To be a teacher and remain a student

to be a teacher but remain a student

C.S. Lewis wrote a great introduction to his Reflections on the Psalms that I used in the “Be An Amateur” section of my last book:

I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself… It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than the master can… The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want him to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago that he has forgotten… I write as one amateur to another, talking about difficulties I have met, or lights I have gained…

This is the way I’ve always tried to approach writing, teaching, or speaking on stage: not as an expert, but as a fellow student. I’m trying to learn in the open. I’m letting others look over my shoulder while I figure things out.

And even when I do think I’ve figured some things out, I’m trying to find more things to figure out, because learning is the thing that keeps me alive, keeps me moving forward.

This, I think, is the great trick: To be a teacher and remain a student.


tufte taking a picture

I first read Edward Tufte’s books in 2006 when I was a 23-year-old librarian who didn’t even know there was such a thing as a designer. (Here are the maps I drew of Beautiful Evidence and Envisioning Information.) The books had a big impact on me, so much so that I applied to Carnegie Mellon’s information design program. (I got in, but wound up moving to Texas and becoming a web designer instead.)

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Potential reactions


From playwright Sarah Ruhl’s terrific book, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write:

Recently, my son said to me after seeing a ballet on television: “It’s beautiful but I don’t like it.” And I thought, Are many grown-ups capable of such a distinction? It’s beautiful, but I don’t like it. Usually, our grown-up thinking is more along the lines of: I don’t like it, so it’s not beautiful. What would it meant to separate those two impressions for art making and for art criticism?

See also: “Borrow a kid

10 things I learned while writing my last book

working in the garage
My third book Show Your Work! came out a year ago. I kept a diary while writing the book, but it’s too painful and embarrassing to share in full. So here’s a list of lessons I learned while writing it, adapted from a series of tweets

1. Don’t try to write a book while taking care of a newborn baby.

I drastically underestimated how much physical, mental, and spiritual energy it requires. (Sarah Ruhl writes really well about the distractions of parenting.) Those first two months are just brutal — take them off if you can. Keep a pocket notebook and take little notes for later.

2. Write outside of the house.

Get an office, or go to the coffee shop, or ride the train around. At the very least, find a room in your house with a door that closes. Set up a bliss station.

I wrote Show at the top of the stairs in an open loft, wearing headphones to try to block out the cries of the baby. Let me tell you: Headphones are not a replacement for a shut door.

3. Stop researching, start writing.

“There’s an awful temptation to just keep on researching,” says David McCollough. “There comes a point where you just have to stop, and start writing. When I began, I thought that the way one should work was to do all the research and then write the book. In time I began to understand that it’s when you start writing that you really find out what you don’t know and need to know.”

4. Once you’re in the middle of writing the book, talk about the book as little as possible.

I’m an extreme extrovert, which is really great after I write a book and I have to go out into the world and talk to people about it, but not so great when I need to sequester myself long enough to actually get some real writing done.

I do most of my thinking “out loud,” which means that ideas don’t really come to me until I’ve expressed them. If I express them through speech, I’m less likely to turn around and say them in writing. (This chart might help.)

5. Stick to an outline until you’re between drafts.

This has screwed me so many times. Don’t try to change structure during a draft. Power through until the draft is done. (Get The Clockwork Muse, which covers this subject brilliantly.)

6. A book can be a pain-in-the-ass to write as long as it isn’t a pain-in-the-ass to read.

People are surprised when I tell them what a horrible time I had writing this book. Which means I did my job!

7. Your partner or spouse is so, so sick of you.

Seriously. Do something nice for him/her, or at the very least, don’t talk about your book. Schedule regular time together when you don’t talk about work.

8. Don’t use childbirth as a metaphor.

There is only one way that writing a book is like giving birth: After it enters the world, the pain is mostly over, but the work has only begun.

9. Don’t squander your momentum.

After you finish one book, start writing something else as soon as you can. Chain-smoke.

If you’re truly burnt out, quit for a while. Read. Travel. Talk to people. Go away so you can come back.

10. Know what you’re getting into.

Best case scenario: You write a good book that sells. Then everyone will want you to write another one. “What next?” is a never-ending question for the writer… so beware!

You can get a copy of Show Your Work! right here.

The So What? Test

The So What Test

The act of sharing is one of generosity—you’re putting something out there because you think it might be helpful or entertaining to someone on the other side of the screen.

I had a professor in college who returned our graded essays, walked up to the chalkboard, and wrote in huge letters: “SO WHAT?” She threw the piece of chalk down and said, “Ask yourself that every time you turn in a piece of writing.”

It’s a lesson I never forgot.

Always be sure to run everything you share with others through The “So What?” Test. Don’t overthink it; just go with your gut.

If you’re unsure about whether to share something, let it sit for 24 hours. Put it in a drawer and walk out the door. The next day, take it out and look at it with fresh eyes. Ask yourself, “Is this helpful? Is it entertaining? Is it something I’d be comfortable with my boss or my mother seeing?”

There’s nothing wrong with saving things for later. The SAVE AS DRAFT button is like a prophylactic—it might not feel as good in the moment, but you’ll be glad you used it in the morning.

This post is an excerpt from my book, Show Your Work!

How will I pay the bills?

be useful
This mini-rant was originally posted on Twitter, but people really responded to it, so I’m archiving it here.

“How will I pay the bills?” is a perfectly reasonable question from a young person, worth a thoughtful answer.

“How will I pay the bills?” is not a question of the scared or cowardly, it’s a question of the sane and responsible.

1. Make a budget. Start a spreadsheet and figure out exactly how much you’ll need to live on. It might be more or less than you think.

2. Figure out how to get ahold of that money. For many, it will be a day job, or doing things that aren’t sexy and/or fun. (You know, work.)

3. Budget your time. Find every free second you have that you can devote to what you really want to be doing. Use that time best you can.

* * *

Write the following quotes on index cards and stick them above where you work:

“The key to eternal happiness is low overhead and no debt.”
—Lynda Barry

“If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid.”
—Bill Cunningham

* * *

The next time someone tells you to “do what you love no matter what,” ask to see their tax return.

Anybody who tells people to “do what you love no matter what” should also have to teach a money management course.

Low overhead + “do what you love” = a good life.

“I deserve nice things” + “do what you love” = a time bomb.

* * *

In summary: Live below your means. Don’t go into debt. Jam econo. Do the best you can with what you have.