Steven Pressfield talks about how a single sheet of paper is the perfect length to capture the outline of a novel. He often invokes spirituality to describe art creation. It’s very human and compelling.
On the 80,000 Hours podcast, Brian Christian discusses how to make rational decisions. It’s a long, rigorous, theoretical talk. After a couple hours of math-speak, from around 2:41 to 2:49, we arrive rather surprisingly at the same place Pressfield did. We hear about the merits of simplifying important, tough decisions to no more than the length of a single sheet of paper.
How should I decide important stuff in my life? Should I get married? Should I try writing this book? What should my business plan look like? What is my purpose, what’s my organization’s mission statement?
The answer seems to be: force yourself to distill the complex world into a simple framework, then commit to action based on this simplified model. Give yourself a time limit, set a loud alarm.
After visiting the Reina Sofía in Madrid, I could only think about one thing. It was a journal entry from Pablo Picasso. He wrote, “I’ve come to realize that there is no good art and there is no bad art. I can only say, ‘this art pleases me’ or ‘this art does not please me.’”
Picasso found judging the world impossible. To define (to know) good and evil is just too tall a task—even within his field, even as one of the greatest of all time. It’s complicated, stressful, burdensome.
And so, he found, there’s a simpler way. A heuristic that works. To isolate judgment to his individual self, to take things at face value a bit more. To let go of neuroticism, to free himself from fear, expectations, worry. To set himself a deadline. It stops here, at the limits of my experience.
Interviews with Tony Robbins and Seth Godin leave me continuously fascinated, wondering: what allows these productive people to do what they do? How can they make statements with such confidence? How can they navigate the world using the little time they are given (that we are all given) to succeed so spectacularly? What’s the difference between them and me?
I think it comes down to values acted out over time. Pressfield, Tony, Seth, Marie)—these folks understand that there is no good art, only art which pleases them. They have experienced and crushed all pretensions to fix the world; instead, they seek to understand and serve their audience.
It’s easy to say, “speak to your audience.” They teach you that in 5th grade. But it’s hard to fully grasp what this means. How does one strive to matter, for some specific people, so that over time those people start to count on you? How do you make it so that people will miss you when you’re gone and ask you to come back? How can you turn your hobby or desire to help others into a lifestyle, a vocation? How do you make decisions with a single page, then really commit to them?
In high school, I didn’t have the right role models. If I wanted to do well at school, I might have looked at folks like Einstein and said, “I want to be smart like this genius.” If I wanted to be seen as handsome, I might have looked at folks like Zac Efron and said, “I want to be sexy like this hunk of biomass.”
The one-dimensionality of these thoughts is laughably underdeveloped and immature. Who cares about the superficial metrics of looks and smarts? Who cares if it’s intrinsic or spray-tan? Only people thinking in the short term.
In the long term, it seems to be all about the hard things. Patience, kindness, generosity, hard work. I enjoyed listening to these interviews with successful folks not because they are successful in superficial ways, but because I sense that they would be wonderful parents, citizens, neighbors, family, friends. Because I’m proud to live in the U.S.A. with these people. To exist in this day and age, on this planet, with these people.
I’m fortunate to have many friends who blow me away with their proper behavior and perspective. They are absolutely inspiring. But some of them make faces when I recommend books. They laugh at the though of self-help, they think it’s inauthentic and strange.
These friends can discuss the same themes with the same humble conviction as these YouTube celebrity interviews. But my friends don’t want to watch the videos as I do. How did they find their way without love of guidance, without actively working towards it?
For me, it’s valuable and important to learn from others. To analyze and deliberate. To seek self-evolution, to implement new ways of operating and thinking, like the one-pager. This type-A tendency has huge weaknesses—it gets me stuck in neurotic loops. I can be very lazy, especially when I hide behind impossible expectations.
But I am also compelled to write, to dissect, to discuss. My friends who scorn self-help aren’t predisposed in the same ways. And that’s OK.
It seems like there are some universal truths about the human experience that come out across cultures and time periods and personalities. For instance, how we choose things, make decisions, and live our lives. How we act, what’s right and wrong—good or bad—for us. Regardless of how we conceive of the world or ourselves, if we believe in the divine or the scientific, it seems these big questions have many different answers pointing in similar directions.