Meditate, Move, Destroy — Robert Greene on Writing

Robert Greene wrote several best-selling books, including Mastery, The 48 Laws of Power, The Art of Seduction, and The 50th Law (with 50 Cent). Though I have qualms about the Machavellian philosophy in these books, I am fascinated by Robert’s writing process.

330px-Robert_Greene_B&W“What I learned is that willpower, the intensity of desire, and practice can take us to levels of performance we never thought possible,” Robert writes. He suggests the following strategies.

Exercise

Like Haruki Murakami, Robert compares writing books to running a marathon. There’s nothing glamorous about the process, which can involve periods of physical and mental depletion.

To prevent this, says Greene, develop a rigorous exercise routine. Avoid boredom by alternating between several activities, such as running and biking.

Gradually increase the intensity of your daily exercise. If you reach a point where you feel sustained tiredness, then back off a little. The goal is a plateau of activity that gives you more energy throughout the day.

Meditate

Robert does at least 30 minutes of Zen meditation daily. This increases his ability to concentrate and let unexpected insights emerge.

Research to discover an original structure for your ideas

To research a new book, Robert reads 200 to 300 existing books on his topic. This takes about a year.

He takes notes in an old-school way, writing by hand on index cards:

When I read a book, I am looking for the essential elements in the work that can be used to create the strategies and stories that appear in my books. As I am reading a book I underline important passages and sections and put notes (called marginalia) on the side.

After I’m done reading I’ll often put it aside for up to a week and think deeply about the lessons and key stories that could be used for my book project. I then go back and put these important sections on notecards. A good book will generate 20 to 30 notecards, while a bad book will generate two or three notecards.

Essentially, Robert deconstructs existing books into smaller pieces and looks for new relationships between them. He destroys the original structures in order to create a new one. Eventually the table of contents for his next book is born.

Cultivate “negative capability”

Negative capability — a concept from the poet John Keats — means tolerating uncertainty, ambiguity, and paradox. This prods us to think in new ways that resolve apparent contradictions.

To practice negative capability, develop a habit of observing people without judging them. Try to see the world from their point of view.

Also, as you begin a writing project, list your current assumptions about the topic. Then throw out or suspend as many as possible.

Think like an outsider

If you have training in a field that’s not directly related to your project, then use this as an advantage. What concepts from this field can you “import”? The answers will help you ask new questions and find novel connections between ideas.

Subvert your current patterns of thinking

Seek out facts and theories that contradict your current conclusions. Then ask why and how they can exist. When studying an event, ask yourself how it could have unfolded in a different way.

Use active imagination

For example, Henry Ford imagined workers standing still and working with auto parts that came to them. Result: the assembly line.

Use notebooks, drawings, and diagrams to visualize new ideas. Translate ideas into predictions and even physical models that you can test. Iterate and see what works — even if it takes you in a surprising direction.

In short, think of creativity as fusing two entities within you:

  • The child, who explores the world with few assumptions and thinks in fluid, flexible ways
  • The adult, who uses knowledge, experience, and observation to refine first thoughts into working theories

Note: For more about how Robert works, go to my sources for this post:

Avoiding Stories That Undermine Your Credibility

“Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him,” said Ernest Hemingway. “It also should have a manual drill and a crank handle in case the machine breaks down.”

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Though it’s not exactly a warm fuzzy, Hemingway’s insight can save your reputation.

One place that crap easily enters our writing is the odd anecdote that’s inaccurate or simply untrue. Consider the following examples.

The infamous boiling frog

You’ve probably heard this one — an anecdote that’s often told to illustrate the dangers of ignoring gradual change. Though countless versions exist, the key points are these:

  • If you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately jump out.
  • However, if you put the frog in a pot of lukewarm water and gradually heat it to boiling, the frog will fail to notice the temperature change. In fact, the frog will sit there until it boils to death.
  • Likewise, human beings often fail — to their peril — to notice subtle and dangerous changes in their environment.

There’s just one problem with this story: It’s crap.

In Next Time, What Say We Boil A Consultant, the Consultant Debunking Unit at Fast Company quotes two biologists who say that the story radically underestimates frog intelligence. As soon the water gets hot enough, in fact, the darn things will leap out faster than heck.

The Fast Company folks verified this by running their own experiment:

We placed Frog A into a pot of cold water and applied moderate heat. At 4.20 seconds, it safely exited the pot with a leap of 24 centimeters. We then placed Frog B into a pot of lukewarm water and applied moderate heat. At 1.57 seconds, it safely exited the pot with a leap of 57 centimeters.

Those legendary earners from Yale

Equally infamous is the “Yale Goal Study.” Again, there are many variations. The main events are these:

  • In 1953 (or 1933, or 1943, depending on the storyteller) researchers interviewed members of Yale’s graduating class, asking the students whether they had written down any goals for the rest of their lives.
  • Twenty years later, researchers tracked down the same group of graduates.
  • The 3 per cent of graduates who had written goals accumulated more personal wealth than the other 97 per cent of their classmates combined.

This is such a compelling story. We just want it to be true.

“There is just one small problem,” notes Richard Wiseman, an experimental psychologist and author of 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot. “As far as anyone can tell, the experiment never actually took place.”

The Fast Company Consultant Debunking Unit, which also tried to verify this story, confirms Wiseman on this point.

The moral of this story

Only tell stories that you can verify based on:

  • Direct personal experiences (preferably with objective witnesses involved)
  • Interviews with credible experts that confirm each other
  • Publications from credible sources that you can cite in an accepted format

 

How to Avoid the Bullshit Industrial Complex

I wanted to cheer after reading Sean Blanda’s post about The Creative World’s Bullshit Industrial Complex. His main point: “Don’t fall into the trap of being an expert before you’re ready. We have enough of those.”

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As editor of 99u, Sean gets pitches from people who want to write for the website or speak at company’s conferences for creative professionals. In the worst of these pitches, he says:

…there’s nothing to suggest the person has any original experience or research or insight to offer said advice. Instead they choose to quote other people who quote other people and the insights can often be traced back in a recursive loop. Their interest is not in making the reader’s life any better, it is in building their own profile as some kind of influencer or thought leader. Or, most frustratingly, they all reference the same company case studies (Hello, Apple and Pixar!), the same writers, or the same internet thinkers. I often encounter writers that share “success advice” learned from a blogger who was quoting a book that interviewed a notable prolific person.

Sean also presents a continuum that goes from credibility to bullshit. He identifies four levels:

Group 1: People actually shipping ideas, launching businesses, doing creative work, taking risks and sharing first-hand learnings.

Group 2: People writing about group 1 in clear, concise, accessible language.

[And here rests the line of bullshit demarcation…]

Group 3: People aggregating the learnings of group 2, passing it off as first-hand wisdom.

Group 4: People aggregating the learnings of group 3, believing they are as worthy of praise as the people in group 1.

Our path to freedom from the Bullshit Industrial Complex is to remember that Group 1 sources exist in every field. And, our job is to find them.

If you’re a critical reader of self-help material, for example, Group 1 includes researchers who write well—academics who stay close to the data and have a source of income beyond speaking fees and book royalties.

Notable examples include Martin Seligman, Richard Wiseman, Sojna Lyubomirsky, Tal Ben-Shahar, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Timothy Wilson, BJ Fogg, Orin Davis, and creators of evidence-based psychotherapies.

I trust such people because they abide by the ethics of responsible scholarship.

They go beyond anecdotes to test their ideas with well-designed studies.

They know the professional literature and cite their sources.

They distinguish between hunches and statements that are supported by evidence.

Most of all, Group 1 sources openly acknowledge the possible objections to their ideas and state the limitations in applying them.

This gets to the heart of the scientific method, which includes a deliberate search for evidence that refutes your hypothesis—and an admission that nothing is ever proven.

Our constant challenge as writers and speakers to dwell above the “line of bullshit demarcation.” Our daily job is to create original work that goes beyond aggregating the content of other aggregators—even when mindless aggregation wins shares, likes, and other hollow dings of social approval.

This is hard work. It means cultivating the timeless virtues of honesty and humility—qualities that easily go down the toilet when there’s a book to promote or a mailing list to build.

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Avoiding bullshit is one of my favorite topics. For starters, see the only-somewhat-tongue-in-cheek Anecdotes Are Sexy But Not Conclusive. Also check out: