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.

Unemployment Trauma

The NY Times has an interesting piece on the trauma of unemployment:

Nearly half of the adults surveyed admitted to feeling embarrassed or ashamed most of the time or sometimes as a result of being out of work. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the traditional image of men as breadwinners, men were significantly more likely than women to report feeling ashamed most of the time.

There was a pervasive sense from the poll that the American dream had been upended for many. Nearly half of those polled said they felt in danger of falling out of their social class, with those out of work six months or more feeling especially vulnerable. Working-class respondents felt at risk in the greatest numbers.

Nearly half of respondents said they did not have health insurance, with the vast majority citing job loss as a reason, a notable finding given the tug of war in Congress over a health care overhaul. The poll offered a glimpse of the potential ripple effect of having no coverage. More than half characterized the cost of basic medical care as a hardship.

Many in the ranks of the unemployed appear to be rethinking their career and life choices. Just over 40 percent said they had moved or considered moving to another part of the state or country where there were more jobs. More than two-thirds of respondents had considered changing their career or field, and 44 percent of those surveyed had pursued job retraining or other educational opportunities.

My Dad and I were discussing his nearly two-year unemployment stint earlier today. I’ve tried for years to get him to go to school and study harder than he thinks he can. My Dad, I believe, is a good benchmark for most other average Americans. Frankly, I think a lot of people looking for work are just looking for something to plop in their hometown and refuse to do much else. Dad does not believe anyone is capable of going to school and working at the same time because he “has to have time to sleep.”

I respected John McCain on the campaign trail last year for telling people their factory jobs aren’t coming back to America. He was right about that and people like my Dad are dragging their feet in adapting to this brave new world. Dad said just today that rather than “helping people go to school or get a degree, the state should just be ‘creating jobs’.” That’s a dangerous kind of reliance on the government that demands the easiest solution for the populous. Not to mention the fact that government doesn’t just “make jobs”. No need to learn something when you can just show up and move boxes for $20 an hour.

For many others, what kind of a boom would we have if healthcare were granted to everyone? The people trapped in their dead-end cubicle jobs could finally be freed to develop new businesses and industries because they wouldn’t be shackled to someplace just for the health insurance. I think businesses know that and want to keep that Ace up their sleeve.

It’s a brave new world.

US Government, There’s An App for That

Tim O’Reilly, popular for the O’Reilly series of tech books, has an interesting idea: make the US Government function more like the iPhone.

The best way for businesses and developers to think about Government 2.0 as a platform is to look at Apple and the iPhone, according to Mr O’Reilly.

“With government procurement it’s about working with the same group of people and saying we are going to work with trusted partners and them saying here is our handful of offerings.

The iPhone has spawned thousand of apps

“The iPhone comes out and Apple turns it into a platform and two years later there is something like 70,000 applications and 3,000 written every week. They have created a framework and infrastructure and that is the right way we should be thinking about government,” said Mr O’Reilly.

He said past examples of how the government had excelled as a platform were the internet and GPS, the global positioning system, which were both government-funded projects.

I agree with him, in principal, only because I think he has a point here even if his metaphor is a little off the mark. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has repeatedly said, “Government does not create jobs, it only creates the conditions that make jobs more or less likely.” There’s truth to that and if the US Government created something more of an infrastructure than a buddy network, maybe we’d see private sector growth explode.

Then again, this could never work. All that data being hard to find and read is a feature, not a problem. At least not to the government. Making things easy to discover would keep politicians too honest and the public too informed.

Private Sector: No Job Growth in 10 Years

At first blush, I was inclined to call “Bullshit” on this piece from that claims:

Over the past decade, the U.S. private-sector has lost 203,000 jobs.

That’s right: Zero job growth for 10 years.

In the 1940s, we created 10 million jobs. In the 1990s, we added 19 million new jobs. Even during the much-maligned 1970s, we added almost 16 million jobs.

The 2000s might be zero. Some economy, huh?

The government has created 2.1 million jobs over that period — primarily teachers. And, that’s the weakest government job growth in nearly two decades.

I can’t find information on how or why this happened. Over the past 10 years, George W. Bush was in the White House for 8 of the 10 years, so we can’t claim that tax cuts on the rich work. I’m inclined to believe this is the direct cause of heavy taxation on the low and middle classes. For my purposes, $250,000 doesn’t entitle you to be middle class. You’re middle class when you have an income of $60,000-$100,000 annually. And these are the people that think up the jobs that employ 2/3 of our workforce.

Sure hope Obama keeps his promise to not raise taxes on the middle class. If he does, we’re one step closer to becoming wards of the state.

Salem, Ind. Economy Takes Whallop

The Indianapolis Business Journal has this news for the down and out in my hometown of Salem:

The sluggish economy has prompted several companies to close plants or lay off workers in the state in recent days. They include:

-Jasper-based Kimball International Inc. said it will close its furniture factory in Salem and move the operation to its Borden plant, also in southern Indiana, according to the Evansville Courier & Press. Capacity at both plants had fallen below 50 percent of capacity. The 244 workers at the Salem plant were offered the opportunity to shift to Borden.

So, crap just got worse for Salem. How could I be so vain in thinking that good things might ever again come to Salem?

This effectively eliminates all of Salem’s (and Washington Co.’s) long-time employers. After Smith’s Cabinet closed a few years ago from a flood, all those folks went over to Kimball. Now that Kimball is waffling and gas prices may force some employees out of a commute that long, they could find themselves out of jobs again.


All that’s left in town is the Salem Lumber Co. which pays just a hair more than minimum wage.


Salem had better start marketing something and quick. If they’re smart, they’ll start fixing their brain drain by getting Ivy Tech to locate a campus there.