How To Do Stuff and Be Happy

March 25th, 2010 | Category: Essays

For my recent guest lecture at UIC, I was tasked with three things. Mike Schandorf asked me to do a little motivating, do a little background, and answer some questions. For the first, I went back through some of the posts here, some things I used to handout at the end of the semester in my classes, and a few key essays by people who have motivated me. This is still rather diffuse, but since these are all just recommendations (i.e., you should only use what works for you and ignore the rest; they are suggested tactics, not steadfast rules), it would probably seem that way no matter.

“Dream a little dream,
Or you can live a little dream
I’d rather live it
‘Cause dreamers always chase
But never get it” — Aesop Rock

“Go make the art you believe in.” — El-P

Pay attention: We live in a world of what Barry Brummett calls “technologies of distraction.” We have to be more meta-attentive. That is, we have to pay more attention to what we pay attention to. Time is finite and attention even more so. Make sure you’re focusing on what you want to do.

Have heroes: I got this one from an old Nike ad campaign, and it stayed with me. Follow for Now is a book full of my mentors and their work. Find models for what you want to do, find out how they did it, and let them know that they’ve inspired you. Your mentors likely feel under-appreciated.

Alternately, you can find a foil. This will probably come with time anyway, so I prefer starting with mentors.

“We generate stories for you because you don’t save the ones that are yours.” — Douglas Coupland, Microserfs

Save your story: The quotation above is from Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs (which I don’t recommend). I read it about ten years ago, and that line really stuck with me. This idea is in Billy Wimsatt’s similar list “How I Got My D.I.Y Degree” where he suggests keeping a notebook and writing down all of your ideas (as well as “watering your mentors” as above). I cannot emphasize the importance of this idea enough. As my dad used to tell me, “a pen has the best memory.”

Keep a promise file: This one is from an academic writing workshop I attended at SBSU with Sonja Foss and William Waters and is possibly the most important thing I learned there. Don’t discard ideas that don’t work at the moment. Put them in a “promise file” and return to them later. Sometimes your ideas aren’t necessarily bad, it’s just not their time yet.

Be indispensable: Once you’ve found your mentors and your path, you have to make it truly yours. I adapted this idea from Doug Rushkoff. He told me once that as a writer, you have to give people something they couldn’t get anywhere else. It’s a variation on what Jay Rosen calls “the most basic claim in journalism: I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” You have to find your own thing, your own path, your own voice.

Release your darlings: This one is an adaptation of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s advice, “murder your darlings” (which is usually attributed to William Faulkner), by which he meant get rid of the pieces of your writing that you love because you can’t be objective about them. I interpolated it as “release your darlings,” because now we have myriad ways to get our ideas out to a public. If it seems too precious, let it go. What might seem a great line might just be a brilliant Tweet. A half-joke can be a great status update. None of this is to say that your line might not end up in whatever piece you intended. It is to say you can test it beforehand. On the flipside, things like “Stuff White People Like” and “Shit My Dad Says” are funny online, but make stupid book ideas. Consider the appropriate vehicle for your idea and get it out there.

Save your air: On the other end of the same spectrum, Andy Jenkins used to refer to projects as if they were balloons and said that talking about them “let the air out a little at a time.” Some things need time to gestate, and should be treated as such. You have to decide which one your idea is and handle it accordingly. As Nas says, “Why shoot the breeze about it, when you could be about it?”

Think cumulatively: If the task seems insurmountable, break it into smaller chunks, and remember that every effort counts. The specificity of task is imperative. When I put on my to-do list, “work on book.” Nothing gets done. When I write, “work on chapter 5,” or “finish chapter 3,” I am more focused and at least a little bit gets accomplished. If you can do that everyday, soon the chapters (or whatever) are finished, and eventually the whole big task is done.

Be persistent: If you have a project or idea that you really want to do, don’t let anyone stop you. It has been proven time and time again: If you believe in something, there is a way to get it out there. Here’s another quotation I got from Andy Jenkins (who got it from his dad):

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” — Calvin Coolidge

Follow your curiosity: In his 2005 Stanford commencement speech (embeded below), Steve Jobs says that we can only connect the dots of our lives looking backwards. You have to follow your curiosity and trust that it will all come together later. Always be open and curious and consistently follow your curiosity. I believe that this is the key to being happy.

“It is by being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly.” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Csikszentmihalyi came up with the idea of “flow,” outlined well in Bruna Martinuzzi’s recent article “The Pursuit of Flow” (highly recommended). One cannot pursue happiness directly anymore than one can plan for serendipity. You have to be open to it though, or as 38 Special once put it, “hold on loosely, but don’t let go.”


Here’s Steve Jobs’ speech from Stanford University’s 114th Commencement on June 12, 2005 [runtime: 15:05]:

Further Posting: