Nobody ever says on their deathbed...

I see lessons about life couched in deathbed terms all the time. Just search “deathbed” and you’ll see endless lessons about what’s really important in life.

It got really ramped up with the beloved 2012 book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing. The regrets (as recorded by a nurse) were:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

What problem could I possibly have with a lesson like this?

I think you’ll have these same regrets to some degree no matter how much more you “live your best life.” (Not to mention that you probably shouldn’t be interrogating someone about their regrets while they're dying.)

Regret is a cancer. But so is worrying about your future regrets.

Living as close to the present as you possibly can and being grateful is how you guard against regret. It’s an inward journey untied to external accomplishments (the “I wish I would have…" regrets). It helps if you start today, but it also helps if you start on your “deathbed.” And it’s really all we have.

Of course, be with friends more and work less. That’s smart. But don’t expect immunity from regret afterwards.

If you want something “deathbed”-proof, gratitude and being present are about the best tools we have. If you want something death-proof, you’ll have to talk to Tarantino.

The Resurrection of DVDs

I will admit to laughing at people who collect DVDs. I’ve considered it a giant waste of money and space. But now I’m started to wonder if I was wrong.

Samsung announced recently that they’re done producing new Blu-Ray players. It was seen as the first domino to fall in the inevitable death of physical media for film.

This set off a panic among some DVD and Blu-Ray enthusiasts, but it delighted others who have kept DVD collections, or make a living off of selling rare DVDs. Why? There’s a perceived scarcity coming and streaming advocates may be on the wrong side.

There are advantages to DVDs and Blu-Rays we give up when we rely on streaming services:

  • They often include commentary, documentaries, and bonus features unavailable on streaming services (or even in later releases of the same DVD). These features are sometimes suppressed by studios if the latest batch of executives didn’t care for the originals.

  • You own the film and can watch it whenever you like (as opposed to whenever Netflix decides you can watch it). Even when you “buy” a movie online, it’s really just a license to access it, totally dependent on the whims of studios, streaming companies, the market in general, and new/changing laws.

  • You can watch the version you prefer. Movie and television studios are constantly tinkering with their releases, removing songs, editing endings, and changing who shot first. Typically there’s only one version of a film available for streaming or buying online, and it’s probably not the best — it’s the most palatable to the masses.

  • They allow small, indie studios to make money when they are ignored by streaming services.

  • They make classic films more accessible. Classic films are rarely available on streaming services and cable. When they are, what’s available is often the most well-known, and doesn’t include the smaller films you may love (if you got the chance). The DVD craze of 20 years ago gave re-birth to many classic films that might have been totally lost without the profits possible from a physical form of media.

  • You can sell, trade, or pass them along. Again, you own them. Rare and out-of-print DVDs are actually a blossoming business right now. What will happen when they grow even more scarce?

  • You can get them real cheap, new or used, for now. On Black Friday, Blu-Rays are dirt cheap. At thrift stores, they’re practically free. Parents know how much milage can be had from a Pixar DVD, proving they can be dirt cheap even at full price.

  • They’re free to rent at your library.

  • They don’t rely on a connection.

  • They’re privacy-friendly. Netflix, Hulu, Google and Amazon are watching you while you watch that movie.

  • They allow for more and better bootlegs. If your film has enough fans, it will spawn new versions, or foster the environment needed for the “release” of studio versions that the public was never meant to see. These versions may be downloadable with some effort, but they will probably never be streamable from a legitimate service.

  • They encourage and preserve music documentary and concert footage. My favorite concerts and musician’s videos are being removed or copyright-stricken from YouTube by the labels. These artists (even the big ones) have no intention of ever releasing streaming versions of this material and the streaming services have no interest anyway. We’re probably losing access to performances every day we’ll never see again. Some were only released in the first place due to the music VHS gold rush of the late 80s/early 90s and music DVD gold rush of the late 90s/early 2000s. This doesn’t even include the bootleg concerts I’ve loved watching on YouTube. I hope someone is capturing them somewhere before it’s too late.

  • They can be superior in quality to the streaming version. I put this as the last reason, because (to me) it’s the least important reason. Some of my favorite films never made it to Blu-Ray, let alone 4K discs or Netflix. If the film isn’t even available, quality doesn’t matter. The best quality version a concert film from the 80s may be on VHS. That’s better than nothing.

I’m not going to kid myself. Streaming is the (near) future of media. And I may be too old to care by the time it all shakes out. But if recent history has taught us anything, from books to vinyl, physical media will always have a market. Cassettes are even making a comeback!

Maybe in 20 years there will be enough nostalgia for all the points I made above to trigger a resurrection in physical media for film along with boutique, retro playing devices sold by Shinola.

As for my like-minded minimalist friends who embraced streaming media to cut down on their physical libraries, I pose this question: Is spending more money on less enjoyable things really minimalist?

If you have a favorite movie, or TV show, I recommend grabbing the physical version you love on the cheap while you can. It will last you for at least the rest of your lifetime. It’ll look good on a shelf next to your favorite books, and in a few decades you’ll have the jump on the next generation of hipsters.

Revisiting Ulysses

Lots of writers I know and trust recommend Ulysses, but I was pretty tough on it in my giant post about note taking/writing apps.

Since that post, Ulysses released a big update addressing one of my big complaints, The Sweet Setup overhauled their course on Ulysses (adding new videos and lessons), and those trusted writers have compiled lots of new articles on their love for the app.

OK, maybe it’s time to revisit Ulysses.

I’ve started spending more time with the app and I dove back into the course this past week, which I recommend to anyone investing this much time and love into the (digital) place where they work.

I’ll post updates to my giant post about what’s changed.

Be a Librarian to Your Readers: An Interview with Austin Kleon

Austin Kleon is the New York Times Bestselling author of Steal Like an Artist, a guide to help you “embrace influence, school yourself through the work of others, remix and reimagine to discover your own path.”

His follow-up book Show Your Work was heralded as how-to manual for creating and sharing steal-worthy work.

His latest book Keep Going completes the trilogy, providing a path to continue these methods of creation and sharing for the rest of your life.

austin-books.jpg

Austin and I have always written about the same topics, so we’ve crossed digital paths and linked to each other many times. I’ve never spoken to him directly, though. So, we had a lot to discuss. We could have gone on for hours.

As parts of this conversation may appear in a podcast for teachers and librarians, you’ll notice we come back to those topics repeatedly.

Please subscribe to Austin’s newsletter here. And, if you haven’t already, subscribe to mine here.



CJ: Tell me about your library past.

Austin: When I was right out of college, I got a job at a public library in a suburb of Cleveland. It was the Cuyahoga County system, which is fun for me, because I’m giving a talk for them coming up next month. It was a great job. It was a wonderful job. It was 20 hours a week and I had benefits. I went in three days a week and worked like three or four days a week. I worked pretty reasonable half day shifts. Sometimes I would do a full day on the weekend and then the rest of the time I just hung out my apartment and read and wrote. It was like one of those jobs that I’m not even sure exists anymore.

It was great for having time to write and read. But it was also a tremendous education for somebody who wanted to be an author because you learn skills that aid you wonderfully in the writing process. You learn research skills, so I’m able to track down stuff pretty quickly, which helps my job tremendously now.

Also, when working with the public and seeing what they need and what they read, it was just a tremendous wake up call because I realized that the kind of books that I really love don’t circulate. The books that I sort of had a chip on my shoulder about were going out endlessly. I spent a lot of time grabbing James Patterson and Danielle Steel books.

Now you realize that’s where the gold is. It’s in those uncirculated books and you can draw from them.

Well, that’s an excellent point. If you want to be read, there are genres and you have to sort of play along with genres sometimes in order to have a readership.

I never in a million years thought I would ever put out a book that would be shelved in the self help section, but what was interesting was I discovered that there was a self help section, and a certain subset of self help called creativity, and then figured out that there was such a thing as an illustrated gift book.

I think about working in those genres that I would have never chosen for myself when I was like in my early 20s and one of the cool things about working on them now as I’m able to do the kind of weird books that I love, but just in that genre.

I feel really lucky that I found that kind of niche because I think my books are kind of weird, especially in format. I love that trick of working in a popular genre but still having weirdness and pushing against the form.

There were just so many wonderful things that I learned working the reference desk.

It’s like a mental cross training.

Yeah. I know some other authors who started out as librarians and they all kind of say the same thing. It’s just this wonderful training.

It’s interesting being a librarian, because you have to do so many different things now. You’re working with the public. So it’s part teacher, part coach, part policeman, part social worker. Working in a public library, you really get a skill set that’s incredible. I mean, librarians just have to do a lot of different things.

I think a lot about what my life had been like if I had just gone to library school and just stayed in the library.

You mentioned Cleveland. You just went back there for the winter and you chose quite a winter.

Yeah, my wife’s family lives up here in Cleveland and so for this next book tour we thought maybe we’ll move north for a little while and see how that goes and have family support.

But you know, a funny thing happened in the past dozen years. Somehow we became Texans. I have a feeling we’ll probably be headed back down south once this tour is over.

I remember seeing your tweets from the past few years in the winter in Texas and just imagining what it was like to be in the sun in the winter.

The grass is always greener. You can you can see how I’m doing in Texas in August and I’ll check in on you in February.

You’re not going outdoors in August.

Exactly, there’s a winter everywhere in some form, but you don’t have to shovel the heat.

I was going to ask you as a joke, “what’s next?

(laughs)

How does Keep Going fit in with Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work?

I think Keep Going is actually the best entry point if you’re coming in cold to my work. I think Keep Going is a book that will resonate with people whether they think of themselves as creative or not.

Keep Going is more of a general life book than the other two, although I think it’s obviously written for writers and artists first. I think it can apply to anyone doing any kind of creative work or anyone who needs to be more creative in their work. I think of it as the third in a trilogy as far as how it fits in.

Steal Like an Artist is the book you give to somebody who’s just starting out and needs a kickstart or a boost or something.

Show Your Work is for the person that has found their thing but they haven’t been found themselves yet — people who need to self promote or need to get their work out there.

Keep Going, while it can also work for the beginner too, is really the book for people who are trying to make a career out of creative work — people who are trying to be in it for the long haul.

It was a funny because Steal Like an Artist was such an unexpectedly huge hit with readers that I think a lot of the Indiana Jones trilogy. No one’s ever going to love anything as much as that first Indiana Jones movie.

I think that Show Your Work is probably my Temple of Doom. I think it’s a little bit more enjoyable than Temple of Doom, but it’s a harder book for people because it actually gives them hard work to do.

Well, it’s ripping their hearts out.

(laughs)

Yeah, some people say that. It’s funny, some readers are like, “Oh, I read Steal Like an Artist that made me all happy and then I read Show Your Work and it sounded like work.”

But I was thinking of The Last Crusade when I did Keep Going. I wanted to do something that sort of echoed the first book but also kind of lived on its own.

So I’m hoping that this is the trilogy. I mean I don’t necessarily think I want to do my Crystal Skull.

Crystal Skull is something you’d be kind of forced to do. It doesn’t occur to you.

Right, someone dangles dollar bills in front of you or something. I really think I love the way these books kind of work together and I could see them in a box set. I just am really excited.

We joked before about the “what’s next” question and I really hope that the next book can be maybe in the same genre but I’m hoping to go somewhere else. I can do something else now — something un-square maybe.

Speaking of un-square books, what books are you into right now?

I’m trying really hard to diversify in my genres with reading too. I try really hard during the day to read nonfiction. Just because that’s when I can make notes and underline.

I try at night to read fiction or comic books. I really like to read graphic novels and comics at night and then maybe poetry, but often something more narrative to enjoy and then knock me out at the end.

I’m reading Andrew Sean Greer’s Less, just like everyone else. It’s about an author who’s about to turn 50 and he just broke up with his lover. He decides to take every speaking gig that he’s been offered and travel the world. It’s just really funny and really well written. So I’m really enjoying that.

I just read Susan Orlean’s The Library Book. Funny enough, I took a trip to Los Angeles with my family. And if you’re a former librarian or current library and you’re going to Los Angeles that’s the perfect book because it’s about the LA Public Library fire and the 80s. But it’s also kind of a love letter to libraries. And, in particular, if you’re flying from Cleveland to Los Angeles, it’s the perfect book because Susan Orleans is actually from Shaker Heights. Cleveland plays a little role in that story.

The other book I really love this year is Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed. It’s a series of interviews he did with Paul Cronin that Paul Cronin assembled into this book-long interview. It took me forever to finish that book because every page is full of like Herzog’s wild poetry, or some sort of unbelievable story.

Elizabeth McCracken’s Bowlaway is like a good old fashioned novel novel with just awesome sentences. I just love that book. And she’s an Austinite.

We ran into each other at a festival in Albuquerque recently and she’s just a great. Her and her husband Edward Carey, who also put out a really good book last year called Little, are one of the most interesting couples in Austin. They’re really a dynamic duo. I got to see them together at the Boston Public Library recently, and it was just a wonderful night.

I know you’re a music guy. I thought Jeff Tweedy’s memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), once he gets over his “aw-shucks I’m writing a book” (laughs), that book is really good.

I mean, it has a lot of the things that preoccupy me like parenting, the creative process, imitation, what it’s like to go from being a fan to having fans. I thought the way he handled his drug addiction was actually intelligent and heartful. I love his message about how art doesn’t have to come from pain and suffering, but artists are lucky in that they have something to do with their pain and suffering. I thought his perspective on creative work was really great.

I’d really love to read a book about his relationship with his two sons because I know Spencer and Sam are both creative guys. Spencer plays the drums and has a career going, and I’m interested to see what those kids do.

That’s always really interesting — the kids of creative people and how parenting even gets done.

I’m obsessed with this question right now because I have a six and a four year-old. I feel like I got really lucky that I either knew personally, or knew of, creative dads, and moms for that matter.

There have been so many good creative mom memoirs lately like artists memoirs like Sally Mann’s memoir. Amazing. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is amazing. It’s a fiction book but it’s insightful. Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation.

Those kind of mother books and art books helped me think a lot about being a dad too. I feel like I got lucky and had these creative dad role models who I was able to kind of look up to tell me that, “Hey you can be an involved dad and a good writer or a good artist.”

If you’re a writer and you get deeply involved in your work and your creative process, that’s setting a great example for your kids.

I think so. I think every writer has to deal with that awful Cyril Connolly line, “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” You know, the stroller in the hall is the enemy of art. I think we’re still kind of battling that as a culture.

That’s only true time-wise. It can definitely expand your horizons. I think you start to see things as a kid again.

I think it was JG Ballard who said exactly that. He was a widower and an alcoholic. I mean he had his own problems, but he was a dad who talked about how he just thought the pram in the hall thing was the biggest load of crap. He felt like being around his kids gave him a whole different perspective and that’s exactly what has happened to me.

I want to echo to other parents to see their kids as not just vampires of time and energy, which they definitely are (laughs). They crack your whole perspective open and they make you vulnerable and they make you re-learn things and they really can show you a different perspective.

Just to be perfectly concrete about that, taking a five year old to an art museum, for an artist, it’s just a wonderful education in what captures the eye — how you look at art, what is art or isn’t art.

My kids used to look at the building itself and find it sometimes more interesting than the art on the wall. They would look at like the air conditioning grates.

One time I was in the Art Institute in Chicago and I was just like blown away. I think it was maybe my second trip to the Art Institute. I was walking around and I was just blown away by all the work. I had that kind of euphoric moment where I was just walking around like, “Wow, isn’t this great?”

I saw this really strange sculpture in the corner. It looked like some sort of futuristic space device that some artist had made and put in the corner. I kept looking at it and I couldn’t find a museum label for it. I just kept looking at it. I was like, “Wow, this is really interesting. I wonder what this is.”

I asked the guard, I said, “What is this piece? What Do you know about this piece?”

She looked at it. She looked at me with this pitying look. She said, “That keeps the paintings from melting.” (laughs) It was the air conditioning.

That is exactly what the art museum is supposed to do. It’s supposed to make you look at the world in a new, different way, and to notice things that you would not notice before. That’s what I think kids can do.

You have one of the most interesting newsletters out there. What drew you to that format and keeps drawing you to that format?

I have a friend named Hugh MacLeod, and Hugh’s alter ego online is Gaping Void. Hugh told me at least half a decade ago or maybe even 10 years ago…

During his Ignore Everybody days?

Yeah. At one point he told me that his mailing list was the size of SXSW.

He had this brilliant format where he would he put out this newsletter for free, but then he always had a piece of art to sell at the end.

Hugh was always a step ahead. He saw that blogs were going to come back. People were going to get tired of social media. Even if they didn’t come in the [same] numbers, people were going to start blogging again, because there’s a freedom in blogging. There’s something beautiful about having your own turf. I know you know that and I know that you’ve written about it, but newsletters felt a lot like what blogs used to feel like.

I think I started my newsletter back in 2013 right after Steal Like an Artist came out and right before Show Your Work came out. You know, you’re like, “Oh, well maybe I’ll start a newsletter and that’ll move more books.”

But pretty soon, because my books were lists of 10, I thought maybe I should just do a list of 10 every week. Once I found that particular format, the newsletter sort of took off.

It became something like what my old blogs used to be like. If you go back in my archives to 2006, my blog was a lot like all blogs were back then. It was just a list of links to cool stuff. So the newsletter, in a way, became what the blog used to be, which was a way to collect all my interests in one place and point people towards them.

Then this funny thing happened where I went back to daily blogging again. Well, a couple of things happened, but the newsletter really happened as a kind of like, “Oh, here’s an interesting format that everyone hasn’t tried yet that could be really powerful because it’s not social media and you own all the addresses.”

It turned into its own interesting format and now it’s my favorite thing to do. Thursday is my favorite day. That’s the day I put together the newsletter. I know there are people who read my newsletter that probably haven’t read my books. It’s only a matter of time till I get them (laughs).

At the bottom of the newsletter, like Hugh, you have something to sell them, although I have to wonder why you haven’t gone into things like courses.

I’m lucky because I make a really decent living off my book sales and speaking, so, in some ways, it’s just to keep my life uncomplicated.

I don’t sell a bunch of merch, which would be an easy thing for us to do. I don’t do online courses yet simply because I like the uncomplicated. It just seems like a lot of work (laughs).

My wife and I live below our means and I really try to maximize my time with the kids because they’re so little. We’re just kind of waiting for the kids to ease up a little bit, but I also have the feeling that if you wait they’ll be off to college, so we’ll see what happens.

I’m also really old school. Probably laziness has something to do with it. I’m fundamentally a lazy person. I really don’t want to work very hard. I want to read a lot and I want to write a lot and that’s pretty much it.

Is the daily blogging mostly for you? Or are you trying to build an audience for too?

I have a critical mass now of audience members. I do believe that people have natural-sized audiences. I’m never going to have The Rock’s audience. No one will. There are levels in which you feel like, “Yeah, this is about the right size.”

I mean, I would love a bigger audience. Who wouldn’t? But I’m also just willing to be patient and let it play out.

I started daily blogging in, I think it was October of 2017 when I went back again. I was like, “Okay, I’m doing this, I’m formally doing this.”

What happened at the beginning of 2017 was I started diary-ing. I kept I started old fashioned diary again, and I do like three to five pages of an old school diary.

I write about my day. I write about what I’m reading. I write about what the kids are doing. Sometimes I’ll make collages and sometimes I’ll draw so it’s my notebook. It’s a daily notebook. But it really functions as a diary.

Doing that was such an amazing. It just got my chops back up, you know, because it had been three years since I’d done a book and I knew I was out of practice with writing. So the diary was the first part.

And that “what’s next?” is eating at you.

Yeah, exactly. The “what’s next” question was eating at me every single day. I just thought that things really went well for me when I used to just sit down every day and try to write a blog post. I was like, “Let’s just do that again.”

I’ve sort of been doing that ever since. I have missed a few days but I’ve sort of done that ever since. The combination of those two things led directly to Keep Going. Now I am the biggest proponent of daily writing — some kind of daily habit. I just think that you cannot beat it.

I think there were two people that inspired me the most, and they seem like odd fellows to put next to each other, but I think they actually work really well.

The first is Thoreau. Here’s a guy whose life’s work really was his journal. What Thoreau would do is he would just go on these epic walks. He would walk for half the day. He’d walk for four or five hours at a time and then he’d come back and he would write about his walks.

He would keep a notebook on him and scribble ideas while he’s walking around and then come back and write about his walks in his journal. Then he would take those journals and turn them into lectures. Then he would turn those lectures into his books.

What was interesting about Thoreau for me is that he really felt like, “If I could just give my journals to people, that would be the best expression of my life, because that’s what my life is.” So reading his journals was a big deal.

The other person who inspired me, who has Chicago roots, is David Sedaris. His system is actually very similar to Thoreau’s. Their days are just reversed. What Sedaris does is he keeps a pocket notebook all day, like Thoreau, but when he wakes up in the morning, for a couple hours, he’ll work on his diary.

He’ll take a look at his pocket notebook and whatever is interesting in there — that’s what he’ll write about. For the rest of the day after he writes in the morning, he’ll walk around and pick up trash by the side of the road for eight hours. That’s what he does with his time when he’s not on the road. He just walks around all day and picks up trash.

I was just like stunned. Here’s one of our most famous American writers who’s, by his own admission, wealthy and spends half his day picking up trash so much that he’s known in his village as the trash-picker-upper guy more than an author. His village named a garbage truck after him.

I thought about it and that trash-picking activity is a lot of what he’s done with his own work. If you think about it, what Sedaris, in a lot of his pieces, does is he sort of picks up the debris of life — those things that most people either overlook or toss out — and he weaves them into stories.

The thing I found out about his practice that I didn’t know is that he is a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago so he actually has a visual training. He’s trained in the visual arts. His diaries are actually all hand-made. He has somebody bind them together. Every season, he prints all of his diaries out from the from the computer. Then he binds them. Then he illustrates them with all this ephemera he’s collected from a trash walks. He’s actually a very visual guy, and I found that really fascinating.

I found Thoreau and Sedaris together gave me this repeatable formula for producing work. If you keep a notebook constantly throughout the day, just write down anything that’s interesting. The next morning, you just look through your notebook, and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, I want to write about that.” Then when you’re done writing in your diary, usually you have something to blog about, or you pick up something else in your notebook that you want to mention.

What those two writers gave me is a way to keep going indefinitely with my own practice, because that was really what I was missing as a writer. I was missing this kind of infinite system for producing work. I think that’s what every artist needs. They need some sort of system that will pull them through their days and through their career.

Now my creative life is very simple. I keep my notebook and I keep my diary and I go to my blog every day. Then I put out my newsletter every week. Things happen out of that. Having a system is what I’ve always needed. That’s what I have now.

Is there a line you draw in what you share?

Oh, that’s a really good question. Um,

I’m asking because having read Show Your Work again, it seems that there is a line there that you draw. I just can’t figure out where it is for most people.

Well, I think it’s personal. I think the fundamental thing that was misunderstood about Show Your Work is it felt like people who read it were like, “Oh, I need to share everything.”

Some people who read it thought it was a call for being completely open and setting up a webcam on your desk and broadcasting 24-7.  That was not what that book was supposed to be about.

That book was supposed to be about intentional sharing, thinking about what you share and doing it in little bits and pieces over time so it could turn into something interesting. That was my intent anyway.

As far as what I will share and what I won’t share, there are definitely some things now because I write about being a dad a lot and my oldest son Owen and I, he’s six, do a lot of collaborating. I’m really sensitive about how much of him I share online. I don’t share my son’s faces anymore. I don’t. I think they deserve privacy.

He should be allowed to determine what his digital life is.

Exactly. I share a lot of what Owen makes and I wonder about that sometimes. He’s into it. He sort of understands right now, but I’m sure at some point it might come back around to bite me.

The thing that I’m really sensitive about right now is that I show my son’s bodies online. I show them from behind, working on something, or from an angle where you would never be able to recognize them. You can tell they’re my sons and they’re working on something.

I had an experience recently that made me rethink a lot about sharing with them. As I mentioned before, I’m very lazy. There needed to be a book trailer for Keep Going for whatever reason, and I was thinking about this handwritten book trailer. I thought to myself, you know, Owens fingerprints are sort of all over this book. I should just get him to write these cue cards that I want to show up at the beginning of the trailer. We did it in 10 minutes at the kitchen table with an iPhone.

I just cut it together with iMovie and the laptop while he was taking a bath. He would give me his input and that was it. I shared it online. Most people thought it was cute and really liked it but one or two teachers mentioned how Owen was holding his marker.

Owen holds his marker in this really strange way where it’s as if you made a fist. If you extend your fingers and just put your thumb with your index finger. He holds his pencil like that. You can watch the book trailer if you want to see it, but he holds his pencil in this very particular way. It looks like it would be uncomfortable except his handwriting is like better than most adults that I’ve seen, so I never felt the need to correct him.

There were all these comments from people about, “You know, you will need to fix that because later he’ll….you should see a doctor because that might cause him…” It’s all this false interest.

They don’t really care and they may not even believe what they’re saying.

They’re saying they just want to say something, right? There’s a piece by Paul Ford that I go back to over and over again. He coined this phrase for the internet and it’s “Why Wasn’t I Consulted (WWIC).” I think of this all the time now when I interact with strangers. Paul writes about how that’s the fundamental question online. Why wasn’t I consulted?

I had this moment where I thought, my six year old is this wonderful, brilliant, creative, interesting kid. The idea that there were strangers online commenting on the way he held his marker just sent me into this rage for a day. I’ve never wanted to destroy a stranger so much. They were teachers, some elementary school teachers in my Instagram comments, but I was so upset. I thought it was so benign. I thought showing his handwriting would be like cute and benign.

Because it is.

Because it is. But the internet found a way to turn it into something that was kind of awful. I thought it was a really good lesson. You simply should not share things that you cannot deal with being picked on online. The things that are closest to you, you should probably keep them close to you. Some things just can’t be exposed to the caustic online air.

Now would I do it again? I don’t know. That was one really mundane instance and it could have been so much worse, when you compare that to the awful stories of what women or people of color or queer people have to deal with every day online. It does not compare it all. But for me, it’s an illustration of how something you think is so benign can just turn into this personal, ickiness online.

Another great argument for newsletters and blogs.

Yeah, exactly. Right? An argument for an audience that is more intimate or invested.

Is there anything you want to say to teachers or librarians that we haven’t covered?

I was raised by teachers. My mom was a Home Ec teacher and then she became an administrator. All my aunts were teachers. My dad was an associate professor for Ohio State. So I kind of was raised…I think teaching is in my blood.

But libraries have always been a natural haven for me. I think that the librarian perspective has been a lot more influential in my life than your traditional teaching perspective. What I mean by that is, I try to parent like a librarian.

I really feel that my role as a parent is less about having a lesson plan or things that are going to be on the test later. I’m not saying that this is what teachers do. I’m saying that this is our cartoon of teaching. My mental map of what I do as a parent is not that I have all this knowledge in my head that I want to transfer to my kids.

The map I have in my head is that I see myself as a kind of resource for them. I like to think of myself as their librarian. That can be as simple as having a bunch of books in the house. I’m creating a space in which they can learn for themselves, or I create experiences in which they can access what they need to access. I really do think things go better for me when I think of myself more as a librarian and less as kind of authoritative teacher if that makes sense.

That makes nothing but sense. That’s going to be a huge takeaway for me.

Just to kind of blow it open a little bit more, I want to be more like a librarian for my readers than a teacher too. That might be one reason why I haven’t done online courses yet. I want people to feel like I’m just a fellow student.

I’m just someone who’s on this trip with you. I’m just sharing what I’ve learned. Take it or leave it. I’m trying to create this resource for you that you can take as much or as little as you want. I don’t have a lesson plan or anything I’m trying to divulge.

I’m just trying to blow up in the world for you a little bit. I’m just trying to give you a world that you can step into and take as much or as little as you want.

That might be the new philosophy behind my blogging. Thank you so much.

You’ve given me a lot to think about. There are a couple of libraries on this tour. So hopefully I can hopefully I can take a little bit of that…

Library tourism?

That is my favorite thing. Yes. Well, I have a feeling, CJ, that we can talk forever.

Good luck on your tour.

Thank you.

Read more from Austin Kleon on his site, in his newsletter, and in his books.

Which Note Taking App Should I Use?

Everyone takes and uses notes in in their own way. It’s very personal. No one way works for everyone. In fact, readers who only use paper should skip this article altogether. I admire your lifestyle and hope to have it some day, but for now I rely on the efficient recollection of a robust digital system to get my job done.

These are the principles and apps that work for me. I do not expect all of this to apply to you — thus the title. But maybe it can be a little helpful to you if this is a question you ask of yourself.

Before we get into the apps themselves, I need to define some subjective terms.

Definitions

Your notes are the reference section of your life. It’s not necessarily the project management (or action-taking) part of life for me, though it has that potential. For my purposes, notes are all about reference.

I define reference as any piece of information you are likely to use and want to keep. The word likely is intentionally vague. How you define that word could define the app you use.

For example, if you’re likely to use 90% of what you save as reference, you are likely to save very few notes, and something like Apple Notes or Google Keep will be fine for you.

If you’re a writer like me, the word likely could include notes, blog posts, and book chapters you wrote a decade ago. Even a small percentage chance of future usefulness makes a note valuable. I have a huge amount of reference, so simpler apps usually don’t work out well.

For my purposes, everything I create or research is reference of some kind that could be useful in future work. That includes text, photos, and audio that currently constitute around 4000 “active” notes. A text-only notes app would not work for me.

Some writers separate their notes from their published writing. This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Reference is reference whether or not it’s published.

What a Note Taking App Should Do

Note taking apps need to be good at three key things:

  1. Capture. How easy is it to get reference material into the app?

  2. Organization. How easy is it to place the reference material in the app with the correct metadata and tags?

  3. Recovery. How easy is it to find what you’re looking for?

That’s it. Plenty of notes apps are good at other things, but most fail at some or all of those three corner stone functions.

Pros and Cons of Popular Note Taking Apps

I’m not going to cover every app, only the ones I’ve spent years with as (primarily) a Mac and iOS user: Apple Notes, Evernote, Ulysses, and Bear.

Apple Notes

Pros:

  • It’s in the Apple ecosystem, so it’s very friendly Siri and automation.

  • It’s well designed for system app, though I wish they’d let go of that paper background.

  • It’s very easy to use.

  • It’s free.

  • It’s fun.

  • It’s fast.

  • It’s file handling is totally within the Apple system without duplication, so photos and attached documents do not add to the size of a note.

  • There’s no feature bloat.

  • It has the best Apple Pencil support.

  • There’s easy import/export options available.

  • The developers work only on Apple platforms (as opposed to most note apps).

  • The link capture card is more elegant and useful than any other app.

  • It always pastes in plain text (as opposed to rich text notes apps).

  • It defaults to smart quotes, which is nice for a rich text editor.

  • The future is more iOS-centric and this plays better with iOS than any other note app.

  • There’s better privacy than in other notes apps.

  • Apple Notes fits well with a one-thing-well philosophy. Use notes for notes, bookmarks in Safari, contacts in Contacts, etc.

  • Pogue seems to adore it over Evernote.

  • MacSparky’s experiments with it looked good.

  • Federico Viticci of MacStories seemed to love it for a while. Ryan Christoffel too.

Cons:

  • It doesn’t handle a lot of notes. There were anecdotal reports that after the app’s last big update, sync broke down if you had 2000 small notes or 500 big notes. Pogue says it works with his 1600 notes just fine, though.

  • Sync has historically been iffy for me.

  • I use tags. They’re essential. Notes may not ever support them. Average people don’t care about tags and Apple designs for the average person.

  • Notes isn't well suited to archiving reference articles and other materials for the long term (stuff that doesn't work as files, but does as reference).

  • You can’t edit dates on notes.

Evernote

Pros:

  • It’s the most automated. It’s the only thing I tested with both simple web automation and system automation. No matter what I write or where I write online, Evernote captures and files it without me needing to see anything. I believe this may be coming to Bear, but for now, Evernote is the gold standard for automatic capture and organization.

  • It’s the most flexible.

  • It’s the most reliable. I’ve lost data on every iCloud notes app I tried. In a decade, I’ve never lost a single note on Evernote. A good reference system is about trusting that things are going to be properly in place when needed. The point is to not have it on your mind. Evernote has proven itself trustworthy to me.

  • It syncs the fastest of these apps.

  • It’s cross-platform.

  • It captures everything.

  • It includes URLs automatically in the note’s metadata. Nothing else does this.

  • It has versioning.

  • It indexes text within photos and graphics for search.

  • It’s offers a plain text option for individual notes. If you don’t want plain text, but don’t want a bunch of crazy HTML formatting either, it offers a “simplify formatting” option.

  • It has bulk tagging and untagging, which no other app tested could do without crashing. This saves immense amounts of time.

  • When importing/exporting, Evernote was the most robust tool, processing images like it was nothing.

  • It’s the only app tested that allowed for changing created and modified dates. This is huge if you’re importing old writing/notes and you want them to properly sort.

  • Shane Snow uses Evernote to write his books so that his collaborations and research can be easy shared and be device agnostic.

  • YouTuber Carl Pullein says, “You should be using Evernote in 2019.” He re-iterates everything I’ve written for years about notes (except he uses the terms collect, store, and search, instead of my capture, organize, and recover).

Cons:

  • Evernote has an Android team and a Windows team. How much will they innovate for MacOS and iOS? At least they disbanded their Backberry team.

  • It’s not well designed.

  • It’s expensive.

  • My blog posts and newsletters are not always captured well through Evernote automation. They look ugly.

  • The iOS version has never captured anything well (without Shortcuts).

  • The newest versions on iOS seem to move away from tags. This is crazy.

  • The constant reversals/upheavals at Evernote bother me. From the ever-changing, whacky UI to the not knowing what crazy business model will come next, I’m left in a state of perpetual confusion about the future of my notes.

  • It’s unlikely they’ll roll back what they already have done in the way of feature creep. Why lose even more business?

  • Privacy: Apple Notes are encrypted by default and no one can see them. Anyone at Evernote or in law enforcement can see your Evernote notes unless you individually encrypt each one.

  • Evernote has had sync issues recently, although I haven't experienced them personally.

  • Sometimes I think I save too much to Evernote because it’s too easy. There may not be enough constraint here.

Bear

Pros:

  • It works the way I think.

  • Importing and exporting is super fast.

  • It’s the best at tag handling. It actually makes tagging fun.

  • Organization happens in the note. This means exports will include that data no matter where you take them.

  • It’s fast.

  • It’s relatively inexpensive.

  • The company seems stable, helpful, and fun.

  • The design is the best of the apps tested.

  • It exports to everything, including JPEG for social sharing.

  • It’s so easy to clip from the web and the clipper is even better than Evernote’s (both on Mac and iOS).

  • It’s great as a writing tool (not the best, but great). No other app tested does the combo of notes and writing as well as Bear.

  • Check out The Verge's article on replacing Evernote with Bear.

Cons:

  • It does not import all images from other apps. Each note needs inspecting.

  • There’s no web automation like Evernote: no email forwarding, no email address, no automatic archiving blog posts or newsletters (no IFTTT without extra work and no pictures if setting up workflows through dropbox). This could be fixed with their future web version. Until then, it’s all manual.

  • It does not have versioning.

  • You can’t edit dates on notes.

  • There’s no inbox in Bear (but you can search by “untagged” to find notes that have not been processed).

  • Exports from Bear did not include all the metadata needed.

  • You cannot bulk tag or untag like in Evernote.

Ulysses

Pros:

  • I’m much more likely to write on iOS if I use this app.

  • It treats writing as different from reference and concentrates on being the best at writing, while have secondary note taking capabilities. This forces creation over consumption.

  • It has versioning.

  • It has an inbox.

  • It has “goals” which are very useful when writing to reach a certain number of words.

  • I can finally incorporate my books into my reference a meaningful way.

  • It can combine notes (I refuse to call them sheets) like Scrivener.

  • It can compile ebooks like in Scrivener, though neither are as good as Vellum.

  • It can be used for very basic journaling.

  • Lots of nerds love it, which means lots of Shortcuts and resources are available for it.

  • Ulysses also offers the ability to separate and filter types of notes in a search by all kinds of detailed criteria.

  • It’s trusted by Ben Brooks, Shawn Blanc and so many others who are known for considering the tiniest details of design in software.

  • You can even take notes about your notes.

  • You can post to Wordpress and Medium, if that’s your thing (it’s not mine).

Cons:

  • It is not really a notes app, and doesn’t handle automated reference well.

  • It’s iOS swiping doesn’t do what I want it to do. Swiping to delete isn’t a thing. It’s frustrating.

  • It’s terrible at capture compared to the rest.

  • It’s the only app that couldn’t handle importing notes without spinning up the fans like crazy on MacOS and straight up crashing over and over on iOS.

  • Syncing can be iffy, and take days at first.

  • Every time I open it in iOS it takes a while to load and populate the inbox. It doesn’t inspire confidence.

  • Apple Notes and Evernote just got out of my way and let me capture in any way I want. Ulysses is picky and requires more of my time to capture anything.

  • It doesn’t seem to be able to handle large amounts of notes well.

  • You can’t change the dates on a note, even though it’s one of the few ways you can sort your notes.

  • It’s not fun to use.

  • It’s not easy to use.

  • I don’t like using it for anything but writing.

  • When importing/exporting, Ulysses was the worst tested. Its bulk export is barely present. Note-by-note individual exporting is needed if images are in a note.

  • It cannot collect the text of web pages on its own.

  • It’s slow. It takes forever to process changes.

  • Notes, chapters, newsletters, and blog posts are not “sheets.” It may seem nitpicky, but this bothers me.

Rules for Switching Apps

For years I’ve been collecting my experiences with these apps. The one I’m using changes about every six months. Why? As you’ve seen above, every app has major cons. These cons force me to get fed up enough to do something different every once in a while.

This leads me to a notes app switching principle: Fix your roof when it’s sunny. Switching apps is often a sign that your overwhelmed by something. Fix that something before you fix your apps.

Another useful rule: When you switch, do it all at once. I didn’t, which led me to find flaws in both Bear and Ulysses, but it made switching back extremely difficult. First, realize that importing to any app will have huge flaws, but do it all at once and keep the original app as reference for what broke.

What Am I Using Right Now?

I’ve switched back to Evernote for now. The flaws in Evernote are mostly design-based, which beats the functional flaws in other apps. I do have high hopes for Bear, though. When they get their web app up and running, it’ll be hard to argue against them.

I love that Ulysses has a bias for creation, but the hoops required to jump through for capture make it really hard to use for me. I’ve wasted a lot of time trying to get the app to work with my writing, which kills its primary benefit: focusing on creation.

And as much as I love using system apps, Apple Notes just can’t handle the amount of notes I take. I hope this changes, but I’m not holding my breath.

Damn you Evernote. Why can’t I quit you! (h/t Cortex)

Updated in 04/2019 to reflect Ulysses updates to bulk tagging.

"Sources of Personal Competitive Advantage"

Shane Parrish is collecting a list on Twitter of sources of personal competitive advantage. Readers soon joined in and now it’s a long thread that received the following response from business author Kevin Kruse:

“If he doesn’t turn this into a book, I will.”

Here’s what the list started with (I bolded my favorite — I could probably write an entire book just on this one point):

  • Delayed gratification

  • Capital

  • Network (who you know)

  • Unique skills or combinations

  • Platform

  • Ability to suffer

  • Family/home life

  • Speed

  • Ability to change your mind

  • Ability to learn/adapt

  • Ability to persuade others

  • Ability to look stupid

  • Advanced Pattern recognition

  • Focus

  • Ability to say no