No idea? Unimportant idea? Obvious idea? Write anyway

Tim Ferriss says one of the best things about building his podcasting platform is that it allows him to meet and talk interesting people. (Joe Rogan says the same.) They’re top performers in their respective fields, but many guests write in some form. Ferriss often digs into their approaches to writing. Here’s some advice in Kevin Kelly’s chapter:

Write to Get Ideas, Not to Express Them “What I discovered, which is what many writers discover, is that I write in order to think. I’d say, ‘I think I have an idea,’ but when I begin to write it, I realize, ‘I have no idea,’ and I don’t actually know what I think until I try and write it. . . . That was the revelation.”

(Check out Kelly’s 1000 True Fans.)

I’ve seen this principle in other fields—in design you sketch to generate ideas. Design sprints have activities like crazy 8s1. There are always people who think they’ll have nothing to draw. No way they’ll have 8 things. Sure enough, the timer starts and ideas come out.

Sometimes it doesn’t seem as clear that writing anything is one of the best ways to generate ideas for writing.

Write even if you have something unimportant to say. On 10 Minute Writer’s Workshop, Tom Gauld is asked “What’s the worst advice?” He was quick to answer:

“There was a British playwright who said ‘Never write unless you have something important to say.’ Which I just thought maybe if you’re really a confident person full of opinions that’s a great piece of advice. But I think most writers are constantly worried that what they have to say isn’t worthwhile. And I think you just have to try saying it and hopefully something will come together.”

Sometimes you’ll find something important to say after writing a couple pages of unimportant things. Other times something unimportant to you is really important to other people. Derek Sivers wrote about this in Obvious to You, Amazing to Others:

But I continue to do my work. I tell my little tales. I share my point of view. Nothing spectacular. Just my ordinary thoughts.

One day someone emailed me and said, “I never would have thought of that. How did you even come up with that? It’s genius!”

(Check out my other post about that Sivers link.)

This blog wouldn’t exist2 if I only wrote when I have something important to say. One day I hope people find something amazing in it.

  1. Fold a piece of paper a couple times and then once the other way and you’ll have eight boxes. Set an interval timer for one minute and draw a different idea in each box. ↩︎
  2. Bringing up the eternal question: does this blog exist if it has no readers? ↩︎

Tools I’m using

Note: I’m writing a few posts about Tools of Titans. Check out the rest.

I finally finished Tools of Titans after a couple weeks. It’s a quick 700 pages if there ever was such a thing. If you like Tim Ferriss’s podcast you’ll like the book. Each chapter is a summary of wisdom from his podcast guests. Ferriss took about an hour of content from each guest and distilled the conversation into 2-4 pages of actionable material.

A complaint I see often about nonfiction books—specifically business or self-development—is that they take 20 pages of actionable here’s-what-you-do content and then stretch it out with 180 pages of anecdotes1. Tools of Titans is the opposite. It’s packed with here’s-what-you-do and has some shorter anecdotes. Longer stories remain in the hundreds of hours of podcasts.

By the end of it, I had over 200 highlights. I reviewed my highlights2 and starred my favorites and got it down to 23 highlights.

For older book notes post, I used to pick five highlights and write a blurb about each. I was always worried about over-excerpting. And 23 would be way too many excerpts for a single post.

More recently I’ve picked three highlights and written separate posts for each. I can go a little deeper on individual ideas.

Tools of Titans has so much I want to share. I’ll try both approaches. I’m working on 3 individual posts around single quotes. This post will be the collection of shorter blurbs. Here are a few ideas from the book that I’ve started using in the past couple weeks.

If you’re replaying some bullshit in your head and notice it, just say, “Thinking, thinking” to yourself and return to your focus.

Done consistently, my reward for meditating is getting 30% to 50% more done in a day with 50% less stress. Why? Because I have already done a warmup in recovering from distraction: my morning sit.

Picking meditation back up: Adding some more percentages, the first time I practiced meditation with any ounce of seriousness was after listening to 10% Happier by Dan Harris.

Eventually I got a headspace account and got a decent streak going. But one skipped day here and there turned to three skipped days.

Tools of Titans has recommendations of all kinds. Enough people in the book meditate (78 results in the book for ‘meditation’) that it’s lifted into power tool status among the rest of the toolbox.

I’ve begun meditating daily again. This time I’ll have a few more tips that I can put in place to help it stick.

Kelly elaborates on the rationale of zero drop: “Don’t systematically shorten your kids’ heel cords (Achilles) with bad shoes. It results in crappy ankle range of motion in the future. Get your kids Vans, Chuck Taylors, or similar shoes. Have them in flat shoes or barefoot as much as possible.”

Wearing my Vans again: While meditation is like a forklift in being a power tool, some recommendations are more like Command hooks. Advice as simple as “wear these”.

The forklift takes practice, but I can grab the Vans from my closet and put them on today. You’ll likely find a lot of small things from the book that you can apply immediately.

Wim takes cold to terrifying extremes (his retinas froze once while swimming in a lake under sheets of ice), but you can start with a cold water “finish” to showers. Simply make the last 30 to 60 seconds of your shower pure cold. Among others in this book, Naval Ravikant ( page 546 ), Joshua Waitzkin ( page 577 ), and I now do this.

Finishing showers cold: At the end of showers I’ve started finishing with cold water for about a minute. I’ve started looking forward to it. In the morning, it wakes me up. At night, it signals that it’s time to wind down. If anything, it makes the minutes getting dressed afterward pleasant because everything feels so freaking warm in comparison.

One frequent pattern is listening to a single track or album on repeat, which can act as an external mantra for aiding focus and present-state awareness.

Tools of Titans has a lot of internal links. It’s easy to jump back and forth in the Kindle version. If someone else does something similar, there’s a link to that other person’s chapter. If the pattern is prevalent enough—like meditation—it gets its own standalone chapter. These chapters were among my favorite.

I’ve listened to a single track on repeat while working in the past. So I started doing it again lately and went back to the same song I used to use: Weezer’s “Only in Dreams”. Which apparently is one the band’s most hated songs.

The A.V. Club’s Kevin McFarland wrote about this along with an excellent description of the song itself:

Restarting from the initial crawling pace at the song’s beginning, the sound builds, and relentlessly keeps building—the band slowly but surely moving up a mountain toward the summit. First the guitar strumming picks up, then Sharp’s bass shifts into double-time, and then Wilson’s ride strikes on every beat. Two guitar lines emerge, pushing and pulling off each other, both awash in distortion, rising louder, the tension drawing out seemingly forever, until finally Wilson slams his loudest five snare hits, and the greatest Weezer guitar solo emerges, an avalanche anchored by the ever-present bass line

It’s perfect for working to.

Even if you consider yourself a terrible writer, writing can be viewed as a tool . There are huge benefits to writing, even if no one—yourself included—ever reads what you write. In other words, the process matters more than the product.

Continuing with morning pages: I actually started again after reading How to Write Funny a few weeks ago. Tools of Titans mentions morning pages a few times. Morning pages have helped me get there.

My current ideal solo morning is a workout followed by morning pages. Something from The Miracle of Morning Pages (my notes) is the importance of stopping after filling three pages. Anything over is indulging.

The key is being disciplined in that hard stop. It means it’s time to get more focused. My hard stop is 25 minutes. I start a text file on Monday each week and write in it freely.

I review the pages for ideas to write about. This goes against the original Morning Pages guidelines—best that they’re not read by anyone, including yourself. However, it’s been working well for me in trying to write 2-3 posts each week.

If I sleep poorly and have an early morning meeting, I’ll cancel the meeting last-minute if needed and catch up on sleep. If I’ve missed a workout and have a conference call coming up in 30 minutes? Same. Late-night birthday party with a close friend? Not unless I can sleep in the next morning.

Working toward prioritizing health: Ferriss really captured what it means to prioritize something. Health in my head has been a top priority but my actions haven’t reflected that. Instead of exercising, I was more likely to write, read, or stay in bed.

Since started this book, I’ve been more consistent with morning workouts. In the next year I’ll remind myself to take a look and see if my actions are reflecting the priorities I set in my head. Health will be near the top.

Tools of Titans is a perfect book to end the year with. in preparing and planning out next year.

I think 2017 will be amazing. 2017 will be amazing.

2017 will be amazing. 2017 will be amazing. 2017 will be amazing. 2017 will be amazing. 2017 will be amazing. 2017 will be amazing. 2017 will be amazing. 2017 will be amazing. 2017 will be amazing. 2017 will be amazing.

(Another tool in the book: affirmations, baby! Though the titans would probably advise that I be a bit more specific.)

  1. I don’t share this complaint mostly because stories provide so much value. They’re entertaining and are really what make lessons stick. This is why you need to learn things firsthand sometimes. You don’t think that problem you had hasn’t been written about? Of course it has, and there’s probably good information for preventing it in the first place. But you wouldn’t have paid attention anyway because you needed a more powerful story, your own failure, to align it to. I just watched Arrival and there’s a part where she’s trying to explain her point and then just ends up telling a proverb and the military guy is like “ohhhhhh”. ↩︎
  2. I highlight pretty liberally. This is a rare time that I went back through all my highlights from a single book and reviewed them. I really need to do it more often to digest things. I did it during one session on a stationary bike. Now that’s… a valuable exercise! ↩︎

Star gazing

In Tools of Titans, a couple of Tim Ferriss’s guests mention the benefits of looking at the sky once in a while. I liked BJ Miller’s description:

“Then you start looking at the stars, and you realize that the light hitting your eye is ancient, [some of the] stars that you’re seeing, they no longer exist by the time that the light gets to you. Just mulling the bare-naked facts of the cosmos is enough to  thrill me, awe me, freak me out, and kind of put all my neurotic anxieties in their proper place.

Ferriss himself says “star therapy” is part of his nightly routine.

In Sick in the Head, Judd Apatow has his collection of interviews with comedians—titans in their own right. Apatow talks to Seinfeld about feeling irrelevant compared to everything else going on in the world. Apatow asks how he gets over feeling like a drop in the ocean. Seinfeld embraces it:

You look at some pictures from the Hubble Telescope and you snap out of it. I used to keep pictures of the Hubble on the wall of the writing room at Seinfeld. It would calm me when I would start to think that what I was doing was important.

What situations and decisions seemed very serious in the past ten years? A lot. College finals seem magnitudes more important than they actually ended up being.

Years later, how many of these situations had repercussions matching the perceived weight at the time? A few. A few end up laughable in hindsight. There’s value in striving for excellence daily, but not to the point of anxiety.

Too many moments in too many days seem overwhelming. They’ll be forgotten in a few weeks, not to mention months or years. Just completely forgotten. You can’t get upended by everything. There’s value in recognizing a thought and letting go if worrying won’t help—in most cases it won’t. You can practice that.

That practice can start by looking at the stars.


My favorite Tim Ferriss Show episodes

I’m excited for Tools of Titans, Tim Ferriss’s 4th book, coming out in December. I want to set some time aside to devour it, then write and draw a book notes post.

His first three books are all related in that they’re not quite what their titles suggest. The 4-Hour Chef isn’t really about cooking, it’s about meta learning. The 4-Hour Body is really about trying things yourself and seeing the results. The 4-Hour Work Week is really about systems.

Ferriss published the audiobook version of Daily Rituals. He loves getting into the actionable aspects of other people’s day to day. From things he’s said leading up to its release, it seems like he’ll be making a tome of knowledge from the podcast.

Tools of Titans will be over 700 pages. I’m guessing it will cover the routines and systems of world-class performers. But it will really be about practical application of that knowledge. I’m guessing Tools of Titans will be something like Daily Rituals, except with his podcast guests replacing the historical figures.

The Tim Ferriss Show has a lot of significance for me and this blog. Earlier this year, Ferriss talked about writing two crappy pages as his goal. I started aiming to write two crappy pages each day.

Then I tried posting daily for 100 days. After finishing that, I turned my attention to drawing. Which led to the current form this blog has taken: I write a weekly post with some drawings to accompany it.

A lot of the posts I wrote were basically show notes of his podcast episodes. Here are five of my favorite episodes from the past year.

Chase Jarvis: This is the episode where he talks about two crappy pages. Ferriss talked about starting the podcast and not worrying about the equipment or insanely high audio quality. He knew people would be listening while doing other things. Audiophiles don’t test setups with podcasts. 

He made sure it was easy to do. Podcasts are a great format for that because he could go long with minimal editing.

Through this year I’ve continued working on reducing any barriers in creating posts. I had a pretty good system. Then I started drawing and now I’m modifying my system.

David “DHH” Heinemeier Hansson: This probably has to do with me writing about the episode and drawing him. It was the first episode I wrote about in one of the Make Show Learn posts. I admire Basecamp’s view on work life balance being a part of a sustainable business.

Sustainability and consistency have been themes for me this year.

Malcolm Gladwell: This came out right in the middle of my 100 posts project. He talks about writing being blissful (check out my post about that). In the sense that most writing isn’t actually writing. It’s planning and editing. When he can really sit down and just write, that’s bliss.

Derek Sivers(That’s a transcript): Before the current iteration of this blog, I had random book notes posts. When I was in the 100 posts phase of this blog, a lot of times I was just trying to mimic what Derek Sivers had in his book notes section.

He shares a lot of great stories on the Tim Ferriss show. All with good lessons. He found success while making an effort to stay small.

Mike Birbiglia: I’m all-in on episodes with people talking about writing habits. Birbiglia goes to a coffee shop first thing in the morning and writes for at least three hours. Sometimes five.

Like other writers, he starts by getting words on the page with minimal editing. Everyone has different names for it. He calls it his throw-up pass. (See The vomit draft).

Most of the posts I wrote during the 100 days, 100 posts weren’t very good. I wrote about a quote Birbiglia talks about: Only emotion endures. It’s one of those 100 that I’m actually happy with in hindsight.