It’s hard to believe some days, but yes, you can make it all sink in. Here’s how.
A week ago in London, I sat down with a smart person who builds websites (and a whole lot more) for a living, and attempted to explain a Thing I’m making later this year.
In one sense it went brilliantly.
In another, um, well, not so much.
“So it’s like…no, wait, it’s sort of – you know how – well, this isn’t exactly what I’m wanting to build, but imagine a kind of…bad analogy, let’s try….except with a bit of…no, that’s not quite right, let me explain that better…”
What quickly became clear was that my Thing, in practical terms, was imprecise enough that it was impossible for either of us to know where to start.
My explanation wasn’t Alex-Blumberg-getting-schooled-by-Chris-Sacca levels of rubbishness, but it also wasn’t great.
We talked about what I want to achieve with this Thing, about who it’s for and what it’s for, and what it’s really for – the same way a story always carries a wider message that propels it much further than the narrow limits of the small number of folk who care about you and your work.
I suggested some stuff. She interrogated my reasons for doing it until I realised my approach was not just daft, but pointlessly counterproductive. I outlined in words; she doodled all over them with her decade of web design experience.
Afterwards I sat on the train with an open notebook, gathering my thoughts and steering them in the new direction she’d shown me.
And after about half an hour’s writing, somewhere near Peterborough, I realised I was writing something I’d already thought many, many times already.
Ever had that feeling? Like your thoughts suddenly meeting no resistance, because they’re following an already deeply carved track in your mind, comfortably efficient but disappointing lazy?
I opened up Evernote where I store my archived written notes, searched by topic and…oh god.
What I needed, in great detail, was already there for me. I’d read it, I’d written notes, and I’d forgotten all about them, and they were exactly what I needed right now…
And I wrote them in 2014. Oh lord. I’d completely forgotten.
So, going into a year which will be the busiest of my writing career, I’ve realised a few things. Things that are absolutely critical for me doing my Thing, but also, I reckon, for anyone attempting to carve out any kind of career using this weird, spilling-into-real-life internet malarkey.
You don’t have to sit down with someone cleverer than you to realise them (although that’ll definitely help and I certainly recommend it).
Here they are.
1. For Your Career’s Sake, Write It Down (And Use It)
Every day, you consume around 100,000 words, or 34 Gigabytes of raw information. Most of it is of the recognisably throwaway variety: bad advertising, worthless online clickbait, pointless arguments on social media, anything involving the word “Kardashian”, all that stuff.
Then there are the “haystacks”, as some wag coined them: the piles of mostly-useless info that contain a single needle of wisdom that would be really useful to you (if only you could find it).
Then there’s the stuff that just blows you away, from start to finish, and glows in your memory for years so it’s not hard to recall it. For me, the late AA Gill’s description of London as “the most successful mongrel casserole anywhere”, from this fabulous, cranky essay in the New York Times, is timeless. I will never forget that, and I’m much happier for it.
But even the shiniest wisdom fades with time. And there lies the rub for us information workers of the 21st Century.
If you don’t create your own way of capturing it, it will vanish from your mind – probably before you get to do anything with it.
An uncurated social media feed certainly won’t help, as it drizzles the day’s irrelevancies and red-hot takes past your eyes.
The news doesn’t care who you most care about, just what counts as “newsworthy”, usually recognisable as “horrible things that will make you click”.
Your email is an ephemeral mess, designed not to arrange but to dam the flood of information.
So – what?
If you’re in one place for a while, you can use one of these, pictured above. For anyone born after 1990: it’s what we used before keyboards, and it never runs out of power. (I know, right?)
Travel writers can’t work without taking notes. Science is fundamentally the art of recording things until patterns emerge. Wherever deep thinking is going on, you’ll find reams and reams of notes of some kind (including, as used by my brilliant friend Lola, extra photos you take just to jog your memory later).
Even massively-online famous people use paper notebooks: this bloke has an eight-foot long shelf in his house for his filled notebooks (probably more, since that article’s from 2007) – and he used years of physical and digital notes to compile this bestseller.
If you’re not in one place – say, random example, you sold a house last summer and you’re wandering around the UK and Europe with everything you can squeeze into a rucksack, while the rest of your possessions are jammed into a 1-metre-cubed locker in York, and some days you really miss having a bookshelf but there you go, life…
Well, you have to take a different approach.
Mine is to carry a couple of notebooks, and when I’ve filled them, I photograph all the pages and store them in the Cloud, aka. Evernote and elsewhere, indexed according to topic for reference any time I need. (There are fancier ways of doing this. This is the low-tech approach.)
And since afterwards I no longer need to carry that notebook, I throw it away.*
But however you do it, my advice is to stop trusting your memory to remember the important stuff.
Your memory is under siege, ever single day, and when it gets so distracted by a single clip of aircraft trying to land during Storm Ciara that you’ve forgotten why you came to YouTube in the first place – even though that was less than sixty seconds ago – you haven’t a hope of retaining anything more meaningful in the long run. Snowball in hell, mate.
No. Our memories are super-fragile. We shouldn’t be putting any extra weight on them.
On top of capturing things better, I reckon it’s good to get into a habit of rereading important things.
“Sharpening the saw”, some self-help folk call it. Keep coming back to that excellent advice again and again, until you’re ready to do something with it – the same way nobody really trusts anyone online until they’ve heard them up to a dozen times.
Retain properly. Reread regularly. Rinse. Repeat.
Nothing else works in the long run.
*This notebook-discarding is temporary. I’m not that much into digital. I aspire to having a Ferriss-like shelf of full notebooks one day, same way I want paper books on other shelves. But until then, this is what’s practical for me.
2. For Your Sanity’s Sake, Think A Little (Or A Lot)
Here in the cottage I’m renting in western Scotland for a month, there’s a book by Edward De Bono that promises it can give me a beautiful mind.
Edward De Bono has made a successful career writing about thinking. I first encountered his stuff with “I Am Right You Are Wrong“, a guide to talking to people about things you both care about without arguing your way into opposite corners and digging your heels in. It’s a good read. Has a lot that’ll make you think.
Maybe you’ll notice I’m not linking to it. That’s because De Bono has a well-documented history of failing to reference other people’s ideas when he uses them (or “stealing ideas”, as I like to think of it).
None of his 57 (!) books have bibliographies, giving the illusion that all the ideas within are his own – which they frequently aren’t.
If I’d tried pulling this during my degree at University, I’d have been kicked out in my first term.
So, that’s a hard nope on the recommending front, and a pass on that beautiful-minding book of his. (I’d rather have an ugly but ethically credible mind, sir.)
Instead, I suggest you listen to this episode of the “Living Adventurously” podcast by Al Humphreys, in which he talks to Sophie Stephenson about the importance of finding time to think.
Sophie runs The Thinking Project, based on the work of Nancy Kline (I just grabbed Kline’s flagship book here). In the interview, Sophie says this:
“The fact we have to reclaim time to think is so telling! But we do, I think, if we want to get good-quality outcomes – if we want to make sure we’re doing the right thing, enjoying our life, having really good experiences and doing stuff that’s meaningful to us.”
Here’s a modern deep-thinker I very much admire:
This is astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) in Ridley Scott’s The Martian – which started as a book by Andy Weir that was originally blogged for free.
In this picture, it may look like Watney is enjoying the scenery, having a moment of quiet meditative bliss, or exploring the full range of the catheter in his suit.
In fact, he’s fighting for his life. The habitat just blew up, all his food is destroyed, and he has no way of surviving until a rescue team gets there. No way at all. It seems like certain death.
So what Watney is doing is what Watney does best: he’s sitting down and “thinking the shit out of it”.
This happens a few times in the movie, and many more times in the book – and (spoilers) it’s how he stays alive. He thinks so deeply and so creatively into the problems facing him that he eventually finds a crazy plan that might. just. work. And then he tries it – and it does.
When I grow up, I want to be Mark Watney. (Except maybe without the regularly-facing-certain-death thing.)
But for now, I can certainly put more time aside to think.
Going for a walk is good: the blood races around and your mind works quicker, and if you keep your headphones away from your ears, your racing brain hunts for something to do – and goes into Watney-mode on whatever your biggest problem is right now.
Sitting on a train is good too. That works. Especially if someone’s just poked holes in your half-assed website-building plans, and they all need filling in properly.
But however you do it, it’s worth finding that time and using it well.
Don’t you think?
3. For Your Heart’s Sake, Choose Enthusiasm
The world is cynical and hopeless, and everyone wants to tear everyone else to shreds (in a cool and hilarious way that will get loads of retweets).
Not really – but it can certainly feel like it, especially if you take a big uncritical gulp of social media. And when you see all those cool, hilarious takedowns getting so much attention, that can make you feel ashamed about being such a painfully earnest nerd about That Thing You Love Doing So Much.
Here’s the antidote, courtesy of writer Brendan Leonard:
Make 2020 the year of maximum enthusiasm.
Nerd out, friends. It’s what we’re really here for.
So what will you be thinking, notemaking and nerding your heart out about this year? Tell me your story in a comment below.
Images: Ali Yahya; Avery Evans; Matt Cannon; Evan Dennis; Valentin Salja; Mike Sowden.