So You Want to Draw

Learning to draw seems to be one of those items that a ton of people never check off their bucket lists. I’ve met a lot of people who say they’d love to learn to draw, but very few who’ve actually done it. It’s not like they tried and failed, they just didn’t try.

What is it about art that makes this the case? There are a lot of people who’ve never tried to program, because they think it’s too hard, or because they subconsciously think of technology as magic, or something, but these people aren’t wandering around telling me they would love to learn to code. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who say they’d love to go to Europe, but they usually have a definite plan to achieve that goal.

But art is this weird middle-ground; why is that? Maybe, it’s because nobody knows where to start. I’ve written already about how nobody really knows how art works, and I think that’s a lot of the reason for this problem. Still, I haven’t given an explanation of how exactly to get started. So that’s what I’ll be doing today.

The physical components to learning to draw are infinitely easier than the mental ones. In terms of physical actions, all drawing involves is picking up a pencil and a piece of paper and putting one against the other. Mentally, it’s not that easy.

The first mental hurdle you have to get over is to stop worrying about how exactly you’ll bridge the gap between stick figures and portraits. The actual answer is incremental improvement based on iterative comparisons between your art and reality, but you’re never going to get around to doing that if you worry about it.

Think about how you go about getting stronger. You go to the gym. You lift whatever weight you can handle and do as many reps as you can. You go home. You come back to the gym. You lift whatever weight you can handle and do as many reps as you can. You go home. You do this every single day for years. Art works the same way.

That’s really all there is to it. Incremental improvement by putting in a small amount of effort every single day. Here, look at the difference in my art over five years.

The next mental hurdle is getting over the assumption that your art needs to be perfect. When a kid starts drawing, they don’t have that problem; they just don’t think about it. When I started drawing, I wasn’t trying to impress anybody, I just wanted to get better for my own personal benefit. But as adults, we’re a lot more self-conscious than that.

A great trick to help you get over that self-consciousness is to think, “well, that didn’t work.” When (not if, when) you mess up a drawing, or you do something with it that you didn’t like, don’t beat yourself up. Here’s a very recent example. Two weeks ago, I did a watercolor painting of the scene from my back porch. There were supposed to be some hills with trees on them and a house. And oh my god, was it awful. I put way too much paint on my brush, and as a result, the colors were blotchy and the textures and depth vanished entirely. It looked like a shitty backdrop for a childrens’ school play.

But I didn’t beat myself up. Actually, when I came home from class that day (I did this painting for an art class which I’m using as a humanities elective for my degree), I grabbed my terrible painting and I systematically went and found every member of my household so I could show it to them. “Want to see my awful painting?” I asked. Everybody said yes, and everybody laughed at it. I laughed too. It was funny. My brother told me the house I had painted looked like a boat. I laughed harder at that. And the next week, I went back to class, I painted the same scene using oil paints instead of watercolors, and it looked much better.


If you can do these two things—draw every day and don’t worry about messing up—I guarantee you will become a good artist. Still, I’ve got a little bit more info for you today. Here are some Art Tips™ that I’ve learned over the years from fellow artists.

#1: Draw what you see, not what you think you see. This one comes from my dad, one of my art role models growing up. He has this astonishing ability to say things that seem completely useless, but are actually incredibly crucial. This phrase is one of those.

Basically, it means “don’t let your brain, which knows how an object is shaped in three dimensional space, mess with your eyes, which are seeing things in only two dimensions at the moment, since seeing things as they are in two dimensions is crucial to drawing on a two-dimensional piece of paper.” You know that the door is a rectangle, whether it’s open or shut, but don’t let that mess with the fact that when it’s open and facing you, it looks like a trapezoid.

To help you actually implement this advice, try to take your pencil and hold it up in front of reality. Trace the outlines of the thing you want to draw and note the movement of your pencil. It may turn out that the thing you thought was flat is actually not, the thing you thought was long is actually short, etc.

#2: Draw, trace, draw again. I don’t know a single artist who can draw everything with no effort. Every artist has things they’re good at and things they suck at. To help you out with things you suck at, try this.

First, find a photograph of the thing you suck at drawing. Look at the photo, then try to draw the thing. When you’re done with that drawing, put it aside. Next, print out the photo and trace it, in as much detail as you want. When you’re done, put it aside. Finally, do the first step again. Now compare the three drawings. The third one is probably way better than the first.

The act of tracing from reality let you figure out where everything is in relation to everything else and gave you a better understanding of the two-dimensional shape of the thing.

The only thing I’d like to note here is that you shouldn’t use this as a crutch if you’re a beginning artist: there are way more things in the real world around you that you can draw than there are photographs on the internet, and if you really want to practice drawing you should learn to draw from life.

#3: Utilize tutorials. One of the best ways to get advice from artists who you can’t talk to personally is to read and watch tutorials. It helps you to incorporate other artists’ drawing styles into your own. The only problem with art tutorials is that some of them suck, and this can really screw up beginner artists.

Here’s an example of a good tutorial (source: Tumblr). Look at how this tutorial is structured. “Backgrounds generally work like this. Here’s some advice about drawing characters with and without backgrounds. Here are some tips about coloring. Here are some examples from my personal portfolio.” Overall, this artist leaves a ton of the actual art up to you, and simply communicates something they think is important and relevant.

Here’s an example of, if not a strictly bad tutorial, a very mediocre one. Do you see the difference? Instead of providing a loose structure and some advice, this tutorial marches you in lock-step through a pre-defined set of steps. The absolute best thing that can happen with a tutorial like this is the artist comes out of it knowing how to draw one single character in one pose with one expression, with no clue how to generalize that knowledge to anything else. But even that doesn’t happen very often: frequently, a beginning artist gets stuck on one or more of these predefined steps (for example, the eyes or hair, both of which are complicated), and comes out with a mediocre drawing that they don’t like, and with no real knowledge gained.

When you begin drawing, try to avoid lock-step tutorials in favor of loose advice-giving tutorials. You’ll learn more, and you’ll be less frustrated.

#4: Don’t worry about developing an art style. You will develop an art style. It is not optional.

This is because each person views the world (not philosophically, but with your actual eyes) differently: we notice different things, perceive colors differently, etc. And since you view the world differently from everyone else, your art will be different from everyone else’s. Nobody else could create your art because nobody else sees the world exactly like you.

I’ve noticed that a lot of beginner artists look at the styles of artists they admire and they worry about how they’re going to develop their own art style. This partially goes back to “don’t worry about how to get there, just put in the reps every day”, but they also don’t realize that they have an art style by virtue of having eyes and a brain.

If you really want to work hard at developing an art style you like, though, try this. Occasionally, imitate the styles of artists you admire. Because you have no choice but to draw in your style, by imitating their style, you’ll be incorporating both styles together.

Alright, that’s it for today! A lot of these tips are things I wish I had known when I started drawing, so I hope they were helpful to you.

Why to Start Early: An Example from My Youth

When I got my first job at the age of fifteen, I’d already had seven years of volunteer experience. I didn’t know that this was unusual at the time – after all, my siblings and many of my friends had this too. I’ve since realized not only was it unusual, it was awesome.

For some time, my family has been running a learn-to-ice-skate program in Schenley Park, PA. (I’ll be colloquially calling it Schenley from here on out. It’s what we call it in my house.) In many respects, it’s a pretty standard learn-to-skate thing: we’ve got 10 lessons over 10 weeks from December to February, our instructors are volunteers from my skating club, we teach anybody over the age of 3, and we follow the standard United States Figure Skating (USFS) approved curriculum, with minor variation.

The only notable difference is that we have no age prerequisite to be a teacher. Our only prerequisite is skating skill: we require instructors to have passed the pre-preliminary field moves test, which basically just makes sure our instructors are much better skaters than the students they’re teaching.

This means that we regularly have instructors who are as young as 6 or 7. You may think this is a recipe for disaster and chaos, but actually, both our program and the kids get a ton of benefit from this arrangement.

When we take on any new instructor, of any age, we start them teaching “tots” – toddlers <5. We frequently have a large number of tots, who are completely incapable of doing anything as a cohesive group, so having as many instructors as possible teaching tots is important. However, it takes almost zero skill to play with toddlers, and that’s essentially what we’re doing (just on the ice, the goal is to get the kids used to being on skates).

As it turns out, 6 and 7-year-olds are actually brilliant for this. If you pair them up one-to-one, a bunch of young children teaching a bunch of even younger children actually works incredibly well, for a number of reasons.

First of all, children are so much more capable than modern society gives them credit for. If you expect a young kid to be responsible enough to help teach tots to skate, they’ll rise to the challenge. I’ve seen this over and over again, with so many kids. They come to us at the age of 6, 7, 8, hesitant and not knowing what to do, having no experience with being taken seriously, and we say “there’s your group, go and help teach them how to fall properly”. And they do it! Not only do they do it, they do it really well!

In a way, children are better at teaching tots than adults, because they themselves were tots not too long ago, so it’s much easier for them to intuitively understand how best to teach them. Adults have more capacity for complex thought, and we can frequently let that cloud our perception of young childrens’ behavior, attributing much more intent to childrens’ decisions than the children actually had. The children themselves don’t have that problem.

In addition to giving kids responsibility from very early on, volunteering at Schenley lets them improve their own basic skating skills by virtue of teaching them. The best way to learn is, as they say, to teach, and these kids (who are all ice skaters) are teaching ice skating fundamentals.

Still, I think the coolest part of the way we run Schenley comes after someone’s been at it for a while. As a young kid gets more experience with teaching tots (and simultaneously gets older and acquires more skating skill), they can take on larger classes, higher levels, and more responsibility. They go from teaching one toddler to 5, 10, 20 kids; from teaching how to fall down and stand back up to more advanced skills like gliding on one foot, jumping, and skating backward; and from merely showing up and helping teach the lesson to helping organize materials and coordinating with other instructors.

And after having worked with us for years, a 16-year-old can look back and say, with complete and total honesty, that they have ten years of experience working somewhere. At a time when many young adults are just starting their first jobs, a teen having an entire decade of work experience, even as a volunteer, is huge. Since entry-level jobs are an area where soft skills are arguably more important than literally anything else, the kids who’ve worked with us are more prepared than most others.

I don’t just see kids doing this. I was a kid doing this. And honestly, working as a volunteer skating coach for so long was one of the best things I’d done with my childhood. I had the opportunity to do something valuable from a very young age, and I’m immensely grateful.

But it wasn’t anything special about Schenley. Coaching ice skating doesn’t magically create capable children and accomplished young adults. The important part was starting kids at doing something useful (that they could handle, of course) very young, and then progressively giving them more responsibility as they could handle it.

If you have kids, try to find a place like Schenley. Or, even better, make one. Very young kids can do household chores, address envelopes, and organize files. The key is to not give them make-work. The work needs to actually be useful, even in a small way; they will know their work really matters to somebody or not. And as they’re able to do more useful things, let them. Maybe a three-year-old can’t do the dishes, but a ten-year-old certainly can. Lastly, don’t worry if they’re in over their head a little bit. If they can’t really do the thing, as their parent, you’re there to help them out. But on the other hand, you don’t know for sure. Maybe they’ll surprise you. I think fifteen-year-old me surprised my mom by building Speset.

If you run a volunteer organization, seriously consider removing age requirements if a skill requirement is all you need. Young kids are an immensely under-utilized resource in modern society, and you can benefit greatly from utilizing them. And perhaps more importantly, the kids themselves will benefit from it. After all, the next generation is our future, and all that jazz.

See you tomorrow!

The War of Art: Review, Notes, and Doodles

Recently, my pals at Praxis sent me a book called The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. I read it through in an afternoon, because I have exactly zero impulse control when it comes to good books.

It was both brilliant and stupid. There were several pages in a row during which I chanted “yes yes yes yes” aloud. There were also several pages that left me thinking “is that really necessary?” And then there were the rest of the pages, which all pretty much left me going “yeah, alright, that makes a lot of sense.” Overall, it’s a good book.

One of the biggest reasons that I think it’s a good book is because the things I liked and didn’t like have much more to do with me than with the book. My general life philosophy is heavily based on two things: the WYSIWYG rationality Eliezer Yudkowsky lays out on his blog Less Wrong and in his book Rationality: From AI to Zombies; and the cheerful, playful discovery one understands immediately upon reading anything written by Richard Feynman.

Given that, you can pretty much predict the parts of this book that I especially like: they’re the ones about the difference between humanism and fundamentalism (found on pages 34-37 of the print copy). For example: “[The artist’s] faith is that humankind is advancing, however haltingly and imperfectly, toward a better world. The fundamentalist entertains no such notion. … The truth is not out there awaiting revelation; it has already been revealed. The word of God has been spoken and recorded by His prophet, be he Jesus, Muhammad, or Karl Marx.”

You can also predict the parts I kind of dislike: mainly, the assumption in the third section that all things that happen subconsciously are due to some outside force, higher plane, etc. For example: “What Blake means by ‘eternity’ [when he wrote that ‘Eternity is in love with the creations of time’], I think, is the sphere higher than this one, a plane of reality superior to the material dimension in which we dwell. In ‘eternity’, there is no such thing as time (or Blake’s syntax wouldn’t distinguish it from ‘eternity’) and probably no space either. This plane may be inhabited by higher creatures. Or it may be pure consciousness or spirit. But whatever it is, according to Blake, it’s capable of being ‘in love’.”

But the thing is, if you’re a different kind of person than me, you’ll prefer different parts of this book. That’s what marks it as good. Every person can get value from it.

That said, here’s what this book does.

It shatters you into a million pieces, names the pieces, and teaches you how to interact with each one for optimal creative productivity. One piece, the author calls Resistance. Another, the Ego. Still others, the Self, the Unconscious, angels, muses. It’s an extremely intuitive explanation, and when interacting with your own brain, objectivity is less important than subjectivity. Regardless of whether or not you are a mere conduit for creative forces which mostly exist outside of you, thinking that way will help you both be more humble about and distance your ego from your craft.

This book doesn’t tell you what’s true. But it does tell you how to think about yourself and your work. That’s just as valuable.

In case you’re still not convinced to pick this up and read it, here are the opening words of the book, where he describes the primary enemy, not just of artists and creatives, but of people everywhere: Resistance.

“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.

“Have you ever brought home a treadmill and let it gather dust in the attic? Ever quit a diet, a course of yoga, a meditation practice? … Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.”

Now that (I hope) I’ve convinced you to go read this, let me share one more thing with you before I leave off for today.

Some time ago, I read an article about why you should write in books. I can’t find the article, which leads me to believe that I probably read it for the SAT and that’s why it’s so damn obscure, but regardless, I read that article and now I always read with a pencil in hand.

Because I’m an artist, I don’t just write in margins, I draw. If I’ve got a verbal thought, I put a note down; if I’ve got a visual thought, I put a drawing down. Some books don’t have enough white space for my margin doodles to be any good, but the structure of this book means it has a lot of white space, and as such, a lot of margin doodle room!

Alright, that’s it for today. Till tomorrow, ciao!

Why You Should Work in Your Spare Time

Picture this. You’re waiting. For something, it doesn’t matter what. Maybe it’s at the doctor’s office, maybe you’re early for a meeting. What do you do in those spare minutes? If you’re like most people, you probably pull out your phone and play some mindless game, or check social media.

Now let me ask you a question. Are you really having fun? When you do those little things, play that mindless game, check that feed, does that count as entertainment in your mind? Does it feel like free time? Probably not, and here’s why.

There’s a practice designed to help people improve their eating habits, called “mindful eating”. It’s a very simple concept: while you’re eating, you should focus on that and nothing else. It helps people lose weight, eat more healthfully, and more. Because if you don’t focus on what you’re eating, you come out of a meal feeling like you haven’t really eaten. Here’s a good graphical explanation.

There’s a similar concept with free time. I don’t think anyone’s coined a term, so I’ll call it “mindful free time”. It works the same way: if you don’t focus on your free time, you go back to work feeling like you never really had a break. Minutes have passed, but you don’t feel relaxed or happy.

The difference between mindful free time and mindful eating is in the solutions. In the case of mindful eating, the solution is to pay attention to what you eat. But in the case of mindful free time, the solution is to stop trying to fit your free time into spare moments.

When you actually have free time, such as when you get home from work, focus on it. Do something you really enjoy: read a book, write a book, play a video game, code a video game, whatever floats your boat. But when you don’t really have meaningful free time (i.e., when you’re waiting for something), don’t bother with meaningless distractions that don’t really make you happy.

Instead, do work. In the same way that free time in spare moments doesn’t feel like free time, work in spare moments doesn’t feel like work. When I was in school, I would bring a textbook or some flashcards to a restaurant waiting area and study as I sat. I looked like an overachiever, but really, I just knew about mindful free time. All I ever wanted while waiting was to not be bored, and work occupied my mind just as much as any phone game, so it was good enough for me.

It’s still good enough for me. I bring my laptop and I work on a blog post, or I write a bit of code, or I read my fellow Praxis participants’ posts and give them feedback. Working in spare moments is not only the domain of overachievers and hyper-busy people: it’s the domain of all of us, if only we seize it. I invite you to do so: you won’t feel any busier, and you’ll get a lot more done.

How to Not Write Academically

I’ve discussed before that English classes and tests through high school and college don’t measure how good you are at real writing. They measure how good you are at academic writing. As such, if your only experience with writing comes from English classes, your writing is probably very academic. Unless you’re looking to be a professor or researcher, you probably don’t want that, because you probably know that academic writing is generally boring to write and to read. Still, it’s hard to know what the hallmarks of academic writing are, or how to stop.

Today I’ll be telling you what academic writing looks like in detail, as well as how to stop doing the academic thing and start doing the real writing thing. I’ll also give some general writing tips and ways to “find your voice”, or, find your own unique and interesting way of writing.

One of the most common things I’ve seen from people who were taught to write academically is that they never use contractions. Things like “I’ve”, “don’t”, “it’s”, etc. Not using contractions is an easy way to add extra words and sound more formal, and given the word count minimums in many English classes, plus the formal tone of most academic writing, it can be easy for students to fall into this trap. The grammarians are up in the air as to whether or not contractions should be used in formal writing, but the agreement is that for informal writing (blog posts, for example), it’s completely fine.

Here’s another one: excessively complicated sentences, or passive voice. I group these together since they often combine to create a monster of incomprehensibility. When you’re trying to convey complex thoughts, it can be easy to let your sentences become complex as well, but for the sake of your reader, try to write as simply as you can. There are two simple hacks for this: use the passive voice as little as possible, and break your sentences when you can.

For example, let’s take what I wrote above: “try to write as simply as you can”. It’s in the active voice, it’s simple, and it says exactly what you should do. In a sentence that’s already pretty long, the simple phrase wraps it up. By contrast, if I’d said, “writing as simply as possible is important”, is in the passive voice, it’s complicated, and it’s not immediately actionable.

Here’s yet another one: academic writers don’t start sentences with conjunctions. Overall, a lot of people have the mistaken impression that using words like “and”, “but”, “so”, etc. at the beginnings of sentences is poor grammar, but actually, all major style guides say otherwise. The only reason almost everyone thinks it’s wrong is because we were taught so in school: evidently sometime in the 19th century, “some schoolteachers took against the practice of beginning a sentence with a word like but or and, presumably because they noticed the way young children overused them in their writing. But instead of gently weaning the children away from overuse, they banned the usage altogether! Generations of children were taught they should ‘never’ begin a sentence with a conjunction. Some still are.” (source)

Those four things are, I’ve found, the most common ways that people write academically by accident. Even so, there are a huge number of others, and which ones you in particular tend to use depends on who taught you English and how you learned. How do you get completely out of the academic writing mindset if you’re not sure exactly what you’re doing wrong?

I’ve got a simple trick for you that not only will help you stop writing academically, it will also help you find your voice (your unique way of writing). First, write something on a topic you know well. Then wait a while, probably a day or so, until you forget the specific words and phrases you used. Then, record yourself talking about the same topic and transcribe the audio. Finally, compare the two. How is your spoken word different from your written one?

You’ll probably find some obvious differences, like when you talk, you stutter and say “um” a lot more. But you’ll probably also find a lot of non-obvious differences. Maybe your writing sounds verbose and stuffy since you use words you never use when you talk. Maybe there are colloquialisms you use when you talk that you don’t use in writing. Maybe there’s something else entirely. Whatever it is, you’ll find out, and then you can use your own judgement as to how much of your speaking style you want to add to your writing.

For further reading, John T. Reed makes a lot of the same points in his book, Succeeding.

A lot of people accidentally fall into the trap of writing academically, since that’s almost exclusively what our public school system teaches. But if you can realize when you’re doing it and if you know how to stop, you can break the habit, and find your own unique style. Write for your reader, not for your high school English teacher who neither matters nor cares anymore.

Don’t Just Be The Best, Be The Nicest: The Importance of Soft Skills

Many people think that the best thing you can do if you want a job is to be better at the job description than anybody else. If it’s a sales job, be an amazing people person. If it’s a tech job, know more about computers than anybody else. And on one hand, this seems obvious. The most important part of a job is the job itself, anything else must be incidental. Right?

Surprisingly, no. Let me show you why.

My mother used to work in a big company with a sales team. And there was one guy in particular on this sales team, let’s call him Leonard.

Leonard was a very energetic and incredibly competent salesperson, who was very good at persuading. He did the mechanics of sales exceptionally well. He wasn’t brilliantly charismatic, but he was really, really good at the simple mechanics of selling. Prospecting, understanding politics within the prospect’s environment, getting in front of the right people at the right time… he was brutally competent.

The problem was, he knew it. To prospects, Leonard was charming. To people above him in the hierarchy, he was at least civil. But to everyone at his level or below him, he treated them like deficient peons. It was obvious he thought that he was so much better than them. He treated the back office and support staff as if they were his personal servants. Nobody inside the company liked him, but they had to be nice to him because he just Kept. Landing. Contracts. Over. And. Over.

The only reason nobody fired him was because he was literally twice as good as every other salesperson, combined. But if he ever slipped up, stopped being so gobstoppingly brilliant, or if the company ever found someone as good, he would absolutely be drop-kicked out the door in an instant.

Why is that? After all, isn’t your competency at the job description supposed to be the most important thing?

We all know instinctively what Leonard did wrong. He was a jackass. And if you’re a jackass, there is very little you can do to redeem yourself except be leaps and bounds better than literally everyone else, because that way the company can’t afford to get rid of you. We all also know instinctively, therefore, that your competency at the job description isn’t the single most important thing.

Still, we probably still think it’s one of the most important. Surely you’d choose someone who can do the job well over someone who can’t, even if the someone who can’t is cheerful, reliable, and hardworking, right?

No, not really. Here’s an example from my own experience in sales.

I’ve written before about my sales job, and the fact that I applied for it, got it, and had it for months despite being severely under-qualified in every notable area. Circa the time that I started the interview process, if you’d asked me what a sales funnel was, I wouldn’t have known. Not only that, I was super socially awkward.

Here’s why none of that mattered, why they hired me anyway, and why they proceeded to not fire me.

During every interview (there were three), I showed up ten minutes before I was supposed to be there. I was cheerful and enthusiastic. I wore my utter lack of sales knowledge on my sleeve, accompanied by a “but I’d love to learn!” and a big grin. As I moved through the interview process, I listened to sales podcasts when I drove. When I had down time, I read sales manuals like You Can’t Teach A Kid to Ride a Bike at a Seminar. I was determined to learn as much as I could before I even got the job. In my third interview, I asked the hiring manager for her suggestions for sales books. She suggested some. I read them.

After I got the job, whenever they taught me something, I would spend all my available down time practicing it. Listening to podcasts on drives turned into reciting my sales pitch. I continued to read sales manuals, now in the context of what I’d learned. And when I was working—aka, when I was walking around knocking on doors; this was a door-to-door kind of a sales job—I asked questions, I watched and learned from the better salespeople I shadowed, and I tried as hard as I could to make working with me easy. Essentially, I made up for my complete lack of charisma with a great attitude. In an environment like sales, where we had on-the-job training, that was the most important thing.

Both of my examples have been about sales so far, and while this has been a coincidence, it does mean that I need to explicitly note something here. While half of the important background for sales (namely, the understanding of how sales itself works) is commonly taught on the job, that’s not the case for a lot of other jobs. So, it’s important to note that unless you meet the bare-minimum prerequisites for the job in question, no amount of attitude will get you the job. Even the most cheerful prospective neurosurgeon won’t get the job unless they’ve got a medical degree.

Still, once you’ve reached that minimum level of competency, soft skills like punctuality, reliability, cheerfulness, willingness to learn, etc. become much more important. Companies frequently hire people (like me) who are objectively worse at the actual job, but who are more pleasant to work with.

All of that said, here are some of the top soft skills which are more important than your competency at the actual job.

  • Enthusiasm. Companies like nothing more than seeing that someone wants to work for them.
  • Willingness to learn. Especially if you’re under-qualified, but honestly in any circumstance, this one is important. This one is extra important if you’re planning on going into tech, just because of how fast the field moves: even if you knew everything there was to know yesterday, something might get invented today that’ll make that old knowledge useless.
  • Ability to take criticism and improve. This one goes hand in hand with the previous one, and is just as crucial.
  • Humility/kindness/otherwise being a nice human being. This one is a bit less important, because sweet people still get fired if they won’t learn and improve (since they’re a drain on the company), but if you’re already pretty good about learning, you’ll want to make sure people like you, too.
  • Working hard. Basically, make the absolute most of your time at the office, and feel free to take the job home, too. There are tons of people who refuse to take their work home (something about “work life balance”, which seems to mean “I’d rather watch TV than achieve my goals”), so you can get ahead of them by doing simple, easy stuff like listening to a podcast on your drive home instead of the radio.
  • Be willing to do the grunt work. Somebody has got to fetch the coffee, make the copies, move the furniture, order more sharpies, and organize the company lunch. If that person is you, then you have made yourself invaluable. If you think you should be “above” that kind of work, and so that person isn’t you, then it’s probably going to end up being the CEO, or the VP of something or another. Nobody is “above” grunt work. Forward Tilt actually has a great episode about this.

Everyone knows that all other things being equal, soft skills are important. If you’re just as competent as the next guy but you’re more fun to work with, you’ll probably get the job. But what most people don’t know is that all other things don’t even have to be equal. Companies hire people all the time who aren’t as competent, but are easier to work with. Obviously competence matters, but once you’re over the minimum competence level, soft skills matter more. Being more competent doesn’t necessarily make you more likely to get a job if you don’t have the soft skills.

Why You Should Do Athletics

I bet you think I’m going to say you should do athletics because it’ll keep you healthy and generally make your life better. Well, it will absolutely do that, but today, I’ll be talking about something else.

To start with, let me ask you a question. Do you know where your limits are?

Can you tell me what your physical limits are? How long can you hold your arms out to the sides? I’m not asking how long you can do it before it hurts. I’m not even asking how long you can do it before it hurts seemingly too much to bear. I’m asking how long you can hold them before your muscles physically give out and your arms drop limply to your sides.

How about your mental limits? What’s the most difficult problem you can solve? How long can you focus on a boring task? What about working in a team; what’s the most difficult project you’ve helped to complete?

These seem like personal questions, and they are. Fortunately for you, I’m not asking you to scream your answers from the rooftops, to tell them to me, or even to say them aloud to an empty room. I’m only asking you to consider whether or not you have answers, within the comfort and privacy of your own mind. The answer will tell you something important.

I recall a conversation I had with my fiancé. I was trying to explain how difficult a project I was working on was, and by way of trying to explain my level of mental exhaustion, I asked, “have you ever worked a muscle to failure?” It turned out that the answer was actually “no”, and I honestly didn’t know how to work with that.

It occurred to me then that an awful lot of people actually don’t know where their limits are, mentally or physically. They’ve never pushed themselves as hard as they possibly can. And because of this, people almost chronically underestimate themselves. If you don’t know the upper limit of what you’re capable of, you assume de facto that the best you have done is the best you can do.

But let me tell you something. The best you have done is not the best you can do. The best you have done is, at most, the best you think you can do. Your actual uppermost limit is probably much higher than anything you’ve done before.

If you get into a squat and hold it, you won’t feel anything at first. After that, you’ll start to feel a bit of a burn in your legs and core. If you hold it longer, the burning feeling will get progressively worse. Your legs might start to shake. If you keep it up long enough, you won’t be able to focus on anything other than the pain. Now, you might think this is your natural limit, but actually, it isn’t. Your mind might not be able to keep going, but your body certainly can. Your body doesn’t give up until your muscles literally do not have enough energy to keep holding the position, and if you can get all the way there, you’ll somewhat anticlimactically fall on your ass. That is your natural limit.

There’s a pretty big delta between the point at which you think you’ve hit your limit and the point at which you’ve actually done it. That delta is your untapped potential. It takes a lot of focus and raw chutzpah to access, and it requires pushing through a lot of pain, but you’ll realize that you can actually do a lot more than you thought. And in the process of working to failure, you’ll improve so much faster than someone who just gives up when it gets painful. The human body is not static; it improves based on what you throw at it. If more shit hits the fan, the fan gets stronger.

This isn’t just about sports and working out. People are pretty bad at finding their mental limits too, for the exact same reason: it becomes painful a long time before it becomes impossible, and a lot of people think massive pain and difficulty is their upper limit. But if you can focus and muster the chutzpah, the immensely difficult can become routine, because you can adapt and improve. Because the human mind is not static, either.

Why College Should Not Be Free

At the moment, there is a debate over whether or not college should be made free for everyone. And at first glance, the obvious answer is yes. College is outrageously expensive, and making it free would allow everyone access without forcing anyone into debt.

But there’s a presumption backing this “obvious” answer, and the presumption is that college is necessary. It would be perfectly reasonable in a context where the thing involved (i.e., food, clean water, etc.) is a basic human need, but college is not. I covered some of the reasons in my essay, I Am a Four-Year College Opt-Out—high monetary cost, high opportunity cost, lack of applicability of the coursework to the real world, etc.—but in essence, college is not the only path to success, and for many people, it’s not even a very good one.

But even if college isn’t necessary, what harm would it do for college to be free for those who want to attend? After all, debt is crippling the nation’s youth, and wouldn’t it be nice if that went away? Of course only a stingy old fart who doesn’t think young people “deserve” an education would say free college is bad, right? Why am I writing this essay?

To answer these questions, let me skip back in time and tell you a story. It is 1920. The uppermost level of compulsory education isn’t 12th grade, it is 8th. High school as we know it now does not exist; in its place sits something that looks more like college: an elite, expensive program which only accepts the top 5% of applicants. Because high schools only accept the very best, those who graduate are almost guaranteed high-paying jobs.

This began to change in 1954. Some guys saw all the high school graduates getting great jobs and had a bright idea. If we make high school free, they thought, then everyone will be able to get a high school education, and thus, a great job! The problem was that the only reason high school graduates had gotten great jobs was because of the rarity of their education. And over the next fifty years, as high school was made free and subsequently mandatory, a high school education became completely useless. The only thing gained was four more years of compulsory schooling before children, now more properly young adults, could begin working.

This has already happened before! This whole argument and discussion, should we take this elite program and make it free, of course we should because it’ll give everyone good jobs, it’s happened before! It will be just as ineffective this time as it was last time, because nothing has changed. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is still a logical fallacy, and people are still making it. In the exact same way as before. Those who fail to learn from history are, as they say, doomed to repeat it.

Now let me present a possible vision of the future. It is 2056. College has been made free and mandatory, and the little value it still had has been completely erased. The only thing gained has been four more years of compulsory schooling before young adults, now more properly adults, can begin working. The societal definition of “child” goes from “under 18” to “under 24”. The average human lifespan doesn’t change, it simply becomes normal that humans spend the first full quarter of their lives in the artificial school environment, which is just as pointless as ever: the students care as little about learning as the teachers care about teaching, nobody gets paid enough, and everyone is miserable. One day, a 24-year-old kid reads an article which says people are trying to make graduate school free, and she thinks, “Huh. That seems like a good idea. Then, everyone could have a good education for free.”

In writing this, I don’t want to cast my ballot on this issue as “the system is fine the way it is”, because the system is not fine. But the way to fix it is not to commit the same logical fallacy that we already made less than a century ago. The problem is complicated, and a complicated problem cannot be fixed with a three-word solution. “Make college free” is not the answer.

I hope this essay can open a discussion on the real answer. It will have to contain a solution to the college debt crisis. It will have to take into account the fact that our current public school system was designed to churn out good factory workers, despite the fact that we now need entrepreneurs instead. Preferably, it should contain a solution to the public school system’s current problem of not teaching important skills (how to pay taxes, what laws exist and how to change them, etc), but I know better than to get my hopes up. I’ll settle for just finding a way to teach skills that are legitimately important for purposes of starting a career, such as the importance of both cheerfulness and good writing. But even if this essay can do none of that, I hope that it at least made you consider this debate in a different light.

See you tomorrow.

English Classes Don’t Teach Writing, or, Why I’m Proud of My 3 on the AP English

I love to write. This is pretty obvious to anyone who knows me at all: the first paid work I did for someone outside my family was writing articles for SEO, I met my high school English requirements before I started 9th grade, and still I continued to write and read profusely and extensively throughout high school and college.

Writing for me has taken many forms. For long periods of time, I kept a daily journal. I wrote posts on many different blogs over time. I wrote long essays in the comments sections of YouTube videos, arguing with strangers. I’ve written everything from letters to politicians to novels.

I just write by virtue of existing. If I’ve got thoughts, they either come out of my mouth into the air or they come out of my fingers onto a keyboard. For the dramatic most part, I took no formal writing classes. I just read interesting stuff and I wrote what I thought, and I analyzed my writing in light of what I’d read to find ways to make it better.

And it was with that background that I signed up for the AP English Language and Composition. I was excited! I got to be in a class with tons of great writers, who loved to write just like I did! The syllabus included weekly the writing of a 2-3 page essay and the reading of 1-3 novellas! Honestly, it looked like a dream come true. If all writing classes are this awesome, why hadn’t I taken one sooner?

This enthusiasm continued throughout the first few weeks. At the time, I was also taking two other classes through the same online program, so I only took about two days to do the work. One day to read, and a second to write. I got good grades, and I was happy. My only minor quip was the fact that on our class homepage, my teacher posted the best essays for any given assignment. My essays were never on there.

I was a little bit bummed, but I figured, there had to be somebody better than me. And yet, when I downloaded their essays to try and learn from them, I noticed something very strange. Their essays all seemed to be clones of each other. They all followed basically the same formula, and it wasn’t even that interesting a formula. Besides their names printed at the top, there was no way for me to tell who’d written which essay. When I read books, I felt like the author was speaking to me in their own unique voice, conveying information that was important enough to them to have written a book about it. When I read my classmates’ essays, I just saw words.

I’d like to say I was completely disillusioned to the falseness of accomplishment in academic writing, and I went on to join such great writers as Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut in saying so. I wasn’t, and I didn’t. I was just confused.

The realization that getting good grades in an English class and being a good writer were totally different things didn’t come for me until many months later. In the meantime, I’d already begun to question what everyone in my life had been telling me for years: that I was a good writer. Over the course of the class, I didn’t just never get on the “best essays” list. I also got steadily worse grades. My literary analyses got bad marks. I occasionally got Bs on assignments. (Shut up, it was devastating at the time.)

As I do, I responded to all of this by buckling down and working harder. My two easy days for English class became three hard ones as I tried (and failed) to understand why my writing wasn’t good enough. My mental state was shot. I didn’t know what to think about myself. At the same time that my English class was telling me I was average at best, others continued to tell me that my writing was great. I started correcting them, because of course your English teacher knows more about good writing than your prospective audience. Who cares if it’s interesting, it got a B, so there must be something wrong with it.

But the class ended, and a few months passed. I kept writing, because that’s what I do, and I showed it to various people. Just like they’d been saying the whole time, they said it was great. And outside the environment of the class, I started to consider the concept that maybe the class wasn’t as important as I’d thought. After all, in real life, if you can captivate your audience with interesting work, what else is there? I got my final score on the AP test (think of it as a comprehensive final, and the only grade that matters; it’s scored on a bell curve from 1 at the lowest to 5 at the highest), and I got a 3. I wasn’t too surprised, but I also wasn’t too hurt.

At the time, I figured that I was just awful at rhetorical analysis, and that was the reason my score was low. It was a good reason for some time. But I’ve since realized that there’s a deeper problem going on here, and that is that good academic writing is not good writing.

Good academic writing feels impersonal, mostly because it’s wordy. Not in the sense that academics have a broader vocabulary, though most of them do; their sentences are just way too long for the thoughts they convey. Academic writing goes “During the upcoming period, this project will be continued”. Normal writing goes “This week I’ll continue my project”. The academic version has 1.5x the word count for the same thought, it’s in the passive voice, and it’s boring overall.

The purpose of all those words, so far as I can tell, is twofold. For one, it completely snuffs out the author’s individual voice and replaces it with the simple meaning of the words. And for another, it makes the writing super formal, because it overuses a construction that English-speakers use to make something more polite. For example: A rude apology is “Sorry.” A polite apology is “I’m so sorry, I wasn’t trying to hurt your feelings.” More words = more effort = more polite.

Plain old good writing, on the other hand, conveys a lot more about both the author and the subject. When an author lets themself write sentences like “I was excited!”, “Meh, it wasn’t a big deal”, “I was just confused”, and “Can you believe that?!”, it makes it way more obvious what the author is feeling. It makes it obvious that the essay didn’t just apparate into existence, somebody had to write it.

The main problem with using AP English as a gauge of my writing wasn’t that it isn’t a good gauge; it’s fine. It’s just a gauge of the wrong thing. AP English is designed to prepare students for academic writing (because the classes are designed by academics, so their subject matter is disproportionately biased towards things that would be useful for academics; but that’s a topic for another day). If you just want to be a good writer, you don’t take AP English. If you want to be a good writer, you do what I’d unknowingly been doing all along: read good writing, write what you care about, and fix your writing based on what you’ve read. So, since I do want to be a good writer, I suppose that’s what I’ll keep doing. See you again tomorrow!

How I Was Homeschooled

From a pretty early age, I’ve been homeschooled along with my siblings. But what exactly do I mean when I say that? It can be difficult to get solid information on how homeschooling works, primarily because “homeschooling” is really a big bucket full of many philosophies, reasons, and families.

Most people homeschool because they want or need to school their children differently than how the public school system does it. There are a number of ways this could present itself: there are highly educated professionals who believe they are more capable than a public school teacher to teach their children; there are parents of children with developmental disabilities who believe they will be able to help their children individually better than a public school teacher who has to corral fifty kids each day; and many more.

Across these various reasons, the most common method of organizing the homeschooling process between two parents is to have one parent working, and the other staying home to homeschool the kids. This seems like the sane route: after all, so goes the common wisdom, kids take up a lot of time and require a lot of attention. If the breadwinner has an office job, they’re not going to be home often enough to help the kids; if they work from home, the kids will be bothering them with questions so often that they can’t focus on working.

For most families, this probably is the sane route. But my mother, Stanford graduate, pilot, researcher for NASA, cancer survivor and entrepreneur, would not take “sane” for an answer. Throughout her childrens’ entire homeschooled lives, my mother has been working around 50 hours a week, plus running three small businesses. And this has created a very strange kind of homeschooling, with some very strange and specific benefits and drawbacks.

The obvious drawback is that she’s had a lot less time to spend on homeschooling her children. And at first, when we were just quitting traditional school, and when we were just getting used to the concept of working from home, it was difficult. But rather quickly, it developed into a bunch of neat advantages.

Firstly, since she’s been actively working a career, she factored a ton of career preparation into our homeschooling. Where a lot of homeschool parents are myopically focused on getting their kids prepared for college, my mother was also preparing her children to work. With that in combination with our work for her businesses, we got a very well-rounded and immersive understanding of careers and business.

Second, since several of her jobs have involved hiring entry-level employees, she knows what colleges tend to prepare people for, as well as what they don’t. With that knowledge, she could systematically teach us the things that we would need to know for our future careers that we probably wouldn’t learn otherwise.

One such lesson that I learned very, very early on was the importance of a positive attitude. If you’re willing to learn and you’re cheerful, everyone will be happy with you, even if you aren’t very good at your job. But on the other hand, if you’re an asshole, you have to be leaps and bounds better than everyone else – I’m talking twice as good as everyone else in the office, combined – for people to tolerate you enough to keep you. You don’t learn that in high school or in college: if you show up and you learn the material and you get good grades, literally nobody cares how pleasant you were to be around while you did it.

It wasn’t just the career itself. It was also the apparent drawback of her lack of available time that also turned out to be helpful.

My mother was never available at the drop of a dime. I had to wait for her to be done working, and I frequently had to plan out when I needed to talk to her about something. I got used to sending her emails asking for help with things. More recently, I’ve had mentors that I can contact, I see a lot of the same thing that I got used to growing up. You can’t take for granted unlimited time from a mentor. They’ve got a full-time job, and though they’re happy to help, their time is a limited resource. So it was with my mother growing up.

If you think about it, this is the polar opposite of the public school system model, where the teacher’s job is to teach, and nothing else. People don’t value what is abundantly available, and you can tell that school kids don’t value the time of their teachers. But you can be sure that employees value the time of their mentors, because they know that their mentors have important, unrelated jobs. And so my siblings and I valued our mother’s time, like we would value a mentor’s.

Further, sometimes we just couldn’t reach her. Sometimes she was at the office, on a business trip, or her clients were having time-sensitive issues. And so, sometimes we just had to find an answer from somewhere else. This was another way in which our education was very different from the traditional school system: a school teacher is supposed to have all the answers to all the student’s questions. A student’s first, last, and usually only resource is their teacher. On the other hand, my mother’s semi-frequent absences meant that to answer our questions, we had to do research on our own, or reach out to each other.

The relationship I had with my mother, and the relatively unique type of homeschooling that we all had growing up, was useful in a number of ways for shaping all of us. I’m glad she was crazy enough to do it.