ten lessons you’ll wish you’d been taught

Your environment profoundly affects your writing. You don’t pay enough attention to it. What do you read? What do you listen to? Where do you sit when you write? What’s in your field of vision?

What forms the substrate of your work?

It matters. I’ve curtailed my social media use over the last year, but in 2018 I’m taking it further. Cal Newport (Deep Work) put out a call for volunteers willing to embark on a “digital declutter.” I signed up. For the month of January, I’ll be off “optional” technologies. Details are forthcoming, but you can bet you won’t see me on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. (You didn’t care, did you?)

Join me—if you dare.

Maybe I’m banging the drum too hard. Maybe people will be just fine absorbing whatever The Algorithms want them to absorb, being whomever The Algorithms would have them be.

As a writer, I’m just too aware of the way what goes into my head gets processed and fired back out again when I write. Garbage in, garbage out—I mean, you’ve seen some of my newsletters. Professional athletes can’t help but notice the way diet affects performance. They can see it down to the millisecond. Professional writers ought to be the same. I’m still astonished at how many pros actively engage on social media all day, every day. It’s like seeing Usain Bolt scarfing a pile of Big Macs before a race.

Bolt knows better—do you?

I’m not saying I’m perfect, but I’m working hard on it. I have to, because as Virgil probably said at one point, slumped over a quill:


Carve that on my tombstone. Unless I got the Latin wrong. Writing is hard. Run it through Google first. The point is, I’m trying to keep my head above water here: books, proposals, newsletters, emails. Scribere difficile est.

I’m taking advantage of the quiet holiday season to look closely at my environment, my inputs, the physical substrate of my writing mind. I’m even off Spotify. I have a pristine, empty iTunes library to which I just added Kind of Blue. I’m going to just listen to Kind of Blue for a while. Maybe days. (When I’m not actively listening to music, I’ve got wind and lapping waves on my headphones.) When I’m well and truly finished listening to Kind of Blue, I’ll consider restoring another album, and it had better be a damned good one. I’m done with playlists.

I’m paying close attention to how things make me feel. I’ve found that my gut is actually a pretty good compass, if I pay attention to it. Some sites make me feel tired and worn out. Some books are a struggle to get through but leave me feeling refreshed, energized, and brimming with new ideas. I think we all tend to brush past these ups and downs instead of paying attention to what caused them and doing something about it.

Your mind is a bonsai. Cultivate it.

Speaking of good inputs: I found a remarkable essay last year, loved it, planned to write about it here, and then lost track of it. Thankfully, I saw it posted again yesterday—it’s one of those things that keeps bubbling up—so now I have it safely tucked away in my personal database where it belongs. It’s a keeper.

Gian-Carlo Rota was an Italian mathematician and philosopher known for his “readable, humorous essays.” A bit of an eccentric, he spent most of his career teaching at MIT. (The older I get, the more I wish I’d gone to MIT. Even though all my MIT friends and acquaintances are weird even by Stuyvesant High School standards. Sorry guys, you are.)

Rota gave a talk in 1996 at Rotafest, which, as you can guess, was an event devoted to him and his work. It was later reprinted in Indiscrete Thoughts, a collection of his essays that, for some reason, is only available as a $71.95 paperback or a $68.35 Kindle e-book. How does that happen? Do books related to math somehow break Amazon’s pricing algorithm?

Regardless, the talk, “Ten Lessons I Wish I Had Been Taught,” was reprinted in Concerns of Young Mathematicians, so you can read it now.

Gold, guys. Gems. No: Paula’s Choice skincare products. The point is, very valuable. Read it. The best advice about writing comes from computer scientists or mathematicians. Writers say stupid things about writing and are best ignored, including me.

The reason, I think, is that mathematicians and computer scientists perform mental labor in much the same way as we writers do, but their final product has to work. They can’t just smoke cigarettes and act badly in public and be transformed into geniuses. It doesn’t matter how amazing they look on the book jacket—Marion Ettlinger can’t rescue a flawed theorem with a glamorous black-and-white headshot. A mathematician’s advice on thinking works because it has to.

So, back to Rota. You want to know the job of an expert? He explains it with a simple anecdote about a colloquium he attended:

The subject of the lecture was beyond my competence. After the first five minutes I was completely lost. At the end of the lecture an arcane dialogue took place between the speaker and some members of the audience … There followed a period of tense silence. Professor Struik broke the ice. He raised his hand and said, “Give us something to take home!” Calabi obliged, and in the next five minutes he explained in beautiful simple terms the gist of his lecture. Everybody filed out with a feeling of satisfaction.

Give the reader something to take home and you’ll have written the best damn book on your subject. Even if it’s a page long.

Rota goes on to offer advice on teaching, public speaking, publishing—it’s a short paper and worth every minute you’ll spend reading it. Even his advice on how to use a blackboard effectively is relevant to your work, if you look at it from the right angle. I challenge you to read this paper closely and extract everything you can from it.

Here’s my favorite bit. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I first read it:

A long time ago an older and well-known number theorist made some disparaging remarks about Paul Erdös’s work. You admire Erdös’s contributions to mathematics as much as I do, and I felt annoyed when the older mathematician flatly and definitively stated that all of Erdös’s work could be “reduced” to a few tricks which Erdös repeatedly relied on in his proofs. What the number theorist did not realize is that other mathematicians, even the very best, also rely on a few tricks which they use over and over. Take Hilbert. The second volume of Hilbert’s collected papers contains Hilbert’s papers in invariant theory. I have made a point of reading some of these papers with care. It is sad to note that some of Hilbert’s beautiful results have been completely forgotten. But on reading the proofs of Hilbert’s striking and deep theorems in invariant theory, it was surprising to verify that Hilbert’s proofs relied on the same few tricks. Even Hilbert had only a few tricks!

This is true. Every good writer also relies on a handful of “tricks.” Every good thinker does. It isn’t about racking up techniques. It’s about mastering a handful.

Rota tells us that going “one minute overtime can destroy the best of lectures,” so I’m going to wrap up. Happy holidays.


p.s. If you haven’t already, read about Erdös: The Man Who Loved Only Numbers.