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“Distraction,” Simplicity, and Running Toward Shitstorms
Merlin Mann | Oct 5 2010
Context: Last week, I pinched off one of my typically woolly emails in response to an acquaintance whom I admire. He’s a swell guy who makes things I love, and he'd written, in part, to express concern that my recent Swift impersonation had been directed explicitly at something he'd made. Which, of course, it hadn’t—but which, as I'll try to discuss here, strikes me as irrelevant.
To paraphrase Bogie, I played it for him, so now I suppose I might as well play it for you.
(n.b.: Excerpted, redacted, munged, and heavily expanded from my original email)
And, then, I jizzed on at length about how much I admire the recipient’s work. Which I do.
Good work doesn’t need a cookie
I may admire your work, too. Especially if you care a lot about that work and don’t overly sweat peoples' opinions of it. Most definitely including my own.
For these purposes, it doesn’t really matter whether we're friends and, honestly, it doesn’t even matter whether I love, use, or agree with everything you do, say, or make in a given day.
It doesn’t matter because good work doesn’t need me to love it. Like tornadoes and cold sores, good work happens with total disregard to whether I'm “into it.”
But, conversely, let’s stipulate that the points-of-view undergirding our opinions—again, including mine—will and should survive either agreement or lack of agreement with equivalently effortless ease. Because, like really good work, a really good point-of-view doesn’t require another person’s benediction.
Guess we'll have to disagree to agree
Now, to be only vaguely clearer here, I'm not posting this circuitous ego dump in the service of altering your opinion of either me, my friend, his work, or practically anything else for that matter.
But, I would love it if we could all be more okay with the fact that real life means that we do each have a different, sometimes incongruous, and often totally incompatible point-of-view. Yes. Even you have a point-of-view that someone despises. Ready to change it now? Jesus, I sure hope not.
Then, to be only slightly more clear, I'm also not advocating for that fakey brand of web-based kum ba ya that gets trotted out alternately as “tolerance” or “inclusion” or some styrofoam miniature of “civility.”
I'm absolutely not against all of those things when authentically practiced, but I'm also really skeptical of the well-branded peacemakers who are forever appointing themselves the Internet’s “Now-Now-Let’s-All-Pretend-We're-Just-Saying-the-Same-Useless-Thing-Here” den mothers.
Because we're not all saying the same things. Not at all.
And, it infantalizes some important conversations when we tacitly demand that any instance of honest disagreement be immediately horseshat into a photo opp where some thought leader gets to hoist everyone’s hands in the air like he’s fucking Jimmy Carter.
Nope. Not saying that.
Who will you really rely on?
What I AM saying is that alllllll this seemingly unrelated stuff is absolutely related—that the pattern of not relying on other people for anything you really care about is arguably the great-grandaddy of every useful productivity, creativity, or self-help pattern.
Where’s this matter? Pretty much everywhere you have any sort of stake:
Yes. I went there.
Because that’s the point. These hypocrisies, paradoxes, and ambiguities that people get so wound up about—that many of us are constantly (impotently) trying to resolve—cannot be resolved.
Because, yeah: all of these harrowingly unsolvable problems are immune to new notebooks and less-distracting applications and shinier systems and “nicer” self-“help” and pretty much anything else that is not, specifically, you walking straight into the angriest and least convenient shitstorm you can find and getting your ass kicked until the storm gets bored with kicking it.
Then, you find an even angrier storm. Then, another. And, so on.
“Get the fuck off of my obstacle, Private Pyle!”
Doing that annoying hard stuff is how you grow, get better, and learn what real help looks like. Even if that’s not the answer you wanted to hear. You get better by getting your ass out of your RSS reader and fucking making things until they suck less. Not by buying apps.
You don’t whine about distractions, or derail yourself over needing a nicer pencil sharpener, or aggravate your chronic creative diabetes by starting another desperate waddle to the self-help buffet. No. You work.
And, for what it’s worth, just like you can’t get to the moon by eating cheese, you'll also never leave boot camp with your original scrote intact by telling your drill sergeant to try using more honey than vinegar.
No. That sergeant’s job is to make you miserable. It’s his job to break down your callow conceits about what’s supposed to be easy and fair. It’s his job to emotionally pummel you into giving up and becoming a Marine.
You? You're not there to give the sergeant notes; you're there to sleep two hours a night, then not mind getting beaten for 20 hours until a decent Marine starts to fall out.
Who knows? He may even surprise you by introducing a surprisingly effective “distraction-free learning environment.”
“Tee ell dee ahr, Professor Brainiac.”
Like most humans, I like things I can understand. Like most readers, I love specificity. Like most thinkers, I love clarity. Like most students, I love relevance and practicality. And, like most busy people, believe it or not, I actually do really like it when someone gets straight to the point.
But, here’s the problem. If my 2-year-old daughter asks me about time travel, and I blithely announce, “E=mc2”, I will have said something that is entirely specific, clear, relevant, practical, and/or straight-to-the-point. For somebody.
But, not so much for my daughter. And, to be honest, not even to any useful degree for me.
She'd probably either laugh derisively at me (which she’s great at), or she'd pause and ask, “Whuh dat?” (which she’s even better at).
Thing is, her understanding that jumble of characters less than me—and my understanding it WAY less than Professor Al—has zero impact on the profundity, truth, beauty, or impact of the man’s theory.
Sure. You could quite accurately fault me for being a smartass and a poseur, and you could even berate my toddler for her unaccountably shallow understanding of Modern Physics. But, in any case, you can’t really blame either Albert or his theory.
You're turbocharging nothing
Specifically, Albert can’t begin to tell us what he really knows if we don’t understand math.
So, let’s say this theory you've been hearing about really interests you. And, let’s also pretend, just for the sake of the analogy, that you haven’t completed Calculus III (212) or Quantum Mechanics (403) or even something as elementary as, say, Advanced Astrophysics II (537). I know you have. Obviously. But, let’s pretend. Where do you start?
Well, you could read some tips about learning math. You could find a list of 500 indispensable resources for indispensable math resources. You could buy a new “distraction-free math environment.” Heck, there’s actually nothing to stop you from just declaring yourself a “math expert.” Congratulations, Professor.
Thing is: you still don’t know math.
Which means you still can’t really understand the theory—no more than a pathetic Liberal Arts refugee like me or a dullard Physics ignoramus like my kid can really grok relativity.
Difference is, you will have blown a lot of time hoping that actual expertise follows non-existent effort—while my daughter and I get to remain total novices without charge. Only, we don’t get all mad at the theory as a result; a staggering number of fake math experts do.
I mean, be honest—after all that recreational non-work and make-believe dedication almost trying to kinda learn math sorta—you might actually get frustrated at how brazenly Al defies your fondness for shortcuts by continuing to rely on so many terms and proofs and blah-blah-blah that you still just don’t understand. So annoying.
You may simply decide that Albert Einstein’s a huge dick for never saying things that can be completely understood solely by scanning a headline.
EPIC EINSTEIN FAIL, amirite?
You never really know what you didn’t know until you know it
But, Al just told the truth.
Problem is, Al’s truth not only requires fancy things in order to be truly understood—the more of those fancy things you take away from his truth, the less true it gets. And, by the time it’s been diluted to the point where you're comfortable that you understand it? You'd be understanding the wrong thing. Even I can understand that.
But, not one bit of any of this is Al’s fault. Al doesn’t get to control who uses, abuses, gets, or doesn’t get what he said or why it matters. Especially since he’s been dead for over fifty years.
All I know is, regardless of who has ears to hear it on a given day, it would be to Al’s credit never to mangle something important in order to get it into terms everybody’s ready to handle without actually trying.
And God bless him for never agreeing that your “distractions” to learning math are his problem.
So, yeah, if you only need to hand in a crappy 5-page paper, you could certainly Cliff’s Notes your way through Borges, Eliot, or Joyce in an afternoon, and feel like you haven’t missed a thing. Trouble is, if you did care even a little, it’s impossible to even say how much you're missing since you can’t be bothered to soldier through the source text. The text itself is the entire point.
Even the wonderfully cogent and readable layman’s explanations Einstein himself provided don’t really get to the nut, the application, and the implications of his real theory.
That all takes real math.
That “single datum of experience” matters
Sometimes, complex or difficult things stop being true when you try to make them too simple. Sometimes, you have to actually get laid to understand why people think sex is such a thing. Sometimes, you need to learn some Greek if you really want to understand The Gospel of John. And, yeah, sometimes, you're going to have to just work unbelievably hard at whatever you claim to care about before anyone can begin to help you get any better—or less “distracted”—at it.
The part I really know is what doesn’t work. Reading Penthouse Forum won’t help you CLEP out of Vaginal Intercourse 101. Watching a Rankin-Bass cartoon about the Easter Bunny will teach you very little about the intricacies of transubstantiation. And, if you can’t be troubled to care so much about your work that you reflexively force distractions away, dicking around with yet another writing application will merely aggravate the problem. Ironic, huh?
These quantum mechanics of personal productivity are rife with such frustrating “paradoxes.”
These are True Things.
Achieving expertise and doing creative work is all horribly complicated and difficult and paradoxical and frustrating and recursive and James Joyce-y—and any guide, blog, binary, guru, or “nice guy” that tries to suggest otherwise is probably giving you a complimentary colonoscopy. Do the math.
Want a new syllabus? Sure:
Run straight into your shitstorm, my friends. Reject the impulse to think about work, rather than finishing it. And, open your heart to the remote possibility that any mythology of personal failure that involves messiahs periodically arriving to make everything “easy” for you might not really be helping your work or your mental health or your long-standing addiction to using tools solely to ship new excuses.
Learn your real math, and any slide rule will suffice. Try, make, and do until you quit noticing the tools, and if you still think you need new tools, go try, make, and do more.
If you can pull off this deceptively simple and millennia-old pattern, you'll eventually find that—god by dying god—any partial truth that’s supported your treasured excuses for not working will be replaced by a no-faith-required knowledge that you're really, actually, finally getting better at something you care about.
Which is just sublimely un-distracting.
This article is dedicated to my friend, Greg Knauss. No, he’s not the app guy–he’s just a good man who does good work, who accidentally/unintentionally helped me write this rant. He also happens to be a fella who could teach anyone a thing or two about writing with distractions. Thanks, Greg.
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