Category Archives: inspiration

Fall In

chris-lawton-154388

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash.

I’m writing this on the first day of fall in the Northern Hemisphere.

Depending upon where you are, it might not feel like fall yet. Right now, for instance, it’s 92°F outside where I live. And humid. More summer than fall. Yet, at the same time, school’s back in session, football is being played, and Halloween paraphernalia is appearing in stores.

The leaves on one of the trees outside my window are starting to change color. Some leaves have even started to fall. It’s getting darker earlier and lighter later. And even though it’s still hot out during the day, it’s cooling down more at night.

Change is in the air.

This leads to a question: Should one also change in conjunction with the seasons? By this I mean more than donning a natty scarf when the temperature drops below a certain level—I mean changing things about the way you eat, sleep, live, and work.

Conventional productivity advice doesn’t really take up this question. One of the things, in fact, that irks me about such advice is that it tends to frame things in terms of daily routines, routines that are ostensibly the same regardless of the season. In other words, most productivity advice is seasonless. Here I’m thinking of things like Mason Currey’s engrossing 2013 book Daily Rituals and Tim Ferriss’s more tech bro-y late-2016 knockoff Tools for Titans.

Now, I’m as interested in famous people’s daily routines as anyone. But at the same time, I feel it’s important to resist the tyranny of “the day.”

What do I mean by that?

Well, we live in a world of seasons—and increasingly more variable and violent seasons at that—but productivity advice seems to always think in terms of the day, the week, the year, or five years, never the season, the sun, and the shadow.

In Lewis Mumford’s endlessly-rich 1937 book Technics and Civilization, he explains how the clock altered human relations by organizing everything around twenty-four little hours instead of, say, the rhythm of the seasons.

The consequences of this, Mumford argues, are profound:

When one thinks of the day as an abstract span of time, one does not go to bed with the chickens on a winter’s night: one invents wicks, chimneys, lamps, gaslights, electric lamps, so as to use all the hours belonging to the day. When one thinks of time, not as a sequence of experiences, but as a collection of hours, minutes, and seconds, the habits of adding time and saving time come into existence.

Because of the clock, Mumford continues, “Abstract time became the new medium of existence. Organic functions themselves were regulated by it: one ate, not upon feeling hungry, but when prompted by the clock: one slept, not when one was tired, but when the clock sanctioned it. A generalized time-consciousness accompanied the wider use of clocks: dissociating time from organic sequences….”

Since we all pretty much live according to “clock time” now, the autumnal equinox presents us with an opportunity to cast off our Apple Watches and reflect on some of the benefits of living according to what might be called “seasonal time.” To that end, I encourage you to step out of “clock time” and into “seasonal time.”

This will, no doubt, strike some as unappealing. Many people see nature as something to overcome or counteract, not as something to flow with or submit to. For others, it will be impossible. “Clock time” is simply imposed on them too strongly. But if you can do it, even just a little bit, I strongly recommend it, if only for the perspective it brings.

To quote Ecclesiastes 3:1, “To every thing there is a season.” What if we took that adage seriously, not just by buying pumpkin spice lattes but by doing key things in a more fall-like way? Fall-like might take different forms. The point is to embrace fall in particular and seasonal change in general. I’m definitely not recommending becoming “Mr. Autumn Man”. I’m talking about something else, something deeper.

One example I like is how novelist Lee Child sits down every September and begins work on a new Jack Reacher novel. He finishes up sometime the following spring and then spends the rest of the year doing other stuff—stuff like spending the entire month of August on vacation. (I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty nice.) Note, too, that this routine produces a book a year. (As someone who writes much more slowly, this sounds pretty nice to me as well.) And Child has been doing things this way since the late 1990s. (For more on Child’s process, see Andy Martin’s Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me.)

Fall is a time to write for me as well, but it also means welcoming—rather than fighting against—the shorter days, the football games, the decorative gourds. Productivity writer Nicholas Bate’s seven fall basics are more sleep, more reading, more hiking, more reflection, more soup, more movies, and more night sky. I like those too. The winter will bring with it new things, new adjustments. Hygge not hay rides. Ditto the spring. Come summer, I’ll feel less stress about stopping work early to go to a barbecue or movie because I know, come autumn, I’ll be hunkering down. More and more, I try to live in harmony with the seasons, not the clock. The result has been I’m able to prioritize better.

And yes, fall for me also means some of the stereotypical stuff: apple picking, leafy walks, we’re even trying to go to a corn maze this year.

In sum, as the Earth wobbles around the Sun, don’t be afraid to switch things up. I can’t promise an uptick in productivity, but when you think of things in terms of seasons instead of a single day, the entire year becomes your canvas.

Some People Are Cohens, Some People Are Dylans

One of the many amazing tidbits from David Remnick’s New Yorker profile of Leonard Cohen:

In the early eighties, Cohen went to see Dylan perform in Paris, and the next morning in a café they talked about their latest work. Dylan was especially interested in “Hallelujah.” Even before three hundred other performers made “Hallelujah” famous with their cover versions, long before the song was included on the soundtrack for “Shrek” and as a staple on “American Idol,” Dylan recognized the beauty of its marriage of the sacred and the profane. He asked Cohen how long it took him to write.

“Two years,” Cohen lied.

Actually, “Hallelujah” had taken him five years. He drafted dozens of verses and then it was years more before he settled on a final version. In several writing sessions, he found himself in his underwear, banging his head against a hotel-room floor.

Cohen told Dylan, “I really like ‘I and I,’ ” a song that appeared on Dylan’s album “Infidels.” “How long did it take you to write that?”

“About fifteen minutes,” Dylan said.

This resonates with me because I too am a slow worker, often, like Cohen, laboring on and fussing with little things for years, though nothing quite at the level of “Hallelujah,” it’s true. It’s more like some people are Cohens, some people are Dylans. Speed-wise, I wanted to be more like Dylan for years, but now I’m more okay with my Cohen-like process, though the Dylan style has its advantages.

Here’s another great tidbit from the piece:

Cohen lived in a tiny cabin that he outfitted with a coffeemaker, a menorah, a keyboard, and a laptop. Like the other adepts, he cleaned toilets. He had the honor of cooking for Roshi and eventually lived in a cabin that was linked to his teacher’s by a covered walkway. For many hours a day, he sat in half lotus, meditating. If he, or anyone else, nodded off during meditation or lost the proper position, one of the monks would come by and rap him smartly on the shoulder with a wooden stick.

And here’s Cohen’s latest single:

May we all be as cool at 82.

UPDATE: There’s an episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast that covers fast vs. slow creativity and Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Whatever you think of Malcolm Gladwell or podcasts, I think it’s worth listening to.

(Hat tip: @GenerationMeh.)

Early Success Will Spoil You

“When you’re young, and things come super easily to you, and you have success right out of the gate, you’re liable to think that’s how it actually works. You start to think you don’t need to be fully prepared or committed to have these things meet you.”

—actress Sarah Paulson on success later in lifeGQ, October 2016

Keep Going

“Think of Darwin, working for decades on his theory of evolution, refraining from publishing it because it wasn’t yet perfect. Hardly anyone knew what he was working on. No one said, Hey Charles, it’s okay that you’re taking so long, because what you’re working on is just so important. They didn’t know. He couldn’t have known. He just knew that it wasn’t done yet, that it could be better, and that that was enough to keep him going.”

—Ryan Holiday, Ego Is the Enemy

Highlights from Esquire’s Viggo Mortensen Profile

Some highlights from Esquire’s recently-published profile of Viggo Mortensen:

  • “He’s the kind of guy who picks you up at the airport….”
  • “Viggo loves to drive. Sometimes he drives cross-country, just for the hell of it. And yet he has rented a Ford Fusion. ‘They always do this thing where they try to upgrade me to some fancy fucking car.’ But he doesn’t want a fancy fucking car. At times, he spontaneously pulls over to the side of the road for a good five or ten minutes to finish a train of thought—about life or death or demons or fears or his favorite soccer team in Argentina, San Lorenzo. About the time in the wilds of New Zealand when he skinned, cooked, and ate his own roadkill. (‘It was there.’)”
  • “He just doesn’t scream ‘I’m famous.’ Plus, he’s dressed like everyone around him, in a plaid flannel shirt, generic jeans (they’re not even Levi’s), and old black sneakers he got in Denmark a couple decades ago. (Mortensen doesn’t go in much for trappings. He has a flip phone!)”
  • “He lives in Madrid, and he works when he wants to work, doing whatever he feels like doing.”
  • “Mortensen is fifty-seven and has been at this drill since 1982—choosing to become an actor at age twenty-three after watching too many movies and thinking, I can do that.”
  • “His previous careers included driving a truck, delivering flowers, and loading ships in Denmark. For years he lived from gig to gig, check to check, mostly broke. It probably didn’t help that, on a whim, he left L. A. and moved to Idaho. He supported his acting career for years by bartending and waiting tables.”
  • “He had the world by the balls, with his pick of roles—big studio stuff, Clooney kind of stuff, paycheck stuff. He turned all of it down, choosing instead to do what he wanted to do, little of which was lucrative. ‘I mean, how much fucking money do you need?’ he asks.”
  • “He used some of his Lord of the Rings loot to start a publishing company—yes, a publishing company; it’s called Perceval Press, after one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table—that would publish poets and other writers who might not otherwise get a book deal, and do so without having them ‘compromise.’ He could also afford to spend time on his other interests—writing poetry, taking photographs, painting.”
  • “…his ability to speak eight languages”
  • “‘I think about death all the time,’ he tells me as we both fire up another cigarette.”
  • “…the well-worn leather-bound journal he carries with him everywhere. He wants to ‘record life.’”

A Guide for the Perplexed

“Always take the initiative. There is nothing wrong with spending a night in a jail cell if it means getting the shot you need. Send out all your dogs and one might return with prey. Beware of the cliché. Never wallow in your troubles; despair must be kept private and brief. Learn to live with your mistakes. Study the law and scrutinize contracts. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern. Keep your eyes open. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it. There is never an excuse not to finish a film. Carry bolt cutters everywhere. Thwart institutional cowardice. Ask for forgiveness, not permission. Take your fate into your own hands. Don’t preach on deaf ears. Learn to read the inner essence of a landscape. Ignite the fire within and explore unknown territory. Walk straight ahead, never detour. Learn on the job. Maneuver and mislead, but always deliver. Don’t be fearful of rejection. Develop your own voice. Day one is the point of no return. Know how to act alone and in a group. Guard your time carefully. A badge of honor is to fail a film-theory class. Chance is the lifeblood of cinema. Guerrilla tactics are best. Take revenge if need be. Get used to the bear behind you.”

—Werner Herzog, Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed: Conversations with Paul Cronin

Unplug the Clock

“The most defeatist thing I hear is, ‘I’m going to give it a couple of years.’ You can’t set a clock for yourself. If you do, you are not a writer. You should want it so badly that you don’t have a choice. You have to commit for the long haul. There’s no shame in being a starving artist. Get a day job, but don’t get too good at it. It will take you away from your writing.”

Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner