Reflecting on Leaders

Reflect on past and current leaders you have interacted with. Identify and describe the top three positive leadership characteristics you have observed – and the top negative characteristics you have observed.

Top three positive characteristics

– optimistic attitude

The best leaders and managers I’ve worked with have been optimistic. They may be stressed, or have a million things to deliver and not enough time, but they keep their composure, remain light-hearted, and exhibit confidence that things will get done, and the world won’t end. They don’t spend all their time talking about how impossible tasks are, or complaining about the workload to people who can’t change it.

– listening, listening, listening

To really engage with the people around them, the great leaders I’ve worked with have relied on being available, being open to ideas, and listening to everything their employees have to say. They don’t just want to know how projects are going, they want to know how life is going, what you think about the new artwork in the hallway, and if you’ve already eaten lunch yet today.

– persistently trying to improve

The great leaders I’ve worked with don’t settle. They didn’t reach a plateau in their project or career and decide that was enough. They treat all accomplishments and failures alike, as opportunities and experiences to learn from, build and grow. They’re life-long learners who infect everyone around them with their curiosity, and they always strive to do work better than they did it the last time.

 

Top three negative characteristics

– delegating work without understanding it

Bad leaders and managers think that the only step to solving a problem is giving it to someone else. Once they’ve successfully delegated a responsibility, they don’t care to hear anything about it until it’s finished, and once it is, they’ll take responsibility for it, without ever understanding what the solution to the problem was.

– being ‘too busy’ to say hello

The worst way for leaders and managers to engage with colleagues is to only open conversations when meetings and calendars mandate that they need to. They project an attitude of distance from everyone around them, and create obstacles to communication. They may exacerbate the problem by being friendly only with people they consider to be ‘higher up’ than them, without spending time building relationships with those lower on the ladder.

– relying on past performance to justify current position

Bad leaders may have been successful in the past. But when they refuse to take on new challenges, assuming that they’ve already ‘done enough,’ they block the way for others who are eager to try new ideas and attack bigger problems. They coast through new projects, putting great effort into trimming all the hard work out of them before they even begin. They rely on their past achievements being ‘good enough’ and never feel inspired to improve what was done before.

Sorry Good Will Hunting, I Need that T.P.S. Report By Monday

Two movies from the late 1990’s stand out as favorites, for me and many others: Office Space and Good Will Hunting.

Both truly stand the test of time, and entertain now just about as well as as they did when released. Both also have something to say about what “Work” is, and what kind of man should pursue what line of it, and what’s respectable or questionable about the choices they make along the way.

Construction labor plays an understated role in both narratives, repelling one protagonist and rescuing the other. Will Hunting (Matt Damon) begins his story as a workman, who is encouraged and motivated to find his way into a more intellectual profession. Peter (Ron Livingston) begins his story as a cubicle drone, who is encouraged and motivated to find his way into a more physically laborious occupation. For what it’s worth, Will Hunting lives in a dramatic universe, and Peter lives in a comedic one – but through its dry humor, Office Space manages to leave the viewer with a moral aftertaste just as significant as Good Will Hunting’s.

I don’t have a grand thesis to accompany to this comparison, it’s just something I noticed and that I’ve wanted to share for a while. I feel like these two movies are celebrated more than most others as time capsules of their era, but I’ve never heard any critic stand them up next to each other for comparison. On the surface they’re wonderfully different films, but at their core, both represent the challenges of a man trying to discover his true calling.

Let’s look at how each character begins his journey:

Here’s Will Hunting, on the job –

And here’s Peter, working –

But by the end of each film, their roles have reversed.

Peter, on the job:

Will, working:

Good Will Hunting (1997) was released two years before Office Space (1999.) It’s reasonable to assume Mike Judge had seen Good Will Hunting as he was writing and directing his film, but who knows whether he was intentionally making a response, or had even registered a connection between the stories.

Nearly twenty years later, enough time has passed for the once brilliant jokes to go just a bit stale, and without their original novelty, these two films now seem to have a lot more in common than they were originally meant to. How’dya like them apples?

Famous Dead Person

You get the opportunity to talk to a famous deceased person. Who do you chat with and what do you talk about? What are some of their answers? Try writing in their voice.

The first person who comes to mind is Kurt Cobain, maybe because I just read an interview with Dave Grohl. But I think Kurt pretty much already said everything he had to say. Or if he didn’t, I can still listen to him singing, so I don’t need to summon up his ghost to hear his thoughts. Also, he was alive relatively recently, so his opinions probably wouldn’t stray far from the rest of his generation that is still around to chat with.

To really take advantage of an opportunity to talk to someone who’s dead, I think it would be most interesting to go back further and get perspective from someone who’s entire generation is gone, whose influence is waning, and who would be completely shocked at the state of things today.

Maybe I would talk to Pierre L’enfant. The guy who designed DC.

Yes.

So, Pierre, what do you think of DC? The way it is in 2015, the way it looks?

Pierre, I imagine, would say something like – what the fuck are these suburbs? What are cars?

I can imagine his bewilderment by people’s communication in urban spaces: silently standing at bus stops, peering into cell phones. Spending minutes, half-hours, or hours in slowly moving steel boxes.

My conversation would be more informed if I had time to prepare. I would want to learn more of his vocabulary, speak to him in the language he knows about avenues, plans, parks and blocks.

Pierre, why would you want to design a city? How did that come to be your goal?

He might wax poetic and say, “I see a man and woman having a picnic in the park, and notice how far from the road they are and how the bird is comfortable enough to sing to them, but how the wild beast stays away because there is not enough nature. I imagine these two falling in love and making a child together, and I think I have contributed to that for them, by making a lovely park.”

That would be the kind of answer I want to hear. Something passionate. But, he might say something else, something along the lines of – “I was too small to be a General. I have no gift for legal discourse, and I stumble when I speak in public. Women do not find me charming. I think better alone, when I have time to imagine complex systems. I think cities are very complex systems and I am able to think about them abstractly because they are not people, and people frighten me. So I make cities. The pay is enough for me to have a house with a study, and eat steak and drink wine. I do not have invitations to the opera every evening nor am I invited to give speeches, but there may be a park named after me someday.”

That is not what I want to hear from him. But he might say it anyway.

Pierre, how does the internet change cities? What does it mean, that people can communicate instantaneously with each other, by pictures and words and sound, from across the entire city?

This changes everything, he would say. That would be all he could say. It would render him speechless in a profound way, not in the metaphoric, hyperbolic way we generally regard one who is speechless. He would be literally speechless.

So the butcher, he would say, can know who will buy his meat? Because they can tell him, without walking across the city? The doctor can hear of his patients illness the moment it occurs? The mistress can avoid the wife, by a surreptitious warning?

But why then, would people live close together? Why would anyone go anywhere?

Maybe he would say that. I have no idea.

Conversations are generally never just one person asking the other person questions. He would almost certainly have questions for me.

Maybe he would inquire about the many ethnicities congregating all over the place. Maybe technologies I have completely forgotten are “technology” would baffle him. Ice in a cup. How does one have ice in the city? If there are magic electric lights, why does this store sell candles? Why do newspapers still exist, on paper?

I guess I like ‘Podcasts’ Now

I had avoided Podcasts for many years after they surfaced because of what they were called. Words derived from commercial products just seem gross to me. They’re lazy.

Maybe I also just didn’t enjoy listening to people yap, instead preferring all the music that became so limitlessly available around 2008.

But, times change. For the past few months, I’ve been listening to several ….Podcasts…. (the term still makes me cringe) and gathering information, insight, and entertainment.

 

Here’s a roundup of what’s been in my queue:

Longform has been great to hear writers talk about their craft. It’s an interview show that spends an hour or more asking good writers great questions. So far, I’ve heard Josh Dean, Malcom Gladwell, and Carol Loomis.

Listening to Josh Dean sent me careening down the David Foster Wallace rabbit hole, since some of his stories were edited by Dean for the New York Times Magazine. After reading DFW’s piece about Wimbledon, I fell into watching Federer videos on YouTube – listening to a writer talk for an hour can lead the mind to all kinds of places. Dean’s story also made me think about how NYC-centric magazine writing is, how being ‘in’ the industry is critical.

What clicked for me while listening to Malcom Gladwell was his perspective of his work being “optimistic,” and how he doesn’t believe in ‘gotcha’ journalism, and how if someone says something you think they wouldn’t say again, you shouldn’t quote them on it. His sense of ethics is curious when thinking about how popular his work is – being nice makes for repeat customers, I guess. He said something about how you can only make so many negative statements before you turn your reader against you.

Carol Loomis had a very interesting story – she’s one of Warren Buffet’s best friends, and had a 60+ year career writing for Fortune Magazine. Her longevity in the industry is monumental, and when she started, being a female writer covering finance was taboo. There’s much to be learned from her approach to owning a subject and sticking to a beat.

http://longform.org/posts/longform-podcast-131-josh-dean
http://longform.org/posts/longform-podcast-62-malcolm-gladwell
http://longform.org/posts/longform-podcast-152-carol-loomis

 

The Candid Frame is similar to Longform, but focuses on photographers. Almost an identical format. I’ve listened to two episodes so far, neither were people I’d previously heard of.

The first was Matt Sweeney, who spoke about photographs he took of Los Angeles in the 70’s and 80’s. His story was as much about his own life as the work he’s done, and how the photographs were an artifact of his lifestyle.

The next I listened to was Jenna Close, a photographer who started with alternative energy and launched a successful industrial photography business. She spoke about the importance of business and domain knowledge, and gave examples of ‘sticktuitiveness.’ In general, I found The Candid Frame seems to go deeper into the history of its subjects than Longform, or maybe encourages more ‘origin’ storytelling.

http://ibarionex.net/thecandidframe/2015/7/26/the-candid-frame-284-matt-sweeney
http://ibarionex.net/thecandidframe/2015/4/19/the-candid-frame-274-jenna-close

 

The Tim Ferris Podcast is one that I decided to listen to after hearing Tim Ferris give an interview on Longform. Ferris is a writer I’m familiar with, and I’ve written about his book, the 4 Hour Workweek. The book was OK, but not as good as his Podcasts. He does a great job reaching into different areas of interest for what he calls ‘top performers,’ and he grills them to uncover the habits that lead to their accomplishments. His guests are typically famous in their own right, and so far I’ve listened to Kevin Kelly (founder of WIRED magazine), Jon Favreau (director of the Iron Man movies, actor), Tara Brach (PhD, author, and popular meditation teacher), Jane McGonigal (author, speaker, and expert on Games).

Kevin Kelly was somewhat bland, since the episode I listened to was him answering reader questions and not engaging with Ferris. He briefly spoke about how important ‘AI’ will be in the future, without going into detail. Artificial Intelligence is a really broad subject, and he didn’t specify exactly which part of it he was talking about. Kelly did make a suggestion to ‘read 10 books a year’ and how doing so would transform anyone’s life, so I can appreciate that.

Jon Favreau’s interview was wonderful, and spanned everything from how he finds ways to relate to people who don’t work in the movie business, to what his life was like before he started writing scripts. He talked about how trying out an office job revealed how little time people get to pursue their real interests, and how he was moved to get away from that. His comments on why he enjoys cooking were interesting – because it’s such a universal thing, and his world is so different from most people’s, he’s found it’s a great common bond to share with others.

Tara Brach and Jane McGonigal were both great interviews. Brach’s thoughts on mindfulness, especially the two-step process of recognizing a feeling, then ‘inviting it to tea,’ were interesting. She also stressed the importance of unplugging from time to time, something everyone should really try to practice more often. McGonigal’s citation of studies on how gaming is beneficial were good – particularly that visually intense games can decrease cravings for things, because the brain stays ‘distracted’ by them. McGonigal talked about her new book ‘Superbetter’ which has an accompanying iPhone app that’s worth checking out.

http://fourhourworkweek.com/2015/04/14/jon-favreau/
http://fourhourworkweek.com/2015/07/31/tara-brach/

 

There’s a few more Podcasts I’ve listened to that I recommend exploring:
Lexicon Valley: two guys talking about language. Topics include everything from the origin of the word ‘seer-sucker’, to the pitfalls of translating Russian literature, and the American female’s tendency to adopt a ‘vocal fry’ in speech.
The Moth: live storytelling on a stage. Dramatic recounting of stuff like being interviewed by Martha Stewart, being a member of the ‘Blue Man Group,’ and being a chaplain in the Forest Service. Kind of like TED talks, but without all the politics and pretension of ‘saving the world.’
Planet Money: Probably the most popular Podcast around. Produced by NPR, explores all the ways money interacts with and influences the world. Recent episodes question why people don’t work less than they did a hundred years ago, where the people of Greece are hiding their money, and whether or not robots will ever be able to fold our laundry.
HBR Ideacast: Harvard Business Review’s brief interviews with business leaders. A recent episode with the CEO of Evernote was fascinating, but some guests are dreadfully lacking ‘listenability.’
Talking Code: Software development topics. Presented in an interview format, and with just enough explanation to make it consumable for people who don’t work in the industry.

202 days down, 163 to go

I’m still in the photo-a-day project, over halfway finished.

It hasn’t gotten any easier, and the difficulty that’s been creeping in could be due to the repetitive nature of the project, or the wearing off of novelty, or my transition from walking everywhere to spending time in the car, or my continual pull away from photography and toward work, and writing, and home life.

The catalyst for this project was thin – it was a cold, wintry Sunday and I felt the need to do at least one thing, other than nurse myself on the couch, after a long Saturday of carousing. So I went for a long walk, took a picture of some trees, and decided on the fly that I would take another picture every day for a year. That was it. No research to start, no browsing through other’s work and finding inspiration, no possible financial reward. Just a bored need to do something productive with a hangover.

1/365

After I began, and started taking a few nice pictures, I was hooked. The first few weeks and months were invigorating and I had plenty of subjects, around my office and apartment everything started to look fresh and new. The brief, low sunlight of winter was offering lots of shadows, and the early sunsets meant I was always out and about during the good ‘blue hours.’ But as winter turned to spring, and spring turned into summer, the sun blasted everything all day long, the opportunities for finding those uniquely colorful skies or silhouettes was less, and I was more frequently just pointing my camera at the ground and taking pictures of grass or frantically trying to coax the cat into holding a pose for a minute while I adjusted the lamp.

165/365

I’ve ended up following a fairly strict regiment of what is an ‘OK’ daily picture and what isn’t. Selfies, voluminous food pictures, screenshots, pictures of people that I work with, and unpleasant things like toilets and trash cans are generally out of the question when I’m looking for a subject. I’ve settled mostly on the landscape, ‘found art’, my fiancee, signs, details of familiar objects, the dog, architecture, empty places and abstract patterns. There’s no real method to this selection, it’s just been what I’m comfortable with. Because I didn’t start the project with any formal goals like documenting ‘important things in my life,’ or ‘finding representations of my environment’ or ‘telling stories,’ these self-organizing limitations I’ve been following have been fine and haven’t diminished the purpose of what I’m doing.

That I do now have these unplanned norms of what to shoot and what not to doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize the benefit of planning, and also understand how more carefully thinking about what I want to shoot could improve the course of the work. It would have been nice to say, at the beginning, ‘this will be a portrait of my personal life,’ or ‘this will be a year of pictures of the place where I live,’ and to go on from that and build a coherent and themed body of images. But when I started, I didn’t know what I didn’t know – mostly that having at least a vague goal or purpose would be a helpful concept.

73/365

Maybe when I look back at this (if I do, someday) I’ll be charmed by it’s aimlessness and it will remind me of who I was and what I was like at this time. Maybe I won’t ever look back at this, because I won’t ever stop… it’s actually difficult to reason why I should ever quit, even after the 365 days is over. Because of how effortlessly and unceremoniously I started, stopping might feel like acquiescence, or like I had been wasting my time. I could just vow to continue taking a picture every day for the rest of my life – hell, why not.

Some of my favorite pictures from the effort have been those that are the least recognizable, the things that make me (or anyone looking) think ‘why would someone see THAT in their daily comings and goings?’ That removal from the expected is what I’m always looking for, and it’s the hardest thing to find, by definition. What makes it great is what makes it so hard to capture – its fleeting essence, its otherworldly appearance, the pause it gives and the puzzlement or astonishment or wonder it produces. It feels like a mini-rebellion – an underhand statement I make to this digital device I’m always carrying, the thing tracking my movements and seeing the world with me, that I can still surprise it, no matter how easily it can record, transmit, and normalize to the world my day-to-day existence.

71/365

Maybe someday when I return to these pictures, my favorites won’t be those artistic shots, but the most casual, the most everyday life, the pictures of me and my future wife and my family and our friends. Maybe those will remind me most of my life, and maybe the more conceptual and thoughtfully aesthetic pictures won’t continue to feel important.

22/365

The thing that’s been the biggest struggle for me with this project is whether or not to take it seriously as ‘photography,’ or whether to treat it like a personal diary. I can’t decide how much I should go out of my way to make it great. I know that if I take an hour or two every day to step away from my routine, to go out and actually look for a picture, I’ll find something new and different, and maybe make a nice picture of it. But I can avoid doing that by justifying the nature of the work as casual, I can say that I’m just doing this to capture ‘what my life really looked like, lazy mornings and quiet dog walks and all,’ and then I’ve excused myself from making the effort of looking for better images.

56/365

As I wrap up the final third of the year, that will be the question I’ll try to answer about this project – if it is just snapshots of my life, for my own personal enjoyment and memory, or if I’m doing this to force myself into creative excellence, to sharpen my skills and make myself a better photographer. Maybe I’ll find that in this first year, it’s OK to try both.

198/365

Freedom, Concrete Island, & Richistan

The three books I’ve finished in the last few days initially seem disparate in theme, but if I dig, I might find a way to associate them and forge a coincidence in completing them around the same time. For some reason each of their unique stories caught my attention, after all. It’s a fun game to pick out three diversely categorized books and try to connect the dots between them, reading each at a completely different pace, thinking about them as various events unfold in my own life, and maybe looking for similarities I wouldn’t otherwise have been interested in. This fumbling investigation is the side effect of having no structured agenda when I decide which book to pick up on any afternoon.

On the surface, the novel Freedom is a long and gossipy portrait of modern love and grief in post-9/11 America, and Concrete Island walks the line of science fiction with the tale of a man stranded between two highways after crashing his car. The argument against looking for coherence in the works is sound; they are set in different times at different places, one spanning over twenty years of events and the other just a few days, one deeply probing the psychology of an entire extended family, the other acting as witness to the brute actions of three strangers. The reportage of Richistan further eschews comparison, it is a colorful piece of long-form journalism chronicling the lives of 21st century America’s newly minted (and apparently plentiful) million-and-billionaires.

The only theme that seems to flow through all the works is money. The power and appeal of wealth is explored in Freedom through Walter and Joey Berglund, who both seem to find their titular ‘freedom’ by providing financially for their family. In Freedom money is both gift and curse, leading to Walter’s moonshot political and romantic disasters, but also to the construction of Joey’s sense of moral responsibility. Contrarily in Concrete Island, money is dissolute. The wealthy architect on his way home from an illicit rendezvous ends up a lost soul stranded on a traffic island: as he nears death, he’s seen throwing greasy bank notes into the air like confetti as he tries to persuade an unsympathetic vagrant hobo to help him escape.

Richistan could be seen as expressing both the positive and negative ideas from Freedom and Island’s fictional narratives: in some interviews, the nouveau riche paint a disorderly picture of affluence by describing their lost sense of identity, responsibility, and common connection with society; in other chapters the prosperous subjects are seen as icons of decency who channel their fortunes into charity, or back into the markets from which it came.

One of my peeves with Freedom was the hunch that Joey Berglund was an unbelievable character. Hardly a freshman in college, he was brokering million dollar arms deals with weapons contractors in post-9/11 Iraq, despite otherwise being described as a generally ‘chill’ stoner who spent all his time chasing girls. Yet in Concrete Island, what hooked my attention was that the apparently ridiculous and impossible scenario of the main character Maitland being trapped on a traffic island in the middle of the city of London was actually written to be a completely coherent and believable situation.

So in one case, there’s a character who the author wants to be believable, but isn’t. In the other, there’s a character who the author can’t expect to be taken seriously, but who I actually did. Maybe it’s this inconsistently plausible complexion in fiction that drives me to also read books like Richistan, which takes no liberties of imagination with its subjects, only laying out facts about living, verifiable people.

Welcome Home, Charlie Brown

We’ve had Charlie Brown for two full weeks now.

I started writing the second sentence to say something like “he’s quickly become the center of the family,” and as I was typing, he peed on the floor.

That’s what having a puppy is like so far. Mid-congratulation, he does something he’s not supposed to, and I say “No,” and he is sorry for a moment. The hiccups are mostly a reminder that he isn’t a supreme being – a notion that without occasional reminders to the contrary, his human-mom and I might be spun up into believing. Something about having a face with enough wrinkles to be mistaken for an ethereal 150 year old wise man must be the connection.

Charlie’s French Bulldog mouth is an ugly thing, pocked with hundreds of  little bumps that signal eventual whisker growth. It’s often clamped on an innocent teddy bear, or octopus, which he tosses about with a blind rage that can be instantly followed by lights-out sleep of the dead. His bunny-hop running veers off to the right after a few steps, possibly because one of his legs hasn’t caught up in length to the other. For a creature of only about 11 pounds, his flat-nosed snores rival a grown man’s in volume.

Having been a cat person since I was a kid, what’s surprised me the most in these first few weeks is how human-like Charlie is. My cats have never seemed even slightly similar to people in their instincts or preferences, and that’s what I’ve loved about them. As Neruda wrote, “yo no conozco al gato.” Dogs, however, seem to occupy a hybrid realm of human-like social needs mixed with the inherent poop-eating habits of a beast. (He hasn’t actually eaten any poop, to my knowledge – but not for lack of trying.)

Cats have never listened to me. The first cat I had never once sat on a human lap. The second cat does often, but the notion that he would perform any actions on command is a hilarious fantasy. The dog, however, has learned how to sit, stay and come when his name is called within the first ten weeks of being a dog. He’s not listening with a chip on his shoulder, either. After being told what to do, he still loves us enough to lick our faces right off of our heads.

Before his arrival, I crammed in as much dog book reading as I could, including “The Art of Raising a Puppy” by the Monks of New Skete. The monks live on some magical dog-raising farm in New York, where they pass all their time training German Shepards. Some of their practical advice doesn’t fit with a 9-5er’s lifestyle, given that they are monks, but their overall attitude and suggestions have been beneficial in gracefully making Charlie Brown a member of our household. After reading, I think that if I had devoted my life to being a dog-monk, I too could train Charlie to walk by my side without a leash.

Charlie stops every few feet during a walk to smell and taste whatever is in his path. He needs the walks, but dislikes the simple decisions that accompany them – when to turn, when to cross, when to go home. The taste of this grass, that grass, that pole and this rock are of much greater importance to him than maintaining any kind of regular route or schedule. He seems to enjoy company without order, not unlike a human kid. Maybe, like with human kids, this will change. Maybe not.

It’s a strange thing to have an animal capable of listening and understanding – and also blatantly choosing not to listen or understand. When he blankly stares at me while I plead with him to come, or sit, there’s a fleeting moment of recognition that I’ve seen his facial expression used many times before by people during uncomfortable discussions – when I’m saying I need a day off from work, or that I don’t want to donate to their fundraiser. The capacity for being perplexed seems to be what puppies and people most commonly share. Cats, on the other hand, never appear to be confused. They are certain everything they touch is a trifle, and every person they know is a servant.

When the dog isn’t around, I find myself appropriating some of the lessons he’s teaching me into my human relationships. I’m more aware now of when someone is slyly telling me what to do. At work, I pause, realize I’ve been issued a command, and wonder what the dog would do. This awareness of power-relationships was something I never developed while living with a cat. Now that I have a dog, all of my actions are seen through a filter of “what command has prompted this behavior? do I need to listen to this person? …is it OK to pee here?”

Charlie’s excitement is easily contagious, he can get his people riled up with a single ‘yap yap yap.’ But, he’s only ten weeks old, and it’s our responsibility to usher his enthusiasm for life into adulthood. Apparently, that’s a common failure point – after the novelty of puppyhood wears off, many owners lose interest, and dogs end up in shelters.

Whether we decide to ‘keep’ Charlie or not isn’t a realistic question. Instead, we are looking for answers to things like ‘how do we train him to be the ring bearer at the wedding?’ and ‘would he like the mountains or the beach better for vacation?’

Although he and the cat haven’t yet become snuggle buddies, the cat has accepted his existence, and like the humans, he seems to understand that there’s a new person in the house (no matter how much he looks like a dog), and he’s going to be here… farting, snoring and peeing on the floor… for as long as he wants to be.

The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up

It was the never-discarded trail of breadcrumbs left behind by my browsing on Amazon.com that led to Marie Kondo’s “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” getting stuffed in a cardboard box and mailed to my apartment. With precision, Amazon remembers everything I’ve ever looked at, how long I looked at it for, and what I looked at next. It really wouldn’t benefit them to “tidy up” that history, nor would it anyone else who is enamored with the idea of “big data” and harvesting trends from massive collections of information.

So it’s in this age of everything digital lasting forever, and giant mountains of digital ’stuff’ being heralded as the holy grail of information, that a book about throwing things away has become an international bestseller.

Despite the celebrated promise of data hoarding, my past browsing led the magical website to believe that a book about cleaning (or ’tidying’ as Kondo calls it) was something I’d be interested in. The machine recommendeth, and I taketh away.

I’ve never paid much attention to cleaning. When I was a teenager, the floor of my bedroom often wasn’t visible beneath all the piles of crap that I had accumulated. It’s not something the average guy considers a skill – house cleaning just doesn’t have the panache of most other activities that one can get better at with practice or study. I’ve improved since I was young, but flotsam still collects in my wake and lives on in my closets. A giant styrofoam donut, ancient t-shirts, graduation cap & gown, nine year old pay-stubs. Things I haven’t touched or thought of in ages.

Kondo has a very simple philosophy: Take stock of every single thing you own. Touch each thing with your hands, and ask yourself if it gives you joy. If it gives you joy, keep it. If it doesn’t, get rid of it.

This might seem pretty vague. Whether not a thing is “giving me joy” doesn’t seem like a quantifiable measurement, and at first I didn’t expect the process would produce any results. But surprisingly, as I began going through my closet, touching things one-at-a-time made a tremendous difference in my ability to calculate that thing’s worth. Just glancing at a pile of books on the floor, or pausing to stare for a moment into the closet doesn’t call up the value of each item as plainly as if they’re picked up and handled individually.

In a single morning I filled eight trash bags with clothes ready for donation. My wardrobe now takes up about half the space that it did, and I feel confident that I would actually wear every single article I made a thoughtful decision to keep. Magic, indeed.

But life-changing? Like the measurement of whether or not an object gives you joy, to determine if something has “changed your life” is subjective. To really be “life-changing” like book’s title suggests, this exercise in “tidying” would have to affect the possessions that I really cherish, and that take up the most space – books.

For the last decade (or at least since Amazon Prime was invented) the size of my book collection has increased indiscriminately, annexing ever more space in my apartment. It is absurdly easy to have a passing curiosity, and two days later receive four books about it in the mail. Against this front, I waged a campaign to lighten my shelves.

When I was finished, I had four boxes to donate at the local Goodwill store. They weren’t full of garbage, or torn paperbacks, or comics. (I actually haven’t gotten to Kondo’ing my comics yet – that will be a true test.) I felt good driving away from the donation drop-off, thinking that I made an effort to stop hoarding information that I’m not using, and instead passing it to someone who couldn’t afford it otherwise.

On books, Kondo writes “their true purpose is to be read, to convey information to their readers. It’s the information they contain that has meaning. There is no meaning in their just being on your shelves.” Simple explanations like this are abundant in the short book, and true to her philosophy, she even recommends getting rid of it after you’re finished, or until you no longer need to reference the information it holds.

Cleaning has never seemed like it supported any philosophy to me. It has always just been an a banal domestic time-suck. But this book frames tidying in such a way that it can not only make your house look nicer, but make everything in life feel a bit fresher.

“By putting our house in order, we can live in our natural state. We choose those things that bring us joy and cherish what is truly precious in our lives. Nothing can bring greater happiness than to be able to do something as simple and natural as this.”

Bright Sided

Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. Barbara Ehrenreich. Picador, 2010.

Twenty seconds before I sat with this book for the first time and saw the opening chapter’s title, ‘Smile or Die,’ an acquaintance walked by and saw me in my harried, just come in from the cold state, and said – “Hey, man, Smile!”

So the context I’m working from is one where I have a very immediate sense that Ehrenreich is looking at real attitudes that exist everywhere around me: Smiling is Happy. Happy is Good. Good is Mandatory. 

I was attracted to ‘Bright Sided’ because I knew it would take on ‘positive psychology,’ and propose that ‘thinking good thoughts’ is more delusional than anything else. As I’ve written before, I have personally benefited from learning about positive psychology – the ‘What Went Well’ exercise had a tangible effect on my life. 

Ehrenreich believes that focusing on what’s good and going well is selling ourselves short – whether it be through academia, as in the case of positive psychology, or whether it’s through an American megachurch, a corporate team-building exercise, or even a breast cancer support group. 

Books like ‘the Secret’ and motivational coaches like Tony Robbins are identified as the latest manifestations of a long-held American tradition of optimism, going back to the refutation of Calvinism in the 19th century. ‘The Secret’ draws significant reproach, for its blatant resemblance to magic and mysticism – its central tenet that ‘desire’ leads directly to ‘ownership’ leaves Ehrenreich incredulous that such crap could receive acceptance and be celebrated by the American public. While ‘the Secret’ and several of her other targets are probably worthy of some ridicule, I was also frequently left thinking… “What a grumpy woman!”

Ehrenreich spends hundreds of pages hacking away at the foundations of positive thought-groups, beginning with her personal experience of breast cancer diagnosis, which piqued her interest in whether or not ‘staying positive’ had any real or lasting purpose. She dives into the science, brushing off what discourages her argument and championing any studies that support it.

The book finishes by blaming the economic crash of 2007 on the positivity-fueled and motivational-poster-dependent managers of corporate America, who had they not been busy with motivational speakers, life coaches, and positive thinking would have surely anticipated and prevented the housing bubble that caused market collapse. 

A succinct summarization of Ehrenreich’s theory is written in the closing paragraph: “The threats we face are real and can be vanquished only by shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world.” 

In other words: She is very positive about how bad it is to be positive. 

On Finding Brian Writing

Brian Writing has moved!

You can now find me at http://www.brian.digital/writing

I switched from living on wordpress.com to managing a self-hosted site. Hopefully this doesn’t cause any headaches – I think I crossed all the T’s and dotted all the I’s, so you should still find me in your WordPress readers or email inboxes, if you are a subscriber. And Bonus! No more ads!

All the old posts are also still available, so maybe use this update as a reminder to go digging through the archives while I come up with something new to write about.

-Brian