Winston Churchill

Hitting the Mark

Before he was Sir Winston Churchill, a young Winston was a writer for the The Daily Graphic. Working as a war correspondent for much of his reporting career, he became one of Britain’s most admired and sought-after writers. His reporting would lead the Boers to capture him in Africa in 1893. The daring late-night escape he undertook by himself from a Boer POW camp would catapult Churchill as a hero of the Empire.

That experience gave Churchill a lot to write about, too. It also shaped his views on war, duty, and what it was like to be a prisoner. That would come in handy later in life when he would be a prison warden adamant that prisoners deserved fresh air and books.

But it was his writing that made the man. Without it he never would have found himself in the situations that made him who he was. That was true in 1893, during WWI, and later in WWII.

46 years after the Boer war, Prime Minister Winston Churchill stared down Nazis. In desperate need of help, he reached for his pen. Late one evening by candlelight, Churchill wrote a letter to the new President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Churchill wrote what he thought was a great letter. He congratulated the new president on his campaign victory. He told him Britons stood alongside him and the Americans. And more to the point asked for Roosevelt to send Britain as many decommissioned, old, and otherwise serviceable but unused planes, tanks, and other equipment America had lying around. He knew America had 50 destroyers we weren’t using and Churchill needed them.

Churchill sealed his letter and sent it to Washington. Then he waited.

Weeks passed with no reply from Roosevelt. Not even a telegram.

Publicly Churchill demurred that Roosevelt “must be busy” and that his letter “got lost amongst all the new mail and shuffling around in the White House”. FDR, after all, was battling a depression domestically and more mail was coming into the White House at a rate never seen. The White House hired the first significant and modern mail staff to just handle all the letters.

But quietly, aides said the lack of response hurt Churchill. Not because he needed to know he had a new friend, but because as Churchill mused, “A writer always wants to know his writing hit the mark. And this did not.”

Churchill penned what he thought was a perfect piece. And it never accomplished its goal. It never hit the mark.

Later when Churchill and FDR would meet and form one of the best bromances in western civilization, Churchill learned FDR had read that inaugural letter but did nothing with it. Politically, involvement in the “European war” was still too touchy. FDR had too many other things to do. So, his response was to not respond at all.

I think about this a lot when I write emails. I think about it more when I write blog posts because while I see posts do well in Google search results, few get more than several dozen readers when first published.

I write and design and build things for clients and know thousands and hundreds of thousands of people will see it. Meanwhile, I can only hope it hits the mark.

And frequently I do not. In fact, 99% of the time I do not. I do not entice people to buy, or share, or read, or watch, or take a survey, or even click a link.

I’m working on a book, which is nearly finished and will release later this year. I can only hope it hits the mark, too, but realize it probably will not.

This is the creator’s ultimate demon. For people who don’t fancy themselves “creators”, but do sometimes produce a presentation or document, or stand by while someone like me does so for them, they aren’t accustomed to the sting of not hitting the mark. And it hurts.

The best we can do is trudge on, try to get better, and remember that even lions like Churchill missed the mark.

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 silent designer and the quest for fame

Sometimes I get the impression that web designers (and I use that term to include our programmatically minded developer friends, who design code) are out there working for fame. It’s like we’re working for the same kind of fame that Steve Jobs enjoyed, or that Mark Zuckerberg enjoys today: respected for their savviness, technical chops, and admired on a large scale for inventing new industries.

Except, we can’t all be like that, and yet we all still strive for it. Maybe I’m just lazy, or honestly realistic, but I don’t see much of a point. I will not ever be admired or famous or as innovative as those people. Like most people, I’m just sorta here, doing work that more often than not I can’t even really share because it’s for a private or personal audience. I do work I’ve never told anyone about, and I’ve done good work in these cases, too. I, like most people, could do the most amazing thing ever, and the likelihood of it being noticed is almost nil. The Internet has made the world smaller, but it also made the world smaller.
Virtually everyone in a corporate environment is like this. Those people, who arguably make the world turn, will never get much recognition. Even at companies like Google and Apple, we never hear much beyond what “the company” did. Someone at Apple made inertial scrolling a thing. Someone at Google made the servers hum at insane speeds. And then there are people who enjoy the luxury of being able to write all day and they can get up and scream at people and make tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for having produced what is of little value. Even this post you’re reading now, that I’m writing for myself to organize some thoughts, is of no value. I don’t even know why you’re still reading this.
So given that you and I are never going to amount to much, it begs the question: “Why even try?” Why should I even try to break some new paradigm, or shift the way people think about things, or produce something awesome for a bunch of useless likes or comments or views? Even if this post hit every major blog and media outlet in the country, it’ll get me no where. I will gain nothing from it, and that’s both depressing and very real.
I’m just a guy that works as the silent designer. I do things for people and businesses that support other people just so I can eat real food. It doesn’t allow me to take vacations or save much for retirement or see much enjoyment in things. And you’re just the same, and regardless of what empty promise you’ve been told that “you can do whatever you want”, “you can be anything you want to be”, or “you control your future”, no, you don’t. Because if we did, we’d all be doing that right now.
And you’re still reading this, and I don’t know why.

The Art of Crap

I just finished reading “Clout, the Art and Science of Influential Web Content” and while I didn’t get much out of the book, I did have a thought.

The book, for the uninitiated, is just about how to write compelling content on the web. It’s the kind of book that uses the word “content” so many times it loses its meaning. The problem is that every book I’ve ever read about this subject is usually just examples of other people’s stuff, namely Apple and 37Signals and a few others. Barack Obama’s campaign made several appearances in this book. You rarely see any nuts and bolts “how to” material because that’d be like writing a book about how to sing. That’s nearly impossible, but I’d think books about writing are at least in the right medium.

I’ve decided that writing content is just like singing. Some people are really good at it, but the vast majority suck spectacularly and there’s nothing anyone can do about it, let alone you.

TL;DR: reading stuff on the web sucks because most people suck at writing and that’s not going to change.

Barcode to Bibliography App

One part I hated about high school and college writing was having to supply a bibliography. I get the importance and they’re several legitimate purposes for knowing how to do it later in life. That never stopped me from not learning how to do it, though. Too many rules and standards that I don’t use enough to remember anyway. So, for years, I’ve always just used NoodleBib to do it for me. Microsoft Word also has a handy feature that does the same thing, but it’s not as easy on the eyes as NoodleBib.

Now, there’s Quick Cite, a 99-cent app for iPhones and Androids that automates the task of citing by allowing the user to scan the barcode on the book, then it emails you the citation formatted to one of the four common styles, like APA or MLA.

It was made by 7 undergrads at the University of Waterloo in 7 days. Now, they’ve learned a skill that will actually prove useful and make them money, as opposed to writing all those papers no one cares about.