Mental Pivot #56: The Messy Middle
An owl and an emblematic meme, the actionable power of specificity, and coming to grips with an overabundance of digital media.
The draw an owl meme is a personal favorite, a tongue-in-cheek guide for aspiring avian artists:
At one level, it’s an ode to the absurdity of incomplete instructions. After all, turning a pair of circles into a realistic owl drawing is—at first glance—patently ridiculous.
The humor at the heart of the owl meme owes much to its glaring omission. We’re presented with a clear starting point (the circles) and a satisfying outcome (the fully rendered bird), but what about all the details that come in between? How the heck do you get from A to B? What happened to the middle?
The image is emblematic of the way many of us—myself included—approach new projects or endeavors. Beginnings and endings are fun, satisfying, and relatively easy. They’re sexy and exciting to talk and think about.
But middles? Yeesh. Who wants to talk about them? Middles are fear-inducing. Middles represent experimentation, trial-and-error, uncertainty, effort, repetition, self-doubt, toil, failure, and painstaking progress. It’s no wonder that a range of people, from novelists to entrepreneurs, frequently refer to the middle phase of any endeavor as “the messy middle.” Middles are messy, chaotic, stressful, and hard.
I imagine my fear of middles is why so many of my personal projects remain half-baked.
I can draw two circles any day of the week, literally or figuratively, to start a new project. When I purchase a book and don’t bother to read it and digest the lessons between the pages, I’m drawing circles. When I spend money on designing a new logo for a yet-to-be-developed business, I’m drawing circles. When I order a 10-pound tub of whey protein but neglect to so much as glance at the weights sitting idle in my rack, I’m drawing circles. And you better believe that, for each aforementioned example, I already have a tantalizing outcome dancing in my head.
It took me a long time to realize that the responsibility for figuring out the middle is on me. Even if the owl meme included meticulous, step-by-step instructions, I’d still have to put in the effort to effectively interpret and execute that template.
In a way, I prefer the absent instructions of the meme. It mirrors life itself; many things aren’t delivered with a complete set of instructions—LEGO and IKEA kits excepted.
Ultimately, the meme’s punchline reveals an important bit of wisdom: the middle is where the magic happens.
Those who can navigate the middle and bridge that vast chasm from start to finish get to complete the proverbial owl. The rest of us are stuck drawing circles whilst chuckling at the absurdity of it all.
Now onto this week's recommendations…
Advice Gets Good When It Gets Specific: David Cain reminds us of the power of specificity over the general. Specific advice offers a narrow set of actions or precise set of goals to contend with. In the author’s case, when learning penmanship as a child, being told that the bottom of each letter should touch the blue line was far more helpful than being told to pay better attention to his lettering.
What Impossible Meant to Richard Feynman: Scientist Paul J. Steinhardt fondly recounts his experiences with the legendary physicist and Nobel laureate. “Impossible, when used by Feynman, did not necessarily mean ‘unachievable’ or ‘ridiculous.’ Sometimes it meant, ‘Wow! Here is something amazing that contradicts what we would normally expect to be true. This is worth understanding!”
When and What to Celebrate: Sam Harris (not the American neuroscientist) writes about achievement, the danger of social comparison, and not forgetting to celebrate our wins—no matter how small. In addition to being a friend, Sam is a true renaissance man. Alongside his new newsletter (see above link), he also hosts the Growth Mindset podcast, the Wiser than Yesterday podcast (which discusses non-fiction books), and runs a wonderful podcast social network, Reason.fm.
Why Rich People Avoid Consumerism: Darius Foroux drops financial truth-bombs: “Most people don’t own income-producing or liquid assets. Most people own products and debt.”
Who Gives the Best Feedback?: Feedback is an essential way to improve and get better—especially when building or creating something new. John Sillings offers a taxonomy and ranking for the different people who can offer feedback and the quality of that feedback.
A Hotel Housekeeper on Her Life and Work: Maddy Crowell profiles the career of Vida Afram, who has worked at Manhattan’s Sixty SoHo Hotel for two decades. “These women are often doing labor that is precarious, invisible, and taken for granted. Even today, housekeeping is based on this notion of invisibility…”
A Utopia of Useful Things: Optimistic faith in material abundance is not unique to the present-day zeitgeist. This excerpt from a new book by Michael Rawson explores the steam-powered, starry-eyed future envisioned by our 19th century forebears (along with some amusing parallels with the present).
The Financialization of Everything: Rex Woodbury frames the emergence of “Web 3.0” as a period of innovation in which everyone is an investor, social capital becomes economic capital, and people are literally becoming investment securities themselves (as recounted by in the story of a person tokenizing himself last year). Note: Web 1.0 was about the flow of information (think Google, Wikipedia), Web 2.0 was the age of the social web (e.g., Facebook). Rex’s newsletter, Digital Native, which examines emergent digital trends, is a personal favorite.
Overloaded: Is There Is Simply Too Much Culture?: Anne Helen Peterson confronts the reality of media abundance. Pre-2012, she was able to keep up with all the good TV shows, movies, and music. But in the past decade, with the vast flowering of media and the diversity of choices, it’s become impossible. Thankfully, Peterson finds acceptance and comfort with this new reality—it’s something I imagine we all struggle with to some degree.
The Universal Structure of Storytelling: An article excerpted from Jonathan Gottschall’s latest book, The Story Paradox: “The unstoppable moralism of stories has a big upside for within-group bonding. But the universal grammar of stories can also be paranoid and vindictive.”
Odds & Ends:
Darebee is a database of hundreds of workouts. The focus is on bodyweight exercises, but there are some routines that use equipment (dumbbells, jump rope, etc.). The site is well-organized and has something for just about any fitness goal. Bonus: the company is a non-profit, so users get to enjoy ZERO advertising or product placements (the bane of many fitness-related offerings).
Paul Graham 101 is a resource created by Jaakko Järviniemi that distills the essential teachings from Paul Graham (founder of tech incubator, Y Combinator). For instance, you’ll find Graham’s startup advice condensed to 13 key points. In addition, there are summaries of Graham’s ideas on thinking, decision-making, and life in general. The website reminds me of Eric Jorgenson’s project in which he did the same to summarize the writings of Naval Ravikant (founder of AngelList).
Years You Have Left to Live, Probably is a simulation by Nathan Yau that looks at your life expectancy range and returns a set of probabilities, by decade, for how many years you have left to live (based on only the input of age and sex). The fat part of the curve looked ok on my simulation, so I’m not stressing out too much on this one.
The Sample: A newsletter discovery tool. Based on your interests and feedback, The Sample sends a new newsletter recommendation to your inbox on a daily or weekly basis.
The Veggie Digest: A weekly newsletter about the latest trends in sustainable food innovation. My daughter, an environmental policy student, writes it and I periodically contribute to it.
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Nice to reflect that we probably fool ourselves about new projects as much as the people offering an overly simple 'how-to'. I think there is so many examples of things where we get bored by the details in even trying to understand.
Basically we love a montage and thats what we want for our own pursuits as well (travel, exercise, work, skills).
And thanks for the shout out!