November 21st, 2022 · 8 comments
Several readers pointed me toward a recent NPR Marketplace segement about a fully-remote tech company called Zapier that tried an interesting experiment last summer: they cancelled all meetings for a week.
“When I heard from leadership that we were going to experiment with a week with no Zoom meetings, all I felt was excited anticipation,” explained Ellie Huizenga, a content strategiest at Zapier.
“Did that mean that you could just go into your Outlook or your Google Calendar or whatever you use and just zap all your meetings?,” asked Kai Ryssdal, the host of Marketplace, with thinly-veiled jealously.
“Kind of, Yeah,” replied Huizenga, before elaborating:
“Our leadership team sent a Slack message giving details about how the week was going to look for the entire company. Once that announcement came from leadership, Caitlin, my manager, reached out and let me know that she was canceling our one-on-one, canceling our team meeting for that week, and then she also encouraged me to look at the other meetings that were on my Google Calendar and confirm if we could do them [asynchronously] instead of on Zoom.”
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November 12th, 2022 · 6 comments
Early in my latest article for The New Yorker I take a closer look at the recent protests waged by Apple employees in response to CEO Tim Cook’s announcement that they had to return to their desks in Cupertino. On the surface, the employees were concerned about losing what they like about remote work. In an open letter addressed to Cook, they cited worries about time lost to commuting as well the difficulty of achieving “deep thought” in a crowded office.
As I write in my article, however, protests of this type might actually be a proxy for a deeper unease:
“Knowledge workers were already exhausted by their jobs before the pandemic arrived: too much e-mail, too many meetings, too much to do—all being relentlessly delivered through ubiquitous glowing screens. We used to believe that these depredations were somehow fundamental to office work in the twenty-first century, but the pandemic called this assumption into question. If an activity as entrenched as coming to an office every day could be overturned essentially overnight, what other aspects of our professional lives could be reimagined?”
If burnt-out employees lose their bid for permanent telecommuting, “the last highly visible, virus-prompted workplace experiment,” the window to push for more serious transformation — the types of changes that can save knowledge work from its current drowning into a sea of distracted busyness — might slam shut.
But as I conclude: “The tragedy of this moment…is how this reform movement lacks good ideas about what else to demand.” We learned through experience that working from home is not enough on its own to cure most of what makes office jobs unnecessarily exhausting, and few believe that four-day work weeks or, dare I say it, quiet quitting are somehow sufficient either. We need bolder notions.
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November 5th, 2022 · 11 comments
In August, a reporter from Rolling Stone sat down to interview the San Francisco-based rapper Larry June before he took the stage at Lollapalooza in Chicago.
June is known for his status as an independent artist. After an early deal with Warner Brothers fizzled, June went on to produce and release almost all of his subsequent work without support from a major label. He’s also known for his productivity. June has released 10 albums since 2018, with his most recent, last summer’s Spaceships on the Blade, reaching number 39 on the Billboard 200. In addition to these projects, June has released 5 collaborative albums, 4 EPs, 5 Mixtapes, and made appearances as a guest artist on singles from artists like Post Malone.
It’s this latter reputation, as an artist who ships original work at a fast pace, that makes what June admitted to the Rolling Stone reporter so surprising:
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October 28th, 2022 · 17 comments
By his last year at Harvard Medical School, Michael Crichton, 26-years old at the time, knew he didn’t want to pursue a medical career, so he went to the dean with a proposition. He planned to write a nonfiction book about patient care, he explained, and wanted to know if he could use his final semester to hang around the hospital gathering research for his project. “Why should I spend the last half of my last year at medical school learning to read electrocardiograms when I never intended to practice?”, Crichton remembers asking.
The dean replied paternalistically with a warning that writing a book might be more difficult than Crichton expected. It was at this point that the young medical student revealed that he had already published four books while at Harvard (under a pen name), and had multiple other writing projects in progress, including his first medical thriller, A Case of Need, that would soon win him an Edgar Award for best mystery novel of the year, and his first fully-developed techno-thriller, The Andromeda Strain, which would become a breakout bestseller.
I came across this story in a New York Times profile of Crichton written in 1970, a year after he finished medical school. What struck me about this profile was less its origin story heroics, and more its revelation of the sheer busyness of Crichton at this early point in his ascent. While nominally still a postdoc at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, when the profile was published, Crichton’s energy was clearly radiating in many different directions. He had just published Five Patients, the non-fiction book he had proposed to his med school dean (who had, as it turned out, ultimately agreed to Crichton’s plan), was about to release an experimental novel about drug dealing that he had co-authored with his brother, and had, since that fateful meeting a year earlier, finished two other pseudonymous potboiler thrillers.
Perhaps most notably, he was also finishing the manuscript for The Terminal Man, his follow-up to The Andromeda Strain. As the Times reports, Crichton had become a “one-man operation” dedicated to this project: in addition to the book, he was simultaneously writing a screenplay adaptation and was determined to direct any resulting movie. To support this latter goal he began spending a couple days every week in Hollywood as part of what he called “a skills-building gambit.” The Times described the 27-year-old’s career as “hyperactive.” This might be an understatement.
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October 21st, 2022 · 12 comments
A reader recently pointed me toward a long and thoughtful reflection on academic life written by Stephen Stearns, the Edward P. Bass Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University. In a section titled “Learning Balance,” he talks about his work habits in the early 1970s, when his first son was born. “I was not around much to help, for during that time I was working seventy to eighty hours per week,” he writes.
This type of absentee fatherhood was common in this era, but fortunately for Stearns and his children, his wife wasn’t having it. As Stearns recalls, she sat him down, and gave him the following ultimatum:
“I want you to promise not to work nights or weekends: you need to be sharing the parenting, and your child needs a father. If you don’t agree, I will divorce you.”
Stearns listened. “For the next twenty years I did not work nights or weekends, and I spent thousands of delightful hours with our sons while they were growing up,” he recalls. “She was very wise, and I am grateful to her.”
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October 13th, 2022 · 10 comments
In my last dispatch, I reported on how the fantasy novelist Brandon Sanderson writes in a “supervillain lair” built twenty feet underground near his otherwise unremarkable home in suburban Utah. According to an article published last weekend in The Guardian, Sanderson is not, as it turns out, the first author to use extreme measures to generate fantastical inspiration.
In 1894, an Irish actor who was struggling to write a novel in his spare time traveled with his wife and young son to the remote Aberdeenshire coast of northeast Scotland. They stayed in The Kilmarnock Arms, an oak-paneled hotel in the center of Port Erroll, a small fishing village located near a desolate sandy beach. Most days, the actor would make the twenty-minute walk to Slains Castle (pictured above), a ruined 16th century fort situated dramatically on a seaside cliff. He was seeking inspiration for a character he was attempting to bring to life in his manuscript—a count who was hiding a horrific secret. The actor’s name was Bram Stoker, and the fictional count, of course, was to be called Dracula.
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October 2nd, 2022 · 31 comments
The pandemic got knowledge worker types suddenly thinking more seriously about their telecommuting setups. Once it became clear that we might be toiling hour after hour, day after day, in our own homes, that Ikea desk in the corner by the washing machine no longer seemed quite so adequate.
I enjoyed, during the early months of this period, sharing here on my newsletter case studies about some of the more unusual or interesting home office setups that my readers sent me. You’d be surprised, for example, by how many people relocated to tents in their backyard. One professional musician went so far as to build a cabin for practicing inside his apartment. I even wrote an article about the topic for The New Yorker.
As I recently discovered, however, the bestselling fantasy novelist Brandon Sanderson put us all to shame. His home office heroics began in 2008, when he and his wife bought a nondescript house in a nondescript Utah suburb. Sanderson noticed the adjacent lot was still undeveloped. As he explained in a recent Reddit comment:
“So I started to plan. And the next year, I bought that lot. When my wife asked what I wanted to do with it, I was quite decisive. I wanted an underground supervillain lair.“
It took Sanderson eleven years of planning, but as revealed in a series of stunning photographs that he shared on his newsletter, he finally built up both the resources and courage to start digging.
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September 20th, 2022 · 11 comments
About halfway through Laura Vanderkam’s sharp new productivity guide, Tranquility by Tuesday, we’re introduced to Elizabeth, an education professor who, worried about her ticking tenure clock, came to Laura for time management advice.
Elizabeth was struggling to find time for her research. Her husband and two children had followed her to northern Long Island to be close to the university were Elizabeth taught. As a result, however, her husband now faced an hour-long commute into the city each day, leaving Elizabeth with the primary responsibility for taking care of the kids before and after school. This created tight constraints on her available work hours, and the time that did remain was all too easily devoured by the demands of the classroom and teaching assistant supervision.
Laura asked Elizabeth to come up with a set of fixed time slots she could dedicate to research, to help ensure progress would be made even during busy weeks (longtime readers might recognize this as a variation of the autopilot schedule strategy). Elizabeth came back with the following options:
- 6:00 – 7:30am on Monday and Fridays, before her husband left for work.
- 5:45 – 6:45pm on Wednesday night, when she had childcare coverage before a night class.
Laura knew these meager options weren’t going to produce a lot of new research. “You don’t need to be a professor to deduce how easily those three small spots could disappear,” she writes. With this reality in mind, Laura pushed Elizabeth to be more aggressive in carving out time for deep work. The result was the following more substantial schedule:
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