They talk about a lot more (including an Air Alert shout out!). Here are some links to the full episode:
I’m writing this in the WordPress editor.
But this time around it’s because of something I read this morning in Jon Acuff’s Finish.
If you ever have to do a complicated, multistep explanation to say why what you’re doing is valuable, it probably isn’t. You’re probably actually camping out in the kind of hiding place that masquerades as productivity.
Having your high-level Why figured out will help you identify the most important what-can-I-do-now activities.
On the other hand, you might find yourself taking some activity and making up a complicated, multistep explanation to align it to your Why. If it’s to grit through something important, great. If it’s actually not valuable at all, it might be what Acuff calls a hiding place.
Some hiding places are easily spotted as the unproductive traps they are. If you’re watching Netflix every time it’s time for you to do X, that’s a hiding place. You’re afraid to face the fear of imperfection that comes along with every endeavor, so you’re hiding from it by doing something that requires no skill.
I’ve told myself that watching Netflix is letting me learn more about storytelling. Actually I think that’s a fine argument unwinding at night with an episode of a show. But it’s not so useful if it’s the 5th episode of a show during a binge that began first thing in the morning.
Balancing leisure with your work is one thing. If you get that right, great. If it’s not balanced, then you know that you can stop hiding in leisure.
Acuff brings up the more difficult to spot hiding places and compares them to quicksand.
Looks like a beach, murders you.
Ever decided that today was the day that you’d get to inbox zero? Or on a whim that it was time to do a mind dump for GTD? Started cleaning your apartment when you should be studying for a final? (But less clutter will help me focus…)
You might have found your hiding place.
Which reminds me of something from Tim Grahl’s Running Down a Dream:
Always find the direct route. Look for the shortest path between A—where you are—and B—where you want to be. I tend to fill my problems with unneeded complexity and junk that just takes up space. Most problems don’t need an elaborate solution. Most problems are simple.
Here’s a current problem I have: I read and write every day but a lot of that doesn’t go toward posts or videos.
Which is okay. It’s of valuable to journal and read privately. Except that I justify all that time (and it does add up) by telling myself that all of that time will somehow lead to posts or videos.
I’m going to remind myself to write in the WordPress and make slides in Keynote.
Otherwise I’m probably in a hiding place.
Steve aspired to create utilitarian things that also brought joy; it was his way of making the world a better place. That was part of why Pixar made him so proud—because he felt the world was better for the films we made. He used to say regularly that as brilliant as Apple products were, eventually they all ended up in landfills. Pixar movies, on the other hand, would live forever.
This is one of my all time favorite things to bring up starting with, “Oh have you ever heard what Steve Jobs said about iPhones and like Toy Story…?” Then I proceed to further botch the story.
Anyway, lately I’ve been entering another “I’m going to try reading more fiction” phase. Or I guess not just reading, but also getting a little bit back into TV (catching up on Black Mirror) and watching a movie here and there. I’ve even been playing the Switch more frequently. (Overcooked with my girlfriend, Hollow Knight alone.)
Sometimes I’ll double up with Hollow Knight (on mute) and an audiobook or podcast. Which is something I used to do earlier this year when I was grinding through Dark Souls III. And I really mean the grinding-through parts. I didn’t want to miss the ambience and all that when the game is progressing. But when I was just set on fighting the same Lothric Knights over and over for a couple hours, it was time to throw an audiobook on.
Oh yeah, the point of this is that fiction is good for you. Stories are a big part of being human and all that.
I get wary of how often I see advice along the lines of “stop watching TV”, “stop playing video games”, “stop reading fiction”. Wary that (1) it’s becoming more and more common but really that kind of sentiment has always been around so it’s really that I’m wary that (2) I’m reading too much of the same kinds of non-fiction.
My plan to get out of this echo chamber is to get absorbed into other stories. I think it’s working. Don’t skip out on experiencing some of the best storytelling going on today so that you can write your 5th blog post this week. Keep it at 4 posts. Close the laptop and get lost in a story.
Here’s a summary of the exercise.
- In this case, I fumbled around a bit initially to figure out how the grid on the left might work. I’ll it a few times this way to see if there are any other tweaks that will help, then I’ll try to make a custom sheet.
- Write sources down in the bottom for reference. Continue writing them down throughout if more come to mind during the exercise.
- If there’s a book I know I’ll have multiple points on, I’ll write it as its own line. (In this case. “Return of the King” and “My Morning Routine” got their own lines.)
- Write a one-line description of a point that comes to mind (And note the source in text). Then mark the type of point it gets: story bank, toolbox, personal story, or connection.
The four things in the grid:
- The story bank: I’ve thrown excerpts into Evernote and used other apps and systems in the past. The particular name “story bank” comes from Ramit Sethi. I like that phrase to think of making deposits into it. Anyway, these are just quick summaries from some piece of content. Sometimes a book will use a story (Bannister’s 4-minute mile) to stress a point. The 4-minute mile goes into the story bank. Sometimes a book author will tell a personal story about themselves, so that will go into the story bank. These are helpful for when I’m copying excerpts to notecards. (I have a tag called “Excerpt hunting” in Evernote which I was pleased by but then forgot to ever use. I’ll probably change it to “Story bank” soon.)
- Toolbox: Heavily inspired by Tim Grahl’s “Running Down a Dream”. I’ve seen similar things like Derek Sivers’s directives or in “18 Seconds” where there’s quick actions at the end (and basically any book that has a chapter summary at the end). But Tim just straight up labels it “Tool:” and writes it out directly when a chapter explains a useful tool. (Examples: “Get a therapist”, “Build a board of directors”) It’s a good way to sum up something I’ve consumed (in particular: non-fiction books).
- Personal story: If one of the sources reminded me of a personal story, I’ll write it down here. I don’t have an example here, but in the future I think it’ll be worth just writing down anything that happened or conversations that I had. There might be a tool in it. In any case, maybe someone out there actually cares that I’m writing this in Whole Foods.
- Connection: My routine used to be (1) wake up, (2) press a button in my phone to start a workflow to write 3 sources and 3 connections each. If one source reminds me of something from another source, that’s a connection. In the future I can go down the rabbit hole of finding or transcribing actual excerpts that connect. In the meantime, I’ll be satisfied having written down a book title and a “hey this reminded me of that one podcast where…”
I consume a decent amount of content and it creates a few problems (at least in my head, but that’s not the best place to have them):
- I worry I’m not applying any of it: Tracking things this way means I’m at the very least reviewing the things I’m reading. That’s one step closer to actually using things I learn or literally using stories I come across in writing. Going too far in the direction of thinking I need to apply everything I read to make it worth reading in the first place isn’t good either. (I wrote a post about the utility of fiction—in hindsight the title makes my eyes roll so I’m worried they’ll just keep rolling if I open it up and read it.)
- I worry it’s just going in and everything else spills out: I’ve been doing a shorter form of this over the past year. I’d write three sources (books/posts/podcasts/videos) and then think of three connections for each. Writing sources down was supposed to be the easy part but sometimes I’d struggle thinking of what I even came across the day before. If I couldn’t remember that, then I probably wasn’t remembering any of the content.
Okay, so I’m trying to make this a daily or at least most-days routine to fill out. Here’s how I think it’ll help:
- I’ll track the content I’m consuming: Just doing that is good to get a higher level view of what I’m taking in. I think I stepped out of the startup/tech echo chamber and walked into a marketing/copywriting one. There are great things to learn from very smart people. (Here comes the…) But both of them make it really easy to compare yourself to the entire rest of the world. I’ve begun trying to shift things. If the answer is “Yes” to the question, “Does this pretty much boil down to how to make money?” I’ll stop. Hopefully doing this page each day regularly will give me something I can glance at to see that I should read more fiction or more about some other genre.
- I’ll give my creative muscle some reps: To keep your body moving, keep your body moving1. The same goes for creativity. I won’t get into the neuroscience behind it, because I don’t know it. Anyway, this exercise makes me stretch a little by remembering the things I’ve consumed lately. Then I stretch a little more trying to sum some of it up.
- It gives me something visual to share: I don’t know if I’ll time-lapse it every time. But it does give me something I can share on other platforms.
I’ll try to do five of these and will see how it goes. The idea was that I’d then be able to take some of these points and expand on them. Today, writing about the system itself took up that time. But I’ll write three example expansions here.
(Look, I was going to not use emoji and then started looking into custom CSS for different bullet point icons and blah blah blah and anyway I’m just going to use an emoji in this post.)
???? Fit in or fit out
“Return of the King” is about the season where LeBron returned to the Cavs and the following season where they won a championship. This was a reminder of just how much everything was under a microscope that first year back. Any interaction or non-interaction was analyzed and discussed and frame-by-framed by the media.
???? Use tools
Again, this is from “Running Down a Dream”. I really like the idea of summarizing things as tools. So much that I tried to create this sheet as a tool for summarizing things that I’m reading.
???? Too many books
I buy too many books. So much that I tried to create this sheet as a tool for seeing just how many books I’m trying to read at once. I’m past the point where it’s a good thing to where I’m just bouncing from one book to another and always thinking that there might be something better to read.
Until next time!
Tool: Prioritization questions
You’re looking at a murder scene. What do you focus on?
Okay it’s a still image from a murder scene in a movie you’re watching for your intro cinematography class. Now what do you focus on?
Okay you’re actually in the room of a murder scene. Except it’s an escape room. Now you’re trying to find some wacky puzzle elements.
In “Visual Intelligence”, Amy E. Herman writes about a three-question prioritization system:
Different prioritization systems will work better for different people. The one I’ve found to be the most helpful to the widest range of people I teach is the three-prong approach outlined in the CIA training manual The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis by Richard J. Heuer. To help organize data and find the most important elements of any situation, you ask three questions: What do I know? What don’t I know? If I could get more information, what do I need to know?
Let’s run those scenarios through these questions.
An actual murder scene
- What do I know? There’s blood splatter. There’s a chalk outline. We know the person died from, I don’t know, a gunshot. Since I’m not actually an investigator, there’s every other generic thing I can think of from TV and movies.
- What don’t I know? I don’t know who shot the gun. I can see bullet holes. I don’t know what kind of gun it was. I don’t know how many people were involved.
- What do I need to know? I need to know who did it. I can ask some ballistic experts, the blood splatter expert, the friends and family, and a few suspects some questions.
A murder scene in a movie
- What do I know? In Visual Intelligence, Amy E. Herman stresses the importance of separating subjective and objective observations. If you’re looking at a movie still, you can describe the colors. You can describe the composition of that frame. You can describe different objects in the scene and what they might represent.
- What don’t I know? On my own, I don’t know exactly what the director and cinematographer’s intent actually was. I enjoy 3D artist Beeple’s daily 3D creations and have listened to a few interviews with him. He’s talked about how people often ask him if there’s deeper meaning to different pieces but there rarely is. Sometimes the picture is the picture.
- What do I need to know? If you could speak directly to the people involved in making the movie, then you could verify if your reasoning behind different decisions make sense. Was the way the blood was splattered supposed to represent some underlying theme in the movie? Or was it just random. Can you read this three page theory I posted on Reddit?
A murder scene in an escape room
- What do I know? You know there’s a puzzle hiding here somewhere. You’ve done a few of these so you know that they’re usually hidden in words or numbers that look like they’re just a normal part of the scene. Hey what’s this, this jacket has a receipt in it…
- What don’t I know? You don’t know exactly where the clue is. You don’t know why someone would leave this point and shoot camera in this clear plastic padlocked box, but you’re willing to find out.
- What do I need to know? You need to know what the padlock’s code is. You need to know what the next clue is. You’ve believed it all your life but now you need to know that you’re the best clue finder in your group of friends.
I’ll try using these questions to improve in prioritization and decision making. If you like those “spot the difference” puzzles in magazines and you also like preventing international tragedies (or just want to come up with better ideas at work), you’ll love “Visual Intelligence”.