One House, Two Opinionated Designers, and the Joy of Collaboration

One House, Two Opinionated Designers, and the Joy of Collaboration

Ettore Sottsass was one of the most influential designers of the 20th century and David Kelley founded the design firm that ushered us into the 21st. But more than an ocean and a generation separates these two creative iconoclasts: Kelley is an unpretentious engineer from blue-collar Ohio who enjoys nothing more than a good tuna melt. Sottsass was the epitome of the Italian designer—mercurial, oracular, and slightly mischievous. Sottsass never knew what to make of Americans who eat fish out of cans (and then put cheese on it). Yet they remained the best of friends.

So in 2001, Kelley, flush with the success of his design firm, IDEO, asked Sottsass to build him a house in the horsey foothills above Silicon Valley, and Sottsass agreed. What followed was an elaborate courtship as the 80-something Italian architect and the 50-something American client, each of whom casts a long shadow across contemporary design, circled and sparred, thrust and parried, and together created an extraordinary house.



The friendship between Kelley and Sottsass goes back a couple of decades to the glory days of Silicon Valley when “disruption” was not the only thing on everyone’s minds and interesting people were naturally gravitating toward each other. Kelley had just founded what was then David Kelley Design, and a mutual friend—Was it Steve Jobs?  Was it the art collector Johnny Pigozzi?— suggested that he seek out the legendary architect who had just jolted Milan’s fashionable design world with the opening of Memphis.  

Each was, in his own way, a bit of a renegade: Kelley had barreled out of Carnegie Mellon University with an electrical engineering degree and visions of rewiring the world. After six months spent at Boeing designing the circuitry for the “Lavatory Occupied” sign on the 747 he decided that this was not for him, and migrated toward the Valley just as the digital revolution was confronting designers with an endless wave of unprecedented challenges.  First he formed the Intergalactic Destruction Company; then Hovey-Kelley Design; then David Kelley Design, and finally IDEO. Sottsass, meanwhile, had just reinvented himself for the umpteenth time: The Memphis collection—with its bizarre collection of furniture objects crafted out of rare Brazilian hardwoods overlaid with cheap American formica, chrome tubing, and a red lightbulb—was only the latest provocation. At the opening of the Memphis showroom in 1981 one of Italy’s most revered furniture designers was heard to whisper, “You see? This lot has fucked us up for the next twenty years.”

As opposites attract, they were drawn to each other by a kind of mutual fascination. Sottsass lectured Kelley about the importance of metaphor while his muse, Barbara Radice, curled up on a sofa translating Sanskrit poetry. Kelley, not to be outdone, presented Sottsass with a package of Jiffy-Pop, which the architect spent days cleaning off the ceiling of his apartment in the Via Pontaccio. They liked each other, they respected each other, they complemented each other, but most of all, each got what the other was about without yielding one inch.



Once they even decided to go into business together, launching a venture—Enorme—that would have been fatal to any normal friendship. The first product was a telephone: Sottsass designed a pure objet, accented with hints of Mondrian, Rietveldt and de Stijl, while Kelley’s firm handled the engineering. The Enorme telephone, with its logo of a gigantic Sumo wrestler, was instantly acquired by museum curators around the world—and by nobody else. From opposite sides of the Atlantic the partners watched in dismay as it passed from design to art, which is to say, became magnificently useless.

The friendship flourished, however, even as the partnership collapsed, and both began to think about what came next. Sottsass returned to architecture and to his newly-formed firm of Sottsass Associati. Riding the wave of Silicon Valley innovation, IDEO grew steadily to become certainly the largest and arguably the most influential design consultancy in history.  In time Kelley decided to move out of his loft in downtown Palo Alto and build himself a house. He did not spend a lot of time looking for an architect. 

Sottsass had already done some building in the United States—most notably a house in Ridgway, Colorado (1987-89) for the art collector Daniel Wolf and his wife, the celebrated sculptor-designer Maya Lin. But neither architect nor client had reckoned with the perversities of Silicon Valley, whose culture of technological adventurism is matched only by its hidebound architectural conservatism.  After endless applications, negotiations, inspections, and outright threats, the village elders of Woodside yielded, plans were approved, permits issued, contractors contracted, and the project got underway.

Ettore Sottsass, who believed that he understood David Kelley better than Kelley understood himself, did not begin by asking his client how many bathrooms he wanted. He asked him about his point of view on love, on food, on politics. Design, after all, is not about marrying form and functionality. It is, as he once reflected, “a way of discussing life.” Kelley tried to be helpful: He and his wife created a detailed process book of their daily life; they rented a helicopter and supplied aerial photographs of the building site; he shuttled back-and-forth to Milan, and fired off thousands of faxes. His confidence in Sottsass was great, and his requirements few: The only thing he specified was plenty of space to showcase his stuff.



David Kelley had, after all, spent twenty years at the forward edge of design, and a fair amount of stuff had come his way: a canary-yellow Ducati that he parked in his living room; a coin-operated mechanical horse (“Sandy”) spirited away from outside of a grocery store; a 1948 Wurlitzer jukebox; an old bathroom scale that gives you honest weight and your fortune for a nickel; a shoebox containing the world’s first commercial mouse (which IDEO designed for Apple); a Braille edition of Playboy, complete with a pointillist bas-relief centerfold.

Sottsass told him to get rid of it. All of it. A house is for interrogating the present, he insisted, not memorializing the past. It is a space for meditating, for conjuring, for plotting against one’s enemies, and for writing a poem. It is not a machine for living in, as the Modernists had claimed, much less a warehouse of machines for living with. And so they circled one another, warily, tentatively, like a pair of giant Sumo wrestlers.

In The Art of War, the 4th century military strategist Sun Tzu argued that the most decisive victory is one in which your opponent believes that he has won. So it is with the house, which manages to express the intellectual vision of both architect and client.  In contrast to the sprawling trophy houses built for the princelings of the Silicon Valley dotconomy, the Kelley residence is not precious, lavishly-appointed, or large.  It takes the form, rather, of a spatial meditation on what is distinctive about California, and that proves to be the landscape.




The result is a house consisting of five inside rooms with five outside “rooms”—courtyards, patios, play areas—negatively defined by the articulations of the building itself and blurred together on a single grade. Seen from the hillside above, there is absolutely no focal point, axis, or grid. Seen from a distance, it looks more like a village of little buildings than a house, with each room governed by a different architectural idiom: shingles on one, wood siding on another, brick on a third; there is a room with a flat roof, a room with a pitched roof, and a room with a barrel vault; a child’s room resembles a stylized playhouse—much as a child might have drawn it. 

The interior, likewise, bears the marks not of compromise but of a series of negotiated solutions.  Kelley’s approach to furniture is that of a hard-wired engineer:  (1) go to the store; (2) look at what they’ve got; (3) choose one. Sottsass takes a different approach: articulate a vision, then do what is necessary to make it happen. Kelley wanted smart-looking “Italian” chairs around the kitchen table. Sottsass refused: “No,” he thundered! “You want stupid American chairs,” and the solution was for Kelley to select a domestic icon—the ubiquitous, ladder-backed “schoolteacher’s chair” from which Mrs. Wormwood might have presided over the third grade. Kelley said he wanted a large open space for entertaining, but Sottsass forbade it because large rooms violate the human scale.  The solution is to break up the expansive living room-dining room-kitchen space with a forest of mysterious six-foot towers—“inscrutable Japanese boxes that make you wonder what’s in them”—that articulate the space without interrupting it.



But on one account Sottsass prevailed: The collection of industrial detritus that is Kelley’s pride and joy has been exiled to his office, relegated to his garage, given to his friends, and consigned to the landfill. In their place stands a collection of Sottsass’ own ceramics, the architect’s secret first love but in their very uselessness an affront to the practical engineer: I have always imagined them, Sottsass once wrote, as “catalysts of perception,” emblems of a cosmos that is “neither measurable nor predictable nor controllable.” Ceramics are “older than the Bible, older than all the poems ever written, older than goats and cats, older than metals, older than houses.”

Older, even, than houses.



This essay was originally conceived as the Kelley-Sottsass house was being completed in 2001. Ettore Sottsass died in 2007 at the age of ninety, and David Kelley has recently moved onto the campus of Stanford University, where he is a professor. The house is now on the market.



from 99U99U

How to Redesign an Airline

How to Redesign an Airline


Look up and you’ll know: Air Canada is in the black.

Black bellies are part of its bold, sharp brand-wide redesign by Winkcreative, one both granular (the most gorgeous route map in the biz) and grand (its iconic 1962 rondelle is back). The shop, headed by Tyler Brûlé, has become something of an airline agency. Having renovated Bombardier, Porter Airlines, José Balazs’ StndAir, and Swiss Air, Winkcreative is currently tackling Air Canada, the 300-plus fleet of national carriers celebrating their 80th anniversary. We spoke with Maurus Fraser, their creative director, about what goes into redesigning an airline.


The color black is used throughout the airline’s design color scheme, which is rare for airlines.

What stands out immediately about the Air Canada redesign is the unexpected stark black component. Can you talk about how that came into the mix and how you decided to get out of the red and white colors that Air Canada has been in for a long time?

The opportunity that we saw was to really celebrate the rondelle. Air Canada had a mark designed in 1963 by Hans Kleefeld, the famous Canadian graphic designer, and they had this icon which companies would die for, and they’ve had this for so long. To not have that on the tail of the plane kind of felt like a missed opportunity. Maple leaves are quite used in Canada—you get a maple leaf in the middle of the golden arches of the McDonald’s. They put them on many things.

How did you pick the black color?

We had several versions of black: How black is black? Is it cold black? Is it warm black? When we were looking at the tones that we could use on the plane we had to work with Boeing, with the Boeing colors and they’ve got quite a small palette. Well, they’ve got sort of a wide palette, but it’s limited when you’re in certain color ranges. There was this jet black, which was just perfect for what we wanted.



Black is heavy on the eye, but it’s also literally heavy in an engineering standpoint. In an industry that wants lightness, weightlessness, was that a tough decision to make?

Black is a pigment and actually it’s not heavier than a white, as long as you have an opaque color painted on a plane. You could argue that maybe black absorbs a little bit more heat, but even in those circumstances the aircraft has been designed so powerfully, like most vehicles, that they’re designed to handle these kinds of heats and it doesn’t necessarily get absorbed that much. So we’ve been assured that it’s no heavier in all practicality. There’s a slight metallic fleck that gives it a pearlescent effect, which is actually slightly heavy and going to the clean, just the clean white, not overlaying too many colors, does actually make it much more efficient.

So you’re right. This is at the forefront of all the airlines minds, when the paint’s being painted the engineers are testing the depth of the paint; it can’t be painted at too much depth and the use of black on planes is incredibly rare. You don’t see it. There’s Air New Zealand, and there’s a great airline in Japan called StarFlyer, which is very cool, using black. But no one’s really been using it in this way that we’re doing.

It’s interesting that you mention New Zealand because they just did that flag redesign attempt that kind of went nowhere, but they had that Māori fern design. This black, white and red combination palette can be very tribal; it’s the same sort of color palette that you see on a lot of Pacific Northwest, British Columbia, totem poles.

We’ve definitely been looking at those influences, especially when you look at the nose mask that we’ve designed. We looked at, and studied the shapes of, an indigenous bird, a common loon, that has a red eye. The nose mask is a symbol of confidence and the use of black is charming because it has a bit of personality celebrating the cockpit. The pilot is a key part of this experience and nobody today really celebrates the cockpit and the pilot, although I guess years ago they did, in the World War II planes.

An airline redesign is not just object design or industrial design. It’s also fashion, interior decoration, and architecture. How did you address that breadth?

One of the things we were careful of is rondelle fever. You shouldn’t have rondelles everywhere. It’s scaling things down. Sometimes, you can get to a point where you have a successful symbol and you use it on everything. Then before you know it, you’ve got 10 of them on one application and you’re just scratching your head.

Did Winkcreative have an all hands on deck approach? Or did you bring in any extra staff?

We have been directing a team based in Canada called Mosaic. When it comes to illustration, we’ve been working with a Japanese illustrator. Working alongside our designers and art directors, we have a team of art buyers that help us find illustrators, photographers, film makers, and animators. When we’re working on identities, we’re very careful that we don’t want things to be repetitive. If we’re working with one collaborator on one project, it’s not necessarily the best person to be working with on another. 

The Air Canada redesign included the attire, too.

Did you have lessons that you brought over from being in the airline redesign business, lessons you didn’t realize you had learned until you were unconsciously, subconsciously applying them to the Air Canada project?

Yes. When we were designing Swiss Airlines In 2002, there was a lot of experimentation happening in airline design. British Airways was doing all these different art techniques from different countries. It was very exciting from a design perspective. From a branding perspective, however, it was too much of a compromise for British Airways, because they had planes flying through air that people didn’t ultimately recognize were from British Airways.

When an entity like Air Canada acts as an unofficial ambassador for how their country is perceived around the world, how do you take that responsibility and apply it to tastefully redesigning something like the seat pocket sick bags?

We’re still in the process of working on those pieces, but there’s a series of elements that we’re working on for the brand where we exaggerate a little bit of that character and charm. 

One of my favorite redesigns is the worldwide flight path map on that red graphing paper. It’s very clean, linear, with a circuit board kind of look. Very 70s or 80s, in a good way. How’d that happen?

It goes back to the golden age of travel and the things that inspired us when we go on a plane. Everything was so sharp. All the touchpoints were so well designed. When you look at most airlines, their route maps, it’s a photograph or some sort of image of the world. And then there’s these huge kind of lines that always overlap, and you can’t tell which line is going where. You know its gotten to a point where airlines don’t care.

We drew Air Canada’s route map in-house, probably spending far too much time pouring over each of those routes and angles. It’s a strong moment and opportunity for an airline to communicate to their customers. The moment you get to the pages in the in-flight magazines and you see the route map, that’s when you’re inspired to go somewhere and realize how convenient and simple it is to go there. Air Canada is really enabling you to do that.

Your design will reach a wide range of people, from those traveling to Canada for the first time to the road warriors for whom the plane has become as familiar as an office cubicle. What impact do you hope the design has across the spectrum of flyers?

To ultimately improve people’s lives. That’s an ambition that I think most designers share. If design can make your everyday life just that much bit better, then why not right?

There are some design similarities to Delta’s new branding. To what degree is that coincidental, or was Winkreative inspired by things Delta did?

Delta is a very different design and not something that influenced our work. Our use of red, white and black, the introduction of the mask, placing the rondelle back on the tail— after 24 years—and the distinctive rondelle on the belly, are not something we have seen before. 

from 99U99U

The Best Damn Creative Career Advice

The Best Damn Creative Career Advice

At 99U, we’re all about gleaning lessons from prolific artists and distilling them into meaningful bits of career wisdom. And when we’re itching for a shot of creative inspiration, there is one sage we always turn towards for guidance. Of course, we’re speaking of Kanye West.

Fortunately, West is willing to freely share what he’s learned about building a successful creative career. As he notes on Twitter, “I am of service to the world with my art and I just want to serve more.” But what really makes his voice compelling is that he understands the struggle of the artist, the plight of the striver who sacrifices to pursue their craft.

“Yes, I am personally rich and I can buy furs and houses for my family but I need access to more money in order to bring more beautiful ideas to the world,” he Tweets. Totally. 

So as you reflect on where you want to take your creative pursuits in 2017, here is some bajillion dollar advice from Mr. Yeezy himself to help you reach your goals and dreams.  

You’ve got to freely express yourself.




 You need to single-mindedly focus on making your art.


You need to take the initiative to find commissions.


Find others who are willing to invest in your work. And be persistent. 




Find someone who you trust to give you unfiltered feedback


Invite your followers into your artistic process.


Never compromise on your artistic vision.


Seriously, don’t compromise on your vision!


You need to stay ahead of the trends.


You need to own your voice and style.


 You need to believe in yourself.








*Fair Warning: This was all done in good fun for April Fool’s Day. Follow the above at your own risk. 

from 99U99U

Dave Snyder: Art is not Design

Dave Snyder: Art is not Design

Some designers wax poetic about how design is intrinsically inseparable from art and some even will go as far as calling themselves artists. Not Firstborn executive creative director Dave Snyder. Snyder has never believed that art is part of design. For him, the moment you bring in someone else’s interestslike a brand’s!it becomes design, not art. Maybe the sacrilegious sentiments stem from the fact that he studied marketing and advertising way back in school. “If I had gone to school for design, I don’t think it would have worked,” he says of his career. “I really needed to learn the business side of things first and then later on in my career discover true graphic design “gurus.””

The outspoken Snyder has built his career around the concept of design being a great business strategy. His current role is dedicated to pushing that process forward and helping brands like Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and reposition themselves through good business solutions that are equally beautiful (as evidence by the boatload of awards Firstborn has won in recent years).

We sat down with Snyder to get his insight into the current state of digital design and the difficulties interactive designers face compared to print designers. 

Tell us about what Firstborn does and what principles it stands for.

Firstborn is about design and technologythat’s the one constant that’s always been. We have always been digital from the ground up.

The biggest change that happened in our industry was that agencies had to decide whether to go either into design and technology or just “own” social. A lot of people decided to focus on what I would say was the easy moneythe social media stuff. It was the: “We’ll go ahead and manage your Facebook and Twitter and come up with campaigns around that” mentality. We wanted to focus on being able to build out the capability to reshape businesses. We have never really embraced any kind of social media support, and we don’t want to create disposable content. We want to create stuff that is actually worth watching and consuming as opposed to being tricked into watching something. We are currently focused on the larger platform type of projects, such as how we can use digital to effect a larger business view or a repositioning. This has proved to be an important shift.

How do you believe digital is contributing to design today?

Design in the most classic sense is a potent business strategy. That’s not to say it’s only about business efficiency. Everything needs a high level of craft, but even that can’t put lipstick on a pig and make people believe the pig is not a pig. Ultimately, design can differentiate one business from another.

“Design in the most classic sense is a potent business strategy.”

It seems that digital agencies are shifting service offerings towards brand building. Is that a fair assessment? And why?

At Firstborn it’s branding, communications, and digital. More and more I don’t see the difference. Your brand is your digital product more than anything. It’s a very blurry type of world but what we do more of now is the actual brand repositioning of large brands and express that through some kind of digital platform or product. With some physical services you spend more time with the app or site than the service.

How is interactive design different from other disciplines in design?

I think it’s more complicated than many other disciplines, mostly because you have to deal with the reality of third party developers, user behaviors, marketers and the way it changes constantly when our devices change. I’m not down-playing paper design as there’s stress on both ends, but ultimately the complexity between the two is extremely different. You also have to deal with the real issue that someone has to code it, and it has to work with someone, so there are more variables and it’s more fluid.

Firstborn created a platform for Green Label Sound, Mountain Dew’s outpost in the world of youth culture.

Where does art live within the world of design now?

I have never believed that art is part of design. One is a commercial interest and one is a personal interest. The one thing a designer does most is deal with other people’s interests. When you have to compromise and deal with business realities, that’s being a designer. When you are solving a problem, that’s being a designer. I don’t like to conflate the two.

“When you have to compromise and deal with business realities, that’s being a designer. When you are solving a problem, that’s being a designer.”

What are the pros and cons of working on a longer term project?

The thing I am most concerned about is how it affects my team. The more things you can get in your book the better as a young designer, and when people get stuck on a project for a year, that sucks for that person and their portfolio. A lot of times when you are in these bigger projects, the realities of business can really squash creativity and lead to something a little more conservative, so you need a balance of something fun as well.

Longer term projects are a different kind of challenge, but it’s definitely where the financial stability is. It’s also interesting from the perspective of how you can affect the business of a company that is much more substantial than yours. When you work on longer business transformation projects from the ground up it allows you to act like an entrepreneur without taking the risks of being an entrepreneur and it gives you a blank canvas.

As a partner, how do you balance innovation and risk for your clients?

That is honestly just a frank conversation from all parties and involves really understanding what the business goals are. I have learned a lot more about that as I’ve got older. I need to understand what drives their business and how we can play within that and craft a solution. You have to understand that somebody’s job is on the line if your idea doesn’t work. It comes down to understanding what risk really feels like and how that might affect you personally.

What steps does an agency have to do to earn the trust of a client?

It’s something I wrestle with. When you are younger you think you have it all figured out and you’re not really taking into account all these other factors market conditions, someone’s boss, etc. A lot of it has nothing to do with the consumer. A couple of things I’ve learned over the years are learn where your clients’ bonus comes from and you’ll have a better opportunity to position your ideas in a way that will earn them more money. And consider time and experience and the perspective it gives someone. It’s all about finding a balance. 

“Learn where your clients’ bonus comes from and you’ll have a better opportunity to position your ideas in a way that will earn them more money.”

Besides trust, what skills does a partner need to gain the most value from their agency or team?

Brutal honesty and a very candid relationship. Clients need to understand our business like we need to understand theirs. Most agencies are there to genuinely make better work for clients. The pitch process is where a ton of this could be worked out. Understanding the dollar amount they have directly affects the solution we pick so being honest about that is really important.

In a recent campaign for Mountain Dew, Firstborn drew a connection between DEW fans and action sports.

Once a product has launched, there’s a lot of data. How do you choose what to focus on and where to iterate?

I think what we and the industry as a whole needs to do is convince clients to put some of the money aside for iterations. Do we do that at Firstborn all the time? No. But it is something we are trying to move towards this year as I think it is a fundamental flaw in the way business works and I feel that 50% of a budget should go towards tracking and improving. I don’t feel big businesses are ready for that though.

from 99U99U

Nobody’s Better Than You

Nobody’s Better Than You

Many years ago, when I was young and things didn’t go my way, my mother used to look at me with a fierce and piteous expression and tell me: “Nobody’s better than you.”

My mother is the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe. By the time she was born, her people (and my dad’s) were well established throughout the American south. Though early to the great waves of immigration, which began in the late 1800s and continued through the end of World War II, my ancestors were no less stigmatized, seen by their neighbors as part of the influx of unwashed Jews, Poles, Irish, and Italians debarking en mass from ships.

Living in small towns in Virginia, without the community of others of their kind, the Rosenbergs and the Sagers kept their observances confined to the indoors; like cinema’s classic Miss Daisy, in public they practiced fervent assimilation. Their efforts weren’t always successful. Among the few stories of his childhood my father ever told was one about being chased by other boys in his town, who threw rocks and called him a “kike” and “bagel eater.” Later, his entrance into medical school at the University of Virginia was delayed a year because the quota for Jews in the class had already been filled.

My mother remembers being a brunette in a sea of blondes, excluded from the in-crowd, a perpetual outsider in her own milieu, which happened to be a town that saw a lot of action during the Civil War. Everyone in school knew whose parents owned the “Jew store.” And everyone in school shopped there; my mom could sometimes be found working after school, sitting on a low stool, fitting shoes. When she didn’t win the vote for yearbook editor, the teacher appointed her co-editor. Same with the newspaper. The teacher knew my mother would get things done, even if the popular kids wouldn’t vote for her.

And so it was, when I didn’t win the election for middle school vice president, or make the J.V. basketball team, or secure the attentions of the cute and popular girl for whom I was vying—when my achievement was lacking, my performance was underwhelming, my results didn’t match my expectations—my mother would try to let me know I should keep on trying, that I shouldn’t let myself feel undeserving. That I should stand up and demand whatever I felt was rightfully mine.

Nobody’s better than you.

I think what she was meaning to say was, You’re just as good as everyone else. Just as deserving. Just as equal. Just as entitled by God above and the U.S. Constitution to as much opportunity as the next guy, no matter who I was or where I came from.

But of course she was blinded by motherhood. And I was a kid.

Nobody’s better than you.

Those were her exact words. And I believed her.

Despite every indication otherwise.


It took me the balance of my grade school years to figure out that maybe I wasn’t as great as my mother had led me to believe. (I should have gotten a hint when some jokester unplugged my amp during my big guitar solo at a school talent show). With an underachiever’s 2.6 GPA, I barely found my way into college; only two schools would have me. By the end of my senior year of high school, I was starting to get the idea that simply feeling entitled and deserving was not quite enough.

When I got to college I was petrified; I’d never done much homework in the past—I’d never even managed to memorize my multiplication tables. But I guess my fear awakened a slumbering work ethic. I became the guy who never missed a class. I highlighted the textbooks and outlined the highlights, re-copied my notes, even read the books teachers left for reference in the library. Along the way I began to discover that development is exponential. The farther you go, the more you know, the more you can handle. Eventually I branched out into extracurriculars…and found my life’s work—an instrument through which I could try to express all of the greatness my mother insisted I had inside.

By the time I left the small pond of my college—which, at the time, was way more famous for churning out med school students than great writers—I felt like a pretty big fish. Nobody was better than me. Nobody I knew, at least.


Through a convoluted series of events, I found myself, at the age of 21, working at the Washington Post, first as a copy boy, then as a staff writer.

Among my bosses—who themselves were employed by the iconic Post publisher Katharine Graham—were men depicted in movies; they’d helped to bring down a crooked president, inspired several generations of ambitious and idealistic kids like myself to join the Fourth Estate. Among my colleagues were the granddaughter of a president and the son of a poet laureate; the cream of the Ivy League’s writing and journalism programs; the best editing and reportorial talent that could be hired away from other newspapers around the country.

And then there was me: Mike from Baltimore.

In an acre-square newsroom housing 800 other writers, everybody was better than me.


I guess I was too naïve to be deterred.

I had, after all, lied to my parents about the law school’s promise to keep open a slot open for me in the next year’s class.

And maybe the seeds of entitlement planted by my mother were never entirely destroyed.

I may never have been to Cape Cod in summer like the some of the blue bloods in the newsroom, or studied with John McPhee, or palled around with JFK and Jackie. I may not have spoken French or dined regularly with ambassadors or sports heroes—or anyone at all during that first couple of years, when I worked the graveyard shift exclusively.

But I did have a few things going for me. A facility with words. A musical bent. An eye for detail. An empathetic ear. An interest in people who were different than me. A little dab of street wise I’d picked up in my early days as a rebellious junior hippy, and later as a day-tripper through seedier climes. And above all, the knowledge that this was what I had to be doing.

Over time, without thinking too hard about it, I did the best I could with what I had, drawing from my intangible assets to create a style of my own. Some people like it. Some do not. I’m not a household word. But I always try, with every piece that I make, to deliver something different and original, something entertaining that carries the weight of truth, something that people will pay me for—yes, that’s important too. Into everything goes my all.

Along the way I have learned that comparison and competition are enemies of the artist. How did he get that assignment? How could she win that award? How many books did she sell? What’s his hourly rate?

All that should matter is the piece of work that sits before you. There is you. There is your art. At the elemental level, nothing else matters.

Call it my Theory of Originals.

Don’t worry about the competition. Find what you do best. When the room is full or when the lines are long, form a line of your own. Be number one in a class of one.

Once you’re there, nobody will be better than you, either.

from 99U99U

True Grit: How to Build Up Your Resilience

True Grit: How to Build Up Your Resilience

Whether we’re talking about a great novelist like John Irving or an era-defining entrepreneur like Jeff Bezos, it’s natural to conclude that the mega-successful owe their achievements to an almost magical quality that you’re either born with or you’re not: talent.

But according to Angela Duckworth, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist who’s made it her life’s goal to help children thrive, this is mistaken. Yes, the aptitude you bring is important, but few of us ever reach the limits of our natural abilities. Instead what holds us back is a lack of commitment or a lack of focus. “Enthusiasm is common,” Duckworth writes, “endurance is rare.”

Effort counts twice, she explains, because it translates your aptitude into skill. And then it combines with your skill to manifest as achievement. In other words, it takes effort to get good at something, and then it takes effort to apply that skill, to create.

If you look at John Irving’s life story, for instance, it isn’t one that begins with him displaying savant- like brilliance at an early age. Far from it, in fact he struggled at school with English. What distinguishes his lifelong approach to his art is his doggedness. “Rewriting is what I do best as a writer,” says Irving. “I spend more time revising a novel or screenplay than I take to write the first draft.”

But determination isn’t enough, you also need to apply yourself with focus. Rather than chasing a different dream each week or month or year, you need – at least eventually – to settle on a higher calling and never let go. When you have drive and determination combined with single-minded direction, this is what translates into meaningful accomplishment.

Crucially, Duckworth, who has written the book on grit, argues that grit isn’t fixed like your height. Rather it’s something that you can cultivate, more like learning a new language. Here are three steps from Duckworth’s book that you can take to make yourself grittier – and dramatically increase your ability to persevere.  

Find your calling

Most high achievers have “an ultimate concern” or what Duckworth calls their “compass” (because it provides a sense of direction) and nothing will stop them in pursuit of this higher goal. How can you find yours if you don’t have one already? The first thing to realize is that you’re not going to find it through introspection. You need to get out there and try things. A relevant misconception is that passions instantly grab us in one magical eureka moment. In reality, the first time you encounter your would-be passion, you likely won’t even realize it. This means you need to expose yourself to as many different pursuits as possible and give any nascent spark a chance to catch.

In time, what overarching passions or concerns have in common is that they have a greater purpose – yes, there is pleasure and fascination in them, but more than that, usually there is a deeper meaning or cause that involves helping other people in some way. In a 2014 study that she conducted with her colleagues Katherine Von Culina at Yale and Eli Tsukayama at The University of Pennsylvania, Duckworth found that people with high levels of grit are as motivated by the pursuit of pleasure as much as anyone else, but what marks them out is their greater interest in meaningful activities that serve a higher purpose.

Of course, we can’t fight every battle. Sometimes it makes sense to change course. If you’re struggling to recognize the difference between your overarching career aim and lesser, more disposable goals, consider visualizing your aims as a pyramid with those at the bottom feeding into your ultimate goal at the top. If they cause you problems, you shouldn’t be afraid to save energy by dispensing with lower-level goals. As you approach mid-level goals and beyond, you should become progressively more dogged. Reserve your never surrender attitude for your ultimate goal or life philosophy that guides all you do.

Practice smart

Once you know what your passion is, you need to hone your craft through unrelenting practice. Duckworth’s research–including a 2010 study into the winners of National Spelling Bee championships–has shown that gritty people devote more time to what psychologists call “deliberate practice” and that they enjoy it more.

This kind of practice involves more than simply putting in the hours. It’s an arduous process that requires pushing yourself to perform outside of your current ability levels (Duckworth recommends setting yourself “stretch goals” – specific areas of performance where you would like to make gains); getting meaningful feedback on how to improve; and then doing it all over again, implementing that feedback to achieve superior performance.

Duckworth quotes dancer Martha Graham’s description of what it feels like to do this kind of training: “Dancing appears glamorous, easy, delightful. But the path to the paradise of that achievement is not easier than any other. There is fatigue so great that the body cries even in its sleep. There are times of complete frustration. There are daily small deaths.

Be it sport, acting or art, when we watch superstars perform, their output often seems effortless, which only serves to fuel the illusion that they were born with a supernatural gift. In fact, the reason their performance is so fluid and graceful is because of all the hours and hours of intense, painstaking practice they’ve completed.

Think like an optimist

 In pursuit of your creative ambitions, it is inevitable that you will experience set backs. As shown in Duckworth’s research involving school teachers working in schools in poor districts, gritty people tend to respond to these setbacks with an optimistic mindset. Optimists see failure as a chance to learn. They consider the changeable aspects of a disappointment that can be addressed and adjusted to make failure less likely next time. Pessimists, by contrast, will tend to blame the failure on a fundamental cause that can’t be changed, such as the belief that they don’t have what it takes. A related concept you’ve probably heard of is whether or not you have a growth mindset. Gritty optimists tend to have a growth mindset, believing that traits like intelligence can be nurtured. Pessimists instead see such things as fixed.

There is a dynamic, interactive nature to these things. Duckworth’s research suggests that encountering adversity–as you surely will–and believing pessimistically that you have no power over events, will encourage you to give up without a fight. You condition yourself to be passive, and you lose your grit. In contrast, responding to challenges with optimism and determination and finding a way through (in Duckworth’s language, this is “adversity plus mastery”), you will nurture your grittiness. Next time you encounter difficulties, you will be even more determined to push on. “To be gritty,” Duckworth writes, “is to fall down seven times, and rise eight.”

If you’re a lifelong pessimist, you might be feeling skeptical at this point, but it’s worth noting that a study last year reviewed all the evidence into whether we can train ourselves to be more optimistic and the results were, well, rather upbeat: the researchers concluded that optimism is indeed something we can learn.


By finding your true calling, honing your craft through dedicated deliberate practice, and responding to setbacks with an optimistic, problem-solving approach, you will follow in the footsteps of the many outstanding achievers Duckworth has studied, all of whom are characterized by that mix of passion and perseverance.

To believe that only a lucky few are born with true talent, while the rest of us are not, is demoralizing. You might understandably wonder whether the focus on grit simply shifts this concern to a different trait: that perhaps a rare few are blessed with grit while us lesser mortals are destined to weaker will and an absence of purpose. In fact, twin studies suggest that the “heritability” of grit is between 20 to 40 percent, meaning that less than half the difference in grit between people can be traced to genetic causes. This leaves plenty of room for grit to be influenced by other factors such as life experiences and deliberate cultivation. “Like every aspect of your psychological character,” Duckworth writes, “grit is more plastic than you might think.”




from 99U99U

A Brief History of the Pencil, as told by a Pencil Aficionando

A Brief History of the Pencil, as told by a Pencil Aficionando

Caroline Weaver, the owner of CW Pencil Enterprise, a specialty pencil shop in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, has managed to make the dream of obsessives come true: What if this thing I love, this strange small thing, could be my job? For Weaver, that strange small thing is the humble pencil, and it has provided not only a business—celebrating its two-year anniversary this March—but a book as well, a history of the pencil entitled The Pencil Perfect. We chatted with Weaver about her store, the birth of the pencil craze, why Japanese pencils are so good, and why people think pencils contain lead. Here are twelve of the most fascinating things we learned.

Pencils do not, and have never, contained lead of any sort.

“It took quite a long time for people to even figure out the chemical composition of graphite,” says Weaver. Graphite was discovered in England in the mid-1600s, and the possibilities of this new material were immediately obvious—but exactly what the stuff was made of, that was a little tricky. “When it was first discovered, people called it black lead, because it kind of resembled lead. And to this day, we still call it lead, and think there’s lead in pencils. But the truth is there was never lead in pencils,” she says.

The first pencils looked pretty weird.

“Graphite was originally used bare as an artist’s material with string wrapped around it, so you had something that wouldn’t get your hand really messy and would also keep the graphite from breaking,” says Weaver. Graphite is quite brittle, but it would take centuries before a process was discovered to mix powdered clay with powdered graphite to make stronger, cheaper pencils. “The Faber-Castell archive has what is believed to be the first pencil. It’s basically two small planks of wood with a piece of graphite stuck inside it, and only three of the four edges are covered. It looks like a super primitive carpenter pencil.


Caroline Weaver in her New York City shop, CW Pencil Enterprise.

In fact, the pencil was a luxury item for centuries.

“They were originally made mostly by cabinet makers, or anybody skilled in woodcraft. It’s not easy to enclose something that small in wood, and they were all made by hand,” says Weaver. The pencil was a huge step up from the then-modern pen, which was a quill, in that you didn’t have to carry around a bottle of ink, which made it ideal for the military as well as artists. But at the time, it was essentially an artisanal sculpture featuring a rare mineral—very expensive.

Legend has it that Napoleon is in large part responsible for the modern pencil.

Weaver was careful to say that this is a legend, and not necessarily completely accurate, but: “Legend has it that during the French Revolution, Napoleon asked Nicholas Conte, who was an engineer who worked mostly with hot air balloons, to make him a better, stronger pencil. All the good pencils were coming from Germany or Britain at the time, and he couldn’t import them because of the war.” Napoleon only had access to crappy graphite, but Conte figured out that even crappy graphite, when powdered, mixed with powdered clay, and fired in a kiln, makes not only a serviceable and inexpensive pencil. It makes a better pencil. Conte also created the mostly-modern method of enclosing the stick of graphite in two half-cylinders of wood, rather than filing out a hole through the middle of a solid stick. And he did this all, according to legend, in eight days.

The eraser came after the pencil—and you won’t believe what predated rubber.

“The erasability of graphite wasn’t a quality that people recognized at first, because erasers didn’t exist,” says Weaver. Rubber, native to the Americas, was both extremely expensive and, until the mid-1800s, perishable. In place of that, pencil-wielding writers used something you might not expect. “People used pieces of bread to erase, slightly stale bread,” she says. “Because it’s still a little absorbent but also a little scratchy, so you can kind of scratch off the graphite.”


The Japanese make some of the most prized modern pencils.

“In Japan, during the mid-20th century, there was almost a race between two pencil companies, Tombow and Mitsubishi, to make the world’s finest pencils. The result is a pencil called the Tombow Mono 100. The Mono 100 is a beautiful pencil. The detailing on its finish—it has this giant white stripe on the end, it has all this gold detailing, it’s so shiny, it’s gotta have at least 14 coats of paint on it, and it has 10 billion particles per cubic mm in its graphite core,” gushes Weaver. These pencils come in fancy plastic boxes with delicate paper sleeves inside. “The packaging is just unbeatable,” says Weaver. “I guess that’s a very Japanese quality, the excessive but beautiful packaging.”

There are still pencils made in the U.S., and they’re actually pretty good.

The U.S. once had a booming pencil industry, in part because the most common wood for casings is cedar, which the country has lots of. Today, there are only three significant manufacturers left in the U.S.—even Dixon’s iconic Ticonderoga is made elsewhere—but they’re not bad! “The General’s Semi-Hex is still manufactured in the U.S., made in its original factory in Jersey City, New Jersey. It’s the most local pencil to us in New York, which we’re very proud of,” says Weaver. “They make a number 2 that’s yellow, with the gold foil, very similar aesthetic to the Ticonderoga, very nostalgic. That, to me, seems to be like the most American pencil.”

What separates a lousy pencil from a great one? How different can they be?

“The first question you have to ask is, is it made out of good quality wood? You have to sharpen your pencil, so if it’s bad, that’s immediately an issue. The other thing that I don’t think people really pay much attention to, unless they know to look for it, is how well-centered the pencil is,” says Weaver. “You can tell that by looking at the unsharpened end of it. There’s so little room for error when it comes to making pencils that even if it’s a millimeter off-center, it gives you trouble when you’re sharpening it. If you sharpen it and find that it’s kind of slanted, that means the core is off-center. That can also lead to the wood splitting, which isn’t good.” Beyond that, things are mostly up to personal preference: Do you like a scratchy pencil or a smoother (but more likely to smudge) one? Do you like lightweight or heavy pencils? How do you like your pencil to look?

There is an online obsession with a particular, long discontinued sharpener.

There are a few different ways of sharpening pencils, but the easiest is the electric sharpener. That said: “Electric sharpeners can be terrible. The best ones were made by Panasonic in the 1980s, but those can be hard to find these days. Believe it or not, there is a resale value for those Panasonic electric sharpeners, because people really love them,” says Weaver. There’s a thriving market on eBay for them; sharpeners in great condition can sell for upwards of $75.00.

But the hottest sharpener isn’t one for amateurs.

“Amongst people in the pencil community, the long-point sharpener is kind of the thing right now,” says Weaver. “It’s a two-step process; it looks like a normal hand-held sharpener, but it has two blades. Blade number one just sharpens the wood of the pencil, and then when you’re done you have to put the pencil into blade number two which very gently refines the blade of the graphite. So the result is a super long point, much longer than you get from any other kind of sharpener. People like it because you don’t have to sharpen your pencil as often. But it’s tricky, it’s kind of hard to use. You have to have a lot of patience.”

“Steinbeck stage” is a term any budding pencil-head might want to learn.

If you frequent pencil message boards—there are some revolving around the Erasable Podcast—you’ll see the term “Steinbeck stage.” “Apparently John Steinbeck discarded his pencils when the barrel of the pencil, the metal part on the end, got to the part of his hand that connected his index finger and his thumb,” says Weaver. So when a pencil gets to that point, it’s referred to as the “Steinbeck stage.” On the other hand, you don’t have to discard a pencil at that point. “I use a pencil extender. We sell so many pencil extenders; I think it’s something that a lot of people have no idea even existed. And you should use your pencils until the end! It feels like a big accomplishment,” says Weaver.

Weaver did, in fact, write her book about pencils with a pencil.

“I did write the book with a pencil,” she says. “I wrote it in a notebook and then transcribed it. I’ll be honest, I cheated a little bit; for a couple sections I just wrote the outline in pencil, not the whole thing, but I tried my best. I ended up using just under 40 pencils for the whole thing, and I saved all the stubs.” Not only that, she tried to match up the pencil she used with the topic at hand. “If I was writing about Faber-Castell, I used a Faber pencil. Or I used vintage pencils for some sections. I kept them all in a jar that had a label on it that said ‘How many pencils does it take to write a book about pencils, in pencil?’”

And that’s part of what Weaver loves so much about pencils. Unlike a pen or mechanical pencil, a classic wood-case pencil fades away with work. “I think that’s something that’s so amazing about this kind of object; it’s something that just disappears when you’re done with it. You’re left with a tiny stub that’s almost a souvenir of all the work you’ve done, and that’s kind of nice,” she says. Plus: Wood pencils smell good.

from 99U99U