Inside the workspace and routine of Jobs, Twain, Vonnegut, and me

I love seeing people’s workspace. I think it reveals a lot about them and has enamored me ever since I saw this photo of Steve Jobs in his home (photo by Diana Walker. I think it originally appeared in Time).

I just love that he had a bunch of computers sitting on the floor, stacks of paper sitting around, and lots of books. It doesn’t seem at all unlike my office today.

Justin's Office

What’s interesting to me is while I outwardly love and prefer a clean workspace, I don’t have one. Neither did Jobs. Things just land on my desk too quickly and need to stay top-of-mind or else I know I’m going to forget about them.

So when I ran across this gem from Getty of Kurt Vonnegut writing at his typewriter, I had to share it here and plunk it in my gallery of workspaces.

Embed from Getty Images_

Yes, I have a folder. It includes others like this of an animator inside Pixar:

This is also where I save random nuggets I find about writers and other professionals. Like this from a 1955 letter Vonnegut wrote to his wife (it appeared in the Vonnegut book, Letters):

I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach or prepare.

When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten.

I do push ups and sit ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not.

Also included are Henry Miller’s “11 commandments” from a 1932 interview:

  1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to “Black Spring.”
  3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  5. When you can’t create you can work.
  6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
  9. Discard the Program when you feel like it — but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
  11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

See if you notice a trend on this piece about Leo Tolstoy, the Russian writer of War and Peace:

“I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine.” … Then he, too came up to have his breakfast, for which he usually ate two boiled eggs in a glass. He did not eat anything after that until five in the afternoon. Later, at the end of 1880, he began to take luncheon at two or three. He was not talkative at breakfast and soon retired to his study with a glass of tea. We hardly saw him after that until dinner.”

Tolstoy reportedly worked in isolation. No one was allowed to enter his study, the doors were always locked, and he removed interruptions.

On Mark Twain:

His routine was simple: he would go to the study in the morning after a hearty breakfast and stay there until dinner at about 5:00. Since he skipped lunch, and since his family would not venture near the study – they would blow a horn if they needed him – he could usually work uninterruptedly for several hours.

“On hot days” he wrote to a friend, “I spread the study wide open, anchor my papers down with brickbats, and write in the midst of the hurricane, clothed in the same linen we make shirts of.”

Charles Dickens:

Dickens’s working hours were invariable. His eldest son recalled that “no city clerk was ever more methodical or orderly than he; no humdrum, monotonous, conventional task could ever have been discharged with more punctuality or with more business-like regularity, than he gave to the work of his imagination and fancy.”

He rose at 7:00, had breakfast at 8:00, and was in his study by 9:00. He stayed there until 2:00, taking a brief break for lunch with his family, during which he often seemed to be in a trance, eating mechanically and barely speaking a word before hurrying back to his desk.

On an ordinary day he could complete about two thousand words in this way, but during a flight of imagination he sometimes managed twice that amount. Other days, however, he would hardly write anything; nevertheless, he stuck to his work hours without fail, doodling and staring out the window to pass the time.

Promptly at 2:00, Dickens left his desk for a vigorous three-hour walk through the countryside or the streets of London, continuing to think of his story and, as he described it, “searching for some pictures I wanted to build upon.” Returning home, his brother-in-law remembered, “he looked the personification of energy, which seemed to ooze from every pore as from some hidden reservoir.” Dickens’s nights, however, were relaxed: he dined at 6:00, then spent the evening with family or friends before retiring at midnight.

All of these people had something in common: they did things even when they didn’t want to, they isolated themselves, they focused on one thing, and everyone knew not to disturb them or their process. They built their lives to set them up for success in their creative endeavors.

In other words, you can’t do anything useful for anyone if all you do is clack away at emails and text messages all day.

My routine has a similar cadence: I wake up at 5 or 5:30, usually without much or any help from the alarm. I cook a breakfast of one sausage patty, two strips of bacon, two eggs over-medium until they’re just not runny anymore, and 5-6 strawberries with a glass of iced tea. While eating I review some of my more urgent-looking emails and news.

I’m out the door on my bike by 6, at the office by 6:30, and drinking a cup of coffee by 7. I start by writing posts for clients or doing design work. I prefer to work uninterupted until 10:30 by leaving my phone and emails off.

I walk for lunch at 11, come back and tackle administrative tasks and typically schedule phone calls for after lunch.

I’m out the door by 3:45 for a workout at 4, bike back home at 5:15, and then it’s time for a shower, dinner, and more personal writing for the evening.

If only I could see the same success as Vonnegut or Jobs.

My earliest memory

There are a series of three or four photo albums at my dad’s house in Salem. There are not as many photos in those albums as I imagine other families have. For one, we didn’t take photos very often just “around the house”. When my mother was dying, somewhere between her final diagnosis and final surgery, she tore up all the photos with her in them. In a time before digital anything, she deleted herself.

I came home one evening after school and found her sitting in her bedroom floor. Shoeboxes were strewn around and the albums were out. She had a pile of little photo pieces.

“What are you doing?” I asked. I don’t remember my tone, but I feel it must have been one of confusion and seriousness.

She never replied. This was at a time when her speech was clear, but words were hard to come by. I still don’t know if she was silent because she didn’t know what to say, or if she just didn’t want to say anything. Whatever the case, she knew what she was doing. I assume this was just her way of forcing us — me specifically — to move on.

As I get older I find I don’t remember as much of anything. I don’t remember what her voice sounded like. I don’t remember what her last words were to me. I don’t remember the people who attended her funeral. I just remember random flashes of scenes of phrases.

This is all to say I want to start writing things down. I’ve been journaling more lately. From time to time it might be worth sharing on my site.

And that is all to say what is my first, earliest memory:

Somewhere in those photo albums is a picture of a young me, probably barely old enough to walk. My grandfather is holding me up as he sits in his rocking chair. His ever-constant toothpick was in his mouth. He was a big, strong man with a bald head. One I evidently saw fit to stick a suction cup toy on to.

I remember looking at him, placing this toy on top of his head and watching it jiggle back and forth. It stuck on his head so perfectly, like a hood ornament for pop.

Someone, presumably my mom, snapped a photo. When I saw the photo many years later I could remember it. That is my earliest known memory.

Facebook is to community like porn is to sex

Antonio Garcia Martinez, writing for Wired:

Ultimately, nobody really cares about privacy, except media elites, under-employed Eurocrats, and zealots who’ve made it a career. Everyone else would sext you their privates for a fleeting feeling of human connection. And they do.

[Zuckerberg] very immodestly proposes that Facebook occupy the social nexus vacated by the disappearance of churches, unions, lodges, and other local associations that once served as core of American civil life. This resurrected public forum would be as abstract and mobile as a Facebook group, and would no longer be restricted by the pesky limits of distance or national origin.

Facebook is to real community as porn is to real sex: a cheap, digital knockoff for those who can’t do better. Unfortunately, in both instances use of the simulacrum fries your brain in ways that prevent you from ever experiencing the real version again. But we’ll take what we can get.

 

I don’t think anthropologists or historians will look back on western society or American culture and say, “Ah, the Internet was where people started becoming lonely, depressed, and sad”. Institutions like churches and other parts of civil society started collapsing around the time television was in every home, sometime around the 60’s and 70’s.

Was it television that drove us away from other people? Maybe. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam makes the argument television news scared the heck out of us all and made us distrustful.

I wrote in a paper recently there may be an upshot to Facebook for democracy: it serves as an antiseptic. It lets people show themselves in a way they may not have before. If they’re racist, homophobic, or genuinely a bad person, you’re likely to see it on Facebook. The medicine stings for society, but ultimately it is good for the patient.

As Martinez points out, teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma organized a teacher’s strike more effectively than unions ever have.

There are bits and pieces of the “Facebook is to porn” metaphor I agree and disagree with. I get the point, however, that Facebook serves as a weak proxy for building meaningful connections. I just think it’s unfair to blame Facebook for it. Poor community organization and construction patterns, reliance on welfare, the drug war, and a clear market demand for a moment of simple relaxation are bigger factors. If anything, Facebook (like porn) is the last thing some people have to work with.

I suspect our cultural issues surrounding health and depression come more from other cultural changes. Facebook just amplifies them a bit, letting us see what’s happening faster and close-up.

I just don’t think people can afford to be in most social organizations anymore. They cost thousands of dollars a year and require hundreds of hours of time. Ask a college graduate with a $400/mo. car payment, a government-mandated health insurance bill, hefty rents despite splitting it three ways and a car payment of $250 a month because your city is huge and you can’t plunk down $5,000 for a used car all at once to join Rotary, Kiwanis, an industry association, or go bowling for $3,000 a year and see how far that goes.

Can I take 3 minutes to convert your political beliefs?

The Indiana Republican Party is holding their convention this weekend. There is a debate about whether to remove marriage being defined as a man-and-a-woman in their official platform. Last night, the report came that Speaker of the House Brian Bosma is against it. Governor Holcomb dodged it and refused to form an opinion. It’s up to the delegates, and I have no idea how they’ll vote.

But as they’re voting, literally a half mile up the street Indiana’s largest gay Pride parade and festival will be marching along.

I’ve written about Pride before. To recap: I don’t quite understand it, and I’m still not convinced it helps win over the hearts and minds of the people that have hearts and minds that need reaching. But people have fun, it does no harm to me, and best I can tell it doesn’t cost a bunch of money from public funds (parking revenue losses may be a wash with other parking revenue elsewhere, and police presence may be a regular shift of officers. I don’t know.)

I know a lot of gay people. I know a lot of Republicans. And I know a lot of Democrats. I know two gay Republicans. I know that Republicans get booed, with few small exceptions (like former Mayor Greg Ballard), and most of the people there are firmly in support of the Democrats. It’s not hard to imagine why.

But this does not align with reality. We know that about half of the population has to be conservatively-minded and half are progressive and liberal. It’s been this way forever. So how can you have that many thousands of diverse individuals at Pride and not have more than half a dozen people in favor of a narrowly defined government, cost savings, and personal freedoms?

You can’t. At least a third of the people there have some conservative ideals.

Over the years I have shifted between political parties, often voting fiercely independent in each election. But this does no one any favors because it still rewards bad behavior. There’s one party that is so hung up by civil liberties and personal freedoms they can’t help be renege on their own platform and deny them to people. This is idiotic and hypocritical.

But for the millions of gay men and women looking for a party, the Democrats are “the least bad choice” in most but not all circumstances around their personal freedoms. But what if you think charter schools might be worth looking at? What if you don’t think a government program is a solution to a problem? This is no way to live. This is no way to run a country or a state. Because then you’re tied to the baggage of the rest of the platform.

If you’re reading this and nodding slightly in agreement — regardless of our sexual orientation — consider if the Libertarian Party isn’t exactly who you are. Consider that maybe people should be free to do with their bodies as they wish, love who they choose, take part in safe, lawful events as they choose, and also we can do things in this country without it being a government program. That maybe there are some cost savings yet to be found in a few places. That maybe some government programs do more harm than good. Perhaps the solution to not every problem is an increase in taxes, but a re-alignment of taxes. That the best way to honor our veterans is to avoid sending them to more wars. And that maybe, just maybe, adults are free agents capable of deciding what’s best for them in every circumstance of their own lives. Perhaps a policy of “do no harm” is ideal.

A lot of this used to be the Republican Party, which does not seem to exist anymore. Someone once told me the reason they don’t vote Libertarian is because “Libertarians don’t win”. Well, you know what changes that, right?

Justin’s summer reading list

I’m making an effort to double-down on the amount of “productive” pass-times this summer. As Emerson asked, “How much of human life is lost in waiting?” I go further and wonder how much life is lost watching TV and diddling away at the day.

If you’re interested, here are some of the books I’ve read in the last few months you may enjoy. At the end is my upcoming list of books I’m starting soon.

The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World by Adam Gazzaley

I started to look at distractions after hearing Tristan Harris talk about brain hijacking. Harris doesn’t have a book, but Gazzaley does. This wasn’t as eye-opening as I expected, but can see how it might be for someone just thinking about the level of distraction in their life. There is a lot of background on human brain development that can be a chore at the beginning.

 

Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio

I had high hopes for this book. It’s new, the waitlist to get it at the library was lengthy, and everyone seemed to be talking about it. The writing is approachable and easy, but it’s about Dalio’s life as an investment manager. It’s a huge tome that left me annoyed. He started with access to money, went to Harvard, and continued to have money afterward. It’s hard for a frugal Hoosier like myself to get interested in hearing about how great it was his son could study abroad in China.

 

Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

I had low expectations for this book because of its spammy title. But it’s easily one of the best books I’ve read recently. Each chapter is a story unto itself. It’s full of fascinating anecdotes I hadn’t heard before from inside Disney, Pixar, Google, the military, and more. Each with their own point and details about goals, processes, and achievement.

 

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing

In 1915 a group of 7 British explorers set out to cross the Antarctic from west to east. It had never be done before. Their ship, the Endurance, became logged in the ice and sank. This story details how these 7 men spent 2 years in the dark, miserable, cold of the South Pole searching for rescue. It’s like a real-life Hobbit movie except it’s real.

 

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard

Another of one of my very rare 5-star reviews. This book covers the Presidency of James A Garfield, a man you haven’t heard much about because his entire presidency was spent dying. Criss-crossing between the story of his assassin and Garfield, you get the real sense of how the country felt in 1881. You also get a feel for how infuriating medicine was in 1881. As one physician later reported, “Nature did all it could for Garfield, which would have been enough.” He spent two months “basically rotting to death” as the country mourned and screamed for justice. Even more fascinating is how the country mobilized to cure the President, including Alexander Graham Bell and the race to invent the precursor to the X-Ray.

His legacy is one we don’t talk about: a man who was trusted by everyone because he never wanted to be President reunited the North and South as the country rallied behind him. Ulysses S. Grant, General Sherman, and Jefferson Davis all agreed Garfield brought them closer together.

 

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

This book is unapologetically British, so it’s cumbersome and pretentious. But the story of how the dictionary came to be and the insane man behind the idea is fascinating. It’s the original crowd-sourced project where 6 million slips of paper, each with a different word were mailed to one man. Sorting, sifting, and organizing all those pieces into trays, tracing their etymology, and fact-checking each would take 20 years. The initial estimate was 2.

 

What it Means to be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation by Charles Murray

This is the best book I’ve read so far on Libertarian principles and how it would look in the United States as a governing principle. It may seem farcical to some, but it pulls data from a variety of respectable sources and looks to history as a means of determining what the country might look like. (For what it’s worth: I read a lot of books on lots of political philosophies. That’s what thinking people do.)

 

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard

This is the first book of Millard’s I read (and is what drove me to Destiny of the Republic). Her writing fits my preferred style and tells a good story. This one is about Theodore Roosevelt’s post-presidency expedition into the jungles of South America. The goal: explore the River of Doubt, which had never been mapped before. He and his team encountered hostile tribes, dangerous wildlife, scarce food, impossibly thick brush and forest that blacked out the sun, and intense heat. This is the trip that nearly killed the Colonel. A story so fantastic, once Roosevelt returned many Americans didn’t believe him or his son, Kermit, because it seemed too impossible that he returned.

 

Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House by Peter Baker

Now that we have enough history between now and Bush 41, it’s worth looking back. This book blew a lot of things I believed out of the water (like Cheney being the real puppet master). I also have more respect for Condoleeza Rice as being one of the smartest people in the country. We were lucky to have her. This book also covers the lead up to every major decision in the Bush White House. I came away thinking a lot of decisions were just unknowable, a 50/50 coin toss that the country lost time and time again.

 

Coming up on the list

  • Creative Mischief by Dave Trott
  • Managing the Professional Service Firm by Davis Maister
  • Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram
  • 1776 by David McCullough
  • Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders