love artists. I have seen it. You should too.

Pursuit of change in the world begins by pursuit of greatness within ourselves and pursuit of great work, with the greatness of the work measured by applicable markets.

In the same way that “only free people can care about slaves or prisoners and do something about slavery and prisons, which is why the project of liberating yourself is not necessarily selfish,” one might argue that influencing the flow of money is a whole lot easier when you have some. That the same position required of social justice lubricates economic justice as well.

There is no argument against donating time or protesting in the streets with signs, especially, of course, if these are the resources available to you. But there is also no argument against using a higher position of influence, if it is within your reach, or, furthermore, your pursuit of it. In fact, one might argue, if you have the capacity to strive for a more influential position from which to drive change and do not do so, you are doing society a disservice.

“Wheat farmers of North Dakota defeated Monsanto’s plans to introduce GMO wheat worldwide. But they didn’t do it by planting heirloom organic wheat or talking to school kids about what constitutes beautiful bread or by baking. They did it by organizing, by collective power, and by political engagement. The biggest problems of our time requires big cooperative international transformations that cannot be reached one rutabaga patch at a time.”  

Is there anything to say that that big cooperative international transformations have to come from non-profits? Is there anything to say that change must happen in the public realm – through politics – and that any change originating from the private sphere is less worthwhile?

The pursuit of market presence and money and the construction of companies – even corporations – is not inherently evil. Evil is evil. Money – even a lot of it – is not. “You can make your own institutions beyond the reach of the state, which is also revolutionary. This creating – rather than simply rebelling – has been much of the nature of revolution in our time.”

Change is inevitable. Good change is honorable. Greatness exists in the self – the ideas of our self, the representation of them in private and public, and our advances made in pursuing them.


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Design: not a love of things, but rather a love of life

Good design is not design for design sake, but design as a response to a love of life:

Biophilia

Biophilia is, simply, a love of life or living systems – not our own individual lives, but the concept of life overall; our collective existence. It is the “instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems.”

  • It is the urge to affiliate with other forms of life. (Edward O. Wilson, Biophilia, 1984)
  • It is “a psychological orientation of being attracted to all that is alive and vital” and “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.” (Erich Fromm)
  • It offers, as with all phillia, a sense of reciprocity that yields a sense of happiness. (Aristotle)

Biophilia: “nature” as the primary “living system”

If you do a search for biophilia + design, you will see that architecture is one of the design disciplines that has a foothold with the concept (like the film Biophilic Design: The Architecture of Life.) Architecture’s interpretation and use of biophilia, however, defines “life” as “the natural world,” and puts an emphasis on natural systems, specifically.

Here, even, they are not bringing elements of nature into the built environment arbitrary, for the sake of doing it, but rather as a response to the recognition of its importance. “Beauty is our word for the perfection of those qualities of environment that have contributed the most to human survival.”

“If you look at it in terms of its negative – if we’re deprived of the opportunity to affiliate with nature – it also effects us. If we were in a room that had no windows; that had just artificial light and processed air, basically you wouldn’t want to be there for very long, and if you were there for very long – if somehow you couldn’t escape from that room, you would start to have a sort of sensory deprivation.”

To build in this way, we account for the ways in which human beings interact with their environments – both indoor and outdoor – and compensate for what is surrendered when entering an indoor space by bringing some of those critical “natural” qualities (light, air) into it.

Biophilia: “life” defined beyond “nature”

While we can honor the focus on nature as an approach to biophilia, it is also important to explore a “love of life” in a broader, more comprehensive focus with regard to both fields of design as well as the systems of life called into study. Life, after all, is built up of much more than ecology and biology. And the living systems we should consider are not the only naturally-occurring one. The systems we construct are equally if not sometimes more important.

Conventionally, “design” has been viewed as the “production of things” – the creation of everything from clothing to cars to furniture. It has always been rooted foremost in a viewpoint of utility and maybe secondarily of form… but very rarely as a conversation of cultural ecologies, philosophy or anthropology – life overall.

Renato Troncon writes, in his essay on service design and biophilia in This is Service Design Thinking:

“Books and treatises on design – even the most brilliant – often base their discussions on the idea that design means the production of objects… But the same indistinct ‘buzz’ of a thousand and one different objects that design introduces into daily life today requires even the most inattention observer to consider that there are other issues in design beside the ere things in themselves – such a psychologies, the circumstances of life and income, geography, lifestyles, and so on.” 

Troncon argues that design “requires investigation, ’empathizing’… and generally ‘knowing’ the processes in which a certain artifact is to be inserted – and even to know them in their ‘qualities,’ and through qualitative means.”In service design, “the view is not monocular, fixed solely on the object itself, but binocular, seeing the ‘thing’ but also all that this thing ‘provokes’ or ‘claims’ for itself.” (Appropriately, he also published a book titled “Be a Traveler, Not a Tourist!”, because separation from a context is un-compelling in our actions and lifestyles as well.)

In short: we cannot approach design merely as the creation of a thing, but instead as a response rooted in a deep understanding of how that thing fits into the existing context.

“It is crucial not to teach students only how to make gloves without ever telling them to practice by shaking hands with their neighbors, or carelessly removing their gloves with the indolence of a great theatre actress… We often end up asking whether, before designing a certain lamp, it might not have been better to understand what reading means in general, and what it means to read by artificial light in particular. Or if, before building a famous name hotel in a certain place, it would not have been better to have a real idea of the nature of the activity that goes on there.”

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“A certain ‘vital sequence’ exists along the whole chain of an event, and that it cannot be dissociated from the variety of ‘media’ – artifacts or others – on which it hinges. Such activities are not in fact ‘pure anthropology’ of the sort that would exclude the concrete nature of things, or the actions and plans with which they are ‘interlaced.”

Design must be “responsible – that is, responsive.” We should not pursue invention for invention’s sake, “but must rather marry the knowledge of ‘responding’ to what is beautiful and ugly here and in the world.” Because good design is in fact an ‘active philosophy’ dedicated to making space for life.

Because why shouldn’t design be a love for life? And why should not life, in all its incredibly variety, be “the key giving us access to design?”


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Fives reasons to do Lent even if you’re not Catholic

Lent starts today.

I realized this only when I logged on to facebook this morning (guess I’m not giving that up*) and saw a bunch of Lenten articles – like this infographic on fasting, and this one on top ten things Americans give up – and suddenly realized: “oh, yeah. Is that today?” (Cue that mental scramble where you quickly run inventory on what you’ve already done since waking. Guess coffee is out, too*.)

*Not really. You could still give up either facebook or coffee for Lent, even after unknowingly slipping up. It’s not about perfection. It’s about the practice. 

Cue also, however, that desire to talk about Lent at a higher level. I’ve written about Lent a couple of times before. In 2013, “Let’s Do Lent,” And in 2014, “The beauty of Lent and why it works for anyone.” And this year is no different, in sharing the merits:

1. It’s not just about “religion.”

Even religion shouldn’t really be about “religion” for religion’s sake. It’s really about bettering the human spirit, human experience, human condition. It’s about our own and our collective wellbeing.

Lent is traditionally a Catholic holiday, but Christians aren’t the only ones who practice fasting or abstinence. The Buddhists have their own version – Vassa – which runs throughout the rainy season in Thailand, mid July to mid October (yeah, 3 months instead of 40 days.) And same goes for some Jewish practices, including Yom Kippur. As well as Hinduism, Jainism, and Islam.

So even if we aren’t religious, logic might dictate that if all of these different religions practice some form of short-term or seasonal asceticism – abstaining from worldly pleasures – maybe there’s some merit to it.

Nietzsche explored it in his essay “What do ascetic ideals mean?” And Alain de Botton in his “Religion for Atheists” and his TED Talk, “Atheism 2.0,” And the New York Times and Huffington Post have covered similar angles: “a religious ritual attracts even nonbelievers” and “why this atheist is observing Lent,” respectively.

There is merit at the core of religion – intent to give our life meaning, direction and purpose. And even if we shun religion, we can still develop and embrace a moral code. It does not matter what you “call” yourself: if you want to be a better person, live deliberately and with intent.

In short: don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, yo. 

2. It marks a timeframe. 

Much like each New Year marks the opportunity to improve by way of resolutions and we see Jan. 1 as being a day to “restart,” Lent can be a similar secular signifier. Marking these days as starting points takes some of the guesswork out of the “when” of self-growth.

“Lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word Lencten, meaning “spring” – much like German Lenz and Dutch lente. It is derived from the Germanic root for long, as the days (hours of sunlight) lengthen during this time of year.

And with spring comes the opportunity for “spring cleaning” in all parts of our lives. Similarly, Lent offers the opportunity for rejuvenation and regrowth.

3. It inspires an analysis, assessment and improvement of our nitty, gritty everyday.

3a. Reducing (or kicking) negative habits or thoughts frees us, even if only temporarily. 

In order to focus more on one thing, one must also learn to focus less on other things… because our lives are increasingly complex, something has to change in order for us to get out of the continual spin cycle of life… Giving up something that is a regular part of your life… allows you to focus more.” – Todd Peperkorn, Why Lent Should Matter to Everyone.

This is particularly true when it comes to time. (Put simply: if you’re not watching TV or surfing the internet, you have to be doing something else.)

Freeing ourselves from negative activities, habits or thoughts fundamentally creates white space in our days. Limiting vices frees up time and attention for better pursuits…

3b. Building the positive: that now-freed-up time and attention can be diverted to focus on what matters. 

We don’t exist in vacuums.

Don’t simply suppress – we aren’t at our best when stifled and left to stagnate. Instead, that stillness offers the opportunity to redirect our energy to something good.

Once white space is created by the elimination of a thing, we can then fill it with a more desirable action or thought. This is true with time and habits, but it’s perhaps even more true with thoughts: obsessing over not doing a thing is almost as toxic for our mental energy as just doing the thing. That’s not the point. The point is to then feed ourselves with positive things – to replace our thought process with things we want to “obsess over;” to fuel our energies with positive fodder so that we naturally divert away from negative input.

4. It fosters the change by offering the framework to do so.

To live with discipline is to live deliberately. And to live deliberately is to live well. 

Eschewing discipline – direction, deliberateness, intent – is only to cheat ourselves.

“Our inner lives must be lent a structure and our best thoughts reinforced to counter the continuous pull of distraction and disintegration.” ― Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion

Without a degree of discipline or framework – whether prescribed or self-defined – we become anxious and restless; listless and floating.

“Secular life is not, of course, unacquainted with calendars and schedules. We know them well in relation to work, and accept the virtues of reminders of lunch meetings, cash-flow projections and tax deadlines. But it expects that we will spontaneously find our way to the ideas that matter to us and gives us weekends off for consumption and recreation. It privileges discovery, presenting us with an incessant stream of new information – and therefore it prompts us to forget everything.” ― Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion

Lent offers the framework to practice this. All we have to do is opt in. And opting in to the framework does not require subscription to its full context.

5. It not only fosters a better life, but better enjoyment of all life’s little pleasures

This part actually isn’t talked about in asceticism. In fact, one gets the pretty distinct impression that one might instead aspire to forego worldly pleasures and indulgences with the objective of never coming back to them. And in some instances, that may be the case.

In other instances, we always intend to come back. And sometimes, part of this exercise of withholding is a desire to experience it all over again, better, with refreshed senses. Because going without something builds appreciation for it. 

Nothing makes you appreciate life quite like a near-death experience, and nothing makes beer or chocolate taste quite as good as denying yourself the indulgence for a while – say, forty days.

Lent offers the opportunity to get off of the “hedonic treadmill” and dodge “hedonic adaptation” – the phenomenon we all experience when new things – be it vacations, promotions, new cars, etc. – lose their appeal and ability to make us happy over time. (Lottery winners, for example, may experience an initial emotional high, but report about the same level of happiness they previously held after time passed. Similarly, paraplegics reported below average levels of happiness for about two months on average after the accident but eventually returned to the set point they previously held.)

Our common solution to this plateau in happiness is to chase more – another vacation, another promotion, a nicer car – only to have it happen all over again. Hence the treadmill.

The other solution available to us, rather than pursuing happiness by chasing constant novelty and input, is to simply step off the treadmill and deny ourselves the input. To take a break.

Coming back to a worldly pleasure after an “ascetic hiatus” brings the same – or similar – rush of happiness as the first time did (or pursuing the next thing would.) The act of making do without and then coming back to a thing we enjoy, in and of itself, makes us happy.

In short: it’s not just religion. It’s about deliberate intent – in actions, in thought, it life – and using that to create richer meaning and wellbeing for ourselves. 

Not sure what to give up? Well, Buzzfeed’s willing to help you decide.

Cy Twombly, untitled (Roses)

Cy Twombly, untitled (Roses)


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The two ways to see creation: action vs. artifacts

Software development, writing, cooking, business strategy… all of these are fundamentally creative – a process that yields a product. And when it comes to the way we see these sorts of things – the ways we direct our attention and the things on which we focus – we can choose one of two things: a.) the product created, or b.) the process of creating it.

We can see the creative process as a.) a means to an end, or b.) the “end” in and of itself.

The real value is on the act, not the artifact. 

It’s not that I don’t value the artifacts. On the contrary, I absolutely stress the importance of actually delivering – “doing the thing.” We get paid to deliver on our commitments, and I put very high emphasis on doing so on time, under budget, or within any other metrics, as defined.

My argument is against treating that product as the one-and-done holy grail. 

Delivering on a commitment only counts one time. It’s a stepping stone. A moment in time. Achievement is never the end of anything, and shipping a produce once doesn’t mean what you’ve shipped will matter forever.

My argument, in other words, is against treating “the product” as “the finished product.”

A good thing is never really done. It either lives on, evolves, morphs and changes… or it dies.

So once those things – the deliverables – are out there, they aren’t really “finished.” A website, an application, a piece of writing, or a meal is never a stand-alone, static thing meant to exist in perpetuity. On the contrary, deliverables are merely point-in-time, short-term representations of the work done to date. Meant to be evolved against.

So the focus should not be on putting it out there and then ridding ourselves of it, wiping our hands clean of its creation, and moving on as though we have no obligation to its survival. On the contrary, creation should be viewed as an ongoing process – a “doing” rather than a thing getting done.

Creativity is the relationship to an idea or a team or a product, not the means to an ends in producing it.  


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Why I write

Some people, it seems, want to write in order to sit on a pile of writing. They see the act of writing as an almost “necessary evil” – a means to an ends – in order to reach some tangible representation; an end result. “I want to write a novel,” they’ll say, though don’t know what it’s about. Like “I want to run a marathon, so I guess I’d better start running.”

I don’t write like that. Some runners don’t run like that, either. They run purely for the love of running – or, perhaps, to satisfy some other daily need, to de-stress, perhaps.

For me, writing accomplishes two very important things:

First, writing alleviates the burden of carrying the idea around. I write to release the tension of the idea; to rid myself of the mental baggage. Writing, in this sense, is a basic need; a way to free myself for moving forward. If I don’t write, scraps of an idea will cling to areas of my thought process, injecting itself into other tangents, tugging at my attention until I validate it somehow, process it, and set the little creature down. My writing is an act of moving through ideas more quickly, clearing things and making room for others; keeping the mental space a fresh, always-churning palate. Writing is looking at a little beast and saying, “Alright, you. Yes, I acknowledge you. I have given you a name and set you free. Now run along.”

Second, writing helps me develop the idea. As I said, sometimes the idea is just a fragment or a question – something to be pieced together or thought through. So after I first bring the little beast to the forefront of my mind and acknowledge it, I am also turning it over, as though to say: “here, let me have a look at you. Let me see what you are.” I bump it against a working context, built up through this ongoing process, and try to define its edges and see how it fits in.

So, my writing is rarely about the curation (or perfection) of some precious artifact. In fact, quite the contrary: it is not a preoccupation with capturing something, but rather a need to release it; to process it, see it for what it is, and then set it down, lighten the mental load, and allow myself to move on to other things.

In understanding the value behind this “release” and its role in my ability to continue to function and move forward, I might liken it to some sort of machinery. You have to allow the release of what these things give off; you cannot, say, contain or ignore the exhaust of a locomotive. Doing so eventually stifles and kills their entire functionality. You have to allow for this in order to for the engine to go on working.

This shift in perspective was my biggest takeaway from writing one million words in 2013. First: writing like that – in order to hit a word count – didn’t yield pieces that were very worthwhile. Writing to build a stock pile is meaningless. And, as such, I realized that the stockpile is meaningless: that if I lost the entire curation of words – all one million of them – it wouldn’t matter; I still had the gains of the creative process itself. And that’s the point.

Blogger Sarah Kathleen Peck wrote a beautiful piece on this, in which she asks of us: “are you in love with the product? Or the process?”

“Sometimes, as writers or as makers, we become obsessed with the outcome. The work itself as object, as product – not as process.”

To combat this, she urges aspiring writers to focus on the act of writing, not on the aspiration to have something written.

“Instead of creating perfection, we write just to write. Learning to write isn’t about beautiful sentences pouring off your mental fingertips; it’s about creating a habit and a relationship to the process.”

“The act of making is about the act of making, not the outcome.”

Write to move through things. In freeing the ideas, and freeing yourself from them, you create a high churn – a fertile environment for new ones.

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