In Silicon Valley, you burn a lot of calories.
It’s not just the daily burn of your gig, it’s everything else involved in staying afloat in a valley which is constantly reinventing itself. You sign up for every new service and spend the prerequisite 3.7 minutes to determine “Does this matter?” You surf the web, you tweet, you update your Facebook, all of which brings a constant flood of new data that needs to be sifted, sorted, and assessed.
You have compatriots in this caloric consumption. They randomly walk into your office or your life and with them they bring additional reasons to burn more calories. Have you seen this? You have to try it. In fact, I’m not leaving until you’re jumping up and down excited about this very important thing.
We are part of an industry that is addicted to enthusiasm, to getting things done, and discovering the new, but sometimes the right move is stopping and putting this world on hold. You need to learn how to build quiet moments of nothing as a measure of balance.
… Which is why I go to a bookstore.
An Essential Exercise in Inactivity
The moment I walk into a bookstore I remember what I love about them. They are an oasis of intellectual calm. Perhaps it’s the potential of all the ideas hidden behind those delicious covers. Or perhaps it’s the social reverence for the library-like quiet — you don’t yell in a bookstore, you’ll piss off the books.
A bookstore is where I rediscover that while I might be addicted to the non-stop calorie burning Silicon Valley lifestyle, I also need the serenity only found in the deep quiet of the consideration of nothing. Considering nothing takes work and practice, and the act contains a contradiction: the more I think about what I need to do, the less I’ll discover the thing that I don’t know that I’m looking for.
It’s confusing, but you need these skills because you have days full of somethings. Your day is probably spent at one of two sides of a spectrum. You’re either reacting to whatever is showing up on your doorstep or you’re proactively looking for new things to place on your doorstep so you can figure out what to do with them. Reactive. Proactive. It’s how you spend your entire day.
Excursions to the bookstore are essential exercises in inactivity where the whole world stops being a thing to do.
My most recent trip to my local Borders was in the middle of a two-week period where I’d spent time in both Tokyo and London. Forty hours of flying resulting in five days of meetings which required constant thought, creativity, and focus. During a brief stint back in normality in the States, I had instructions to acquire a children’s book for a nephew.
The children’s book section at my local Border’s has been voted “Most Likely to be a Total Fucking Disaster” for three years running. Combining this unique cluttered chaos with a head full of jetlag means my head is overflowing with disorganized somethings and I’m predisposed to be annoyed. Even worse, I’m not looking for a specific book. I’m running on “get something he’d like” orders, which means I need a modicum of inspiration in order to be successful.
I need to discard everything in my head that’s preventing me from looking and being inspired.
This is a surprisingly hard mental maneuver because you and I are both used to days that are not only full, but full with well-defined things to do. A lack of structure, direction, and measures throws your brain into fits and this usually when I throw my hands up in frustration and walk out of the bookstore. My brain is rejecting the unstructured ambiguity involved in the search for the unknown.
Look in my head when I start: Where I am? This looks like the children’s section, but this part is full of toys and I need books. I haven’t read a good book in forever. Ok, keep moving until something looks right. Since when did they sell candy at a bookstore? Edward Cullen Sweet Tarts? Please. You know, I don’t even know what day it is. Ok, dinosaurs, he likes dinosaurs. Wait, can he read?
My analysis is: “this place is fucking confusing” and I think I’m talking about the bookstore, but I’m actually talking about my brain.
Up To Nothing
Go back to work and think about your average day. How often are you not clear what you’re doing? How often is the goal of the next 30 minutes completely undefined? Yes, you’ve suffered through meetings where there was no clear agenda and you felt like you were wasting your time, but that’s still a known quantity — I’m currently in the poorly run meeting scenario. Been there, done that.
What happens when there is no meeting, no burning task, no one in your office? You wander, you surf the web, you stare at that calendar on the wall and think, “Why do we have leap years again? I forget.” And then you feel bad. I should be working. I should be doing something. They’re not paying me to reverse engineer leap years. I have things to do.
You’ve built this guilt into your office. It’s why your screen is not facing folks who walk through your door. You’re worried: “They might see me doing nothing”.
You’re not up to nothing. You’re aimlessly mentally wandering — an act made famous by every bright idea ever had in the shower. Think of that moment. Your body is busily on task with the cleaning and what does your brain do? Sure, if you’re stressed about layoffs, you’re going to worry about layoffs, but those mornings when nothing is pressing — what happens?
Your brain builds something from whatever mental flotsam and jetsam is in your head. Perhaps it’s a useful thing, an answer to a question you didn’t know you needed. Perhaps it’s just an interesting combination of thoughts put into a story. It’s dreaming, but you’re awake.
Back to the bookstore. Remember my orders, a good book for the nephew…
If I survive the mental rejection of ambiguity, the next moment I need is one of discovery. In order to ground myself in the silence, I need to discover a single bright and shiny thing and there’s absolutely no telling what that thing is until it shows up. It might be based on my mood, the last ten things I cared about, a random word someone said to me, my favorite color… the list is endless, indefinable, and entirely locked in my head.
But there is nothing ambiguous or unclear about the discovery. It’s obvious. It fills an immediate gap I did not know I had.
In this bookstore excursion, it’s a black book. It’s odd to see a black book in the endless rainbow of the children’s section, but there it is. Black cover with masking tape surrounding what looks like a handwritten title: Wreck This Journal. Ok, interesting. I flip the book open to the handwritten instructions:
- Carry this with you everywhere you go.
- Follow the instructions on every page.
- Order is not important.
- Instructions are open to interpretation.
- Experiment. (Work against your better judgment)
And there it. Exactly what I needed. A reminder of why I go to the bookstore in the first place — to mentally stumble around, defying my better judgment, in a nourishing environment of nothing.
Wreck This Journal was created by Keri Smith, who calls herself a guerilla artist, and I’ve no idea what her book is doing in the clutter of the children section. It’s a journal dedicated to its own destruction. One pages instructs you to Rub Dirt Here. Another asks you to scribble wildly using only borrowed pens (document where they were borrowed from). The journal is full of ideas to create unstructured moments of seemingly meaningless activity designed to get you to stop and let something else in.
Don’t Look For It
Stop and let something else in. It’s a confusing skill, which starts with a question: how are you going to find what you don’t know you need by not looking for it?
A day in high tech rarely encourages the activity of doing nothing. Nothing is not cost effective. Nothing is not something you’ll put in your review. Nothing gets a bad rap and the more I attempt to define it, the less useful it will be to you because what I need out of nothing is different than you.
Moments of nothing are not moments of creativity or consideration. (They might be.) These moments don’t last long because your brain can’t sit still; it’s been trained to burn calories all the time. (The longer it sits still, the better.)
Your brain instinctively and naturally attempts to build something given whatever world it’s currently in. In a bookstore, with effort, I can shed the somethings of my everyday and find the nothing that I don’t know I’m looking for. (And that rules.)