Your Materials Shape Your Mindset

Last year (and, savvy readers will note, just a couple weeks ago), I wrote about film editor Walter Murch, who says about test screenings:

“The most helpful thing of all is simply learning how you feel when the film is being shown to 600 people who have never seen it before.”

By changing the context of his work—from private editing suite to theater screening—he is able to see his films through fresh eyes. In that same article, I shared a similar strategy for writing:

“…if I’m writing headlines for a billboard, I’ll paste the best ones into an email and type my boss’s address into the “to” field. They’re the same exact words that were in a Google Doc just seconds before, but this new context immediately puts his voice into my ear. I can visualize him opening the email, reviewing my work, and giving feedback. If it’s positive, I press send. If it’s negative, I delete the email and try again.”

But changing the context of your work can do more than change your perspective, it can change the very way you do that work.

Austin Kleon offers some advice to this effect on the Hurry Slowly podcast:

“The notebook is the place where you figure out what’s going on inside you or what’s rattling around. And then, the keyboard is the place that you go to tell people about it.”

Because the notebook is tactile, open-ended, and informal, there’s no limit to how you can use it. The keyboard (and by extension, the computer) is cleaner, more restrictive. It wants to be used in a completely different way. Kleon recommends listening to your materials.

But listening to your materials can sometimes lead to trouble. If you spend too long in the notebook, you may never make the jump from doodling to doing.

For example, game theory is one of the harder things I’ve had to learn in my graduate program. It’s all about mathematically thinking through how people make decisions while taking other people’s decisions into account. Because it’s math, you might think it’s well suited for the notebook. But I find that spending too long with paper and pencil permits sloppy thinking. When I get stuck on a problem, I often find it easier to start working through it on the computer (despite the inefficiencies of writing math in LaTeX), because it forces me to systematically work through the problem as if I were going to turn it in. Often, that shift is enough to arrive at the answer.

The materials don’t choose you. You choose the materials. So know your materials. But importantly, know yourself.


Each Monday, I share strategies to help you pursue your passions. Try it. You’ll like it.

Header photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

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