The NYT, the Shultz Hour and niksen

A few weeks back, in order to read an article on the New York Times website, I did what I’m often loathe to do and signed up for a free account. As a consequence I now receive their daily digest, The Morning, in my inbox and it’s been a really pleasant surprise. I find it’s really well done and presented – almost to the point of making me feel guilty for not paying for a NYT subscription – but I haven’t yet. It does make me wonder though if other news outlets have anything comparable – I’d love to find a version that’s as well done from a Canadian news outlet. If you’re aware of one, ping me.

So far the only drawback I’ve found is that there’s no easy way to share segments of the email – I usually have to resort to forwarding the whole thing to someone – perhaps maybe this is part of their plan to get more subscribers.

Anyway, in this case I’m just going to copy and paste a segment of it here. In an effort to properly credit – the byline at the top of these says they’re written by David Leonhardt. You can view past editions there. The segment from today’s edition that caught me is as follows:

You Should Try a ‘Shultz Hour’

When George Shultz — who died Saturday at 100 — was secretary of state under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, he developed a weekly ritual. He closed the door to his office and sat down with a pen and a pad of paper. For the next hour, Shultz tried to clear his mind and think about big ideas, rather than the minutiae of government work.

Only two people could interrupt him, he told his secretary: “My wife or the president.”

Shultz told me that story when I interviewed him a few years ago, and it has stuck with me, because it’s even more useful advice today than it was four decades ago. These days, we are constantly interrupted by minutiae, via alerts and text messages. They can make it impossible to carve out time to think through difficult problems in new ways or come up with creative ideas.

Letting your mind wander, Sandi Mann, a British psychologist, has said, “makes us more creative, better at problem-solving, better at coming up with creative ideas.” The Dutch have a word for this concept: niksen, or the art of doing nothing. (And here’s a GQ interview in which the journalist Manoush Zomorodi argues that boredom could open the mind to creativity, problem-solving and more ambitious life goals.)

Shultz’s biggest accomplishment in government was precisely such a fresh idea: a recognition — which most other Reagan advisers lacked — that Mikhail Gorbachev was serious about reforming the Soviet Union.

As Amos Tversky, a pathbreaking psychologist, said, “You waste years by not being able to waste hours.”

The Morning, February 9, 2021, by David Leonhardt

I like that the Dutch have an actual word for this, niksen.

From another NYT article, The Case for Doing Nothing by Olga Mecking:

It’s difficult to define what doing nothing is, because we are always doing something, even when we’re asleep.

Doreen Dodgen-Magee, a psychologist who studies boredom and wrote the book “Deviced! Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World,” likens niksen to a car whose engine is running but isn’t going anywhere.

“The way I think about boredom is coming to a moment with no plan other than just to be,” she said.

Sandi Mann, a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire in Britain, added that niksen can be “when we’re not doing the things we should be doing. Because perhaps we don’t want to, we’re not motivated. Instead, we’re not doing very much.”

More practically, the idea of niksen is to take conscious, considered time and energy to do activities like gazing out of a window or sitting motionless. The less-enlightened might call such activities “lazy” or “wasteful.” Again: nonsense.

Though I don’t have a specific schedule or time block as Shultz did, I have been spending more and more moments each day ‘thinking’. In some cases it’s about nothing. Or just letting whatever comes up be expanded upon. I don’t write anything down – perhaps I should – but more often than not, I’m just sitting. I often chuckle at myself thinking, “dude, you’re just sitting here staring into space, you should do something,” but often the result is that afterwards I feel better and my mind is clearer and more able to focus on what ever it is that I have to do. It’s like maybe, I just needed to get that doing nothing out of the way.

It certainly sounds better than I was just being lazy, so I’m going to stick with it.

On ‘Patriots’

Arthur Schopenhauer throws a little shade on some recent events, with help from Michael Dirda and The Washington Post:

“Every miserable fool who has nothing at all of which he can be proud, adopts, as a last resource, pride in the nation to which he belongs; he is ready and glad to defend all its faults and follies tooth and nail, thus reimbursing himself for his own inferiority.”

– ‘On The Suffering of the World’, Arthur Schopenhauer

Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth

Or find your Sacred Space

I have been listening to the audio version of an old PBS series with Bill Moyer interviewing teacher and philosopher Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth. To say it’s been a game-changer for me would be a massive understatement. What an absolute beauty of a man and intellect. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be a student of his, but I feel fortunate to have his books and items like this series still around. What an absolute delight it is to listen to these men in conversation.

BILL MOYERS: What does it mean, to have a sacred place?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: This is a term I like to use now as an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour a day or so, where you do not know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe to anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you, but a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. And first you may find that nothing’s happening there, but if you have a sacred place and use it, and take advantage of it, something will happen.

BILL MOYERS: This place does for you what the plains did for the hunter…

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: For them the whole thing was a sacred place, do you see? But most of our action is economically or socially determined, and does not come out of our life. I don’t know whether you’ve had the experience I’ve had, but as you get older, the claims of the environment upon you are so great that you hardly know where the hell you are. What is it you intended? You’re always doing something that is required of you this minute, that minute, another minute. Where is your bliss station, you know? Try to find it. Get a phonograph and put on the records, the music, that you really love. Even if it’s corny music that nobody else respects, I mean, the one that you like or the book you want to read, get it done and have a place in which to do it. There you get the “thou” feeling of life. These people had it for the whole world that they were living in.

Most mornings, I get up around 4:30 and head into my basement where I do some yoga or exercise, meditate, read or listen to items like the audiobook above, make coffee, read and answer emails from friends, and prepare for the day. I purposely avoid cracking open the Internet or anything external until after I’ve done this, then headed upstairs to see my kids off to school and wife off to work.

Yesterday, while drywalling a new room in my basement, listening to Mr. Moyers and Mr. Campbell talk, the section above deeply resonated with me. Mr. Campbell definitely knew his stuff.

The last week or so, the renovations and the associated temporary restructuring of living spaces (one of my kids is now sleeping in my home office space) have made it difficult for me to get this time in, but I’m ok, knowing that in another few days, they’ll be done and I’m looking forward to getting back into the routine – back into my sacred space.

Productivity & Distraction

Cal Newport dropped Staying Productive on Distracted Days over on his blog and it’s a nail-on-the-head observation for me.

“Productivity” is a slippery term. It’s often used to refer exclusively to the rate at which you produce value for your business or employer. I tend to apply it more broadly to describe the intentional allocation of your time and attention toward things that matter to you and away from diversions that don’t.

A lot of days, this probably involves a solid push on professional activities, as craft is an important part of cultivating a deep life. But not every day. If there are consequential national events transpiring, or you’re dealing with a crisis in your personal life, or you’re not feeling well, a productive day doesn’t necessarily require steady progress through a task list.”

Since the switch to working from home as a result of Covid-19, this has become a daily reality for me. I’ve come to look at it more as being ‘productive’ on the project of what David Cain likes to call ‘getting better at being human’. Sometimes that means day-job work and sometimes it applies to other things as well. In the end, both streams benefit.