Detail of "The Secret of Art" poster, designed by Milton Glaser.

Required Reading: On Showing Up, Changing Your Life & Limited Goals

Every month we share upwards of 150 thought-provoking articles with you via our Twitter feed @99U. For this Required Reading column, I distill those tweets down to the top 5 pieces that made us stop in our tracks, think about something a little differently, and maybe even change the way we work. I’ve excerpted my favorite moments below, but all of these articles are worth a read in full, so get your Instapaper ready.

1. Ten Things I Have Learned (from Milton Glaser)

Legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser – the mastermind behind the “I ♥ NY” design – shares ten life lessons in this blog post recapping an AIGA talk he gave back in 2001. Get ready for great insights without the candy-coating. Here’s one of my favorites, a counter-intuitive perspective on the value of professionalism:

Early in my career I wanted to be professional, that was my complete aspiration in my early life because professionals seemed to know everything – not to mention they got paid for it. Later I discovered after working for a while that professionalism itself was a limitation. After all, what professionalism means in most cases is diminishing risks. So if you want to get your car fixed you go to a mechanic who knows how to deal with transmission problems in the same way each time. I suppose if you needed brain surgery you wouldn’t want the doctor to fool around and invent a new way of connecting your nerve endings. Please do it in the way that has worked in the past.

Unfortunately in our field, in the so-called creative – I hate that word because it is misused so often. I also hate the fact that it is used as a noun. Can you imagine calling someone a creative? Anyhow, when you are doing something in a recurring way to diminish risk or doing it in the same way as you have done it before, it is clear why professionalism is not enough. After all, what is required in our field, more than anything else, is the continuous transgression.

Professionalism does not allow for that because transgression has to encompass the possibility of failure and if you are professional your instinct is not to fail, it is to repeat success. So professionalism as a lifetime aspiration is a limited goal.

2. Step One Is Showing Up

Occasional 99U contributor Scott Young recently posted a great, no-nonsense piece on the importance of showing up. Reading it is sort of like getting a talking-to from your favorite high school sports coach. In short, it’s just the sort of ass-kicking you may need to get your creative project in gear. Here’s an excerpt:

My roommate was trying to get in shape. He talked about the goal often, so I offered to help him stay motivated. However, on the day that we were going to exercise, he was procrastinating.

Finally, as it got later and later, I told him out of frustration that he said he wanted my advice, and, “Step one was to get to the gym before it closes!”

He laughed at my exasperation and we did go to the gym before it closed. Since then saying, “Step one!” has been an inside joke for whenever someone fails to put in the basic effort for a goal they supposedly care about.

…How often do you forget step one? Wanting to be a successful blogger, but failing to write regularly. Wanting to get in shape, but not showing up at the gym. Wanting to learn a language, but never having conversations with people who speak it.Step one is interesting because it only requires effort. Writing a bestselling novel requires some luck and skill. Writing a novel requires only that you show up to write every morning.

Because step one isn’t dependent on any external factor, it is also a good measure of how committed you are to a goal. If I professed a desire to be a great writer, but I never wrote anything, I’m simply not committed to that goal. There’s no excuse for failing step one.

3. Great AntiHacks to Fundamentally Change your Life

Our thinking out how we work shouldn’t just be limited to small-bore questions like “How can I get through more email?” or “What can I do to manage meetings better?” From time to time, we need to step back and take stock of the long view. Or, as Clay Collins writes in this fantastic post, “sometimes our lives don’t need optimization, they need to be fundamentally reconfigured.” Here’s Collins on finding perspective:

We desperately lack perspective because we are a society of workaholics, and workaholism is like kryptonite to perspective. (It’s often said that highly intelligent people lack common sense; but I believe they really lack is perspective as a result of handing an unhealthy amount of their brainpower to their bosses).And the thing about perspective is that you just can’t “hack” it.

There are no perspective hacks. None. You just have to suck it up, live a little, and wallow in the mud of life. You have to get your hands dirty with this beautiful business of living. You have to question, meditate, and fail often. You simply have to make space for perspective and hope that it will come eventually. You have to spend time in a manner that would seem self-indulgent to most.

4. The Blind Man Who Taught Himself To See

An incredible tale of perseverance and innovation, this Men’s Journal piece profiles Daniel Kish, a blind man who has learned to use echolocation to navigate the world with such precision that he can even engage in challenging sports like mountain biking. Thanks to Kottke for pointing us to this stunning story:

I accompanied Kish on several occasions as he cruised the busy streets of Long Beach. The outside world is an absolute cacophony. Every car, person, dog, stroller, and bicycle makes a sound. So do gusts of wind, bits of blowing garbage, and rustling leaves. Doors open and close. Change jangles. People talk. Then there are the silent obstacles – what Kish calls urban furniture: benches, traffic signs, telephone poles, postal boxes, fire hydrants, light posts, parked vehicles. Kish hears the sonic reflections from his click even in a place teeming with ambient noise. ”

It’s like recognizing a familiar voice in a crowd,” he says. The load upon his mind is undoubtedly immense. Yet he casually processes everything, constructing and memorizing a mental map of his route, all while maintaining an intricate conversation with me. It’s so extraordinary that it seems to border on the magical.

5. Practical Tips on Writing a Book from 23 Brilliant Authors

On the cusp of tackling his first book, writer Steve Silberman collected sundry bits of wisdom from writers of all stripes, including Jonah Lehrer, David Shenk, Sylvia Boorstein, David Crosby, and many more. But you don’t have to be a writer to take something away from this piece. Here’s author and Boing Boing editor Cory Doctorow on writing and the creative process:

1. Write every day. Anything you do every day gets easier. If you’re insanely busy, make the amount that you write every day small (100 words? 250 words?) but do it every day.2. Write even when the mood isn’t right. You can’t tell if what you’re writing is good or bad while you’re writing it.

3. Write when the book sucks and it isn’t going anywhere. Just keep writing. It doesn’t suck. Your conscious is having a panic attack because it doesn’t believe your subconscious knows what it’s doing.

4. Stop in the middle of a sentence, leaving a rough edge for you to start from the next day — that way, you can write three or five words without being “creative” and before you know it, you’re writing.

5. Write even when the world is chaotic. You don’t need a cigarette, silence, music, a comfortable chair, or inner peace to write. You just need ten minutes and a writing implement.


To get the best reads on the regular, follow us on Twitter @99U. You can check out our previous Required Reading roundup here.

Image Credits: Creative Director: Silas H. Rhodes, Designer: Milton Glaser, Photographer: Matthew Klein, Visual Arts ©2007.

Jocelyn K. Glei

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As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning 99u.com website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.
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