FIVE HABITS OF CREATIVE PEOPLE

WHETHER IT’S GETTING INTO A ROUTINE OR KNOWING WHEN TO GIVE UP, HERE ARE THE HABITS CREATIVE PEOPLE HAVE CULTIVATED.

There is no secret trick to becoming more creative, but the good news is creativity is a skill you can build.

That means that you can become more creative with the right time and effort. Whenever you are picking up a new skill, though, it is good to find role models who have the abilities you want and to follow their lead.

Over the past 10 years, I have written quite a bit about creativity. Along the way, I have encountered the stories of a number of individuals who have inspired me to think about what it takes to improve my own creative abilities. These individuals have been able to solve problems (both practical and artistic) in new ways. Here are five habits that emerge from their efforts.

THEY STUDY THE DETAILS.

A number of people I have talked to have worried that their ability to be creative might be hampered by knowing too much. They feel like having too much knowledge will curse them into sticking with their routines.

Creative individuals delve into the details of the problems they are trying to solve. When Fiona Fairhurst and her design team at Speedo were trying to create a swimsuit that would help swimmers shave seconds off their times, they looked at all kinds of ways to reduce the forces of drag. Their final design drew from many different sources including the structure of shark skin and the use of stretch materials that decreased swimmer’s muscle vibrations.

Similarly, the Swiss engineer George de Mestral noticed that pesky cockleburs would stick to his dog’s fur after going out for a walk. He studied the cockleburs under a microscope and found that they stuck so persistently because tiny hooks on the seed would get caught in the dog’s tangled fur. Using this principle, he had cloth manufacturers create synthetic cocklebur hooks and dog fur and invented Velcro.

THEY HAVE DEVELOPED A DISCIPLINED ROUTINE.

The standard image of the creative genius is one of a tortured soul who works in fits of inspiration in between bouts of self-destructive behavior. But, many of the most creative people are much more disciplined than that. They treat their creativity like a job and work at it consistently.

A classic example of this type is the prolific authorStephen King. If ever there was someone whose work would fit the expected output of a tortured soul, it would be King’s. Yet, he has talked often about the role of routines in his work. He writes every morning. As he points out, routines for creativity are just as important as routines for sleeping. You cannot wait for the muse. You have to work hard before it appears.

THEY REALIZE THAT EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT

As a college professor, my least favorite question asked by students is: “Will this be on the exam?” The answer to that question is always: “Yes, but it may not be my exam.” That is because you never know what the source of a great idea is going to be. The stories behind creative ideas are fascinating to read, but they are only clear in retrospect.

For example, James Dyson’s inspiration for the bagless vacuum cleaner came from his knowledge of the industrial cyclones used to clear the air in sawmills. When Dyson’s curiosity led him to learn about sawmills, he could not have known that knowledge would form the basis of a multimillion dollar company.

A key to creativity is to pursue knowledge without a sense of whether it will be relevant in the future. Too often, people assume that they can judge in advance what they need to understand and what they do not. Instead, creative people build up their knowledge base so that they will be ready for the opportunities that come later.

THEY CONSIDER THE TIMING.

Truly successful creative endeavors are products that fit into their time. That means that creative individuals need to understand both the technical aspects of their craft as well as the context in which the work is being done.

Consider the great jazz trumpet player Miles Davis. Davis cut his musical teeth during the bebop era. Bebop was characterized by fast flurries of notes played with technical precision over fast chord changes. He began to react against this style in recordings starting in the late 1940s, but it wasn’t until the late 1950s that the world was ready for the sound that characterized albums like Birth Of The Cool (which was released well after it was recorded) and Kind Of Blue, which had an enormous impact both on listeners and other players.

By the late 1960s, Davis was ready to react against the prevailing context again with his early fusion album Bitches Brew. The key to the success of these works was an understanding of the system in which they were being recorded and heard.

On the technical side of innovation, Steve Jobs was a master at understanding the role of the system. The iPod was not the first MP3 player on the market. Jobs thought deeply about the user and the situation in which the iPod would be used. The attention to the context in which the device would be employed led to the parallel development of iTunes, which made the iPod a true plug-and-play device.

THEY KNOW WHEN TO GIVE UP

Finally, when you look at stories of creativity, it is easy to be seduced by the persistence of creative people. Not only did James Dyson take inspiration from far-flung sources, but he also spent years working on the prototype of the original Dyson vacuum.

There is a danger in drawing the lesson that creative people stick with every idea in order to see them through. Economists have the concept of a sunk cost. Sunk costs are the time, energy, and money that have already been invested in a project. Good decisions do not allow sunk costs to have an undue impact on choices. Just because you have already spent a lot of time or money on a project does not mean that time will have been wasted if you walk away from the project. Instead, you should evaluate projects by whether they are likely to succeed with continued effort, independent of the investment you have made so far.

Richard Nisbett and his colleagues have studied successful creative individuals (like academics who work at the forefront of their disciplines). The ones who are most successful in the long run are actually those who are willing to walk away from projects that are not succeeding, even when they have already put considerable effort into those projects. That is, creative success means knowing when to throw in the towel and move on to something else.

The Art of Stumbling: David Brooks on Character, “Résumé Virtues” vs. “Eulogy Virtues,” and the Humility Code of Living a Meaningful Life

by

“We are all stumblers, and the beauty and meaning of life are in the stumbling.”

“Do not despise your inner world,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum admonished in her letter of advice to the young. “By acceptance of all aspects of life, good and bad, right and wrong,” Henry Miller wrote in contemplating the wisdom of the heart half a century earlier, “the static, defensive life, which is what most people are cursed with, is converted into a dance, ‘the dance of life.’”But in a culture that consistently mistakes perfection for wholeness, we are discouraged from dancing with the brokenness, messiness, and imperfection of our interior lives — and yet only when do so can we begin to feel whole and measure our lives in terms of deep meaning rather than superficial success.

How to do this is what New York Times columnist David Brooks, one of the finest writers and thinkers of our time, explores in The Road to Character (public library) — an elegant and lucid case for how fostering a “counter-tradition of moral realism” can help us snap out of the “self-satisfied moral mediocrity” that defines modern life, which leaves us in a state of “unconscious boredom” (notthe creatively and spiritually fruitful kind), “not really loving, not really attached to the moral purposes that give life its worth.” What emerges is a pitch-perfect clarion call, issued not with preachy hubris but from a deep place of humility, for awakening to the greatest rewards of living.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.’ Click image for more.

Brooks writes:

I’ve been thinking about the difference between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being — whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.

Most of us would say that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé virtues, but I confess that for long stretches of my life I’ve spent more time thinking about the latter than the former. Our education system is certainly oriented around the résumé virtues more than the eulogy ones. Public conversation is, too — the self-help tips in magazines, the nonfiction bestsellers. Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character.

Brooks argues that we live in a constant tussle with these two contradictory parts of ourselves that rip the psyche asunder with their conflicting demands — the ambitious and status-oriented achiever, driven by the “résumé virtues” and stimulated by external rewards, and the moral aspirant propelled by the “eulogy virtues,” which offer their own internal satisfactions. The former is goaded by cultivating and showcasing our personal strengths; the latter by contemplating and confronting our inner weaknesses.

Illustration from ‘Herman and Rosie’ by Gus Gordon. Click image for more.

Echoing Joss Whedon’s commencement address on embracing our inner contradictions, Brooks adds:

We are called to fulfill both personae, and must master the art of living forever within the tension between these two natures.

Central to his premise is the aspiration toward what Martin Luther King, Jr. called self-purification, with a side of Bruce Lee’s famous “be like water” philosophy and notes of Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön’s assertion that “our neurosis and our wisdom are made out of the same material.” Brooks expounds the idea that the most reliable path to our highest selves is found in surrendering (rather than succumbing) to our greatest flaws in order to transcend them; that stumbling along this path, rather than hindering our progress, is what moves our character-expedition forward. He writes:

We are all stumblers, and the beauty and meaning of life are in the stumbling — in recognizing the stumbling and trying to become more graceful as the years go by.

The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance here and there, sometimes lurching, sometimes falling to her knees. But the stumbler faces her imperfect nature, her mistakes and weaknesses, with unvarnished honesty, with the opposite of squeamishness. She is sometimes ashamed of the perversities in her nature — the selfishness, the self-deceit, the occasional desire to put lower loves above higher ones.

But humility offers self-understanding. When we acknowledge that we screw up, and feel the gravity of our limitations, we find ourselves challenged and stretched with a serious foe to overcome and transcend.

The stumbler is made whole by this struggle.

Brooks notes that our second, more luminous nature — the stuff of “eulogy virtues” — operates in a way opposite to the “straightforward utilitarian logic” of the striving résumé-self:

It’s a moral logic, not an economic one. You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave. Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride. Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning. In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from ‘We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy.’ Click image for more.

And yet our culture, he laments, expects and rewards the other self — the striver on the hamster wheel of achievement and approval:

We live in a society that encourages us to think about how to have a great career but leaves many of us inarticulate about how to cultivate the inner life.

[…]

The competition to succeed and win admiration is so fierce that it becomes all-consuming… The noise of fast and shallow communications makes it harder to hear the quieter sounds that emanate from the depths. We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success, but that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character.

Brooks is interested in what it takes to cultivate a heart wise enough to maintain an “inner constancy” in the face of popular disapproval — after all, there is a reason why many of the luminaries we most revere have in common the capacity to withstand rejection. To be sure, Brooks approaches this quest by practicing his non-preachy insights, plunging straight into his own perceived shortcomings with confident vulnerability:

I was born with a natural disposition toward shallowness. I now work as a pundit and columnist. I’m paid to be a narcissistic blow-hard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am, to appear smarter than I really am, to appear better and more authoritative than I really am. I have to work harder than most people to avoid a life of smug superficiality. I’ve also become more aware that, like many people these days, I have lived a life of vague moral aspiration — vaguely wanting to be good, vaguely wanting to serve some larger purpose, while lacking a concrete moral vocabulary, a clear understanding of how to live a rich inner life, or even a clear knowledge of how character is developed and depth is achieved.

Illustration from ‘The Storm Whale’ by Benji Davies. Click image for more.

And yet this is something we all do, in varying degrees at various times, as we settle into the morally fail-safe trajectory of life:

You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You follow your desires wherever they take you, and you approve of yourself so long as you are not obviously hurting anyone else. You figure that if the people around you seem to like you, you must be good enough. In the process you end up slowly turning yourself into something a little less impressive than you had originally hoped. A humiliating gap opens up between your actual self and your desired self.

What Brooks calls for is learning to embrace this gap so tightly that we squeeze it shut — something that requires a sort of determined humility in the face of our imperfections. It is in this faceoff with our dual selves that character is built. (Perhaps Joan Didion put it best when she wrote in her timelessly magnificent meditation on self-respect: “Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.”) And yet the willingness to do so seems strangely old-fashioned — something that belongs to the spiritual and philosophical traditions of yore rather than to the self-improvement industrial complex of today. With an eye to this forsaken lore, Brooks writes:

My general belief is that we’ve accidentally left this moral tradition behind. Over the last several decades, we’ve lost this language, this way of organizing life. We’re not bad. But we are morally inarticulate. We’re not more selfish or venal than people in other times, but we’ve lost the understanding of how character is built.

[…]

The central fallacy of modern life is the belief that accomplishments of the [résumé] realm can produce deep satisfaction… The ultimate joys are moral joys.

To restore the balance between the “résumé virtues” and the “eulogy virtues,” Brooks proposes what he calls a Humility Code — a fifteen-point contract with ourselves that offers greater moral clarity on “what to live for and how to live.” Among them:

1. We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness. Day to day we seek out pleasure, but deep down, human beings are endowed with moral imagination. All human beings seek to lead lives not just of pleasure, but of purpose, righteousness, and virtue. As John Stuart Mill put it, people have a responsibility to become more moral over time. The best life is oriented around the increasing excellence of the soul and is nourished by moral joy, the quiet sense of gratitude and tranquillity that comes as a byproduct of successful moral struggle. The meaningful life is the same eternal thing, the combination of some set of ideals and some man or woman’s struggle for those ideals. Life is essentially a moral drama, not a hedonistic one.

2. Proposition one defines the goal of life. The long road to character begins with an accurate understanding of our nature, and the core of that understanding is that we are flawed creatures. We have an innate tendency toward selfishness and overconfidence. We have a tendency to see ourselves as the center of the universe, as if everything revolves around us. We resolve to do one thing but end up doing the opposite. We know what is deep and important in life, but we still pursue the things that are shallow and vain. Furthermore, we overestimate our own strength and rationalize our own failures. We know less than we think we do. We give in to short-term desires even when we know we shouldn’t. We imagine that spiritual and moral needs can be solved through status and material things.

3. Although we are flawed creatures, we are also splendidly endowed. We are divided within ourselves, both fearfully and wonderfully made. We do sin, but we also have the capacity to recognize sin, to feel ashamed of sin, and to overcome sin. We are both weak and strong, bound and free, blind and far-seeing. We thus have the capacity to struggle with ourselves. There is something heroic about a person in struggle with herself, strained on the rack of conscience, suffering torments, yet staying alive and growing stronger, sacrificing a worldly success for the sake of an inner victory.

5. Pride is the central vice. Pride is a problem in the sensory apparatus. Pride blinds us to the reality of our divided nature. Pride blinds us to our own weaknesses and misleads us into thinking we are better than we are. Pride makes us more certain and closed-minded than we should be. Pride makes it hard for us to be vulnerable before those whose love we need. Pride makes coldheartedness and cruelty possible. Because of pride we try to prove we are better than those around us. Pride deludes us into thinking that we are the authors of our own lives.

10. We are all ultimately saved by grace. The struggle against weakness often has a U shape. You are living your life and then you get knocked off course — either by an overwhelming love, or by failure, illness, loss of employment, or twist of fate. The shape is advance-retreat-advance. In retreat, you admit your need and surrender your crown. You open up space that others might fill. And grace floods in. It may come in the form of love from friends and family, in the assistance of an unexpected stranger, or from God. But the message is the same. You are accepted. You don’t flail about in desperation, because hands are holding you up. You don’t have to struggle for a place, because you are embraced and accepted. You just have to accept the fact that you are accepted. Gratitude fills the soul, and with it the desire to serve and give back.

13. No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation. If you try to use your work to serve yourself, you’ll find your ambitions and expectations will forever run ahead and you’ll never be satisfied. If you try to serve the community, you’ll always wonder if people appreciate you enough. But if you serve work that is intrinsically compelling and focus just on being excellent at that, you will wind up serving yourself and the community obliquely. A vocation is not found by looking within and finding your passion. It is found by looking without and asking what life is asking of us. What problem is addressed by an activity you intrinsically enjoy?

The Road to Character is an essential read in its entirety — Anne Lamott with a harder edge of moral philosophy, Seneca with a softer edge of spiritual sensitivity, E.F. Schumacher for perplexed moderns. Complement it with 16th-century godfather of blogging Montaigne on how to live and Susan Sontag onwhat it means to be a moral human being.

What Does “The” Mean?

 IMAGE CREDIT:
THINKSTOCK/ERIN MCCARTHY

It’s the most frequent word in the English language, accounting for around 4 percent of all the words we write or speak. It’s everywhere, all the time, so clearly it must be doing something important. Words have meaning. That’s fundamental, isn’t it? So this word “the,” a word that seems to be supporting a significant portion of the entire weight of our language, what does this word mean? It must mean something, right?

We can say, roughly, that “the” means the word it is attached to refers to a specific, individual object. When I say “I have the apple,” I mean a certain apple, not just “an apple”—any old apple, or “apples” in general.

But, of course, it’s not quite that easy. Sometimes “the” doesn’t indicate a specific object, but a whole class of objects. When you say you know how to play “the piano” or that exercise is good for “the heart,” there is no specific piano or heart you have in mind. “The pen is mightier than the sword” isn’t about specific pens or swords or even about specific instances of their metaphorical counterparts, acts of writing and acts of aggression.

“The” does not seem like a difficult word, but it’s very hard to explain to someone who isn’t a native speaker. Why do we say, “I love the ballet,” but not “I love the cable TV”? Why do we say, “I have the flu,” but not “I have the headache”? Why do we say, “winter is the coldest season,” and not “winter is coldest season”? For speakers of Russian, Korean, or any language that doesn’t have a “the,” these are important questions.

The only satisfactory answers are found, not in an explanatory definition, but in lists of situations where “the” is used. Such a list is what you find, in fact, if you look up “the” in the dictionary, something native speakers almost never do. Why would they? It’s not “anthropomorphism” or “jejune” or one of those words people need dictionaries for. But dictionary-makers are tasked with defining all the words people use, not just the glamorous ones, and sometimes the simplest words turn out to be the hardest ones to define. The entry for “the” on Merriam-Webster.com lists 23 places where it can go, among them “before the plural form of a numeral that is a multiple of ten to denote a particular decade of a century or of a person’s life <life in the twenties>” and “before the name of a commodity or any familiar appurtenance of daily life to indicate reference to the individual thing, part, or supply thought of as at hand<talked on the telephone>.” These uses are related to each other in a loose and complex way, but it’s impossible to pull out the single definitive meaning that underlies them all. You simply have to list them. And that list is the meaning.

The OED lists 50 entries for “the,” some of which are only historical relics. It was once correct to play “the chess,” to learn “the dressmaking” and “the mathematics,” and to read “the French,” all for “the posterity.” The “the” dropped out of those situations. The fact that it doesn’t go before those words anymore is also part of its meaning.

So the meaning of “the” is the combination of the situations where it is appropriate and the situations where it is not appropriate. This makes it quite different from straightforwardly definable words like “octahedron” (“a three-dimensional figure having eight plane faces”), but not much different from “different” or “see” or “now” or any of the everyday words we use all the time. We like to think of words as little containers of meaning that we pack and unpack as we communicate, but they are not containers so much as pointers. They point us toward a body of experience and knowledge, to conversations we have had and things we have read, to places in sentences where we have and haven’t seen them. Words get their meanings from what we do with them. Especially the word we use the most.

Before You Respond to that Email, Pause

Someone sends you an email message or a text, and you’re unsure how to respond.  It’s about a complex negotiation, or a politically sensitive situation. Or maybe it’s just from a person who unnerves you.

For a moment, you pause. But for most of us, most of the time, that pause doesn’t last long. Instead we react, feeling the need to immediately craft a response. And often we then hit “send” without fully thinking. The result: an awkward or incomplete message that causes the recipient to pause, then react, often starting or continuing a cycle of miscommunication and misunderstanding.

Yes, people today expect and want an instantaneous reply to any message. We often accommodate them because delay feels like a violation of modern-day social norms.

But there are many times when we should not immediately reply.  And the truth is, we usually know them when they come. That’s what that initial pause is about. The key is to heed it.

There is a simple two-step method to making the pause work for you. First, buy yourself some time to think. Second, follow the four simple C’s of effective communication that help determine how best to respond in terms of the context, content, channel, and contact.

Buying Time

There are a few practical ways to buy some time when you get a message where your gut tells you not to respond or where you are not sure how to respond.

  • The non-response response – “Got your message.”  This is meant to serve as an acknowledgement but really is only filler. It may aggravate someone in the midst of a negotiation or other serious exchange.
  • The expectation-setter – “Got it.  Lot on the plate today, I’ll get back to you tomorrow afternoon.”  This is often a good middle ground.  It provides an immediate response of acknowledgment and resets the timetable.
  • The confident pause – Don’t respond. Really. Just don’t. Pausing for at least 24 hours is a pretty good rule of thumb. Not responding is its own kind of response, which can often work to your advantage.

Once you’ve bought yourself some time, you soak in the information from the message and think of what the best response might be. There are four C’s that have served as a useful checklist for me to use during that pause time before I respond to a difficult message: context, content, contact, and channel.

The Four C’s of Effective Communication

  1. Context – Having the right situational context is key. Who are the relevant parties to the conversation or discussion thread? Are there relationships and inter-dependencies and previous conversations that I’m not aware of?  Do I fully understand what is at stake?  In the multi-party transactions in which we often get involved in venture capital, sending out a quick response to even a simple query can backfire if the timing is wrong or the information out of date. Sometimes you can even answer a specific question in a technically correct manner, but be practically incorrect because you’ve failed to appreciate the bigger picture.
  2. Content – The message needs to be delivered in clear manner with the right tone and style for the occasion. Having the right content means checking facts and being consistent with past discussion threads. If there is one thing that I have seen kill a negotiation or productive progress in a discussion, it is inconsistency of message, which both confuses others and diminishes your credibility. Get the facts and your message points straight in your head, then focus on delivering them in the clearest, most understandable, most consistent manner possible.
  3. Contact – Are you even the right person to respond? It happens often: we are asked something and fail to realize that we might not be the best person to respond. Consider if someone else might be more knowledgeable or better suited in style to respond, especially in a crisis (where it is usually best to have only a single point of contact). There is a reason why terrorist and hostage negotiations are not conducted over Google Docs. And even in an open and collaborative everyday work culture, there are many times when deferring to someone else is the right answer.  Also, consider if the person on the other side who is asking a question or provoking a discussion is the right contact person as well. And always — always! — be wary of “reply all” and judicious with the cc function.
  4. Channel – Just because someone contacts you by email or text does not mean you have to respond by that channel. Email and text lend themselves to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. They are often likelier to prolong or inflame a debate than to resolve it. As I’ve written before, sometimes it’s much more effective and efficient just to pick up the phone or meet up in person. Email is great for transmitting factual information — a spreadsheet of a business model, for example, or a summary of a prior discussion. But when there are issues to resolve, talking usually works better.

As the pressure grows to respond quickly, the value of pausing and thinking is growing too. We all should work toward developing better, saner norms of communication amid the explosion of channels available to us. But that will take time and thought to get right.  In the interim, we just need to stop being so damned trigger-happy with that send button.

Mind Your Email Manners: In business communication, it is important to observe some etiquette rules

Business etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore, at her Lake Worth, Fla., home, says that drafting business emails is a craft that should prioritize a professional tone.
Business etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore, at her Lake Worth, Fla., home, says that drafting business emails is a craft that should prioritize a professional tone.
PHOTO: JOSH RITCHIE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL.

So much business communication takes place electronically that people tend to dash off emails without thinking about them. But even with quick messages, it is important to observe some etiquette rules.

“Email is often the first impression that others get of you,” says etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore, who has done executive coaching and leadership training programs for various Fortune 500 companies.

Ms. Whitmore believes one thing above all: “Err on the side of being more formal.” When composing an email, she never starts without a salutation. “An email deserves a greeting,” says Ms. Whitmore. “We’ve gotten so lax in the way that we communicate that we’re apt to forget good habits.”

If the recipient is someone Ms. Whitmore has never met before, she’ll likely begin with “Dear.” Generally, though, she will use “Hello.” After that first email exchange, though, Ms. Whitmore takes her cues from the person she is emailing. “If the person says ‘Hi’ to me, I will say ‘Hi’ back,” she says. “I will mirror the person I am emailing.”

Timing is important. “The rule is you should reply to an email within 24 hours,” Ms. Whitmore says. “Even if you don’t have an answer for someone, reply anyway and say ‘Thank you for your email—I’ll get back to you by such and such a date.’ ”

Ms. Whitmore, who has written two books, “Poised for Success” and “Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work,” likes to start the body of her email with a short, thoughtful sentence. “If you haven’t spoken to the person in a while, it’s best to put some little nicety in the front, like ‘Happy New Year’ or ‘I hope you had a great holiday,’” she says.

After that, Ms. Whitmore tries to be as direct and succinct as possible. “I always keep my sentences very short,” says Ms. Whitmore, who is also the founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach in Florida. “People have hundreds of email to answer in a day. The chances that somebody will respond increase when the email is shorter.”

Ms. Whitmore likes to keep her paragraphs short as well. With especially busy people, bullet points are a good idea. “I work with a lot of executives who are very busy, and they just want the facts,” she says. “I almost set it up like a memo so it’s easier to read.”

While it can be easy to fall into a casual tone, especially if you’re tapping out your email on a portable device, Ms. Whitmore cautions against it. “Remember that emails can be forwarded, they can be duplicated,” she says. “Keep emotions out of it, and keep it simple.”

At the same time, Ms. Whitmore is careful not to be come across as curt. “No one can see your facial expressions or hear your tone of voice, so the only way they’re gauging your emotions is the tone that you use in that email,” she says. So, while she tries to keep things short, she also will add words such as “I’m happy to do it” to convey a little warmth.

Some people try to convey emotions in emails with happy or sad faces such as 🙂 or with extra exclamation points. Ms. Whitmore says she does use such measures when she thinks it is appropriate—“but never when I’m trying to make a good first impression,” she says. “If I’ve known the person a long time and we’ve developed a friendship, I find it more appropriate to be less formal. But when in doubt, leave it out.”

A model business email, annotated with tips for crafting emails that hit the right business etiquette notes and maintain a professional tone.ENLARGE
A model business email, annotated with tips for crafting emails that hit the right business etiquette notes and maintain a professional tone.

A model business emailENLARGE
A model business email PHOTO: JOSH RITCHIE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL.

“Text speak” is a strict don’t, Ms. Whitmore says. Acronyms such as “lol” “don’t have a place in a business email,” she says. “Even if you’ve just graduated from college and you’re now out in the workforce, remember that a lot of your clients may be baby boomers. It’s important for you to stay professional.”

More people are writing messages in all lowercase letters. Ms. Whitmore likes to reserve that for personal emails.

Make sure nothing is misspelled. “It can reflect poorly on your company if you send a poorly composed email,” Ms. Whitmore says. “People may think, ‘This person handles the balance sheets for my company and he can’t even spell there?’ So read and reread it before sending it.”

Also, be sure to put in a clear subject line at the top—something busy professionals prize. “If you don’t have anything in the subject line at all, you can’t figure out if it’s something you want to open right away,” Ms. Whitmore says.

Signing off carries potential pitfalls as well. “If I don’t know the person well, the safest way to sign off is ‘Best regards,’” Ms. Whitmore says. “Kind regards” and “Warmest regards” convey formality with just a little more affection, she adds. “Best” is commonly used and works for most situations, but if Ms. Whitmore feels a more formal tone is called for, she’ll use “Sincerely,” which she notes is “a little more distant.”

A definite no: “xoxo,” which should only be reserved for best friends or “if I really, really love somebody,” Ms. Whitmore says.

A signature tag line beneath your signoff is a must, says Ms. Whitmore. This could list your name, your company’s name, your phone number and perhaps your website and one social-media handle.

“Don’t put unnecessary things in your signature like quotes or religious sayings,” Ms. Whitmore says. Similarly, photos in signature lines may not come off well. “Not everybody needs to see your picture,” she says.

A 101-year-old shares her best advice for young women

“Just go ahead and do your thing no matter what,” says Marian Cannon Schlesinger to today’s young women.

At 101 years of age, she is still painting, writing, watching Rachel Maddow, and reading two newspapers a day.

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s assassination, many of the people who can recall the era in detail have passed on.

Marian Cannon Schlesinger was married to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., historian, speechwriter and special advisor to President John F. Kennedy, living in D.C. and raising four children during his Washington years.

Well-traveled, having studied in China prior to their marriage, she returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts after their divorce. She has written and illustrated five children’s books and, in 2012, published the second volume of her memoirs: “I Remember: A Life of Politics, Painting and People.”

I sat down with her recently to hear about her time in Washington, memories of being raised an “academic child” at Harvard, advice for independent women, and recipes for leading a “full life.”

Amidst all the cheering from individuals such as “Lean In’s” Sheryl Sandberg, many educated women of privilege in America have opted out of careers and public engagement to raise families, touting domesticity as a singular focus, in part because the alternative juggling act is so difficult and the infrastructure in the U.S. to support working parents is so paltry.

A centenarian who participated in a relatively traditional marriage might be the last person one would expect to call these women out.

But when I talked to her, Ms. Schlesinger refocused the conversation on responsibility as much as personal happiness: “Well-taken-care-of women who are well-educated, highly intelligent, well-read — a woman who has all this quality, all this talent, all this energy and yet nowhere to put it — I don’t know,” she said. “I would start by saying you can involve yourself in local problems. There are all sorts of things that have to be tended to in the world.”

What are you working on and doing with your days at this point?

Reading the newspaper, watching television and working on another book.

You spent your entire childhood among luminaries. Your father was the Francis Lee Higgins Professor of Physiology at Harvard for forty years. Your mother was a celebrated novelist and helped found Planned Parenthood. Were you impressed by all of this?

I think that’s why June Bingham and I used to have such fun over the whole thing in Washington. We didn’t take it very seriously because we had seen something of the world before we arrived.

We had a lot of fun as a family and we always had lots of people coming in and out of the house. My mother ran an “open” house really and she’d take care of all these sort of crazy relatives who had nervous breakdowns and things like that. These two wonderful aunts lived with us. So, I had three mothers, in a way.

My mother was very active in politics. She was out in the world and my two aunts were professional women and, for that period, it was rare. One of them was a founder of medical social services at Massachusetts General Hospital and the other, who had beautiful taste, owned a children’s store in Harvard Square from which generations of children were clothed.

How did you end up in China to study art after college?

“My mother sent each child after they completed college to some exotic place to sink or swim.”

My sister was married to John Fairbank and they were living in China at the time. My mother sent each child after they completed college to some exotic place to sink or swim. After Radcliffe, I took the trip by myself across the United States, got a boat in San Francisco headed for China.

How did that influence you?

A gentleman came every day and taught me how to use a Chinese brush and the whole technique of the way Chinese painting is done. There is something about the use of a Chinese brush, which is just an exquisite instrument, and it taught me so much about how to draw. A lot of people don’t draw. They just paint. I draw and paint but I feel that drawing is basic to my kind of art and I feel as though my time in China refined my work.

john f kennedeyUniversalImagesGroup/Getty Images

What was the Kennedy presidency like for you?

Very go-go, if you know what I mean. And of course, it was very exciting too. There was the Bay of Pigs and the missile crisis in Cuba, those were real crisis, and then there was an awful lot of bogus stuff too.

Like what?

Oh I don’t know … I had an awfully good time.

Have politics changed today?

It was kind of like a small town in the Kennedy days. There were parties every night. We often dined at the White House. It was really mad.

There was a real family feeling—I think that was somewhat fostered by Bobby Kennedy and Ethel because they had a great sense of family. You’d go out to their house in Hickory Hill and there’d be all sorts of people gathered at their place. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was there, young law clerks and, oh, all sorts of other people. I can’t remember. I’m only 101 years old!

I think I was perhaps not as aware of political violence or what was involved. I was aware of the civil rights work but I wasn’t as sensitive to it as I became later on. A lot of this good work was going on at the time but I suppose I was preoccupied by the momentum of it all including raising my four teenagers.

There were so many things played upon me at the time. I wasn’t involved with the mechanics of getting elected at that point. I wasn’t active in politics until afterwards when I went on a trip with Scotty Lanahan, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s daughter, who was a great friend of mine, and two other women. We went out and campaigned for Johnson in 1964. That was terrific fun. I never had such a good time as that.

What advice do you have on how to be a free-spirited woman?

Just go ahead and do your thing no matter what.

Also, my mother had said, ‘It doesn’t really matter if your house is that dirty. Go ahead and do your thing. Don’t pay too much attention to housekeeping.’ Of course, she did have a nice maid who came in every day but we didn’t have any live-in servants. My mother did most of the cooking. Sometimes it was not so good, but it was adequate.

In those days, women who had higher education, especially back in my childhood, were rather rare. The fact that they’ve gone out and gotten this education has differentiated them from other people in a way.

But there are strong women everywhere whether they have higher education or not! There have always been strong women.

This idea that feminism was created in the last twenty years is ridiculous. When you think of all the women that went across the continent in covered wagons. Really. It’s ridiculous. It’s a lot of baloney. If they’d read a little history, they’d find out that women have been powerful characters all through the history of the United States.

Young Woman with Hat and SunglassesFlickr / Chris JL

You must recognize, though, that some women still can’t find their voice?

I think there are a lot of privileged women who are frustrated. They just don’t know what they want to do and they need to go out and use their education and talent. I’m very fortunate because not only do I paint but I also write. I had plenty to do.

“I think I’ve been very lucky. But I think that I’ve made some of it for myself. I never gave up. I wanted it all, in other words, and I think I really almost got it all too.”

I was thinking about a friend of mine who, before she married, was quite active in Massachusetts politics. And then she married a man who was very well off and she was well-supported and had two children and then, once the children were all grown up, here she was well-supported and not even doing anything with it.

Well-taken-care-of women who are well-educated, highly intelligent, well-read – a woman who has all this quality, all this talent, all this energy and yet nowhere to put it—I don’t know. I really feel very sorry for them.

What would you say to these women?

I would start by saying you can involve yourself in local problems. There are all sorts of things that have to be tended to in the world.

Early on I decided being a painter was what I wanted to be but I wanted to be a lot of other things too. I wanted to write. I wanted to play tennis. I wanted to have a lot of friends. I wanted to have a lot of beaus. I think I’ve been very lucky. But I think that I’ve made some of it for myself. I never gave up. I wanted it all, in other words, and I think I really almost got it all too.

I was thinking the other day about never giving up. I remember when my husband and I separated and I stayed on in Washington for about a year before I moved back to Cambridge on my own. […] But then I sort of gathered myself together, moved back to Cambridge and got organized.

How did you get organized?

I renewed a lot of friendships.

What was it like to be neighbors with Julia Child?

She was terribly busy. I’d have people over for the afternoons and she’d come but I’ll never forget the time I had to her to lunch before she went back to California. I must say I made a very good meal and she said, ‘oh, Marian, this is the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted.’

What did you make?

Gnocchi. We made gnocchi, green salad and fruit for desert. Pretty good and the gnocchi, it was delicious too.

Where do you get your news?

I read two newspapers a day. I also read The Nation and The New Yorker, which has become such a bore. Every once in a while there’s a wonderful murder in Vanity Fair which I love, especially a society murder, if you know what I mean?

I like to watch Rachel Maddow, if I can stay awake that late, I like her so much and Chris Matthews and Mister Ed who I love on MSNBC.

Favorite places to dine out in Cambridge?

God, I can’t remember. No one went out to dinner in the ’50s.

But I will tell you what I used to do with this great friend of mine, Sheila Gilmore, who was an original. She was the stepdaughter of the Harvard philosopher Alfred Whitehead and her husband was a professor of history at Harvard. She and I used to go to the original Legal Seafood down in Inman Square. We used to set up at the counter and I’d have a dozen oysters and a martini. I’ve forgotten what she had but I always remember this. It was my idea of the perfect meal.

Any thoughts on the Red Sox?

I think they’re terrific but I can’t stay awake and watch them. I find the Patriots are rather an irritating group – so full of themselves. I prefer the Red Sox to the Patriots.

Craft CoffeeFacebook/Craft Coffee

Do you have any habits or secrets to living to be 101?

I drink a cup of coffee every morning. My nice son brings me a cup of coffee and he’s done that now for some years, which I think is terribly nice of him.

Her son Andrew chimes in: “You have a drink every night.”

A pretty watered down drink! It’s symbolic more than anything

What advice do you have on how to live a full life?

Just keep going.

Have lots of people in the house and lots of different kinds of people – young, old, black, white, people from all over the world. People have always energized me.

Your hope for the next president?

Good old Hillary would be okay.

 

In New York, Everywhere a Writing Nook

Photo

The playwright Sharon Bridgforth in a common area at the New Dramatists building. CreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times

WORK and leisure don’t have to be enemies. The writing life is proof of it. New York’s coffee shops would be deserted if it weren’t for people scribbling and typing the day away. But when every seat is taken, the Wi-Fi is down and the only muffin left is bran, there are alternatives to being cooped up in the home office, and the city’s legion of playwrights know them well.

There is a place intended especially for them, for example — a former Lutheran mission on West 44th Street that has housed the nonprofit organization New Dramatists since 1969. Playwrights with one of the residencies that New Dramatists is best known for get private work space within the building, which is between Ninth and Tenth Avenues in the Clinton section. But Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., the group’s library, which seats about 30 at chairs and a communal table, is open to the public. Free coffee and tea (and sometimes leftover snacks) included.

Photo

The New Dramatists building in Clinton. CreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times

In the 1980s and ’90s the library was informally open to the neighborhood people on weekdays, according to Joel Ruark, the group’s executive director, but in 2001 the room was renovated, and with it came formal hours. Most of the writers there now are theater makers. Playwrights who have written in the library include August Wilson and James Baldwin. Lucy Thurber (“The Insurgents”) and Lucas Hnath (“The Christians”) still do. On a recent afternoon Lily Padilla, an actress and playwright, poured herself a mug of coffee and settled into a plush club chair facing walls of scripts. “It has a really good calming energy,” she said. “I have ample material to inspire me if I want to take a break from writing and read something by a masterful writer.”

But not all writers seek a place made for work. Some playwrights with new shows this spring opt for hotel bars, diners, parks, piers, hospitals, rooftops or trains. They recently shared their favorite under-the-radar spots where being creative comes cheap. Use them to inspire your own search.

Photo

From left: Bess Wohl, Alexandra Collier and Chiara Atik.CreditFrom left: Patrick Adams, Lorenzo de Guia, Lisha Brown

Alexandra Collier

‘Underland’

59E59 Theaters

59 East 59th Street,

Upper East Side

Through April 25

I’m usually writing on the F train going from Midtown to the Seventh Avenue stop in Park Slope. It’s about 45 minutes. I get a lot done in a very short amount of time. I would say I get more creative output on the train than I do sitting at my desk. There’s a sense of urgency. The idea is rushing past and I have to grab hold of it. There’s something about getting those ideas down in that space that’s freeing. You could be playing Candy Crush but instead you’re grabbing hold of that moment.

Bess Wohl

‘Small Mouth Sounds’

Ars Nova

511 West 54th Street, Clinton

Through April 25

One place that’s great in the morning is Croque Monsieur on 13th Street. They play peppy pick-me-up music. They have a quote by Anaïs Nin — “Dreams are necessary to life” — which gets you in the mood. And they have good Wi-Fi. If you need the caffeine and sugar, you get the pain au chocolat and coffee. If you’re really hung over, you get the bacon, egg and cheese croque monsieur. It’s greasy and delicious. If you eat that thing you’re good until three in the afternoon. Once you buy your food downstairs and you go upstairs, you don’t get mean glares from employees wondering why you’re still there. It’s still small enough that you can get up and go to the bathroom without taking all your stuff and losing your spot. If somebody came and took your stuff, a person at another table would speak up … maybe.

Chiara Atik

‘Five Times in One Night’

Ensemble Studio Theater

549 West 52nd Street, Sixth Floor, Clinton

Through April 19

My preferred writing spot in the city is, weirdly, right in the middle of Times Square, the last place any sane New Yorker wants to spend quality time, and therefore perfect for uninterrupted writing. I always head to the lobby bar of the Hilton on 42nd Street, which is actually several floors up. It’s got plushy arm chairs right next to huge windows, and excellent bar snacks, if you don’t think bar snacks are gross. The other clientele tends to be hotel guests quietly killing time; no loud music, no fights over plugs, no getting distracted by other people’s conversation. It’s close to the theater district, which allows for undisturbed writing time right up to a 7 or 8 o’clock curtain. And you never, ever run into anyone you know.

Photo

From left: Laura Eason, Michael Weller and Mac Rogers.CreditFrom left: Chad Batka for The New York Times, Lia Chang, Deborah Alexander

Laura Eason

‘The Undeniable Sound of Right Now’

Rattlestick Playwrights Theater

224 Waverly Place, at 11th Street,

Greenwich Village

Through May 2

One place I found that’s good is the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza. The third floor has a music and art room where there are these great tables. The Wi-Fi there is the perfect amount of weak so that you can’t be on the web much. You can look stuff up but you can’t procrastinate. You’re surrounded by humanity that I find inspirational and beautiful and sad and complicated.

Michael Weller

‘Doctor Zhivago’

Broadway Theater

1681 Broadway, between 52nd and 53rd Streets

Opens April 21

I tend to write on subways. It changes with each play. With “Zhivago” it was mostly on the red line, the 2 or the 3. I’d ride from one end of the line to the other. There’s a stop called Gun Hill Road. For some reason I looked up, around the time when I was trying to figure out the opening of “Zhivago.” I thought, ah, gun. That’s how we begin the show.

Mac Rogers

‘Rational Choice’

Here

45 Avenue of the Americas, at Dominick Street, South Village

Through Saturday

I have a day job that involves writing ad copy. I write plays by nights and on weekends. But I also work on plays at lunch. I work in Greenpoint [Brooklyn], along the river, and next to the building is a park, the WNYC Transmitter Park, that looks across at Manhattan. What I’ve discovered is that I can’t get the thoughts to come when I’m sitting in a chair. So I go down to the park with a spiral notebook and write standing up in the wind, which is not easy to do, and try to write as many pages as I can. It’s my crisis spot when I know I’ve got to get some pages out.

Photo

From left: Jenny Schwartz, Ben Rimalower and Emily Schwend.CreditFrom left: Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times, Benjamin Norman for The New York Times, Second Stage Theater

Jenny Schwartz

‘Iowa’ (with Todd Almond)

Playwrights Horizons

416 West 42nd Street, Clinton

Opens April 13

One time when I was writing my play “God’s Ear” I was stuck. I couldn’t figure out a part. So I went to La Guardia Airport and I wrote there. One of the characters in it spends a lot of time traveling. I thought I might overhear something, or that I might get outside myself to watch people traveling. I also learned that at Weill Cornell hospital, at 70th and York, there are these rooms that are waiting rooms where you can plug in your computer and work. They are very private. There tend to be no one in them. I spent time there when I was with a relative. But then I realized you could go there anytime you want.

Ben Rimalower

‘Bad With Money’ and ‘Patti Issues’

The Duplex

61 Christopher Street, at Seventh Avenue, Greenwich Village

In repertory through June 21

I’ve done a lot of my writing on these two pieces on the Williamsburg waterfront, near where I live. One spot is in Williamsburg at the North Side pier at North Sixth Street. I can see the ferries coming in and the condos and all the people. It’s the most fertile place for inspiration. I also like the new Bushwick Inlet Park, where there’s this weird sloping man-made hill. It’s actually the roof of a new building. The roof is diagonal to the ground and has these terrace levels. At the top of that there are a few benches. It’s a really spectacular view. It’s sketchy to sit there sometimes because that’s where teenage hoodlums go to smoke, so I can’t always establish my turf.

Emily Schwend

‘The Other Thing’

Second Stage Uptown

2162 Broadway, at 76th Street

Previews start May 12

I wrote some of it in Prospect Park [in Brooklyn]. I have problems writing in public on my laptop because I feel I’m on display. I go there when I can’t sit in my apartment any longer but I don’t want to be seen publicly writing. It feels so performative, like here I am writing my play. That’s all in my head because nobody cares in the park. I write by hand sometimes so it’s conducive to that. I usually go by the huge lake on the south side. I’ll walk until I find an empty area in the sun. Sometimes I bring my cat. Yes I’m that crazy person.

Photo

From left: Kristoffer Diaz, Marianne Driscoll and Dan Lauria.CreditFrom Left: Steve Mack/Getty Images, Sherry Burbes, Annie I. Bang/Invision/AP

Kristoffer Diaz

‘The Upstairs Concierge’

Goodman Theater (Chicago)

Through April 26

When I was single I used to write in bars a lot. Writing is lonely. Being in a bar made it feel a little less lonely sometimes. Now I’m married and I have a 3-year-old and I don’t write at night anymore. I spent a lot of time writing and rewriting at the Farm on Adderley [in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn]. Before the evening rush it’s usually a pretty nice, quiet, relaxing place to work. They wouldn’t kick you out. They have something called chocolate bread, which is this bread with chocolate baked through, and sea salt on top. It’s a good thing to be eating while you’re beating yourself up for not being better at writing.

Marianne Driscoll

‘The Biscuit Club’

Cell Theater

338 West 23rd Street, Chelsea

Through April 25

My play takes place in a doggy boardinghouse. It’s comedy inspired by “The Breakfast Club.” It’s about what happens when dogs who don’t know each other are locked up alone in a boardinghouse overnight. I started hanging out at a dog park in Tompkins Square Park. We’d go down with the cast and I’d say, “You are such a poodle!” I started seeing people as the dog they would be. I had my own dog and I would bring him there and sit with my laptop.

Dan Lauria

‘Dinner With the Boys’

Acorn Theater

CONTINUE READING THE MAIN STORYWRITE A COMMENT

410 West 42nd Street, Clinton

Opens May 4

All the rewrites on my play were done sitting at the Westway Diner in a booth late at night. It’s 24 hours. I get all the coffee I want. I’m always at the Westway for a roll and egg and bacon in the morning. I write very blue collar people. There are mostly blue collar people in that diner.

%d bloggers like this: