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Visiting the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey, should be on every geek's list of things to do in life.
Advertised as "Where Modern America Was Invented,"79 it's an enormous brick building where for more than forty years, Edison's team of geniuses turned out innovation after innovation, including the motion picture camera and movies, improved phonographs and sound recordings, and electric inventions like the alkaline storage battery. It was the Google of its day.
Edison is remembered today as a prolific inventor (over 1,000 patents in his name), but perhaps his most important invention was the process of invention itself. The meta-invention of how to make more inventions is Edison's true legacy. Edison invented the modern research and development facility, and if you go to West Orange, you can still walk through it.
It's fascinating, and instructive, to see how Edison laid out the complex. Tucked away in a corner of his expansive office was a small bed. Edison was a believer in the power of power naps: after ruminating on a difficult problem, he would retire in the corner for a microsleep, letting his mind work on a solution. When the idea came to him, he would hurry to his desk and write it down.
He would then rush upstairs to his second, more modest office, where he did his true "inventing." Here he would take the initial idea and sketch it out, making rough drawings of the idea that he wanted to pull into reality.
Next door to this office was a drafting room, where a team of draftsmen would take his ideas and begin drawing up formal plans. What parts would be needed? What materials would they be made of? Wrestling with these questions, with occasional input from the master, they would work up large-scale drawings from which the invention could now be built.
From there, the drawings went to a machine shop full of small electric tools. Frequently they needed to build machines to build the machines that would build the inventions. In this first shop, they could fabricate any small parts needed. These parts went below to a large-scale machine shop, a huge loft space filled with motorized pulleys, belts, and gears that could provide the power to manufacture the invention itself. Thomas Edison once bragged about his facility, "We can build anything from a lady's watch to a locomotive."80
From an idea, to paper, to plans, to machining, to manufacturing, to a finished product: it was an early prototype of today's R&D labs. When Edison's mammoth mind presented him with an idea to feed into that amazing system, I want to highlight what he did first. In order to turn that idea into a reality, he wrote it down.
There is a power and a magic in writing things down that we take for granted, because we do it so often. First, an idea is only in our mind, with no expression in the physical world. Then, with a few strokes of a pencil or a few awkward taps of our thumbs, that idea is now a thing. True, it may only be a representation of the thing, but it's still here, in this world.
Writing is a bridge, or a gateway, between the world of mind and the world of matter. It's how thoughts become things. It's how an idea gets from our heads into our hands. While this may seem basic and obvious, think back to how often you have given yourself a resolution for self-improvement, or had a great idea to transform the world, and you did not write it down. Be honest: what was the result?
Take the goal of losing weight, for example. The World Health Organization estimates that 10% of people worldwide are obese,81 leading to increased risk of heart disease, strokes, diabetes, and some forms of cancer, the leading causes of preventable death.82 So a 2008 study funded by the National Institutes of Health recruited nearly 1,700 overweight people to experiment with a new approach to losing weight: food diaries.
In addition to education and collaboration, the secret weapon in this approach was keeping a food diary, with participants keeping a list of everything they ate, whether that be on a pad of sticky notes or a digital device. While common sense says that keeping a diary would not result in any meaningful weight loss, the participants found that knowing their food choices would be recorded -- rather than eaten and forgotten -- was a powerful motivator to make better choices. Further, they began to notice patterns in their eating that could only be appreciated when they could write them down and take the "meta" view.
The results were astounding. "The more food records people kept, the more weight they lost," said the study's author, Dr. Jack Hollis. "Those who kept daily food records lost twice as much weight as those who kept no records. It seems that the simple act of writing down what you eat encourages people to consume fewer calories."83
I have come to appreciate writing as a powerful and advanced technology, whether we're scribbling it on a notepad or typing it on a keyboard. When we write down our ideas, thoughts, or resolutions, we have a record. As Jonah Lehrer put it in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, "There was nothing. Now there is something. It's almost like magic."84
Until it's on paper, it's vapor.
The Book Before the Book
One of the first people to formally develop a plan for treating alcoholics was Dr. Richard Peabody85. Peabody, you should know, was not a doctor, though he was an alcoholic, which was probably the more important requirement of the two.
Peabody was born in 1892 to one of the most distinguished families in Boston. The Peabodies were wealthy New England blue bloods, well-connected with the social elite. He attended Harvard, and married Polly Jacob, who was not only the niece of banking magnate J.P. Morgan, Jr., but had received a patent for the modern brassiere. When you're not only connected with the Morgan family, but married to the woman who created the bra, life's pretty good.
Unless you're an alcoholic. Peabody's drinking became a habit at Harvard, and intensified during his service in World War I. He squandered his wife's inheritance on a shipping business, which failed. He drank more heavily, becoming violent and abusive, until finally his wife left him, taking her brassieres.
A broken man, he began attending meetings at a local church, where he developed his own technique of mind hacking. He eventually achieved sobriety, and opened an office to help other alcoholics find sobriety as well; he helped so many, in fact, that they gave him the affectionate nickname "Dr. Peabody." In 1931, he wrote a book entitled The Common Sense of Drinking that outlined his techniques. The book not only became a bestseller, but is a mind hacking classic.
He was one of the first to claim that "once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic," and there's no use in trying to drink more responsibly (despite what the beer commercials tell you). To Peabody, complete sobriety is the only option, and he warns of the dangerous tricks that your mind will play on you as you try to give up drinking. Much of his program involves consciously developing "new habits of thought" that will help mentally gird you when these inevitable temptations arise.
You must overrun the old thought habits with new ones, he says. In a technology analogy appropriate to his time period, he likens the mind to a muddy dirt road, which is overrun by the hoof prints of horses and carriages. You can't easily get rid of these mental tracks, unless you drive through with a newfangled automobile, creating new tracks. The mind has a similar pliability: what modern researchers call neuroplasticity, or the ability to create new neural pathways in the brain.
To accomplish this "changing of the mind," one of the fundamental techniques in Peabody's book is for the recovering alcoholic to write down the next day's schedule: every item that he or she wishes to accomplish, including both work and rest. He recommends writing down the day's activities, in detail, beginning from the time of arising and continuing until bed at night. Then at the end of the day, the patient reviews the day's schedule, then plans for tomorrow, again writing it down.
The purpose of the schedule is to change a negative loop (drinking, feeling terrible, and so drinking some more) into a positive one (making progress, feeling better, and so making more progress). Note the similarities with Benjamin Franklin's Moral Perfection Project, where he reviewed his progress each day in adhering to his values, writing down whether the day was a success.
One of Peabody's patients gives this testimonial about the virtues of writing down his daily schedule:
This issuance of small commands to myself and my obedience to them rapidly restored my self-respect. Incidentally my efficiency in my daily work enormously increased, which increased the respect for me of other people. This reacted favorably on my confidence in myself. In other words, by perfectly mechanical means I was enabled to turn what had been a vicious circle into a beneficent circle. The more pride I was able to take in myself, the less need I had of the rallying effect of alcohol when I went out.86
Along the way, Peabody is teaching the alcoholic new habits of thought, cutting new mental grooves in the mind. He is also teaching various concentration and relaxation exercises, positive mental loops, and other techniques similar to the ones you're learning in this book.
The Common Sense of Drinking was a great help to me as I was getting sober. I wasn't the only one: the book also had a profound influence on another man named Bill Wilson, who went on to help another alcoholic or two.
The Cocktail Napkin
It's a classic Silicon Valley idea: two entrepreneurs are having drinks in a bar, and develop a business model so brilliant that they breathlessly scribble it out on a cocktail napkin. (A second cocktail napkin is usually used to draft up a quick NDA.) The "business on a cocktail napkin" meme is so popular because it boils this truth down to its essence: a good idea can only be developed if you write it down.
In practice, building a successful business is a little more complicated. Still, "writing it down" is a critical and surprisingly complicated discipline, as anyone who has ever tried to write a business plan can tell you.
An an entrepreneur, one of the most influential business books I've read is Michael Gerber's The E-Myth Revisited, which has sold over a million copies worldwide.87 It outlines what Gerber calls the "Entrepreneurial Myth" that most new businesses are not started by entrepreneurs, but by technicians who enjoy doing the work, and want to work for themselves.
For example, a software developer decides he can make more money working as a hired gun than as a full-time employee, so he starts his own business. His skillset is programming, and that's what he loves, so he starts out doing all the hands-on programming work himself. As the company grows, however, his bias to working in the business will begin to overshadow what he should be doing: working on the business.
What Gerber recommends is for the entrepreneur to think of his or her business like a franchise operation. Imagine it as a fully-contained system -- like Edison's R&D laboratory -- that can be used to grow and expand to future locations. You probably know a small business that has stayed in the same place for years, never growing, making just enough for their owners to feed their families. Maybe it's a local restaurant, or a neighborhood dry cleaner. If the owner is able to shift his or her mental mindset from, "This is my business" to "This is a prototype of my business," that can make all the difference.
One of the fundamental techniques Gerber recommends is writing it down. In other words, looking at every process and system within your business, and making it a replicable process that can be clearly written out, step-by-step, and put into a training manual that can be used to start a new office or store, exactly like the original. Thinking in this way causes the entrepreneur to shift out of "working in the business" mode, and get into "working on the business" mode.
Gerber's advice is not just useful for small businesses and startups, but also for mind hackers. Instead of just working in the mind, we are also working on the mind. We are not just looking at our thoughts, but the process of those thoughts, and how they affect our lives. Just like Gerber's business owners, we must take the time to write down, step-by-step, what we want our minds to think, or we will be like the business owner who spends her entire life running to stay in the same place.
At my content marketing company Media Shower, writing things down is what we do: a huge network of talented writers and editors create great content for our clients' websites and blogs. Still, writing down our business processes is another matter entirely, and only through constant repetition have we been able to turn this into a healthy habit.
If we're documenting how one of our editors should review a writer's work, for example, we start out by writing down the process on a whiteboard, usually as a simple flowchart. Once we get basic agreement, we write up the process in an online document. The ground rules are:
- Keep it short. If it's too long, no one will read it.
- Keep it simple. We do this for new employees, so anyone should be able to understand it.
- Keep it flexible. Things change, so anyone should be able to edit the document at any time.
At most companies I've seen, the "employee training manual" -- if they have one at all -- is an enormous three-ring binder, written a decade ago, full of procedures that no one actually follows, locked up in a middle manager's closet under a bowling trophy. At Media Shower, it's a collection of short, simple, online documents that can evolve with our business. And when we no longer use a particular document, what do we do? We delete it.
The goal in writing things down is not to write everything down, but to strive for the same level of economy and elegance as a well-written line of code. Scott Ambler, a proponent of agile development, argues that programmers should not focus huge amounts of time on writing documentation for their software, but strive for documentation that's "Just Barely Good Enough," or JBGE.88 This does not mean ineffective or "not very good," but actually "the most effective possible," as documentation that has just enough information is one that most people are actually likely to read.
In the spirit of JBGE, I'll shut up now.
Don't get it perfect; Get it done.
The Two-Week Textbook
On a summer day in 1999, Allen Downey sat down in his office at Colby College and did something radical: he started to write a programming textbook.
There's nothing radical about writing a college textbook, of course, provided you have several years, a team of peer reviewers, and a patient editor. Downey's goal, however, was to get it written before class started ... in two weeks.
"Most textbooks are unreadable, dense, and boring," Downey told me, "1,000-page books with no personality." There were plenty of textbooks available for his introductory course on the Java programming language, for example, but each chapter was typically fifty pages or more, and many students couldn't slog through the reading. Worse, the material was poorly organized: the first few chapters were easy, but "then the trapdoor opened, and students fell through the floor."89
"Very predictably, in chapter 5, I knew the students' heads were going to explode," he remembered. "There was too much, too new, too fast." So as he furiously developed his own textbook in that fourteen-day marathon, he took a different approach.
"I saw it like fold-out bleachers," he explained. "If you've got a difficult concept, it can either be a wall, or you can pull it out to allow the students to jump over it. So if I know there will be a wall in Chapter 5, I can pull some of that material forward, to give them a step up in Chapter 2, then another step in Chapter 3, so when I get to the hard part, they can get over it."
Unbelievably, he finished the book in time for his first class, writing one 10-page chapter a day for thirteen straight days.90 "Part of that was accumulated frustration," he laughed. "I knew exactly what I wanted by that point, so I could write it down very quickly." In the spirit of Just Barely Good Enough, he streamlined each chapter to ten pages, explaining each concept as simply as possible. And because he owned the textbook, he could now focus on making it better.
Each week, he gave his students a quiz on their weekly reading assignment, so he could get instant feedback on what was working. "Now I'm running in a tight feedback loop. If the students read Chapter 3, and everybody does well on the reading quiz, then I can move on. If everybody reads Chapter 3 and nobody can do the reading quiz, that tells me instantly there is something wrong with Chapter 3 that I need to fix for the next iteration."
In agile programming, Downey's textbook would be called a "Minimum Viable Product," which like JBGE, lets us quickly release a product so that we can test, learn, and improve. Compare this with the alternate approach, which we might call "Maximum Perfect Product," i.e., we can only release software that is 100% bug-free, we can only write books that have been edited to perfection, and we can only write down personal goals once we have deemed them absolutely perfect.
Even with its flaws, Downey found that his textbook was far better than the textbook he had been using, and this "rapid feedback loop" helped him iterate quickly. By the time he had taken two or three classes of students through the book, he had developed something that was working very well. In a beautiful bit of meta-creation, Downey had applied great programming philosophy to his own programming textbook: "release early, release often, get feedback, and improve."
But that was only one of the things that made Downey's textbook experiment so radical. The other was that he gave the textbook away for free. In subsequent years, he developed several textbooks, including How to Think Like a Computer Scientist, and distributed them under Richard Stallman's GNU license, which means that readers are free to copy, modify and distribute them. He started his own publishing company, guided by one simple manifesto: "Students should read and understand textbooks. That's it."91
Giving away his work spread it to a worldwide audience: his free textbooks have now been translated into multiple spoken languages (French, German, Mandarin, etc.) and adapted for multiple programming languages (Ruby, Python, Eiffel, etc.). As his fame grew, the premiere technical publisher O'Reilly contracted him to write a new series of textbooks, he received an offer to become a Visiting Scientist at Google, and he's now a Professor of Computer Science at the prestigious Olin College of Engineering.
Not bad for a two-week writing rampage.
Concentrate, Then Write
One of the reasons I have been so adamant about writing things down throughout this book is because of the power that comes from writing -- the magnificent capability we all have of creating something from nothing. With mind hacking, you are like an architect creating a blueprint for your life, and blueprints are only useful if they're actually written down. (That's why they're not called bluethoughts.)
Your mind hacking skills will be greatly strengthened by simply writing things down after your daily concentration game, which I trust you have been diligently practicing since Section 1.4. The idea is to spend twenty minutes in concentration, then a few minutes writing your positive loops. It's a total time commitment of less than half an hour.
If you were going to school for an advanced degree, or working on a big new project, you would expect to spend far more than half an hour a day. How much more important is working on your own mind! Far more valuable than learning a new skill, or getting a certificate, the time you invest each week in mind hacking is time that will pay off for the rest of your life.
It's never been easier to write things down. You probably carry your phone with you everywhere, which will work, as long as you don't mind mashing tiny screen-keys with your meaty, oversized thumbs. You probably also spend most of the workday in front of your computer, another easy way to write things down. Don't overlook the power of the old-school pen and notepad: seeing the pages fill up, day after day, is something you don't get on a digital device.
After you've practiced the concentration game in Section 1.4, turn to the practice sheet at the back of the book and write down your five mental loops from the previous section (Feel, Do, Have, Give, Be). For example:
> I'm free from anxiety, and feeling great.
> I will write a novel with bestselling potential.
> I will own a beach house which I will share with my family and friends.
> I will start a nonprofit to help kids learn to read.
> I'm a dependable mother, wife, and friend.
This practice is important, for several reasons. First, writing things down reminds you of your goals on a regular basis. It's easy for our minds to get distracted, and this re-centers your attention on what you have defined for yourself as most important. Writing down your positive loops cements them into your mind.
The research backs it up: writing things down is more likely to lead to large-scale change. "Certain types of writing have a surprisingly quick and large impact," says psychologist Richard Wiseman in his research-based 59 Seconds. "Expressing gratitude, thinking about a perfect future, and affectionate writing" -- techniques you've learned throughout this book -- "have been scientifically proven to work, and all they require is a pen, a piece of paper, and a few moments of your time."92
We talked about Laura King's studies, in which test subjects were asked to spend time writing about their "best possible future self," and how just a few weeks of this simple exercise led participants to be quantifiably happier and healthier. By writing down your five positive loops from the previous section on a daily basis, after your concentration game, you can experience the same benefit.
Second, writing things down offers you an opportunity to reflect. You may find that valuable insights and ideas come to you during your concentration practice; by building in this Edison-like system for capturing them immediately afterward, you're more likely to do something with them. Think of it as your internal Edison laboratory.
Third, writing things down gives you a chance to improve. As with Allen Downey's programming textbook, once he had written the initial draft, he could then test it with real students, and continue to improve it over time. Many people are frozen by the need to get it perfect, but that's not how great programmers work, and it's not how nature works. In the spirit of Just Barely Good Enough, write it down, and let it evolve.
Most importantly, there is incredible, mind-altering power in repetition. We'll talk more about that power next.