Highlights from Excellent Advice for Living by Kevin Kelly

Some advice that resonated, some that didn’t, and some that surprised me.

Excellent Advice for Living: Wisdom I wish I knew earlier is Kevin Kelly’s latest book. As the title suggests, it’s a collection of advice spanning different topics.

The project started as a blog post Kelly wrote on his sixty-eight birthday. “To my surprise,” he explains in the book’s introduction, “I had more to say than I thought.” With so many non-fiction books trying in vain to disguise the fact that they are nothing but stretched-out blog posts, it was entertaining to see this one admitting to being one from the beginning.

I found Kelly’s previous work, such as What Technology Wants and Out of Control, to be mind-expanding. This latest book is a fine read but doesn’t live up to the high bar set by its predecessors. To be fair, a collection of self-contained advice is an entirely different project from an optimist exploration of the interdependency between humans and their technology. It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison.

One issue with short advice is that it sounds great but lacks nuance—more on that later. I would have preferred it if each proverb had a companion exposition in the style of The Daily Stoics.

Regardless, I do recommend the book. You’ll definitely find something actionable and surprising in it, and the advice is distilled in catchy and memorable pills. It makes for a great book to keep on your shelf, one to grab occasionally to read a random page and delight.

Here’s an annotated selection with some advice on productivity, work, and personal development that resonated, some that I don’t necessarily agree with, and some that surprised me. Like in the book itself, there is no particular order.

Advice on productivity, work, and growth

Show me your calendar and I will tell you your priorities

Good intentions are pointless unless implemented. How you spend your time, at least the portion of time you control, is the manifestation of what matters to you.

In 100 years a lot of what we take to be true now will be proved to be wrong, maybe even embarrassingly wrong.
A good question to ask yourself today is “What might I be wrong about?”
This is the only worry worth having.

As the philosopher Karl Popper explained, error correction is the engine of progress. I think he would agree that “What might be wrong about?” is an excellent question to keep asking oneself.

Don’t let your email inbox become your to-do list run by others.

Also, be mindful: inboxes are infinite.

Three distinct aphorisms that go together nicely.

The work on any worthy project is endless, infinite.

You cannot limit the work so you must limit your hours.
Your time, not the work is the only thing you can manage.

You don’t need more time because you already have all the time that you will ever get; you need more focus.

Shorten your to-do list by asking yourself “What is the worst that will happen if this does not get done?”
Eliminate all but the disasters.

A similar heuristic: “If I were to drop it, would it bounce or would it break?”

Separate the processes of creating from improving.
You can’t write and edit or sculpt and polish or make and analyze at the same time.
If you do, the editor stops the creator.
While you invent, don’t select.
While you sketch, don’t inspect.
While you write the first draft, don’t reflect.
At the start, the creator mind must be unleashed from judgment.

Make it work. Make it right. Make it fast,” is the mantra that guides how I write software. The mindset you need to find a solution differs from the one you deploy when criticizing and refining it. The same applies to most creative endeavors, whether writing a novel, painting, or composing a pitch deck.

Separating the creative from the improving mind doesn’t mean slowing your pace. The faster you can get criticism (i.e., discover errors), the better. The secret is knowing how to switch between the two modes and how to solicit the right kind of feedback.

Try hard to solicit constructive criticism early.
You want to hear what’s not working as soon as possible.
When it is finished you can’t improve it.

Soliciting criticism as soon as possible is valuable even in a field like software development, where we can actually improve things after we “finish” them. The sooner you find an error, the cheaper it is to fix it.

Something to keep in mind in this unfortunate time of massive layoffs and hiring freezes:

If you ask to be hired mainly because you need a job you are just another problem for the boss; if you can solve many of the problems the boss has right now you are hired.
To be hired, think like your boss.

It’s possible that a not-so-smart person who can communicate well can do much better than a super-smart person who can’t communicate well.
That is good news because it is much easier to improve your communication skills than your intelligence.

To improve communication, start by owning your clarity.

Advice I disagree with

“No” is an acceptable
answer even without a reason.

One should always have a reason for doing something, including saying no.

Maybe here Kelly is trying to give people permission to say no. That’s a powerful skill to develop to bring your priorities forward instead of someone else’s. Still, you should know why you say no.

Or maybe the idea is to be able to accept rejection? But even then, when someone gives you a curt “no,” you should still engage in the intellectual exercise of trying to understand why they did so. Otherwise, you will get zero information from that reaction.

It is much easier to change how you think by changing your behavior than it is to change your behavior by changing how you think.
Act out the change you seek.

“Act out the change you seek” is good advice, but I challenge whether that’s easier than changing your thinking.

Learning is a powerful driver for change.

Adopting a different mindset, changing your framing of a situation, understanding the pros and cons of a given behavior. These can make change effortless. Forcing change against your established thinking pattern relies on willpower, a resource that fluctuates during the day and that can be affected by outside circumstances.

Speak confidently as if you are right,
but listen carefully as if you are wrong.

There is a neat sentence structure in juxtaposing speaking and listening and right and wrong, but the result can easily be misinterpreted as an encouragement to “fake it till you make it.” Why does one need to speak with confidence “as if” they are right? Intellectually honest people admit their level of uncertainty.

If your opinions on one subject can be predicted from your opinions on another you may be in the grip of an ideology.
When you truly think for yourself your conclusions will not be predictable.

We should all be careful of falling into ideology traps, but aiming for our conclusions to not be predictable is an encouragement to being contrarian for contrarian’s sake.

A consistent worldview doesn’t necessarily mean being trapped in a fixed ideology.

The stronger your beliefs,
the stronger your reasons to question them regularly.
Don’t simply believe everything you think you believe.

The flaw in this advice is the assumption that one needs to believe something at all!

In a world of rationality, there is no need for belief or faith. Good explanations are all you need to follow. Explanations don’t require you to believe in them; either they work or they don’t.

Keep showing up.
99% of success is just showing up.
In fact, most success is just persistence.

This is shallow advice, at the same level as the 10,000 hours myth.

Persistence is necessary but not sufficient. You also need deliberate practice, real-world feedback, and the ability to course correct.

Whenever you can’t decide which path to take pick the one that produces change.

The only path that doesn’t produce change is maintaining the status quo. Even in that scenario, outside circumstances are bound to change eventually, and you’ll need to adapt to them.

There are better heuristics to help you choose between paths, such as David Deutsch’s fun criterion, optimizing for networking because your network is your net worth, or going for the most original option.

Productivity is often a distraction.
Don’t aim for better ways to get through your tasks as quickly as possible.
Instead aim for better tasks that you never want to stop doing.

This is actually good advice, but it rubbed me off the wrong way because it uses “productivity” where it should use “efficiency.”

There’s much more to productivity, at least the kind of intentional productivity we discuss on this site, than getting things done as fast as possible.

If you happen to read the book, let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment or getting in touch on Twitter at @mokagio.