Ideas and execution

Sometimes ideas are very powerful but very hard to execute. If brute force gets you somewhere that is a killer start, but, not too soon after that, it is important to partially shift focus on to elegance. For elegance is a key ingredient of the long-game. If you don’t pay attention to elegance, someone else will come along and do it better than you.

Redefining the notion of a book

Two months of failing to fulfill my reading goals towards the #100bookschallenge has made me rethink the purpose of taking up the challenge

Less than a decade ago, it was easy to recognise a book. It was anything that could be printed, bound and put on shelf of a library or a store. Now, though, things have gotten messy.  There are ebooks, Kindle singles, Atavist originals, Matter stories, and the list goes on.

In many parts of the world, digital has become the primary platform for the written word. The advantages are plenty and this trend towards digital is no surprise. But it disrupts how ideas get shared, and sharing ideas was the main reason for books to come into existence.

While it was with the classical definition of a book that I began my #100bookschallenge, the main reason behind taking up the challenge was to be able to learn about the greatest ideas out there. These are increasingly being communicated not just in books. A lot of the ideas are long conversations that have been running on a blog, or those that appear in longform writing/journalism like the New Yorker or The Economist’s special reports.

Thus I’m revising the definition of a (non-fiction) book that can count towards my challenge of 100 books. Apart from the classical definition, all pieces of writing that will fulfill all the conditions below can be counted towards my target:

  • Longform writing that has a clear-defined message or explores a topic in a significant amount of detail or has a central theme.
  • Has been written by a single author (‘classical’ books may have more than one author).
  • Is more than 10,000 words long as a single piece.
  • A series of blog posts won’t count if at least one of them is not close to 10,000 words long and explains the main idea of the series.
  • The writing should be so dense (full of ideas) that I cannot stop myself from writing a review of what I read.
  • (UPDATE) The work should be not just newsworthy ie it should still relevant and worth reading after, say, many months or sometimes years.

As to why just 10,000 words? Because it’s not too short and it feels like the right length to have a comprehensive look at a topic. I’m open to revising my definition, so please feel free to make suggestions.

The virtues of restlessness

As a kid I was infamous for my mischievousness and the ability to not get tired. More often than not my parents’ visits to friends or family ended with apologies for my pranks. I got told off many times, but it made little difference. There was just so much to do and so little time.

My mum tells me that there was a point where she didn’t know whether her love for me was making her too soft. That she feared that wasn’t doing a good enough job in making sure that I behaved as most kids of my age did. That by then she should have been successful at instilling some civility in my actions. But it hadn’t happened. My restlessness was baffling my parents.

I don’t think I have changed much since then. Of course, I am lot more civil now. But I am still very restless. The only thing that has changed is that I have become aware of what it means to be restless. After realising that I could do little to reduce my restlessness, I started thinking of ways in which I could harness the power in someway. Now I think I’ve managed to do that, at least to a certain extent.

Today my restlessness helps me achieve many things. The simplest one is when I know I should stop doing something. In any activity there comes a point beyond which being involved in it is usually a waste of time. It is a tricky thing to know when that point comes. But somehow, over many years, I have found that when I notice my mind getting restless, it is probably the time to take notice of whether what I am doing is useful or not

Restlessness also forms the very basis of the creative process for me. For instance, when writing an article there are three stages: spark, research, writing. The spark usually occurs when I come across an idea that seems too cool to ignore. Then, if the idea hasn’t already been used by someone else, I spend time researching. It involves reading papers, gaining background knowledge, interviewing relevant people and feeding my brain with more ideas. Now before I start writing, I need to form a plan of how I am going to write that article. This is where my restlessness helps me. In my head I have this primordial soup of ideas, each struggling to make it to the top. This period is a very cumbersome yet enjoyable experience. My restlessness pushes me, and hopefully before I get exhausted I have picked out the relevant ideas and started writing the article.

One other thing that features on this blog quite often is finding sources of motivation. My restlessness, it turns out, is definitely one such source. I am rarely at peace with myself if I don’t have something that I am working on. It could be a long-term project like finding a job, or a short one like understanding a scientific phenomenon. My restlessness makes sure I have something to care for all the time and that helps me wake up every morning to go out and do something I can be proud of.

Vipassana center in Igatpuri

There are limitations too, though. Before I understood how to tame this beast, it has put me in trouble many times. Even today there are times when I can’t do anything about my restlessness and I end up being utterly exhausted. Another thing I’ve had to battle is balancing my restlessness with giving up. In someway it has made me become a lot more determined at finishing things than I remember ever being.

Something that helped me learn how to maneuver my restless mind, and it won’t come as a surprise to many, was learning how to meditate. I went to a ‘vipassana shibir’, Marathi words for meditation camp, when I was about 12 years old. It happened in Igatpuri, one of the most underrated hillstations in Maharashtra, at a beautiful monastery. For three days no one at the camp spoke a single word. No writing or reading either. Everyday we spent hours meditating or thinking. Any form of communication was restricted to gestures, including living in a dorm with many kids of the same age (boys at that age end up fighting quite a lot and these fights had to be without words, too). To me it opened doors to a new world, one where my mind could be made to focus on a single point on the horizon.  (For adults they do a 10-day course of this kind. Whenever I get 10 days of free time to spend in India, this is going to be on the top of my list of things to do.)

Because being restless isn’t always a joyful experience, it forces me to seek moments of peace. For example, one of the best things about writing non-fiction is the time I spend researching. I have this freedom to dive as deep as I like into something and stay there for as long as my curiosity drives me for. I can jump from one pool to the other, and even connect them if that’s what I want to do.

Restlessness gets a bad rap. It is a double-edged sword, and, rather than fearing it, we must learn to wield it in battle. It has done wonders for me, and I am sure I am not alone.

Photo credit: wargecko