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.

Generation Why: Let’s Sweat the Small Stuff

Occasionally, I publish a column in my hometown newspaper, The Salem Leader, called “Generation Why”. Usually I get something in there about once a month. Here’s a column I wrote recently that pertains to this blog:

The Salem Leader
Generation Why
Justin Harter
August 2010

Let’s Try to Sweat the Small Stuff

Do you remember the time you first used a cordless phone? Whether you had always used a landline phone and then bought a cordless home phone or went straight to a cell phone, you probably thought, “Oh cool, this is neat!” You at least had to think it was nice to be able to get up and walk around while you were on the phone. For many of you reading this, you can probably go back to a time when you first used a washer and dryer, microwave, escalator or any other seemingly mundane modern doo-dad. Whatever it was, it was a nicely improved experience over the previous experience that involved a seemingly small detail — like removing a cord or reinventing the staircase.

As an example, I recently bought a small bookcase. I had recently walked into a friend’s house that smelled a lot like apple and cinnamon candles and I realized it was because they had a nice candle sitting next to the front door. However, my home has a door that opens up into a small foyer area and not the living room, so I needed something small to sit along the foyer wall so I could achieve a similar effect, hence, the bookcase.

I measured out my spot and the dimensions of the bookcase appeared to be what I needed. However, once I assembled the first few pieces (after reading the absolutely horrible directions), I realized the bookcase wouldn’t work. First of all, the lousy instructions with crummy pictures left a bad taste in my mouth. They used a triangle to indicate which way the varnished sides of the wood should face. Wouldn’t it be easier to just draw a shelf with one side white and the other sides colored black to indicate varnish? Second, the bookcase wouldn’t fit flush against the wall like I hoped it would and the “lips” around the edges made the shelf longer than the space I had to fill.

So, I disassembled it, packed it back up and it took it back to the store. When the cashier asked me if anything was wrong with it I said, “Yeah, it’s a horrible piece of crap.” She just smiled and nodded as if to say, “I get that a lot.”

I told a friend about this and he asked, “You mean you took it back because the instructions had bad drawings and it didn’t fit precisely against the wall?” “Of course I did,” I replied.

I had to explain that I think about a lot of the small stuff in modern products because virtually everything annoys me in some way. I’d rather have nothing at all than a crappy product that bothers me to not end.

Most folks probably don’t even think about small details. If you run a restaurant, do you chill the plates you serve salads on? Do you heat up the plates you serve the entrees on? It makes a difference. The next time you order a side of broccoli, you’ll find it tastes better longer if you have a plate that’s sat in an oven for a few minutes because it helps prevent the broccoli (or any other food) from cooling down too quickly.

If you run a grocery store, when was the last time you greased the wheels of your carts? You don’t even have to test each cart — just notice when a cart is being pushed in your store that rattles or squeaks. Then, go get another cart and bring it to the customer wherever they are and help them unload and reload their items. You can take the bad cart to the back of the store and oil it with a can of WD-40. No one likes a loud cart.

Ever notice how Post-It notes curl when you pull them off the stack? When you yank up on a Post-It, the note ends up with a slight bow shape. That, in turn, prevents the note from sitting flat against a computer monitor and causes it to curl around out of view. That’s annoying and diminishes the use for a Post-It.

It’s the seemingly petty and small details that really makes for a great product, service or employee. If you work for someone else, even if it’s at a fast food restaurant, focus a little more on the small details. If you’re putting together a hamburger, make sure the cheese is hot and the buns line up and aren’t sliding off one end.

We, as a society, are really good at the big stuff. We can figure out how to do really groundbreaking and major projects, but it’s the small stuff that makes them easy and fun to use, which is what ultimately matters. The small stuff is usually really simple, too. Just like removing the cord from a phone gives you a whole new appreciation for the phone, removing seemingly mundane and small obstacles can create a lot more love for a lot more in life.