Finding the Energy (On the Days When You Just Don’t Have It).

Denis Shapovalov pumps his fist after winning a point during his first-round match

I went to the U.S. Open yesterday to watch some first-round tennis matches. If you’ve never been to the U.S. Open, you should really try to go if you can — even if you’re not a tennis fan. The Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is an absolutely spectacular place to spend a late-summer day. Sure, you can go to one of the big courts to see big names — Arthur Ashe Stadium seats nearly 24,000, and it’s where you’ll find stars like Novak Djokovic and Naomi Osaka — or you can check out one of the outer courts, where you’ll catch top 100 players playing for just a few hundred fans. (Yesterday, I watched a matchup of two top 75 talents from the second row. Pretty cool.)

But one of the highlights of the day was watching Denis Shapovalov, the tenth-ranked player in the world. He played at Louis Armstrong, the second-largest stadium on the grounds, in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon. His was the third match on that court that day, and many of the fans who’d come for earlier matches had drifted out to other courts. Shapovalov played a stadium that was less than a third full.

Still, Shapovalov’s a star in the tennis world, and a player who could absolutely make the finals in Queens this week. To win the U.S. Open requires a player to win seven matches, and the men’s matches can last up to five rounds (and can sometimes go as long as four or five hours). Shapovalov couldn’t afford to let his match go long. He needed to dispatch his opponent (Federico Delbonis, the 47th-ranked player in the world) as quickly as possible.

Shapovalov did just that, winning in straight sets (and in less than two hours). But what I found fascinating was the way Shapovalov stayed engaged at every moment in the match. In front a sparse crowd that seemed more interested in checking their phones than watching the match, it would’ve been easy for Shapovalov to lose focus. But without the crowd keep him engaged, Shapovalov found his own ways to bring the energy. After every point he won, he gave a little fist pump. After big shots, he looked over at his box, nodding to them and letting them know that he was locked in. After breaking serve or winning a set, he’d let out a little scream, or a “Let’s go!” A few times, he gestured to the crowd to make noise.

This was the sort of match — against a talented and experienced opponent — where Shapovalov could’ve lost focus for a bit and let the match stretch into a fourth or fifth set. But he simply refused to let himself disengage. He was both player and hype man, never letting his attention drift, even when the crowd’s energy dropped.

I spent the subway ride home thinking about ways to try something similar with my own work. It’s easy for my energy to slip, especially at the end of a long day of calls. Maybe I need to find ways to take small breaks: A walk around the block to reset, or even a few jumping jacks in the ten minutes between calls. Maybe I need to start keeping a gratitude journal, so I can use those few minutes to jot down thoughts about the good that’s come from that day.

But seeing Shapovalov play, I was reminded that to be at the top of my game, I have to find ways to maintain that focus throughout the day — especially when the energy isn’t naturally there.

———

I took that photo of a Shapovalov fist pump during yesterday’s match.

Be Quick, But Don’t Hurry.

UCLA's basketball arena, Pauley Pavilion

There’s a great quote from John Wooden, the UCLA men’s basketball coach who won more than 600 games and 10 national championships: “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”

I was thinking about that yesterday. I was playing golf — my pandemic hobby’s continued into 2021 — and on a par 5, hit one of the best shots I’ve ever hit, a 7-iron that rolled up to the green and landed about four feet from the hole. I had a chance to make an eagle — two shots better than par — for just the second time in my life.

Everyone else in my group was further away from the hole, so I waited for them to putt first. As I got over the ball to finally putt, I realized: My ball had come to rest in a sizable divot. A quarter of the ball was essentially submerged below the surface of the green.

The logical thing would’ve been to pause, mark my ball, fix the divot, and then putt. But I looked at my playing partners, who were waiting for me to putt. I thought about the group behind us, who were standing over their balls in the fairway, waiting for us to clear the green so they could hit their next shots.

So instead of taking an extra 10 seconds to fix the divot, I tried to putt out of it. Naturally, the ball hit the lip of the divot and started spinning sideways. It stopped six inches from the right of the hole. I tapped in for birdie — still a great score, but a disappointing result considering the initial opportunity.

As I moved to the next hole, I had to remind myself: There’s a difference between moving with urgency and rushing. There’s no need to hurry. Take your time, do what you need to do to prepare, and then take the shot.

———

That’s a photo of UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion, the arena where John Wooden once coaching. It was published by Francisco Lerma on Unsplash.

Create an Imperfect World. Then Improve It.

Here's a photo of several books

The New Yorker did an interview with John Swartzwelder, one of the most prolific writers in the history of “The Simpsons,” and a man who is legendary for his privacy. (The New Yorker described him as “reclusive, mysterious, almost mythical.”) The interview’s fascinating and funny, but I particularly enjoyed this part:

How much time and attention did you spend on these scripts? Another “Simpsons” writer once compared your scripts to finely tuned machines—if the wrong person mucked with them, the whole thing could blow up.

All of my time and all of my attention. It’s the only way I know how to write, darn it. But I do have a trick that makes things easier for me. Since writing is very hard and rewriting is comparatively easy and rather fun, I always write my scripts all the way through as fast as I can, the first day, if possible, putting in crap jokes and pattern dialogue—“Homer, I don’t want you to do that.” “Then I won’t do it.” Then the next day, when I get up, the script’s been written. It’s lousy, but it’s a script. The hard part is done. It’s like a crappy little elf has snuck into my office and badly done all my work for me, and then left with a tip of his crappy hat. All I have to do from that point on is fix it. So I’ve taken a very hard job, writing, and turned it into an easy one, rewriting, overnight. I advise all writers to do their scripts and other writing this way. And be sure to send me a small royalty every time you do it.

That’s interesting. So create an imperfect world and then improve it?

That’s the way I do it.

I absolutely love this idea. And the most interesting thing for me is, it’s actually the second time I’ve heard this idea this month!

The other time? On the podcast “Two Writers Slinging Yang,” as shared by award-winning food writer Alan Richman. He told host Jeff Pearlman:

I would sit down with my notes in front of me and whatever’s in my head, and I would write a first draft, and I would make sure it was much longer than the story was going to be. I would write maybe three or four thousand words, just off the top of my head, just spewing it out and typing it, and I knew that was not going to be the story. But that gets everything out of my head. By doing that, I would say, “Oh, this is important.” I would start to see what I had in my head and what would make the story… I always wrote a first draft as fast as I could until I got everything out of my head and on paper. And then I would write the second draft, and that’s when I’d start to write.

Someone once said all writing is re-writing, and that’s what I believe in. I re-write and re-write.

Here are two very different writers: A comedy writer, and a writer of long food feature stories for GQ. But they both know their strengths — they’re good at re-writing! — and have built their creative process around that strength. When you’re a writer, you’re judged on your output, not your process. Who cares how you get there? All that matters is that you get there.

Whatever it is you do, play to your strengths. Figure out what you like doing most, and see if there’s a way to build your process around that.

———

That photo of old books comes via Unsplash and photographer Patrick Tomasso.

Are You Optimizing For Just One Thing?

gymnast in mid-routine

There was a fascinating story in The Washington Post this week about men’s gymnastics, and how the University of Minnesota — which has had a men’s gymnastics team for 118 years — has decided to cut that sport at year’s end. The move will save the university $750,000 per year.

Wrote Liz Clarke:

Minnesota’s decision — combined with Iowa’s plan to drop men’s gymnastics and two other sports — is the latest blow to the dwindling ranks of Division I programs, leaving just five Big Ten schools with men’s teams and 12 in the nation. And it’s part of a larger pattern at Division I colleges and universities across the country, where “nonrevenue” sports are being dropped in the name of fiscal responsibility.

At a university like Minnesota, there are only two sports that make money: Football and men’s basketball. Those sports fund the rest: Softball, hockey, and so on.

But I think what we’re really seeing here is what my former boss, Dao Nguyen, used to warn me about: The danger of optimizing for just a single metric.

What the University of Minnesota — and so many other universities that have cut sports — is doing is making all of their decisions around a single metric: Profit or loss. Sports that make money can stay. Sports that lose money, even a small amount, are expendable.

But there are other ways to measure success for a college athletics program. You can look at the obvious metrics of success: Wins or losses, championships won, or Olympians produced. You could look at the engagement of the community with these sports: Attendance, or tickets sold. You even could look at less obvious downstream metrics of success: How much of an economic impact will these scholarship athletes have on their state over the course of their careers? (A study of previous athletes might help a university understand the long-term return on their investment.)

There’s a lesson here for all of us: If profit is the only goal, then you’re only going to work on things that make money. But there are other ways to measure success. Make sure you have a few metrics in mind so you can optimize for the things that matter — and not just that which produces the highest immediate return.

———

That photo of a gymnast participating at the Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games comes via Flickr and is used via a Creative Commons license.

Be the First One on the Dancefloor.

If it’s alright, I’d love to tell you about one of my favorite random things on the internet.

It’s a video of Eric Clapton playing his hit, “Cocaine,” at the Royal Albert Hall, in 2015. It starts with that legendary riff, in E, and you can see the crowd recognize it immediately. But here’s the thing that amazes me the most: You’ve got one of greatest guitarists of all time, in one of the most famous concert halls in the world, and people are just… sitting there. They’re not, up they’re not dancing. Eric Clapton is playing freaking “Cocaine,” and people are sitting on their butts like they’re watching someone perform at an open mic night.

And then comes one of my favorite random things on the internet.

It happens at about 2:19 in the video. Clapton’s in a guitar solo, and the camera pans across the crowd: 5,000 people, lots of butts in seats.

But there, in the bottom corner, at the edge of the stage to Clapton’s left, is this one couple.

They’ve snuck up to the front, and they’re dancing like — excuse the cliche, but it’s accurate here — no one’s watching.

They shimmy. They shake. They twirl.

They — and I mean this in the best possible away — do not appear to give even the slightest shit about the fact that no one else is dancing.

The camera cuts to the band, and they’re loving it. They cut back to the couple: Now jumping up and down, cheering wildly for Clapton.

And then something happens: People notice that couple, and seem to snap out of their stupor. They remember: They’re watching Eric Clapton! One of the great rock and roll musicians of all time! And he’s playing one of the most famous rock and roll songs of all time! People start to get out of their seats. Some folks rush to the stage to cheer. The crowd gets loud.

Sometimes, it takes two people, getting up and showing everyone else the way. Sometimes, you have to be the one to give everyone else permission to get up and do something — to dance, to experiment, to try something bold.

We’re moving into this next phase of the pandemic, and I don’t know what happens next. But here’s your permission: Don’t stay seated. Don’t idle. Get up and dance, even if you feel like you might look a little silly. You never know who might be right behind you on the dancefloor.

Do We Have to Do It That Way?

We went on a road trip this week up into New England, just to get away from work for a few days. On the road, we stayed in a few different hotels.

At pretty much every hotel room I’ve stayed in over the past decade, there’s been a tiny coffee machine in the room — something like this:

hotel coffee machine

To me, they’re like the alarm clocks in hotel rooms: Something that’s purely decorative. In all the nights I’ve stayed in hotels, I don’t think I’ve ever used one of these machines.

But one night on our trip, in Burlington, Vermont, the front desk explained that they’d recently renovated the rooms, and made a small change. Instead of a coffee machine in each room, they’d built a coffee bar on each floor, available to all guests. We’d find it at the end of the hall.

When we went upstairs, we noticed it right away: They’d built out a full bar area with coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, as well as sparkling and still water on tap. And in the room, where there’d usually be a space for a coffee machine, the hotel had been able to carve out a bigger space for a desk.

It was a small thing, but it got me thinking: What else are we doing simply because we’ve always done it a certain way? Sure, a coffee bar instead of a machine in every room is a small tweak for a hotel. But to me, it suggested that this hotel had asked some interesting questions when redesigning their rooms. They’d clearly asked guests what they wanted, and likely heard that guests wanted a better selection of coffee and water on demand. (Why is it that at most hotels, to fill up a water bottle, you have to go to the hotel gym?) They’d almost certainly noticed how many of those coffee pods were going unused by visitors. (Do those get thrown away? Do they just sit there, waiting for another guest?) And they’d considered how costly it is to maintain hundreds of small coffee machines instead of just a single machine on every floor. (Where do you even get the in-rooms machines repaired?)

The result was a simple but really smart innovation. And I’m betting that if you took a step back and looked at your work, you might find a few opportunities for improvement, too, simply by asking two questions:

Why do we do it this way?

And: Do we have to?

———

I took that photo of a tiny coffee machine at a different hotel. In retrospect, I probably should’ve taken a photo of the coffee bar, too!

Why I Work So Well on Planes.

me, flying back to New York on March 12, 2020 — my last work trip

I miss flying.

I miss those hour-long flights to Boston to Pittsburgh — just enough time to pull out the laptop and work on a deck or a memo for 45 minutes. I miss those longer flights out west — 90 minutes of work, an hour of reading, and then a movie I’d never seen before. I miss that time in the airport lounge, that feeling when I know I’ve only got 20 minutes to reply to as many emails as I can before the flight boards.

I suppose what I really miss, as I think back on it, is that flying puts me in a place of focused work. At home, I can get easily distracted, but when I fly, I usually don’t buy the WiFi on the plane. That means that when I’m sending those emails before I take off, I’ve got a timer in my head — 20 minutes, 15 minutes, 10 minutes before I disconnect. It means that when I’m on the flight, I can only do the projects I’ve preloaded onto my laptop before I took off. It means that I can do the work I have to do — and then say, alright, it’s time for a break.

The structure of flying seems to put me in the right mood to work. I tend to do really good, focused work on flights. I think part of it is the timing of the flight, and part of it is the feeling that it’s OK to take a break and spend 90 minutes watching a movie — a mid-day movie on a Monday would feel like a waste of time on a normal day, but on a flight, it feels pretty normal. One more thing: On flights, I’m not bouncing from call to call. That helps with focus, too.

I know I won’t be traveling again for a little while longer, and this isn’t a post where I’m going to make suggestions as to how to recreate the feeling of travel from home. It’s just this moment where I’m thinking about the way my work has changed in the last year, and the way it might change again a few months down the road.

Anyway, I miss flying.

———

That photo’s aboard a flight home from South Carolina to New York on March 12, 2020 — my very last work trip of the year.

Don’t Write The Story Until It’s Over.

Nine years ago, I attended a baseball game I’ll never forget.

It wasn’t a particularly important game: Nats-Phillies, in the middle of the 2011 season. The Nats finished that season 80-81 — out of the playoffs, again.

It was a humid night in D.C. We sat through a two-hour rain delay before the game really got going, and once it did, the Nats fell behind, 4-0. By the 7th, with a score of 4-2, my friends said they were tired and wanted to go home. I couldn’t blame them — it was late, and the game really didn’t matter.

Still, it was my last baseball game of the season — I’d be heading to Columbia, Mo., for a fellowship in a few days — and I wanted to see it through. I’d been to enough baseball games to know that if your team’s losing by a few runs that late in the game, they usually don’t come back.

But then again: You never know. And I remember from my days covering the team that you can’t finish your game story until the final out.

My friends went home, but I stayed.

In the 9th, the Nats faced Ryan Madson, the Philadelphia closer who’d only blown one save all year. But the Nats came back, stringing together a few hits to tie the game. Then came Ryan Zimermman, the third baseman and the face of the franchise. Two outs, bases loaded, bottom of the 9th, full count — and he hits a walk-off grand slam to left.

I remember texting my friends and telling them to turn on the TV. I remember their disbelief at the score. (“We…won???”) I remember how strange it felt to be truly surprised by a result like that. Up until those last moments, it seemed unlikely — even impossible — that the game could have ended the way it did.

I almost never leave games early anymore. As long as there’s still more to play, there’s more story to be written. You never know when you’ll get the chance to write a better ending.

———

That photo is of Nationals Park, and was taken by Sung Shin for Unsplash. The video is of the walk-off grand slam — wait until the very end.

Beware the Ground Beneath Your Feet.

In 2010, while reporting in Biloxi, Mississippi, on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I stumbled upon this story:

A century earlier in Biloxi, there was a man of some renown named Walter Hunt. He didn’t go by that name, though — in town, locals called him Skeet.

Skeet was quite the figure in Biloxi. At age 26, he’d become the youngest alderman in the city’s history. He’d been the grand marshall of the Mardi Gras parade. Later in life, he’d move to Washington, D.C., and become a captain of the Capitol Police. (He’d ship up fresh seafood from the Gulf on trains when he was trying to curry favor with members of Congress.)

But in 1925, Skeet took a gamble. He’d inherited an island, twelve miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, from his grandfather, and decided to build a casino on it. He called it the Isle of Caprice — “caprice,” as in, a sudden, unpredictable series of changes.

For a few years, things went well for Skeet and his casino. Business boomed. In 1927, an estimated 40,000 visitors came to the island. Ethel Merman played the lounge.

Then in 1931, Skeet’s team went out to the island to get the casino ready for the summer season.

But the casino wasn’t there.

What must it have been like to be a member of the crew, floating out in the Gulf of Mexico, and suddenly realizing that Isle of Caprice had been built not on an island, but a sandbar? What were they thinking as they discovered that over the winter, when the sandbar moved, the casino had sunk into the Gulf?

All the staff could find was a single pipe sticking out of the water, still connected to a well that had been dug deep into the ground. Everything else was gone.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Skeet’s story. I’m thinking about all the things that will be different once we’ve emerged from this pandemic. Businesses will change, cities will change. We don’t know what life will look like in a few years, but things will almost certainly be different.

Right now, that once-solid ground is shifting underneath our feet. Standing still isn’t an option. It’s up to each of us to recognize that we need to move with the tides — or we will sink.

———

At top, that’s a postcard from the 1920s of the island. Below, a photo of Skeet from a Mardi Gras parade.

Do It Again. Make It a Little Better.

A few weeks ago, we tried making pizza at home for the first time. It wasn’t even close to being from scratch — the pizza dough was purchased at the local market, and the tomato sauce was from the jar — but we broke out the pizza stone and a bunch of toppings and gave it a go. The result? Not bad!

But there was room for improvement. The cheese was nice and bubbly, but the crust was a little soft on the bottom.

So we decided to try again, really trying to get the crust right. This time, we rolled out the dough a little thinner, and put it on the pizza stone for about seven minutes before adding on the toppings and cheese. An improvement — but still not perfect!

So we started asking around to friends who do this: What’s your secret? How do you get the crust right?

And one friend suggested: Have you tried putting the stone in the oven in advance for 30 minutes first to get it nice and hot, and then adding the pizza to it?

We’d never thought about that before.

So we’re going to keep trying. Every time we make this thing, we’re trying to make it a little better. A small tweak here, a slight adjustment there. It’s never going to be perfect, but we’re going to keep working to do better.

It could be pizza, it could be your work. Just keep working to make things a little better, bit by bit, until you get it right.

———

That’s a photo of our first pizza — not bad for a first attempt!