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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
“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.
I like things. Full disclosure: a lot of things. More things, perhaps, than can be reasonably liked by one person. To me, rose-colored glasses have always seemed a curious concept as the world seems shiny enough without them. So I steer clear of conditions that might increase the likelihood of increasing the world’s sparklehood.
Choice then, becomes the primary tool to navigate like, as it gives each thing its priority, assigning an algorithm for liking, for doing, and for being in the world.
You see, for the like-striken, it’s hard to say no. Everyone and everything is interesting.
As I suffer from this condition myself, something a friend said to me several years ago has stayed with me:
“It’s easy to say no if you love something.”
Wrong. Wrong, I thought at the time. If you love something, say yes. Say yes to everything. Yet what did he mean about loving something, I quietly wondered. Did he mean to imply that having a focus for one’s passion also functioned as a tool to help make better choices?
Making a life
In a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe said there are two kinds of writers: putter-inners (like himself) or leaver-outers (like Fitzgerald). These categories, like all categories, are of course oversimplified, but they still illustrate a great point. Just like saying yes, saying no creates your story. It’s what you leave out, not just what you put in, that forms a story, that makes a life.
Creative pursuits hold an inherent need for choice, whether we consider music, art, literature, dance, or design. Every great story is surrounded by white space of some kind. Blank spaces are powerful. The author and designer choose not to lay out a page with text to every edge. Its white space is part of the story it tells. What we choose to leave out creates the story.
Making a story
Consider your favorite novel. You probably don’t recall the most memorable character in the book doing the most mundane of tasks—eating breakfast, getting dressed, using the bathroom, tying shoelaces—day in and day out. The author made an intentional decision to leave these details out. He or she, the leaver-outter in that situation, crafted a story about another arc that didn’t need those ordinaries.
As a reader, you didn’t consider those absences, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. Their presence, like the silent subjects of sentences or the silent strength of typographic scaffolding, creates the supporting structure to guide the main story, the primary choices, that the author, the artist, the creator is making.
The same is true in layouts in design. In pauses between crescendos in music. In absences in architectural archways. In blanks in the maps of oceans. Rather than fill the spaces with unnecessary distractions, their creators have chosen to leave these areas blank. And the blanks speak for both what is and what is not there.
Choice-makers are doers. And doers seem to also be leaver-outers.
I’ve always paid attention to and wondered at the leaver-outers of the world, so I do often come back to that phrase:
“It’s easy to say no if you love something.”
No matter what it is—be it a business, a person, a piece of art, a career, a song, a family, a way of life, or a pursuit of any kind—it’s easy to say no to all the other choices that will present themselves if you truly love something.
Finding that thing is the hardest part. But that’s another lesson.
[T]he reason we suddenly need such a word [as “interactivity”] is that during this century we have for the first time been dominated by non-interactive forms of entertainment: cinema, radio, recorded music and television. Before they came along all entertainment was interactive: theatre, music, sport—the performers and audience were there together, and even a respectfully silent audience exerted a powerful shaping presence on the unfolding of whatever drama they were there for. We didn’t need a special word for interactivity in the same way that we don’t (yet) need a special word for people with only one head.
As Eno pointed out, by naming something you say, “this is now real.” We can define something just as much by what is than we can by what is not. Unhappiness, for instance, teaches us invaluable lessons about happiness. When, then, will “wireless” become extinct?
[T]he key to building great technologies is to first find your purpose. And you will not find it by polling your users.
The best surfers I know seem to have a sense of exactly where the next wave will be. They craft a style about their surfing and their life that seems to come directly from the water. Artists that I admire seem to be quiet and quiet and quiet, and then come up with something beautiful, as if the beauty came from some relationship with the silence. And the great programmers I know are always taking breaks from the screen to go walk in the woods, as if they receive the most difficult parts of their programs by osmosis, and then just go to their desk to type it up.
I think a lot about what I would teach the younger version of myself. How would I prepare her for what life has become decades later? I see her struggling, searching, working, doubting, stretching. If I met her, we would take a walk outside so I could explain how focus works. In order to see, you must not look. In order to focus, you must unfocus entirely. Choose a thing and turn your back on it. Walk outside. Walk a line in the direction of the sun, the rain, the surf. If only for a moment. And that in that opposite direction, in nature, you see yourself.
“Natural technologies arise from the heart of the builder” and when one’s head is down, it’s hard to feel your heart. Work it. Walk it. And build the world that can be.