highlights from kevin kelly’s 68 bits of unsolicited advice

A selection of my favorite/the most useful bits. Original list here.

• Being enthusiastic is worth 25 IQ points.

• A worthy goal for a year is to learn enough about a subject so that you can’t believe how ignorant you were a year earlier.

• When you are young spend at least 6 months to one year living as poor as you can, owning as little as you possibly can, eating beans and rice in a tiny room or tent, to experience what your “worst” lifestyle might be. That way any time you have to risk something in the future you won’t be afraid of the worst case scenario.

• The more you are interested in others, the more interesting they find you. To be interesting, be interested.

• To make something good, just do it. To make something great, just re-do it, re-do it, re-do it. The secret to making fine things is in remaking them.

• Separate the processes of creation from improving. You can’t write and edit, or sculpt and polish, or make and analyze at the same time. If you do, the editor stops the creator. While you invent, don’t select. While you sketch, don’t inspect. While you write the first draft, don’t reflect. At the start, the creator mind must be unleashed from judgement.

• You are what you do. Not what you say, not what you believe, not how you vote, but what you spend your time on.

• Anything real begins with the fiction of what could be. Imagination is therefore the most potent force in the universe, and a skill you can get better at. It’s the one skill in life that benefits from ignoring what everyone else knows.

• Art is in what you leave out.

• Buying tools: Start by buying the absolute cheapest tools you can find. Upgrade the ones you use a lot. If you wind up using some tool for a job, buy the very best you can afford.

• Following your bliss is a recipe for paralysis if you don’t know what you are passionate about. A better motto for most youth is “master something, anything”. Through mastery of one thing, you can drift towards extensions of that mastery that bring you more joy, and eventually discover where your bliss is.

• Over the long term, the future is decided by optimists. To be an optimist you don’t have to ignore all the many problems we create; you just have to imagine improving our capacity to solve problems.

Living is the trick

“The sportswriter Red Smith was one of my heroes. Not long before his own death he gave the eulogy at the funeral of another writer, and he said, “dying is no big deal. Living is the trick.” Living is the trick. That’s what we’re all given one chance to do well.

One reason I admire Red Smith was that he wrote about sports for 55 years, with elegance and humor, without ever succumbing to the pressure, which ruined many sportswriters, that he ought to be writing about something “serious.” Red Smith found in sportswriting exactly what he wanted to do and what he deeply loved doing. And because it was right for him he said more important things about American values than many writers who wrote about serious subjects — so seriously that nobody could read them.

Another story.

When I was teaching at Yale, the poet Allen Ginsberg came to talk to my students, and one of them asked him: “Was there a point at which you consciously decided to become a poet?” And Ginsberg said: ‘It wasn’t quite a choice; it was a realization. I was 28 and I had a job as a market researcher. One day I told my psychiatrist that what I really wanted to do was to quit my job and just write poetry. And the psychiatrist said, “why not?” And I said, “Well, what would the American Psychoanalytic Association say?” And he said, “There’s no party line.” So I did. We’ll never know how big a loss that was for the field of market research. But it was a big moment for American poetry.

There’s no party line.

Good advice.

You can be your own party line. If living is the trick, what’s crucial for you is to do something that makes the best use of your own gifts and your own individuality. There’s only one you. Don’t ever let anyone persuade you that you’re somebody else.

My father was a businessman. His name was William Zinsser, and he had a business called William Zinsser & Company that had been founded by his grandfather, also named William Zinsser, who came to New York from Germany in 1849 with a formula for making shellac. He built a little house and a little factory way uptown at what is now 59th Street and Eleventh Avenue. I have an old photograph of those two buildings, all alone in an open field full of rocks that sloped down to the Hudson River. That business stayed there until 15 years ago– 125 years. It’s very rare for a business to stay in the same family on the same block in mid-Manhattan for a century, and I can assure you that it builds a sense of family continuity. One of the most vivid memories of my boyhood is how much my father loved his business. He had a passion for quality; he hated anything second-rate.

Seeing how much he loved his work and how good he was at it, I learned very early what has been a guiding principle of my life: that what we want to do we will do well. The opposite, however, is also true: what we don’t want to do we won’t do well — and I had a different dream. I wanted to be a newspaperman.

Unfortunately, my father had three daughters before he had me. I was his only son. He named me William Zinsser and looked forward to the day when I’d join him in the business. (In those Dark Ages the idea that daughters could run a company just as well as sons, or better, was still 20 years off).

It was a ready-made career for me — lifelong security — and maybe I also owed it to my mother and my sisters to carry on that hundred-year-old family tradition. But when the time came to choose, I knew that that just wasn’t the right thing for me to do, and I went looking for a newspaper job, and got one with the New York Herald Tribune, and I loved it from the start.

Of course, that was a moment of great pain for my father — and also for me. But my father never tried to change my mind. He saw that I was happy, and he wished me well in my chosen work. That was by far the best gift I ever received, beyond price or value — partly, of course, because it was an outright gift of love and confidence, but mainly because it freed me from having to fulfill somebody else’s expectations, which were not the right ones for me.

The Herald Tribune at that time was the best written and best edited newspaper in America. The older editors on that paper were the people who gave me the values that I’ve tried to apply to my work ever since, whatever that work has been. They were custodians of the best. When they made us rewrite what we had written and rewritten, it wasn’t only for our own good; it was for the honorableness of the craft.

But the paper began to lose money, and the owners gradually cheapened their standards in an effort to get new readers (which they therefore couldn’t get), and suddenly it was no longer a paper that was fun to work for, because it was no longer the paper I had loved. So on that day I just quit. By then I was married and had a one-year-old daughter, and when I came home and told my wife that I had quit she said, “what are you going to do now?” which I thought was a fair question.

And I said, “I guess I’m a freelance writer.” And that’s what I was, for the next eleven years. It’s a life full of risk: the checks don’t arrive as often as the bills, or with any regularity. But those 11 years were the broadest kind of education; no other job could have exposed me to so many areas of knowledge.

Also: In those eleven years I never wrote anything that I didn’t want to write. I’d like you to remember that. You don’t have to do unfulfilling work, or work that diminishes you. You don’t have to work for people you don’t respect. You’re bright enough to figure out how to do work that you do want to do, and how to work for people you do want to work for.

Near the end of the ’60s my wife said she thought it might be interesting to live somewhere besides New York and see what that was like. Well, to suggest to a fourth-generation New Yorker that there’s life outside New York is heresy. But I began to discuss the idea with friends, and one of them said, “you know, change is a tonic.”

I didn’t know that.

I was afraid of change; I think most people are.

But I seized on the phrase “change is a tonic” and it gave me the energy to go ahead. I had always wanted to teach writing: to try to give back some of the things I had learned. So I started sending letters to colleges all over the country — big colleges, small colleges, colleges nobody had ever heard of, experimental colleges that I actually went and visited; one was in a redwood forest in California and one seemed to be in a swamp in Florida — asking if they had some kind of place for me.

And they didn’t, because I was not an academic — I only had a BA degree, like the one you’ll have in about five minutes — and it was very discouraging. But finally one thing led to another. It always does. If you talk to enough people about your hopes and your dreams, if you poke down enough roads and keep believing in yourself, sooner or later a circle will connect. You make your own luck.

Well, one thing led to another, and one day I got a call from a professor at Yale who said he would take a chance and let me teach an experimental writing course for one term (by the way, that was almost two years after I had started sending all those letters). And on that slender thread we sold our apartment in New York and moved to New Haven, a city we had never seen before, and started a new life.

Yale was totally generous to me, though I was a layman from out of nowhere — a journalist, god forbid. I was allowed to initiate a nonfiction writing course, which the Yale English department later adopted, and I was also allowed to be master of one of Yale’s residential colleges. So those were rich years for me — years of both teaching and learning — because they were unlike anything I had done before.

Now the fact that Yale let me do all this is the reason I’m telling you the story. I didn’t fit any academic pattern. But finally, being different was not a handicap. Never be afraid to be different. Don’t assume that people you’d like to work for have defined their needs as narrowly as you think they have — that they know exactly who they want. What any good executive is looking for is general intelligence, breadth, originality, imagination, audacity, a sense of history, a sense of cultural context, a sense of wonder, a sense of humor, far more than he or she is looking for a precise fit.

America has more than enough college graduates every year who are willing to go through life being someone else’s precise fit. What we need are men and women who will dare to break the mold of tired thinking — who just won’t buy somebody saying, “we’ve always done it this way. This way is good enough.”

Well, obviously it’s not good enough or the country wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in. I don’t have to tell you all the areas where this wonderful country is not living up to its best dreams: Poverty. Inequality. Injustice. Debt. Illiteracy. Health care. Day care. Homelessness. Pollution. Arms-spending that milks us of the money that should be going into life-affirming work. There’s no corner of American life that doesn’t need radically fresh thinking.

Don’t shape yourself to a dumb job; shape the job to your strengths and your curiosity and your ideals. I’ve told you this story of my life for whatever pieces of it you may have wanted to grab as it went by… If I had to sum up why my work has been interesting it’s because I changed the direction of my life every eight or nine years and never did — or continued to do — what was expected.

I didn’t go into the family business; I didn’t stay at the Herald Tribune; I didn’t stay in New York. And I didn’t stay at Yale. In 1979 I made a resume, like every Yale senior (they showed me how to do it — how to make it look nice), and went job-hunting in New York, and got a job with the Book-of-the-Month Club, which was still another new field for me, and in many ways those eight years were the most interesting years of all. So don’t become a prisoner of any plans and dreams except your own best plans and dreams.

Don’t assume that if you don’t do what some people seem to be insisting that you do, in this goal-obsessed and money-obsessed and security-obsessed nation, it’s the end of the world. It’s not the end of the world. As my experience with my father proves, something very nourishing can happen — a blessing, a form of grace. Be ready to be surprised by grace.

And be very wary of security as a goal. It may often look like life’s best prize. Usually it’s not…. For you, I hope today will be the first of many separations that will mean the putting behind you of something you’ve done well and the beginning of something you’ll do just as well, or better. Keep separating yourself from any project that’s not up to your highest standards of what’s right for you–and for the broader community where you can affect the quality of life: your home, your town, your children’s schools, your state, your country, your world.

If living is the trick, live usefully; nothing in your life will be as satisfying as making a difference in somebody else’s life. Separate yourself from cynics and from peddlers of despair. Don’t let anyone tell you it won’t work. Men and women, women and me, of the Wesleyan Class of 1988:

There’s no party line.

You make your own luck.

Change is a tonic.

One thing leads to another.

Living is the trick.

Thank you.”

— From William Zinsser’s Commencement Speech at Wesleyan University 1988. Passage from here.

Remove

When in doubt (or in suffering), remove.

Remove the extra clothes in your wardrobe.

Remove items on your calendar.

Remove expectations — of yourself and others.

Remove resistance.

Remove the items in your online shopping cart.

Remove your aversion to the public library. (Go and read a lot, for free.)

Remove all the apps you don’t use from your phone.

Remove extra words in your sentences.

Remove self-hatred.

Remove — without guilt.

Safe places

There are some places I regard as safe places, places where there is no judgement and no pressure to be anything but myself. When life feels overwhelming, when things get very difficult, these are places I can go to get comforted, to feel safe.

You might be surprised (or not) to find out that some of these places are virtual — they don’t exist in real life. And that’s because some of them are books, websites, songs. Books, in particular, have been a wonderful friend to me.

Another safe place that we don’t often think of as a safe place is our heart. As I cultivate my heart over these few years, I have learned that I am also my own best refuge. The world can get its hands on everything I own physically, but it cannot get my heart.

In fact, befriending our *heart is our only option if we want to survive the tumult and violent beauty that is life. Once we find that our heart is now our best refuge, the safest place we can possibly be, there is nothing to be afraid of anymore.
* By “heart” I also mean “mind”.

Be

Most of us are good at doing, but not so good at being.

Doing is fantastic. It’s how we create beautiful things in this world. It’s also the way most people know how to exist in this world.

Being is harder, because it requires that we do nothing.

The people I admire the most are not the ones who have achieved a lot in life, but those who are contented being nobodies. When you are contented to be a nobody, it tells me a lot about you. It tells me that you are secure and your identity is not hinged upon external validation. You are happy just being you!

We are used to celebrating successful people. But look deeper and you will see that sometimes successful people work so hard to succeed because of their inner wounds and fears. Their success is only a plug to stop their pain from oozing out.

All our life we have been taught to do, to work our ass off. But what if we learned to simply be?

Our careers, our daily pressures, and all the expectations to be somebody rather than nobody are worldly things dreamed up by worldly minds like ours. It’s not to say they are bad things, but maybe they are imaginary and not as real as we think they are.

I believe there’s more to life than life. Think of the ocean – sail upon its surface and you might think it exists only in one dimension, but dive into it and you can travel for miles and miles into the deep mysterious blue.

Life seems to have that kind of unfathomable depth. The only problem is that our minds are so used to being on the surface.

But learning to be is like diving into the ocean. You break into the depth and you find things you have never seen before on the surface.

When Buddhists talk about awareness or Christians talk about being with God or mystics talk about being at one with the universe, I think they are talking about this sense of simply being.

To be is nothing physical. It’s purely inner work.

To be is to accept yourself. To be is to stop wanting to be a better version of yourself. To be is to, in Zhuangzi’s words, “follow along with things the way they are” without resistance.

Some people might say that to be is a simple concept, but it is not easy to achieve at all.

Precisely. There is nothing to achieve. To be is to rest. It is the total lack of struggle. It is the putting down of your arms and your desire to achieve anything more with and in your life.

I was always an ambitious person. To me it has always been important that I become somebody rather than nobody. Sometimes I trace it back to my inferiority complex as a child or simply my Dad’s genes.

Now I can see that I was always only chasing after happiness and acceptance. I thought I’d be truly happy when I fulfilled all my dreams and found the freedom I so desired, but now I see that if you are not already happy, no amount of money or fame or any other worldly thing you can think of can ever give you that.

So my only urgent task, my biggest practice, is not how to be a more successful photographer or earn more money or do more exciting projects. It is not even about learning how to be a happier person.

My practice is simply to be. It’s not just a high-brow philosophical concept, but an idea that must infuse my every decision, action and thought. It must be lived.

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” – Matthew 11:28

“Flow with whatever is happening and let your mind be free. Stay centered by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate.” – Zhuangzi


“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” – Laozi

Becoming who I really am

I’d never seen so many stars in my life. I was on Mauna Kea – highest point in all of Hawaii – my fingers frozen, my head buzzing from the altitude (13,000 feet!).

Our guide had set up a telescope for us. Throughout the course of the night we gazed at Saturn and Jupiter and marvelled at twin stars. A distant galaxy, drifting 38 million light years away, was pointed out to us. Through the telescope the galaxy appeared as a wisp of light, only faintly discernible. We lined up constellations too and found improbable order in disorder, and I could only wonder what went on in our ancestors’ heads when they woke up to a world like this, at a time when there weren’t yet books written about the stars.

Standing under this glassy bowl of a hundred billion stars I was overcome suddenly by a powerful urge to become the person I really am. I cannot say where that feeling came from. But there it was, and I felt it profoundly. It was a mystical moment to say the least (and perhaps only to be found on top of a mountain, 13,000 feet above sea level).

In the milky dark night, in the midst of the mystery and wonder of my own existence – and the existence of everything in this universe – I understood something: If I could only become who I really am, I would be able to live a limitless life.

In that moment I understood also – or rather I knew – the utter pointlessness of success or achievements of any sort. I needed to pursue instead deeper spiritual growth, expansion of my consciousness, and a greater love for all things.

Call it a message from the stars.

On our way up to the mountain, our guide Gordon told us that he hadn’t originally applied to be a guide. He was a jolly good fellow – in his 50s, maybe – with a dry sense of humor and a chill vibe. Very Hawaiian.

“I applied to wash vans, actually. But the boss asked me, why don’t you be a guide for us? You have a degree in Geology! But I told him, I only want to surf, go fishing and wash your vans for two hours a day!”

Again the stars were talking to me. This guy – who only wants to surf, go fishing and wash vans for two hours a day – feels like someone who’s just being exactly who he is. Completely comfortable, non-competitive, at peace with wherever life brings him.

As for me, I have been trying to unpack what “becoming who I really am” means.

Fundamentally, I think, to become who I really am is to live out of love rather than fear. The root of my past misery has been my fear of not being loved and accepted and the fear of never being good enough. All my insecurities, desires and superficial goals stem from that fear. That’s why I always needed to be good at something; that’s why I always wanted to be successful; that’s why I always dreamed of achieving so many things. I was only afraid of not being loved.

But when I become who I really am, I am no longer afraid. I am no longer ashamed of myself, I no longer need outer validation, I no longer need every one in the world to love me, and I certainly don’t need to be anything the society expects me to be.

When I become who I really am, I move beyond my ego – which is my false self – and I stop wanting things and giving things for the wrong reasons.

Knowing who I really am – already perfect and wonderful as I am – I then have the courage to go out into the world and live a deep and true life out of love, and not fear.

I have always known this, all that I’ve just written about, but standing on a million-year-old mountain and being so close to the stars had a way of drilling the message in deep.

Finally, I think, knowing is not enough. Now I have to live this knowledge through every decision I make every day of my life. And that is the mammoth task. But there is no other way to live.

Bourdain

Photo from Anthony Bourdain’s Tumblr


I was a fool to have found Anthony Bourdain’s work so late. But now he is dead.

There is something I enjoy about Bourdain, but it’s hard to write about without — in Bourdainesque language — fucking it up.

But okay. Okay.

It’s the idea of Tony Bourdain, alright?

Imagine him, sitting on the back of a scooter in Hanoi, the traffic roaring. There is exhaust and smoke everywhere. CHAOS. Cut to another scene — he is eating dinner by the roadside on a low red plastic stool, adding with abandon fish sauce and chilli into his piping hot Cơm Hến and slurping it up. Then he’s riding across Myanmar on a crazily jumpy train — almost under threat of derailment — sleeping right through the journey. An old-school Chinese song plays, and suddenly he is walking through Chungking Mansion in Hong Kong, cool as ice. Another cut again brings us to him, knife in hand, killing chickens for stew in the dark (with much difficulty, it must be added) as a boat brings him slowly downriver into the jungle of the Congo…

You can’t deny that he is full of… swag.

But he is also king of the kind of seductive, beautiful, sordid imagery that paints the world as it is. He knows that the world is complicated, so he doesn’t try to package it. He tries simply to be a part of that complexity. Maybe we can say that the final products of No Reservations and Parts Unknown are still well-packaged, highly edited, biased works of one man’s views and imagination, but if there is anyone out there who’s trying his hardest to cut the bullshit, it’s Tony Bourdain.

Then there is the other idea of him — 44 but still broke, behind on rent, living in a rent-stabilized apartment, without health insurance, with little to no hope of ever realizing his dreams of traveling the world. This other Tony Bourdain decided to write Kitchen Confidential — the book that lifted him out of obscurity — for other cooks and waiters who were as angry and self-loathing as he was. “Fuck everybody else,” he thought, and wrote the book that he thought no one else would read.

Then there were the drugs. He wrote all about it in his books. There was no attempt to hide. The addiction, the depression, the suicide attempts, the desperation. It was all out there, like barely healed cuts on one’s inner arm.

So I guess I appreciate Bourdain because he was many things —all the good (his success, his talent, his vision) and all the bad (so broken, so afraid of the world and so fucked up), but mostly because, he always tried to be true.

And not to mention the swag. The swag.

Loneliness kills

I do believe loneliness kills.

One year I was in Sapporo. I went there because I wanted to run away from myself, but at that time I didn’t know yet that you can’t outrun yourself.

I rented a private room in a hostel. The first few days were hellish. I fell sick, suffered a few panic attacks, ate kombini food in my room, and walked through wind-swept downtown Sapporo alone, a lost soul. I didn’t know anyone in the city. Not a single person in the whole of Sapporo knew my name.

One day I got talking with one of the owners of the hostel. I’d tried to avoid talking to anyone (I thought being alone would help me better run away from myself), but it was hard because my room was just right beside the hostel’s reception area.

That was the day my trip changed from a slow-moving heavy-hearted indie film dripping with a kind of end-of-the-world emotional darkness to a light-hearted summer flick filled with friendship and laughter, I kid you not.

I was promptly invited to join them for dinner the next day, during which we made some kind of Japanese wrap together and were joined by not only guests but the hostel owners’ friends from the neighbourhood. There were sake and stories shared. A good night.

One morning I went with a bunch of them to the riverside for yoga. They held yoga sessions once in awhile for their guests and friends. My new Japanese friends had woken up early to make onigiri from scratch (still the best fucking onigiri I’ve ever had in my life) and brought tables and chairs to set up a coffee station. The sky was a soft but brilliant blue. After the yoga some of them sat around talking and eating, while others started kicking a ball around. The breeze was sharp and cold, but not painfully so. It was so damn idyllic.

From then on I had friends. More than a few people knew my name now in Sapporo. I volunteered to photograph their hostel for their website, and I spent a short morning doing some portraits for the three owners of the hostel. Some afternoons we’d sit together in the living room and the owners’ friends would be there, playing guitar and goofing around.

I befriended one of these guys, Shiraki, and spent one evening at his tiny apartment. He told me all about his dad and showed me his records. He chain-smoked all the way as we shared our life stories with each other.

My time in Sapporo would have been very different without these people. Whenever I recall my time there, I don’t think quite so fondly of the nights I ate alone in my room. I think instead of the time I spent together with these new friends, and my heart feels all warm and fluffy.

Not only that, I saw how beautiful the whole Waya Guesthouse community was (go to the landing page of their website and you will see the photo I took for them!). Started by three friends who had come home to Sapporo after some years of working in cities like Tokyo, the trio dreamed of bringing their community together. The hostel was built literally by hundreds of friends and neighbours who saw Waya’s Facebook posts and came out to help. Every bit of wood was drilled by a friend or a neighbour.

I was inspired – and my heart warmed – by that. It planted a seed in me that took years to germinate, but now I am a firm believer in community.

In my view, everyone has two tribes – one, your personal tribe made up of family and close friends with whom you can eat and laugh together; two, a bigger tribe made up of a group of like-minded people you genuinely enjoy being with and with whom you can collaborate, make things, work towards a cause together. I urge you to cultivate both tribes with equal commitment. After all, these are YOUR people who will journey with you through this life.