In Stephen King’s On Writing, he talks about the concept of an ideal reader, the exemplary person for whom you’re specifically writing. There can be others, and other people can enjoy it, but this thing is for them.
A while ago, I wrote some about the concept of a text playlist, a sequence of articles and blog posts I return to read frequently. In that piece, I coyly placed at the end: “Maybe you can make one of your own and share it?” which may as well been a thinly veiled request for my friends Liz Danzico and Rob Giampietro to post some things for me to read over the summer. I suppose I could have just asked, but sometimes fishing is more fun than buying a filet at the grocery store.
Liz posted her list, and surprise, it’s great. Rob’s still working on his list, but he did post one of his choices. Leave it to Rob to bring his A-game and post a book while the rest of us are choosing blog posts.
Seeing Is Forgetting
The book Rob’s thudding down onto our metaphoric desks is Lawrence Weschler’s Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a biography of the artist Robert Irwin. He specifically calls out Chapter 15, named “Being Available in Response,” also the name of one of Irwin’s projects. In Rob’s words: “The first time I read this chapter I nearly lept out of my chair — I got so excited I reread it three or four times right away.” Here’s a bit from the chapter:
“I just sort of let it be known that I was available, in a way like I’m saying it to you. I mean, I didn’t put out any ads or anything, but word got around. And you could be, let’s say, up at UCLA, and you’d say, ‘Well, let’s take advantage of that. We’ll have him come up and talk to the students.’ And that’s what I’d do. Or, ‘We’ll have him come up and do a piece on the patio.’ And I would just come up and do that.“There’s an important distinction to be made here,” [Irwin] continued, “between organizing and proselytizing, on the one hand, and responding to interest, on the other. I was and continue to be available in response. I mean, I don’t stand on a corner and hand out leaflets. I’m not an evangelist. I’m not trying to sell anything. But on the other hand, if you ask me a question, you’re going to get a half-hour answer.’”
By Fated Appointment
Irwin’s words reminded me a bit of _why the lucky stiff’s description of how he taught others. _why, the anonymous coder, musician, and cartoonist who is usually credited with helping to popularize the Ruby programming language, said that he only teaches by “fated appointment as a freelance professor.” An excerpt from a talk at the ART && CODE conference in 2009:
I only teach by fated appointment. You’ve probably not heard of this before, because you don’t know a freelance professor. But, I don’t teach any classes, or anything like that. How I initially got into this was I was riding a train one day. I mean, I know everything else I say is a lie, but this is true. So, I was riding the train one day, it was a late evening train, empty, kids are running up and down, climbing all over the place, climbing all over the seats, talking to me, climbing around me, and I was hacking away…They were like, “What are you doing?”
“I’m hacking. Please, please, stop.”
And they said, “Well, what are you making? What’s going on in there?”And they saw the code and everything, and they were really intrigued by it…When I say by fated appointment only, it means I only teach kids I happen to encounter. Who, for whatever reason it just happens, I can’t explain it, and I like it that way. I don’t need a license, I don’t need to do anything, we just mess around with the computer, and I’ve taught about 12 different kids that way for short periods of time, maybe 2 weeks, a couple days a week.
So, whether planning to make yourself available or seizing unexpected opportunities, both examples are about the great things that happen if people flip a switch in their mind and make themselves available.
In the few talks I’ve given at conferences and events the past couple of weeks, I’ve been talking about delight. I’ve defined delight as the space where clarity and surprise overlap. I still think that’s true, but there may be a third element at play. I’ve a sneaky suspicion access fits in there somewhere. Delightful things are accessible.
I made a list of companies and services I find delightful: ZipCar, Lala.com (RIP), Netflix, and others. And, when analyzing the properties of each, the pattern becomes apparent: you pay some money and you get your run of the place. Each promised access, and that access resulted in delight, because it was so stark, so different from the default way we’ve built our companies, and to a certain extent, maybe our lives.
I’ve said before attention is the most limited resource we have. We’re spread too thin, like too little butter over too much bread. I still believe that’s true, and there are a lot of people talking about how to alleviate that situation. But, often times the discussion stops too soon: we wrongly think that we’re just here to put up fences around certain areas so we’re not spread too thin.
We forget that the opportunity isn’t just to build up walls in certain areas, but to tear them down in others to give us the opportunity to care, to teach, and to just be present for a little while. Bad writers give mediocre advice that tell you to build up walls. The best writers tell you to tear walls down in the areas that matter to you. Because being available leads to incredible things: not only to unforeseen requests like Irwin’s, but also unexpected opportunities like _why’s teaching kids programming on a train ride. Availability is a mindset.
As attention gets more and more scarce, we need to move from a mental model where we’re acting as communicators towards a mindset where we believe ourselves to be gift-givers. It’s a way of thinking where we are rewarding the gift of attention by relaying thoughtful, nourishing messages we believe to people we care about. That’s as close to a formula I can muster up as to what makes delightful, compelling work.
The dictionary tells me that a synonym for “available” is “present.” Naturally.