Keep Two Thoughts

Personal essays

Advice - Essay from Newsletter 66

The note behind the note

The note

It’s not the note, as I’ve said many times before, it’s the note behind the note.

In revising one of my books for the billionth time I’m finding that there’s nothing wrong with this section that a bunch of people complain about.

It’s not that they aren’t confused at that point - they are - but it’s because pages earlier I included an aside that got them thinking about something else. By the time I returned to my point, they were all consumed with this aside and so they were confused.

I eliminated the aside and the reviews were fascinating. Uniformly people reported that that section read so much cleaner and that they were glad that I’d rewritten it.

I hadn’t touched it.

It wasn’t that I didn’t take their note seriously - I did. I just didn’t assume that they had the best solution.

Mom’s advice

One of the best pieces of advice I got from my mother was just after I graduated from college.

She told me that people would tell me what they would do if they were my age.

“They were all your age at some point,” she said, “and they didn’t.”

It’s easy to poke holes in that advice. I can advise a twenty year old what they should do and their world hardly resembles the world I lived in at twenty.

I could advise them to create a blog and post regularly (for example).

The internet didn’t even exist when I was twenty.

But the advice behind my mother’s advice was priceless and still applies.

Listen to the advice of people you respect and consider what nuggets lie behind what they’re saying.


This week Slava Pestov offered career advice to techies saying, “Technical skills are easy, anyone can write code. People skills are easy too, anyone can be a manager. Horse skills, on the other hand, will allow you to command a premium on the job market.”

It was funny and yet the advice behind the advice is pretty good.

“But Daniel,” you say, “do I really need to get horse skills?”

No. And that’s not what he’s saying. Slava is an Apple engineer who lives on and works a farm.

His point isn’t about horses any more than the notes I got on my writing was about the section in question. You have to find the advice behind the advice.

You also have to find the good advice sitting in and among the wisdom that isn’t so wise. Technical skills aren’t easy. People skills are neither easy nor common. That said, I love his third point.

Many of us can learn the required skills for our profession, in this case the technical skills.

We excel if we learn the people skills as well.

It’s not that either of those are easy. It’s more that both of them are skills that can theoretically be acquired by many job candidates. Horses are Slava’s stand in for what makes him different than so many of the people he works with.

I learned my most valuable lessons about teaching when I worked in a high end kitchen making salads and desserts.

For Slava it is horses.

Holly Borla, another Apple engineer, replied to his post saying, “My most valuable skills as an engineer are definitely the ones I got from dance.”

A room filled with homogeneous people might as well be one of them working on their own.

There is something in Holly’s dance background and Slava’s horses that inform their contributions in a way that makes the whole so much more than it otherwise would be.

They put themselves into their work in a way that many might not see. It contributes to their “voice”.


When I write a book or a presentation, my initial draft is often how I am discovering what this piece wants to be.

Sometimes I get to the end and understand what I was trying to say.

Now I have to go back and start again.

So many of my favorite bits will have to go.

It’s not that they aren’t good - some of them are great.

They just don’t contribute to the story I’m trying to tell. I know from experience that if I try to keep them in because they show how clever I am - my work will suffer.

I’m updating my “Swift Kickstart” for perhaps the tenth time to keep it current. Some of the prose that made sense five years ago - or even last year - slow the book down and take the reader out of the flow.

I’ve cut them out.

It’s tough. I’ve known for a while that my bread book needs a real cleaning up and I’ve not been prepared to cut out some of the things I really love.

Andrew Stanton says that this is common at Pixar. You take a long time on your first draft. But, he says, what if you knew you would have an Oscar winning script after ten drafts? You wouldn’t waste all this time on the first, second, or third drafts. You’d get to the tenth draft as fast as you can.

That’s some advice from a screenwriter that applies to so much of what I do - even when I’m writing code.

10 Get something working.

20 Get good feedback.

30 If it’s ready ship it

40 Else GOTO 10

Work hard

On the “Pivot” podcast Kara Swisher asked her co-host Scott Galloway what his advice would be to graduating seniors. She had just delivered a high school commencement address and she wondered what his would be.

He said he’d have three pieces of advice.

Remember, you don’t need to listen to his advice. Find the good advice among the bad.

“You should be focused on three things and three things only,” he said.

“Working your f’ing ass off. This BS about balance is BS.”

I think that’s horrible advice - but that’s because it doesn’t align with my goals. If your goal is to be professionally successful then perhaps that advice is right for you.

I think it is great to work really hard and maintain focus.

And then take a break.

Balance is not BS.

He explains, “we live in a capitalist society. If you want to have influence you need to work your ass off and be great at something.”

Maybe I’m wrong - but I think you can work your ass off and still meet a friend for coffee.

His second piece of advice is to “make small investments in relationships every day.”

Hey, that’s cool, I can get behind that. Until he continues, “they pay off hugely like small investments when your young.”

I was with him until he revealed his view of relationships as things you can extract value from. Most of my relationships are valuable in and of themselves.

His third piece of advice is to invest in becoming a monster physically - that physical fitness is important.

That’s certainly something that I’ve been working on this past year.

Not becoming a monster, but creating the body that can carry me through the next twenty years or more of my life.

And so…

Three pieces of advice, three takeaways - just not the horses that Scott is talking about.

I would reject his specific advice and say instead:

Don’t give up your work-life balance.

Don’t value your relationships transactionally.

Don’t work out to become a physical monster.

But, among those anti-patterns I find things I do believe in. 

When you work, work really hard.

Even when you’re working hard, make sure you take time out for your relationships.

Take time to take care of your body. Move when you can. Lift what you can. Cook for yourself and friends.

Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 66. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe

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