Tiny Beautiful Things

Some days are for conquering the world. And others are for rereading quotes from your favorite books to be reminded that there are wise humans out there, even when media shows you the opposite.

Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of columns from Dear Sugar, written by Cheryl Strayed. Cheryl has a way of sharing her point of view, making you question your beliefs without feeling judged. Always with empathy, often with humor. It runs through all of her books, but maybe this one, in particular, is good for when you have one of those days. You know, when you’re just wondering what on earth you’re doing with your life, really. Sugar has your back. (Also, while the podcast is no longer being recorded, the archive is gold.)

Trust yourself. It’s Sugar’s golden rule. Trusting yourself means living out what you already know to be true.

Which meant I had to write my book. My very possibly mediocre book. My very possibly never-going-to-be- published book. My absolutely nowhere-in-league-with-the-writers-I’d-admired-so-much-that-I-practically- memorized-their-sentences book. It was only then, when I humbly surrendered, that I was able to do the work I needed to do.

And it’s there that I recommend you begin. Every time you think I hate that fucking bitch, I want you to neutralize that thought with a breath. Calm your mind. Breathe in deeply with intention, then breathe out. Do not think I hate that fucking bitch while you do it. Give yourself that. Blow that bitch right out of your chest. Then move on to something else.

I’ve written often about how we have to reach hard in the direction of the lives we want, even if it’s difficult to do so. I’ve advised people to set healthy boundaries and communicate mindfully and take risks and work hard on what actually matters and confront contradictory truths and trust the inner voice that speaks with love and shut out the inner voice that speaks with hate.

Real change happens on the level of the gesture. It’s one person doing one thing differently than he or she did before.

How can it be that so many people’s ex-girlfriends are crazy? What happens to these women? Do they eventually go on to birth babies and care for their elderly parents and scramble up gigantic pans of eggs on Sunday mornings for oodles of lounge-abouts who later have the nerve to inquire about what’s for dinner, or is there some corporate Rest Home for Crazy Bitches chain in cities across the land that I am unaware of that houses all these women who used to love men who later claim they were actually crazy bitches?

Of himself Grant said, “I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be and I finally became that person. Or he became me. Or we met at some point.”

"I have to understand the world, you see."

One of my unexpected favorite reads this year was "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!": Adventures of a Curious Character. A biography from Richard Feynman, an American physicist you might have heard of.

Learn what the rest of the world is like. The variety is worthwhile.

I consider books worth recommending based on one of two things: it gave me something I’ll benefit from, or it was an incredible piece of art. This belongs in the former category. But it also happened to be one of the more amusing books I read this year, simply because Richard Feynman is a fascinating human who knows how to entertain. 

While it's easy to just read it like a collection of anecdotes, it also holds a lot of insights, stories that might just help you see life a little bit different. Here are a few highlights I enjoy going back to. 

So I found hypnosis to be a very interesting experience. All the time you’re saying to yourself, “I could do that, but I won’t”—which is just another way of saying that you can’t.
It was a brilliant idea: You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing.
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.
I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.

You don't have to be interested in physics to enjoy this. Just being a bit curious will be enough.

The art of asking

I’m not a Dresden Dolls fan, and before listening to the interview she did on Tim Ferris show I had never even heard of Amanda Palmer. But what she talks about in her book (also available more condensed as a TED Talk) struck a chord with me. How difficult it is to ask, and how valuable it is to learn. 

From what I’ve seen, it isn’t so much the act of asking that paralyzes us—it’s what lies beneath: the fear of being vulnerable, the fear of rejection, the fear of looking needy or weak.
— Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking

I was raised to be independent and that has been a huge part of how I define myself. Asking anything from anyone affected me on a scale from slight discomfort to physical pain. 

Just calling a friend to see if they want to hang out could feel like I was demanding too much. Having to ask for help when I was in real trouble, even worse. If I can't do everything by myself, what was I even worth? 

Yeah, I know, super healthy. I should probably point out that I have come a long way since those years of extreme anxiety. 

Whether it’s in the arts, at work, or in our relationships, we often resist asking not only because we’re afraid of rejection but also because we don’t even think we deserve what we’re asking for.

The Art of Asking is part a biography of an artist, with all that it entails. But reading it is also like having an honest conversation with a friend. Much of it feels obvious, but you know, sometimes you need to hear it in someone else's words for it to connect. 

And, some parts hits really close to home.

The problem was that I craved intimacy to the same burning degree that I detested commitment.”

”There’s really no honor in proving that you can carry the entire load on your own shoulders. And … it’s lonely.”

”And when you’re afraid of someone’s judgment, you can’t connect with them. You’re too preoccupied with the task of impressing them.

If asking makes you uncomfortable, or if you're struggling with vulnerability, this might be a good read for you. 

Asking is, at its core, a collaboration. 

Creativity, Inc

I have a weird way of sabotaging for myself when reading. Somewhere in my adult years, I got this idea that I had to have the perfect circumstances for reading quality books.

Meaning I can’t read when I’m tired, or stressed, or when I only have a few minutes on my hands. “I won’t be able to understand and remember”, I thought to myself.

I don’t know where I picked up this stupid habit but has done zero good for me, so I decided, fuck it, I’m gonna read whenever, wherever, as Shakira would say. (How’s that for a super old reference?)

Creativity, Inc

One of the books I’ve been putting off with that excuse is Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration.

Ed Catmull is currently in my top five people I would love to meet. I think we (meaning mostly and probably only me) would have a lot of fun nerding out about management and how to build an environment that people are this excited to go to. His approach to building Pixar aligns very much with how I dream of running a company. Thinking long-term, putting people first, try new things while always contemplating and evaluating the result.

Since my company currently consist of one person (hello 🙋🏻‍♀️) I can't test these theories in full, but in my project manager role I can definitely draw inspiration from it. Here are few nuggets I’m taking with me from this book.

This should be a goal of every leadership role.

My aim at Pixar—and at Disney Animation, which my longtime partner John Lasseter and I have also led since the Walt Disney Company acquired Pixar in 2006—has been to enable our people to do their best work.

People are everything

[…] you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better. The takeaway here is worth repeating: Getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the ideas right.
That means it is better to focus on how a team is performing, not on the talents of the individuals within it. A good team is made up of people who complement each other. There is an important principle here that may seem obvious, yet—in my experience—is not obvious at all. Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea.

So important, and so commonly overlooked.

A catchy mantra can do more damage than good

Parroting the phrase “Story Is King” at Pixar didn’t help the inexperienced directors on Toy Story 2 one bit. What I’m saying is that this guiding principle, while simply stated and easily repeated, didn’t protect us from things going wrong. In fact, it gave us false assurance that things would be okay.
People glom onto words and stories that are often just stand-ins for real action and meaning.

Fail and fail fast

Andrew is fond of saying that people need to be wrong as fast as they can. In a battle, if you’re faced with two hills and you’re unsure which one to attack, he says, the right course of action is to hurry up and choose. If you find out it’s the wrong hill, turn around and attack the other one.

Everyone (at least in my internet neighborhoods) subscribes to the “fail fast” principle. So do I. But it's one thing to know the theory, acting accordingly is a whole different cookie.

If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders especially, this strategy—trying to avoid failure by outthinking it—dooms you to fail. As Andrew puts it, “Moving things forward allows the team you are leading to feel like, ‘Oh, I’m on a boat that is actually going towards land.’ As opposed to having a leader who says, ‘I’m still not sure. I’m going to look at the map a little bit more, and we’re just going to float here, and all of you stop rowing until I figure this out.’ And then weeks go by, and morale plummets, and failure becomes self-fulfilling. People begin to treat the captain with doubt and trepidation.

I love this way of explaining it.

The principle I’m describing here—iterative trial and error—has long-recognized value in science. When scientists have a question, they construct hypotheses, test them, analyze them, and draw conclusions—and then they do it all over again. The reasoning behind this is simple: Experiments are fact-finding missions that, over time, inch scientists toward greater understanding. That means any outcome is a good outcome, because it yields new information.


Wording matters (in case you didn’t know)

“Sometimes in meetings, I sense people seizing up, not wanting to even talk about changes,” he says. “So I try to trick them. I’ll say, ‘This would be a big change if we were really going to do it, but just as a thought exercise, what if ...’ Or, ‘I’m not actually suggesting this, but go with me for a minute ...’ If people anticipate the production pressures, they’ll close the door to new ideas—so you have to pretend you’re not actually going to do anything, we’re just talking, just playing around. Then if you hit upon some new idea that clearly works, people are excited about it and are happier to act on the change.”

A small change in phrasing can make a huge difference.

It’s not all simple

But when it comes to randomness, our desire for simplicity can mislead us. Not everything is simple, and to try to force it to be is to misrepresent reality.

Excellence over structure

By insisting on the importance of getting our ducks in a row early, we had come perilously close to embracing a fallacy. Making the process better, easier, and cheaper is an important aspiration, something we continually work on—but it is not the goal. Making something great is the goal.
“I’m a firm believer in the chaotic nature of the creative process needing to be chaotic. If we put too much structure on it, we will kill it. So there’s a fine balance between providing some structure and safety—financial and emotional—but also letting it get messy and stay messy for a while. To do that, you need to assess each situation to see what’s called for. And then you need to become what’s called for.”

An easy trap to fall into. Focusing all your energy on a magical solution of structure that will solve all problems, effectively draining the creativity out of everyone and in the end not solving anything. It's also difficult to argue with - it always sounds good. "This will make working easier for everyone and let us focus on creating", but in reality, we're just chasing a utopia.

Note to self (and everyone I know)

There is nothing quite as effective, when it comes to shutting down alternative viewpoints, as being convinced you are right.

Include people in your problems

“People want decisiveness, but they also want honesty about when you’ve effed up,” as Andrew says. “It’s a huge lesson: Include people in your problems, not just your solutions.”
Careful “messaging” to downplay problems makes you appear to be lying, deluded, ignorant, or uncaring. Sharing problems is an act of inclusion that makes employees feel invested in the larger enterprise.

Read if ...

I have about seventy more highlights from the book, and I will make a habit of coming back to them on a regular basis. Definitely worth reading if you're working in a management role or are just the teeny tiniest bit interested in company culture. 

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

When listening to a professor of physics talking about quantum mechanics makes you want to press pause, so you can curl up on the sofa with a blanket and a cup of tea before you continue, it's clear you need to hear more from the said professor. 

Ever since we discovered that the Earth is round and turns like a mad spinning-top we have understood that reality is not as it appears to us: every time we glimpse a new aspect of it, it is a deeply emotional experience. Another veil has fallen.

Since that was my reaction when listening to the interview with Carlo Rovelli on On Being, I bought his book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics before I even finished the episode. 

The reason for this is that before experiments, measurements, mathematics and rigorous deductions, science is above all about visions. Science begins with a vision. Scientific thought is fed by the capacity to ‘see’ things differently than they have previously been seen.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics is, obviously, about physics. But it reads like a love letter to science. You can tell every word is carefully chosen. If you read it in one go, you could finish it in a couple of hours, but you don't want that. You'll want to savor it. 

Here, in the vanguard, beyond the borders of knowledge, science becomes even more beautiful – incandescent in the forge of nascent ideas, of intuitions, of attempts. Of roads taken and then abandoned, of enthusiasms. In the effort to imagine what has not yet been imagined.

It gives you background and context for big breakthroughs in physics. For someone who has only a vague understanding of the basic concepts, I was impressed with how accessible it was. Carlo makes complex ideas easy to understand and he does it with a beautiful language. 

Quantum mechanics and experiments with particles have taught us that the world is a continuous, restless swarming of things; a continuous coming to light and disappearance of ephemeral entities. A set of vibrations, as in the switched-on hippy world of the 1960s. A world of happenings, not of things.

Read if you want a well-written introduction to spark your curiosity for physics. Or just to enjoy good writing explaining the world we live in.