In order to enjoy a simpler life, you do NOT need to read this post

Several years ago I read a book called Simplicity: The New Competitive Advantage in a World of More, Better, Faster. The premise is compelling. And some of the ideas in the book are interesting. But much of the book is not very ‘simple’ at all. In fact, it gets strangely complicated at parts.

I think the problem is that there just isn’t much to be said about simplicity after a hundred or so pages on the topic. Maybe it is easy to say more than needs to be said about the beauty of simplicity. Perhaps it is a risk I am taking right now?

Past a few basic physiological necessities, my life is rarely simplified by adding more things to it. I suspect genuine simplicity is not a highly leverageable commodity, at least in an economic sense. Simplicity should be a curse to advertisers, less than an exploitable opportunity. I am highly suspicious when someone tries to sell me something with the promise that it will make my life simpler. How could adding yet another widget to my inventory of possessions, processes, contracts, and concerns possibility simplify my existence?

Beware any fad that promises to simplify life your life by up-selling you. You don’t need a book, an app, or a blog a post to bring greater simplicity to life. No barrier to entry is what makes simplicity special and beautiful in the first place: you don’t need anything at all to enjoy it, except the will and commitment to ditch whatever is unnecessarily complicated and getting in the way.

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So accustomed to the skies

I finally made it through Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things — a first century BCE poem that sets out to summarize and synthesize a comprehensive philosophy of… everything. It is a fascinating account of the natural world: fascinating not only for the sheer grandeur of the endeavor — over 7,000 lines of didactic poetry — but also for the revolutionary ideas of its time. In Lucretius’ account world, natural events occurred through randomness and chance, not at the whims of deities. The linchpin of the poem is the proposition of atoms: tiny, invisible, indivisible particles that compose everything. Like Epicurus before him, Lucretius had no way of testing the theory, only his reasoning and observation.

By today’s understanding, Lucretius is wrong in most of his scientific conclusion. He thinks that the sun is the same size as it appears in the sky, that the orbital difference between the stars and moon are caused by air currents, and that thunder is the result of clouds crashing into each other. One does not read On the Nature of Things today for its robust physics.

So why read Lucretius? Rooted in a specific moment of time — namely, first century BCE Rome — this poem reiterates a timeless truth: what you believe about the world is inseparable from how you live in it. For Lucretius, the theory of atoms was nothing short of psychological and emotional liberation: if the events of the world could be explained by the properties of these microscopic specks, then humanity would no longer be enslaved to the appeasement of the gods. As Lucretius saw it, the science of atoms yielded the end of fear. No longer were vengeful gods to be blamed for droughts and disasters. Sacrifices were no longer required to ward off divine wrath or win divine favour.

For me, the most endearing trait of Lucretius is his giddy, childlike awe with the world. Once he got it in his head that everything could have a natural explanation, he saw everything around him through a new set of eyes. His openness and curiosity are infectious. Even though his conclusions are wonky by the standards of contemporary science, I still often found myself shifting my gaze from the pages of the book to ponder the world through Lucretius’ eyes: Look, a tree. Trees are incredible. What do I actually know about trees? How do they work?

Now, however, people hardly bother to lift their eyes
To the glittering heavens, they are so accustomed to the skies. (II.1038-1039, trans. Stallings 2007:67)

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James Shelley on Writing & Publishing: An Interview

[Republished from an interview in Wired Writers Guild, originally published March 11, 2014.]

What kind of writing do you do and where can people find you?

I currently write full-time for the Caesura Letters, a magazine/app all about looking at the world from different perspectives. Literally, it is a periodical about ideas: contemplating life through new lenses, hypotheses, and assumptions. It is intended for people, who, like myself, are just obsessively fascinated by the reciprocal relationship between human ideas and the worlds we create with them.

When did you first start writing (or when did you first start writing seriously)?

I dabbled in short story as a teenager, started blogging 1998, and wrote manuals and curriculum material for work-related projects later on. That said, I have really been the ‘most serious’ about writing since the Summer of 2012, when the Caesura Letters launched and I started dedicating an ever increasing percentage of my waking life to research, study, and composition.

What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

My greatest hope as a writer is unapologetically selfish: I never want to stop discovering new things. I see this agenda and passion manifested in the writers I most love: it is pointless to consider yourself a compelling or inspiring writer unless you are, yourself, being compelled and inspired by what you are learning. In this sense, I never want to ‘arrive’ or ‘settle down’, or find myself rehearsing and rehashing my opinion like an automaton, droning on about some topic that I supposedly ‘know’ inside and out. No, I want to stay mesmerized by the curious allure of uncertainty, helplessly arrested by the intrigue of the human condition, and perpetually clinging to the coattails of mysteries I don’t understand. In other words, I don’t think I want to achieve or reach a particular, final ‘accomplishment’. That seems rather disappointing! Perhaps the most exciting part about writing for me is that I have no clue where I am going to end up.

What is your proudest moment as a writer thus far?

For me, the most fulfilling, rewarding, and affirming feedback is hearing someone say, “I have never thought about it that way before.” This statement is the sound of something being pondered; something, previously taken for granted, being perceived in new light.

I write because I have a personal, clinical addiction to the sensations of epiphany and discovery, and anytime that I get to share a dose of this adrenaline rush with someone else, I experience a double shot of the dopamine hit.

Describe your writing process. Do you start in a notebook and move it to the computer? Are there particular apps you can’t write without?

For me, writing starts with reading. I ran out of original, creative ideas a long, long time ago. (In fact, it’s quite questionable that I even had any to begin with.) Ultimately, writing really isn’t about writing itself — writing is about ideas. Ideas are the debris left in wake of mental collisions (those times when my mental go-cart gloriously derails from its safe, usual course). Thus, reading is the primary way that my own habits of thought are disrupted.

I take copious notes on everything that triggers my curiosity, and I read in order to take copious notes. These notes become like little thought incubators, which (sometimes/eventually) become written articles, essays, and other pieces.

Describe your publishing process. What host and platform (Ghost, Squarespace, WordPress, etc) are you using and why?

I decided to build on the WordPress platform several years ago, primarily because I’m an laughable ignoramus when it comes to web development, and WordPress seemed to have the most vibrant community of developers and resources around it. Years on, I’d still recommend it to anyone. (But, truth be told, I haven’t actually tried anything else, so I can only really recommend WordPress on the basis that it has done everything I’ve ever personally needed it to do.)

What are some goals you set when you first started out that you’ve been able to accomplish? How did you go about accomplishing them?

So far I have not starved to death. It’s been a miracle, really. I can’t explain it.

If you were starting today, what are some things you’d do differently?

I’d go back and tell my fifteen year-old self to keep a better bibliography of the books, lectures, and art that provokes and inspires me growing up. I would tell the little rascal that everything beckons discovery, and that he should stop arbitrarily pigeonholing life under the categories of ‘interesting’ and ‘uninteresting’. If I knew then what I know now, I would have started paying attention to all those so-called ‘uninteresting’ things much earlier. Few disciplines are more precious for a writer. Second guessing the obvious sits at the heart of it all.

What is one tip, trick or app you think every writer should know/use?

It’s quite possible that I would have a myocardial infarction if Scrivener suddenly disappeared.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer who hopes to attract a larger readership and earn their first dollar?

Marry rich.

Ok, seriously…

Your first priority is not having a website or a ‘following’. Your first priority is having something to say.

The prevalent, common advice these days seems to go along these lines: Just write. No matter what, they say, just keep writing. This may be a heretical departure from common knowledge, but I don’t quite buy the proposition that the best way to become a better writer is to write more. The best way to become a better writer is to learn more.

So, aspiring writer, I propose that the quality and meaningfulness of what you and I do correlates with our willingness to consume, ponder, critique, and contemplate the thoughts of others. We are not little blobs floating in some sterile vacuum, and neither are we sitting at a typewriter in a whitewashed isolation cell. We only nurture our capacity to say something constructive about the world if we let the world in. So let’s invite history, the classics, and the canons of literature to demolish our pet illusion that we are embodiments of some self-contained genius.

As for attracting larger audiences and generating revenue, I’d be pretending if I claimed to have any knowledge of such witchcraft! If anyone figures this out, please let me know.

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Judging the Guy with the Blackberry

An inter­est­ing moral­ity is devel­op­ing around the pub­lic use of mobile tech­nol­ogy: There is an indi­vid­ual, madly typ­ing into their small elec­tronic device, seem­ingly aloof to every­thing around them. Are they dis­con­nected from the real world? Are they miss­ing out on human con­tact with their imme­di­ate real­ity? And here’s the emo­tional jugu­lar: does their use of said dig­i­tal device dis­tance them from their fam­ily and loved ones? Does it rewire their rela­tion­ship to the present?

I’m not really con­cerned with the answers to those ques­tions at the moment. My ques­tion is this: why doesn’t the per­son sit­ting in a park read­ing a book get sub­jected to the same mor­al­iza­tion as the guy check­ing his email? Peo­ple have stood on side­walks read­ing news­pa­pers for decades…what’s the big deal with stand­ing on the side­walk with a dig­i­tal device?

Yes, tech­nol­ogy always dri­ves changes in human behav­ior, but the “change” hap­pen­ing now is actu­ally but a very small adap­ta­tion to the seis­mic inven­tion that fun­da­men­tally changed human inter­ac­tion in pub­lic spaces: the print­ing press. Unless you want to ban the read­ing of books in pub­lic, quit judg­ing the teenagers sit­ting in the mall tex­ting each other.

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