For the past 3 months I’ve been working on my next book. It’s called The Power of a Focused Life and is all about things like life goals, time management, work-life balance, creativity, the tyranny of the urgent, focus, and more.
Over the past several months, most of the episodes of my members-only podcast, Shawn Today, have been about the topics and ideas I’m writing and researching for the book.
I just recently finished the crappy first draft, and it’s around 16,000 words. I wanted to start by getting everything written down that I had in me — the first draft is just me straight-up writing down the things I know and the things I do regarding these topics. It’s a great start, but there is a lot more ground I want to cover.
And so now I’ve begun the second phase of writing, which involves intentional research. I’m now reading articles, books, and teaching series from others so I can find out what I’m missing and add more content to my second draft of the book.
All that to say, I recently read an article and book about identifying and changing habits.
It got me thinking about one of my own worst habits: checking Twitter.
One of the reasons I wear a watch is to help keep me from pulling my phone out as often as I would. If I want to check the time I look at my watch. Because as soon as I’m holding my phone, it’s instinct at this point to swipe-to-unlock the thing. And then, once the phone is unlocked and I’m staring blankly at my Home screen of icons, I’m going to want to launch an app. But because I unlocked the phone without any clear plan for what I needed to do, the next thing I know I’m checking Twitter. And all the while, I don’t even know what time it is. See? It’s a bad habit.
There are three components that make up a habit: Trigger → Response → Reward.
The keys to changing a habit are to start by figuring out what the reward is — what is it that you’re seeking to gain by carrying out the habit action? Then, learn what the trigger is so that you can head it off at the pass or prepare for it. Finally, you insert a new, healthy action as the trigger response instead of your bad action.
Now, let’s just assume that compulsive checking of Twitter, Facebook, and email are bad habits. And by that I mean they are habits we want to change. I know I personally would like to check Twitter less often. (Have I ever gained anything by checking Twitter while standing in line at the grocery store or while waiting at a red light?)
For me, here’s what my Twitter checking habit loop looks like:
Trigger: I have down time; I’m bored; I’m waiting for something or someone. Common times this occurs are when I’m standing in line somewhere, when a commercial break comes on during a football game, when I’m waiting for water to boil, etc.
Response: Pull out my iPhone, launch Twitter, and just scroll through tweets.
Reward: Pacify my boredom and/or get a short-term gain of social interaction because someone @replied to me or whatever.
What I need is a new action to do when I have down time.
Of course, it’s important to mention that there is nothing wrong with being bored. In fact, those little moments of mental down time can do wonders for our long-term ability to create, problem solve, and do great work.
For the times I do want to use my iPhone when I’m waiting in line at the grocery store, I’ve come up with a few alternatives instead of just checking Twitter.
These are a few alternatives to the Just Checks:
Scroll through your Day One timeline and read a previous journal entry or browse some old photos and memories.
Launch Day One and log how you’ve spent your time so far for the day. Doing this for a few weeks can also be super helpful for getting a perspective of where your time and energy are being spent.
Write down 3 new ideas. These could be articles you want to write, business ideas, places you want to visit or photograph, topics you want to research, date ideas for you and your spouse, gift ideas for a friend, etc. These ideas never have to to be acted on — the point isn’t to generate a to-do list, but rather to exercise your mind. Ideation and creativity are muscles, and the more we exercise them the stronger they get.
Send a text message to a friend or family member to tell them how awesome they are.
Don’t get out your phone at all.
These alternatives are meant to be healthy. Meaning they have a positive long-term effect and satisfy the same reward as before. The point here is to not default into the passive consumption of content (it’s so easy to do that anyway). If you’ve got any ideas of your own, let me know on Twitter.
Take advantage of those down time moments and allow our minds to rest for a bit or else engage our minds by doing something active and positive.
In my article a few weeks back regarding working from home, I touched on the importance of staying physically healthy. Especially for those of us who sit at a desk and do pixel-related work all day.
The boiling point for me came about 6 weeks ago. My legs were to the point where they felt sore pretty much nonstop because of poor circulation. This was a combination of sitting all day and sitting in a not-great chair.
And so, I took action. I turned my desk into a standing desk, started running, and made a few small changes to my diet.
If you’re like me, sometimes you get paralyzed by indecision. There are so many options and opinions for how to stay healthy that it can be daunting. And so we put off making any sort of choice because we’re afraid we won’t make the perfect choice. Something I’ve learned over time is that when you’re facing a decision and you know you need to act, it’s often best to just do something — anything — and then figure it out as you go.
And that’s what I did with my health. My health changes have centered around three areas: diet, my desk, and doing something active. Of course there are other answers to these problems, but this is what I’m doing right now. And, perhaps, if you’re in a similar boat this will give you a spark to give something a shot and see where it takes you.
While physical activity is important, it’s only part of staying healthy. And for those who want to lose weight, they say that what you eat is more important than what your exercise routine looks like.
I’m not on a special diet or anything like that, but I have made a few changes to my eating habits. I’ve tried to cut out sugar and white flour as much as possible. This is a surprisingly easy way to improve what I eat. Instead of counting calories or any of that stuff I just don’t eat or drink things that have sugar. In the past month I have had sugar twice.
Additionally, for breakfast, I make this shake (thank God for our Vitamix):
- 1 medium cucumber
- 2 cored apples
- 2 big handfuls of spinach
- 3 ribs of celery
- 2-3 small carrots
- 1 teaspoon ginger root, peeled
- Juice of 1 lime
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
The lime and ginger dominate. And cucumbers, apples, and carrots are naturally sweet when juiced. So it’s surprisingly refreshing and sweet. It’s a bit thick, but that’s okay.
It makes about 32 ounces. Which is enough for 2 or 3 people.
And for lunch, after my workout, I have this: * 3/4 C non-fat milk * 1/4 C non-fat greek yogurt * 1/4 C natural peanut butter * 1 big banana * Two big leaves of kale, or a big handful of spinach * Giant handful of blueberries * half scoop of protein powder if you have it (hopefully strawberry flavored) * ice to taste (5-6 cubes perhaps)
This protein smoothie is sweet and delicious. It’s full of dairy, protein, and fiber. It’s low in calories. And since the peanut butter, banana, and blueberries dominate the flavor, it tastes like a milkshake.
Back in 2011 I converted my IKEA Galant into a standing desk. It lasted about 6 months before I went back to sitting. I felt better when standing, I worked better, and it was great to come downstairs after a day standing at the desk and to sit down to relax for the evening.
But standing while writing never felt right to me. I preferred the more “contemplative” posture of sitting.
Six weeks ago I once again converted my IKEA desk back to the standing desk. This time it has been different. Perhaps writing full-time for the past three and a half years has removed my sentiment that sitting while writing is best. Because I’ve been getting great work done while standing here. (I’m standing right now!)
But my IKEA retrofit wasn’t ideal. Primarily it was about 1 inch too short. I’ve been at this desk for nearly 4 years now, it was time to invest in something better. So I got one of those electronic adjusting desks at the recommendation of my friend, Ben Brooks.
The adjustable-height desk I got is this Jarvis desk. It is sturdy, fast, quiet, and amazing. I wish I had bought it years ago.
You can get just the legs and put your own desk top on, which is much cheaper. While it’s pricey compared to a cardboard box for hoisting your keyboard up on your current desk, the Jarvis is quite affordable when compared to many other options out there.
When I ordered mine it was shipping free on Amazon Prime. Currently it’s not available on Amazon.
I got it about a month ago and had it set up in an evening. I’m glad I got the electric version and not a hand-crank version. If anything, having the precision of getting the desk to exactly the right heigh for standing and sitting each time is huge. I can tell if it’s not quite right and that precision is worth it.
(And while you’re at it, be sure to get an anti-fatigue mat.)
I’m at my desk probably 6-8 hours per day. I stand for 4-5 of those. For the times I am sitting, I need a chair that will help encourage circulation in my legs and better posture. In fact, it was the poor circulation in my legs that brought this whole thing to a boil in the first place. At the end of the day, my legs would be sore because they weren’t getting enough activity and circulation.
I haven’t yet gone to a fancy chair dealership to sit in the different ergonomic chairs, but it’s on my list.
From the age of 7 to 18 I practiced martial arts, and was extremely active in my later teen years. I was at the Do Jang 5 nights a week, my friends and I competed in the Colorado Karate Association, and I taught regular classes at the studio.
All those years kicking and punching took a toll on my joints. When I was 18 I found out I had rotator cuff tendinitis in both my shoulders. This is something that has severely limited my ability to do too much physical activity that involves my arms.
Finally, I asked a friend of mine who is a personal trainer if he would help me get a weights routine that would accommodate my shoulder pain. I’m not trying to buff up, just want to be fit. Also, having the set workout plan that he drew up is so helpful. I know what to do when I go to the gym, and that in and of itself was a huge obstacle to overcome.
Also I started running. I run on the elliptical machine because it’s significantly easier on my knees (which are also bad thanks to martial arts). At first, I assumed the elliptical machine was for wimps and so I avoided it. But boy was I wrong. Every time I’m at the gym it’s always the huge football dudes who are on the elliptical machine.
Thoughts on going to the gym instead of going outside
This past month is the first time I’ve ever gone to the gym to work out. Growing up in Colorado all my activity was outside. But for the past month, going to the gym has proven to be great.
For one, it’s an excuse to get out of the house every day. The 10 minute drive serves as a transition time to let my mind get pumped up for my workout. If I’m not in the mood to work out, I tell myself that at least all I have to do is show up and I don’t have to go running once I’m there.
But once I’m there and I’m around others who are working out, I feel ready to exercise. That community aspect is a great motivating factor to do my workout.
And, to top it all off, the gym offers a discount to businesses. As a self-employed LLC, I brought in a copy of my business license and get a deal on the monthly rate. Which also means that my gym membership is a tax-deductible expense.
Using the iPhone at the Gym
Apps: Having a plan for what to do is huge. I started using this Couch to 5K app, and I love it. I’m also slowly building a good workout playlist in Rdio.
iPhone arm band: I got this Belkin sport armband because it’s the only option they had at Target. It’s fine I guess, but I bet there are better options out there. The plastic cover over top of the iPhone isn’t snug against the face, and so it takes a bit of focus to tap on buttons. Which, when you’re running and this thing is strapped to your arm, it’s not exactly easy.
However, when running on the elliptical machine I don’t use the band because I can just set my iPhone in the cup holder. Of course, then I don’t get all those step counts in Pedometer++. Ah well.
Earbuds: Finding good earbuds was a must. Over the past month I tried my go-to RHA buds, the Apple buds, and some Sony buds. The Wirecutter recommends the Relays, but I wanted wireless because three weeks with wired earbuds and I was going nuts every single run.
These JayBird BlueBuds X were the Wirecutter’s 2nd recommended (and didn’t take top place because of their price). They’re not cheap ($150). But when I asked about them on Twitter, I received a significant number of replies from people who use them and love them. Nothing but positive reviews. So I picked up a pair and am very happy I did.
It took me 3 days to get the fit figured out, but it was worth it. Though I wouldn’t say they’re perfect (still can start to slip out of my ears towards the end of my run) they are significantly more comfortable, more permanent, and better sounding than all the other options I’d used before. Just gotta remember to keep them charged up. Also, get these Comply Foam Tips to go with the BludeBuds X — they are much better than the rubber tips that come with the JayBirds.
Two years ago, Google started bringing fiber to Kansas City. And it took them until today to make their way to my house.
In the 2 years between their original announcement and when service became available in my neighborhood, I thought quite a bit about if I was willing to let Google be my Internet Service Provider.
The biggest question I had to ask myself: will Google be using my online activity to sell me ads? The answer is: certainly.
So then I had to ask myself if I was okay with that. And the answer is: yes I am.
Google is already trying to sell me ads. They have been ever since I signed up for the Gmail beta back in 2006 or whenever.
Obviously, now that they’re my ISP, they will be able to garner more information about my house. Basically they now have visibility into anything we do online that’s not an encrypted transaction, such as the movies we stream from Netflix, the products we browse on Amazon, what songs we stream over Rdio, every website we visit, and who knows what else. It sounds creepy when you put it like that, but it’s also no different than any other ISP relationship I’ve had (AOL, Time Warner, Verizon, AT&T). It’s just that none of the others were in to Big Data as much as Google is.
And it’s not dangerous. All our most sensitive information is still safe because it’s transferred over encrypted connections (emails, passwords, iMessages, SSL encrypted sites like my bank, et al.).
All that to say, I am comfortable with Google as my ISP. Because in exchange, I now have internet speeds that are 20 times faster than the fastest I could pay TWC to provide. And it’s for the same price of $70/month.
In many ways, the faster speeds won’t have a huge impact on my day-to-day life. Just because I have 20x faster internet doesn’t mean I will get 20x more work done. My Rdio songs won’t sound any better, my emails won’t send or receive all that noticeably quicker, etc.
But Netflix will stream in higher quality. My daily podcast now uploads in one second (literally). Safari will connect to websites and servers quicker thanks to the fantastic ping rate with Google Fiber, and media-rich sites will load sooner. Big file downloads will be noticeably faster. And who knows what else.
Moreover, it seems worth mentioning that the entire signup and installation process for Google Fiber was incredible. Believe it or not, Google was extremely organized, friendly, clear, and efficient. All of the automated systems they had in place for contacting me when Fiber became available, and for helping me schedule the installation were clear and easy. The technicians who came to my house to run the lines and set up the network box were very friendly. And the one time I had to call customer service to re-schedule an appointment, the lady I spoke to on the phone knew exactly what she was talking about. So far, I’ve been impressed with the whole process and service.
My grandpa was a teacher by trade and a woodworker by passion. My grandmother never did get to park their car in the garage because it was my grandpa’s wood shop.
In my garage are a few tools handed down to me from my Grandpa. Here’s a photo of a few of the more sentimental items I’ve been given: a level and a hand plane.
The level is least 50 or 60 years old — it has my great grandfather’s initials carved on it. And the plane is probably as old as I am.
I am also a woodworker by passion, but not nearly to the extent my grandpa was. I enjoy building tables and benches on the weekends as a way to give my mind and hands a change of pace from the pixel-based work I do the rest of the week.
The tools of my trade are digital.
A lot has changed in the personal computing industry since 1985. For me, the first computer I ever called my own was a Dell laptop back in 2000. Aside from my Yahoo ID and my AOL AIM account,1 I am not using any of the apps or services that I began using back in 2000.
Sometimes I wonder if the software I’m using today will still be around 20 or 30 years from now. If I put a reminder into OmniFocus to renew my passport in 2024, will that to-do item be preserved until the time it’s due?
For equal parts fun and research, I was digging around to see what Mac apps have been around for the past couple of decades and which are still relevant and under active development.
Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
Pro Tools: 1991 (Fun fact: did you know when Pro Tools first launched it cost $6,000, and that “Livin la Vida Loca” was the first number 1 single to be recorded, edited, and mixed entirely in Pro Tools?)
I’m sure there are more. Though I’m not trying to make this list exhaustive, if you know of any apps that should be on this list let me know on Twitter. I’m @shawnblanc.
- Which I need for Flickr and AIM respectively. Though iMessage has largely usurped AIM over the past year or so. ↵
Speaking of backyard cooking, here is one of my all-time favorite recipes: grilled artichokes with a vinegar cheese dipping sauce.
Artichokes are in season during the summer, and this recipe makes for an amazing appetizer, side, or even a whole meal if you want.
It’s surprisingly easy to do, and it’ll impress the heck out of your friends.
The Dipping Sauce
- 3T Mayo
- 2T vinegar
- 1T parmesan cheese
- 2T chives
- 2t golden mustard
- Some dashes of parsley
Directions: Add vinegar and parmesan cheese and warm up in microwave to melt the cheese. Then add mayonnaise, mustard, chives, and parsley. Mix.
Melt and mix 2T Butter with 1t salt and 1t ground pepper for each whole artichoke being cooked.
One artichoke per 2 people is usually enough.
Fill a pot with enough water that all the artichokes can be submerged. I also will add a cup or two of chicken or vegetable broth.
Boil artichokes in water until the stem is tender enough that a butter knife placed into the top of the stem can easily pierce. (Takes about 45 minutes.)
Remove artichokes from water and cut them in half from top to bottom.
With a spoon, scoop out the Inner Petals and the Choke (basically all the parts that you don’t want to eat) from each half.
Spread the butter marinade onto the inside of the artichoke and get it in between as many of the petals as you can.
Place the artichoke halves onto a hot grill with the Heart facing down
Cook for 3-5 minutes (sear them; don’t burn to a crisp).
Flip over after a few minutes to sear the other side.
Add more butter marinade if you have any.
Once both sides have been cooked and have grill marks, remove from the grill.
Eat it by plucking a petal off at a time and dipping it into the sauce.
Having fun is an excellent way to do our best creative work.
But as anyone who writes or draws or takes pictures for a living will tell you, thinking and creating something awesome every day can be excruciatingly painful. Doing our best creative work day in and day out is difficult. Creative work wears on your mind and your emotions instead of on your joints and muscles. Not to mention the sheer horror involved in the act of taking something you’ve created and putting it out there in public in the hopes of making a dollar so you can make something else and put it out there again.
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On Episode 5 of The Weekly Briefly, Patrick Rhone was my guest and we were sharing some bits of writing advice for people wanting to build a website audience. One of the foundational principals we both agreed on was the immeasurable importance of having fun, which is not as easy as it sounds. As I mentioned above, publishing your creative work to the internet for all the world to see is often a very not-fun thing to do.
Patrick said something that is an excellent guiding principal to help you keep your writing fun: write the internet that you want to read.
There is something freeing about creating for yourself. When we take hold of that baton and create for that second version of ourselves, it’s like having a permission slip to do awesome work. And what better way to have fun than to do awesome work? There’s an inverse truth here as well: most of our best work comes from the place of delight. When we are excited about a project, that creative momentum propels us to think outside the box and to dream new ideas as the project takes residence as the top idea in our mind.
Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, would agree. Here’s an excerpt from a speech he gave in 1990 at the Kenyon College commencement ceremony:
If I’ve learned one thing from being a cartoonist, it’s how important playing is to creativity and happiness. My job is essentially to come up with 365 ideas a year. If you ever want to find out just how uninteresting you really are, get a job where the quality and frequency of your thoughts determine your livelihood. I’ve found that the only way I can keep writing every day, year after year, is to let my mind wander into new territories. To do that, I’ve had to cultivate a kind of mental playfulness.
And here’s James Altucher in a Facebook status update about how to write for a living:
The most important thing for me: writing without fear. Writing without judgment. Writing without anger. Making writing fun. Writing right now. Writing is about freedom and not money.
Now, as you probably know all too well, in practice it’s not that easy. But you and I are not alone in our fight to stay creative. We can (and we should!) set ourselves up for success. By identifying the things that suffocate fun and creativity, as well as knowing the things that encourage creativity, we can wage war against the former and cultivate the latter.
Let’s start with the bad news first.
Stiflers of creativity
Below, I’ve listed the things that will cut off our ability and/or desire to do our best creative work. These are things that will whisper in our ear that our idea is pathetic and our implementation of it even worse. They urge us to give up, to move on, to quit, and to pacify our minds. They tell us that we have nothing unique to offer, that we have no value, and that everything will come crashing down any minute, so why even bother.
Isolation: Being alone from any community, any peer group, and anybody who you can bounce ideas off of, get feedback from, and just other general human contact that reminds you of the fact you’re a real human being.
Ambiguity: Having unknown goals and trying to complete them in an undefined manner with a hazy schedule. Without clear goals, an action plan to accomplish them, and a schedule for when we are going to work, then we just meander around not actually doing anything.
Fear & anxiety: This includes fear of failure, fear of rejection. It can paralyze us from even getting started on our ideas because we fear it will come to nothing in the end anyway. Or we fear that when we are finished, people will reject our work and reject us as the author behind it. The problem here is that it puts all the value on the end result only, and places no value at all in the journey of the creative process itself. There is nothing wrong with failure and rejection — we can learn so much from those things! And there is no shortcut for experience. We mustn’t be afraid of failing nor of being rejected, and we must place more value on the act of creating so we can find joy in the journey and develop a lifetime of experience in making things.
Shame: Feeling inadequate as an artist at all, embarrassed about the work we’ve done, even embarrassed about the future work we haven’t even done yet. When we feel shame, we shy away from our big bold ideas and the result is a self-fulfilling prophecy and we make something completely devoid of life and opinion.
Doubt: Doubting that we have the skills to make anything at all; doubting our value as a creative person.
Comparison: There is a difference between learning and gleaning from others and comparing our work to theirs. Where there is comparison there is often envy as well. And this deadly pair will choke out any originality we have. Ray Bradbury, from his Martian Chronicles introduction, wrote: “I did what most writers do at their beginnings: emulated my elders, imitated my peers, thus turning away from any possibility of discovering truths beneath my skin and behind my eyes.”
Disillusionment: This is “a feeling of disappointment resulting from the discovery that something is not as good as one believed it to be.” We can get disillusioned in a million ways, and often the result is a loss of vision for doing our creative work. I avoid disillusionment by steering clear of the things and the people that represent what I consider the “worst” things of my areas of interest and work.
When we live with these stiflers of creativity as a permanent ailment for too long, it can lead to burn out. The solution isn’t to quit our creative endeavors altogether, but rather to get rid of the ailment. I will say, however, that quitting (or taking a sabbatical) works sometimes because when you fully remove yourself from the situation you have a chance to deal with the ailment in a new environment.
Identify these enemies in your creative life and wage war against them. Give yourself permission to do what it takes to set yourself up to do the best creative work you can do. Quit Twitter. Move to Atlanta. Only write and publish after 9pm at night. Whatever.
Stimulators and proponents of creativity
These are the things we want to cultivate as much as possible. Build these into your life and guard them with tenacity. These are not replacements for talent, knowledge, and perseverance — rather they are the things that serve as both the seedbed and the greenhouse in which creativity grows and flourishes.
Community: You need community to help cultivate your ideas, encourage you to keep working, and to speak truth to you about the things you’re afraid of. If you work from home, community can be tricky. Have a chat room where some of your close friends are available; get out and go to coffee shops or parks; work from a coworking space regularly; eat meals with friends; actively engage in non-work-related relationships.
Clear goals: Having a defined goal can help us to focus on actually accomplishing our idea and making it happen. Looming, unanswered questions often lead to inaction and procrastination. Overcoming that is often as simple as defining an end goal. Of course, it’s worth noting that sometimes you just want to go out and take photographs and who cares what you shoot. Nothing wrong with that either, of course.
Trust: You have to trust your skills, trust your gut, and trust your value as a contributor. You’re not an impostor. And the more you learn and the more experience you gain, the more your skills will grow. But if you wait until you’ve “arrived” to begin your journey, it’s a logical impossibility that you will ever actually arrive. You have to step out the front door and start walking.
Experience: The more times we’ve gone down the same path, the more familiar with it we become. Experience breeds confidence. And confidence is the opposite of doubt. Thus, the more we do the work, the better we get at it. In part, we are getting better because that’s what happens when you practice. But also, we get better because the confidence which experience breeds helps us to loosen up, relax, and take new risks.
Rest: A surprisingly critical part of maintaining a consistently creative lifestyle is stepping away from the creative work at hand in order to recharge. The mind is like a battery, however — it recharges by running. Don’t default to TV and video games as your forms of rest. Get plenty of sleep. Take walks or drives. If you work with your mind, try resting with your hands and build something out of wood or plant a garden. Read. Etc.
Diligence: This includes spending our time wisely, having a routine, focus, and automation. Diligence isn’t a personality type, it’s a skill we learn. Some of us had a good work ethic instilled in us by our parents, some of us have had to cultivate it on our own later in life. It is silly to think a creative person should live without routine, discipline, or accountability. Sure, inspiration often comes to us when we least expect it, and so by all means, let us allow exceptions to our schedules. But sitting around being idle while we wait for inspiration is a good way to get nothing done. And worse, it is also a way to let the creative juices get stagnant.
Other factors and variables
There are some response-based factors that don’t make or break an artist in and of themselves, but, depending on what they are (and our response to them), they can empower or handicap us.
Tools: Tools do not an artist make nor break; but the right tools can empower us to be more efficient and the wrong tools can slow us down.
Constraint: Constraint often breeds creativity because it forces us to think outside of the box, but too much constraint can actually stifle a project’s full potential.
Praise & criticism: The positive and negative feedback of people can be dangerous. If we take it to heart too much, it can easily lead to pride or depression. We should glean from the feedback we get, but not let it steer us in our goals and direction. One of the most dangerous questions a creative person can ask themselves is: “What if the critics are right?” If they’re right, you’ll already have known it. Let the council of your peers lead you, not the one-off praise or rejection of strangers.
Success & failure: Similar to praise and criticism, success and failure can be dangerous. Our successes and failures should be things we learn from and use as stepping stones in our ever-continuing journey to make awesome things. Successes and failures should be celebrated and learned from, but don’t treat them as stopping points.
Environment: A positive work environment can do wonders for your daily creative productivity. A distracting environment can stifle things. Do what you can to set up and maintain an awesome environment that fosters inspiration, creativity, focus, and fun.
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As Hemingway said: “Write drunk; edit sober.” Alcohol aside, the point is that creating without inhibition results in better work in the end. Have fun when making, and go back later to fix those typos and bunny trails.
But, that’s not to say fun is the premier goal that in the fight to stay creative. The goal — the hope — is that we can do our best creative work, day in and day out, for years and years.
What’s so great about having fun in our creative work is that it stands as a signal, telling us we are “in the zone”. When we’re having fun in our creative work it usually means we feel safe to dream big and to take new risks. Not to mention, when we’re having fun, it gives us a natural energy that helps us persevere and bring our ideas to life.
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P.S. This topic of staying creative has a significant presence in my book, Delight is in the Details. It’s such a critical discussion that I also made a video about it. You can watch the video here and buy the book here.
With the recent post and podcast talking about kids and screentime and just the prevalence of touch screens in our day to day lives and relationships, here are two incredible illustrations on the topic that speak volumes.
First is this cover from The New Yorker’s 2009 Halloween edition. This artwork is from half a decade ago, and it’s just as relevant today if not more so.
Perhaps these two pieces are part of the same story. After taking the kids out trick or treating, mom and dad come home where they can be alone with their phones.
The more I read about smartwatches, the more I appreciate my “dumb” watches.
Here is an exhaustive rundown of all the functionality of my watches: They tell the time of day (albeit they’re imprecise, and usually off by half a minute or so) and the date. The Seiko, being fancy, also tells the day of the week. And since neither watch knows what month it is, a few times per year I have to adjust the date forward from “29” or “31” to “1”.
But I don’t just wear a watch to know what time it is. Part of the reason I wear one is as an excuse not to pull out my iPhone.
So often I’d be standing in line at the grocery store and I’d pull out my iPhone to see what time it was. Then, out of sheer habit, I’d swipe to unlock and the next thing you know I’m mindlessly scrolling through tweets or reading emails without actually acting on them. Then the line would move, I’d put the iPhone back in my pocket, and if you’d asked me what time it was I couldn’t even tell you.
My analog watches are my reminder that utility exists apart from an internet connection and usefulness doesn’t require the latest software.
My watches don’t have an interactive touch display. Nor do they have Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, LTE, or USB. Heck, the Seiko doesn’t even have a battery — if I don’t wear it for a day or two then it stops working until I wind it again.
There are no apps for my watches. I can’t pair them with my iPhone, can’t give them voice commands, can’t get directions from them, nor can I use them to change my music to the next track.
On the flip side, my watches don’t require updates, and they won’t be “slow and outdated” in one year’s time after the next version comes out. In fact, they will never grow outdated and irrelevant unless they break altogether.
In 15 or 20 years my sons will hopefully think it’s special when I pass down one of my old watches to them.
That’s not to say vintage technology isn’t special. But an old watch is simultaneously special and usable. In 20 years my original iPhone, as special and nostalgic as it will be, probably won’t even power on.
My affinity for analog watches doesn’t mean I dislike the concept of the smartwatch. My iPhone is one of the most incredible items I have ever owned and used. But my experience with it has also taught me that the promise of convenient notifications and relevant information is almost always paired with the reality of constant distractions, tugs for attention, and perhaps even an addiction to the “just checks”.
When I look down at my watch I know exactly what it will show me: the time.
My grandpa is legally blind. He can see, but poorly. When he reads books they are the extra large print editions, and he holds them so close they’re practically resting on his nose. And when he watches an old western film from his VHS collection he sits about two feet away from his big-screen TV.
Last weekend, while in Colorado visiting family, we had a big family dinner at my parents’ house. I loaded my 2-year-old son, Noah, into the car and we drove to pick up my Grandpa from his apartment and bring him over for dinner.
My Grandparents’ homes were always filled with seemingly floor to ceiling photos of family. And his current apartment is no different. There are picture frames on the table and on the desk and on the dresser, and snapshots of grandchildren have been printed out (with the help of more tech-savvy relatives) and thumb-tacked to the walls.
At the apartment, I held Noah while my Grandpa gathered his things — his coat, hat, and walker. And, a new item now: his iPad.
The iPad was a gift from my aunt. It’s a 3rd generation and she doesn’t use it that often so she gave it to him hoping he could use it. (Perhaps as a giant remote control for the TV?)
But my Grandpa discovered a use for it that none of us had considered. It is the best camera he’s ever owned.
Before leaving the apartment, Noah and I had to pose for a picture. Holding the iPad about 10 inches in front of his face, my Grandpa snapped a few photos.
I know there are people out there who take pictures using their iPads, because I’ve seen — ahem — pictures of them doing it. But I’ve always thought it a bit funny and awkward.
And there I was. Posing to have my picture taken with an iPad.
At first, I wanted to snicker. But how could I? If my Grandpa wants to use an iPad to take a picture of his grandson and great grandson, then who cares? Certainly not me.
Back at my parent’s house, my Grandpa continued to spend the first part of the evening taking everyone’s picture. Several of my cousins were there, and many of us don’t get to see my Grandpa more often than every couple of months, if not longer. It was a prime time for snapshots.
Later, Noah quickly warmed up to my Grandpa thanks to the iPad. (As any parent knows, iPads and iPhones are captivating to a toddler. Noah is already quite fluent with iOS and has been sliding to unlock since before he could walk.) The iPad was a way for my Grandpa to spend some time with Noah at his side, as the two of them flipped through the camera roll.
With a smile, I’ve been thinking about that evening for the past week.
My Grandpa’s iPad has enabled him to do something that he’s been unable to do for as long as I can remember. The 9.7-inch touch screen has turned my Grandpa into a photographer.
The screen is large enough that he can see well enough to actually frame and take pictures. And then he has them right there, on that same large screen, where he can browse through them any time he wants.
To me, that’s pretty magical.
Yesterday was a day spent with family, enjoying each others’ company, laughing, and having great conversations. I hope you had a very merry Christmas and continue to have a blessed holiday season.
With some exceptions, Apple has announced just one major update to the iPhone and the iPad per year. Some say this one-per-year pace is too slow for such a competitive industry where consumers want to buy only what’s new, newer, and newest. But for anyone who is already an Apple customer, once a year can sure come around quickly.
When I’m able, and when it makes sense, I prefer to spend more on an item and get something high quality. The tools and toys I use the most should be as close to perfect as possible. I want something built with care and quality, that is enjoyable to use, and will last me a long time.
Apple, its products, its surrounding ecosystem all sit in this market.
There is an aura of craftsmanship and attention to detail that presides over most of Apple’s hardware and software. And this same care for product development attracts 3rd-party developers and engineers who have the same ideals and commitment to excellence. The Apple ecosystem is home to the best hardware and software in the world.
One of the reasons I spend my money on Apple products is because they’re innovative, cool, capable, and delightful. But also, they hold their value and their usefulness for a very long time.
Today my heart is full, and I’m feeling so thankful.
The past two weeks have been a sprint. My son, Giovanni Blanc, is 14 days old today, and we could not be happier to have another boy in the house.
My original intention was to take a few weeks off after Giovanni was born. But, bless his heart, he waited to be born until the day before Apple announced their new iPhones. I’ve never written so many words while changing so many diapers with so little sleep in such a short amount of time. (Achievement unlocked?)
As far as work goes, I spent a lot of time testing and reviewing several new and updated 3rd-party apps, covering iOS 7, keeping somewhat up to date with the lead up to the iPhone launch, and then standing in line for an iPhone 5s.
On the home front, the Blancs are now a 4-person family. And my wife, Anna, has quit her job and is now at home being an amazing mom to our two boys.
The work I am doing here at shawnblanc.net now completely supports our family. And the single biggest piece of that pie continues to be all the subscribing members. Thank you!
This coming spring will be the 3 year anniversary of when I began writing here full time. The past couple of weeks I’ve been reflecting much on the past few years as well as looking ahead to what’s next. And I just wanted to say thanks to the small group of you who show up every day to read this site and support the work I’m doing here. It means the world to me, and I’m working hard to make sure I’m doing my best work every day.
My day started at 6:45 this morning. With a cup of coffee in hand,1 I was about the 100th person to join the line at my local Apple store.
To make a long story short I decided to ditch my spot in line and go to the local AT&T store where I was the 20th person in line. The store opened at 8:00 and by 8:30 I was being helped by a sales rep to get a Space Gray iPhone 5s.
The look of the Space Gray is much nicer than I thought it would be. It’s not as “silver” as the band on the 4/4S was, which makes it look a bit more like the original iPhone.
I’m pretty sure this is the first year that the external appearance of the “s” model of iPhones has been so different than the previous generation. Though the iPhone 5 and 5s look nearly identical, they are less so than the 3G/3GS and 4/4S were.
Making a slo-mo video is super fun. On Twitter I joked that we’ll soon have tumblr accounts dedicated to iPhone slo-mo vids that are not as epic as their creators think they are. But who cares, right? If your iPhone can shoot 120FPS HD video and easily select scenes for slo-mo, then go for it.
Touch ID feels like equal parts the future and cheating. I have 6 years of muscle memory developed for tap-then-swipe, so I keep forgetting to tap then wait. Instead I swipe, the lock screen keypad shows up and I pause for a second, then oh yeah. Put my thumb back on the Home button and wait a second. The unlocking process truly is near instantaneous.
The way we joke that non-Retina displays are like sandpaper on our eyes, in a few months (days?) time we’ll all be joking that non-Touch ID devices are so annoying to unlock.
When I finished setting up my new phone, I thought back to something I wrote a year ago regarding the iPhone 5:
Here I have this gorgeous object of industrial innovation, and yet its proximity to my life is not due to my above average affinity for fine gadgets. No, the iPhone has earned its place by virtue of usefulness. The curiously-thin slab of glass and aluminum that I carry around in my pocket is my camera, my jukebox, my map, my newspaper, my phone, my email, my photo album, my schedule, my to-do list, my notebook, my Internet, and so much more.
A lot has changed since I wrote that a year ago, and those changes have made the statement even more true.
The iPhone 5s, with its better camera and Touch ID sensor, make it more useful (even if slightly so) to me than the iPhone 5. Moreover, with iOS 7 and so many new and updated 3rd-party apps, we are ever getting more utility, usefulness, and delight from of our iPhones.
That’s saying a lot for a tough little computer that fits in your pocket.
- I may or may not keep some to-go cups around for mornings like this. ↵
It all started with a few months ago with a week-long miniseries on Shawn Today. The topic was “the importance of delight in design.”
The feedback from that miniseries was quite positive, and I really enjoyed the subject matter. So I had this idea of re-record the miniseries, polish it up a bit more, and selling it for a few bucks as a for-pay podcast of sorts.
Well, as you already may have guessed, the project spiraled into what became Delight is in the Details.
As I was re-writing the outline for the updated miniseries, I began adding more and more episodes. It turned into 7 parts and then 9.
Also, my plan was to write out a script to read from so I could be sure to say exactly what I wanted to say in each episode, without rambling on and on.
So I thought why not pair the written version with the audio version? And, gosh. If I was going to do that, why not just make it into a book? And then I thought it would be fun to include some additional audio by doing interviews with some of my friends in the industry that know about this stuff.
It started as something I probably could have built and shipped in a few days, and turned into something that took me over 100 hours to complete. But I’m extremely proud of the end result.
Here’s a brief overview of some of the tools and services I used to write, edit, design, and ship Delight is in the Details.
Landing Page Design
I debated how I wanted to announce the book. There was either: (a) keep it secret until the day it came out; or (b) begin talking about it ahead of time.
I opted for the latter. So, obviously, I needed a landing page for the book — a place where I could tease what the book was about and encourage people follow to follow me on Twitter or enter their email to be notified when the book comes out.
My first version of the landing page was little more than a blog-post type page on this site. Over the course of a couple weeks I occasionally tweeted some links to the landing page, letting people know I was working on a book. I also wrote a few articles related to the content of my book, and linked to the landing page from within those articles.
Over those first three weeks, 173 people entered their email address to be notified.
Then, about two weeks ago, I designed a somewhat better landing page (which looked almost exactly like the page that’s there now, except instead of the buy buttons I had a big, “web 2.0″ email sign up form).
I tweeted a link to that landing page at 5:30pm on a Thursday evening. And within 24 hours I had 300 new email signups (in addition to the 173 that had already signed up). The excitement around the book seemed to skyrocket once I had that better looking landing page.
Even for the hype-averse, smart and considered audience that follows me on twitter and reads this site, a good-looking landing clearly made a lot of difference. The design of the page with the graphics showing the book’s cover and interior layout, with the different reading devices, a cleaner look, a more prominent and inviting email form, resulted in tripling my email signups in one day.
TinyLetter and MailChimp
TinyLetter was my email newsletter service of choice. It’s very easy to use and I like their clean design.
Alas, when I announced my new landing page, the influx of new email signups triggered an auto-defense mechanism with TinyLetter and a reCAPTCHA was put up to make sure those joining the mailing list weren’t spam robots.
The reCAPTCHA was annoyingly difficult to answer, and it added an extra hurdle. After contacting the TinyLetter support team, I was told there was no way for them to remove the reCAPTCHA. So, after that first day, I took the list off of TinyLetter and set up a MailChimp signup form instead.
When it came time to do the mailing, I had 635 people who had signed up to get an email announcement about the book. This was very encouraging.
At this point I had segments of the list: one in TinyLetter and one in MailChimp. I exported the names out of MailChimp and dropped them into TinyLetter to create the final master list.
Monday afternoon, the day before launch, I sent an email letting people know the book would be out on Tuesday. I then sent another email at 10:00 am EST, on Tuesday morning announcing the book was out.
I used Photoshop CS3 to design the hero image for the website, size the book cover for Kindle, and create the individual MP3 artwork “covers” for each chapter of the book and each audio interview.
All the rest of the design (the actual book cover typesetting, the book layout, and the interview show notes) was done in Pages.
I wrote the whole book in Pages, and even designed the cover in pages. I used Warnock Pro and Avenir Next as the typefaces.
(Side note: Jeff Abbott edited the book for me (he edits all the major articles I publish here). I’ve been working with Jeff since I took the site full time and highly recommend him if you are in need of an editor.)
For the PDF version of the book I simply printed from Pages and saved as a PDF — easy as pie.
The ePub, however, was not so easy. I exported from Pages to ePub, but the auto-generated xhtml and css turned out horrible. There were massive line breaks between paragraphs, the default font size was too small, and the chapter formatting was all a mess. I had to dig into the ePub source files and edit all the xhtml files, the manifest, and the css.
An ePub file is not unlike a zipped up website. Each chapter and section has its own html file. My crude explanation of what’s inside is this:
- There is a CSS file where you define line height and margins and padding.
- There is a table of contents file that tells the reading device which order the chapters go in and what their titles are.
- And there is a manifest file that gives an account of all the files in the zip, and which lists the “spine order” so if you wish to read from “cover to cover” the device knows which section and chapter to display first, second, third, etc.
My small experience working with ePubs has taught me one thing: they are a world of hurt.
Though the components are basic enough, I haven’t yet used an app that could generate a clean, basic ePub file. I’ve made two eBooks so far and molding each one to meet my standard of quality was a tedious and painful process.
The first ePub I did was for a book my wife wrote. We had the layout done in InDesign (CS3). I knew InDesign could export to ePub, but the whole process turned out to be quite a bit of work. I first had to rebuild the document as a new book file and apply new paragraph styles to all the text (even italics and bold). And, after export, I then had to dig into the source files and update the manifest to properly link and name the chapters, and fine tune the CSS a bit.
I thought that certainly Pages would be better when it came to ePub export but I was wrong. It turned out to be worse. Though, in part, it could have been due to operator error. I had section breaks, but not a proper Table of Contents set up and linked within my original Pages document.
If I write another book, I might build the ePub version from scratch.
Editing and Validating ePubs
A few months ago, this forum thread proved to be immensely valuable when I was making the ePub for my wife’s book. Not only did it help walk me through the process of building the document in InDesign, it also gave some helpful information about the ePub’s source files as well.
On a Mac, there is no easy way to just get in to an ePub file’s source documents. Through the aforementioned thread, I found this ePub zip/unzip app. It’s basically just an Applescript that takes an ePub file and unzips it so you have access to the source files. Then, when you’re done, you use it to turn the files back into an ePub document.
And so, after I had exported my book to an ePub file from Pages, I then unzipped it using the above Applescript, and then went to work cleaning up the source code using Coda. After I had changed some of the metadata, taken out the superfluous paragraph breaks, changed some of the CSS, and adjusted the TOC and Spine order, I zipped the folder to ePub so I could validate and test it.
I used the IDPF’s ePub validator tool to make sure I hadn’t broken anything after I had been fiddling with my document source files. If there are errors the validator tells you what’s wrong and in which document and line the error is occurring. It’s quite helpful.
Once I had a valid ePub (it took a few tries) I then “tested” it on my iPad. I did this by simply opening the file in Dropbox and sending it to iBooks. Once I was happy with the formatting, and table of contents, etc., I then made a Kindle version.
Making a MOBI file (what the Kindle uses) from ePub is a piece of cake. Using Calibre, you import the ePub file, then chose to convert it. And boom, you’re done.
I made a different cover source file for the Kindle, so it would fit on the screen of my Kindle touch. There are a lot of suggestions and opinions from Amazon and the rest of the internet about what the dimensions of a Kindle cover should be. Mine ended up being 1500×2030.
Recording and Editing Audio
Then I split the MOV track created by Skype Call Recorder, and dropped the two sides of the conversation into Garage Band.
I used Garage Band for everything audio related except recording the interviews.
Editing the interviews The finished interviews are, on average, 30 minutes each. After splitting the conversation sides and dropping the recording into Garage Band, it took me about 2.5 hours to edit each conversation. I would adjust the individual track volumes so that our voices were about equal, and then I would crop the front and end of the call, and then listen through to edit out as much of the dead space and as many of the “Umms” as I could. I wanted these interviews to sound like something you’d hear on NPR — a well-paced conversation that sounded natural, and was free from awkward silence, talking over one another, and the like. It took me an additional 20 hours to edit the interviews, but it was worth it.
Recording and editing the audio book Using my trusty Blue Yeti microphone, I recorded the shows directly into Garage Band in my home office.
I placed towels all on my desk and around where I was to help muffle the audio a bit. As I was recording, if I messed up a word or phrase, I’d just take a pause, say “again” into the mic, take another pause, and then start that paragraph over.
The finished audio book is 77 minutes, and it took me about 4 hours to record all the chapters. It then took me another 8 hours to edit out all of my misspoken words, etc.
For adding and editing the metadata and artwork of each audio file.
AudioBook Binder is a free app in the Mac App Store. You just drop in your MP3 files, and then it will bind them together into a single M4P file with chapters.
You can make an audio book Garage Band by lining up your files end-to-end and setting your own chapter markers and then exporting. However, since I already had the individual MP3 tracks, I preferred the easier, more automated approach of just dragging and dropping into AudioBooksBinder.
I am using Gumroad to handle payments and delivery of the book.
Spacebox or Gumroad were the ones that made the most sense.
Compared to Spacebox, Gumroad is a bit more expensive. To sell my $29 book through Spacebox would cost $1.431 (that is Spacebox’s 1% transaction fee and Stripe’s 2.9% + 30 cents fee). Spacebox also charges $12/month to sell digital goods.
To sell my $29 book on Gumroad costs me $1.70 per book. That’s 5% + $0.25 per transaction. There are no monthly fees, no limits on product sales, no extra costs whatsoever.
Obviously the more books I sell the more money I lose to Gumroad that I could have saved had I used Spacebox. But I went with Gumroad primarily because of its the way it integrates on my site and how it handles digital delivery.
The design of the product and payment pages in Gumroad are very clean and classy. I like how when someone clicks the buy button on my book’s site, the payment form shows up right within the page. On Mobile, you’re redirected to their site where you get a mobile friendly checkout page. The experience is pretty much exactly what I wanted, and works how I would have it work had I built the service myself.
I also like how they handle the digital delivery. When you buy the product you instantly get a link to download. Also, an email is sent to you with a download link in there as well. This is great because it means folks who buy the product on their computer can download it immediately. Folks who buy it on their iPhone, iPad, or work computer can download it later via the email link if they like.
For one, the checkout process simple and clean (they ask only for an email address and the bare essentials of credit card info). Equally simple is the seller’s dashboard. For me to sell Delight is in the Details I just made an account, uploaded my ZIP file, set a price, and was done.
And, as the seller, I see real-time sales results On launch day I was checking the Gumroad stats page about once every 10 minutes.
Launch Day Fears
On today’s episode of Shawn Today, I talked about this in great detail, and perhaps sometime I’ll write about it more here as well. But in short, the launch day was incredibly emotional for me. I was nervous, of course. But I also woke up feeling like a fraud, before I had even shipped the book. I felt fearful that people would consider the content of my book and the interviews to be not worth paying for, and yet here I was charging $29.
While waiting for my coffee, I decided I would continue as planned and not make any emotional decisions (or listen to the “lizard brain”) on launch day.
I wasn’t afraid that nobody would buy it, rather I was afraid people would buy it and be upset. But after a few days, the opposite has proven to be true. So far the feedback has been nothing but overwhelmingly positive.
A huge thanks to Marco, Cameron, Michael, Paul, Jory, Federico, Dan, and Chase who so generously gave of their time to contribute to the project. And a huge thanks to everyone who has bought the book. Your support and kind words mean the world to me. Thank you.
By the time you read this, my laptop lid will be closed and my iPhone’s push notifications turned off for the week.
I don’t know if it’s like this for others, but for me, taking time off is one of the biggest challenges I face as a self-employed person. In the past, when I’ve gone on vacations or spent holidays with the family, I still try to spend at least a little bit of time every day working to keep the site updated.
But for this year’s vacation, I am unplugging from all my inboxes and publishing responsibilities and leaving the writing to someone else.
Friends, I’m pleased to introduce you to my cousin, Nate Spears, who has agreed to step in as the first-ever guest writer for the week.
Nate is 29 days younger than I and was the best man in my wedding. When he and I were 14 we tried to start a comic book company — our drawing skills were pathetic, and my dad was our first and only customer. Now, Nate is a software developer living in Colorado while currently commuting to San Francisco every week bless his soul.
When I was considering who I wanted to hand the reins over to for this week, I knew Nate would be perfect. For one, Nate emails me links to random, interesting, and/or hilarious stuff all the time. This week, instead of sending links and commentary to me through email, I’ve given Nate the keys to the site so he can post things here for you instead. Also, Nate is a great thinker and storyteller, so who knows what he’s got in store for the site.
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This Royal typewriter belonged to my grandfather. He learned to type on it 70 years ago. I wonder if he had to hunt and peck at the keys as I do now.
It is an interesting device. Fascinating and interesting and frustrating and wonderful, all in its own ways. How often do writers today pine for a distraction-free writing tool, one which gives you nothing but your thoughts, a blank page, and the means to put your words onto that page. This typewriter is the very embodiment of what so many wish for today.
When typing on The Royal, you have no option other than honesty. Every mistake, typo, or other error made — by you or the Royal, it does not matter — is there for all the world to see. Imprinted with ink onto paper is your pathetic, but honest, attempt at prose.
But honesty in writing is a gift. The best writing is that which touches and moves us. And who is moved toy insipid paragraphs filled with half-clever turns and twists and barely formed ideas?
What the Royal lacks in convenience and speed, she makes up for in her ability to keep you true to your words. You must think be- fore you type because there is no going back. “Leave it on the page,” she says. “What is typed is typed.”
And when it is time to take a break, she will let you know. Because the ribbon will run dry, or the hammers will jam, or the paper will require changing. We have come so far in the advancement of our writing tools. But are we advanced? What software can teach you to be honest in your writing and to keep on typing? What app rewards with a bell of accomplishment at the end of each line?
It’s mid-morning here at shawnblanc.net HQ (a.k.a. my house) and outside we’ve already got 8-10 inches of snowfall. And it’s still coming down.
The Internet has been down since at least 5:00 am, (I’m posting this via my iPad’s LTE hotspot), and it may be only a matter of time until we lose power as well (though I hope not). Unfortunately, many in the city are already without power — the snow is so thick and wet that tree branches are snapping and ripping down power lines.
Now, by no means am I trying to paint this as a dire situation. Quite the contrary. We’ve got plenty of hot drinks, snacks, popcorn, and ripped DVDs.
As president of shawnblanc.net I’m declaring it a snow day. Regular posting will resume tomorrow.
In the meantime, I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you that the 2013 Membership Drive and Giveaway ends this Friday at midnight. There are over $3,000 in prizes. And, for new and current members, today would make an excellent day for perusing past episodes of Shawn Today while trying a new coffee recipe.
A year ago today, Noah Blanc was born. Being a dad is the most wonderful, amazing, exhausting, disruptive, heart-melting thing in the world.
Two years ago — before we were even pregnant with Noah — is when I decided to quit my day job and take this website full time. One reason for the transition was my strong desire to be present and available as a dad. Anna and I were not yet pregnant, but we were ready to start a family, and I wanted a job that was more flexible than the one I was currently in.
But the second, and perhaps “real” reason I took this site full time, was that I didn’t want to be the sort of dad who set an example of playing it safe, avoiding risks, and not pursuing his dreams. I want my kids to grow up in a home where they feel empowered to take risks and try new things and safe to fail.
I knew that the example I wanted to set needed to start before Noah was even born. It was a good time for me if I was going to take the risk of taking this site indy, and so I went for it.
That was in 2011. A year later, Noah was born and I am so glad I’ve had the opportunity to work from home and set a schedule that allows me to take an active and involved role in his every day life.
I love my son, and he’s growing up faster than I thought he would. Over the weekend we had his 1st birthday party. And now we’ve recently found out Noah is going to be a big brother…
Blanc Baby Number Two, due August 31.
I’ll never be able to say enough how just thankful I am to the members of this site. Thanks to those of you who are willing to pitch in $3 every month, I’m entering into my second year of writing this site full time.
This year I recorded 156 episodes of Shawn Today. Among my favorites were the week-long coffee-gear video series, the new “Ask Shawn Today” series, and the oodles of shows talking and musing about diligence and focus. Believe it or not, I’ve heard from many who claim they’ve listened to every single episode. Amazing. I haven’t even listened to every episode, and I was there when they were recorded.
The Boy and The Schedule
This year, Anna and I had our first kid. Noah. Having a kid is so wonderful. It’s been amazing and beautiful and oh so inconvenient.
Being a dad is the best thing in the world and I would never trade it for a second. It has also been the most disruptive thing to happen to my working life.
Anna and I share responsibilities with Noah. I watch him about 20 hours a week, mostly in the mornings. For a guy who likes to have a semi-regular work pattern and who does his best work in the pre-lunch hours, this new routine has been murder to my work life.
The changes to my working (and sleeping) routine have forced me to write when it’s time to write, not when I feel inspired. And though that’s not quite as fun, it’s shown me that when you write day-in and day-out, words start to get in you. You begin to trust your subconscious a bit more and you’re okay with not waiting for that magical moment of inspiration. You sit down, you write, and later (after a few tears and edits) you realize, hey, that’s not so bad.
A Few Faves
Some of the most fun I’ve had on this site has been with the members-only podcast. The near-daily show hit a stride this year and the feedback with listening members has been great.
And, of course, I’ve had a lot of fun writing.
After spending an unnatural amount of time with three noisy keyboards, I wrote a super-nerdy review of some popular Clicky Keyboards. Not only does the review make a great white-noise track for typing, but it also led me on to discover the Filco Ninja Majestouch-2 tenkeyless keyboard. A most excellent typing apparatus.
My article about finally solving the paperless puzzle stands as a hallmark for me, personally, in that I finally made the move to a paperless office and I’ve been loving ever minute of it.
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All this to say, thanks for reading. I am seriously looking forward to doing awesome work in 2013 and I bet you are too.
Recently I’ve read a few new articles about scaling back from Twitter and RSS. This is a common theme, especially amongst the group of bloggers I follow. And I’m glad that it’s a common theme because things like scaling back, clarifying our goals, identifying distractions, and the like are all moving targets.
There is no set-it-and-forget-it because small distractions are always creeping into our lives. It’s a constant battle to keep even a modicum of focus and creative breakthrough as a part of our daily lives. But it’s a battle worth fighting.
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Patrick Rhone, “What is Enough?”:
I’m convinced that a successful life is largely driven by balance and moderation. [...]
We all have a center of balance that is unique, different from everyone else. My center of balance is different from yours. My daughter’s, from mine. As she walks the wire, hands out, wobbling to and fro, this is what she is in search of. As she gets older, this process might become easier, faster, with less wobble, but it will never end. No matter how good she becomes, she will always need some device to assist her — arms stretched, a long pole, a racquet or fan. Even the Flying Wallendas, perhaps the greatest wire act to ever perform and a family team stretching back 10 generations, still wobble and use devices to maintain their balance.
Frank Chimero, “Digital Jubilee”:
The Jubilee offers a way out of oppressive expectations, even if they are our own. This year, I’m practicing a digital jubilee by archiving my inbox, deleting my RSS subscriptions, and unfollowing most everyone on Twitter. These, of course, will fill back up as time passes, but now I have a recurring way to purge. Practices like these have been coined “declaring bankruptcy” by the digital lifestyle blogs, but I think the phrase misrepresents the practice. Cleaning the digital slate is not a practice of giving up. It is one of self-forgiveness.
Yours truly, in an interview with Matt Alexander:
I’ve never felt that technology itself was too entwined in my life, though I have gone through seasons where I feel the need to slow down or step away. But that could be true for any and all hobbies or distractions. There are people who admit to spending too much time wrenching on the car, or too much time golfing, or whatever it may be.
Technology, gadgets, and the like are not bad in and of themselves, it’s us who need self-control to live balanced and purposeful lives.
I used to believe that time was the most important thing I have, but I’ve come to believe differently. The single most valuable resource I have is uninterrupted thought.
Paul Graham, “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule”:
But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.
When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in.
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For a maker, uninterrupted work time is valuable because it allows us uninterrupted thought. Large blocks of free time so we can focus, freely (or not so freely, because, well, you know how it goes sometimes).
But when we interrupt our own time with habitual checking of email, Facebook, Twitter, et al. then it’s like having micro meetings all day long.
Unfollowing everyone, unsubscribing from everything, and setting up auto-responders in our email seem mostly seem like band-aid fixes. They help in some regard (I’m trying something similar myself with Twitter) but underneath the problem is still there. Yes, apply the band aid, but that alone does not mean the “problem” is “healed”.
Because it comes down to our own choices. Are we going to spend our time the way we want to or not? Are we going to do the work we say we want to do or not? Intentions are dandy, but real men get to work.
What with a kid and a new camera, this is the perfect year to give one of Apple’s photo books for Christmas. Anna and I, along with my sister’s family, put one together for my Grandpa. He has very poor eyesight and a book with 20 pages of big, full-sized, 8.5×11 pictures featuring his grandkids and his great grandkids will make an excellent gift.
This is the first time I’ve ordered one of the photo books from Apple and I don’t think it will be the last. It’s a hardcover book, with 20 (or more if you want to add them) full-color pages, printed and shipped for about $32. The pages are full-bleed, the color is brilliant, and the construction quality is top notch.
Not to mention it’s easy to make. You do it within iPhoto by picking the “theme” you want your book to have, dragging and dropping the photos you want, and clicking the button that sends it off to print. A few days later it shows up at your doorstep.
Our book arrived a couple days ago, and when I opened the shipping box I was a bit embarrassed to find the book wrapped in a white cardboard sleeve with nothing but the Apple logo on the front.
Moreover, inside the book on the very last page is the Apple logo again with the tag, “Made on a Mac”.
This is very much like Apple — their logo adorns all their gear — but the book itself is so removed from Apple’s traditional product lineup of consumer electronics that I was surprised to see the logo plastered on the front like that. And then — well — I was surprised that I was surprised.
The photo book isn’t really an Apple product, it’s a product Apple makes. And I am embarrassed to give it as a gift which, when first opened, is an advertisement for Apple. It’s like Apple’s version of a product with “special offers“. People see this book and they see it’s “Made on a Mac” and maybe it gives them one more reason to buy Mac.
The answer is as simple as removing the cardboard sleeve and tossing it in the recycling bin before wrapping the book for Christmas.
Update: Turns out there’s an option to remove the inside logo before sending to print. When you’re building the book click “Options” (lower right corner of the iPhoto app) → Book Settings → uncheck “Include Apple logo at end of book”.
“I am the President of the United States of America … clothed in immense power!”
As I’ve continued to think about the movie Lincoln, the above line is one of many which return again and again to my mind. Though it seems impossible (or, at best, unfair) to pick any single line above another.
Lincoln is certainly the best film I’ve seen all year. I found it to be provoking, sobering, encouraging, and beautiful.
The art and craft of storytelling through film seems to be more and more rare these days. In Lincoln, all the components of a movie — acting, cinematography, writing, costume and set design, editing, etc. — come together into a single, cohesive work of moving art. It is moving to watch, moving to hear, and once taken in, it lodges itself in your heart and mind for a while.
The line I quoted at the top was spoken not with pride, but with honest humility and great vehemence. Which is why I think this the line that keeps coming back to me; it sums up the character of Abraham Lincoln as played by Daniel Day-Lewis perfectly. Though you’ll have to see it for yourself in the context of the movie to fully grasp and appreciate why.
The character of Lincoln in this movie was portrayed as a deeply humble and clear-minded man. He knew he was placed in his presidential office by the vote of the people. And therefore, acknowledging and exercising his power as the President was not an act of pride but of humility.
He knew who he was and what he needed to do. He used his immense power as President to fight for the freedom of all men. And in the end, we know it cost him his life.
It’s just after 9 o’clock in the morning, and Noah is down for his first nap of the day. The past couple of hours I’ve spent with him feeding him his breakfast of squashed up mango and banana, changing his diaper, rolling around on the living room floor with him, and holding him in my lap while we read kids books he doesn’t yet understand but likes to grab at the cardboard pages.
Yesterday, November 6, Anna and I took Noah with us to vote. Four years ago when the two of us voted in our first presidential election as a married couple, our little boy was just a thought — a dream of one day when we would eventually have kids. And in 4 years time, at the next election, Noah will no doubt be an older brother with a sibling or two.
Voting is an immeasurable privilege and honor. More than 115 million of us stood in lines all across America yesterday. Some came prepared with their cheat sheets, ready to pencil in every office, judge, amendment, and proposition exactly as they wanted. Some have been voting for decades, across a dozen presidencies and a few wars. Others cut their ballot-casting teeth for the first time yesterday.
Standing in line at the church down the road, the halls were crowded with all manner of folks. Our shared or differing political views aside, there was, as always, an unspoken sense of unity in that line. And that unity stretched through walls and precincts and states to the thousands of lines all around our nation. Most of us were more than willing to giving hours of our day to stand amongst strangers and exercise one of our greatest rights as free Americans.
Thinking about those who were in line with Anna and me, and all the other 115 million Americans who voted yesterday, I think it’s fair to say there is a common denominator amongst us all: we want what is best for our families.
As I sat down with my ballot and pencil in that crowded church room I had a single purpose: I was voting for my family. I voted with my son in mind, and our future children, because they will inherit the country we build for them.
But that country our children will live in is not built in whole through the aggregate of millions of ballots. Nor is their inheritance the responsibility of Washington.
I voted for the men and women who I felt most aligned with the values of my own life. Who I endorse in the privacy of my voting booth is just as important as the actions I endorse in the privacy of my own home.
I deeply want this great country to be led by men and women of character and conviction. Officials who will do what’s right and leave the fabric of these United States stronger than when they started their term. But it is not mostly up to them; it is mostly up to us.
It was, as always, an honor to have voted yesterday. But my civic duty is far from over. I want what is best for my son and what is best for this country. And, as you know, that goes beyond showing up to vote. I believe it starts with making my home a place where children grow up to be wise and strong and free.
When I say successful artist, what first comes to your mind?
The first thing that comes to my mind is financial success. I tend to think of a successful artist as someone who has been fortunate in business with their creative endeavors.
But when it comes to creative work, finances measure only one definition of success. Is there such a thing as a successful designer who makes a below-average wage? Or can a writer who makes no money at all still be successful? Of course.
There is another definition of success: sustained pride in the quality of our work.
If, in our creative endeavors, we continually do work we are proud of, then that my friends is also success. We don’t make to get rich, we make to make. We build for the sake of building, create for the sake of creating. We do it because we have to.
“We don’t make movies to make money. We make money to make more movies.” — Walt Disney
Of course it’s wonderful when wealth and riches are a byproduct of our work. But for many of us finding a way to make it profitable is secondary.
Things like diligence, focus, priorities, saying no, to-do lists, time management, and the like are important to me. But why?
Well, this quote by Benjamin Franklin pretty much sums it up for me:
“Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time; for that’s the stuff life is made of.”