I often find myself recommending the same few dozen essays and articles, so I put ‘em all in the same place. They’re in no particular order.
Thoughts on the Creative Career - Ze Frank
Oh boy, do I love this video (and Ze Frank in general). He simultaneously conveys that, in order to do professional-quality creative work, you’ll both need to buckle down and work really hard, but also that you’ll have to maintain a certain gentle self-compassion.
I always walk away from this video feeling inspired, and I usually end up actually writing, so I think it works!
You may also know Ze Frank from his “Invocation for Beginnings.”1
ADHD Pro - Robert Merki
A pretty good book on managing ADHD as a creative professional. Mostly written from one person’s perspective, but I found that perspective relatable and there’s not too much fluff. Some key things I got from it:
- Medication is helpful for maintaining focus, but useless for prioritizing. It’s like having good tires on a car: it’ll keep you on the road, but it won’t help you navigate.
- Hyperfocus is a trap, not a superpower. If you work for ten hours on something one day, you’ll more often than not wreck your habits and be useless for days afterward. It’s like exercising to exhaustion: you’re more likely to hurt yourself and you’d have been better off following an incremental exercise plan. When you notice yourself hyperfocusing, back off.
- ADHD can be viewed as a sustainability problem. It’s not that our goals are too big (though they may need to be broken into smaller chunks), it’s that we can’t regularly maintain focus on them over a period of days/weeks/months.
- Play the long game and avoid stupid mistakes. Instead of focusing on your peak days, try incrementally improving your average day. Don’t try to implement huge all-or-nothing life transformations, don’t drink a ton of coffee to mitigate a bad night’s sleep, don’t try to leverage the illusory “genius” of hyperfocus to make up for inconsistency. Just find a few boring things that work for you, do them reliably, and gently return to those habits when you screw up (cf. vipassana).
- You can’t “pay down” productivity debt. If you have a bad day, well, try again in about the way tomorrow. Don’t try to “make up for” a bad day. It won’t work, so you’ll spiral and give up.
The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture
This is a great intro to nurturance culture!
But it’s also a great intro to attachment styles, which provide a useful framework for thinking about relationship dynamics.
Body Ritual Among the Nacirema
How might an anthropologist from 1956 describe the rites, rituals, and hidden rules that governed contemporary American society?
A handy thought experiment to imagine what it feels like inside vs. outside of a culture.
On the ineffectiveness of prepping
A commenter who survived the ~4-year siege of Sarajevo discusses how things actually go down when a long-term disaster takes place. In short: stockpiling gold, guns, and canned beans probably isn’t the way to go.
Vimes’ “Boots” theory of socioeconomic unfairness
People are often poor in part because they can’t afford to save money by buying more quality goods.
Totally obvious, but succinctly described.
Free Software Needs Free Tools - Benjamin Mako Hill
The canonical argument for why FOSS software shouldn’t rely on non-FOSS hosting, build tools, and so on.
Hypocritically, I host my public git repos and this very Web site on GitHub, but I could also move them elsewhere at the cost of nothing but a few stars, so I don’t feel too constrained. But I am contributing to the centralization of code on a privately owned platform, so I probably ought to reconsider that.
The Story of Mel, a Real Programmer - Ed Nather
Truly the Beowulf of our craft.
Alief/Belief Coherence - D.R. MacIver
Y’know how sometimes you seem to act like you believe something (“my friends all secretly can’t stand being around me,” say) that you don’t really consciously believe? There’s a word for that, and it’s “alief,” and now that I know it I use it all that time.
Burritos for the Hungry Mathematician - Ed Morehouse
It has been recently remarked by Yorgey  that a burrito can be regarded as an instance of a universally-understood concept, namely, that of monad. It is this characterization that we intend to explicate here. To wit, a burrito is just a strong monad in the symmetric monoidal category of food, what’s the problem?
Uncleftish Beholding - Poul Anderson
Many English words (especially scientific ones) ultimately came from Latin or Greek. What might our scientific discourse sound like if English had evolved independently?
Also available as a PDF.
The XY Problem
You want to complete Task X. You believe you need to do Task Y as part of Task X. You ask your colleagues how to do Task Y, sparking confusion and many questions about why on earth you’re trying to do Task Y. Once you eventually admit that you’re ultimately trying to accomplish Task X, everyone says “ooooohh!” and tells you Task Y is completely unrelated to Task X. Whoops!
Addressing the XY problem sure seems to come up a lot in consulting work, in particular.
The Bipolar Lisp Programmer
I don’t like pathologizing personality types, and there’s no reason to talk about the “brilliant-but-ineffective” type in medical terms.
…but if we’re going to, I think this article’s describing adult ADHD, not BPD!
And I’m emphatically not a psychiatrist or anything, but I am an ADHD-haver. If this article really resonates with you, maybe think about getting evaluated?
Ask vs. Guess Culture
MeFi comment that nicely summarizes the Ask/Guess cultural distinction.
If some people in your life seem either especially rude or especially passive-aggressive, this might be a useful lens to look through when examining that relationship.
The Church of Interruption - Sam Bleckley
How do you decide when it’s your turn to speak? And when do you yield to someone else?
This isn’t, like, a scientific categorization, but it’s a convenient heuristic to consider, something along the lines of “ask vs. guess culture.”
Spoon Theory - Christine Miserandino
What’s it feel like to live with a chronic health condition, either physical or mental?
The Metafilter Emotional Labor Thread
The linked article from the Toast which this thread discusses is itself terrific, and I’d emphatically suggest reading it first, but the many, many anecdotes and elaborations in this thread really drive the points home.
If you’ve heard the term “emotional labor” but don’t fully understand it, this is the place to go.
On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs - David Graeber
A brief diagnosis of why so many of our jobs just don’t seem to matter.
This essay was later expanded into a full-length book similarly titled Bullshit Jobs. It’s not bad, but there’s too much fluff in it for me to recommend it unconditionally. The best bit is the taxonomy of bullshit jobs, which is briefly discussed in the book’s Wikipedia entry.
The Night Watch - James Mickens
An ode to systems programming, presented almost entirely without hyperbole.
“I have no tools because I’ve destroyed my tools with my tools.”
Engelbart’s Violin - Stanislav Datskovskiy
An argument for the value of expert interfaces in computing. Focuses on chorded keyboards, but the idea generalizes.
Professional equipment, whose mastery requires dedication and mental flexibility, may not be appropriate for casual users. But surely it is appropriate—in fact, necessary—for professionals?
Reversing the Technical Interview - Kyle “Aphyr” Kingsbury
If you want to get a job as a software witch, you’re going to have to pass a whiteboard interview.
Also the inspiration for the title of our own little intermittent webcomic.
Fiction in the Age of Screens - Erik Hoel
The novel is almost unique as a medium in that it gives us a direct view into a character’s inner life. What are they thinking? How are they feeling? What is it like to be a character? Novels let us peer directly inside someone’s mind in a way that even the best television or theater can’t; we can directly experience Raskolnikov’s thoughts, but we can only observe how Tony Soprano acts.
The Rules for Rulers - CGP Grey
A video analyzing the ways in which an “absolute” monarch is constrained. Everyone rules through other people (even the most despotic ruler has generals, a chief of police, some folks that manage the economy, and so on), and they need to keep them happy.
A terse rebuttal to arguments in favor of an absolute monarchy, which apparently we now have to have sometimes because we live in the dumbest timeline.
The Tyranny of Stucturelessness - Jo Freeman
Every organization has a power structure. Those structures can either be explicit, organized, and intentional, or implicit and hidden.
A nice argument against attempts to abolish hierarchies without replacing them with anything else (see: holacracies,2 “flat” organizations, and so on).
The 3-Ladder System of Social Class in the US - Michael O. Church
In the US we collectively pretend that social class doesn’t exist (as opposed to economic class, which we usually acknowledge). But it does, of course; there’s more to class than just income! This article explores some of the differences between the classes’ values, and, most interestingly, details the ramifications of trying to jump between class ladders.
I don’t see this passing any kind of sociological peer review, and there’s a certain paranoid and conspiratorial tone to this article that I don’t endorse, but as someone who, in the terms of the article, grew up on the L ladder and hopped to G, a lot of this feels relatable to me.
The Future of Programming - Bret Victor
Bret Victor, presenting as if it’s 1973, discusses the future of software based on some promising directions in contemporary research. An enlightening, if depressing, vision of what might have been.
Lenses - Glyph
An eloquent description of the experience of having ADHD, paired with some practical advice for coping with executive dysfunction.
I, Podius - John Hodgman & Elliott Kalan
A twelve-episode podcast in which two nerds watch and comment on the classic 1976 BBC series I, Claudius. One of those things that feels as if it were clearly made for me, in particular.
The Non-Judgmental Guide to Getting Seriously Into Tea - Max Falkowitz
I’m in the process of getting seriously into tea myself, and this is a nice overview. What factors make teas different from each other, and how should tea be prepared?
How To Take Smart Notes - Tiago Forte
A review and summary of Sönke Ahrens’ book How to Take Smart Notes.
If you’re not going to read the book, which I very much recommend, this is probably the next best thing.
My favorite tweet.
is there anything more capitalist than a peanut with a top hat, cane, and monocle selling you other peanuts to eat
Consider Becoming a Ham Radio Dork - Mammoth Guy
The essay that piqued my interest in ham radio. Describes the process of getting a license and recommends some good starter equipment.
A theory of how political and media figures can stoke violence while maintaining plausible deniability.
Legal Systems Very Different From Ours - David D. Friedman
A draft of a book on some offbeat legal systems. Includes: Amish law, Somali law, Athenian law, and some comparative analysis on embedded legal systems and enforcement mechanisms.
Friedman’s a libertarian economist as well as a law professor, so he’s mostly looking at these in terms of incentive systems and equilibria and whatnot, which can be an interesting perspective.
The full print book includes some more material, like sections on pirate law and Icelandic feud systems.
How to Quit a Top Tier Tech Job - Oliver Zheng
BigTech works hard to make quitting emotionally traumatic and therefore unthinkable. This is a guide to examining your motives and constructing a narrative that lets you get out.
Telescope Building - John Dobson
John Dobson, creator of the Dobsonian telescope, teaches you how to build one, including by grinding your own lenses.
I haven’t done this yet, but someday.
GTD in 15 Minutes - A Pragmatic Guide to Getting Things Done
A brief summary of the main ideas in David Allen’s excellent book Getting Things Done.
The book itself is still probably worth reading for most people, but 80% of it’s in here.
Butterick’s Practical Typography - Matthew Butterick
Overview of typography for (mostly amateur) designers. Provides some clear suggestions to make your text look good.
An Introduction to Stock & Options for the Tech Entrepreneur or Startup Employee - David Weekly
Taking a tech job at a startup, or starting one? Options are likely to be a significant part of your compensation (assuming a successful exit), so you’ll need to understand how they work.
Note that this is from 2012, so the details may be out of date. The big ideas still seem mostly sound, though.