This was really fun. Watch my chat with Oliver on Youtube:
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) March 1, 2022
Here’s my intro:
What will you do with the rest of your time?
What sounds like a straightforward self-help book is actually a deep reflection on the nature of time and how humans have historically dealt with it. “The average human lifespan is absurdly, insultingly brief,” Burkeman writes. “Assuming you live to be 80, you have just over four thousand weeks.”
Burkeman gives us permission to be imperfect, to forget about little tweaks and life hacks, and focus on the big things that matter. Freelancers, or creative people with weird schedules, might find comfort, as I did, in how difficult it is to make time off count when that time off isn’t shared by others.
I love how Burkeman is able to pull off the magic trick of writing self-help books that are, at their core, deeply suspicious of their own genre.
Four Thousand Weeks was one of my very favorite books I read in 2021. (His previous book, The Antidote, one of my favorite reads of 2013, was a big influence on my book Show Your Work!, which is the first book I consciously wrote knowing it’d be shelved in self-help.)
Here are some notes I took on the “The Principles of Patience” section of the book.
Oliver has agreed to chat with me online about the book in late March, so stay tuned for that!
To join our discussion, sign up for the club.
“Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!”
In Oliver Burkeman’s excellent latest book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, he outlines 3 principles for “harnessing the power of patience as a creative force in daily life.”
Burkeman quotes the French poet Christian Bobin:
I was peeling a red apple from the garden when I suddenly understood that life would only ever give me a series of wonderfully insoluble problems. With that thought, an ocean of profound peace entered my heart.
2. “Embrace radical incrementalism.”
People who work a little bit every day tend to cultivate the patience it takes to get good. These people also quit their day’s work when it’s finished: they identify what their chunk of time or task is per day, they do that and only that, and save more for tomorrow. (See: “Something small, every day” and the “Chain-smoking” chapter of Show Your Work!)
3. “More often than not, originality lies on the far side of unoriginality.”
To illustrate this point, Burkeman uses The Helsinki Bus Station Theory. (The original speech is here.) As the photographer Arno Minkkinen explained, Helsinki bus lines start out traveling the same path but then diverge at different points in the route, spreading out to far and wide locales. When you find your work resembles someone else’s, or you’re on someone else’s bus, traveling someone else’s path, don’t try to go back to the bus station at the very beginning and completely reinvent yourself and start from scratch, keep working and “stay on the bus!” At a certain point, your path will split off into something new. (I wrote a book about this called Steal Like An Artist.)
In going through my “patience” files, I found this lovely thought from a piece about helping students develop “the power of patience”:
The art historian David Joselit has described paintings as deep reservoirs of temporal experience—“time batteries”—“exorbitant stockpiles” of experience and information.
This is one of my favorite ideas: that art contains embodied energy that we can unlock, activate, and tap into with our attention. Our energies unlock the stored energy.
We must assume the same is true of our own work: that we must take the time to stockpile enough our own energy in the work so it may be worthy of the energies of others. But the energy in the work won’t just consist of the time we spent actually making it, it will also consist of all the time we spent leading up to the work… all the days we thought were going nowhere…
In Alan Jacobs’ latest newsletter, he tells a story of literally stumbling into the Pantheon and San Lorenzo in Lucina while wandering around Rome. (It’s so delicious to think about actually being able to flaneur and wander around a foreign city again one day.) Alan points out how different it felt to happen upon them by chance vs. actively seeking them out.
“Surprise is the great enabler of seeing,” Alan writes.
He points to a passage in Walker Percy’s essay, “The Loss of the Creature” (collected in The Message in the Bottle) in which Percy explores how education and classification systems blind us, essentially, to the reality of things we’re trying to see. For example, a man taking a trip to see the Grand Canyon:
Why is it almost impossible to gaze directly at the Grand Canyon under these circumstances and see it for what it is — as one picks up a strange object from one’s back yard and gazes directly at it? It is almost impossible because the Grand Canyon, the thing as it is, has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind. Seeing the canyon under approved circumstances is seeing the symbolic complex head on. The thing is no longer the thing…. it is rather that which has already been formulated—by picture postcard, geography book, tourist folders, and the words Grand Canyon.
In another newsletter that hit my inbox this morning, Oliver Burkeman posted an excerpt from his forthcoming Four Thousand Weeks, about his problem of trying to “live in the moment” while trying to take in the Northern Lights.
The more Burkeman tried to take them in and be in the moment, the more he failed. In fact, he got so far away from being in the moment by trying to be in the moment that he had a thought that still makes him squirm: “Oh, I found myself thinking, they look like one of those screensavers.”
The attempt to “be here now” feels not so much relaxing as rather strenuous – and it turns out that trying to have the most intense possible present-moment experience is a surefire way to fail. […] To try to live in the moment implies that you’re somehow separate from “the moment,” and thus in a position to either succeed or fail at living in it.
Part of the problem is that the brain only really registers what it doesn’t expect to see.
When we think of seeing, we imagine the eyes sending a bunch of data to the brain and then the brain interpreting all that data.
“It turns out, however, that the brain does not work like this at all,” Carlo Rovelli writes in Helgoland. “It functions, in fact, in an opposite way. Many, if not most, of the signals do not travel from the eyes to the brain; they go the other way, from the brain to the eyes.”
What happens is that the brain expects to see something, on the basis of what it knows and has previously occurred. The brain elaborates an image of what it predicts the eyes should see. This information is conveyed from the brain to the eyes, through intermediate states. If a discrepancy is revealed between what the brain expects and the light arriving into the eyes, only then do the neural circuits send signals toward the brain. So images from around us do not travel from the eyes to the brain—only news of discrepancies regarding what the brain expects do.
This, Rovelli points out, is actually a very efficient way of functioning: no need to worry the brain with what it already knows is there.
The implications for the relationship between what we see and the world, however, are remarkable. When we look around ourselves, we are not truly “observing”: we are instead dreaming of an image of the world based on what we know (including bias and misconception) and unconsciously scrutinizing the world to reveal any discrepancies, which, if necessary, we will try to correct.
Surprising the brain, however, is almost impossible to plan or strategize! You can’t really will surprise, you can only put yourself in situations where you have a better chance of being surprised.
It’s easy to surprise your brain by looking around a foreign country, but much harder to do in your everyday environment. (In Rob Walker’s excellent The Art of Noticing, he suggests trying to be a tourist in your own town, and to “Spot Something New Every Day.”)
An artist makes the ordinary extraordinary, but if we only really register what we aren’t expecting to see, a great part of the artist’s job is to try to estrange his mind from the ordinary things he’s trying to see.
But seeing with fresh eyes is never a simple task.
I suppose all one can really do is keep your eyes peeled.
The story goes that the painter Al Held said, “Conceptual art is just pointing at things,” so John Baldessari decided to take him literally, and commissioned a bunch of amateur painters to paint realistic paintings of hands pointing at things:
Of course, all art is, in a sense, pointing at things! The artist sees something and she points to it so you can see it, too.
The intention, the purpose, is not to show your talent but to show something…. I had a very great urgency to show, to share. The cat brings you in things, you know? It was that kind of thing. I discovered things and wanted to share them.
Something similar from Corita Kent: “I just make things I like bigger.”
Sterne emphasized that she pointed away from herself. To Bomb magazine: “I see myself as a well-working lens, a perceiver of something that exists independently of me: don’t look at me, look at what I’ve found.”
It’s the same for writers: Good writing is often just pointing at things.
In his most recent newsletter, Oliver Burkeman suggests that people who want to make writing less hard should just think about showing people something that you’ve noticed. “Look, over there,” your writing should ask, “can you see?
“When you write,” says Steven Pinker, “you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that’s interesting, that you are directing the attention of your reader to that thing in the world, and that you are doing so by means of conversation.”
“Which sounds obvious,” says Burkeman, “except that it makes immediately clear how many writers are doing something else.”
Academics are often more focused on showing off their knowledge, or their membership in an exclusive circle…. Journalists are often trying to inflame your anger, or rally support for some cause.
“The reader wants to see,” Burkeman says, “your job is to do the pointing.”
It is the same for blogging, says Robin Rendle: “blogging is pointing at things and falling in love.” (I like his ordering: not falling in love and then pointing, but pointing and then falling in love. Loving something by paying attention to it.)
As I wrote in Steal Like An Artist,
“Step 1: Wonder at something.
Step 2: Invite others to wonder with you.”
Point at things, say, “whoa,” and elaborate.
“Of all the self-help tools I’ve tested through the years,” Oliver Burkeman (author of The Antidote) writes in his latest issue of The Imperfectionist, “one has proved more enduring than the rest: Morning Pages.”
Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. *There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages*– they are not high art. They are not even “writing.” They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand. Do not over-think Morning Pages: just put three pages of anything on the page…and then do three more pages tomorrow.
Somewhere in the ancient mystic trinity
You get three as a magic number
The past and the present and the future
The faith and hope and charity
The heart and the brain and the body
Give you three as a magic number
Is this some Hippie Shit? Yes. But, as Oliver notes, it is Hippie Shit that seems to work!
I do three pages minimum in my diary every morning. It’s not exactly freewriting, more old-fashioned diary, mixed with the occasional comics and diagrams.
I often do some combination of mind-mapping or what Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction calls “clustering”: starting in the middle of a page, writing a word, putting a box or circle around it, then writing another word, etc., until I have a tree or web. (Maps are magic, too.)
I do this very slowly, and let one thing sort of lead into the other. It’s like emptying out the junk in your brain. The reason I sometimes prefer it to straight prose on notebook paper is that you can more easily see the connections between all the weird crap on your mind. (There’s a blank “mind map” in The Steal Like An Artist Journal.)
I recently found out that the director Harmony Korine does a deranged version of this kind of non-linear map-writing to come up with ideas for his films. Watch the video above (if you dare) to see it in action.
…faux science, automatic writing, satire, and an attempt to find connections where none were thought to exist — a sort of self-therapy, allowing the hand to say what the voice cannot. Irrational logic, it’s sometimes called. The application of logical scientific rigor and form to basically irrational premises. To proceed, carefully and deliberately, from nonsense, with a straight face, often arriving at a new kind of sense. The world keeps opening up, unfolding, and just when we expect it to be closed — to be a sealed, sensible box — it shows us something completely surprising.
Emphasis mine. (See: “The value of nonsense.”)
“There’s a general attitude here that’s well worth cultivating,” Oliver writes, “a healthy scepticism toward the part of your brain that’s so enthusiastic about controlling how things unfold. You just do the pages, and something else does the rest.”
Here, I think, is something else valuable to be uncovered from the morning pages: just as you let go and let the pages unfold, in some small way, you’re also training yourself to let your day unfold. To, hopefully, be as improvisational and playful in filling your day as you were about filling your notebook.
I have been thinking all week about this advice from Oliver Burkeman’s last column for The Guardian, “eight secrets to a (fairly) fulfilled life”:
When stumped by a life choice, choose “enlargement” over happiness. I’m indebted to the Jungian therapist James Hollis for the insight that major personal decisions should be made not by asking, “Will this make me happy?”, but “Will this choice enlarge me or diminish me?” We’re terrible at predicting what will make us happy: the question swiftly gets bogged down in our narrow preferences for security and control. But the enlargement question elicits a deeper, intuitive response. You tend to just know whether, say, leaving or remaining in a relationship or a job, though it might bring short-term comfort, would mean cheating yourself of growth. (Relatedly, don’t worry about burning bridges: irreversible decisions tend to be more satisfying, because now there’s only one direction to travel – forward into whatever choice you made.)
How I wish I had this framework in the past!
We are looking at houses right now, and, being the crazy city-loving walkers that we are, we’ve seen lots of large houses which would ultimately diminish our lives, and tiny houses which would enlarge them. (“Location, location, location…”)
Two years ago, Sarah Manguso wrote a letter of recommendation for singing in the choir:
…in a choir, I can make sound, focus the mind, enjoy myself and forget myself, all at once. There is an old choristers’ adage that goes, “When the music is marked forte, sing so you can hear yourself; when it’s marked piano, sing so you can hear the others.” After enough practice, you can learn to feel the vibration in your skull and tell by the sensation whether your pitch is right, your timbre true. It is a kind of listening without hearing. Perhaps this combination of experiences is as common as what psychologists call flow, a state of complete absorption in an activity.
I feel an additional pleasure, though, greater than flow, when I sing in a choir. It’s a mode of singing that strikes a balance between feeling necessary — each voice must participate to achieve the grand unified sound — and feeling invisible, absorbed into the choir, your voice no longer yours. I can work hard, listen hard and disappear, let the ocean of sound close over me. It is comforting to disappear into all that sound and to know that no one else will hear me, either. The performance feels like a secret.
A year before that Oliver Burkeman wrote in The Guardian:
Group singing is a perfect case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. For entirely non-magical reasons – such as the averaging out of flat and sharp voices – a choir can sound far better than its individual members’ talents might suggest. The result is self-transcendence: the thing only works on a level bigger than oneself. “As long as I’m singing,” writes Stacy Horn in Imperfect Harmony, her memoir of singing in a Manhattan amateur choir, “it’s as if I’m inhabiting another reality. I become temporarily suspended in a world where everything bad is bearable, and everything good feels possible.”
And way back in 2008, Brian Eno wrote:
I believe that singing is the key to long life, a good figure, a stable temperament, increased intelligence, new friends, super self-confidence, heightened sexual attractiveness and a better sense of humor….there are physiological benefits, obviously: You use your lungs in a way that you probably don’t for the rest of your day, breathing deeply and openly. And there are psychological benefits, too: Singing aloud leaves you with a sense of levity and contentedness. And then there are what I would call “civilizational benefits.” When you sing with a group of people, you learn how to subsume yourself into a group consciousness because a capella singing is all about the immersion of the self into the community. That’s one of the great feelings — to stop being me for a little while and to become us. That way lies empathy, the great social virtue.
Sing, sing, sing.