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A friend recently asked for advice on how to get started writing a book. I often get that question. You might have an idea for a book, and all the writing skill you need, but how do you go from idea to implementation? It's a deceptively difficult step.

Part of the problem is that writing a book is the loneliest job in the world, and an immense amount of work. It's hard to get started on a project so daunting. My new book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life, took two years to write. For most of that time, no one but me saw any part of it. My publisher and I have a long history, so he lets me run free after the general concept for the book is nailed down. I probably worked for 18 months without anyone else seeing a word of it.

Ask yourself if you could work on a project for 18 months without a single positive word of encouragement, and without really sharing with anyone the thing you have been immersed in day after day. Sure, I often mentioned the book project to friends and family. And I often talked about topics I planned to include. But usually I got blank stares in return. The thing with a well-designed book is that it only works in full form. Any chapter or topic out of context just lays there. I wanted to talk with friends about my writing, but doing so was impractical because it required a book-length explanation.

For nearly two years I plugged away on a collection of ideas around my theme and I have to say that none of it worked until the next-to-last round of edits. With my layered writing process, success tends to be binary. The book is a lifeless bunch of ideas until the moment it isn't. As a writer, you hope that moment comes, but you can never know for sure. This is yet another case in which my natural inclination for optimism comes in handy. I tell myself I can smell a book before I can see it. I know it's in me; I just need to write until I find it. I'm not entirely sure if I am intuitive or irrational, or even if those things are different.

If you're planning to write a book, ask yourself if you are the type of person that can spend that much time completely alone, doing unpleasant work, while receiving nothing in the way of encouragement or positive feedback along the way. You won't even know if anyone will read your book when you're done. If you answered "Yes, I can do that," I recommend these steps:

Step 1: Open a Word document and give it a name. If you don't have a title yet, choose a working title. Close your empty document and walk away. You have successfully completed step one. It's important to feel a sense of progress. I start every book exactly this way.

Step 2: You've probably been thinking for a long time about the content for your book, and more ideas will come to you. Take notes in bullet form. Every few days, add those notes to your document. Just get them on paper. If your topic is interesting, at least to you, this step will energize you and get the ideas flowing. Your notes should be coming faster and faster over the next few weeks as the ideas build on each other.

Step 3: Once you have several pages of brief notes, start separating them into logical groups. Those groups might become chapters later, but for now it's just a way to keep ideas organized. When you add ideas, put them in the groups they belong or start new groups.

Step 4: In about a month, one of two things is likely to happen. You'll either lose interest in your own book idea, because your collection of ideas isn't as compelling as you hoped, or you'll feel a compulsion to start writing. If you don't feel the compulsion after a month of compiling notes, walk away. I only write a book when the urge to communicate its message becomes stronger than my desire for leisure. Writing a book is terrifically hard work with no guarantee of a payoff. You can't drag a book into existence; the book has to drag you.

Once you're committed to writing the book, you need a process that works for you. Every writer is different, but I'll tell you my process as a starting point. I write in layers, roughly like this:

1. Layer one (first draft) involves writing as fast as I can and getting the ideas in sentence and paragraph form. My first drafts tend to be dry and descriptive, and full of redundancies and broken logic. That's okay for the first draft.

2. Layer two is where I start connecting the logic, putting topics in the best order, removing redundancies, and identifying my most powerful themes. At this point, the draft starts to make sense.

3. Layer three involves writing and rewriting the first chapter until I have the voice and tone I want for the rest of the book. I might rewrite my first chapter thirty times. And when the book is mostly done, I go back and rewrite it a few more times. In terms of importance, both to the writer and the reader, the first chapter is about ten times more important than any other.

4. Layer four involves engineering the wording throughout the book to produce the right sort of emotional response in the reader. At that point I might rewrite nearly every sentence in the book, keeping the meaning the same but changing how it feels when you read it. My latest book is about the topic of success so I packed it with words and concepts that are energizing by their nature. Every sentence in a book needs to have a consistent flavor and feel. When I write humor, I try to make every third sentence a light or funny payoff. And I avoid downer words such as the names of diseases while packing in lots of inherently funny words such as yank, buttocks, Satan, squirrel, and the like.

5. Layer five is when the editors get involved. The first time my editor sees the book, she makes high-level comments about which chapters work better than others, how the ordering of topics is working, how the tone feels, and that sort of thing. No one cares about grammar or sentence structure yet. Once I make the editor's suggested changes, or in some cases argue them away, this is generally the point at which the book becomes alive. For the first time, I can reread it and say, "This actually works." That's a good day.

6. Layer six happens after my editor is happy with the basic flow of the book. Now a second editor - a copy editor - goes over the writing in detail and fills my pages with notes and corrections. It's a humbling process. After I make those changes, the book is generally done.

All writers have their own process. Now you know mine. The only other thing I would add is that for most people, writing works best in the early morning or late night. I'm writing this piece at about 5 AM. If you aren't a morning person, try the late night approach.

Good luck!
 
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My prediction is that Apple is going to enter the banking business and disrupt the heck out of it. I sure hope so. I'd switch my account to an Apple Bank on the first day of business if they did it right, and they probably would.

The fingerprint technology on the new iPhones is the first step. Once Apple controls the process of identifying a customer, both by fingerprint and possibly by physical location of the phone, it will have the first phase of a stranglehold on banking.

Retail banking is the most tangled rat's nest of a legacy system that civilization has ever known. Nothing really compares in terms of how it touches nearly every citizen (or should) and how user-unfriendly it is. Compare the potential of an Apple Bank to the potential of a crappy me-too Apple wristwatch. Now ask yourself if Apple thinks small.

Lately Apple has been too quiet, and probably not because Jobs has shed his mortal coil to become pure energy, or whatever it is that he negotiated with the universe. I think Apple has something big planned, and it isn't television and it isn't a watch, although they might take a run at those products too.

Online banking and banking apps are big improvements over the old process of walking into a branch bank. But we're still clearly in the Sony Walkman phase of where online banking needs to be. It should take three seconds to pay a bill online, not five minutes. I should be able to send money to anyone on my contacts list in seconds. I should never need to carry credit cards and ATM cards again.

Why do you have to fill out so much paperwork to apply for a loan when all of your records already exist somewhere in the cloud? My Apple Bank would know everything about me, including my credit worthiness, at all times. If I want a loan I should have it in less than five seconds from the time I put my thumb on my phone.

I don't think I need to describe all of the inefficiencies with the current banking system. You get the idea. In my view, the marriage of smartphones with banking represents the largest market opportunity in history. Would Apple stay out of that business just because entering would be hard? I don't think so.

Disclosure: I own some Apple stock. I often wish I didn't.
 
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I washed my dog, Snickers, yesterday. Apparently that process turns a dog into a Jedi master.



"Still damp, I am."
 
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I wrote this article for TIME this morning.



 
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Have you ever done this?

1.      Sleep on your arm until it goes numb.

2.      Wake up and realize you can't feel your arm.

3.      Try waking it up with the other arm.

I assume all of you have done those three things. It's the next step I wonder about. Do you then panic because you think this time the dead arm might be permanent?

I do.

In those first seconds, I'm always thinking some version of this: "Oh, no!!! This time is different. Now my arm is dead and it's never getting better. I'm a one-armed guy now. I'll have to start drawing left-handed. I wonder if anyone will notice my dead arm. Should I keep it in a sling so people know it doesn't work or should I ask my doctor to lop it off? If only I had rolled over even once during the night. But nooo, I have to sleep on my arm until it dies. That is so like me. What happens if I sleep on the other one tomorrow night? Can I learn to use a fork with my feet?"

Then at about the fifth second, some feeling returns to my arm and I experience hope. I also realize that if people could lose their arms after sleeping on them there wouldn't be many people left on earth with two good arms. Apparently the rational part of my mind wakes up last.

As full feeling returns to my arm I experience an emotion similar to how I imagine people with incurable diseases feel when someone unexpectedly invents a cure. It makes me happy to be alive. I want to buy a motorcycle, kiss a baby, donate to charity, and travel the world. Life is wonderful, for about a minute.

Then I realize I'm just a dumbass who thinks his arm is ruined every time he sleeps on it.

 
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Apple's new iPhone will have a fingerprint reader on the home button for security.

Imagine if the government required fingerprint scanners on any new phone sold after a certain date. And then imagine the government requiring phone companies to phase out service to any cell phone that doesn't have a fingerprint sensor.

Now imagine that your phone becomes your only wallet and only means of paying for stuff. That seems likely at some point. The government won't print cash forever, and credit cards are redundant with your phone.

What would that world look like?

For starters, it would be the end of a lot of crime. The government would know who was doing what and where it was happening. There would be no such thing as committing a crime and going on the run unless you had friends buying you food and necessities with their own phones. And even then the government could detect who your friends and family are and look for spikes in their food-buying patterns.

As I've written before, the apps and services that would be possible in a world where people have no privacy would be incredible. Life is mostly about moving people and things from wherever they happen to be to where they could better be used. When all the people and products in the world have a location and a history that is known to all, life could become almost magical. Your hotel room would adjust its temperature to your preferences before you finished checking in at the lobby. Every car on the road would have multiple passengers, cutting traffic and commute times in half. And those cars will drive themselves. When you approach any computer screen, your phone will act as the brains and bring up your home screen.

So that part is all good.

The only downside is that the government in such a world would have complete control over the people.

That's a large downside.

But by then the government might have the highest approval rating of all time simply because life is so pleasant and the economy would be turbo-charged by all the new possibilities that come out of knowing where everyone is and what they want.

I'm an optimist, so I wonder if there is any future technology that will help citizens control their governments and neutralize the risks that stem from a total loss of privacy.

I think there is.

For starters, the government could make it illegal to campaign in any fashion but on the Internet, which would be free to any legitimate candidate. The process would involve local candidates winning in their own towns, even if they are running for national office, before competing in, for example, a county-wide election and then statewide and finally national. By the time the election reaches the national level, the number of candidates would be down to a handful. And no campaign money would have tainted the process.

Then I'd want more transparency on the workings of government itself. So let's say government officials are required by law to hold work-related meeting in rooms that are wired to record everything happening. Every meeting would be encrypted and stored on government servers. One would still need a court order and a good reason to view any recordings, but I have to think it would keep most politicians from doing anything too outrageous. Even their phone calls would be recorded.

People could still meet in person to collude and scheme. But in today's world I think that would seem like too much trouble. Ninety percent of government corruption would disappear overnight if all government conversations were recorded.

If public oversight of the government stays as is, it would be risky for citizens to give up too much privacy in return for a better economy and richer life. But if technology allows citizens to better monitor their elected representatives, perhaps that restores the balance of power.

The question of the day is this: If the government said it would record all of its own conversations, would you be okay with a law requiring fingerprint scanners on all future phones and a phase-out of cash and physical credit cards over time? Let's say it's a ten year plan.

-------------------
My new Non-Dilbert book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big -- Sort of the Story of My Life, available October 22nd, is ready for pre-order on Amazon now.



 
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Warning: This blog is written for a rational audience that likes to have fun wrestling with unique or controversial points of view. It is written in a style that can easily be confused as advocacy for one sort of unpleasantness or another. It is not intended to change anyone's beliefs or actions. If you quote from this post or link to it, which you are welcome to do, please take responsibility for whatever happens if you mismatch the audience and the content.

---------------

Research shows that men are more attracted to women who smile.

That's no surprise to men. Ask any married man and he'll tell you that the corny old saying "Happy wife, happy life" rings true. The happier a woman is, the more beautiful she appears to men. It makes sense that men would want to make the women in their life more beautiful, for entirely selfish reasons, and so you would expect men to go out of their way to induce happiness in their female mates. That's a gross generalization, obviously, but it roughly matches my observations; most husbands seem to want their wives to be happy. The men might not be succeeding, for any variety of reasons, but they certainly want it.

The more interesting aspect of the same research is that women did NOT prefer men who smiled. In fact, younger women were more attracted to men who had a look of shame. The look that women liked the least in men was happiness.

Anyone see a problem with that?

If the science is right, we'd expect to see marriages in which men are trying to please their wives, thus making the wives more smiley and attractive, whereas women would be trying to squeeze the happiness out of the men in their lives and replace it with shame, thus making the men more attractive.

I won't go so far as to say that matches my observation, but the science points in that direction. So I put the question to you. According to your lifetime of observations, and very generally speaking, do you see a pattern in which men want to please women but women want to keep men in a frame of mind that is closer to shame than happiness?

To put this in more concrete terms, do you see a pattern in which husbands try to please wives and wives respond to their attempts with criticism? That would look like this:

Man: "I repainted the living room while you were gone, just like you wanted."

Woman: "Looks like the wrong color."

I hope the science is wrong. I'd hate to live in that world.

 
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My new non-Dilbert book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big - Sort of the Story of My Life, is due out on October 22nd and I am happy to report that the reviewers are pleased with it. You'll need to navigate to the 5th page on this Barron's review to see one reviewer's opinion.

Readers of this blog will not be surprised that the descriptions and reviews you see of this book won't entirely capture its essence. That's because I designed the book to work on three levels. The top level is a series of stories about some of my most embarrassing failures. You might enjoy reading about the face-plants I've taken along the road. You'll also hear the strange story of how I lost my ability to speak for over three years to an allegedly incurable brain problem.

The next level describes the strategies I've used since college to capitalize on my failures, ramp up my personal energy, increase my market value, and create a situation in which luck could more easily find me. It's not an advice book, but you might find it useful to learn about one person's unusual strategy for success and how it all turned out. Generally speaking, before you try anything risky, it's a good idea to ask others how they approached the same situation. I hope my experience is helpful in that sense.

The third level in this book is emotional. I designed the book to raise the energy level of the reader without the reader knowing that's the plan. If I succeeded, which is an admittedly rare situation, readers will simply feel good while reading it. And that energy can be useful for whatever you hope to achieve in life.

I can't predict how the market will receive this book, but I'm fairly sure it's my best work, and that's enough for me at this point in my life. I feel as if I didn't have the skills until recently to write this tale the way it needed to be written. I'd like to thank each of you regular blog readers for helping me hone those skills. I test a lot of things out on you folks and your reactions are my classroom. I take a hybrid business/science approach to writing in which I test a hypothesis, observe reader reactions, and try to learn something. You'll recognize some of my thought patterns in the book, but it's 98% new material.

The How to Fail... book is the sum of what I've learned over a lifetime filtered the way you taught me to write. If you're curious, you can preorder the book now, and it will make me happy if you do.

 

 

 
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I'm not judgmental when it comes to other people's lifestyle choices and I've always wondered if that is learned or natural behavior.

I saw a segment on 60 Minutes recently in which researchers purported to discover some sort of gene-based morality in babies, as well as a preference for people like themselves. That makes sense from a survival standpoint. I assume I have as much gene-based bias as any other human. But for some reason it doesn't translate into being judgmental about people in my everyday life. I'm hoping this is an example of mind over genes, but I have no way of knowing for sure.

What I do know is that over the years I have developed a worldview that makes the idea of being judgmental feel nonsensical. Here are the pillars of my worldview, some of which you already know from earlier posts.

1.     Willpower isn't a real thing. Some people just have greater urges than others. If I resist a cookie and you don't, it doesn't say anything about your willpower, but it might say you are hungrier than I am, or you simply like cookies more than I do.

2.     I don't believe in a creator. I see humans as a collection of particles bumping into each other. Or maybe we're a computer simulation created by some earlier civilization. In either case, no group of particles, or arrangement of ones and zeroes, is superior to another.

3.     I have no individual skill that is not topped by at least one person in every demographic group. Every group has people who are smarter than me, stronger than me, kinder than me, more generous than me, more talented, and so on.

4.     There is no logical way to rank talents or virtues. Is one person's excellent musical skill somehow better than another's good parenting skills? Is your kindness better than your friend's work ethic? None of these things can be compared objectively.

5.     Genes are often destiny. You were probably born with your personality and your preferences, in which case you are not to blame. Or you might have been the victim of some sort of nastiness in your past that changed you permanently, and that probably wasn't your "fault" in any objective way either. Your particles bumped around until something bad happened, nothing more.

6.     For purely practical reasons, the legal system assigns "fault" to some actions and excuses others. We don't have a good alternative to that system. But since we are all a bunch of particles bumping around according to the laws of physics (or perhaps the laws of our programmers) there is no sense of "fault" that is natural to the universe.

I'm avoiding the term "free will" here because experience shows that using that term turns into a debate about the definition. I prefer to say we're all just particles bumping around. Personally, I don't see how any of those particles, no matter how they are arranged, can sometimes choose to ignore the laws of physics and go their own way.

I'm curious about the rest of you. Are you judgy? And if so, do you think it is learned or genetic?

 
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Privacy is a good thing, right?

Almost everyone agrees with that statement.

Assuming the majority is correct - and privacy is a good thing - you probably have examples from your own law-abiding life in which losing your privacy created a lasting problem for you. Can you tell me a few stories like that?

Probably not.

Okay, now can you give me some examples in which sacrificing your privacy worked to your advantage? I'll bet you can.

Maybe you shared your medical history with your doctor and that allowed him to treat you more effectively.

Maybe you put your personal information on an online dating service and it helped you find the love of your life.

Maybe you showed your past tax returns to your bank and it helped you secure a mortgage to your dream house.

Maybe you were secretly gay or lesbian and it was a huge relief when you came out.

Maybe you installed a device on your car that allows your insurance company to track your driving history in return for lower rates.

Maybe you enjoy sharing your life on Facebook.

Maybe Google tracked your search history and later served up an ad that was exactly what you were looking for.

Maybe your favorite airline gave you a free upgrade because they know you fly with them often.

Maybe you put your work history on LinkedIn and someone offered you a job.

We tend to fear losing our privacy until it's gone. Then we wonder what all the fuss was about. It turns out that the bigger challenge than retaining privacy is getting anyone to care about you at all.

I know, I know: You want to lecture me about how an evil government can use your private information to hurt you. You might even toss in a Hitler reference or two because that helps any argument.

But I would counter that you're describing a situation in which the government has privacy and you don't. I'm not in favor of that situation either. If the government were to operate with complete transparency, not counting some national security secrets, law-abiding citizens would have nothing to fear. The government and the governed would keep each other under control. So don't confuse a problem created by too much privacy (the government's) with one caused by too little privacy.

Let's game out another scenario in which citizens give up privacy and see if that seems better or worse. I'll pick gun registration as my example because it's a hot topic. Suppose that tomorrow you could go online and see which of your neighbors registered their legal guns. What would you do next?

Well, if you don't already own a gun, you probably get one quickly because burglars can see the same information you see. You don't want to be the one unarmed home on the block. And because you're a good citizen, you get a gun safe, maybe trigger locks, and you train every member of the family in proper gun use. Now every home in your neighborhood has a small armory.

My best guess is that in that scenario the burglary rate in the neighborhood goes down. And instead of gun registration leading to government disarmament of the public as many fear, my best guess is that gun ownership would expand. And if the burglary rate goes down as a result, politicians would be happy to take credit.

The studies on gun ownership and crime rates are sketchy in my opinion, so no one can safely predict what might happen if every neighbor had a registered gun. Maybe that would lead to gun duels in the streets, suburban warlords, and sniper attacks on backyard barbecues. But historical patterns suggest it would be more good than bad. I say that because every case I can think of in which adult citizens intelligently gave up privacy in this country turned out well.

I can imagine insurance companies offering lower rates to customers who have passed gun safety programs and/or own gun safes. In the long run, you might have more gun ownership but a higher rate of gun safety. It's hard to know where that nets out.

Here's a story from my personal life in which giving up privacy helped tremendously. For most of my life I harbored an embarrassing secret that I am about to reveal to you: I can't use restrooms if any other human is nearby. For decades I believed I had some sort of mental problem. I was ashamed of my condition and never spoke of it. I continuously made excuses for avoiding situations with inadequate bathroom privacy. The inconvenience of it all was debilitating. Leaving the house for more than an hour was a nightmare because I couldn't be sure I would have access to a bathroom I could use.

Then several years ago, an unexpected thing happened. My older brother went public, website and all, with the same problem. We grew up together and somehow neither of us was aware of the other's situation. I later learned that the condition has a genetic component. It goes by the medical name paruresis, or more commonly shy bladder, and perhaps 5% of the public have it.

My brother gave up his privacy because he thought it would help others. And it has. My own problem diminished by about 75% within a year of learning that other people suffered from the same condition. I started admitting my condition to my friends, only to learn that a surprising number have the same problem. And once I was open about it, I found I could say without embarrassment which bathroom situations work for me and which ones don't. When I let go of my privacy on that topic, it improved my life considerably. With the exception of the Oakland A's stadium restrooms, in which men stand shoulder to shoulder to pee in a trough, I can now use normal public restrooms without much trouble. And all of that happened because my brother gave up his privacy on the topic and I followed his lead.

About 5% of the people reading my story just took a deep breath and felt normal for the first time in their lives. You can thank my brother's lack of privacy for that.

 
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