Photo of a Sunset

Growing up, there was a framed photo on our wall of a sunset silhouetting a helicopter and some kind of rocky outcrop in the ocean.

As a kid, the photo baffled me. I would tell friends who visited that it was a picture of some kind of sea dragon. That rock there? A California Loch Ness Monster. That’s why they took the photo, of course. It was evidence.

An alternative theory was that the helicopter was something special. Some kind of robo-helicopter, or a spy helicopter that had never been captured on film before.

The truth never crossed my mind: it was just a photo of a sunset and a helicopter and a rock. This never crossed my mind because I was under the impression that a photo had to show something. Something intentional and informative. It wasn’t enough to just convey beauty or a moment in time. I didn’t realize not all stories had climactic, bring-it-back-around endings, and not all photos were about making me understand something new. Sometimes, they just were.

Eventually I learned that lesson. I think a great many writers and painters and creatives do, as well. Some work is descriptive rather than informative. Put another way, it informs, but only about a moment. A feeling. Something intangible and not terribly useful outside of a larger story, but beautiful for what it is. Words that are beautiful words because of the order they’re put in. Paintbrush strokes that are beautiful paintbrush strokes, not because of what they depict, but because they simply are.

Learning this was important, but it also eventually led me right back to where I started. Telling stories, I’ve found, whether it’s verbally at a party with a drink in my hand, or told in a book using letters and punctuation, are better with meaning. We’ve all sat and listened as a friend meanders endlessly through a tale of something that happened to them only to find there’s no payoff at the end. And we’ve all hated that friend a little for building something up only to bring it home with an awkward smile and no punch line.

Of course, there’s a place for flowery descriptions of places and people, painterly strokes of the brush the exist to be beautiful, but that place, in most cases, is within a larger story; a larger painting. Because ideally beauty is extracted from life and presented, not just for the sake of beauty, but to express that there is beauty to begin with. That there’s something worth exploring in the mundanity, and as a result, something worth sharing.

A photo of nothing can be a photo of something, so long as you’re willing to step back and take in the bigger picture.

Update: April 9, 2017

I’m not sure I still agree with the thesis of this essay.

I do believe there are some works that are written or composed or painted for the sake of the quality of the work, in terms of the beautiful language or ideal construction, rather than because there’s a larger story to tell, beyond the story of that near-perfection.

I also think there’s work that’s produced to be good, in the sense of its words and composition and such, but that the real payoff is in the artistry, rather than the technique. This might mean the story the words describe in the book, or the subject matter captured by the brush strokes.

Sometimes you take in a work that’s both: a beautiful written science fiction story, for instance. Sometimes you engage with a work that’s neither: little technical payoff, nor much in the way of novelty, insight, or anything else.

But very often different people and sects of society see one or the other as the real prize, and that shapes the way we view creative work, but also create it.

I think there’s a hint of that in this essay, but it’s not addressed clearly enough.



Habits are hard to establish, and can be even harder to break.

I can’t tell you how many people I know who struggle to maintain their ideal physique or do work they’re proud of, not because they don’t know how to eat right and exercise and sit down and create amazing things, but because their habits are out of whack. They can live up to their expectations for themselves part of the time, but not all (or even most) of the time.

This is because creating habits is a different skill set completely than, say, painting, or playing ultimate frisbee. You can become good at something without working at it consistently. Just as you can easily habitualize without necessarily getting anything out of it. Not all habits are useful, just as not all skills necessitate habitual training or practice.

But it is at the intersection of skills and habits where we tend to find those who are most dedicated to their craft. You can be a great painter without painting everyday, but if you are a great painter, and you do paint every day, chances are you’ll become an even better one. Through repetition we can achieve amazing things, and as such, the ability to form habits from nothing is an incredibly valuable supplementary skill to develop. To habitualize.

Of course, not all habits are valuable or even intentional, and anyone who’s struggled with breaking the chains of a coffee or alcohol addiction can tell you that severing habitual ties can be just as tricky as tying them in the first place. Once firmly rooted, a habit can seem like part of you, and removing it just as difficult as cutting out and extracting a chunk of lung or patella.

It’s for both of these reasons, the pros and cons of routines and patterns, that I work hard to own my habits. To control them, even when doing so is uncomfortable or painful or odd.

Recently I started drinking coffee because I wanted to build a habit around waking up, eating a light breakfast, and having a cup or two of something caffeinated and not terrible for me. But as this has become a habit, as my iced coffee order has become predictable at local coffee shops and my morning presence expected at an outlet-adjacent table far from the front door, I’ve also made sure to manage the habit. To make sure the ties that bind it to my day don’t become so strong they can’t easily be severed.

In this case, that means cutting the ties periodically. I’ll go for a few days without coffee, wading my way through withdrawal symptoms (which, in coffee’s case, is a charming combination of a heavy headache and lack of motivation) to emerge on the other side, not needing the drink, and able to rationally analyze whether or not I want to continue having it as a part of my life.

Other habits come and go on their own, based on where I’m living, or who’s around me. When I wake up, I stretch and do a little morning workout routine. But when I wake up next to someone, I don’t. This gives me the same freedom of re-analyzation as intentionally breaking my habits to get a clearer view of how valuable they are to me, but without the force of will required to do it sans-provocation. It is, however, an opportunity worth taking, and finding yourself handed such a thing shouldn’t go ignored or un-utilized.

Our habits help shape us, and help us shape our paths. More than that, they help us shape our environments, our habitats, through the repetition of positive or negatives acts.

That means anything you do habitually is more powerful than doing that same thing just once or twice. Make sure your habits are the kinds of things you want to influence your life and direction. To do otherwise is to trust your destiny to fate. Or worse, someone else’s idea of who you should be, and where you should be going.

Update: April 9, 2017

I still drop coffee from my routine periodically, and find myself wary of any new habit or ritual I adopt. I’m a lot more accepting of them, these days, and have opened myself up to the possibility of having some habits that I can’t necessarily do reliably from anywhere I might find myself. But I still like knowing I have the power over life and death for these habits, and it makes me feel more capable of culling the ones that don’t pull their weight.

Blog, Exiles


At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, folks with factories found themselves with a problem that was, up until that point, completely unprecedented:

They were producing more than they could sell.

Because of the efficiency and effectiveness of their new methods, they suddenly had more product than demand, which is a serious issue if you’re a businessperson. If you can’t sell your stock of, say, sweaters, you have to store those sweaters. Maybe sell them at a discount. You end up losing a lot of what makes industrial processes valuable: the fact that you can produce more for less, and faster.

To a certain degree, I understand their frustration. The businesspeople of old had potential output that was so much higher than what they could afford to produce. Running at full steam, they could make a sweater for nearly nothing and sell it for less than anyone had ever seen a sweater cost before. But because doing so would leave them with more product than they knew what to do with, they were forced to handicap their methods, leading to costs that were somewhat better than before, but not as low as they should be.

I understand what they must have felt because I feel the same way about ideas. I think most people do. Having more ideas than you can possibly act upon is a common theme in the entrepreneurial scene, and a frustrating one. The feeling that your potential output is so much higher than your practical output and, because of physical or social boundaries, you’re unable to turn the knob up to 11 and churn out amazing things full steam.

This frustration leads to distraction. The things you work on don’t get your full attention because you’re distracted by the things you don’t have time for. You try to sleep, but you can’t stop thinking about all the possibilities. Things that could be, if you just had more time. More energy. More resources.

Your hustle becomes an omni-hustle: a never-ending move from one thing to the next, each one done imperfectly so that more causes and projects and ideas can be acted upon. You slowly wear yourself down to the bone, and you do it in the name of optimization and productivity.

The denizens of the Industrial Revolution solved their problem by inventing marketing to create more demand. The issue of the omni-hustle isn’t staved off quite so easily.

The closest thing to a solution I’ve managed to find is building intelligent production channels so that when I act upon something, my effort is immediately converted into value; each new effort builds upon prior efforts. In this way I’m able to be continuously productive without wearing myself out, and I’m able to experiment more with side-projects and such without being pulled away from my primary focus of the day.

This does mean taking some time to build said channels, but it doesn’t need to be a completed maneuver: build an audience, start a blog, and write a newsletter from time to time. From there, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to get the fruits of your labor out to the people who would find value in it, and pulling the plug on projects that neither give you long-term happiness nor produce enough value to be sustained economically.

Structure your life so that you can create with a purpose. Otherwise you may find yourself trapped in a cycle of creating to create. There’s nothing wrong with the omni-hustle, so long as the work you’re doing is stoking fires, rather than burning you out.

Update: April 9, 2017

This has long been an issue I’ve struggled with, but in recent years I’ve found that by focusing more intentionally on one main thing at a time, I’m able to invest small bits of effort into other things — to either build up to them later, or keep them stoked — and then finish things before moving on to anything new. I’ve found that one of the better ways to prod myself into getting something done is to get excited about some new project or passion, but not allow myself to turn my full attention toward it until I get what’s on my plate, off of it. Only one thing at a time, but a lot more gets done.