cheating all the time

Last week, I wrote:

A depressing percentage of students at every top school are there because somebody told them how to ace the test, someone handed them the impressive internships and travel experiences that padded their application, someone even wrote their essay. Yes, really, cheating, cheating everywhere, cheating all the time, so much cheating.

This week, the New York Times wrote:

In what the Justice Department called its largest ever college admissions prosecution, federal authorities charged 50 people on Tuesday with taking part in a nationwide scheme to game the admissions process at highly competitive schools like Yale and the University of Southern California.

Swept up in this were a few celebrities, including Felicity Huffman, wife of William H. Macy. I can just picture how it happened, too. Bill was on the phone with USC admissions:

USC: Now, I just need, on this application you sent us, I can’t read the SAT score.

Bill: Yah, but it’s OK. The acceptance is in place. Yah. So we’re all set, then.

USC: Yes, I just have to confirm that your daughter is actually qualified to attend USC, but I can’t read her SAT score, so if you could read me—

Bill: Yah, but, see, I don’t have it in front of me. Why don’t I fax you over a copy of her SAT score?

USC: Fax is no good. That’s what I have, and I can’t read the darn thing—

Bill: Yah, OK. I’ll have Felicity send you a copy, then.

USC: OK. Because if I can’t confirm this SAT score, I have to call back that acceptance letter.

Bill: OK. No problem. I’ll just fax that right over—

USC: No, no. Fax is—

Bill: I mean send it. I’ll shoot it over to you.

And, scene.

This isn’t about money or career options. All these kids would have had plenty of both. It’s about status. And I can understand social climbing. There was a time not too long ago when you had to have read the right books and acquired the right diction if you wanted to mingle at the highest levels of wealth and status.

Times have changed. Today, Instagram trumps all, and fake followers are a much safer way to cheat. Watching sophisticated, highly respected actors like Huffman and Macy go to these absurd lengths to chase such an outdated form of status is like watching Alex Honnold free solo El Capitan. I’m just—why? I mean, USC is a good school—I guess?—but photoshopping your kid’s head onto a real athlete’s body? Climbing a sheer rock face without a rope? Chill. Read a book or something.

I have similar thoughts when I hear about an author spending a quarter of a million dollars to buy a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s a nice-to-have, yes, but not a must-have. You could have used a fraction of that money to build a much, much better book.

maybe you’re winning after all

The Italian cyclist Daniele Nardello won the Tour de France twice. Ever heard of him? I hadn’t. I’ve never seen anyone wearing his fluorescent charity-branded rubber wristband. I’ve never heard about him dating Ashley Olsen when she was half his age, either. In fact, despite twice dominating a sporting event watched by over 3 billion viewers, Nardello has yet to date any of the Olsen siblings.

(Just kidding. As John Oliver has aptly pointed out, there is only one Olsen “twin.” She just moves back and forth really, really fast.)

The reason you don’t know of Nardello is that he placed 7th in the 1999 Tour de France and 10th the following year. Which, in pop culture terms, means he might as well have stayed home for all anyone cares.

As it turns out, however, everyone who placed above him in each race cheated. Nardello won both races, fair and square. Nobody knew it, though—except for the guys ahead of him, and they weren’t going to tell. You can see how Nardello might have felt down on himself at the time. Like a loser.

Our economy is a Tour de France. The winners are not winning for the reasons they’d like us to believe—we’re doing far better than the numbers (i.e. asset distribution) suggest. The rest of us, particularly those who make a habit of voting against our own economic interests, assume our values are shared by those above. Poisonous as it is, it’s a fundamentally generous philosophy: if the people on top insist they won the game fair and square, we should believe them just as we’d like to be believed were we in their place—which is something they will never let happen.

College is a Tour de France. A depressing percentage of students at every top school are there because somebody told them how to ace the test, someone handed them the impressive internships and travel experiences that padded their application, someone even wrote their essay. Yes, really, cheating, cheating everywhere, cheating all the time, so much cheating.

Books are a Tour de France. The popular ones are not popular for the reasons their authors and publishers would like you to believe. Worse, many of them aren’t even actually popular in the sense that (1) people bought them to read them and then (2) actually do and (3) are glad for having done so.

There’s no accounting for taste with books and newsletters and social media because it’s possible, even likely, to be counted as a “consumer” without actually having consumed anything. You buy or click or share and that person’s stock rises. Whether you read something, let alone like it or benefit from it in any way, isn’t relevant to who is accounted the winner.

Not so in other arenas. Take a viral phenomenon like LaCroix. Here’s a flavored seltzer product that surges out of nowhere to achieve market dominance. Sure, it’s made of roach poison and the CEO is a bit odd, but when I noticed all those pastel boxes stacking up at the grocery store, I wasn’t left with an existential puzzle to untangle. I didn’t take a sip of an ice-cold Key Lime LaCroix and wonder, “What is this crap? How did it achieve double Perrier’s market share? Are people crazy? If everyone else likes this and I don’t, is there something weird or different about me? Who am I?”

Strategy and execution play a role, but if you drink a can of LaCroix, you can understand its success. It arrived at a moment when people were looking to avoid sugar and artificial sweeteners. LaCroix isn’t sweet, but otherwise it’s as close as you can get to the chilled, bubbly refreshment of a can of soda. Why did it beat other, established competitors like Seagram’s—the unusual flavors? The packaging? Some other aspect of its marketing strategy?

It doesn’t really matter. People like the stuff. You drink seltzer and then it’s gone. You don’t leave unopened cans around your apartment to impress visitors. Nobody’s spouse is bugging them to install built-in seltzer-shelves. If people weren’t enjoying LaCroix, it wouldn’t be around anymore. People are going back for more. Same goes for Halo Top ice cream—it ain’t Häagen-Dazs, but you can understand why it delights people on low-carb diets.

None of this is true with books. The most popular books usually leave me baffled, not only because they aren’t very good in terms of, you know, words, but also because I’m aware of substantially, inarguably better books addressing the same topic that continue to languish.

I’m not here to tell you that the world isn’t fair. You know that. I’m here to tell you that fairness is irrelevant. Stop seeking it.

What does “languish” mean in the context of a book? Self-help book A sells 10,000 copies over two years and changes 10,000 lives. The buyers read it because they bought it to fill a need, not because of Instagram or a newsletter drip campaign.

Self-help book B sells 500,000 copies in 6 months. Maybe it changes 10,000 lives. Maybe it doesn’t. Which of these enthusiastic buyers actually reads it? Which of these readers actually likes it? How could they? I mean, really. Look at some of these books.

Selling 10,000 copies of a book to 10,000 people who genuinely want to read it is an astonishing feat. Someone being glad they read 50,000 of your words is an order of magnitude more impressive. Yet in comparison with these engineered Armstrong-esque book-shaped fallacies, the talented and hard-working Daniele Nardellos of the writing world are treated like failures. They even think of themselves that way.

The world will never be fair. Sociopaths make up 4 percent of the population. When you understand what it takes on an emotional level to dominate—as a politician, a TV talking head, a CEO, a thought leader, a social media influencer, or an author—and you realize there are 13,000,000 American sociopaths out for the brass ring, well, 2016 and after make more sense.

Sure, rank yourself against others. Just shave off the very top contenders before you do any comparative assessment. The cream rises, but the crud rises higher.

a short one about abundance

Diamonds are precious because we think they’re scarce. They’re not.

We get precious about our work because we think creative opportunity is scarce. It isn’t.

Want to cure writer’s block? Adopt an abundance mindset:

  • There are more than enough readers for the work I want to make.
  • There is more than enough money to get paid for my work.
  • There is more than enough time to do all the work I want to do.
  • Etc.

Everyone will try to convince you otherwise. Mark spam and delete. Scarcity kills creativity.

My high school guidance counselor told me to use all my seven application slots for the various city colleges. It was the best I could hope for. (I did not listen, thankfully.)

In fact, my entire high school was obsessed with the apparent scarcity of college seats in this crazy game of musical chairs. High-achieving kids, top-tier SAT scores, all worried we were going to get locked out of the game. We stood around studying the U.S. News college rankings and calculating our chances for different schools using our TI-82 programmable calculators. (I went to a nerdy school.)

For some reason, writers do this to each other. I think we think it’s tough love when we’re doing it, trying to convince other writers that they aren’t very likely to be successful at writing, that there isn’t enough opportunity to go around.

The New Yorker did it again in their last issue. First, we had the viral Christmas song lady. This time, it was writer Sarah Cooper who wrote a funny piece, put it on the Internet, and was suddenly offered a three-book deal. In the New Yorker, creative success only happens mysteriously, almost magically. Breaking through with your work is always an unexplained, unexplainable phenomenon of extraordinary luck or manifest destiny. It’s not, in other words, for you, because you worked hard and did a good job and didn’t give up.

We do this to each other because we hurt others the way we’ve been hurt ourselves. The cycle of abuse continues until you’re willing to say, hey, go for it, pal. There’s room for everyone in this sandbox.

I didn’t think I had to time to write this today, but here we are. There was enough.

perceived tranquillity rating

Whatever you’re working on, whatever you’re grappling with: relax, relax, relax some more. Breathe. Make it a deep one. Drop your shoulders. There you go. Now your jaw—open your mouth wide and then let all the tension go. That’s right. You’re doing it.

At a stressful moment in a recent Forged in Fire championship, one smith reminded himself, “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” This is while slinging white-hot metal around a crowded forge with fifty grand on the line. Apparently that’s a SEAL slogan, so think sniper rifles and scuba gear. Your Word document qualifies. They don’t mean “deadline” literally.

The point isn’t that you can relax when the stakes are low. It’s that you must relax when the stakes are high. This wisdom can be found in nearly every religious, spiritual, and philosophical tradition, but I’ll need to tattoo it on my knuckles to remember it while I’m writing. (Here’s hoping the person with the needle is relaxed while they’re doing it.)

Accidents or destroying something can lead to something good. It can lead to something good. Very controlled things, not being open to, these boundaries, they just screw you. And you have to sometimes make a huge mess and make big mistakes to find that thing that you’re looking for.

David Lynch

Writers call this huge mess “the first draft.” There’s no sidestepping it. If you’re worrying about cleaning the mess up while you’re making it, you’ll never get to the good stuff.

The above quote, by the way, is from David Lynch: The Art Life. It’s a profoundly relaxed documentary. They dug up some archival footage and photographs, but mostly it’s just Lynch working quietly on his paintings or even just staring into space and thinking. Over the footage, Lynch talks into a microphone about life and work. I can only aspire to be so completely laid back in the making of something.

Laid back doesn’t mean easy. In fact, being controlling is a form of laziness—when I’m controlling, it’s because I’m trying to prevent a mess so I don’t have to clean it up later. Relaxing takes more vigor, more confidence.

You know that scene in a movie where two people in an office are so excited to get it on that the guy sweeps everything off his desk and then the woman tears his shirt off, sending buttons everywhere? Scenes like that take my wife and I right out of the story because we can’t help thinking of the poor PAs who had to reassemble the stuff on the desk and pick up all the buttons after each take for one stupid trope.

As the creator, however, you have to be willing to sweep everything off the desk.

My thinking about this case has become very uptight.

The Dude

To solve the case, relax. When the cocaine didn’t help, Holmes went the other direction and played his violin.

Concentration requires relaxation. Attention Restoration Theory (ART) was developed in the 1980s by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, two professors of psychology at the University of Michigan. According to the theory, focused attention uses up our reserve of mental energy. By spending time in “restorative environments,” we can replenish that energy. What makes an environment restorative? The Kaplans created a set of formal characteristics, but they boil down to “take a hike.” Get out of your space into a new environment and move through it.

No, not like Stephen Wolfram does, with a laptop tied around his neck so he can type as he walks. What you’re looking for is an area with soft fascination, when “there is enough interest in the surroundings to hold attention but not so much that it compromises the ability to reflect.” Think leaves rustling in a breeze or puffy white clouds drifting across the sky. (I like jazz and other “ambient” types of live performance for this, too. Sorry, jazz musicians.)

Researchers have developed a metric for soft fascination: the perceived Tranquility Rating (TR) of a given environment. The higher it is, the more effectively it will restore your depleted attention. Without regular intervals in a sufficiently tranquil environment, all your attempts at control will only strangle the life from your work.

Taking it easy is the best way to keep it.