On Improvement

December 13, 2018

I recently read Derek Sivers’ Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur. I can’t remember how I came across it, but the subtitle was not (and is not) particularly promising. Some sort of glorified set of bulletpoints, I thought, aimed at businesspeople. I was surprised, then, to find such a moving and eloquent account of discovery, something closer to Marcus Aurelius than to the tepidly inspirational listicle I’d expected. I remember ordering from his company, CD Baby, in my youth, but knew nothing of the story behind it. In a way, the company and its story are of little importance, either to him or to the book. Ignore the title; this is worth a read—or a listen, as I consumed it, which is what Sivers recommends. I may even uncharacteristically revisit it, once I’ve followed the advice in Sivers’ equally concise and compelling FAQ. I have the feeling I came across his blog decades ago; I wish I’d taken more note. He seems to be living something like the life I wish I were, which, without going into it, is a rarity in this day and age.

The first question on his FAQ is “What should I do about my career?” and, since this is a question foremost on my mind, I took his advice, and started Cal Newport’s (better-titled) book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. This latter, like the former, is a book about mastery, arguing (as does Sivers) that passion (or talent) are minuscule variables in the algebra of genius, in which perspiration counts more than most might guess. This got me thinking about what it would take to improve my writing. As recently as October, most of my writing was done under a bushel, as it were, shown only to closest friends and confidantes, if at all. November, as you may have witnessed here, marked a change, in that I wrote, for that month, more publicly.

Matthew Sweet inspired me; he spent three full years writing every day on his blog. Whether I have the time or mental wherewithal to attempt that remains a question, as my current unemployment keeps all things precarious. I’ve at least resolved, on the back of November, Newport, and Sweet, to write publicly more frequently. I vacillated on this point last week, but further thought has somewhat swayed me. Newport believes that improvement is contingent on two things: deliberate practice (which I could always improve, but is probably not my primary impediment) and fast feedback. I’ve thought about this second aspect for some time, more from tech’s “move fast and break things” or “fail fast” perspective than from anything else.

This idea of deliberate public practice, with the potential for feedback (even though I fully expect most of my writing to be chanting into the void) is better matched by blogging, today, than by physically writing things down. Newport also has strong views about the discomfort required to stimulate improvement; this has led me to think about my discomfort writing fiction, and to a lesser extent, poetry.

I don’t know where this will all lead, but I expect to write more prose, and more poetry, more publicly, in the months to come.

See also On Getting Good, in which I write at greater length about Cal Newport’s book.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter, follow me on Mastodon, or see more here.