Photograph of two rocking chairs on a porch.
“Rockin’ on the Porch” by Neillwphoto is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

A couple of weeks ago, and on the occasion of his 68th birthday, Kevin Kelly posted 68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice. Each short passage offers wisdom on the general theme of happiness through contributing to society with attention, generosity, and persistence — mixing in the occasional bromide about finding lost keys or taking power naps. I recommend a slow-read of this list to anyone, including but not at all limited to the “young ‘uns” Kelly addresses in the list’s introductory paragraph.

I envision this list adapted into a book, with a thoughtful illustration of each little gem on its facing page. I have both enough life experience behind me and enough ambitious dreams still in front that my reaction to every item on this list was either knowing agreement, or sudden and sobering acknowledgment of something I need to improve.

Many people I follow online have lauded the 68 Bits, including Nat Torkington, who tweet-threaded some favorite entries with further reflections upon each. Please allow me to do that too, with the following nine pull-quotes. I must still implore you to block out twenty or thirty minutes to take in the whole list, and to assume my tacit but enthusiastic nodding at the 59 bits I do not comment on here. (Plus, you’ll learn the word “pronoia”.)

Perhaps the most counter-intuitive truth of the universe is that the more you give to others, the more you’ll get. Understanding this is the beginning of wisdom.

I identify this as one of the two centerpieces of the list, and the wellspring from which much of the other advice naturally flows.

As Nat wrote in his own commentary, one benefit of age is having more to give, and thus standing to benefit ever further from this most basic of virtuous cycles.

Always demand a deadline. A deadline weeds out the extraneous and the ordinary. It prevents you from trying to make it perfect, so you have to make it different. Different is better.

The first list-item that humbled me. My ongoing and gradual career pivot into technical writing has just begun to gain traction, and my first assignments have had a very loose, whenever-you’re-ready schedule. I missed having deadlines, without quite realizing it. Reading this passage struck me with a swift explanation for much of the vague uncertainty that has affected work I have otherwise found engaging and rewarding.

A worthy goal for a year is to learn enough about a subject so that you can’t believe how ignorant you were a year earlier.

I do this far too infrequently. I think of how I learned to make television in 2005, or how I learned about flight navigation ten years after that. They didn’t turn me into a professional TV producer or an air-traffic controller, but they did give me deep insights into common services I had seen only the surface of for my entire life — and thus, deeper insights into how the world in general works.

In both these cases I learned these things for the sake of stuff I wanted to make — but I don’t think that needs to be a limiting factor.

Nothing, absolutely nothing stops you from peering around the façade of something and discovering all its hidden dimensions. You have all the tools you need to pick something and start learning, whenever you’re ready.

Don’t be the best. Be the only.

One could hear this as swagger, at first, about destroying all your competitors: There can be only one! But I feel certain that Kelly didn’t mean it that way.

I hear in this a mix between “Find a need and fill it!” (which I have heard attributed to Thomas Edison, though the internet disagrees), and the advice that Merlin Mann and John Gruber gave in their excellent and timeless 2009 presentation “Obsession Times Voice”.

In that talk, Mann makes up an example about launching a Star Wars fan website not just about the first movie, not just about the scenes with the Jawas, but all about specifically the third Jawa from the left in this particular shot. Becoming the undeniable world authority on this information, because nobody else was doing it, and just owning it.

I think about that often.

Show up. Keep showing up. Somebody successful said: 99% of success is just showing up.

I came to learn this independently as a freelancer, and found the deepness of its truth shocking. The flipside: so many people don’t show up. Become a dependable presence first and you’ve already proven yourself well above average.

Applying “keep showing up” in contexts outside the formally professional is also how you get serendipity to smile on you every now and again. “Showing up” — whatever that might mean, in your situation — gives you a bonus throw of the dice (in addition to whatever you’re showing up for). Do it often enough and you’ll get lucky: a chance encounter leading to a conversation that opens new doors, say, or a chance at last to contribute something you know, however unlikely it may have seemed at first.

Saving money and investing money are both good habits. Small amounts of money invested regularly for many decades without deliberation is one path to wealth.

To this I would add that paying off your debt is as good as investing money: debt, after all, being essentially negative investment. Fill in those sink-holes first, and then start building. When I figured this out around age 30, I got to work on paying off my credit-card and other debts, right down to zero. It took a long time: I turned 40 before I thought much about investing. As Kelly’s wording implies, I would have done better to start much sooner, but several years on I certainly don’t think I was “too late”.

A practical angle of this I have since learned: one of the best ways to invest is also the easiest, and that is to put money regularly into an index fund, which you otherwise ignore completely. You can also get tax benefits by having that investment account live in an IRA account of some sort, but the important thing is just to keep socking a little bit into it, for years and years, paying an absolute minimum of attention (per the “without deliberation” part of Kelly’s advice.)

A passive index fund will beat out an actively managed fund every time, over time, in part because the latter presents a far greater expense in terms of both fees and attention-drain.

Investing a bit of our money continuously over years has improved life for my wife and I, gradually removing the specter of financial insecurity: we rubbed out our debt, and then we started saving enough money to help us avoid getting back into debt.

One time we needed a car quickly, so we found a good used one, and we dipped into our investments to pay cash for it, all at once. The dealership didn’t know what to do with this, because everyone cheerfully goes into debt instead. But we didn’t need to, so we didn’t. (I mean: they took the money and we drove the car home. But they acted stunned, like we had slapped them.)

And I know that not everybody can put money away like this! But if you can, regularly, even just a little, I think you should.

Buying tools: Start by buying the absolute cheapest tools you can find. Upgrade the ones you use a lot. If you wind up using some tool for a job, buy the very best you can afford.

I type this article on my 2012 Macbook Pro, of whose virtues I have already written at length — two years ago, when it was already “old”. In 2012 I spent an absurd amount of money on this computer, a tool absolutely essential to my life. And here I am still using it, and still not giving much thought to its replacement. It might last a full ten years.

See also my love affair for the Steelcase Gesture office chair, over one year in and still going strong. My spine celebrates every penny I have spent on it.

 How to apologize: Quickly, specifically, sincerely.

Apologizing can hurt, sometimes to the degree where it feels like a performative self-injury. But when you know you know that an apology is due from you, that knowledge will sit on your soul like a caustic acid, smoking and festering and harming you far worse than the swift cauterization that apology offers.

This counts even during those times when the “fault” does not lie with you, but you suspect that you should apologize anyway.

Over the long term, the future is decided by optimists. To be an optimist you don’t have to ignore all the many problems we create; you just have to imagine improving our capacity to solve problems.

And this one I read as the complement of the first bit I quoted, less practical advice than a light in the distance to navigate by.

If Fogknife, or any of my personal work, has a theme, then I hope one can derive it from this ideal.

This article was also posted to the “advice” section of Indieweb.xyz.

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Jonathan Borichevskiy avatar

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Ben Congdon

Excellent post! I've really enjoyed seeing different folks' reaction to the "68 Bits of Advice"

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