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2×4: An Interview With Brett Kelly

2×4: An Interview With Brett Kelly


    2×4: One series that examines two topics, creativity and productivity, by asking those who make things on the web the same four questions on both subjects.

    We all want to change our circumstances; we want to make more money or get a better job. For most of us, it’s simply a fantasy, something we’ll imagine ourselves doing, something we may even try for, but more likely than not, it’s something that will never happen. Why? We don’t do what it takes to make that happen. Brett Kelly of Bridging The Nerd Gap made that happen when he got his job at Evernote.

    Many of us sit around and scheme. We try to find any easy route to improve our circumstances. What most of us don’t do: the work. We don’t do what it takes to get ourselves noticed and get in the door. Brett did. Brett wrote the user guide that was missing, Evernote Essentials. It was downloaded 12,000 times and caught the attention of the team at Evernote so much so that they hired Brett full-time to write and maintain their user documentation. It was a chain of events that enabled Brett’s wife to be a full-time mother, empowered him to work from home and helped them get to a place where Brett was no longer working two jobs (or when he is, it is now in pursuit of his own projects).

    Brett’s story is more than a bit of hard work or a spot of good luck; it wasn’t just about writing the right book at the right time. It’s about consistently looking for ways to make things that matter and delivering the goods. Evernote Essentials is a great resource and the site he created to support it, “Bridging The Nerd Gap” is consistently a useful site. Brett is a hell of a writer, especially for those of us who enjoy our Mac geekery. He brings the goods, but he is also grounded in a way that is rare amidst us Apple and GTD fanatics. Look no further than his recent take on minimalist writing apps. Where most of us get excited and exuberant, Brett finds clarity and makes sense.

    Without further ado, here’s a look at how Brett Kelly consistently does what it takes to make things happen.

    Creativity

    Have you always considered yourself a creative person?

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    No, not really. Though, when I was growing up, “creative” was a word used to describe poets, musicians and sculptors. I’ve enjoyed writing in some form or another going back to high school, but it wasn’t until many (many) years later that I saw it as a creative pursuit on par with the other, more obviously “artsy” endeavors I mentioned a second ago. Now, I would say that I’m certainly a creative person, but I don’t necessarily think that makes me terribly unique. The lesser-sung outlets for creativity, I think, are things like problem-solving. My six-year-old son isn’t going to be writing sonnets anytime soon, but he can certainly figure out a way to eat the last cookie without technically breaking the rules.

    What mediums and inspirations do you gravitate toward to realize your creative goals?

    My creative expression can be wrapped up in precisely two gerunds: writing and programming. I can’t paint, draw or play a musical instrument. I deal in words and characters (the kind you access via the Shift key, not the kind you develop as a novelist) because the parameters are fairly well understood and agreed-upon, particularly when talking about software. All the creativity in the world isn’t going to save you if your program doesn’t compile or generates three screenfuls of error messages. You’re working in a known universe. I like it that way. English is arguably quite similar, though there’s definitely more flexibility. When I’m writing, my goal is to say something that the reader can understand. If I fail at that, then it’s time to re-examine the execution a bit and figure out where things went south.

    The inspiration part is easy: people who are better craftspeople than I am. Thanks to the Internet, you can hardly swing a dead eCat without hitting somebody who is a hell of a lot better than you at just about everything. Having ready access to the works of my heroes—both writers and programmers—is like looking out toward what I may become one day, if I work hard and take every opportunity to improve.

    If you had to point to one thing, what specific posts or creations are you most proud of and why?

    I guess I’d have to say my eBook Evernote Essentials is my current front-runner for the achievement of which I’m most proud. This is mostly because it’s far and away the longest single work I’ve ever produced and, well, it’s earned me some money. Plus, lots of people really like it, which helps.

    Any suggestions for those who feel they may not be creative enough to unlock their inner artist?

    Creativity isn’t about being able to paint or write or make music; it happens every day on a much smaller, less glamorous level. When I discover that I can use a binder clip to hold my iOS charging cable firmly to my desk, that’s creativity applied to problem solving (except people don’t usually use the world “creativity”).

    You’re a unique little snowflake of a person that’s walking around having had different experiences than everybody else. These experiences combined with your personality give you a particular take on any number of problems or topics. After all, a butcher’s apprentice is going to be a very different hunting partner than a taxidermy student. Use your specific brain and emotional makeup to take a look at existing situations/problems and see if you don’t have different spin on it (because that’s exactly what creativity is — a different spin on the stuff we all see/feel/use).

    Productivity

    Can you describe your current personal and professional responsibilities?

    By day, I’m the Technical Communications Manager for a startup called Evernote. The title is a little ambiguous, but my duties include generating user documentation and doing a bit of programming—some things for the web, some internal tools. If you’ve ever used the Evernote Knowledge Base, you’ve probably read words that I’ve written.

    Personally, I’m the undeserving husband to my first wife and we have two great kids. I also write a blog called Bridging the Nerd Gap where I talk about all sorts of different things, mostly relating in some way to technology or productivity. I also co-host a weekly podcast with my good buddy Myke Hurley called Cooking with Brett and Myke where he and I talk about anything and everything that happens to tickle our fancy on a given day. Lastly, I’m the one-man show behind my little ebook business where I handle everything from marketing, customer support, product development and—most importantly—the office coffee equipment.

    I’ve got other self-imposed responsibilities in the form of unannounced projects and such, but those are the biggies.

    How do you go about balancing the personal, professional and digital?

    This is one area where I could definitely use some work, but I’ve got a reasonably good handle on things. Every day I eat a quick breakfast with my family before walking down the hall to work (I work at home). I don’t usually take a real lunch break, but having taken a couple of strategic breaks to hug my wife and kids, who are also usually at home, I knock off around dinner time and have dinner with the family, followed by family hang-out time until my kids go to bed a couple hours later. Then, I’ll either spend time writing, reading or working on something. I’ve got far more ideas than I have time to execute on them, though, and that’s hard.

    The more tactical parts where I need help involve getting to bed at a reasonable hour and doing a better job “defining my work” (to borrow an expression from David Allen). I’m routinely bitten in the ass by a poorly defined project or task, so I’m trying to make fewer mistakes there and spend less time tuning my task manager (which will lead to knocking more tasks out in the time I’ve got and not crawling into bed at 1:30am).

    What tools and techniques do you find yourself counting on to get through your workload?

    I’m a big proponent of GTD. We’ve had a rocky relationship in the past, but it’s definitely how I like to roll. The best part about it, I think, is that it makes it possible to move everything forward, even if it’s only a little bit.

    As far as tools, you’ll almost always find me in one of these applications: OmniFocus for tasks on my Macs and iOS devices, Evernote for all sorts of different things, Vim for writing code and prose and Apple’s Mail. Without OmniFocus and Evernote, I’d probably be 40 pounds heavier, single and in therapy.

    What is the best starting point for the unproductive amongst us, who are looking to get more organized?

    I’ve probably bought more copies of David Allen’s Getting Things Done for desperate friends than I care to remember, but that’s what I tell just about everybody to do. Yeah, I know it’s become cliché and lots and lots of people won’t shut up about it, but it’s really such a great antidote for the stressed out everyman (or “everylady”, if that’s a thing).

    Tactically, do what David Allen calls a “mental sweep”; essentially, sit down with a big stack of paper and a pen and completely empty your head of every single thing that’s got your attention, one item per sheet. You can read his seminal book for more info on what to do after this, but the point is that your brain is really good at solving problems and creating things, but it positively sucks at holding information such that it can be called back up on command.

    If I’m ever feeling overwhelmed, I’ll sit down and do exactly this mental sweep activity until I’ve cleared everything out of my brain and it can relax.

    More by this author

    2×4: An Interview with David Sparks 2×4: An Interview with Myke Hurley 2×4: An Interview With CJ Chilvers 2X4 Interviews 2×4: An Interview With Gabe Weatherhead 2×4: An Interview With Brett Kelly

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    Last Updated on March 17, 2020

    A Review of the Book “The Art of Learning”

    A Review of the Book “The Art of Learning”

    Josh Waitzkin has led a full life as a chess master and international martial arts champion, and as of this writing he isn’t yet 35. The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance chronicles his journey from chess prodigy (and the subject of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer) to world championship Tai Chi Chuan with important lessons identified and explained along the way.

      Marketing expert Seth Godin has written and said that one should resolve to change three things as a result of reading a business book; the reader will find many lessons in Waitzkin’s volume.  Waitzkin has a list of principles that appear throughout the book, but it isn’t always clear exactly what the principles are and how they tie together.  This doesn’t really hurt the book’s readability, though, and it is at best a minor inconvenience.  There are many lessons for the educator or leader, and as one who teaches college, was president of the chess club in middle school, and who started studying martial arts about two years ago, I found the book engaging, edifying, and instructive.

      Waitzkin’s chess career began among the hustlers of New York’s Washington Square, and he learned how to concentrate among the noise and distractions this brings. This experience taught him the ins and outs of aggressive chess-playing as well as the importance of endurance from the cagey players with whom he interacted.  He was discovered in Washington Square by chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini, who became his first coach and developed him from a prodigious talent into one of the best young players in the world.

      The book presents Waitzkin’s life as a study in contrasts; perhaps this is intentional given Waitzkin’s admitted fascination with eastern philosophy.  Among the most useful lessons concern the aggression of the park chess players and young prodigies who brought their queens into the action early or who set elaborate traps and then pounced on opponents’ mistakes.  These are excellent ways to rapidly dispatch weaker players, but it does not build endurance or skill.  He contrasts these approaches with the attention to detail that leads to genuine mastery over the long run.

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      According to Waitzkin, an unfortunate reality in chess and martial arts—and perhaps by extension in education—is that people learn many superficial and sometimes impressive tricks and techniques without developing a subtle, nuanced command of the fundamental principles.  Tricks and traps can impress (or vanquish) the credulous, but they are of limited usefulness against someone who really knows what he or she is doing. Strategies that rely on quick checkmates are likely to falter against players who can deflect attacks and get one into a long middle-game.  Smashing inferior players with four-move checkmates is superficially satisfying, but it does little to better one’s game.

      He offers one child as an anecdote who won many games against inferior opposition but who refused to embrace real challenges, settling for a long string of victories over clearly inferior players (pp. 36-37).  This reminds me of advice I got from a friend recently: always try to make sure you’re the dumbest person in the room so that you’re always learning.  Many of us, though, draw our self-worth from being big fish in small ponds.

      Waitzkin’s discussions cast chess as an intellectual boxing match, and they are particularly apt given his discussion of martial arts later in the book.  Those familiar with boxing will remember Muhammad Ali’s strategy against George Foreman in the 1970s: Foreman was a heavy hitter, but he had never been in a long bout before.  Ali won with his “rope-a-dope” strategy, patiently absorbing Foreman’s blows and waiting for Foreman to exhaust himself.  His lesson from chess is apt (p. 34-36) as he discusses promising young players who focused more intensely on winning fast rather than developing their games.

      Waitzkin builds on these stories and contributes to our understanding of learning in chapter two by discussing the “entity” and “incremental” approaches to learning. Entity theorists believe things are innate; thus, one can play chess or do karate or be an economist because he or she was born to do so.  Therefore, failure is deeply personal.  By contrast, “incremental theorists” view losses as opportunities: “step by step, incrementally, the novice can become the master” (p. 30).  They rise to the occasion when presented with difficult material because their approach is oriented toward mastering something over time.  Entity theorists collapse under pressure.  Waitzkin contrasts his approach, in which he spent a lot of time dealing with end-game strategies
      where both players had very few pieces.  By contrast, he said that many young students begin by learning a wide array of opening variations.  This damaged their games over the long run: “(m)any very talented kids expected to win without much resistance.  When the game was a struggle, they were emotionally unprepared.”  For some of us, pressure becomes a source of paralysis and mistakes are the beginning of a downward spiral (pp. 60, 62).  As Waitzkin argues, however, a different approach is necessary if we are to reach our full potential.

      A fatal flaw of the shock-and-awe, blitzkrieg approach to chess, martial arts, and ultimately anything that has to be learned is that everything can be learned by rote.  Waitzkin derides martial arts practitioners who become “form collectors with fancy kicks and twirls that have absolutely no martial value” (p. 117).  One might say the same thing about problem sets.  This is not to gainsay fundamentals—Waitzkin’s focus in Tai Chi was “to refine certain fundamental principles” (p. 117)—but there is a profound difference between technical proficiency and true understanding.  Knowing the moves is one thing, but knowing how to determine what to do next is quite another.  Waitzkin’s intense focus on refined fundamentals and processes meant that he remained strong in later round while his opponents withered.  His approach to martial arts is summarized in this passage (p. 123):

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      “I had condensed my body mechanics into a potent state, while most of my opponents had large, elegant, and relatively impractical repertoires.  The fact is that when there is intense competition, those who succeed have slightly more honed skills than the rest.  It is rarely a mysterious technique that drives us to the top, but rather a profound mastery of what may well be a basic skill set.  Depth beats breadth any day of the week, because it opens a channel for the intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential.”

      This is about much more than smelling blood in the water.  In chapter 14, he discusses “the illusion of the mystical,” whereby something is so clearly internalized that almost imperceptibly small movements are incredibly powerful as embodied in this quote from Wu Yu-hsiang, writing in the nineteenth century: “If the opponent does not move, then I do not move.  At the opponent’s slightest move, I move first.”  A learning-centered view of intelligence means associating effort with success through a process of instruction and encouragement (p. 32).  In other words, genetics and raw talent can only get you so far before hard work has to pick up the slack (p. 37).

      Another useful lesson concerns the use of adversity (cf. pp. 132-33).  Waitzkin suggests using a problem in one area to adapt and strengthen other areas.  I have a personal example to back this up.  I will always regret quitting basketball in high school.  I remember my sophomore year—my last year playing—I broke my thumb and, instead of focusing on cardiovascular conditioning and other aspects of my game (such as working with my left hand), I waited to recover before I got back to work.

      Waitzkin offers another useful chapter entitled “slowing down time” in which he discusses ways to sharpen and harness intuition.  He discusses the process of “chunking,” which is compartmentalizing problems into progressively larger problems until one does a complex set of calculations tacitly, without having to think about it.  His technical example from chess is particularly instructive in the footnote on page 143.  A chess grandmaster has internalized much about pieces and scenarios; the grandmaster can process a much greater amount of information with less effort than an expert.  Mastery is the process of turning the articulated into the intuitive.

      There is much that will be familiar to people who read books like this, such as the need to pace oneself, to set clearly defined goals, the need to relax, techniques for “getting in the zone,” and so forth.  The anecdotes illustrate his points beautifully.  Over the course of the book, he lays out his methodology for “getting in the zone,” another concept that people in performance-based occupations will find useful.  He calls it “the soft zone” (chapter three), and it consists of being flexible, malleable, and able to adapt to circumstances.  Martial artists and devotees of David Allen’s Getting Things Done might recognize this as having a “mind like water.”  He contrasts this to “the hard zone,” which “demands a cooperative world for you to function.  Like a dry twig, you are brittle, ready to snap under pressure” (p. 54).  “The Soft Zone is resilient, like a flexible blade of grass that can move with and survive hurricane-force winds” (p. 54).

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      Another illustration refers to “making sandals” if one is confronted with a journeyacross a field of thorns (p. 55).  Neither bases “success on a submissive world or overpowering force, but on intelligent preparation and cultivated resilience” (p. 55). Much here will be familiar to creative people:  you’re trying to think, but that one song by that one band keeps blasting away in your head.  Waitzkin’s “only option was to become at peace with the noise” (p. 56).  In the language of economics, the constraints are given; we don’t get to choose them.

      This is explored in greater detail in chapter 16.  He discusses the top performers, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and others who do not obsess over the last failure and who know how to relax when they need to (p. 179).  The experience of NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh is also useful as “the more he could let things go” while the defense was on the field, “the sharper he was in the next drive” (p. 179).  Waitzkin discusses further things he learned while experimenting in human performance, particularly with respect to “cardiovascular interval training,” which “can have a profound effect on your ability to quickly release tension and recover from mental exhaustion” (p. 181).  It is that last concept—to “recover from mental exhaustion”—that is likely what most academics need help with.

      There is much here about pushing boundaries; however, one must earn the right to do so: as Waitzkin writes, “Jackson Pollock could draw like a camera, but instead he chose to splatter paint in a wild manner that pulsed with emotion”  (p. 85).  This is another good lesson for academics, managers, and educators.  Waitzken emphasizes close attention to detail when receiving instruction, particularly from his Tai Chi instructor William C.C. Chen.  Tai Chi is not about offering resistance or force, but about the ability “to blend with (an opponent’s) energy, yield to it, and overcome with softness” (p. 103).

      The book is littered with stories of people who didn’t reach their potential because they didn’t seize opportunities to improve or because they refused to adapt to conditions.  This lesson is emphasized in chapter 17, where he discusses “making sandals” when confronted with a thorny path, such as an underhanded competitor.  The book offers several principles by which we can become better educators, scholars, and managers.

      Celebrating outcomes should be secondary to celebrating the processes that produced those outcomes (pp. 45-47).  There is also a study in contrasts beginning on page 185, and it is something I have struggled to learn.  Waitzkin points to himself at tournaments being able to relax between matches while some of his opponents were pressured to analyze their games in between.  This leads to extreme mental fatigue: “this tendency of competitors to exhaust themselves between rounds of tournaments is surprisingly widespread and very self-destructive” (p. 186).

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      The Art of Learning has much to teach us regardless of our field.  I found it particularly relevant given my chosen profession and my decision to start studying martial arts when I started teaching.  The insights are numerous and applicable, and the fact that Waitzkin has used the principles he now teaches to become a world-class competitor in two very demanding competitive enterprises makes it that much easier to read.

      I recommend this book to anyone in a position of leadership or in a position that requires extensive learning and adaptation.  That is to say, I recommend this book to everyone.

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      Featured photo credit: Jazmin Quaynor via unsplash.com

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