Tech Life It's dreaming, but you're awake

Up to Nothing

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:

  1. Carry this with you everywhere you go.
  2. Follow the instructions on every page.
  3. Order is not important.
  4. Instructions are open to interpretation.
  5. 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.)

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24 Responses

  1. Ahh, the book store. Or the library. The somewhat organized but somewhat random (at least in my head) method to the librarian’s madness. There is something calming in that. It’s nice to simply walk through the stacks, letting your eyes wander, seeing where they will fall. Choosing a subject, but not a book, finding a gem you’d never heard of, or reading a paragraph that intrigues you. I love it.

    I’ve been practicing seated meditation on and off again for the last year or so. That crazed mental state, of the brain needing something to work on, is so good to be aware of. Sometimes just saying “no” and making yourself sit brings up amazing things. Sometimes it just scares the shit out of you to recognize how little real control we really have over our minds.

    Moments of nothing. A powerful reminder. Thanks, Rands. I appreciate your insight.

  2. My wife and I have talked about doing a Bookstores Of The World coffee table book. I always try to find a local store to look around in wherever I go for the same reason, calm and tranquility. No matter how different the store, it’s always filled with books so I know how to maneuver.

    One little interesting thing about bookstores in other places looking at the different covers. I could have come back from Toronto with a case full of Canadian editions of books I already have just for the covers.

  3. Great post, as it highlights what is easily overseen but important: time without a goal, without a need, to get fresh room in your brain. Some alternatives to bookstores: wonder around in a storm, sit outside by yourself in the night, or just take a walk out with no destination.

  4. This idea of slowing down or hitting pause is a big part of why I usually start or end my day at my favorite local coffee shop (that also happens to be a book store). It’s usually busy with activity, but in comparison to other shops in town, it’s decidedly non-techy, so it gets me out of the tech-world, even if for a brief moment.

  5. Where do you live in Silicon Valley? I know exactly what you mean though- that sense of constant energy and drive and we all have to go somewhere that permeates everything and everyone around here. (I’m from Portland, originally… we have one of the biggest bookstores EVER there. *smug* I could spend days in it. 🙂 ) Bookstores and libraries are like worlds at your fingertips because there’s just so much to discover… as you said, even if you didn’t know you were looking for it.

  6. Hannah 14 years ago

    I love this — I used to work down the street from a giant Chapters in Toronto and I’d go in almost once a week just to refocus.

    At first I did my old student routine: flipping through the expensive design magazines looking for interesting imagery, but I eventually found the place for a quiet discovery (and the subsequent brain dominoes) happened in a less likely place: the kids section, the poetry section or the atlas & travel section.

    Alas, in London all the bookshops are on Charing Cross Road, and I work in the East end. I’ve had to seek out non-bookstore lunchtime nothing-dates.

  7. Jan Mikkelsen 14 years ago

    Reminds me of a book I found while wandering around a bookshop: “Slack” by Tom de Marco …

  8. Romain Lenglet 14 years ago

    Thanks for mentioning “Wreck this Journal”. It looks amazing!

    It reminds me of Brian Eno’s venerable “Oblique Strategies”: pick a random card and force yourself to follow its instructions. The Oblique Strategies are more targetted at musicians, but are often general enough to be applicable in any situation.

    In the same vein, I also liked Naomi Epel’s “The Observation Deck”, targeted at writers.

  9. John Schofield 14 years ago

    This is why I think meditation is so vital for geeks. I’m still very much in the novice phase of learning meditation, but in a good session I’ve just spent some time with my mind focused, and in a bad session I’ve just spent some time with my mind racing all over the place, hopefully getting that out of my system and leaving my mind more focused after the meditation anyway.

  10. Jessica 14 years ago

    Big Keri Smith fan here. Interesting to see her mentioned on your blog which I simultaneously discovered through my husband’s coworker at his last job and my oldest friend Amy (in Austin, you guys are old friends too). I enjoy your thought-provoking posts always. Next time you are on a mission for children’s books, I highly recommend Hicklebee’s in Willow Glen (also carries adult books).

  11. Samantha 14 years ago

    Always nice to see another person’s take on a bookstore. This post hit my reasons I love bookstores dead on.

  12. There is no better place than a bookstore/library for nerds. One building full of so many ideas that can be explored is the greatest place on earth. A library trip is how I discovered Verlyn Klinkenborg, who has become one of my favorite writers. The Rural Life is a wonderful read.

  13. I stop in the Los Gatos Borders every holiday break and read for a few hours, and I swear the lay out of that place changes so drastically every time I visit it disturbs me.

    That aside, I totally agree with your mentality, there really is no real way to stop and do nothing besides going to a book store, or hiding in the woods far away from electricity. One is sadly easier to do at a moments notice than the other.

  14. Subba 14 years ago

    I hear you about bookstores. Especially in the past year, my wife has been in India (with our 1.5 year old) with her parents for about 6 months and that gave me lots of time to spend at B&N and Borders (plus the library).

    And then I went to India for two weeks. I went to a bookstore there (supposedly a top of the line one) and there was not a single chair/table where one can sit and read. I found that incredible.

  15. Ahh, yes. We used to have a Little Professor Bookstore in our town, but it left when B&N arrived. Little Professor had chairs and tables like a library. B&N has about one chair per 10,000 square feet. I like to go to B&N, but it isn’t the same.

  16. To stare at nothing is to learn by heart

    What all of us will be swept into, and baring oneself

    To the wind is feeling the ungraspable somewhere close by.

    Trees can sway or be still. Day or night can be what they wish.

    What we desire, more than a season or weather, is the comfort

    Of being strangers, at least to ourselves. This is the crux

    Of the matter. Even now we seem to be waiting for something

    Whose appearance would be its vanishing—the sound, say,

    Of a few leaves falling, or just one leaf, or less.

    There is no end to what we can learn. The book out there

    Tells as much, and was never written with us in mind.

    —Mark Strand, “The Night, the Porch”

  17. You had me snorting in laughter and nodding my head in complete understanding. Fantastic. It makes me want to jump in the car and head to the bookstore or library right now. God, I love books!

  18. Blissful emptiness. The Buddhist ideal of living without attachment, because attachment is “suffering”.

    You touch on these things, without being nearly as punchable as Buddhists. Without reformatting your head space occasionally, it gets winrot. Without cleaning your house, it gets that dust layer over everything that subconsciously pisses you off. Without white space, there is no new.

    A blank canvas is much easier to create from than a full one. It is not an indulgence to reset yourself. It’s an essential and worthwhile practice.

  19. Your brain sounds a lot like my brain!

    I am still trying to master things like time for nothing, but these times are always the best for both long term sight and inventiveness I find.

  20. Our brains (and bodies) need space and quiet – or peace and quiet. I love what you’re pointing to here about creating the space for creativity and new ideas – change your environment and shift your mind etc. Great stuff!

  21. Fuyu Asha 14 years ago

    You might want to give zazen a try.

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