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Snippets Toward a Philosophy of Life

by Tom Johnson on Nov 28, 2008
categories: creativity technical-writing

Thinking about life
Thinking a little about my philosophy of life

A couple of months ago I started writing little thoughts on post-it notes next to my monitor at work. The thoughts consisted of random little epiphanies or conclusions about life. I took the best 10 post-in notes and have collected them here as an attempt toward a philosophy of life. It's not much of a "philosophy," but I don't know what else to call it.

In writing, story is what matters -- everything else is a footnote.

When I was an undergrad majoring in English, I knew then what appealed to me about literature: the stories. Everything else was secondary. Story is also what gets my attention in blog posts, presentations, and conversations. Story creates meaning. Even bad writing is forgivable if the story is good.

Do few things, but do them well.

I used to play a half a dozen sports -- tennis, basketball, baseball, swimming, track, snowboarding -- but I eventually realized that I could do only one or two well, so I narrowed my activities. I take the same approach toward life. I don't try to do too much, but what I do, I try to do well. This philosophy is actually a quotation from a Saint Francis movie, from a scene where Saint Francis rebuilds a chapel stone by stone. Life is more enjoyable when you don't overload it.

I am infinitely creative.

In grad school I took a few writing courses that required me to produce new essays week after week. I didn't think I'd be able to produce the content. But as I sat down and looked around me, asked questions, read and reflected and observed, I found that I always had something to say. I learned that I have an endless creative core inside of me. Maybe we all have a creative core, but I know that if you give me a blank piece of paper every day, I could fill it with something interesting.

You do what you want to do, for the most part.

I sometimes tell myself that I'll take up running, or yard work, some other hobby. But when I sit around to analyze why I don't follow through, I realize that I never wanted to truly do it. In Benjamin Franklin's autobiography, Franklin gives himself a dozen goals. His friend recommended that he add humility, so Franklin included it in his goals. But he never accomplished it because it was never truly something he wanted. When I fail to follow through with something, it's usually because, deep down, I don't want to do it.

Go with your gut impression, even if you don't understand it.

Have you ever been shopping, and you try a pair of shoes, or sit on a new bike, or look at a house -- and inside you have an immediate yes or no impression, which you can't explain rationally? In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell says this split-second impression usually turns out to be more accurate than decisions that come about after lengthy reasoning. I constantly apply my gut impression to writing. If a paragraph doesn't feel right, rather than over-analyzing it, I go with my gut impression (and usually delete it). Same with other situations -- people, contracts, major decisions. I pay careful attention to my initial impressions.

Arguments are more about attitude than reason.

Last month I had a lengthy argument with Jane. As much as I attempted to resolve it rationally, the argument kept spiraling downward the more we argued. Eventually we gave up because neither of us would concede the other's logic, but Shannon did point out something particularly worthwhile: "Attitude is more important than reason," she said. This is a principle that applies in a variety of contexts -- from the basketball court to the customer support call. The attitude (medium) is just as important, if not more, than the reason (message).

What's convenient gets used.

Software solutions are only adopted when they're convenient and easy. People blog so frequently because blogs enable push-button publishing; they make writing easy. I also apply my what's-convenient-and-easy-gets-used principle to where I put things in my house. Laundry baskets should go where you undress; towel racks should go where you would throw towels on the floor; trash baskets should be placed where you naturally throw trash. Whatever context, if you want to people to adopt the solution, make it convenient.

Negativity backfires.

I once worked a contract in a remote location that involved long car rides with a colleague. During the rides, my colleague often complained at length about the department heads. Complained is probably too soft. He engaged in diatribes that nauseated him the more he spoke. Things got so bad, he had to take pills for depression. I'm not a "positive-Peter" type of person -- I'll freely criticize someone or something. But I try to keep negativity at a minimum. Extended negative rants, whether in blog posts or conversations, backfire and make you look poisoned.

What you enjoy, you do often.

Long ago I decided to play basketball rather than take up running because I enjoy game-like activities more than non-games. I'm apt to repeat enjoyable activities. So if I set myself to a goal, I tweak it so that it's enjoyable; otherwise I won't do it. I chose a writing career because I enjoy writing more than law or medicine. Regardless of the activity or the purpose, if you don't enjoy it, the activity will have a short life. But if you can make a good-for-you activity enjoyable, you might just stick with it.

A writer is someone who creates, not who merely relays existing knowledge.

Some people say, "I don't have anything to say, so why write?" Actually, this is the best time to write, because good writing sparks discovery. When I don't have anything to say, I sit down and use a variety of writing heuristics to generate ideas -- until I come up with something new to say. This sense of discovery and insight usually makes for good writing. If my writing doesn't have a spark of discovery, it tends to be dull.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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