Writing as a habit

Seth Godin writes:

For years, I’ve been explaining to people that daily blogging is an extraordinarily useful habit. Even if no one reads your blog, the act of writing it is clarifying, motivating and (eventually) fun.

A collection of daily bloggers I follow have passed 1,000 posts (it only takes three years or so…). Fortunately, there are thousands of generous folks who have been posting their non-commercial blogs regularly, and it’s a habit that produces magic.

Sasha, Gabe, Fred, Bernadette and Rohan add value to their readers every day, and I’m lucky to be able to read them. (I’m leaving many out, sorry!) You’ll probably get something out of reading the work of these generous folks, which is a fabulous side effect, one that pays huge dividends to masses of strangers, which is part of the magic of digital connection.

I’ve been writing or sharing something daily for a few years now, but Seth Godin has been doing it for much longer. I think he’s right that daily writing is “a habit that produces magic”, at least for me insofar as it’s helped me learn to be accountable to myself first.

When I write here, I sometimes think about the possibility that these words will be read by friends or family generations from now. I also realize there’s a possibility some of these words might never really be read by anyone. Both outcomes are alright.

I’ve written here before that I think it will be amazing to future generations that we who were so connected generally said and left behind so little. We share and post and engage on platforms like Facebook and Twitter and elsewhere, but we rarely share coherent stories there, or narratives or anything other than little vignettes. Even assuming those those networks preserve that content, the idea of grandchildren or anyone else trying to make sense of most of it will be like sifting through the charred remains of family letters after a fire; what’s there will still be valued, but very little will tie together.

What got them up in the morning? What did they believe about the world? When did they decide to start a family? What were their challenges and triumphs?

We can think and write out loud now, and if we’re comfortable being a little vulnerable in doing so, we might do more than just create a record of the sort of things we’re doing and experiencing and thinking about—we might just foster a culture that’s a bit more empathetic and connected, too.

And no, writing doesn’t require having an audience in mind and it doesn’t require being perfct. Develop a voice, then speak.

Rowers on the Potomac

Often after work in Arlington, I’ll get one of the nearby Capital Bikeshare bikes and ride across the Key Bridge to Georgetown. Recently I’ve been riding across the bridge near sunset, and a number of times I’ve been coming across just as what I presume are Georgetown rowers are rapidly making their way along the Potomac.

I stopped briefly on the bridge the other day to take this photo. On the left is a little speed boat with a coach and a bullhorn, and you can hear him hollering encouragement as they all speed along the waters.

That’s it. Just a nice routine I’ve found myself in, for however long it lasts.

It’s better to try

Seth Godin writes:

…if the cost of finding out [whatever you need to find out] is a phone call, make the call. No need to spend a lot of time planning how to call or when to call or which phone to use when execution is fast and cheap.

The digital revolution has, as in so many other areas, flipped the equation here. The cost of building digital items is plummeting, but our habit is to plan anyway (because failure bothers us, and we focus on the feeling of failure, not the cost).

The goal should be to have the minimum number of meetings and scenarios and documentation necessary to maximize the value of execution.

The key idea is that “when execution gets cheaper, so should planning.”

Now, this doesn’t (or shouldn’t) mean “don’t do things intentionally” or “just act for the sake of acting”. What it means is that it’s easier to try things, and the financial/reputation cost for trying new things tends to be incredibly low.

A small example is a company embracing videoconferencing when consensus dictates the need for a conversation versus 10 business days of communication to schedule meetings to talk about issues that might already be moot.

The purpose of meetings is to talk through how to do things. Since we often won’t really know until we try, it’s often better to try than to plan.

Mount Nittany Marathon, 2014

Earlier this year I shared my reflections on my first Mount Nittany Marathon, which I ran in 2013 over Labor Day. The marathon was sponsored by the Mount Nittany Conservancy as both a way for people to run a marathon in Centre County and as a novel way to experience the Mountain and surrounding areas. They stopped after year three (which I registered for, but ending up not running), but I did run again in their second marathon in 2014, again over the Labor Day weekend. Sharing what I wrote at the time:

The Mount Nittany Conservancy hosted its second Mount Nittany Marathon on Sunday, and I ran it for the second year. Running last year’s inaugural Mount Nittany Marathon was also my first marathon. This year was different; most noticeably I was more at ease through the whole run. Now familiar, the 26.2 mile course and its highs and lows felt more manageable.

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I tweeted that out after the run, and it turns out I finished just a bit faster than I thought, in 4h:34m:35s, placing 119th of 193 finishers. Consistency is reassuring, so I can’t complain.

Like last year, the marathon started and ended at the intersection of Beaver Stadium and Medlar Field at Lubrano Park. A key difference in the experience of the run from last year was the sky opening up and pouring blankets of heavy, thick, warm raindrops just as the race began and continuing through Mile 12 or so. The marathon also began at 7am, an hour earlier than last year; so coupled with the rain, the entire thing felt much funner since more of the run was in less of that late summer dead-heat sort of weather.

The course was largely the same as last year, except for a change between miles 14 to 16 that took us off of Atherton and through Scenery Park. This was much nicer, though in talking with John Hook afterwards apparently meant that stretch’s terrain was a bit more difficult.

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I’m thinking of write up something more for Onward State, but for now I’ll highlight what I wrote last year and still applicable:

It’s safe to say that the Mount Nittany Conservancy really succeeded with the Mount Nittany Marathon, bringing people together from across the community to put on a great new event. A takeaway from Conserving Mount Nittany is that this is the epitome of the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s founding mission: it’s meant not only to steward the Mountain, but also to create cultural experiences that enhance through first-person experience the magic of the Mountain.

I was again grateful to Jerry Harrington for capturing the runners as we neared Mile 17 where we crossed Atherton Street. For whatever reason in both years I’ve managed to be mid-blink for these photos, but this one does give a good look at how wet everything was even late into the race.

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I wasn’t sure if I’d run the Mount Nittany Marathon again, but I’m glad I did. Every supporter of my crowdfunding campaign came to mind over the course of the run, particularly Gavin Keirans’s comment:

Pace and certainty will get you to the finish line.

It did.

Soul > process

A Book of Elements: Reflections on Middle-Class Days” by Michael Novak was released in 1972. It’s a fascinating book from a young liberal who’s today an elder conservative. From the original Kirkus review, these lines stick out:

Novak collaborated with his wife, artist-sculptor Karen Laub-Novak, in this series of explosive pensees concerning “the reliable elements of life.” … In impulsive prose which ranges from the quick insight to the self-indulgent sprawl, Novak explores, as a middle-class paterfamilias-suburbanite, concepts of being and self; political and social ethic; domestic living; and the awareness of God above and through humanity. He comments on the American way of life which he sees as mechanistic-bound, “not at all on the human scale.”

Far and away my favorite short chapter was 27, which opens by asking the question, “What dehydration of soul makes organization possible?” I excerpt the chapter in full here, emphasis mine:

Twenty-Seven

What dehydration of soul makes organization possible? The spirit of a practical society is a bureaucratic spirit, fascinated by process, procedures, methods.

It is true, of course, that procedures affect the content of what is done. Sometimes they determine the content completely.

But it is not true that if you attend only, or even chiefly, to questions of process, procedures, and methods, you can guarantee results.

Thinking about procedures has a single goal: routine. Once we get the process down (we think), we can produce many similar contents rationally and efficiently.

At its worst, process thinking tends to imagine a world organized like a machine. It is production-line thinking.

At its best, it remains thinking from-outside-in. It views content as what is to be shaped. It concentrates on the shaping procedures. Powerful in dealing with machines, in dealing with humans it is incompetent.

For example, democracy. Many seem to imagine that democracy is a matter of machinery: who votes, when; parliamentary rules and reforms; methods for identifying interests; procedures for reconciling interests; mechanisms for handling grievances. Even radical thinkers concentrate on processes.

One can identify process thinkers early by the metaphors inseparable from their thinking: “Set it up,” “We need a mechanism,” “Operationalize that,” “Figure out the best procedures,” “Sort out the elements,” “Break it down into smaller steps,” “How to structure the committee,” “Once we get it going it will take care of itself,” “The problem is the procedure,” “Inputs,” “Outputs,” “Crank it up with,” “Safety valves…”

Process thinkers sound like auto mechanics on their day off.

It seldom occurs to process thinkers—to our elites in the intellectual and managerial classes—that democracy requires qualities of soul, in persons and in their families, and in their social groups.

If you reduce humans to atomic particles without social cohesion, without social trust, without joy in sacrifice, without social pride, democracy disintegrates.

If you reduce human atomic particles to inputs, outputs, and mechanisms of need and desire, democracy becomes an illusory dream machine and its springs snap, bolts fall off, panels rot away, organisms rust and decay…the machine ceases to function.

Democracy is not a matter of reasonable discussion merely, of intelligent consensus, of the decorum of a New England town meeting circa 1663. It includes pressure groups, interest groups, conflicts, the use of force, threats, bitter dissent.

But where persons are not proud of their own lives, independent and sturdy in their views, committed to mutual trust in their morals, larger police forces are needed. Suburban communities become, like medieval towns, walled cities. People go out seldom. No one evinces pride in work or workmanship. Each person takes what he can get, and gives a minimum. Transactions between salesgirls and customers, between agents and clients, are reduced to the most minimal mechanical forms: a grunt, a reluctant gesture of direction. Cold hostility intensifies between bus drivers and passengers, servicemen and homeowners, mechanics and auto owners. Surliness and contempt multiply. Citizens trust no government official. Officials are cynical about the people.

Where private and familial and occupational habits turn from cooperative to mistrustful, democracy dies. Not all the processes or procedures or methods in the world, even if enforced by penalties and arms, can hold a society together.

The radical disease of American life lies in a quarter no one wishes to face. Everyone wants to tinker with the system. More profound is the collapse of personal and social virtue. Humility, graciousness, warmth, trust, spontaneity, and generosity of soul are disappearing slowly but steadily from our lives. We are not humane in the small transactions of daily life. We do not, in fact, love, sympathize with, or trust most of the human beings we meet each day. We are on our guard. They, too, are on their guard.

If we become a garrison state, the sole cause will not be an industrial-military complex. Truly, if our major corporations mass-produced marshmallows instead of sophisticated weaponry, the impact of mass-production and bureaucracy would be the same: the disease of thinking from-outside-in.

A society is humane if and only if the dominant note of its private, familial, and societal transactions is reverence for what other persons are suffering: respect for thinking from-inside-out.

Each human is already lonely, trapped in the coils of his (her) own ego, unhappy, silently in pain. If you assume that this is true of each person you meet, seldom will events prove you mistaken. Why, then, would you add to the enormous weight of pain which grinds into their shoulders?

The dry bureaucratic sentiment is: Design a procedure that every one has an interest in.

The liquid democratic sentiment is: Listen to the suffering of each, and life the burdens.

The bureaucrat trusts administration. His way of making law is to fund an agency.

The democrat relies on himself and mutual trust. His way of making law is to articulate an ideal that men will agree to live under, cooperatively.

The bureaucrat worries about sanctions and administrators and investigators. He is not entirely wrong. But he tends to neglect the soul.

Dissent in order to begin a new way of life is not the same as dissent in order to spread contempt, hatred, and distrust.

Dissent which does not lead to deeper sympathy, to deeper sinking down of roots, is a sandstorm beating leaves from living trees.

The contrast, William James wrote, is between the “soft” thinkers and the “hard.” More accurate is the contrast between those in whom juices run, and those who think only where arid methodology permits.

Bourbon

From Walker Percy’s Signposts In A Strange Land, the following is an excerpt taken from a longer one that appeared in 2001 in the Claremont Review of Books:

Not only should connoisseurs of bourbon not read this article, neither should persons preoccupied with the perils of alcoholism, cirrhosis, esophageal hemorrhage, cancer of the palate, and so forth—all real enough dangers. I, too, deplore these afflictions. But, as between these evils and the aesthetic of bourbon drinking, that is, the use of bourbon to warm the heart, to reduce the anomie of the late twentieth century, to cure the cold phlegm of Wednesday afternoons, I choose the aesthetic.

What, after all, is the use of not having cancer, cirrhosis, and such, if a man comes home from work every day at five-thirty to the exurbs of Montclair or Memphis and there is the grass growing and the little family looking not quite at him but just past the side of his head, and there’s Cronkite on the tube and the smell of pot roast in the living room, and inside the house and outside in the pretty exurb has settled the noxious particles and the sadness of the old dying Western world, and him thinking: “Jesus, is this it? Listening to Cronkite and the grass growing?”

“I once knew a man who gave up drinking, smoking, eating rich food, and chasing women,” Johnny Carson once joked. “He was healthy right up until the day he killed himself.”

I love the image of bourbon as a response to “the anomie of the late twentieth century.” I wonder what’s suited to our own time.

Receipts

I was standing in line at Subway in the Houston airport the other day, having just ordered lunch. I handed my Amex card to the woman at the register. She inserts it into the chip reader, and the moment she does, the Apple Wallet notification above for the charge appears.

It take another few seconds for the receipt to print, and for her to ask if I’d like my copy. “I’ve got it,” I respond. She looks somewhat confused, but shrugs and tosses the print copy as she hands me lunch.

I’m relating this story because it was just one of those small little moments where you realize that the world is changing in a small but significant way. Not signifiant in terms of “big picture” issues, but significant in terms of the “little things” that have been fixtures of our daily lives that are disappearing, replaced by something with a different character but the same essence.

Running in Washington

I’m on my way back to Philadelphia from Washington this afternoon. I came down last night to run this morning’s 12 K’s of Christmas Holiday Run that the DC Running Club organizes.

I’ve run at least one official race a year since 2009, but this year I came close to falling away from that habit. I ran today’s Christmas 12K to keep that tradition alive, but also because I generally haven’t been running very much this year, and knew I’d head into Christmas feeling terrible about missing any major run this year.

It was beautiful, running along Washington’s Canal paths. Lots of great people, some dressed wildly for the holidays, many who were helpful to keep pace with. A red-bearded guy was especially great; we ran along with each other for most of the second half, intermittently passing each other and keeping pace.

It wasn’t a super run, but it felt good to get it done.

Walks

I’m a fan of routines, although I don’t have as many as I would like. That’s my fault, and hopefully it doesn’t outlast my 20s. One of the routines I do enjoy on a pretty regular basis is evening walks. This was a routine I grew up with, something I think my uncle generally inspired after family dinner.

Evening walks are something I savor now as a way to close out the day. Often I’ll substitute the walk for a run. Either way, the effect is usually the same which is that it reminds me of the life of the rest of the neighborhood or wider area. Usually I’ll overhear some snippet of passing conversation or witness some fun or peculiar sight that in its own way ends up making the day.

Walks can also be a great way to work through audiobooks or podcasts, or tune in to local radio from some other part of the country. I like to listen in to hear how The LION 90.7fm sounds at Penn State, and have also recently enjoyed Ohio State’s student internet station on a regular basis for newer music. Sometimes it will be a little station in Tucson or Savannah or the Pacific Northwest. It helps gives me a sense of place.

I’ll try to think of some other routines over time.