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Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest

Now for the matter of drive. You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode’s office and said, “How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, “You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.” I simply slunk out of the office!

What Bode was saying was this: “Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.” Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity – it is very much like compound interest. I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime. I took Bode’s remark to heart; I spent a good deal more of my time for some years trying to work a bit harder and I found, in fact, I could get more work done. I don’t like to say it in front of my wife, but I did sort of neglect her sometimes; I needed to study. You have to neglect things if you intend to get what you want done. There’s no question about this.

From The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn by Richard W. Hamming, via Marginal Revolution.

I never thought about it this way, in terms of compound interest, but I have felt that there was an advantage to writing every day for an hour, that it was much more effective than writing only a couple times a week or just writing when “inspiration” (hah) strikes.

The hardest and in my opinion, most important, part of filmmaking is the script (improvised work aside), so it makes sense to me that that’s where you would want to focus your most precious energy and time, day in and day out, because that’s where the biggest returns will be. The ratio of (indie) films with good production value but poor writing to great scripts with poor production value is very high in my opinion. This seems somewhat backwards to me, as production value costs a lot of money but writing costs only time and most of us are broke or don’t have access to a lot of money, but we can all squeeze out an hour a day to write, if we look hard enough. Not that I’ve written anything great yet.

“We are driven back to the ‘blood’, the thriller”

I found this Graham Green quote in one of Pauline Kael’s reviews in The Age of Movies, my first encounter with Kael after I stumbled upon it in Powell’s Books in Portland:

“The cinema,” Greene said, “has always developed by means of a certain low cunning…. We are driven back to the ‘blood,’ the thriller…. We have to… dive below the polite level, to something nearer to the common life…. And when we have attained to a a more popular drama, even if it is in the simplest terms of blood on a garage floor (‘There lay Duncan laced in his golden blood’), the scream of cars in flight, all the old excitements at their simplest and most sure-fire, then we can begin–secretly, with low cunning–to develop our poetic drama.”

Kael is a wonderful writer, one of the best non-fiction writers I’ve read, and I enjoy her writing even when she writes about movies that I haven’t seen or haven’t even heard of. Besides adding a long list of movies to my already long list of movies I need to see, I’ve learned a tremendous amount about filmmaking in the process.

Graham Greene is one of my favorite novelists and I didn’t even know that he was also a screenwriter, and wrote The Third Man (!).

Dissatisfaction

For the creator who seeks to make something new, something better, something important, everywhere you look is something unsatisfying.

The dissatisfaction is fuel. Knowing you can improve it, realizing that you can and will make things better—the side effect is that today isn’t what it could be.

You can’t ignore the dissatisfaction, can’t pretend the situation doesn’t exist, not if you want to improve things.

Living in dissatisfaction today is the price we pay for the obligation to improve things tomorrow.

From the always thoughtful and insightful Seth Godin.

Between stimulus and response there is a space.

Viktor Frankl came up with what is probably the best pop psychology line ever: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

— Viktor Frankl, via @vgr in Breaking Smart Season 2

How to choose which movies to watch

Movie-picking advice from one of my favorite blogs, Marginal Revolution:

1. If the movie was shot for the big screen, you must see it on the big screen. Otherwise your response is not to be trusted.

2. Try not to discriminate by genre or topic, for instance “I don’t like war movies,” “I don’t like romantic comedies,” and so on. You’ll miss out on the very best of that genre or topic this way, and those are very likely very good indeed. (NB: In your spare time, you can debate whether there is a horror movies exception to the principle.)

3. In my view, the bad Oscar picks were evident right away. A five year wait will only elevate some other set of mediocre movies instead. Movie awards are designed to generate publicity for the industry, not to reward merit. Ignore them.

4. I use movie criticism in the following way: I read just enough to decide if I want to see the movie, and then no more. I also try to forget what I have read. But before a second viewing of a film, I try to read as much as possible about it.

5. On net, I find the best reviews are in Variety magazine, as they are written for movie professionals. And the market for reviews is largely efficient. That is, if you read six smart critics on a movie — usually just two or three in fact — you will have a good idea of the quality of the movie. But you must put aside movies that are politically correct or culturally iconic, as they tend to be overrated. Brokeback Mountain and The Graduate will make plenty of “best of” lists, and they are both interesting and extremely important for both cinematic and cultural reasons. Still, I would not say either is a great movie, though they have some wonderful scenes and themes.

6. Hardly anyone watches enough foreign movies, that means you too. Or you might not watch enough outside your favored cinematic area, such as French, Bollywood, etc. There is a switching cost due to different cinematic “languages,” but most of your additional rewards at the margin probably lie in this direction. Furthermore, the very best foreign movies are so excellent it is easy to find out which they are.

7. I still think Pulp Fiction and The Big Lebowski, while good, are overrated. Don’t always assume your second reaction is the correct one. In addition, a lot of movies are made to be seen only once, so don’t hold that against them. For instance, I am not sure I need to see the opening sequence of Private Ryan again, but I am very glad I saw it once. It made seeing the whole movie worthwhile, but since most of the rest is ordinary, albeit serviceable, seeing it again would be excruciating.

8. It is a mistake to smugly assume that television has surpassed movies. The best movies (mostly foreign) are better than the best TV, even today.

I especially agree with 1, 2, 6, and 8.

In your head, on the page

Most people think they’re pretty good singers. This has something to do with the way your voice resonates inside your skull. It’s a lie born in our bone structure. And that’s why when you hear your voice played back from a recording it’s pretty shocking. The truth is most people aren’t good singers. Most people are bad singers. And the same principle applies to our ideas. Things usually sound great inside our heads. So it can be a huge disappointment to see them on the page, out there in the real world. Suddenly they don’t sound so clever or as interesting or as intelligent. Suddenly, they sound dumb. This is a good thing. People become better singers by forcing themselves to sing. And facing your bad ideas is how you make them good ideas. But you have to get them out there first. You have to write them down.

Why Filmmakers Should Write Often. Maybe Every Day (Musicbed)

Every day in my opinion. but that’s just me.

Assorted Links

Going through stuff saved in Evernote.

1) Selling Out: An Artist’s Search for Money and Meaning

2) “Sound is also the only truly tactile dimension of the cinema. It is the only way in which the cinema physically touches the spectator.”

3) The Sex and Cash Theory.

The identity gap

There’s a famous quote by Ira Glass that’s had a healthy life on the inspiration-for-creative-people circuit on the internet:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.

I cut it off at the end but you get the gist. It’s a good observation and resonated with me enough that I printed it out and put it on my wall next to my desk a few years ago.

Then I had a thought the other day. I’ve found a weird sense of “happiness” this summer. Quotes because I don’t really trust it, as it’s foreign to me to feel genuinely happy for no reason for what feels like weeks now.

Naturally, I asked “what the fuck is going on?”

For Glass, the gap is primarily between how good your work (1) is now and how good the work of your heroes is. The gap between your work and the work that meets your standards of taste. Let’s call it the taste gap.

But I think there’s another level to this that Glass doesn’t touch on, an existential gap if you will. It’s not just that you are disappointed that you haven’t gotten good enough to make something you’re proud of — it’s that you’re not yet the person that you want to be.

You set out as a writer. You write a screenplay or a novel. The first one sucks. But you are writing and so you are a writer (identity here as defined by your actions, not by telling everyone that you are a writer or whatever).

But while you are a writer, we can add a qualifier: you’re a mediocre writer. Or a bad writer. A novice writer. A shitty writer. Whatever. I’m not saying this to be mean; it’s important to be honest with ourselves so we can get better.

And so the gap is more than a gap between the current quality of your work and the desired quality. It’s a gap in your identity, a gap between who you are today and how you want to see yourself (and how you want other people to see you). The gap creates a tension in you, or maybe a dissonance.

The feeling is experienced as an oft-present internal pressure or anxiety. You might have to walk around through life for years carrying this tension in you. That’s quite the mental burden and hence you seek out quotes like Glass’s to soothe the pain or you risk paralysis or getting torn up inside until you can’t go on. It’s probably what makes a lot of people give up, even in the face of countless inspirational “don’t give up!!” narratives.(2)

The existential terror of this is heightened because there’s no assurance that you will actually cross the gap and become a good writer or artist or actor or whatever. Odds are that you won’t.(3)

So what happened to me? I wrote and directed a film that I’m proud of. I think it’s good. People whose opinions I respect think it’s good. 99% of people might think it’s not good, but I’m proud of it and my friends like it. For me, that’s enough to cross the gap — it feels like a win and so it is a win. Not that it will find commercial success or even critical success, but it’s a win in that it’s helped me become whole by crossing the gap. I made good on my identity.

I called myself a filmmaker and now that I’ve made something that I’m proud of, the dissonance between what I call myself and how I feel about myself is resolved. Thus, happiness.

Why focus on the identity aspect?

I was thinking about another pursuit in my life where I am woefully worse than I would like to be: tennis.

I’m not comparing myself to Roger Federer, I’m comparing myself to the people I play with that are really good but nowhere close to being professionals. The gap is achievable in my lifetime and maybe in 3-5 years with regular lessons and practice. But I experience zero anxiety about this gap because it’s not something I claim as part of my identity. I think of myself as someone who happens to play tennis, not as a tennis player. I don’t care how the world views my tennis playing so I don’t feel a gap.

What’s the difference?

I mean, if we define identity by what we do, then tennis should define me as much as filmmaking. For me, it’s about a deeper pull I feel towards filmmaking or artistic expression. I don’t really understand the difference except that maybe I chose artistic expression and not tennis to be a part of my identity.

There’s some logical inconsistency there and I’m not really sure how to think about it yet.


  1. Work here as shorthand for art, craft, tennis, whatever you’re trying to get better at 

  2. Those narratives suffer from survivor bias. Nobody ever tells you about how they never gave up their dream of being an actor and then found themselves at 50, bitter and broke. Not because it doesn’t happen, but because those people don’t get invited to write books and speak, unless of course they turned that failure into some kind of other success and the failure serves the never-give-up narrative. 

  3. I’ve failed at a few things this way and the psychic aftermath is pretty unpleasant. But don’t listen to people that say if you never give up, you’ll succeed eventually. They’re lying because they don’t know for certain anymore than you can know for certain. That’s kind of the point thought–that it’s something brave and risky because it can fail. Learning when to quit and try something else is an important skill and helps you get back up for another fight when your project fails. 

The task of the craftsman

As Dreyfus and Kelly explain, such sacredness is common to craftsmanship. The task of the craftsman, they conclude, “is not to generate meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill of discerning the meanings that are already there. This frees the craftsman of the nihilism of autonomous individualism, providing an ordered world of meaning.

— Cal Newport in his excellent book Deep Work

We are creative because everything isn’t okay (yet)

You don’t get creative once everything is okay. In fact, we are creative because everything isn’t okay (yet).

Centered and complete (Seth Godin)

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