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One-handed Reading & Writing on the NYC Subway - a Virtuous Cycle

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 06/12/2012

I’m always torn between reading and writing. Getting onto the subway in the morning or at night, I take advantage of the greatest unspoken value of public transportation: reclaimed time. There was nothing so frustrating on my old suburban commute as sitting in traffic, making pathetic attempts at dictation that I would maybe one day transcribe—or listening to the same Burt Reynolds narrated Moby Dick book-on-tape for the Nth time. Thar’ she blowwws!

Today, I’ve got a dearth of reading material on my pocket and the freed-up attention to read it, and because I’m on the end of the line on the awesome A express, I always get a seat in the morning to sit down and enjoy it. But I’ve got another option just as appealing now as reading too—thanks to the brilliant on-screen iPhone keyboard that’s just wide enough to let me hold it and type at the same time, freeing up the other hand for a coffee. It’s a magical form factor and somehow I’m not surprised Apple keeps resisting a wider 4-inch iPhone. I think there was a meeting where Steve identified a size unit: one comfortable thumb’s-reach wide, and it’s become an unspoken subtle advantage so typical of the kind that Apple layers up to achieve unbeatability. But back to writing…

My feelings about writing like this is: it’s got to be done. It’s idea-processing and churning up to the surface of the conscious brain whatever’s really most important and on your mind right now. It also provides a workspace and structure for solving any problems—or at least perform the though-work behind the solution. You come away from such writing sessions as a literally more capable person. It’s like you had a few practice-runs in your mind that actually do help.

However, having my daily tech and science headlines, a slew of paragraph-long excerpts behind them, and even the original full-article format for 400 of the most interesting articles (even while offline on the subway) poses a powerful distraction, albeit an often worthwhile one. Not only that—I have a slew of the O’Reilly tech books on all the subjects on which I want to improve my skills, and a handful of easy readers and quintessential seminal must-read masterpieces. Do I read or write? Read or write?

In the the end, both reading and writing play a similar function of forcing you to think. It’s mental exercise. Both can expand your mind, but the question is whether to use your brain as the replay-engine for other peoples’ thoughts, or to capture a few of your own—which in todays world can serve the double-function of helping you process your thoughts AND find some audience.

And when reading, there’s now the choice of headline blurbs versus long-form articles versus very-long-form books. I’m sure things have always been this way somehow or another, but today’s state of technology really highlights the issue. If you were a book person, you’d carry a book. Magazine and newspaper fans carried those. But today’s phones and tablets bring it all in at all times.

And I’ve got all 3 of those reading-depth media buckets filled, with Reeder, Byline, Instapaper and iBooks, respectively. Both Byline and Instapaper are for long-form articles, with Byline pulling in the original articles as they appear on the web using the popular Hacker News feed to choose them, while Instapaper follows a more self-directed reading-list model where I said: read this later, read that later. In any case, I can read lightly across hundreds of headlines, or deeper into one or two articles, or very deep in one of the many books I carry—any time I get onto the subway.

But writing has its own appeal. Anyone can read—although I sometimes question whether most people TRULY read (as in replaying author’s thoughts in your head as if they were your own) versus just skimming enough to be able to SAY “I read that”. But it is a much rarer person who actually writes. You can’t fake ideas going down onto paper the way you can fake them coming up. Writing activates and lights up the brain. It teases out things that have been bothering you that you needed to process—in a way similar to dreaming, but in a way you’re awake to take note of.

There’s not enough time in life to do all the reading and writing one might like, and trying to do so is just a common source of anxiety, and it’s not necessary. Therefore, it soon becomes about zero’ing in on the right things to read based on what you’re trying to accomplish. A self-directed reading and writing adventure, often purposeful. Are you just reading for entertainment, or to keep current in your field? Are you trying to better yourself, change habits, or think differently? I am. That’s my reason for reading, and ultimately that is my reason for writing as well. It’s more for me, than for you. Or more accurately now, it’s more to carve out the life I want for myself and my family than it is for you.

But getting to those goals is a long, winding path. I heard a piece on This American Life yesterday about Blackjack an card counting, which really impressed me with about the ultimate opposite approach possible to mine—but then on deeper thought, realized it only differed in the underlying “cause” or “mission”. By reading, I’m committing the Python programming language to memory—and eventually, habit. But that’s all card-counters are doing too! They commit adding and subtracting to habit—alert for those key moments when the cards are in your favor. That’s like my life. As an SEO, I’m an over-complicated card counter!

The difference is a subjective one about the value of my thoughts and actions versus the value of theirs. I need to find big companies where big marketing budgets change hands and insert myself into the process sufficiently to liberate a comfortable annual income. They are liberating it from casinos. And they do it much more quickly and in larger amounts. Of course, their approach doesn’t last, because they eventually get banned from everywhere worth playing. I on the other hand, get bans lifted.

Aside from the obvious morality differences—and who can even say that, since I am in the grey-area of marketing—the difference lies in the simplicity of a repeatable trick, but mastering it as a skill. My field doesn’t (or no longer has) such a simple repeatable trick. Or let’s say the simple tricks are becoming fewer and riskier. Therefore, re-thinking, re-inventing and re-mastering is always required. And part of what you need to know comes from reading prolifically.

The headline stuff keeps you from getting blindsided from the unexpected. What are others thinking? What new products are out? What will clients be asking about? The long-form article reading keeps you up on the latest news with deep enough information to form an opinion. But the very-long-form book stuff helps you to replay all the really complex thoughts of experts in your mind that requires long-form build-up and context, and can start giving you actual increased capacities and become an expert yourself.

But then in writing, you start to flex those newly-developing mind-muscles—testing out those capacities—processing the thoughts, ferreting out and filling-in knowledge gaps—practicing and setting the stage for next steps and knowing what you need to read next on a self-directed mission of improvement. This all kicks off a self-directed life-improving virtuous cycle, that’s only becoming more productive thanks to the way the world works these days, in letting you turn idea-processing journal-writing like this into… a daily blog entry!