The Value of Silence

What I’m going to say in this entry is very challenging for me to verbalize. Stick with me, here.

I have a deep desire to be a person who makes real things that are useful and delightful. I’ve been working really hard at The Table Project for many months, and I’ve been learning a lot about hard work and how to sustain it. I’ve also learned that the work affects me just as I affect the work. I’ve changed because of my work.

One of the main things that has changed within me is the heightened value I place on silence. Silence of many kinds.

When I’m making something, I’m deeply motivated by the anticipation of discovery on the part of the person that will receive my creation. Will it help them? Will it make them smile? Have I thought through all the ways they’ll use it and considered everything from their perspective? I can’t see their reaction if I don’t finish what I’m making. They won’t benefit unless I do a great job. I create with those thoughts in my mind. But it’s not as simple as that. You may not agree with what I’m about to say, but stick with me.

I’m learning about the demotivational power of talking.

There is a vast, gaping difference between talking about doing a thing and really doing it. I have been the crowned and reigning king of “talking about doing a thing” in the past, and this blog stands as a testament to that.

On the simplest level, talking is demotivational because great creation comes from a quiet, solitary place, not from meetings and committees. On a deeper level, talking about what you’re doing and giving people a preview of the future is demotivational because you may be receiving praise which you haven’t yet earned. That’s extremely dangerous. When you go back to your quiet, solitary place to finish that cool thing you just told your friend about, their praise is still ringing in your ears, reducing the reward that is still beyond your reach, and slowing you down. You can’t afford that tradeoff. It would’ve been better to not tell them what you had done until it was ready. And at that point, there’s less need to tell, because you can show.

This newfound belief affects me in a few ways. You’ll notice, for instance, that this is only the 6th blog entry I’ve posted this year, and the year is half over. Last year, I had written 15 entries in the same amount of time.

And it’s not due to Twitter. This graph of my tweets per month, particularly since last July, will tell you a strange little story as well.

My Tweet Stats

I’m not doing this on purpose. It’s a habit that has naturally evolved. I’m no longer the guy who tweets 500+ times each month because I now realize I don’t have 500+ worthwhile things to say to that audience each month. It’s not censorship, it’s editorial and it’s filtering. It’s respect for the listener, I hope.

Speaking of listeners, they’re also at risk in this problem. I’m growing tired of bloggers and content producers of all kinds that don’t know when to shut up and reflect. My apologies if that seems rude, but if you’re publishing to meet a weekly quota, you’re doing it wrong. Don’t game the crowd; make something of quality. If you have a lot to say, that’s fine (look at the length of this entry), but please don’t assume you can take our attention 9 times a week because your analytics tell you that’s your ideal posting frequency to generate higher traffic and ad revenue.

But if you happen to make 9 quality things that week, by all means, share them all. Show me what you’ve done. My favorite blog, Daring Fireball, is quite noisy, and I’ve never regretted reading it. The content is good. It earns its place.

This all relates to the reason that I rarely if ever go to the Social Media Breakfasts anymore (although I really like many of the people), but I participated in the Overnight Website Challenge this year and found it very rewarding. I hope to do it again.

Less talk, more rock. Fewer conferences and meetings, more product and creativity.

There are downsides for me and others in this change, too. In the midst of focusing constantly on creating The Table, it’s become harder for me to carry on conversations in general, and it’s nearly impossible now for me to be in the moment completely. My mind has become so focused that I’ve caught myself thinking things like, “How can this conversation/situation benefit The Table?” even while spending time with family and friends. It’s pretty weird, and it’s something I’m trying to address. Focus shouldn’t have to lead to workaholism or personal narrowness.

Because of all these thoughts and some conversations I’ve seen on the web lately, I’ve decided it would make sense to disable comments on this blog for the foreseeable future. I want it to be really clear that I still deeply treasure all your past comments, and I haven’t removed the ones that have been made. They are a part of a permanent record and a precious heirloom to me. Many of you have corrected me and changed my mind on various topics, or made me laugh, or warmed my heart, and the evidence is right there in the thread.

I still want to hear from you in almost any way you’d like to have a conversation with me. If you want to contact me, you can do so in any number of ways, including directly from this blog. If you want to just say you liked what I wrote, there’s a little Facebook “Like” button at the bottom of each post, even in the RSS feed. I’d love a click. If you want to respond publicly to what I’ve said, making your own blog entry and linking back to this one would be the best way to do that for many reasons. Creating a blog has become so wonderfully, deliciously simple that there’s no reason anymore not to have one if you want one. Go for it! I might even write a public response if you’re making good stuff.

I hope that the lack of comments here allows you to focus a little more on your own work, say what you wanted to say a little more quickly (perhaps with a single button click) and even consider whether certain things need to be said at all.

Now, go to your quiet, solitary place and make something.

The Secret to Sustained Creativity and Improvement

I’m reading The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade: The 11 1/2 Anniversary Edition right now, and found this gem from genius artist Mike Krahulik, a.k.a. “Gabe.” In this section of the book, he’s discussing the evolution of his art style over the 11 ½ years he’s been drawing Penny Arcade:

It’s really a never-ending journey. I imagine I could do another one of these retrospectives in 2019, and track another ten years of progression. The secret is to hate yourself and the work you produce. If everything you make is trash, then you’ll continually push yourself to produce something that won’t fill you with shame. If you’re lucky, after a lifetime of self-doubt, maybe you’ll produce something you can be proud of before you fall over dead.

It may be hilarious, but it’s not a joke. That right there is pure gold creative wisdom. And a little close-to-home for me, personally.

Thank you, Gabe.

A Year of Music, Visualized

I recently used LastGraph to visually graph my music listening habits over the last year. The result is a visually stunning display that is fun to comb over and try to interpret. Click the image to see the full-size version.

I’m still trying to figure out what the pinch point between my love affair with The Cardigans and Anamanaguchi a month ago (yes, those are Amazon Affiliate links) and the explosion of a mostly new set of artists means. My theory: I’ve been extremely heavy on one particular (mostly unchanging) playlist in February 2010.

If you use last.fm to track your music listening habits, you can use LastGraph too.

The iPad and the Importance of Focus

Apple has introduced the iPad today, and it starts at only $499. I admit I thought Apple was going to go more in the direction of Inkling as I expressed earlier on this blog, but I suppose by releasing the iPad, Apple allowed it to happen, even if they didn’t do it all themselves. The iBooks application is most of what I had imagined as the deeper purpose behind the device, and the interface tweaks they made to email, web browsing, iTunes, iCal, and the rest of the software are really intelligent and beautiful. This gallery is worth a look.

There’s one reaction that has been repeated by countless friends that I’d like to write about and analyze more deeply. The reaction generally involves a mix of anger and dismissal of the product for multiple reasons. You’ll hear things like…

  • What’s the big deal? It’s just a big iPhone.
  • I can’t use something that doesn’t do multitasking / background processes.
  • It doesn’t support Flash? How can that be?
  • It doesn’t have a camera? It needs to have a camera! It’s useless without one.
  • My laptop is more flexible and powerful. Why do I need this?

The list is much longer than that, but you get the idea. The central theme in this school of thought is that the person wanted it to have X, and it doesn’t have X, and it must therefore be a low-quality, worthless product. These folks spend a lot of time explaining why they won’t be buying one, as if it’s interesting news. They often blame Steve’s Reality Distortion Field when others defend it as a good product.

You’ll recognize the thought pattern from the discussions they were having when the first iPhone was released. It had a low-quality camera, it didn’t have GPS, it needed to run 3rd-party applications, it needed more storage space, it was too expensive, blah, blah, blah. What these people mean to say is, “I have a checklist in my head! Design according to my checklist or your product isn’t worth praise!”

I’d like to tell you why they’re wrong, and why their checklists don’t matter. In a word: focus.

Let me introduce you to a user. We’ll call her Jane. She didn’t follow the Apple announcement today because she’s not a geek. In fact, she won’t hear about the iPad for another week or two. She has an Internet connection at home, and she just uses it with her old Windows machine. She’ll go home tonight, check her email and a couple of her favorite websites on it. She likes Facebook, too. Beyond that, she’ll use her PC to write her Christmas letter every December, or play Solitaire, but that’s really all the machine is for. Tonight, she’ll curse at it softly because it’s been slowing down a lot lately. She can’t figure out why, and she doesn’t want to pay someone to fix the problem. She doesn’t care. She doesn’t use the computer that much anyway. She has other hobbies, and other things to do, and she’s not really into technology.

Because of the kind of content on this blog, most of my readers are not Jane. But Jane is everywhere. Jane is the most common computer user in the world. And the fact is, Jane doesn’t need a computer. She needs something less than a computer. She needs something she can type on, and play a few games on. Is she going to be doing a lot of audio and video editing? No. Desktop publishing? No. Does she care that she can’t run such-and-such as a background process? No way. She needs something that can get online easily without a lot of weird configuration options and hullabaloo. She needs a device that knows how to focus. A device that knows how to be less.

But she doesn’t want to spend, like, $1000 and end up getting more than she needs. We’ve already seen she doesn’t need much. Should we give her a netbook, so she can have all the inherent complexities of Windows with a user interface originally designed for a screen twice that size and a finger-achingly miniaturized keyboard and mousing surface and a million options in a nested-folder file system? Should we?!

You hate Jane, don’t you. Just say it. Go ahead, give her that netbook and slap her in the face. You jerk.

Jane needs the iPad. Jane would fall in love with the iPad. You may not be Jane, and that’s OK. I’m not Jane either. But let’s not insult Jane’s iPad. It’s focused, and it’s beautiful, and it’s good at what Jane wants to do. Maybe some day they’ll come out with an iPad that meets the checklist in your head. Until then, let’s show some respect for Jane.

Jack Edward Lewis, A Few Weeks In

This entry is several weeks late. I can blame Twitter and Facebook for that delay, right? OK.

Jack Edward Lewis

On December 9th, 2009 at 9:09pm, my dear son Jack Edward Lewis came into the world. Some of the official paperwork says 9:10pm, but I was watching the clock. Also, 9:10pm has one less “9” in it. C’mon.

We took his first name from his great-grandfather Jack Hastings, who passed away in the Spring of 2009 and is greatly missed. Grandpa’s first name was actually John, but everyone called him Jack. (The fact that C.S. Lewis’s nickname was “Jack” is a coincidence. We like C.S. Lewis, but maybe not that much.)

Jack Edward’s middle name is from my dearest friend Eddie Oroyan, whose passion for Christ and totally unbridled energy through creativity are an inspiration to me. I am lucky to call him my friend.

I’d like to tell you a bit about Jack’s labor story, and also about his personality, now that we’ve had the chance to get to know him a little.

Our labor story starts late at night on December 7th. I didn’t tweet about this at the time. (See? You guys don’t just get all the same information later and longer than Twitter. This is new stuff.) Steph began having very regular contractions 5 or 6 minutes apart, and we did the classic drive-85-down-the-highway rush to the hospital at 10pm. But the contractions slowed down and stopped after about an hour, so by 2:30am on the 8th, we were sent back home. No baby.

Early on the 9th, Steph started having more contractions and pains of other sorts, and we thought it would be wise to go in again, so we did. The doctors decided that because Steph was already dilated to 5 or 6 centimeters (!) she was already technically in labor, and since we were in the midst of a blizzard, they would rather start a pitocin drip and get the boy out than send us home. So that’s what we did. And there was much rejoicing.

The pitocin started at 2pm, and things were actually quite calm and pleasant until around 7pm. We watched most of Live Free or Die Hard, which happened to be on TV at the moment. We chatted casually on the phone with family. At around 8:30pm, labor became intensely painful for Steph, for about 25 minutes. Half way through that time, one of the less-experienced delivery nurses made the silly mistake of thinking she would encourage Steph by saying, “Oh, don’t worry sweetie, we think we can have him out by 11 ‘o clock!” Meanwhile, Steph was thinking she could handle 10 or 15 more minutes of that kind of pain before losing it. Note to nurses: when you’re making crazy, baseless guesses within earshot of your patient, make them encouraging guesses, or don’t make them at all.

At about 9pm, everything calmed down, the pain dropped significantly, and Steph knew it was time for Jack to enter our world. I remember the doctor who was to deliver Jack getting to our room only moments before delivery, frantically stretching her blue nitrile gloves over her fingers while the nurses scurried around the bed. She was the voice of calm wisdom Steph needed at the end of the bed, and she performed perfectly. Jack arrived without issue, almost easily. Steph described it later as “peaceful,” which is mind-blowing if you consider what was actually happening.

During the last few minutes of birth, I had my iPhone start recording audio, and I set it on a table beside the birthing bed. I’ve trimmed the recording a bit for time, and Steph has very graciously given me permission to share this audio with you. These are the actual moments leading up to Jack’s birth, and you’ll hear his very first cry here. I like to think of this as a little gift of a magical moment that we can share with friends and readers.

I want to describe Jack’s personality and my and Steph’s experience of Jack to you, but I’ve found it’s difficult to describe a person without describing them in relative terms. So I hope you’ll forgive me if, at least in this entry, I describe Jack as a series of contrasts with Caleb.

Steph’s recovery from Jack’s birth was extremely easy compared to her recovery from Caleb’s birth. After Caleb’s birth, we were in the hospital for 5 days, the first two of which Steph was a little incoherent and extremely physically weakened due to a magnesium sulfate IV. (You do not want to have magnesium sulfate running through your veins unless the other option is likely death.) Steph was hooked up to cables and wires and tubes for several days, and she required constant supervision. It was honestly scary, and we were without family, living in California. With Jack, Steph’s minimal IVs were removed almost immediately after birth, and she was able to get up, walk around, talk to people, whatever. Pretty simple! We used to think nice births were the exception and Caleb’s was more normal. It turns out Caleb’s was a rare exception, and many births are as simple as Jack’s was. Whadda ya know!

That parallel continues in their early personalities, too. Caleb was a screamer, and an incredibly loud one at that. Jack, on the other hand, is really quiet. He cries a little, but not loudly. He quiets down quickly when you give him what he needs. He is generally very calm. We haven’t gotten him to smile very often yet, but I’m sure that will change.

There is just one funny little way in which Jack’s noise exceeds that of Caleb. When Jack is asleep, he often has little bouts of all kinds of noise. He’ll grunt and squeak and strain, perhaps even cry a little. But he doesn’t wake up during the whole thing. Well, heck, we’ve already gone crazy with audio in this entry. What’s a little more going to hurt? OK. Here.

We hear sounds like this throughout the night. Thankfully, it’s become less frequent as he has gained a few weeks of age, but he’s not a silent sleeper by any means. Sometimes, as I lay there in the dark, I imagine him with a tiny weight set, benching iron the size of a drinking straw piercing bagel halves, doing reps in the quiet of the morning. Feel the burn, little one!

The passage from the Bible we chose for Jack’s “life verse” is Jeremiah 17:5-8. It reads like this in the ESV:

Thus says the Lord: Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.

Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.

Jack, in your life there will be many things competing for your ultimate trust and reliance. For the affections of your heart. You could choose to trust yourself. You could trust money. You could put your trust in other people. But you’ll notice the Bible doesn’t say “if heat comes,” it says “when heat comes.” It’s a guarantee. But there’s another guarantee to match it. Drink deeply of the Water of Life. His streams will never run out, and you will prosper from root to fruit. Trust Him!

What Makes a Quality Playlist?

Earlier this evening I made a “Genius playlist” on my iPhone from White Town’s song “Your Woman” and it turned out surprisingly well, considering all the music was automatically selected by a computer algorithm in a matter of 1 or 2 seconds. Steph commented on how much she was enjoying it, and Caleb danced the whole time. I was impressed.

I suppose methods used to measure the quality of a playlist are a much-debated thing. We could get into deep aesthetic discussions about how one song can lead into the next and bring the listener through “arcs”, and there’s nothing wrong with seeing playlists that way. But to me, there’s a simple beauty in playing the hits, straight up, without any pretentiousness to it. We got pretty close to that here. I really love about 20 of these 25 songs, even if most of them hail from deep throwback territory.

  • White Town – “Your Woman”
  • Cake – “Never There”
  • The Cardigans – “Lovefool”
  • EMF – “Unbelievable”
  • Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet (Radio Edit)”
  • Beck – “Where It’s At”
  • U2 – “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me”
  • Thomas Dolby – “She Blinded Me With Science”
  • Cut Copy – “Lights & Music”
  • Cake – “Short Skirt/Long Jacket”
  • They Might Be Giants – “Birdhouse in Your Soul”
  • Simple Minds – “Don’t You Forget About Me”
  • Cold War Kids – “Hang Me Up to Dry”
  • Phoenix – “Everything Is Everything”
  • Shannon – “Let the Music Play (David Delano, Dirty Lou & Swedish Egil Remix)”
  • Hot Chip – “Over and Over”
  • Yello – “Oh Yeah”
  • Beck – “Devils Haircut”
  • Scissor Sisters – “Take Your Mama”
  • Madonna – “Beautiful Stranger (William Orbit Radio Edit Version)”
  • Radiohead – “Karma Police”
  • Gorillaz – “19-2000”
  • Cut Copy – “Hearts On Fire”
  • The White Stripes – “My Doorbell”
  • The B-52’s – “Rock Lobster”

Perhaps the perfect playlist would use the Genius feature as a starting point, and then take manual tweaking and editing to bring it to perfection.