This is New York. A city that can be at once deeply familiar but also newly restless on the same block. A city whose very material for being is serendipity. A giver of anonymity and a giver of the densest participation in humanity. And still, with all its gifts, it requires only one thing of us: utility. The only thing New York requires of its citizens, its tourists, its commuters, its passerbys, its participants, is to use the city. The only thing one cannot do in New York City is embrace it with apathy.
This is New York. We come here unfinished, looking to the city for answers, for solitude, assignment, and for reward — looking for someplace to finish our sentences. And the city, in turn, presents endless possibilities. No matter if one lives here a year or a life, if utility is the city’s aspiration, then its reward is its neighborhoods.
Recently, I moved — all of 1.8 miles. After 11 years in one Brooklyn neighborhood, I moved just over 9,500 feet to the east. New Yorkers live and breathe by the people and services on a single city block, so moving this far is just as well moving countries. Changing currencies. Allegiances. Time zones. But without sympathy. Because it is, after all, still one city.
When I moved from the East Village of Manhattan to Brooklyn, I saw neighborhoods unlike I’d seen before. “The city,” as Manhattan is called if one is a Brooklynite, has neighborhoods of course. Yet Brooklyn has them at a different scale and speed. Within a month of moving to Carroll Gardens, I’d been offered protection, welcome-baked-goods, and was head of some sort of block-party planning committee. In more than a decade there, I’d been locked out, delighted, broken into, loved, infuriated, and everything in between. And I relied on the people on my block to be there for me through it all.
I now live on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn — the kind of Grand Central of our borough — where the steady traffic and sirens are a nightly lullaby. It’s no pastoral neighborhood, but the frenetic diversity of pace, scale, sounds, lights, and people to befriend envelops one in possibility. It’s less bake sale more survivalism, less Hopper more Pollack. Invitations to help and dine together are frequent, and neighbors hang even closer together. Islands of neighbordom against the fray. With neighbors, anything is possible.
This is a city I came to with aspiration, and a city I return to aspiring to be inspired again. Of all the cities, it may be New York who is the most unflappable, the most infallible, the most impenetrable, but the most loyal and the most forgiving. As such, it is New York City itself who is unfinished, its unkempt seams and its unsmooth asphalt, its uptown arts and its devoted downtown, living undone, side by side.
This is New York. A city of neighbors making the unfinished finished.
It’s been spat on and praised, paved over and cheered on. It needs us to finish its sentences. For despite all of the promised anonymity of this singular city, “New York City” is plural.
If you spend too much time doing ‘Ready aim, aim, aim, aim’ you’re never going to see all the good things that would happen if you actually started doing it. Business plans are interesting, but they have no real meaning, because you can’t put in all the positive things that will occur. I always live by the motto of ‘ready, fire, aim.’
. In his book, he reviews the work of psychologist Saras Sarasvathy, who had studied qualities successful entrepreneurs share. I found this not too dissimilar from one of my favorite quotations on his writing process from E.L. Doctorow. “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” When I write, I’ve never been able to have a plan, so knowing authors I admire similarly drive into the fog has been encouraging. Less aim, more fire.
In his unending wisdom, author Umberto Eco reminds us that there is wisdom in what is not done, wisdom in what is not finished.
Eco is allegedly the owner of a large personal library of 30,000 books, and separates visitors to his library into two categories: 1) the large majority who visit asking “how many of these have you read!?” — the impressed — and 2) those — a very small minority — who get that books are not for show, but for research. And that unread books are far more valuable to us than read ones.
As such, our personal libraries should contain as much of what we don’t know as what we do. They should contain the possible. The aspirational. They should contain the future.
In other words, the unfinished is far more valuable than the finished. The un-figured out far more valuable than the figured out.
Eco called this concept the anti-library.
People don’t walk around calling themselves anti-entrepreneurs or promoting their anti-CVs. We don’t promote our anti-knowledge and our anti-degrees. But maybe we should.
The love of books is much celebrated; the love of reading too. Yet the love of not reading — the letting of books pile up around us — is a quiet pursuit.
This post was the introduction to a Facebook panel, “99% Unfinished,” at Brooklyn Beta. Thanks Russ for inviting me. Thanks Maria for the title.
Let’s celebrate the stories of people we thought we’d once be; stories of languages we thought we’d once learn; places we thought we’d once visit; hobbies never learned; pursuits never pursued. These need not be stories of what wasn’t, but stories of what was instead.
Let’s celebrate books owned, but never read. Pages unfolded. Chapters unfinished. Marginalia unwritten.
And celebrate lives lived.
The Atlantic’s Jessica Lahey interviews Stephen King on grammar, teaching writing to kids, and the seminal On Writing. She asks how teachers can encourage kids to close the door and write without fear. King:
In a class situation, this is very, very hard. That fearlessness always comes when a kid is writing for himself, and almost never when doing directed writing for the grade (unless you get one of those rare fearless kids who’s totally confident). The best thing — maybe the only thing — is to tell the student that telling the truth is the most important thing, much more important than the grammar.
Likewise, Vonnegut said, “write to please just one person.” Knowing this, and staunchly following his advice, I used to have a person in mind, unwaveringly, when I wrote. Only much later did I find out that person was supposed to be me.
[via Patrick Cooper]
If there is one thing I’m absolutely expert at, it’s not finishing projects. I am a serial starter, an absolutely fantastic middle-of-the-project doer, and an expert project quitter. I know when to quit. And I do.
I’ve quit gardening. I’ve quit German, the language, entirely. I’ve quit living in Japan. I’ve quit knitting and French Horn lessons.
In fact, if there is anything that has been successful in my life, it’s been the ability to recognize the need to quickly jettison a project, an idea, a thing, and move on.
But until recently, I kept this a secret. Somehow, while our design processes celebrate iteration and throwing things away, our culture scorns switching and quitting. We don’t celebrate stopping things, changing our paths, or our minds. Just the opposite. We celebrate finishing things.
Human beings have an “inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise their capacities, to explore and to learn.” —as told by Dan Pink
We’re so busy tracking completion — how many miles run, books read, calories burned, cities visited — that we forget to remember a project’s value in the first place. In our race just to finish, we underestimate the benefits of quitting. I want to come out of the unfinished project closet. I want to consider the benefits of starting.
Despite my dozens of inactive blogs, unrealized side projects, and fallow domain names, next week, I start (another) new side project. And thus begins another new possibility for uncertainty, for quitting, and for happiness.
Raul Gutierrez on the future:
The future is close.
The future is when you finish these words.
The future is far.
The future is when the stars die a million million years from now and everything is so cold.
Sometimes when you’re waiting for your birthday or Christmas or some special secret thing, the future seems like forever.
A long time ago, today was the future.
A long time ago they thought we would have floating sidewalks and flying cars and everything would be automatic.
(Automatic was a big part of the future for those guys.)
They thought the future would always be beatiful.
They wrote “We want no part in the past.”
Funny it was so very long ago.
Some day, a long time from today, we’ll all be old and we’ll remember lying here talking about the future and we’ll laugh about everything we did not know.
In between speeding through to-do lists, checking things off, counting hours until we go home, spending days rather than living them, we can swerve to note: a long time ago — even just yesterday — today was the future.
I think a lot about what I would say to the younger version of myself if I met her again, if I met her through the still moments of all the motion of youth — when she was sitting at the piano, or if I saw her alone on the playground, or if I watched her read, voice quivering, her short stories in front of the class.
If I met the younger version of myself, we’d take a walk — the same walk I take every day — so I could explain to young me that routine and tradition are paramount. You have to choose a category header, but it’s only as permanent as you need it to be. You have to choose a theme song and stay with it. Decide. If only for an hour or a day or a week.
If I met me, but younger, we’d talk about the value of one thing. You have to choose one thing to do for yourself every day. No matter what practice you choose — how fulfilling or meaningful — it will sometimes overwhelm you. Choose something for yourself every day. Do it repeatedly and without fail. If you do something for yourself every day, no matter how many standoffs or negotiations or letdowns you face throughout the day, no one can take that away from you.
If I met younger me, we would sit quietly and listen to music. We might put instruments we did not know how to play in our laps. “Play,” I would encourage. Younger me would stare straight ahead uncomfortably. “No one knows what they’re doing,” I would continue. “Being expert means starting. Knowing is playing your first note.” We would scratch out notes on new instruments together.
If I met me, but many years before, we’d talk about love and time. Love will not be polite. It does not wait for opportune moments to approach you. It knows not your life plans or schedule or current or future intentions. It will not wait for you to be ready. There is, in this way, no time for it. If you wait for it, then, it will not come. As love — for a person, a profession, a practice, a city — comes to you. It crosses your path and is only yours to accept. It is up to you to open your hands and heart.
I used to think life was an intricate series of spreadsheets and grids, weights and balances, promotions and boardroom standoffs. As grew older I realized life is less grid and more raw data, less stop sign and more yield, less urban and more sprawl. Life passes by in seasons, not days, and best we can do is choose our category headers, theme songs, and instruments to make the most of every day. With that, we can see the world as we move through it.
Because there is stillness in motion.
First written for AIGA Centennial Voices series, September 2014.
Jody Rosen on seeing knots:
Once knots come into focus, though, you can’t stop seeing them. Rifle history’s back pages and you’ll find them everywhere. …. There are, of course, metaphorical knots: the knot in our stomachs when we’re nervous, the “certain knot of peace” that ensnares us when we sleep, as the Elizabethan poet Philip Sidney wrote. We speak of marriage as “tying the knot,” a figurative knot that is likely derived from literal ones — from so-called true lovers’ knots, various knot forms, found everywhere from Scandinavia to East Asia to Mexico, that symbolize affection, commitment and betrothal. It would be possible to write not just a history of knots, but a history of the world viewed through knots.
I love stories that teach us to see something ordinary that was there all along. At some point, The Scranton Times, my childhood local newspaper, syndicated the comics, and every Sunday morning my father would sit me on his lap and read me the Comics Section. Newsprint thumbs and index fingers, he would crinkle the paper, straighten it, and begin.
“Wizard of Id.” “Andy Capp.” “Dagwood.” It’s hard to articulate the particular way he would say these words. Not words at all, but consonants. As if “Id” was made of an entire alphabet of “D’s” and “Capp” an entire language just of the sound “P” makes when it pops through ones lips and hangs in the air.
For me, each Sunday morning, the world was made of consonants. Stories as non-vowels. Later, beyond comics, I adopted other ways to look at the world: through pauses, constellations, underdogs, endless lenses. What other ways of seeing and hearing do we use?
A couple summers ago, I read a book a day. I’d heard when President Bill Clinton was in office, he read two books a day. I didn’t know if it were true or not, but I loved this idea. I was not President and not even that important, so I could certainly read one book a day. So it began.
The trick, I realized early on, was choosing small books. Short books. It wasn’t cheating (and hey, I was making up the rules anyway), and books were books, short or not. So I started with the Penguin “Great Ideas” Series. And read them all. Then, I heard someone say something about a curriculum, and started theming my weeks. Bread-making, gardening, astronomy. It became easy.
It never occurred me to blog about it, or keep track of what I was reading even. It wasn’t about the public display of information, or proving to anyone that I could do it. It was just me against books. And sometime around late July, about 45-50 books in, I proved to myself that I could.
And so I quit. One day, I just stopped.
Me versus me
The Book-A-Day project just ended. No fanfare, no apologies, no blog post announcing I was done. I stopped.
The project wasn’t about finishing, it was about seeing if I could do it. It was about the formulation of ideas, the construction of a book framework — and in a trial of “me versus me,” who would come out on top? What interesting-ness would emerge if I spent time prototyping ideas with myself? What could I make?
What you choose not to do, who you choose not to spend time with, and who and what you decide to say no to — what you do choose — is how you mark time.
In irony, the whole experiment taught me that my barrier to quitting was my attraction to making. The reason I do is to create.
The same is true in my predilection for saying yes.
I say yes to make things. I say yes to watch projects grow, to collaborate, to see progress.
But too much yes, I quickly found, is unsustainable and unhealthy.
What could I make from no?
So I started a list. Instances of saying no.
The No List
When I say no (e.g., conference talk invites, “pick my brain” invitations, jury solicitations), I immediately add my regret to the No List. I nurture this growing list of no-things, adding category data like dates events would have happened, themes, and date turned down.
Suddenly, I’m making list of cities not seen, airplanes not embarked, and time saved, rather than time taken away. Several months later, I have a made a substantial something. It’s how I’ve marked time.
There are many instances where deadlines are crucial, where getting things done needs to get done. Sometimes saying yes is just the thing that must happen. But just as importantly, most times it is not.
Stop reading a book halfway through, keep a list of your turn-downs, and celebrate the fringe benefits of no.
I’ll be right there with you.
“If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?”
That’s Richard Feynman from Lectures on Physics. While he’s referring to scientific knowledge, I considered how his question might apply to what we do. How could we meaningfully sum up what we do in a few words?
I love these sorts of challenges, forcing us to be brief, working with constraints. No small task. Yet, encapsulating an entire design profession seemed a rather daunting — and fleeting — task, thus, I developed a daily practice.
At the end of each day, I write an “atomic sentence,” a single statement that summarizes the most vital lesson about that day.
More than zero
At times where I flail, fumble, and otherwise seek a signpost, these sentences have helped — personal lifelines indicating a larger story. Each day, an atomic unit in a living network.
Over the years, my atomic sentences have included:
- "Make sure you believe in what you start as there are only two ways it can end: you will finish it or it will finish you."
- "When you step in the stream, the water doesn’t pass you by (although the risk of drowning does increase)."
- "Letting go is in fact — or perhaps only sometimes — letting in."
- "Certainty made clear by uncertainty; safety by danger."
- "Every person is just a person trying to be a person."
- "Make starts, not ends."
Hurry off, for at least a sentence’s worth of time, to make your own.