221b: Work, Places, Sentences, Problems, Timeless

Enjoy the Doing

In the autumn of 1932, Robert Oppenheimer wrote in a letter to his brother Frank, "The work is fine, not the fruits but the doing..." That may seem like a throwaway sentence, but it's profound. Oppenheimer understood that the work is what mattered, not the results. Learning physics was the fun part, not the accolades or attention. When you base your attitude or willingness to work hard only on the hopes of great outcomes, you're setting yourself up for disaster. That's where unhappiness is born. Unhappiness is caused by placing your definition of success in outcomes you don’t control. Followers, fans, and revenue are all byproducts of doing the work. But when those things become what you seek, and you don’t get, happiness eludes you. If you don't enjoy the work, you'll be miserable. "When you move the outcome or the goal to something that is up to you, you'll always win," Ryan Holiday explains. He continued, "That's what wise people do. It's not that they're not ambitious, they are ambitious, but their ambition is things that are up to them."

It doesn't matter where

The writer's job is a bit romanticized in today's culture. Maybe you picture them in a forest overlooking a pond with an old cabin, a squeaky desk, and books strewn all around. Though that sounds like paradise to me, there's a danger in romanticizing the work. It can lead you to believe that you need the perfect "place" to start writing that book or working on that next project. That's just another way to avoid doing the work. Michael Lewis says, "I've written in awful enough situations that I know that the quality of the prose doesn't depend on the circumstance in which it is composed. I don't believe the muse visits you. I believe you visit the muse." When Haruki Murakami began writing his first novel, he couldn't get started. So he replaced his fountain pen and fancy manuscript paper with an old Olivetti typewriter because "as long as [the pen and paper] were in front of me, I felt like I was doing literature," he writes. The muse won't visit you anymore with the latest technology than it will with a napkin and a pen, just get started. It doesn't matter where. Neil Gaiman advises young writers that if they travel to get a book down, go to a boring city and an average hotel, "or else you might become a tourist and walk around... or you might luxuriate," he said. "You have to want to just get out and have nothing else to do so that you must sit down and write."


Annie Dillard tells this great story in The Writing Life. A college student asked a published author if they think that the college student could become a full-time writer. "Well, I don't know," the author replies. "Do you like sentences?" If you want to be a writer, you have to like sentences. If you want to be a podcaster, you have to love hitting record. If you want to be an academic, you have to love the books and essays. If you want to be a teacher, you have to love students and learning and lesson plans. You have to love the smallest unit of your craft. Because that's the only thing you control. You don't control how many people buy your books or listen to your podcast episodes, so if you just do it for the results, you'll be miserable. You don't control the fruits, just the doing, so if the fruits aren't ripe yet, you have to still love the doing.


During the spring of 1926, Robert Oppenheimer was in the midst of working on his first major paper in theoretical physics. It was a hard, new type of work. One day, he walked into Ernest Rutherford's office and saw Niels Bohr sitting in a chair. Rutherford introduced the two. "How's it going?" Bohr asked. "I'm in difficulties," Robert replied starkly. "Are the difficulties mathematical or physical?" "I don't know," Oppenheimer said. Bohr: "That's bad." Years later, Oppenheimer reflected on Bohr's profound question, "I thought it put a rather useful glare on the extent to which I became embroiled in formal questions without stepping back to see what they really had to do with the physics of the problem." Don't spend time working on a math problem if the difficulties are physical. A problem well-defined is half-solved. Know what type of problem you're dealing with.

Timeless Focus

"People claim to want to do something that matters," Ryan Holiday writes, "Yet they measure themselves against things that don't and track their progress not in years but in microseconds." Writers and business leaders want to create something that lasts a long time but then agonize over social media followers and blog views – things that are pointless. People say they want to create timeless work, but then spend energy trying to figure out how to make their post go viral instead of how to make sure it lasts for 15 years. There's a fundamental flaw there in the logic. "If you focus on near-term growth above everything else," investor Peter Thiel writes, "you miss the most important question you should be asking: Will this business still be around a decade from now?"


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