How I’m Working (an Infrequent Series)

Reshan and I recently signed on as official advisors of a company. Part of our early contribution is to review some of the company’s instructional materials and provide feedback. Today, Reshan sent me an email invitation to access an Explain Everything file. When I clicked on it, and signed in, I saw a prompt that asked me to “rewind and then play” a recording.

When I pressed play, I heard Reshan’s voice and watched him present, manipulate, and annotate different elements on the screen. Then I pressed record and added my own thoughts. We’ll send the file back to the company’s leaders in a few days.

Working in Explain Everything is an entirely different kind of asynchronous work for me. I’m used to using email and Google Docs to collaborate over distance and time, and these modes are obviously text based. What I like about Explain Everything is hearing my collaborator’s voice and seeing his response to images in close to real time, even though we’re working asynchronously. My challenge now will be to become fluent enough in Explain Everything to be able to understand when I should reach for it instead of email or Google Docs.

Verlyn Klinkenborg, Fortune Cookie, or “Jersey City” Jim?

Yesterday, I encountered three sentences worth saving. See if you can guess which one came from Verlyn Klinkenborg, which one came from a fortune cookie, and which one came from my father, “Jersey City” Jim.

The book should be a ball of light in one’s hands.

Lasagna’s making a big comeback. It’s everywhere right now.

Allow your thinking to adjust your intentions in the light of your discoveries.

Structures Make Assertions

At most schools in the US, students learn in community.

It’s worth thinking about the implications of that default.

What would you do differently, as a teacher or school leader, if you believed that students in your school learn because of your school’s community?

And what would you do differently if you believed that students learn in spite of that community?

Or from that community?

Mainly from that community?

Outside of that community?

Independent of that community?

In college, I spent my junior year in England. My schooling for that year was exclusively handled through a tutorial system.

Each week, I read a book and a bunch of critical articles about that book. Toward the end of the week, I wrote a paper and then rode my bike to my tutor’s flat. After settling in, often with a cup of tea, I would read my paper out loud and then my tutor would ask me pointed questions about my logic, my assertions, my research, my reading, my word choice, etc. I was part of communities — one in my own flat, one surrounding the college’s basketball team on which I played, and one at a local pub where people went to play trivia or argue about politics or philosophy — but I did not “do school” in community. It was an individual endeavor. I didn’t have to speak in front of other students, couldn’t hide behind them if I didn’t do the reading, and didn’t have the benefit of listening to them as they made sense of the material.

I point this out, along with the questions above, to help us to see that our inherited educational structures make assertions about how students learn best. Given that we probably can’t change some of these structures — i.e., we can’t suddenly shift our classes into tutorial models — we need to either teach with the momentum granted by structure or teach around the barriers erected by structure. And before we can do either, we have to work hard to see just what it is that our schools, and their learning goals, are built upon.

A Klinkenborg

For me, a “Klinkenborg” is a wise instruction about the craft of writing. Or, as Verlyn Klinkenborg himself might prefer, a wise instruction about writing, or, actually, an instruction about writing. His book Several short sentences about writing is as compelling and captivating as everyone says it is. Here’s a favorite part, written in the same format as it appears in the book:

Concentration, attention, excitement, will be part of your working state.
Flow, inspiration–the spontaneous emission of sentences–will not.
That distinction is worth keeping in mind.

Get to it, whatever it is.

Fine-tune, Rethink, and Reset

In Make Yourself Clear, Reshan and I devoted a considerable amount of time to discussing what can go wrong when we offload to computers decisions that should be made by humans. And in today’s WITI, Colin Nagy serves up a prime example from the world of travel. Vaccinated travelers are desperate to return to their favorite destinations, and in some cases, prices are soaring and limits are being tested:

By letting the algorithm dictate with no human touch or no limitation on how high your rate can go in a market, the short-term economic gain can be offset by longer-term problems. While price gouging might feel good to companies that have been on life support for a year, there’s a danger that the consumer expectation will be so high when they are paying four to five times a normal rate, that it is nearly impossible to live up to that standard.

On top of this, we are in the middle of a major kick-start for many properties. From the look of my Linkedin feed and through informal conversations with general managers, there’s a hiring surge and a lot of latency with hospitality workers being plugged back in. Some staff, and years of institutional knowledge, are simply not going to return.

So there’s a potentially tough equation here: short-term thinking when it comes to goosing the rates at luxury properties, coupled with the lack of trained staff. It might feel good to fill the coffers, but if you can’t live up to the new price you’re charging, guests won’t come back.

As is typical in situations where people — or their machines — are behaving badly, there’s an opportunity that I’m hoping many organizations will consider. In our book, we encouraged, in situations like the one described above, “throwing a spanner . . . in order to welcome back into the fold human judgment.” Nagy puts it much more eloquently.

An owner of one of the world’s best luxury brands told me on background they are not trying to recoup all of their losses. Instead, they are trying to use this time to fine-tune, rethink, and reset their relationships with guests around the world while also nourishing a new guest base that they found during Covid. It is a refreshing bit of long-term thinking: doing the right thing for a brand, rather than just trying to catch up.

We’re entering an era where soul, values, and longer-term thinking will be prized by consumers, so brands should think twice before they gouge, as tempting as it may be.

Easing Out and Easing In

I closed my class and a few recent talks with this photo from Anderson Park in Montclair, New Jersey. I’ve passed this sign almost every morning since March, when I got into a good routine with my dog. You can likely imagine how it has changed over time, ever so slowly, and how, in that slow changing, it has served as an ironic reminder to me at the start of each day.

I’m hoping no one remembers to take it down and that it becomes a hidden part of the park, swallowed by nature. I certainly don’t want to look at it everyday; I also don’t plan to pretend it never happened.

Tinkers Freedom

Every year around this time, I set aside a few books to read during late summer afternoons, when the work day ends and there are no papers to grade. There’s a certain style of writing — almost a genre unto itself — that fits right into that particular lazy, hot, porch-swinging slice of time.

The first book on that list this year, for me, is Paul Harding’s Tinkers. I can’t wait to drift in and out of its consciousness.

Harding first landed on my radar when I read this part of an essay he wrote for Lit Hub:

My wonderful writing teachers, Marilynne Robinson and Elizabeth McCracken, always urged never to confuse publishing with writing, that they were two very different things. I took the rejection of Tinkers by the market to mean that if I meant to continue, it was possible that I would be a writer who wrote but did not publish. Rejection, then, freed me from thinking about publishing.

I cherish this quotation for several reasons.

First, when Harding was having trouble publishing the novel Tinkers — which went on to become one of those huge success stories that started with complete failure — he thought back to his teachers. They helped him to persevere, stay whole, and stick to his plan. After they had taught him! That’s not necessarily in the job description of a teacher, and it’s not what teachers think about when they plan lessons or meet with students to offer extra help, day-to-day. But it happens. The memory of certain teachers can sustain us; their example, when we learned from them, can offer us models for thinking and being; sometimes, even, our teachers remain active parts of our life, long past the time when we shuffled our of their classrooms for the last time. I’m glad Harding points these things out, even if obliquely.

I’m also glad to be able to savor his wonderful, willful misreading of the market’s reaction to his work. I don’t mean to turn Harding into some kind of effectiveness guru, but here, he’s dropping some serious science. If you want to make a unique contribution, whether in writing or business or family or something else, it’s so important to understand where you’re actually putting your effort. In fact, it’s essential to avoid self deception and compromise. There’s nothing wrong with publishing or marketing or even proofreading . . . but these things should not be confused with actual writing. Likewise, when you’ve written and you want to sell your book — so that, maybe, you can afford to write the next one — you shouldn’t confuse writing in the basement or the garage, or reading on a porch swing in late summer, with the work of publishing and selling.

What’s the actual task in front of you? What yeses, and more important, what noes, will help you to do the work that you were meant to do in the world? In whatever you do, don’t confuse writing with publishing.

Forcing Functions

Here’s something from Craig Mod’s Roden 55, announcing a new newsletter designed to help him document a long walk he is planning.

All these newsletters and “experiments” are hacks to get me to “do creative work” and look more closely at the world. They establish systems which — by virtue of their very existence — create forcing functions that (largely) guarantee butt-in-chair working. This aligns with a lot of what James Clear writes about in Atomic Habits around building additive patterns in a life. These systems I’ve set up bring with them a bunch of corollary goodness, not the least of which is I get to share a walk with thousands of people around the world in semi-realtime. And can do so while staying off social media which I find, for me, allows for more time spent on rich work rather than public wheel spinning.

Heading into summer, the great rewiring of time for school people, this quote is the perfect reminder that you often yield that for which you design. And . . . sound design often throws off sparks of “corollary goodness.”