July 21st, 2021 · 21 comments
One of the books I’m reading on vacation at the moment is John Gribbin’s magisterial tome, The Scientists. I’m only up to page 190 (which is to say, only up to Isaac Newton), but even early on I’ve become intrigued by a repeated observation: though the scientists profiled in Gribbin’s book are highly “productive” by any intuitive definition of this term, the daily pace of their work was incredibly slow by any modern standards of professional effectiveness.
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July 16th, 2021 · 6 comments
I recently came across an article in the New Yorker archives that I greatly enjoyed. It was written by a Dartmouth mathematics professor named Dan Rockmore, and is titled: “The Myth and Magic of Generating New Ideas.” The essay tackles a topic that’s both central to my professional academic life, and wildly misunderstood: what it takes to solve a proof.
To capture the reality of this act, Rockmore tells a story from when he was a young professor. He was working with his colleagues to try to find a more efficient method for solving a large class of wave equations. “We spent every day drawing on blackboards and chasing one wrong idea after another,” he writes. Frustrated, he left the session to go for a run on a tree-lined path. Then it happened.
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July 6th, 2021 · 33 comments
Earlier this week, Caitlin Flanagan published a provocative essay in the Atlantic titled: “You Really Need to Quit Twitter.” In this instance, the label of “provocative” seems obligatory, even though an objective read of the piece reveals mainly common sense. Which serves to underline the whole point Flanagan is attempting to make.
The article reports on the author’s 28-day break from Twitter after her relationship with the service had become increasingly fraught.
“My family’s attitude toward my habit has been…concerned, grossed out, or disappointed,” Flanagan writes. “My employer had given up and adopted a sort of ‘It’s your funeral’ approach.” She could no longer escape what had become obvious:
“I know I’m an addict because Twitter hacked itself so deep into my circuitry that it interrupted the very formation of my thoughts.”
So Flanagan asked her son to change her password. She signed a contract saying no matter how much she begged, he shouldn’t let her back into her account before the month had passed. She called it “Twitter rehab.”
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June 30th, 2021 · 22 comments
About an hour into his recent interview on Joe Rogan’s podcast, Quentin Tarantino was asked about his writing habits.
“It all changed,” he revealed, “more or less around the writing of Inglorious Basterds.” Before starting work on the 2009 film, Tarantino described himself as “an amateur, mad little writer” who would work late at night, or by going to a restaurant, where he would “order some shit, and drink a lot of coffee, and be there for 4 hours with all my shit laid out.”
He decided he wanted a more “professional” routine. Here’s how he described it:
“I started writing during the day time. I get up, so you know, it’s 10:30, or 11:00 o’clock, or 11:30, and I sit down to write…Like a normal workday, I would sit down and I would write until 4, 5, 6, or 7. Somewhere around there, I would stop. And then, I have a pool, and I keep it heated, so it’s nice, so I go into it…and just kind of float around in the warm water and think about everything I’ve just written, how I can make it better, and what else can happen before the scene is over, and then a lot of shit would come to me, literally a lot of, a lot of things would come to me. Then I’d get out and make little notes on that, but not do it, and that would be my work for tomorrow.”
Here are three things that caught my attention about Tarantino’s routine…
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June 22nd, 2021 · 10 comments
In an article about remote work that I wrote for the New Yorker last year, I pointed to an underground classic research paper titled “The Dynamo and the Computer: An Historical Perspective on the Modern Productivity Paradox.” It was written by a Stanford economist named Paul David, and published in the American Economic Review in 1989.
In the article, David performs a close study of the adoption of electric dynamos in factories at the turn of the twentieth century. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s obvious that the right way to leverage electric power in factories is to put a small individual motor on each piece of equipment. As David points out, however, it took decades after the introduction of practical electrical generation before this obvious shift finally occurred.
As I summarized:
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June 16th, 2021 · 15 comments
I recently returned to Haruki Murakami’s 2007 pseudo-memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I first encountered this book back in 2009. It inspired me at the time to write an essay titled “On the Value of Hard Focus,” which laid the foundation on which I went on to build my theory of deep work. Which is all to say, Murakami’s short meditation on running and art holds a special place in my personal literary canon.
On my re-read, my attention was snagged by the following passage:
“Gradually, though, I found myself wanting to write a more substantial kind of novel. With the first two, Hear the Wind and Pinball, 1973, I basically enjoyed the process of writing, but there were parts I wasn’t too pleased with. With these first two novels I was only able to write in spurts, snatching bits of time here and there — a half hour here, an hour there — and because I was always tired and felt like I was competing against the clocks as I wrote, I was never able to concentrate. With this scattered approach I was able to write some interesting, fresh things, but the result was far from a complex or profound novel.”
Murakami wrote his first two novels late at night after closing down the bar he owned and ran near the Tokyo city center. These works were well-received: his first won a prize for new writers from a literary magazine, and his second also attracted positive reviews. But the effort both exhausted and frustrated him.
Murakami realized he was coasting on bursts of latent talent. He had caught the attention of the literary establishment because of inventive stretches in his prose, but he worried that if he kept producing these “instinctual novels,” he’d reach a dead end.
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June 4th, 2021 · 6 comments
In 1991, Sebastian Junger suddenly found himself with time to think. He had wounded himself with a chainsaw at his day job as a climber for a tree pruning company in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and was laid up recovering.
Morbidly inspired by the experience, Junger became interested in the idea of writing a book about dangerous jobs. In a tragic sense, his timing was good. That same year, a commercial fishing boat out of Gloucester named the Andrea Gail sunk off the coast of Nova Scotia in a historic storm. All six of her crew were lost.
Junger wrote a sample chapter about the Andrea Gail to include in a proposal for his dangerous jobs idea. It soon became clear, however, that the story of the lost fishing boat was rich enough to support an entire book on its own. The result was The Perfect Storm, which became an international bestseller after its release in 1997, and was subsequently adapted into a blockbuster movie staring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg. Junger was credited with reviving the adventure non-fiction genre. Some even called him a new Hemingway.
The twist of this story that perhaps interests me most, however, is what Junger did next: he bought a dilapidated house in the woods. To be more specific, in 2000, Junger purchased a rundown residence, built in the early 1800s, and hidden at the end of a winding, unpaved lane in Truro, a small town in upper Cape Cod known as a refuge for writers and artists.
As Junger explains in a 2019 interview with CapeCod.com, he spends as much time there throughout the year as possible: “It’s a very good place to to work. It’s old and removed from humanity.”
As he elaborates:
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May 24th, 2021 · 18 comments
Peter Benchley wrote Jaws in the backroom of the Pennington Furnace Supply, a short walk from his home in Pennington, New Jersey. Though he lived in a bucolic converted carriage house situated on nearly an acre of land, he preferred writing amidst the clamor of this industrial hideaway .
He’s not alone among authors in this retreat to an eccentric workspace near his home: Maya Angelou wrote in hotel rooms with all pictures removed from the walls; David McCullough toiled in a garden shed; John Steinbeck would bring a notebook and portable desk out on his fishing boat.
As I argue in my most recent essay for the New Yorker, published last week, these case studies are important to our current moment because, in some sense, writers are the original work-from-home knowledge workers. The fact, therefore, that they often go through so much trouble to avoid working in their actual homes might teach us something important about how to succeed with our post-pandemic shift toward permanently increased telecommuting. (Hint: perhaps subsidized work from near home needs to become a thing.)
I encourage you to read the full article to find out more about the lessons learned from these case studies (or, at the very least, to enjoy some gratuitous stories of the aspirational lives of famous authors).