Eliminating cliches through careful observation

Cliches typically result from a lack of attention or from a certain amount of indifference. They’re readymade and easy to grab at as you write. But while they save you effort, they cost you in other ways. If you use too many cliches, your writing becomes less memorable. Your voice seems more dull, your thoughts less worthy of attention and distinction.

One of the ways to limit cliches in your writing is to carefully attend to the world. Specific details and concrete examples can deepen your writing. Observations of texture, shape, and color can enrich the text and give it more flavor.

Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie

I recently read Sightlines, a collection of nonfiction pieces by Kathleen Jamie. Her book inspired this post, because of how present she is in the world of each piece. From “The Gannetry,” on a colony of gannets in Scotland:

The cliffs were south-facing, full in the sun, and five hundred foot high. They formed promontories and bowls, so we walked out onto the broadest promontory and from there looked back into the cauldron the birds had commandeered for themselves.

Or, from “Moon,” an observation of an eclipse:

The moon does us a great service, metaphorically and literally, and this is part of it – occasionally she allows us to appreciate the shadow cast by our own planet. She shows us that the earth, for all the cacophony of life on its surface, is firstly an object, bigger than we are, magisterial enough to cast a shadow thousands and thousands of miles into space.

In this piece, she describes the moon ripening like fruit, even as the Earth becomes more strikingly rock-like. Although people have compared the moon to food before, she constructs the imagery with delicacy and care, and in a way that’s unique to her. She doesn’t make a lazy comparison. It’s borne of observation and imagination.

Before describing someone as having nerves of steel or being weak as a kitten, study them. Reflect on who they are in a specific moment. Do you want to say something about emotions or economics or how beautiful your backyard looks at dawn? Don’t lean too hard on the readymade phrases. What are you really trying to say? What does it mean?

Reading good writing can help remind you to observe the world more carefully. So can being present in the moment as you write or edit your work. Think about what you’re trying to write and how to write it precisely and memorably.

– Hila

Are you focusing too much on willpower?

People often beat themselves up for not having enough willpower. But what good does that actually do?

A lot of times, it’s a cop-out. You engage in some degree of self-flagellation (“I’m so weak! I don’t exercise, and I procrastinate on all my work!”), but once that’s out of the way, nothing changes. Maybe you feel a little more ineffectual or unhappy, but that’s it.

What is willpower anyway? There’s an assumption that it’s an independent force in the mind. Tweak it somehow, and the New Year’s resolutions you’ve already abandoned will become possibilities.

But what affects willpower, and is it even the main driving force behind change? It probably isn’t productive to think about change as simply a matter of willpower. There are other issues to consider – patterns of behavior, thoughts, and feelings that have locked you into your current life.


Giving Small Businesses Some Love This Holiday Season

At a recent meeting on the struggles of small businesses in NYC, a group of panelists discussed the growing number of vacant storefronts around the city. High rents, high taxes, and the surge in online commerce are among the factors contributing to the vacancies. And these issues aren’t limited to NYC.

Holiday shopping alone won’t turn the tide and save small businesses. However, it still plays a role in small business support and encourages people to become acquainted with vendors in the community.

For some suggestions of when and where to shop, consider the following links to holiday season events. I’ve chosen links to some of the most populated cities around the U.S., including NYC. (If you don’t live in or near these cities, look into what’s going on in your community.) Holiday events often invite participation from small businesses and encourage visitors to shop from local vendors.

Austin; Chicago; Columbus; Dallas; Houston; Indianapolis; Jacksonville; Los Angeles; New York City; Philadelphia; Phoenix; San Antonio; San Diego; San Francisco; San Jose

Forty-One False Starts and the Choice of Introductions

Introductions are difficult to write in part because of the possibilities. Do you begin with an anecdote, a question, a quote, or a startling fact? If you do choose an anecdote, which one works best?

One reason I enjoyed reading Janet Malcolm’s essay, “Forty-One False Starts,” is its structure as a series of strong introductions.

Malcolm had interviewed an artist, David Salle, multiple times in his New York City studio. The essay discusses him, his art and reputation, and avant-garde art more generally. Each “false start” is a wonderful way she could have started the piece about him.

That this essay is a series of introductions also resonates with the subject matter. Malcolm plays with the structure of the essay, and she plays off of her subject, Salle, who never stops to revise. Once he starts something a certain way, he pushes forward. As Malcolm writes in Intro #4:

During one of my visits to the studio of the artist David Salle, he told me that he never revises. Every brushstroke is irrevocable. He doesn’t correct or repaint, ever. He works under the dire conditions of performance. Everything counts, nothing may be taken back, everything must always go relentlessly forward, and a mistake may be fatal. One day, he showed me a sort of murdered painting. He had worked on it a little too long, taken a misstep, killed it.

In contrast, Malcolm has stopped and revised. She’s started over and over. (Or is each introduction is a ‘murdered essay’ that she abandoned? Is her whole essay a graveyard of murdered essays?)

“Forty-One False Starts” shows different facets of Salle and the NYC art scene. It’s also interesting to consider what a writer could do with each of the introductions (or ledes). If you were to choose one over the other, how would the tone of the piece change? What would be different about the details you focus on or the flow of the story?

Reasoning skills for writers and everyone else

At the University of Washington in Seattle, a new course is available: “Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning for the Digital Age.” Check out the syllabus, which includes links to readings. Even if you aren’t a student at the university, you can read the articles and case studies and hopefully sharpen your reasoning skills.

It’s great that this kind of class is available. I also wish that ‘data reasoning,’ critical thinking, and statistical literacy were taught more widely and at younger ages. (The material could be adapted for kids.) Will the class shape mental habits that help people deal with all the misinformation they come across online?

I’m reminded of an assignment I got in a college developmental psych class. The professor asked us to find a newspaper article reporting a research finding in psych. Our assignment was to analyze both the news article and the original research paper it covered. What were the limitations of the original study? What did the newspaper article exaggerate or omit? It was an effective lesson, and it changed how I read science journalism.

Any written piece – whether for a blog, an academic journal, or a newspaper – needs to meet a certain standard of integrity. If you want to publish something, do what you can to avoid major distortions, poor research, and blatant lies. If you set this standard for yourself as an individual or as a business, you’re fighting for a more honest and civilized discourse. You may even stand out favorably, your reputation enhanced.

All the courses in the world on “calling bullshit” mean little if the lessons don’t get applied. And reasoning skills will hopefully become a habit, not a one-time lesson. – Hila

Job Skills for the Future – and the Psychological Resilience We’ll Need

There are many reasons people feel off-kilter these days. The shifting, churning job landscape is one of them.

A number of jobs threaten to become obsolete or at least shrink in number. Other jobs will come about, but we can’t fully anticipate what they’ll be. Still, people are trying to make informed guesses about the necessary skills for future job success.

What will the jobs of the future demand?

I recently came across this article from Singularity Hub: “7 Critical Skills For the Jobs of the Future.”

First off, I’m going to highlight “effective oral and written communication.” Yes, absolutely. You need to communicate ideas effectively, explain things with clarity, and keep people interested in what you do.

Other skills (or traits) on the list are valuable too, like critical thinking, imagination, initiative, and the ability to analyze information.

One line, however, started making me uneasy. Under “agility and adaptability,” the article states:

We may have to learn skills and mindsets on demand and set aside ones that are no longer required.

To be a lifelong learner is an excellent attitude. It’s important to stay up-to-date in your field and to remain curious about the world and well-informed. Even if you aren’t an expert in a specific area, having some basic literacy in it, some understanding of the foundational principles, is beneficial. And of course, it’s important not to become too stuck or narrow in your thinking. Re-examining ideas and leaving space for doubt and reflection are an important part of growth. I don’t discourage any of that.

What makes me uneasy is the idea of reinventing oneself “on demand,” at the drop of a hat. On demand, you adopt not only a new skill, but a new mindset. What does a “new mindset” mean? How quickly, and how deeply, can you really change in a short amount of time?

Let’s not overlook the psychological effects

Workers of the future sometimes get described the way a computer would. Just keep upgrading their operating system and updating their software. If they’re low on entrepreneurship, install that program in them. They won’t crash (one hopes).

Other times, the descriptions rely on marketing terminology. To keep up and survive disruptions, people need to “rebrand” themselves. They don’t have a temperament and a developmental trajectory they’ve taken through life. They have a tagline.

Seriously, what are the psychological costs of regularly needing to reinvent yourself? People are capable of flexibility. They’re able to adapt. But they have limits too. They can’t be everything, and they can’t change everything. If the changes are dizzying, how do they cope?

What does reinvention even amount to? Again, I’m not talking about becoming a lifelong learner or reevaluating what you think or know. That’s difficult enough for most people to stick to consistently. I’m talking about the possibility of quickly changing values, uprooting yourself from communities, severing attachments, living as a floating, flickering entity with little depth. In all seriousness, we need to better understand what “adaptability” would mean to people. When they have little time to change, heal, or develop wisdom, what are they left with?

The list of skills, or traits, for jobs of the future should definitely include psychological resilience. People will need to find non-destructive ways to cope with instability and rapid changes. How to go about doing this? I’m not sure yet, but it will be critical to understand the psychological stressors and help people figure this out.

– Hila

The Fourth Industrial Revolution: A Good Intro to How the World Is Changing

Technological developments are changing the world in profound ways. We’re more connected and more dependant on computing devices and internet-based services. We’re generating enormous amounts of data. And many tasks are becoming automated, requiring minimal human intervention.

How are these changes affecting our lives? And what can we expect in the future?

A good introduction to these questions and their possible answers is The Fourth Industrial Revolution by Klaus Schwab. It’s a short book that discusses the impact of new technologies and makes predictions about how life will likely change in the coming years.

The issues the book addresses include:

  • The instant spread of information (including slander and misinformation) on a large scale.
  • Social unrest, with people experiencing displacement and feeling superfluous.
  • Workplace disruption, with certain jobs disappearing (and other kinds becoming available?), and certain skills increasingly emphasized (like quick learning, creativity, emotional intelligence, big picture analyses).
  • Growing inequalities in wealth, knowledge, and skill sets.
  • The best uses of data, struggles for control over data, and issues of privacy.

The book doesn’t focus only on the possible depressing outcomes; it discusses benefits as well, including various improvements in quality of life.

I like that the author doesn’t treat each prediction as an inevitability. The changes we’re experiencing will be shaped by decisions from governments, businesses, non-profit organizations, special interest groups, and individuals. Attitudes about work, life, ethics, and humanity will influence what we value and prioritize.

To know how to make better decisions, we need to stay informed about the issues and understand both the challenges and opportunities. Furthermore, these changes can take a psychological toll that we have to prepare for.

If you want to just skim through The Fourth Industrial Revolution, start with the appendix. It lists various technological shifts (e.g. 3D printing in manufacturing) and the positive and negative impacts of each.

– Hila

Inspiration Medley #4

A mix of links to beautiful or funny content.

The Jean-Paul Sartre Cookbook – A cartoon by Roz Chast.

Lisha Simpson’s body art – A makeup artist transforms her arms and hands in scary, amazing ways.

Calm, lovely landscapes – By Michelle Morin.

Insomnia Jeopardy – Another excellent Roz Chast cartoon.

Photos of decaying staircases – By Ralph Graef.

Alphanumeric butterfly wings – What patterns did photographer Kjell Bloch Sandved find on wings?

Glass installations with rainbow beauty – By Chris Wood.

11 types of blog posts for financial professionals

Accountants, financial planners, investment advisers, and other financial professionals use their blogs to engage with clients and demonstrate their knowledge and skills.

As a financial professional, what should you post about? Which topics will attract more web traffic and convince people you’re worth hiring? Popular types of blog posts for financial professionals include the following:


Loss of scientific thinking: What are some signs?

The combination of the appearance of professional respect for scientific rigor coupled with professional contempt for scientifically rigorous behavior is toxic, a poison that infects more activities in North America than the few I have pointed out here.

In Dark Age Ahead, published in 2004, Jane Jacobs discusses five major signs of cultural failure. It’s the last book the long-time journalist ever wrote, and it reads like a final warning.

The abandonment of scientific thinking is one type of cultural decay. Individuals and institutions have long had a tendency to avoid scientific inquiry, accept surface appearances without question, and use scientific data and terminology inappropriately. What’s worrisome is when there aren’t strong forces counteracting the decay.

When reading this section of Dark Age Ahead, I started thinking about examples I’ve come across in articles and other media that demonstrate an appreciation for a scientific veneer but not for scientific thought. Like the following: