So You Want To Be A Writer? That’s Mistake #1

October 28, 2013 — 63 Comments

There are two types of writers, Schopenhauer once observed, those who write because they have something they have to say and those who write for the sake of writing.

If you’re young and you think you want to be a writer, chances are you are already in the second camp. And all the advice you’ll get from other people about writing only compounds this terrible impulse.

Write all the time, they’ll tell you. Write for your college newspaper. Get an MFA. Go to writer’s groups. Send query letters to agents.

What do they never say? Go do interesting things.

I was lucky enough to actually get this advice. Combine this with the fact that I was too self-conscious to tell people that I wanted to be a writer, I became one in secret.

I’m not saying I’m great at it or anything, but I am a bestselling author at 26. I have a column with a major newspaper. I get paid to write professionally. A fair amount of aspiring writers are nice enough email me questions about becoming a writer. I usually have the same answer: Well, wanting to be a “writer” is your first mistake.

The problem is identifying as a writer. As though assembling words together is somehow its own activity. It isn’t. It’s a means to an end. And that end is always to say something, to speak some truth or reach someone outside yourself.

Deep down, you already know this. Take any good piece of writing, something that matters to you. Why is it good? Because of what it says. Because what the writer manages to communicate to you, their reader. It’s because of what’s within it, not how they wrote it.

No one ever reads something and says, “Well, I got absolutely nothing out of this and have no idea what any of this means but it sure is technically beautiful!” But they say the opposite all the time, they say “Goddamn, that’s good” to things with typos, poor grammar and simple diction.

Good writing saves nothing. On the other hand, a deep, compelling or stunning message can float writers who struggle to even complete a sentence.

So if you want to be a writer, put “writing” on hold for a while. When you find something that is new and different and you can’t wait to share with the world, you’ll beat your fat hands against the keyboard until you get it out in one form or another.

Everything that is good in my writing came from risks I took outside of school, outside of the “craft.” It was sleeping on Tucker Max’s floor for a year. It was working as Robert Greene’s assistant. It was working at American Apparel, watching the office politics and learning how to get stuff done. It was dropping out of college at 19. It was saying yes to every meeting and introduction I got, and hustling to get as many as I could on my own. It was reading dozens of books a month.

It was going to therapy. It was getting into pointless arguments. It was having friends who are smarter than me. It was traveling. It was living (briefly) in the ghetto. I was able to write about the dark side of the media because I put myself in a position to see it firsthand.

All these things gave me something to say. They gave me a perspective. They gave me a fucked up writing style that makes my voice unique. They gave me opinions that tend to piss people off.

It also gave me money and the marketing experience to make my projects a success.

I don’t know the first thing about how to write (as you probably noticed in this post). I nod along and pretend that I know what things like “subject” and “predicate” and “passive tense” actually mean. I mean, I think I have an idea, but it hasn’t held me back so far. To quote Schopenhauer again, “to have something to say” is “by itself virtually a sufficient condition for good style.” I’ll take grade school dropout writing passionately in his prison cell over some empty, superior Yale MFA any day.

Part of what I’ve said here is my opinion. There are many ways to become a writer and though my way worked for me, you may prefer a different route. So you can take that part or leave it. But another part of it is an undeniable change in the economics of the business of writing.

See, it used to be that getting “published” was the hard part. You had to impress some gatekeeper and that gatekeeper was an agent or an editor at magazine, at a newspaper or at a book publisher (all of whom were typically trained writers). Well, today there are essentially an infinite amount of outlets to feature your writing. And no matter where you ultimately do get your writing out, you’ll have to bring your own audience with you anyway.

Getting published is easy. Getting anyone to care? Well, that’s the hard part.

What matters more now than any other single thing is that what you’re saying is different–that it’s interesting, that it provokes some response from people. You’ll only accomplish this if you’ve got something you have to say. Better yet, you need to have something that you can’t NOT say.  If what you’re writing is a compulsion rather than a vehicle for your display how smart and well practiced you are.

So think about it one more time. Is it that you want to be a writer? Or it’s that you have these things inside you that you want very badly to communicate to people and writing is the best way to do it?

Getting the answer to that question right is the day you really become a writer.

This post originally ran on ThoughtCatalog.com. Comments can be seen there.

How To Read More — A Lot More

October 15, 2013 — 49 Comments

When you read a lot of books people inevitably assume you speed read. In fact, that’s probably the most common email I get. They want to know my trick for reading so fast. They see all the books I recommend every month in my reading newsletter and assume I must have some secret. So they ask me to teach them how to speed read.

That’s when I tell them I don’t have a secret. Even though I read hundreds of books every single year, I actually read quite slow. In fact, I read deliberately slow, so that I can take notes (and then whenever I finish a book, I go back through and transcribe these notes for my version of a commonplace book.

So where do I get the time? (Well for starters I don’t waste any of it asking dumb questions).

Look, where do you get the time to eat three meals a day? How do you have time to do all that sleeping? How do you manage to spend all those hours with your kids or wife or a girlfriend or boyfriend?

You don’t get that time anywhere, do you? You just make it because it’s really important. It’s a non-negotiable part of your life.

I think there are three main barriers that hold people back from making this happen and I want to disassemble them right now so you can start reading way, way more.

Time

The key to reading lots of book begins with stop thinking of it as some activity that you do. Reading must become as natural as eating and breathing to you. It’s not something you do because you feel like it, but because it’s a reflex, a default.

Carry a book with you at all times. Every time you get a second, crack it open. Don’t install games on your phone–that’s time you could be reading. When you’re eating, read. When you’re on the train, in the waiting room, at the office–read. It’s work, really important work. Don’t let anyone ever let you feel like it’s not.

Do you know how much time you waste during the day? Conference calls, meetings, TV shows that you don’t really like but watch anyway. Well, if you can make time for that you can make time for reading. (Or better, just swap those activities for books)

Money

If I had to steal books to support my reading habit, I would. Thankfully you can buy some of the best literature ever published for pennies on Amazon.

But forget money entirely when it comes to books. Reading is not a luxury. It’s not something you splurge on. It’s a necessity.

As Erasmus, the 16th century scholar once put it, “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”

On top of that, books are an investment. I hear from people all the time who tell me they plan to buy this book or that book. Plan? Just buy it. I promised myself a long time ago that if I saw a book that interested me I’d never let time or money or anything else prevent me from having it. Not money, not time, not my own laziness. Don’t wait around for some book you want to read to come out in paperback–trying to save $2 or $3 is the wrong mindset. If it’s a book you’ll read, then read it now, not in a year.

(One related note: I don’t check books out from the library and haven’t since I was a child. This isn’t like renting a mindless movie. You should be keeping the books you read for reference and for re-reading. If you are OK giving the books back after two weeks you might want to examine what you are reading).

Purpose

Perhaps the reason you having trouble is you forgot the purpose of reading. It’s not just for fun. Human beings have been recording their knowledge in book form for more than 5,000 years. That means that whatever you’re working on right now, whatever problem you’re struggling with, is probably addressed in some book somewhere by someone a lot smarter than you. Save yourself the trouble of learning from trial and error–find that point. Benefit from that perspective.

The walls of my house are covered in books from floor to ceiling. The last time I moved, I had to rent a U-Haul exclusively for books. At first that frustrated me, and then I remembered that books paid the rent on both those houses. They kept me sane, they made me a lot of money.

The purpose of reading is not just raw knowledge. It’s that it is part of the human experience. It helps you find meaning, understand yourself, and make your life better.

There is very little else that you can say that about. Very little else like that under $20 too.

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Look, you either get this or you don’t. Reading is something you know is important and want to do more of. Or you’re someone who just doesn’t read. If you’re the latter, you’re on your own (you’re also probably not that smart).

Think of someone like Frederick Douglass, who brought himself up out of slavery by sneaking out and teaching himself to read. Books weren’t some idle pursuit or pastime to him, they were survival itself. And despite this dire situation, he managed to read  and, as the writer Thomas Sowell once put it, “educate himself to the point where his words now have to be explained to today’s expensively under-educated generation.”

What excuse do you have?

If you want to read more, there’s no real secret. It’s about adjusting your priorities and your perception so that reading becomes an extension of who you are and what you do.

When that happens, you’ll be the person that people now ask: How do you do it? And the answer will be: I just do.

This post originally ran on ThoughtCatalog.com. For more comments, view it there.

The Differences Between Perception and Reality

October 10, 2013 — 6 Comments

I was reading Michael Lewis’s amazing essay “Jonathan Lebed’s Extracurricular Activities” yesterday (in The New Kings of Non Fiction) and I realized that this paragraph basically explains how Trust Me I’m Lying happened. Jonathan managed to accidentally see the inherent problems, and inherent manipulations of the market, whereas I saw it in the media, but the point–and the realization–are fundamentally the same.

“Still! That a fourteen-year-old boy, operating essentially in a vacuum, would walk away from a severe grilling by six hostile bureaucrats and jump right back into the market–how did that happen? It occurred to me, as it had occurred to Jonathan’s lawyer, that I had taken entirely the wrong approach to getting the answer. The whole point of Jonathan Lebed was that he had invented himself on the Internet. The Internet had taught him how hazy the line was between perception and reality. When people could see him, they treated him as they would treat a fourteen year old boy. When all they saw were his thoughts on financial matters, they treated him as if he were a serious trader. On the Internet, where no one could see who he was, he became who he was.”

Now that I think about it, this is probably a similar awakening that a lot of “digital natives” went through early on in their lives. It will be interesting to see how this changes our culture and lives.

25 Rules For Living From A (Semi-) Successful 26-Year-Old

October 9, 2013 — 11 Comments

I’m not saying I have everything figured out. In fact, I’m saying the opposite. My parents were good to me growing up, at least in terms of my physical well-being and my material wants. But the one thing I didn’t get was advice. I don’t recall many situations where my father took the opportunity to use a particular instance to give me general advice. Which of course, is the best way to learn about the world.

Now that I think about it, they didn’t really teach much how to do a lot of basic things either. I’m not talking about how to fix a flat tire or how to change your oil–you can pay someone to do that. This is embarrassing but I remember checking into my first hotel as an adult, during college probably, and getting assigned to room 1214 or something and actually thinking for a second: “How am I supposed to know what floor that’s on?” All I’m saying is that it would have been really nice if one of my parents, during the several dozen times we’d stayed in a hotel as a child, had taken two seconds to say, “Hey six year old, this is how this whole system works.” You know, instead of hoping I observed everything (which in the case of the elevator thing, I probably should have but clearly did not).

That being said, I turned 26 this week and all things considered, I’ve done pretty well for myself. Stumbling and fumbling through the dark, I’ve managed to become a bestselling author, work for some pretty cool people, start my own company, not fuck up my relationship with a girlfriend I love, and for whatever reason, now people come to ME for advice.

I’m sure many of you will disagree with these rules and shortcuts. You’ll say they’re cheating or wrong or inefficient. You may be right. They are, after all, the rules of someone who is completely self-taught. All I can say is that they work for me.

[*] Talking about what you’re going to do makes you a lot less likely to actually do it. Keep your plans to yourself.

[*] If it’s less than 2 floors, never take the elevator. Take the stairs. Nassim Taleb talks about this too: Carry your own bags. Take the stairs. Walk instead of taking a cab. You were already planning to go to the gym later, don’t be an idiot. Exercise is exercise.

[*] Always pull the car up to the very end of the curb (never waste a parking spot)

[*] Public speaking is only hard or scary if you don’t think you know what you’re talking about. That’s relatively simple to fix.

[*] Never recline your seat on an airplane. Yes, it gives you more room–but ultimately at the expense of someone else. In economics, they call this an externality. It’s bad. Don’t do it.

[*] After you’re done eating at a restaurant, just hand the waiter your card. You don’t need to see the receipt first (99% of the time it’s right and if it isn’t–it’s their fault. Send them back to fix it). Also, there’s no need to calculate the tip. I just enter the final number I’m paying. I’m paying them, they can do the math for me. (Provided you actually tip well.)

[*] If someone wants to go faster, let them pass.

[*] When you’re traveling to a new city, the first thing you should do when you get to the hotel is change into your work out clothes and go for a long run. You get to see the sights, get a sense of the layout and then you won’t waste an hour of your life in a lame hotel gym either.

[*] Never correct someone’s pronunciation of a word with the more appropriate ethnic accentuation. Only small people care that much about grammar or pronunciations.

[*] Everything your doctor, school and parents said was healthy is probably bad for you. Whole grains, soy, corn, wraps, milk. Ask yourself: does what I am about to eat even remotely resemble something my ancestors evolved to eat? If the answer is no, put it down. If, like me, the allure of these foods is too much, save them for one day a week where you splurge (and then hate yourself and swear them off for another week).

[*] Unless it’s an atrocity, take responsibility for it. You’re probably more at fault than you know.

[*] Get a dog, not a cat. One will make you a better person, the other is just an animal that lives in your house.

[*] In business situations, your first instinct is to start negotiating. Stop that. How much is significantly less important than whether you truly, truly want to do this thing. If you do–and I know this advice is controversial–just take the deal, provided its half way decent. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Bird in the hand. Blah blah. If you don’t want to do it–don’t let money sway you. Take the deal, do a good job, get more money on the next one. This is the philosophy of doers. Sharks and sociopaths care about squeezing every penny because they’ve confused money with their worth.

[*] Shame is a powerful emotion that can be used for good. If it’s something you want to hide or are embarrassed about, think twice about whether it’s actually the right thing. (Two good one liners about this here).

[*] Be in the middle of a book at all times. Better still, carry one with you at all times–a physical one. You’ll be amazed at how impressed people are by this.

[*] Frequent Flyer Miles are for people whose time is worthless. Here’s what I do: I use a Southwest Visa card. It means I get a few extra free domestic flights a year without ever having to do anything. And then on everything else? I never, ever think about it–even though I fly close to 50,000+ miles a year. If I am going to have to juggle a bunch of arbitrary, meaningless numbers for piddly rewards, I’d rather juggle sports stats or play games on my cell phone. At least those are entertaining.

[*] Most people are lying when they describe what their life is like. Don’t listen, don’t use what they say as a baseline, don’t get jealous, just nod and then forget it.

[*] Speaking of which, people are constantly trying to bribe you to be like them and take on the same burdens as them. DO NOT ACCEPT.

[*] Traveling for the sake of traveling is stupid.

[*] If there is a long line and you don’t want to wait in it, walk up to the front (or walk through the back or opposite way) and pretend you didn’t know you were doing things incorrectly. It almost always works. And when it doesn’t, no one thinks it was malicious. After all, you were just turned around. Note: pretending you forgot something–like you were just walking up to grab silverware at the buffet line–works well too. Grab your stuff and make a getaway.

[*] The best way to flirt is to ask provocative questions. And provocative is anything people aren’t expecting to be asked–it doesn’t have to be sexual.

[*] Eliminate options, concentrate your forces. Here I am combining two lessons from Tim Ferriss and Robert Greene. For example, in terms of clothes and meals, just pick a few favorites and then stick with them. This means less time is wasted thinking about choices on a daily basis. But more importantly, concentrating your limited dollars/time on fewer entities gives you more leverage. I mostly eat at the same restaurants over and over–and you know what, they always hook me up. The fastest way to VIP status on anything is to cheat by going or buying a few times in a row. There’s a saying behind this too: More wood behind fewer arrows. It applies to more than just dinner perks.

[*] Conference calls and meetings are mostly a waste of time. If the person is more important or successful than you, consider going. If not, beg off as best you can.

[*] Current events/the news should be followed only if it fits one of the following criteria 1) It directly affects you in someway. 2) Knowing about it would make for interesting conversation. If you’re watching something and you can’t tell yourself that you either plan to do something with that information or it will make you seem smart, turn it off. Or flip it over to Comedy Central because you may as well be watching pure entertainment.

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This isn’t conclusive. It’s just some stuff that occurred to me and that I think about often enough to have a policy on. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of them line up with sayings or cliches. Those are cliches for a reason–namely that they’re true for a lot of people and have been for a long time.

All I know is that I wish I hadn’t figured them out on my own (or in some cases, heard from mentors and other smart people, but only well into my twenties.) Because missing these rules was painful. It wasted time, money and energy.

Hopefully they save you some trouble. And I guess, the message, at the end of the day, is that it’s never too late.

This article originally ran on ThoughtCatalog.com. For my thoughts on the response and any of the more controversial rules, read the comments there.

Smarts and Success

September 24, 2013 — 12 Comments

Here’s the problem with success.

A lot of people are not successful because they are not smart.

Yet you meet a lot of successful people who are not smart.

By smart we do not mean IQ, we mean the more general “know what they’re doing” and “aren’t totally delusional head cases.”

It’s obviously hard to draw a clear line around who is what but it’s not an outrageous statement to say that people are often their own worst enemies…many achieve things blissfully unaware of this fact, or on occasion, in spite of it.

This is not so much a paradox as it is the factor of luck (God favors fools, as they say). Or you could call it injustice, I suppose, because sometimes on days where stuff isn’t going well for that rest of us, that’s just how it feels.

But you cannot let this fact of life discourage you. You can never let it be a reason for slacking off or not having your act together. That some idiot might have be rewarded says what, exactly?

That you wish you were more like them? I don’t think so.

Focus on yourself. Attend to the areas where lack of understanding or skills are holding you back. Let the others be “lucky.”