"That which doesn't make a man worse—how can it make his life worse?"
I've been trying to live those words—my favorite words by Marcus Aurelius—ever since the election outcome in November. It's been a profoundly different time for me and I know for many, many people around the world. I'm determined not to let Trump's win make me a worse person. Determined to make my life better despite the shock of each daily news cycle.
The strategy has been one of daily discovery. The guide? A short piece of writing I did a few days after the election:
____________________November 19, 2016
I suppose it is time to put down a few thoughts on the outcome of the election. Hillary did not win. And Donald Trump will be President of the United States. It sounds like a nightmare because it is one. So unexpected. Nobody had any idea that this would be the true future. And nothing about it feels true or right.
The part that bothers me the most, I think, is that the bad guy won. This is not how stories are supposed to end. Look at all of the work and dedication and thoughtfulness that she put into public service. And how great a president she could have been. And how ready we all were for a woman president. And yet—a tragedy of epic proportions—she lost. And this disgusting man with zero qualifications won. It’s just an absolute tragedy—one of the worst things that has ever happened to this country in modern times. Truly greater than 9/11 in its power to knock you down.
But you have to get up. We all have to get back up and fight. The story is not over. So he will be President—beginning in two months—for a four year term. We’ll see if he makes it four years without impeachment or resignation. We’ll see what happens. The fact is—the story is never over. And while the wrong side may have won the upper hand for a time, they have not won the war for what is right. And what is good in this world.
At the same time, I must hope that there is some goodness possible in this incoming administration. The country does need infrastructure and a bit of the zazzle of the showy hotelier—our roads and our bridges and our airports could use that. So hopefully this period is not all lost. And hopefully responsible Republicans can steer him away from his nationalist, zero-sum, anti-trade instincts. Hopefully a strong democratic opposition can divert him from his anti-immigrant madness. And hopefully he can steer republicans away from the culture wars and the anti-women stance of members of that party—like Pence.
And I will just have to keep working on the things that matter to me. I will have to—and have—rededicated myself to learning and absorbing all that I can on topics outside of the news cycle. The science of management in HBR. The creative problem-solving and design in Cinefex (learning, at the moment, about the development of The Lost World). And the politics of California—this state that I am embracing fully, now. I am listening to an audiobook on the history of the state, and will then hear one on Jerry Brown. And will work my way through a better understanding of this place that is my home—and will be our future.
I’m excited and ready now for that future. And will just have to contend with the fact that I can’t follow the news as I have for this last year. I can check in every now and then, but just as when George W. was in office, making a mess of the world, I will focus my energies on other things. On the future I’m building and the past I can learn from—not every minute detail of the present. Great work, scientific discovery, and creative breakthroughs have all been completed during inept presidential administrations—and when we look back, we don’t even remember who was president when "The Fountainhead" was released, or Star Wars, or Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men,” even. Or Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Or the discovery of the structure of DNA. These works stand on their own—and my work must, also. Not to say that these works didn’t or couldn’t have an impact in their own time, or move the needle in politics—but they ultimately transcend that politics. My life must do the same during this period. Look, for example, at the great work still being done by Bill and Melinda Gates today—just as yesterday, just as last month and last year. Just as next year. We keep moving forwards. We keep contributing. We keep building a better world.
There is so much work to be done.
You must move forwards. Forwards, forwards, forwards. Faster.
Almost at an instant, I stopped reading Twitter. After 6 or 7 years of every morning waking up to Politico’s Playbook, I stopped. Yes, it was a reaction to the poor news, but it was also a recognition that there is more in this world. And so I began to explore more seriously other interests:
While visiting a used bookstore, a title caught my eye. It was one of those instances where, scanning the shelves, your reading and processing mind is slower than your darting eyes. In a sea of spines—book spines—I saw: “One Man’s Fight Against the Navy.” Isn't THAT an interesting premise for a story! One man literally at war with an entire Navy? Immediately I looked back to the spine. And was disappointed to see that in the whirl I misread it. The real title: “One Man’s Fight For a Better Navy.” It was by Holden Evans, a Naval Constructor in the early 1900s. It was a memoir, of sorts, about a fight for efficiency within the US Navy’s hopelessly inefficient navy yards. How interesting…a book about someone fighting for a better system. An uphill battle against an institution. The first few pages were refreshing in their clarity of purpose:
“All autobiographies have their purpose, even if that purpose be only the gratification of the vanity of an active man who looks back over his life and finds in it lessons which he thinks may interest and instruct the oncoming generations. Mine, perhaps, is that kind of life, too. But I would be presumptuous to think that that story alone could find interest outside of the circle of my family and close friends. It happened, however, that the best and most vigorous years of my life were devoted to a fight for economy and greater efficiency in our navy yards. It was something of a single-handed war I waged, but one which attracted much attention and drew to my support some of the leading industrial engineers of the nation.”
— Holden Evans
So I bought it and read it, beginning to end.
After that one, I picked up another. One of the best books I've ever read is “Travels” by Michael Crichton. It’s a memoir of his time in medical school and his journeys around the world—journeys of personal as much as geographic discovery. Incisive, crystal-clear prose. It’s worth reading and re-reading—but any reader is left wanting to read more. Crichton always identified Travels as his personal favorite work—and he always promised he was working on a Travels II. Unfortunately, he died before it was released and it's still never been released. Buried in an old hard drive somewhere—or, hopefully, in the galley proofs of a publishing house. What’s always been out there, though, is an art book he wrote in the 1970s about the modern artist Jasper Johns. Another rare book of nonfiction from this high-concept storyteller. Reading Crichton as he walks us through the development of an artist, an entire lifetime of work—art created by someone he deeply admires—is an absolute joy. Full of surprises. Like this:
"When Johns says, 'I didn't want my work to be an exposure of my feelings,' he is really divorcing himself from the tenets of Abstract Expressionism, where the goal of the work, the point of the painting, was some statement of subjective emotion. Johns never had this goal. To that extent his statement is literally correct. But it is impossible for anyone to create out of purely intellectual, unemotional impulses. I doubt such impulses exist, in the first place; but even if they did, the act of creation, extending over time, would incorporate other elements which must be defined as emotional."
— Michael Crichton on Jasper Johns
This is a fascinating concept. That even unemotional work—work like that of science or mathematics or the simple application of paint to a surface—even this work will, in the course of creation, become emotional. Think of it: you're washing the dishes. That's not an emotional task. But if you run out of soap, doesn't it become emotional? If you scald your hand in hot water? Or scrub and scrub and scrub but a plate won't scrub clean—there's emotion in that act. Emotion that shapes how you scrub. Shapes how you wash. Shapes the choices you make and the end result of that effort. In short, we are emotional in our process of creation—whether conscious of it or not. Cold in our art or not. Jasper Johns may not have a message behind every work, but working on that art makes it—by its nature—the product of emotion.
But books are only the beginning. I’ve also found a bit more peace. I’ve been listening more to music than talk. Back in 2015, my favorite artist—James Horner—died. Before he did, he wrote and recorded a concerto for four horns. Just a few weeks ago, I listened to it for the first time. “Collage” is the name and once again I am amazed by what music can be. What it can do. How it can transport. Music truly is the greatest creation of humankind. It can transcend every concern. Can rise above it all, and if you listen carefully enough, you can hear the world for what it can be. What it could be, if you only listened.
Through all of this, I’ve tried to rededicate myself to the projects that matter most. For the past year I've been working on a project around reducing gun violence. It's taken too long—but I have learned so much in the process and now am nearing completion. I really really want it to be done and to share it with the world, already. And I really really want it to be done so I can begin to focus 100 percent of my energy on the next big project—one at least four or five times the size, and an order of magnitude greater in potential impact. That larger project waits at the precipice. But I fear it has been waiting too long; and I am no longer content with waiting. There is simply too much to be done.
If there is too much to be done, I should be done with writing this particular post right now. But still I write on—and the reason is simple: I'd like to contribute something now. Everyone, in the wake of November's outcome, has been trying to find a way to contribute. To do a little bit of something to make a difference in the world today. The majority of my focus today is on building projects for tomorrow—but that's not enough. I'd like to try something a little bold. Something a little different. Something I've thought of but never delivered. Here's a note I made from years ago:
"CONSIDER turning this blog into a truly open and transparent look into the creative process—and a creative mind at work. How do you do that? By commenting on interesting things you find, sharing ideas AS THEY COME TO YOU, and sketching out photos and thoughts on the fly. You would make it, literally, your "live journal" - to steal a phrase from the technology of yore. It would be a look into your creative notebook. A place where you could literally share and shape interesting content. No more keeping things so close to the vest. Rather than fearing that you might give away some big reveal in a big project, why not think that showing the pieces of an idea coming together might serve as a teaser, an introduction, a commercial for the main event? Having looked at the idea as a sentence, why wouldn't the reader be interested to see where you took it as a full project? Why does this blog have to be the occasional essay once every few weeks? Why not make it—literally—a living document? Wouldn't you enjoy following a site like that more? Wouldn't you like the look into the creative process? Consider beginning this on Monday. You're NOT diluting the great things, you're showing how they are only constellations in a galaxy of ideas."
Beginning now—today—I want to share some discoveries; something I've read or learned—and at least one thought. Daily. To share it will keep me thinking and engaged with the content, with the ideas—and maybe, just maybe, it'll be something like a song in the noise of this time. A melody, a few sentences that catch in the mind and stick there, if only for a moment, to shine a light and point the way in a new direction.