Writing Well

I finally got round to starting On Writing Well by William Zinisser yesterday and I’m loving it. I knew I would like it when I saw the names of some of the first chapters — Simplicity, Clutter, Style, The Audience, Words, Usage.

It starts with emphasising that it’s hard to write well. The skill in keeping things simple and stripped back. Thinking through the order in which you say things. Making sure sentences and paragraphs fit together well. Removing the unnecessary.

He makes the point that readers have an attention span of about 30 seconds, so there is no room for confusing them. If you make the reader work too hard, you’ll lose them to someone else.

Here is a fantastic example from the book of how writing can become tighter and simpler:


How awesome is that? I can’t think of a better way to show how unnecessary words and sentences creep into writing.

It’s a reminder to me that I’ve become lazy in my writing. I rarely do any editing and forgot that it is the most important part of writing. Carefully removing unnecessary chunks and words. Changing the order of things. Sometimes deciding not to publish the post at all.

I’m looking forward to finishing the book. Even in just the first few chapters, I have a renewed motivation to improve my writing!

What do you think or do differently to mostly everyone else?

I’ve been watching some of the early Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes recently and theres no two ways about it — Larry David certainly thinks and does things differently to mostly everyone else.

It got me thinking, is that really such a bad thing?

Ok, so you might not want to replicate Larry David’s approach to life (although it’s an entertaining way to consume time). But, if you think or do some things differently to mostly everyone else, it means you’re consciously not taking a path that the majority expects of you. It makes you interesting and unique. It makes you stand out a little — and that’s a good thing.

I would say nearly all of the people I think are successful and interesting, tend not to follow a normal path — or they have several things about them that are unusual. It might be something they believe, that others would mostly disagree with. A habit or hobby that is different to the norm. Maybe they take unusual risks. But there is always something unique about how they think and act.

Off the top of my head, here are a few:

  • Jason Lengstorf sold everything he owned and has been traveling the world and working remotely for nearly two years.
  • Steve Jobs dressed in an unusual way, wearing the same outfit mostly every day — new balance trainers, jeans and a black roll neck.
  • Wim Hof has some unusual disease prevention and fitness habits. He takes ice baths, practices extreme breathing, swims long distances under polar ice and climbs Everest in nothing more than a pair of shorts.
  • Mark Zuckerberg & Bill Gates made risky decisions early in their career and dropped out of top colleges to start businesses.
  • Richard Branson had an unusual approach to impressing his girlfriend. He bought an island (that he couldn’t afford at the time).
  • Alastair Humphreys set off on his bike one day and ended up cycling around the world. It only took him four years.
  • Benjamin Franklin started his day in a way unlike the majority. He would take an ‘air’ bath, which involved opening the windows of his house and then sitting in front of the window naked, to get the full effects of the fresh air.
  • Nate Green works a very focused and productive ~ 4 hours a day and spends the rest of his day away from the computer, not doing work.

It got me thinking. What is it that I think or do, that other people would consider unusual?

  • I ditched my smartphone for a Nokia 130.
  • I’m not on Facebook.
  • I wake up very early. At the moment about 5:30am, but in the past I would wake at 4:00am and be in the office for 6am.
  • I’m a minimalist. I own fewer things than most people and am constantly throwing things away — normally to the dismay of Ella (usually because I’ve throw something out that she wanted to keep!).
  • I stick to a paleo diet — so don’t eat dairy, grains, legumes or processed food (well, for the most part!)
  • I don’t own a microwave. I think they look cumbersome and ugly.
  • I have zero interest in politics and don’t vote. I also do my best to ignore news.
  • I chose to step out of a high paid career to pursue a life with more freedom (this is a work in progress).

Ok, not all of the above are overly unusual, and I certainly stray from them now and again. But, they do tend to put me in the minority.

It’s also worth noting that this isn’t confined to people, it also applies to companies. When you’re looking for a company to work for, I think it’s useful to look for things that they do differently than most other companies.

Again, it might be a view they have, something about their culture, the CEO, the way they work, how they are structured etc. Beware of gimmicks though. I’ve seen some companies stand out, but only because stand outing was a specific strategy to attract talent. It wasn’t genuine.

Basecamp is a good example of a company doing a number of things genuinely differently. One that jumps to mind is they work 4-day weeks from May through to August. How cool is that? They don’t do it because it sounds cool, they do it because they believe it works for them.

What do you think or do differently to mostly everyone else?

Back to the title of the post. What do you think or do differently to mostly everyone else?

If you can’t come up with anything, it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. But, it might be a sign that you don’t experiment with things outside of the norm very often. And sometimes it’s the things outside of the norm that can add surprising value to your life.

Food for thought.. 🙂

Book review: When Breath Becomes Air

I read ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi last week and it was awesome. I loved it so much, I finished it the same day.

Paul was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in his thirties, just as he was about to complete his training as a neurosurgeon. With the blink of an eye, he went from doctor to patient – just as everything he had worked so hard for was starting to come full circle.

The book is a reflection on his career and how he faced his illness and mortality. The surgery stories are just mind-boggling. I can’t get my head around how surgeons approach long, risky operations with a sense of normality. It makes you appreciate how gifted and special they are.

The braveness and selflessness with which Paul coped with his illness is inspiring. You have to read the book to get a real sense of it.

I’m also envious of how good the writing is. It’s deeply personal and easy to read, which must have been so hard to write. He effortlessly moves between being funny and dealing with devastating setbacks. The writing is so good, you often feel like you’re in the room with him.

I’m finding myself thinking about a few things after reading When Breath Becomes Air:

Paul left behind a wife and an eight-month-old daughter. The moments he savored with his daughter before he passed were incredibly moving. I could feel myself welling up, and even as I write this, it feels uncomfortable. My daughter Fearne is nine months and I couldn’t begin to think about not being a part of her life with Ella over the coming few decades. It made me think about being grateful for what I have and savouring my own moments with them even more.

I’ve also found myself reflecting on being a good person and living a good life. If I was asked ‘what is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Paul Kalanithia?’ – I would say ‘he was a good man’. I would like for people to think that about me.

One of my favourite all time books and highly recommended.

Here are a few links for further reading:

Paul Kalanithi – Wikipedia
PaulKalanithi.com (his interviews and essays are grouped here)

Be remarkable at something

I just finished So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport. It’s easily the best thing I’ve read this year.

It’s not too long and very easy to read. I found myself nodding at mostly everything in it. The timing was perfect, as I’ve just had some breakthroughs of my own in respect to my career and life. This book helped set some things straight.

The key argument in the book is that skills are more important than passion when it comes to finding work you love. In fact, trying to find your ‘calling’ or follow a passion can be terrible advice.

Sure, some people become passionate about something early in their life and it’s obvious they should follow their dream. It’s common to hear professional athletes say they knew from an early age, exactly what they wanted to be. My gut tells me that this type of situation is very rare – less than one percent.

What’s more common is that we bumble through life and settle on something. We get there almost randomly. If we’re lucky, we fall in love with it – or at least like it. But, some of us end up not liking what we do – or worse, hating it.

So, if we’re not to follow our passion, what should we do?

Cal Newport’s advice is to become really good at something. Pick something you like, that seems interesting, and then focus on becoming remarkable at it. At first, don’t worry whether it’s your ‘calling’ or if you’re passionate about it.

Becoming good at something takes time, patience and focused practice. You need to put in the work. I know that sounds obvious, but how many people do you think relentlessly attack something with the goal of becoming remarkable at it? What percentage of them follow through? You’ll be in the minority, I promise you. And as a result, you’ll stand out in a sea of average people. It’s a competitive advantage that’s surprisingly easy to have.

Once you become really good at something, a couple of things start to happen. Firstly, you’ll notice you get more autonomy and control (itself, an important part of being happy). Secondly, you get leverage.

But what to do with that leverage?

Let’s say you’re happy with the work you’re doing – even passionate about it. It’s ok to stay in that place. You earned the autonomy, freedom and interesting work. Maybe you can use your leverage to get even more freedom. You might persuade your boss or company to reduce your working hours for the same pay. Maybe negotiate a more flexible set up – a better schedule, more holidays or a sabbatical. You’ll be surprised how far people are willing to bend to retain remarkable people.

Just know that taking this route will probably mean at some point, turning down promotions. That will be hard to do. You’ll likely have to walk away from more pay and a path people expect you to take, in order to keep hold of your freedom. Do so knowing that this path will ultimately make you less happy and less passionate – even with more pay. Have the self-awareness to know what makes you happy and stick with it. Being happy is more important that doing what others expect of you.

But maybe you want more? You like your work, but you want to explore something more interesting that you can become passionate about. There is some good news. Once you become remarkable at something, opportunities start to present themselves. Keep an eye out for projects that are interesting and will stretch you further. Take them on and keep stretching yourself. You’ll find these projects can slowly lead to work you become passionate about.

Maybe you want to switch things up though. You’re remarkable at something, but you’re just not feeling what you’re doing.

Start to look around for work outside of your industry, work that your skills are transferrable to. For example, let’s say you work in a finance team and are particularly good at what you do. You could apply those skills to work in a completely different country or industry. Maybe you find yourself working for an interesting start up, with a more varied role, in an area you’re passionate about. If you’re prepared to sacrifice pay a little, your options become even wider.

Few decisions in life are irreversible. So when you’re on the lookout for interesting work, don’t panic about making a big career mistake. See decisions as small bets. If things start to not feel right, shift gears again until they do.

The key to all this is putting in the work to become remarkable at something. You have to build career capital by focused practice over a long period. And then use that career capital to do interesting work you can become passionate about.

The book describes quite a few examples of people who built career capital and then left a job they despised. They decided to start a business in an area they were hoping to be passionate about, but had no experience or career capital in. It mostly ended in returning to a job they disliked. Once you’ve built career capital, you have to hang onto it.

I was close to making exactly this mistake recently and nearly through the baby out with the bathwater. It wasn’t that I didn’t like what I had become good at (although I thought this at first). It was that freedom had become a bigger priority in my life, to the point that I was becoming unhappy. The answer was redesigning my life so that I still leveraged my career capital, had interesting work and more freedom. This is still a work in process.

The last word.

Don’t over-worry over finding work you can be passionate about. It can be torturous. Speak to anyone who has a job they love and most of them will describe a path they had absolutely no clue they would take. And there is always a lot of randomness in it. Connecting the dots forward is incredibly hard – virtually impossible. You have to keep taking small steps, have faith and just keep moving forward. Focus on getting good at something and keep seizing opportunities when they pop up. Things will usually work out, and in ways you couldn’t have imagined.

If you thought even some of this made sense, go read So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport. I think you’ll like it.

The rise of reading online (and a brilliant article recommendation)

I read a lot of online essays and blog posts. In fact, I read the equivalent of 24 books last year (estimated by Pocket):

Email sent to me by Pocket in January 2016.

Considering I read 27 books in 2015, that’s close to half of my entire reading done online. It’s all free too, I don’t pay for any content subscriptions.

I would guess that a couple of years ago it would have been about 25% and before that, almost exclusively books. It feels representative of a broader trend towards online reading.

The quality of content available online is just staggering. For me, it’s at least on par with books. I get a much better return for my time when reading online. One of the reasons for this is my obsession with efficient content discovery. It’s very noisy out there. If you’re not careful you can spend more time looking for useful content, than reading it. Twitter and a handful of high quality newsletters surfaces all of my online reading — about a handful of great pieces every day.]

Yesterday my friend Nate Green published a fantastic piece — How to write a million words — on a slacker’s schedule. It’s an example of the type of content I read every day.

I think it’s one of his best yet and I got five valuable learnings / reminders from it. Each one will make an immediate impact on my life:

focused work blocks — this was a great reminder that a few hours of intense focus can give you an enormous amount of output and quality. Often more than working twice as many hours in an unfocused way. The concept of setting work blocks, being clear about what you will do and avoiding distractions is really smart. I’m going to start doing this.

permission to finish early — I thought it was awesome how Nate wraps up mid afternoon and then switches off for the rest of the day. He uses it for exercise, seeing friends and relaxing — with the peace of mind that he has done enough for the day. In fact, probably more than most who work long into the evening (because of the focused work blocks). What an amazing way to juggle work and life balance. After focused periods of doing, I’m going to start giving myself permission to switch off earlier in the day.

restricting email and social — Nate only checks email and social after his final work block, restricting it to half an hour. I’ve tried restricting email until after midday, but didn’t stick with it. I also like the concept of checking during a defined period, once per day. Since ditching my smartphone I’ve got a lot better at my email / social addiction. But recently I’ve noticed some of that addiction creeping onto the laptop. To re-take control, I’m going to check email and social in the same way Nate does. Once per day and only after doing important things.

send to kindle — I didn’t know you could send web content to a kindle. Amazing! I use pocket to save articles for reading later and it works great. I’ve used it nearly every day for many years and confess to being a pocket fanboy. I sent a few articles to the kindle yesterday and it was surprisingly refreshing to read them away from the laptop. There is far less chance of distraction. I’m going to trial ‘send to kindle’ instead of pocket for a week to see how it feels. I think I will switch over after the week, but we’ll see.

daily planning the night before — taking some time out to think through and plan the day is one of my oldest and most useful habits. It’s part of my morning routine. I’ve recently started to think that it might be nicer to shift it to the night before. For a start it’s on my mind as soon as I wake up and I can’t seem to relax until I have the day mapped out. It would be nice to just get up and do non planning things for my first hour. At the moment that’s mobility, gratitude and learning french. I’ve wanted to do an evening routine for a while now, so I will use it as an opportunity to put one into action. I’m going to do some mobility exercises and plan the next day as my new evening routine. Then, hit the sack with the peace of mind I know what tomorrow will look like.

As you can see, five valuable insights. I rarely get that level of insight / learnings from a book. And Nate’s article took 5 mins to read and was free.
I’m not sure I have a conclusion to this post, other than observing the rise of quality online content and the impact it has on ones life. Getting content discovery working for you is an important part of the equation.

PS — go read go and read Nate’s excellent post 🙂

PPS —I’ve just started using Blinkist. It’s a platform with over a thousand best-selling nonfiction books, each one condensed into a 15 minute read. They have a send to kindle feature too 😉 I haven‘t got into it enough to recommend it yet, but watch this space :).