Zero Minus Plus

Lotta information to process these days. I’ve read more bits of scientific papers in the past few weeks than ever before. Doesn’t mean I know anything, though. I’ve stopped sharing what I think I’ve learned even with people close to me, at least until I hear it from multiple real experts. At least twice now I’ve had to say, “Hey, sorry, turns out that thing I shared yesterday is bullshit.” That’s no good.

I’m reminded of a framework I learned from Chris Hadfield in An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.

In any new situation, whether it involves an elevator or a rocket ship, you will almost certainly be viewed in one of three ways. As a minus one: actively harmful, someone who creates problems. Or as a zero: your impact is neutral and doesn’t tip the balance one way or the other. Or you’ll be seen as a plus one: someone who actively adds value.

I refer to it as Zero Minus Plus (ZMP), as that seems to roll off the tongue the easiest. You’d think you’d always want to be the plus one, but he goes on to explain that trying to be the plus one, or worse, thinking you’re a plus one when you’re not, tends to make you into a minus.

In this particular new environment we find ourselves in, with a new pandemic sweeping a modern world, I’m aiming to be a zero. My time on Twitter leads me to believe a lot of other folks could benefit from this approach.

When you have some skills but don’t fully understand your environment, there is no way you can be plus one. At best, you can be a zero. But a zero isn’t a bad thing to be. You’re competent enough not to create problems or make more work for everyone else. And you have to be competent, and prove to others that you are, before you can be extraordinary. There are no short-cuts, unfortunately.

I am absolutely certain I did the thing I did not do

Went out to an event a few weekends ago, but did not actually get to attend the event, because I did not purchase tickets to the event and it was sold out when we got there.

I was absolutely certain I had purchased the tickets. I remember looking at the site, I remember filling out the form, I remember where I was when I filled it out, I remember talking to someone about it while I did it.

Except, I did not do this. I did not fill out the form. I did not have the conversation. Checked the receipts, got a second opinion. The timeline of my memory doesn’t match reality.

What a jarring sensation! It feels on a spectrum with deja vu, of being gaslit by reality. Like when you discover it’s the Berenstain Bears, or that Shazaam is not in fact a movie. (I’m sorry for the experience you’re about to have if you just learned these things from me.)

Makes a guy wonder how much of what’s rattling around in that old trunk of memories actually happened, or happened to you and not the person who told it to you, or happened in the time and place you remember it happening. Probably not much.

Nothing unfamiliar (Tools I used to write a book)

My book advises designers to be intentional about the tools they choose and use to do the writing on their projects. For writing a book, a thing I’d never done before, I ran a few experiments to see if there was any good and smart tool I hadn’t tried before that would make it easier. I quickly learned that I didn’t want to use anything new. The book was not an experiment in tools. It was a job. I had work to do, so I went with what I was familiar with.

That’s now also the advice I give to people planning their own book projects:

  • Write wherever you can write quickly.
  • Keep notes however you’re used to keeping notes.

You’ve got a book to write; you don’t need a new part-time job as librarian or software developer or project manager, too.

It’s been a minute since I wrote the book, but I’ll run down everything I can remember using.

MindNode

MindNode has been my outlining and braindumping tool of choice for over a decade. It has a limited featureset and good keyboard control and lets me work quickly. I worked up various versions of the initial outline in MindNode, and would open it up here and there throughout the process to think through something or generate a detailed outline for a section or concept before trying to write it.

Byword

Byword on MacOS was my typewriter. It was the primary tool I used to produce the first complete draft of the manuscript. Byword is a plain text writing environment with Markdown support, which means that you are mostly just typing while you write (and not fiddling with margins and fonts and formatting and such).

I organized my draft as six plain text files: four chapters, the introduction, and resources. I also had a scratchpad file.

I ran ByWord fullscreen on a 13” MacBook Air I was carrying at the. Fullscreen enables multiple tabs of ByWord on one screen, like tabs in a web browser. I opened the scratchpad document as my first tab, and then each chapter in order. This way, I could have my entire manuscript open at once without having to do too much scrolling. I mostly worked in a non-chronological order on the book, and would often find myself needing to move things from one chapter to another as the structure evolved.

Google Drive

I used Google Drive to draft the bullet-pointed, Table of Contents-style outlines that were part of pitching the book and refining the initial concept. I also used it whenever I needed to share something with someone, often copying as rich-text from Byword, pasting it in, and cleaning up as needed.

Google Drive was also how I coordinated marketing for the book, with a variety of spreadsheets and documents, and some light email automation in Gmail.

Dropbox

Dropbox was my safety net for the drafts and revisions. I kept all my text files in a Dropbox folder, which to this day are still inside a folder called “Digital Writing Book”. I didn’t have to think about Dropbox and that’s what I like about it.

Microsoft Word

I would prefer, personally, to never use Microsoft Word. I just don’t want it. But it was part of the revision and publishing process, and I used it as needed. The publisher provided a Word document with all of their styles and formatting conventions built into a template.

When my first draft was finished, I copied each chapter into Word as plain text from the text files. I then went through paragraph-by-paragraph to clean it up, apply styles, add bolding and do some light copyediting here and there. This sounds tedious but it really didn’t take long at all, maybe two hours for the whole book, and I found this vastly preferable to using Word during the initial writing process.

My editor and I collaborated on drafts in Word with comments and track changes.

Field Notes steno notebook

On one of my early writing sprints at Open Book I felt constrained by only being able to type my thoughts. I didn’t have a notebook with me so I popped into the gift shop and got a steno-style Field Notes that they had in stock. There were only a few options, so I decided to suffer Gregg-ruled paper (ugh) in exchange for the lay-flat top binding (yay!).

The notebook stayed with me throughout the rest of the writing process, and I only put things about the book in the notebook.

When I ran out of steam typing I would noodle a bit with pen and paper until I got unstuck, and then resume typing. It helped ideas flow more easily; whatever I was writing on paper wasn’t something I was committed to, which I think help relieved some pressure and helped ideas flow more easily.

I kept to-dos in the notebook, and would often make notes to myself about what I’d done on a certain date and what I wanted to do the next time I sat down to write. It helped to keep a conversation with myself about the book without those thoughts cluttering the actual draft.

Expert Ding-Dong

I keep seeing LinkedIn profile headlines with the word “expert” in them. Good grief. The surface-level reaction is: “Haha, look at that try-hard.” But that’s a defensive coating on the deeper response: “Oh shit, should I be doing that? I’m more of an expert on [Topic] than that guy!”

I’ve built my share of expertise in a few areas. That could be me! I could pop “expert” right up in there. But I … don’t want to? It feels squicky. To describe oneself as an expert seems akin to talking about how kind and humble you are.

In contract law, experts are sometimes called to make binding determinations. I like this phrase I found from a quick Google search: “Expert determination is consensual.” They’re using it in a contractual sense but boy doesn’t that ring true? Call yourself an expert all you like but it takes two to tango.

The more I learn and the more writing I do the less comfortable I am with authoritative posturing. The fuck do I know, you know? Trying to sound smart works as well as trying to be cool — which is to say, not at all. Call me an Expert Ding-Dong. Pre-eminent Thought Forgetter. Chief Idiot Officer. Come on, one more … oh oh! Director of Donkey Brains.

I acknowledge the absence of the sun

Ah, that beautiful morning light of January in Minneapolis.
Ah, that beautiful morning light of January in Minneapolis.

Just heard on the radio that it’s the cloudiest January on record here. I believe it.

It’s required attention, that’s for sure. I take my Vitamin D supplement (a gummy, of course — treat yourself). I have a clinical-looking daylight lamp that kicks on automatically when sunrise is supposed to be. I try to stick to a morning routine. It’s hard to know how much anything helps, or at least the mechanism by which it’s helping. Some mornings the ritual is the main comfort. A wordless mantra, if translated:

I acknowledge the absence of the sun, as I have acknowledged it the five days prior. Today, my life will continue without the sun. I look forward to the sun’s return.

It’s all you can do, really. If it gets real cold you find a fire or put on more layers. If you’re sliding on the snow and ice you get better boots. But if the sun’s gone? Man. Keep that coffee on, say a little prayer, and keep on trucking.

Tomato paste provenance

It’s disorienting, sometimes, the way objects slip in and out of our lives — what ever happened to that red shirt? Don’t I own more coffee mugs? Where on Earth did this book come from?

I used to be very focused on momentos — my teenage bedroom had a meticulously arranged display of every chotchke and knick-knack that felt like representation of Living a Life: concert tickets and boarding passes and street corner souvenirs1 and dried out boutonnieres and metro cards from “big cities” like Chicago! Then I moved, and moved, and moved, and moved again, and my parents moved and moved again, and I grew and changed, and the memories were lost or discarded, or the objects were, or both. A room became a Banker’s Box became a shoebox became an empty shelf.

I’m coming up on four years of living in Minneapolis. I missed Hy-Vee for a long while after moving here, the big friendly grocery chain found all over Iowa. Cub is … not for me. They have one up here, a Hy-Vee, somewhere or other, and have long talked of building another nearby. But it seems to be all talk.

Regardless, I eventually moved on in my heart. The grocer nearest me is over-priced, and the produce is poor, but it’s there, and I know it, and in my loneliest stretches I visited five times a week, just to have somewhere to go and people to chat with. I joined a co-op up the road a bit ago, now that I’ve got the truck. Better produce, good sandwiches, earnest people who think they’ll live forever by asking about the mercury content of their homeopathic tinctures.

I hadn’t thought about any of this, hadn’t thought of Iowa in forever, and then: this can of tomato paste.

Do you know how many recipes call for tomato paste? My girlfriend and I have been cooking a lot this winter and we’re really going through it. We needed some for sloppy joes and she pulled this can of Hy-Vee store brand tomato paste out of the back of my pantry. “Oh no! You’d better check the expiration date.”2

My mind reeled at the provenance of this can. Six ounces from another lifetime! I clearly moved here with it. This apartment may even be its third home, if I brought it from the house. I wonder: did I buy it with purpose, for a meal that never was? Or was it aspirational, a baby step toward the day I became the kind of person who needed to have tomato paste handy? (You don’t need it for frozen pizzas, that’s for sure.)

You expect to find ghosts from time to time in an attic or garage, or your childhood bedroom closet, but an apartment pantry?! I thought I knew this place! I wonder what other memories lurk in cupboard corners, fallen behind furniture, tucked in boxes I’ve gone blind to from familiarity. It seems the mementos accumulate whether you mean for them to or not.


  1. I do regret losing track of my Statue of Liberty lighter.
  2. It expired in 2017. We ate it anyway. Nobody died.

Long paragraphs

“So often the long paragraphs I write in life are responses to Facebook posts, or reply letters to someone, or … I can put together a three-paragraph letter that burns the hair off of your eyebrows about almost any topic.”

– John Roderick on the Road Work podcast

I like this thought technology: Where do the long paragraphs come from in your life?

A long paragraph isn’t a good or bad thing, but it is instructive. It points to a passion, a pain point. A bugaboo or a peeve. If one pops up while in a piece I’m writing, it’s often a sign I need to expand — more structure, maybe another section. If one pops up while I’m using social media, it’s often a sign I need to shut my computer and go take a walk.