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.

The Spirit of Adventure

You know that scene in UP, the one where Carl and Ellie have their life play out before us? Their lives start as young kids who meet over a shared interest in exploring South America.

They get married, save money for their future life in Paradise Falls, and life constantly gets in their way. A flat tire, a broken leg, a tree falls on their house. It constantly empties their savings and with it their life in Paradise Falls. Ellie even miscarries a baby, and despite the gravity of the situation, It’s a beautiful four minutes of cinema. Pixar managed to tell a better story in four minutes than most movies can do in a hundred and four minutes — all without a single spoken word.

UP is my favorite movie. The characters are lovable and relatively pedestrian, yet flawed and adventurous. The music is perfectly timed and relevant. The plot has its twists on a classic carpe diem theme.

Who isn’t Carl or Ellie? Carl had big dreams as a child, got married and lost sight of his dreams but never his love. He sold balloons at the zoo Ellie worked at as a zookeeper. He retired and is widowed only to have his world around him change and collapse. With exception of never failing at love, his experience mirrors that of you and me.

Carl loses his wife to death, but never stops believing she’s there. He gets jaded and bitter in his old age — maybe he always was. Maybe I have, too. Pixar took the storybook and rewrote the book.

There’s so much about UP I admire, respect, and envy. I admire the team at Pixar that wrote, animated, scored, and produced this film. I respect their talent and skills and envy the ability to do it. We should all be so lucky to attach our names to a project that as far reaching and wonderful as UP.

JustinJeremiah_019As much as I admire the technical and artistic chops of Pixar for such real and flawed animated characters, I admire and relate to Carl, too.

Since I first saw UP in 2009, I’ve wished for the love that Carl had. But “had” is the key word, because I inevitability question the pain of the inevitable loss of love.

Is 50 years of love worth the heartache that is destined for us all? Or is 50 years of solitude and loneliness, which is likely to shorten your life anyway, a better alternative?

Most people would quickly favor a long life filled with love, but if you lose it enough times you have to begin questioning the fleeting value.

I’m thinking of the life I want to have, just like Carl and Ellie did. Even though I know that life likely won’t permit me to live out the dreams I’ve always had. Despite serious setbacks along the way, I’m lucky to have met Jeremiah — my partner of over a year now.

We should all be so lucky.

The pursuit of happiness

I know it sounds hyperbolic, but this is how I feel:

Up house1

That’s my house, with me in it, and the rest of the world is just sitting outside making me do things I should have never reasonably needed to do.

This weekend I had four kids trying to ring my doorbell and run away — except they’re all too fat to move with any speed or grace, so they just sorta fumbled around. After their second attempt to get near my property, I walked outside and yelled at the top of my lungs, “This stops now or I’m calling the cops and chasing you down.”

I came inside and said to myself, “I hate this house. I want out of here.” I can’t deal with people near my stuff. I can’t handle people even looking at my things with malicious intent. Everywhere I go, I think, “I hope no one’s around my house.” Or, “I hope my bike is there when I come back.” I live in constant fear that other people are going to ruin everything I hold dear — probably because other people have a fantastic record of ruining everything I hold dear.

I walked out to the garage so I could get on my bicycle, and I saw my Rav 4 sitting there. I said to myself, “I hate having a car. I want it gone.”

After I came back from my ride, I stepped into my house and said to myself, “I don’t even need half of this stuff. I don’t use it. Why do I need a bookcase when I refuse to buy paper books?”

And then it hit me, the realization I had been attempting to make for a year or more: that so little actually matters. Personally, I don’t know what really matters in my world, because I don’t share much with other people and not a lot of people come around. For me, I guess it’s about two things:

  1. I don’t ever want to have to ask, “Do I have enough money in the bank?” I should be able to live comfortably on about $30,000 a year.
  2. I don’t ever want to use things that offend my sensibilities.

Call it the Apple-ification of my lifestyle, I guess. But I’ve been doing it subconsciously for years by never buying music from anyone that doesn’t consistently produce phenomenal music, by not buying hardware that isn’t the best on the consumer market, by never eating food that isn’t from natural ingredients.

I’m probably never going to be wealthy with a bunch of assets, and that doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is having to figure out how to pay for things I actually need, like food, shelter, clothing, etc. I want to be able to spend my money on things that matter, like supporting book authors, supporting local businesses, buying good food, having good stuff that I actually use everyday — like a really great tea maker or knife set.

Heck, sometimes I find myself not even wanting to do that. My desire to simplification extends all the way to not wanting to eat food. I was at India Garden Saturday for lunch, like I always do, and I said to myself, “I don’t want to pay for this. I wish I didn’t have to eat sometimes.” If I could have a cheap pill that delivered all my sustenance and left me feeling “not hungry”, that’d be great.

Which confuses me sometimes. Am I striving for simplicity by trying to unload my car and hopefully in the not-too-distant future the house and the half of my clothes I don’t wear and the knick knacks that I have to have to fill the space in the house I don’t like so it doesn’t look like I’m broke because I want to life a simpler life. Or is it because I’m cheap and incredibly frugal?

I suspect a bit of both. The house is fine, the car is fine, but that’s just it: they’re just “fine” to me.

At this point, after having achieved what most people achieve when they’re in their 30’s, I’m ready to go the other way. Ideally, I’d live somewhere mild year-round so I could bike absolutely everywhere. I’d live in a very small house or one-bedroom apartment away from kids and anyone who might potential pop out a kid. (Kids are fine for the continuation of the species, I just don’t care to be around them much. Or at all.). I’d live somewhere void of young couples (because, like kids, it’s just a constant reminder to me of something I will never be able to do or be granted permission to achieve). I’d live somewhere quiet, but where I could get to a store or someplace that offered needed supplies and entertainment that I enjoyed (like a library) within a few miles.

Of course, I can’t ever have that.

Because, by definition, the things I want and need are found only in cities. Typically in very dense cities. But I don’t want to live in a city because I don’t want to live that close to other people. And when I lived in an apartment, whenever I was gone I’d constantly think, “I hope some other person doesn’t burn the building down.” I actually feared for the safety of my pets in my old apartment because I was afraid someone would ignite a grease fire or throw a cigarette somewhere and it’d kill them and I’d come home to a smoldering pile of ash. Even now, when I leave the house, I’m afraid someone’s going to do something to my house. It’s why ADT, while not necessarily efficient, is worth $40 a month to me — peace of mind that if something does happen, I have a fighting chance to know about it quickly. So after all that, that means I’d have to live in the country, which I don’t want because I couldn’t have high speed Internet access or quick commuting to a library or grocery delivery.

So I guess what I need is something like this, just in a city:

Bubble tent france dining camping nature 590jn111610

Life is hard.

(Yes, yes, first world problems.)