A thought from Thoreau’s journal, on this day, January 4th, 1860:
A man receives only what he is ready to receive…. We hear and apprehend only what we already half know. If there is something which does not concern me, which is out of my line, which by experience or by genius my attention is not drawn to, however novel and remarkable it may be, if it is spoken we hear it not, if it is written, we read it not, or if we read it, it does not detain us. Every man thus tracks himself through life, in all his hearing and reading and observation and traveling. His observations make a chain. The phenomenon or fact that cannot in any wise be linked with the rest which he has observed, he does not observe. By and by we may be ready to receive what we cannot receive now.
Receiving, here, means a taking in, or a welcoming, as you’d receive a visitor. This is, to my mind, a good argument for self-directed learning, for following one’s nose, so to speak, as we take in best what we want to take in. (Although almost anyone who’s been taught has been haunted by the words of their teachers, which often only make sense in time.) People learn best what and when they want to learn. The first step to thinking, according to my friend Alan, is to want to think in the first place.
Reading, for example: We must be ready to take in a book. I am fond of the saying “It wasn’t for me” to describe a book I didn’t connect with, because it allows that given enough time, it may be for me, and I may be ready to receive it. We are always changing, so we will find new things to receive when re-reading. Thoreau follows up with a specific example, about Aristotle and fishes:
I find (e.g.) in Aristotle something about the spawning of the pout & perch — because I know something about it already & have my attention aroused — but I do not discover till very late that he has made other equally important observations on the spawning of other fishes, because I am not interested in those fishes.
Reading is a part of our education, and education is a drawing out of who we are and what we care about. We meet ourselves in the words of others.
Earlier in his journal, Thoreau is observing the snow, and how the presence of tracks reveals formally undetected animals. So he already has tracking on the mind, and turns the idea on himself: He’s tracking himself in his journal, in his reading, in his observing. (As A.K.R. said, “Pay attention to what you pay attention to.”) Part of his work is examining his own chain, adding links, identifying the weak ones, fortifying others…
I’ve been wanting to write about the habit of daily blogging I’ve taken up since Oct. 1st this year, but I’ve avoided it, because 1) there are so many other interesting things to blog about 2) I’ve worried that blogging about blogging is too recursive and it will open up some sort of evil dimension or will just jinx the good mojo I got workin’. Still, I want to give it a (hopefully quick) spin.
The idea started out from my anxiety about “stock and flow.” As Robin Sloan wrote seven years ago: flow is the feed (“It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that reminds people you exist.”) and stock is the durable stuff (“It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.”)
In Show Your Work!, I wrote that it was always my M.O. to turn flow into stock: tweets become blog posts that become book chapters that become books. Trouble is, I had failed to heed Robin’s warning:
I feel like flow is ascendant these days, for obvious reasons—but we neglect stock at our own peril. I mean that both in terms of the health of an audience and, like, the health of a soul. Flow is a treadmill, and you can’t spend all of your time running on the treadmill. Well, you can. But then one day you’ll get off and look around and go: oh man. I’ve got nothing here.
Not only was I not turning flow into stock, I became acutely aware that due to the slow (or fast?) decay of social media and algorithm tinkering, the flow wasn’t even doing what it used to do —“remind people you exist”— and worse, my bits were just getting sucked into a void, an archive that I could download, maybe, but probably never go back and mine for any gold. Turning flow into stock isn’t all that hard, but it gets exponentially harder the more flow you have to go back and sift through.
Also, quite frankly, Twitter turned into a cesspool almost overnight. My friend Alan Jacobs was very vocal about his split from Twitter, and after reading his vibrant blog and new book, How To Think, I just decided to give daily blogging a go again, and this time, to do it on my URL, on my old-school WordPress blog, like the old days, when blogging actually meant something to me.
So how’d it go? Well, so far, even better than I expected.
1) I had no idea how badly my writing muscles had atrophied. After a couple of weeks, I could feel the sentences coming easier.
2) After struggling to come up with a new book idea for so long, I could start to see all the connections between posts, the patterns, the idea planets I keep orbiting. Because it’s all in one place, hyperlinked together, I can see my own obsessions in a way that is much harder elsewhere. (Also: I’m owning my turf. This place has been around for a dozen years. Longer than Twitter and Tumblr and Instagram, and if I had to bet, I’d guess it will outlast them.)
3) I had forgotten how wonderful blogging is as a mode of thinking. Blogging is, for me, more about discovering what I have to say, and tweeting more about having a thought, then saying it the right way. It’s also great to be able to go as long or as short as you want to go.
4) Maybe most surprising, is that my posts have gotten, in my opinion, much deeper and more interesting. I used to scramble on Thursdays, trying to come up with a good blog post so I could post it at the top of Friday’s newsletter. Often I would cop out, write something quick and pat, and move on. Once I started daily blogging, not only did I have more to link to, it’s actually better stuff — some weeks I have a tough time deciding which post gets top billing in my list of 10. (I hope you’ll subscribe, btw, if you haven’t already.)
There’s a story about perfectionism in David Bayles and Ted Orland’s excellent book, Art & Fear:
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
With blogging, I’m not so sure it’s about quantity as much as it’s about frequency: for me, there’s something kind of magical about posting once a day. Good things happen. Something small every day leads to something big. (Seth Godin has championed daily blogging for years—he just passed his 7000th post.)
5) Maybe I’m weird, but it just feels good. It feels good to reclaim my turf. It feels good to have a spot to think out loud in public where people aren’t spitting and shitting all over the place.
Anyways, I hope I can keep it up for as long as possible. Thanks for reading.
Not to say that there won’t be consequences. As Alan Jacobs writes in How To Think, “I can’t promise that if you change your mind you won’t lose at least some of your friends—and that matters, because if you learn to think, genuinely to think, you will sometimes change your mind.” The key thing, Jacobs says, is to “avoid displaying the zeal that’s all too commonly characteristic of the convert.” If you can present your changed mind “as something that you have come to with some reluctance and without delight, then you should be able to convince them of your continued goodwill.” (No guarantees, of course…)