• The Story in the Science

    10/29 2012

    I’m completely jealous of those who were able to attend the National Association of Science Writers conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. Angela Herring, versatile science writer at Northeastern University who blogs here, was kind enough to post some notes here on the panel discussion on “Unearthing Narrative,” a panel discussion that kept popping up on my Twitter feed.

    Here are four takeaway lessons she posted, noting that these come from panelist David Quammen, author of the forthcoming Spillover:

    • Be a Human Listener: When you’re the reporter, do your best to transcend the journalist-scientist relationship, get beyond the telephone or the office appointment. If your source asks you to go to McDonald’s with him, go to McDonald’s with your source.
    • Don’t Write About Famous People: It’s more fun to write (and read) about the grad student or post doc who isn’t’t famous yet but should be. Make people famous because you wrote about them.
    • Get Into the Field: When you call up that source and you’re talking about their work, ask if you can go with them into the field. If your source asks you to go to Borneo, go to Borneo with your source.
    • Engineer Serendipity: Serendipity is where human narrative comes from; be ready in the field, and hope that you will experience some kind of non-lethal disaster, for it is in these moments that human character is revealed.


    Engineering serendipity is one of my favorite topics, which I wrote about here on Scientific American‘s website last month. Herring also writes “Eric Powell, senior editor at Discover Magazine, we must sometimes turn to unexpected characters. He gave the example of a story he edited about the state of meso-american chocolate research. The story came to him lacking “connective tissue,” looking more like an encyclopedia of recent research finding, he saids.” [sic]

    By far, the one thing that makes me likely to recommend a book and finish it quickly is its connective tissue. Some books, like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, lend themselves entirely to narrative. Skloot got obsessed with the story first, and used the narrative of Lacks’s life to discuss medical ethics to gene mapping. Other books, like Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt, manage to marry ideas, research and narrative in the best way. At the risk of sounding anti-education, Traffic is one of those books that’s such a pleasure to read it makes you forget that you’re learning. It’s truly a model for science writing.

    Many researchers I’ve interviewed bemoan the tendency for popular science writing to dumb down the topics, oversimplifying them for the sake of connective tissue. The books I’ve read lately that lack this connective tissue are written by academics making the leap to mainstream publishing—Nudge fits this category, as does Thinking, Fast and Slow. Standard academic writing favors extensive detail over narrative, typically explaining each line while never giving you a clear, vivid image of the entire picture. By now this is habit in the academic publishing world and not going to change anytime soon; nor are journalists and science writers going to start breaking down each new discovery into its fundamental pieces.

    You could say the that detail-oriented/academic vs. narrative/journalist dichotomy or spectrum is due to the varying nature of their audiences. But here’s the secret: narrative and detail aren’t mutually exclusive. Like all quality efforts, it just takes more work to find both.

  • What do the Zen Habits guy, Tony Robbins, Chris Guillebeau, Michael Hyatt and Dooce have in common?

    08/02 2012

    Since I had so much fun posting about the humble beginnings of big blogs–and it was retweeted ad infinitum, I thought I’d try that once again.

    Side note: the purpose of this blog entry is not to embarrass anybody or cause pain. The purpose of this is to hit people over the head with the fact that big names and heroes of the literary/self-help/Christian publishing/minimalism/travel hacking worlds do not emerge online as fully-formed entities. They begin, instead, with generic Typepad themes, mediocre head shots, and embarrassing font choices.

    When you’re beginning any project and looking to subject leaders for inspiration, it’s easy to get frustrated. How can I ever compete with Dooce? you ask yourself. And you’re right! You can’t. You shouldn’t. What’s more helpful is to compare your progress to where you were yesterday and acknowledge that everyone begins at the bottom of a very, very steep mountain. The ones at the top are merely the ones who started somewhere and had enough drive to keep going. Everyone improves with time and deliberate practice.

    Zen Habits


    The Zen Habits of today is so unlike any other popular blog that I know of. Whereas Ramit Sethi and Tim Ferriss have A/B tested the shit out of every aspect of their blogs to get the most clicks (and money) per square inch, I don’t get that impression from Leo Babauta’s blog Zen Habits. It’s so clean, uncluttered, peaceful, and tranquil. I only wish there was a three-letter word that encapsulated all of those adjectives.

    Zenhabits 2012




    The earlier incarnation of Zen Habits was also clean, but much more common and template-driven. While it started out like most other blogs, it slowly removed any unnecessary bells and whistles over time to become even more true to its own brand and overall message.


    Tony Robbins


    Anthony Robbins 1997

    Because the guy is 6’7″ and I’m a little afraid of him, I’ll just go on the record as saying “Wow, isn’t that holding page interesting.”


    Anthony Robbins 1999

    Anthony “Tony” Robbins, seen here on an earlier incarnation of his website, advertising his skills as a memoir writing coach marriage counselor Sears catalog model specializing in stonewashed jeans lifestyle inspiration motivation expert. In other words, what he is today.



    Anthony Robbins 2012

    Tony Robbins is now one of those people who reminds me of Britney Spears in that he has become the eponym of a machine much larger than the man himself. (Imagine a life so crazy and out of control that you’re legally not allowed to manage your own affairs. But I digress.) This well-lubricated Robbins machine didn’t pop up overnight, mind you.



    Chris Guillebeau


    AONC 2012

    The Art of Non-Conformity is so awesome in so many ways, the man behind the ‘small army,’ Chris Guillebeau, is one of my personal heroes, and The $100 Startup is one of the best and most inspiring books I’ve read all year. How can you not love the design? Not to mention all of the awesome content? Of course, as you know, this story gets better–



    But sadly, the story does not end in me being able to relentlessly make fun of the site. First, I can only go back to 2008, at which point Chris had *only* visited 77 countries. Even before he landed a deal for his first book, The Art of Non-Conformity, Chris was honing his writing skills and cranking out lots of trip reports. For free. He was building an email list and holding fast to his mission and passion.

    I’ve heard that Chris wrote several posts before launching, in order to guarantee a steady burst of interest-generating posts in the beginning–indeed, as you can see from the very bottom of the right-hand column, the “Archives” section only goes back two months.



    Michael Hyatt



    Michael Hyatt, the author of the amazing and excellent Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World, is the former chairman and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, the world’s largest Christian publisher. With over 236,000 blog subscribers and 134,000 Twitter followers, he also has a formidable online presence. Even my heathen friends swear by his wisdom.


    Michael Hyatt 2007

    But did you know that Mr. Hyatt’s blog used to have something of an identity problem? In 2007, it was called “From Where I Sit: Musings on My Life, Thomas Nelson, and the World of Publishing.”


    Michael Hyatt 2006

    And in 2006, it was “Working Smart: The Alternative to Working Hard!” and categories included Microsoft PowerPoint, Off Topic, and TabletPC. After having blogged so much and figured out where his areas of interest and expertise meet with what resonates with readers, Hyatt now has a few main topics: Leadership, Productivity, Publishing, Social Media, and Miscellany. But that development wouldn’t have happened unless he stuck with it and blogged a lot.

    Something else worth noting is how much Hyatt honed his platform while employed at Thomas Nelson. Having that high-profile job may have given him an initial boost in readership, but by establishing his own brand with his personal blog, he now manages to keep a full professional calendar without the 9-5 work. Even with all of the publishing and marketing resources formerly available to him, it took years for his online platform to reach its current level of awesomeness.



    Lastly, I bring you Dooce, who is probably the world’s most popular mommy blogger.




    Before this eyesore from 2001, there was an unreadable white-on-white version that included her resumé.


    I will leave you with her first blog post:


    I should probably shoplift something before I die.

    Why do I daydream about Rod Stewart in inappropriate positions?

  • 25 years ago today: the first printed words of Malcolm Gladwell

    07/30 2012

    It’s a humble beginnings anniversary! In the spirit of looking at the early blogs of Tim Ferriss and Gretchen Rubin, let’s not forget about the wordsmiths of the world whose success predates the blogging era.  Specifically:

    Malcolm Gladwell


    You may know him as the former running champion and current staff writer at The New Yorker; you probably have a copy of Blink, The Tipping Point, and/or Outliers in your house. Next year, someone will give you a copy of David and Goliath, which by then will be on the nightstand of every high school coach and third-party political strategist in the country. But before he was able to charge $80,000 speaking fees because of his neatly-packaged counterintuitive insights, his writing was indistinguishable from any other journalist.

    A search in the Washington Post archives reveals that his first byline was on July 30th, 1987–25 years ago today! Ready for the beginning of the 972 word article that appeared in the Financial Section?

    Allied-Signal Aerospace to Reorganize

    The move also completes the union of Garrett Corp. and Bendix, two advanced-technology companies that were acquired by Allied-Signal Aerospace’s parent company, Allied-Signal Inc., in a complicated series of moves during the past five years.

    The reorganization will not mean an immediate expansion of the Allied-Signal Aerospace headquarters staff, [Robert L. Kirk] said. But he added that he intends to continue to increase the company’s profile in the Washington area.

    William H. Savage, president and chief executive officer of Ameribanc Investors, said that second quarter results included the write-off of a $126,000 secondary reserve required by the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp. Kay Jewelers Inc. yesterday reported a net loss of $492,000 (6 cents) on revenue of $73.2 million during the second quarter ending June 30, compared with profits of $390,000 (5 cents) on revenue of $54.0 million during the same quarter last year.


    I won’t bore you with the rest (the full article is $3.95), but I will delight you with some of the other articles bearing Mr. Gladwell’s byline in those early days:

    • Shortage of Latex Gloves as AIDS Increases Use
    • Battle of Drug Firms Focuses on “Orphan” Law; Act’s Backers Fear Research Will Slow
    • Suit Accuses MBI Officials Of Making False Statements
    • MBI Loses Government Contract; GSA’s Decision Increases Computer Retailer’s Woes
    • Igene Biotechnology, Chilean Firm to Produce Pigment for Farm-Grown Fish
    • Harvard Scientists Win Patent For Genetically Altered Mouse; Award Is First to Be Issued for an Animal
    • FDA Approves Fat Substitute In New Imitation Ice Cream 


    In an interview on Goodreads from December 2008, Gladwell stated: 

    The one thing I learned from all my years at The Washington Post is how social reporting is. It is really about talking to people, having people tell you things. That will always be the most efficient and useful way of finding out new and interesting things. You have to expose yourself to as many interesting people as you can. There’s no shortcut for that kind of process.


    Gladwell was fortunate for the early guidance he received at the Washington Post; even though many bloggers would tell you that comments and reactions can elevate blogging to “deliberate practice,” in my experience there is no substitute for having a professional editor looking over your shoulder. Even when you don’t fully agree with the suggestions, it forces you to become objective about your work, foresee arguments, and, at the very least, to engage in original reporting and research, rather than engage in the kind of “link journalism” that’s increasingly popular and accepted. (From the point of view of the publisher, it’s much cheaper to lock someone in a room with LexisNexis than to send them to a conference. But that’s another story.)

    But how did Gladwell get all of that practice? By writing a lot, and about things that he may not have been overly interested in from the outset. Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a big change in the interns I’ve met in offices and the emails I’ve received from would-be freelance writers; they all want to know how to get plum assignments, to get paid to go to South America for a travel article or interview Pitbull. You don’t. You get there by polishing turds for ten years.




  • Don’t Eat Fortune’s Cookie: How Michael Lewis Got So Lucky

    06/06 2012

    Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball, Liar’s Poker and a few other books, recently gave a speech at Princeton on, among other things, the role of luck in his success. Reading the full text of the speech, available here, or watching it is well worth the 13 minutes:

    Long story short: unlike so many, Lewis actually recognizes and acknowledges the role that luck has played in his career. The most striking example is a dinner he attended while in graduate school, at which he sat next to the wife of an executive at Salomon Brothers; she later demanded that Lewis get a job at the bank.

    Can anyone replicate that success? Yes and no. Luck Within this little story are three important aspects of luck worth noting:

    1. Luck is random, but certain people can give you jobs more than others, and hanging out where they hang out increases your chance of a “lucky” encounter. Even though he’s scant on the details of the dinner, Lewis put himself in the way of luck. He went to a fancy dinner and apparently schmoozed the hell out of some banker’s wife. Our movements are not entirely random… in fact, they’re unbelievably predictable.


    2. Having fewer commitments allows you to seize lucky moments.

    Michael Lewis was able to take the $40,000 advance for the same reason that young Ivy League drop-outs are able to found startups: no one is depending on them for support. When you’re not supporting anyone, quitting your job and moving halfway across the country isn’t a big deal. (I dont’ know the details, but since Lewis was young enough to feel obligated to get his dad’s approval, it’s very likely that he still had a safety blanket in the form of his parents.)

    Being responsible for others makes you much less capable of packing up on a whim, the very kind of risk-taking that forms the seeds of what can become legendary luck. (Note: I never said any of this was fair.)


    3.) A 0-0 record is an undefeated record. 

    For a job with no strict technical requirements, a recent Ivy League graduate is probably the safest hire in the world. For a date, most people would rather choose a 24-year-old over a 33-year-old. It’s infinitely easier to get excited about a new album by a 19-year-old rookie than a 54-year-old master you’ve never heard of.*

    The list goes on, but the main point remains the same: the allure of the young isn’t that they’re untested, it’s that they haven’t experienced any major failures. 

    Being thought of as a blank slate is far sexier than most people realize, since you can capitalize on people’s desire to discover “the next big thing.” Tip: if you have no experience, just subtly claim that you’re the next big thing. Because you never really know.


    *In case you’re wondering why anyone might consider a 54-year-old musician a failure, it’s because of the subconscious nagging question you’d have: “If he’s really a master, why haven’t I heard of him?” Because we rationalize that the status quo is good, and we base our opinions on social proof—even when we don’t realize we’re doing so.

    (For more on this, follow the discussion on Hacker News.)


  • Ever wonder what Tim Ferriss’s first blog looked like? The Old Designs of Big Blogs

    05/19 2012

    It’s a little tricky working on your own blog, where there’s no guarantee of an audience like the one you’d get when writing for magazines and websites. And it’s next to impossible when you compare your beginnings with other robust blogger enterprises.

    Pamela Slim, Tim Ferriss, Ramit Sethi, Marie Forleo, and Gretchen Rubin are hands-down five of my favorite bloggers, covering everything from entrepreneurship, personal finance, life hacking and happiness. How did they build their great online operations? By creating great content and getting better–not by starting out perfect.

    Pamela Slim

    Pamela Slim’s book Escape From Cubicle Nation and the eponymous blog—-is a perfect combination of inspiring and practical.

    In 2005, it was a plain old Typepad blog!

    Today, it’s beautiful:

    Tim Ferriss

    Before there was The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss blogged over at Cubicleescapeartist.com/blog, titled “Tim Ferriss: The Human Experiment Blog.” And no, it was not a looker:

    As we know from the book, Tim used Google Adwords and Adsense to optimize his book’s–and new blog’s–title.

    His last ‘I’m moving to a different website’ post has two comments, compared to one of his posts last week, which got 750 comments. And of course, it’s beautifully designed:

    Ramit Sethi

    Ramit Sethi, like Pamela Slim, is a graduate of the school of Typepad.

    Yes, I am trying to embarrass Ramit Sethi.

    What I love about this screenshot of his website circa 2006 is that you can see how he’s never tempered his brash personality. Title of the book review? Rich Dad, Poor Dad (this book irks me) Sethi’s sense of humor really shines through the awful design–which, again, is still more than I have on this piece of crap.

    Today, it’s beautiful and genuinely intimidating to all new bloggers:

    And of course, his book I Will Teach You To Be Rich has given him license to add “New York Times bestselling author” after his name for the rest of his life.

    Gretchen Rubin

    I was a huge fan of Power Money Fame Sex, which Gretchen Rubin wrote years ago, and I started reading her blog The Happiness Project back when it launched. I was amazed at the amount of content she produced for the blog back then in 2006:

    And it’s been amazing to see it turn into this:

    What’s even better is her amazing book, The Happiness Project which she managed to write at the same time.

    Marie Forleo

    The Tony Robbins/Richard Branson/Oprah/Jay-Z love child powerhouse started out like this:

    And now, of course, is purely fabulous:

    So keep posting. Keep blogging. Don’t compare your beginning blog to other people’s blogs–they’ve been at it for a lot longer than you have.

  • Make Your Thing and the Butterfly Effect: Why the Real Reasons for Success Always Elude Us

    03/05 2012

    Jesse Thorn, host of Bullseye, recently posted Make Your Thing: 12 Point Program for Absolutely, Positively 1000% No-Fail Guaranteed Success. Like most business advice, it’s loaded with classic survivorship bias. A discussion about the piece on Metafilter is an interesting read, in part because Thorn himself comments as user YoungAmerican.

    The 12 points he makes:

    1. Start Now
    2. Make Deadlines
    3. Keep Your Legs Moving
    4. Don’t Confuse Content & Medium
    5. Be Authentic
    6. Follow Your Passion
    7. Focus on Great Work
    8. Connect with People You Like
    9. Own What You Create
    10. Find the Money
    11. Build a Community
    12. Do a Good Job

    Asking winners what they did, and how they got to where they are, is inevitably inaccurate for a few reasons:

    1. We don’t know how many people did the same exact thing, but didn’t succeed. Plenty of people have also followed their passion; some of them are living off of Ramen noodles in windowless studio apartments.

    2. Winners have no way of knowing exactly what they did that put them over the top. It could have been that one former roommate’s co-worker had a high-powered uncle, it could have been getting a popular fan to promote your work to his/her friends, it could have been timing (you had a demo tape, they had a cancellation). It could have been the combination of all of those things.

    But still, it’s tempting to trace success back to one specific thing that you had control over. You could say this is related to pop culture’s constant skewing of the butterfly effect.

    In the movie The Butterfly Effect, and the public’s impression of the effect, changing one tiny, obvious event in the past alters everything afterward: a 15-year-old says “no” to a cigarette once, and 20 years later, she’s a surgeon.

    But the major takeaway of the real statistical phenomenon known as the butterfly effect is that even though a storm may have been caused by a butterfly flapping its wings on the other side of the globe, we can never know which butterfly started the storm.

    It is extremely hard to calculate such things with certainty. There are many butterflies out there. A tornado in Texas could be caused by a butterfly in Brazil, Bali, or Budapest. Realistically, we can’t know. “It’s impossible for humans to measure everything infinitely accurately,” says Robert Devaney, a mathematics professor at Boston University. “And if you’re off at all, the behavior of the solution could be completely off.” When small imprecisions matter greatly, the world is radically unpredictable.

    That we imagine the butterfly effect would explain things in everyday life, however, reveals more than an overeager impulse to validate ideas through science. It speaks to our larger expectation that the world should be comprehensible – that everything happens for a reason, and that we can pinpoint all those reasons, however small they may be. But nature itself defies this expectation. It is probability, not certain cause and effect, that now dictates how scientists understand many systems, from subatomic particles to storms. “People grasp that small things can make a big difference,” Emanuel says. “But they make errors about the physical world. People want to attach a specific cause to events, and can’t accept the randomness of the world.”

    People who succeed are highly motivated to believe that they’ve succeeded on their own merits, specifically, we want to believe that the world is just and we want to believe that we are in control of our fate.

    I’ve known plenty of people who’ve started now, made deadlines, and made great work.

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