The fundamental truth is this: when we look at talented people and feel battered by the fact that we may never live a life like that, we fail to see the whole story —parenting, environments that were either rich in stimulation or deprived with poverty, the right teachers, predisposition and the actualization of talent early in life, the opportunities to nurture these predispositions, and some luck.
When we zoom out and look at all these dots that debunk the mystery around talent, it’s actually empowering. What opportunities we have to cultivate our hidden talents and to bring them to life—to potentially change the trajectory of our lives. The veil is lifted. Nowadays, the opportunities to find out what’s inside of you abound, and this quest of whether you’re drawn to music, numbers, or words is exactly the kind of journey that shapes our character and our lives. The big red stop sign at the beginning of this journey is the hopeless, false belief that talent is a gift rather than the “obstinate, continuous cultivation of a disposition, leading to skill in performance.”
The question is, what are we obsessively practicing and continuously cultivating that will lead us to skill in performance?
I won’t try to write a review of this great book by Austin Kleon because there are a lot of good ones available. (For example, this one in Spanish, or this one in English.)
Steal Like an Artist takes out part of the mystique around creativity, and will teach you some very concrete ideas about creative work and how to approach it, in a direct, colloquial, and easy to read style. The basic idea is that no work is really original. We are all a mashup of ideas.
In Brainpicking’s Maria Popova words, Steal Like an Artist is “an intelligent and articulate manifesto for the era of combinatorial creativity and remix culture that’s part 344 Questions, part Everything is a Remix, part The Gift, at once borrowed and entirely original.”
A quote from T.S. Eliot, stolen from Kleon’s book:
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.
For my self future-reference, here are the 10 points the author proposes:
Steal like an Artist.
Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started.
Write the book you want to read.
Use your hands.
Side projects and hobbies are important.
The Secret: Do good work and share it with people.
Feedback is important. Most people will agree on this. But how often do we ask for feedback? My guess is that not very often.
More frequently, we ask for advice. But asking for advice is a whole different story. It’s not the same to ask someone what she thinks about an investment option we are considering, than to ask her what she thinks about our work evaluating the same investment option.
Asking for feedback exposes us, it makes us vulnerable. It requires overcoming the fear of failure, and being open to the possibility of hearing that our work is not as great as we think.
But alas, we could reframe the story from a different angle. Not asking for feedback is risky because we could be missing the opportunity to bring our work from good to great. Or to become better ourselves. Anybody really thinks she or he has nothing to improve?
Feedback is essential for anything that matters. Linus Torvalds is best known as the creator of Linux, the operating system that runs a large portion of the servers on the internet. In an interview by TED’s curator Chris Anderson, Torvalds explains that since very early in the development of Linux, he asked the developer community for feedback. Although a brilliant person and a proficient engineer and programmer, Torvalds felt the need to hear other people’s opinion about his ideas and his work:
“Look, I’ve been working on this for half a year, I’d love to have comments.” It didn’t even start by people contributing code, it was more that people started contributing ideas. And just the fact that somebody else takes a look at your project — and I’m sure it’s true of other things, too, but it’s definitely true in code — is that somebody else takes an interest in your code, looks at it enough to actually give you feedback and give you ideas… that was a huge thing for me. (4:42 min)
Of course, not every comment on your work is good feedback. Seth Godin writes that “Empty criticism and snark does no one any good. But genuine, useful, insightful feedback is a priceless gift.”
So, when was the last time you asked for feedback?
A few weeks ago some friends and I were having a nice conversation, and the topic drifted toward our favorite iPhone apps and other similar geeky stuff. But to my surprise, when I mentioned some of the podcasts I listen to, no one knew what I was talking about.
Podcasting is a form of audio broadcasting on the internet. The podcasters records a show, to which you can subscribe to using an app. Usually, the show airs with a fixed frequency (weekly, or even daily), but while this may be important for growing an audience, it is not a requisite nor essential to podcasting. Once published, you can listen to the show’s episode whenever it suits you best.
My favorite time for listening to podcasts is while driving over commutes. I’ve found that podcasts —and audio books— allow me to make good use of this otherwise idle time.
The easiest way to subscribe to a podcast is to find it through your podcast player. Most shows —and there are thousand available— are listed in one or more podcast directories. Podcast players like Overcast, Apple’s Podcasts App, or Shifty Jelly’s Pocket Casts let you browse those directories to discover and subscribe to shows. They take care of downloading the latest episodes each time one is available.
Some Podcasts you may find interesting
This is a list of some of the podcasts I am currently subscribed or have been subscribed to in the past. I don’t feel obliged to listen to every episode of them, and I purge my list frequently.
The Tim Ferris Show, where Tim Ferris deconstruct world-class performers from eclectic areas (investing, sports, business, art, etc.) to extract the tactics and tools you can use. iTunes | RSS
The Knowledge Project. Shane Parrish, author of The Farnam Street blog, interviews key luminaries from across the globe to gain insights into how they think, live, and connect ideas. The core themes will seem familiar to readers: Decision Making, Leadership, Innovation. iTunes | RSS
Cortex. CGP Grey and Myke Hurley are both independent content creators. Each episode, they discuss the methods and tools they employ to be productive and creative. iTunes | RSS
Seth Godin’s Startup School Series by Earwolf. Seth Godin is a thought leader in the marketing and business world. In this rare live recording, hear Seth as he guides thirty entrepreneurs through a workshop exploring how they can build and run their dream business. iTunes | RSS
Writing and Storytelling
Writing Excuses Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler, and Daniel Wells discuss writing techniques in a fast-paced, 15-minute format. “Fifteen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart.” iTunes | RSS
The Story Grid Podcast. Join Shawn Coyne, author of The Story Grid and a top editor for 25+ years, and Tim Grahl, struggling writer, as they discuss the ins and outs of what makes a story great. iTunes | RSS
Tech/Geek oriented Podcasts
Under the Radar. David Smith and Marco Arment. From development and design to marketing and support, Under the Radar is all about independent app development. It’s never longer than 30 minutes. iTunes | RSS
Accidental Tech Podcast (ATP). Featuring Marco Arment, Casey Liss, and John Siracusa. “A tech podcast we accidentally created while trying to do a car show.” This show is always longer than 1 hour… iTunes | RSS
If you want to be more productive, then start at the start: get there on time. Whether it is a meeting, a flight, an appointment or a date, ensure you are there when you say you will be there.
Being on time is respectful to your hosts and also means you can effectively manage your day. Once you get behind, it is hard to catch back up again. Being punctual doesn’t mean rushing around the whole time. I always find the time to exercise - kitesurfing, tennis or cycling – and to spend time with my loved ones. It simply means organising your time effectively.
Being on time doesn’t mean working to a strict, rigid schedule. It means being an effective delegator, organiser and communicator. If it isn’t going to be possible for me to make an appointment, make that clear and apologise. If possible, find one of the team who will find it useful to attend on your behalf, and then ask them to feed back to you. If it really isn’t possible to be on time, call ahead.
How many books did you read last year? How many do you plan to read this year?
Reading books is in decline.
Taylor Pearson1 writes that “in a 1978 survey [US], 42% of adults had read 11 books or more in the past year, and 13% they had read more than 50. In a 2014 study, Pew found that just 28% hit the 11 book mark and only 1% had read more than 50%.2”
In our interconnected reality books have to compete for time against Facebook, instant messaging, mail, or whatever the app of the moment may be. As Seth Godin says, if we have to choose between reading a book and checking e-mail, e-mail wins. The chime of a text message coming in is so irresistible that for many texting while driving is a serious problem.
Our use of the Internet and social media trains us for short bursts of attention and jumping between tasks, not for deep reading or activities that require long spans of attention. Even if we find time for reading a book, we may have a hard time reading it effectively —which is essential for learning— because it has become difficult for us to focus in one thing for even half an hour.
Are books the only way of learning?
Reading books is of course not the only way to learn things.
For example, the offer of open or paid online courses today is better than ever, with plenty of alternatives from serious institutions and companies. Some universities like MIT have published almost all of their course content online for free. But online courses have their own problems. For example, according to a 2014 study3, only an average 6.5% of enrolled students complete open online course, and the rates are negatively correlated with course length.
TED is another great way of learning. TED offers interesting talks, and maintains its quality thanks to the events organizers and the TED community. But I think part of its success is because the talks are around 15 minutes long. Watching a 15 minute video of a talk by an interesting speaker —many times a reference in her field—, with good text transcriptions, is something most of us can do.
Shane Parrish makes a distinction between reading for information and reading for understanding4.
A good heuristic: anything easily digested is reading for information.
Consider the newspaper, are you truly learning anything new? Do you consider the writer your superior when it comes to knowledge in the subject? Odds are probably not. That means you’re reading for information.
There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s how most people read. But you’re not really learning anything new. It’s not going to give you an edge or make you better at your job.
Learning something insightful is harder, you have to read something clearly above your current level.
Listening to a 15 minutes video may give you some insights and ignite the spark of curiosity needed to learn further about a specific topic. But if you need a deep and thorough understanding of the matter, books are still one of the best choices.
Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.” — Francis Bacon, The Essays.
The benefits of reading books are widely known. Reading broadens our understanding of the world, improves focus and concentration. It enhances our imagination. Reading books allows us to have a conversation with men and women of the present and past, learn from them, and let them affect our lives.
“People who do little or no serious reading (that is, reading for other than practical purposes or shallow amusement) don’t comprehend others, or their culture, or the complexities of reality, as well as those who do such reading.”5
The habit of reading correlates with better reading skills and higher academic achievement7. “Learning constantly is one of the best ways to get results in life. And reading —reading effectively, and reading a lot— is one of the best ways to learn8“.
According to his father, Microsoft’s co-founder Bill Gates was an avid reader since an early age6:
Just about every kind of book interested him -–encyclopedias, science fiction, you name it. I was thrilled that my child was such an avid reader, but he read so much that Bill’s mother and I had to institute a rule: no books at the dinner table.
As you can see from his book recommendations page on his personal blog, despite his multiple responsibilities, Bill hasn’t stop reading.
Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg, whose challenge for 2015 was to read a new book every other week —with an emphasis on learning about different cultures, beliefs, histories and technologies— states that books allow us to fully explore a topic and immerse yourself in a deeper way than most media today.
Whether or not people read, and indeed how much and how often they read, affects their lives in crucial ways. (…) The data (…) demonstrate that reading is an irreplaceable activity in developing productive and active adults as well as healthy communities.
Amazon’s best selling business author Taylor Pearson, who reads around 60 books a year, writes:
For all the tricks I’ve developed to, the real reason I think I read so much is that I see it as a career competitive advantage. If I have to cut something out of my schedule, reading books is one of the last things to go. (…)
As less and less people read books, it’s getting even more valuable. As more people are focused on USA Today [newspaper] articles on their phones, the more profound the benefits from older books.
Reading is also an expression of who we are. Harold Bloom’s answer to the question of why should we read is that “only deep, constant reading fully establishes and augments an autonomous self.” Read not to change the world or to be a better person but simply to know, to become, yourself9. We read (…) in order to strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interests10.
All the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. With each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not. — Nick Hornby, Ten Years in the Tub
We read Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Dickens, Proust, and all their peers because they more than enlarge life… We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading of the now much-abused traditional canon is the search for a difficult pleasure. I am not exactly an erotics-of-reading purveyor, and a pleasurable difficulty seems to me a plausible definition of the Sublime, but a higher pleasure remains the reader’s quest… I urge you to find what truly comes near to you, that can be used for weighing and for considering. Read deeply, not to believe, not to accept, not to contradict, but to learn to share in that one nature that writes and reads.
How many do you plan to read this year? Set yourself a goal, it’s worth the effort.
If you were wondering about reading habits in Peru (where I live), according to a survey by Ipsos, only 19% of adults in Lima read a book the previous year, compared to 24% in 2010 and 25% in 2009. Note that there is no mention for adults reading more than one book a year, so the data wasn’t worth mentioning. According to another survey by Arellano (2014), 26% of peruvians have never read a book. ↩
Micromanagement kills ownership. Shane Parrish quoting Michael Abrashoff describes the problem when top performers become managers but continue to focus on individual contribution instead of on real leadership:
The difference between thinking as a top performer and thinking like your boss is the difference between individual contribution and real leadership. Some people never make this jump; they keep doing what made them successful, which in a leadership role usually means micromanaging. My predecessor on Benfold (the ship Abrashoff commanded), for instance, was extremely smart—a nuclear engineer and one of the brightest guys in the Navy. He spent his entire career in engineering, and when he took command of Benfold, he became, in effect, the super chief engineer of the ship. According to those who worked for him, he never learned to delegate. The more he kept sweating the details, the less his people took ownership of their work and the ship.
It comes down to this: only people can have ethics. Ethics, as in, doing the right thing for the community even though it might not benefit you or your company financially. Pointing to the numbers (or to the boss) is an easy refuge for someone who would like to duck the issue, but the fork in the road is really clear. You either do work you are proud of, or you work to make the maximum amount of money. (It would be nice if those overlapped every time, but they rarely do).
Don’t Reply All: 18 Email Tactics That Help You Write Better Emails and Improve Communication with Your Team, by Hassan Osman
Hassan Osman has a vast experience managing projects with large, geographically distributed teams. His previous book, Influencing Virtual Teams, offered no-nonsense tactics to help you managing your team.
Despite the huge advances in communications and the little improvement in email systems, email is here to stay. And it makes sense, because email remains one of the most effective and frictionless form of communications.
Reading, writing, and answering emails consumes a significant amount of everybody’s time.
According to a 2012 McKinsey study cited by Osman, the average US worker spends 28% of his/her workweek reading and responding to email. Most people recognize that they should do something about how they deal with mail, the actual number of people taking some real action is small.
This book is not about managing your inbox —no “inbox zero” pretentions here—, but about down-to-earth tactics to help you and your team become better and more effective communicators. The value of the book is not in its novelty —”There’s nothing earth-shattering about the contents of this book. In fact, many of my tips are common sense that you’ve probably read somewhere before”— but in that it offers proven best practices that you can adopt immediately, and that you can share with your team immediately.
The tactics described in Don’t Reply All can be divided in two groups, tactics 1 to 5 being the most important and effective ones. “If you take away a handful of lessons from this entire book, they should be those five tactics. They are your 80/ 20—the 20% of actions that will produce 80% of your results.”
These 5 tactics are about how to write meaninful subject lines, keeping the content of your emails short and to the point, and assigning tasks using the “3W”s:
The Who. Use the name of a single person of the name of the persons, don’t address people using “all”, “team”, etc.
The What. Don’t be ambiguous and avoid making assumptions.
The When. The exact time and date a task needs to be completed by. Always use a deadline, even if it’s fake.
The remaining 13 tactics in the book cover other no-nonsense advice like why you should steer away from asking open-ended questions in mails, how to use delayed delivery for sending emails when they are most likely to be read, and the maybe the most important one: do not hit reply-all when only the original sender needs to read your message.
I think that anybody whose work involves using email for communicating with coworkers and clients will greatly benefit from the tactics offered in this book.
Tags: book review, productivity, email, communication, effectiveness, team building