Letter 76: Shirking routine

How much of what you do routinely matters?

There was nothing easier than to stop writing Stoic Designer regularly. The routine of approaching this as something I do never quite slipped into habit, and although sometime a joy - it’s always been a chore. The shutdown surrounding the pandemic provided me with an excellent excuse to just quit.

Mostly, this has been for good.

How much of what you do matters to you - really?

Routine is the work to abstact your decision making to a to-do list to reduce the aggregate decision fatigue and interaction cost inherent to tasks that just need to get done regardless, but by moving these tasks from conscious choice to a running list, you forget to scrutinize their priority.

All in all, this has been a useful time for introspection, but now it’s time to wrest control from the events of the world and begin again the work of living deliberately. We have shirked routine and perhaps that has made more clear about what mattered - or, perhaps, it has simply made more obvious the time and energy wasted having shirked it.

Craft virtuously.

This is not the worst-case scenario.

The lesson then is that this is not the worst. You can think. You can do. You are not without agency here.

A hundred years after the colony of Lyons first came together, a fire burned it down in a matter of hours. We know now that Lyons recovered and is still purring along some two thousand years later - but when it burned it shook the world. It ended-up a topic about which Seneca wrote, because such a calamity hit a friend of his to the core.

The burning of Lyons is not unlike the situation we find ourselves today in the pandemic: it seemed sudden, it was unexpected, and the ripple effect of exponential damage is breathtaking.

It’s okay to honor the holy-shit of this moment, and allow yourself the kind of awe it deserves. As much as we may have seen or worried about this coming, it is different to be in it. “Strangeness adds to the weight of calamities, and every mortal feels the greater pain as a result of that which also brings surprise,” our boy reminds Lucilius.

Nothing, whether public or private, is stable; the destinies of men, no less than those of cities, are in a whirl. Amid the great-est calm terror arises, and though no external agencies stir up commotion, yet evils burst forth from sources whence they were least expected. Thrones which have stood the shock of civil and foreign wars crash to the ground though no one sets them tottering. How few the states which have carried their good fortune through to the end!

We should therefore reflect upon all contingencies, and should fortify our minds against the evils which may possibly come.

The “lesson” is admittedly bleak: what is it we expected? Everything ends. People, products, services, economies. But while preparing for the worst is pragmatic, experiencing the worst still sucks - right?

The lesson then is that this is not the worst. You can think. You can do. You are not without agency here. There is, in fact, opportunity here.

Perhaps its destruction has been brought about only that it may be raised up again to a better destiny. Oftentimes a reverse has but made room for more prosperous fortune. Many structures have fallen only to rise to a greater height. Timagenes, who had a grudge against Rome and her prosperity, used to say that the only reason he was grieved when conflagrations occurred in Rome was his knowledge that better buildings would arise than those which had gone down in the flames.

As much change as the pandemic may have forced on you, whether you’re now at home with kids, or you can’t work, or you’re working harder, revert to the mean and remember that Deliberate Practice Rewires the Brain and train your perspective.

Are you dead? No. Are you dying? Probably not. Will you die tomorrow? Probably not. Do you have to crunch at work? Good. This is an opportunity to shine. Are you stuck with the kids? Good. Show them a good example of glowing under pressure. Is your startup going to crumble after too many weeks of economic crisis? Good. Go out with a bang, there will be other jobs.

Practice gratitude. Practice perspective. Craft virtuously.

Please take a second to ❤ this post. Or, if you’re new here, subscribe to Stoic Designer. You can get Stoic Designer as a podcast instead, just look for it in your favorite podcatcher.

Remember that design is not art, but a practice.

Michael Schofield

Practice really hearing


"Practice really hearing what people say. Do your best to get inside their minds." - Marcus Aurelius

If stoicism is a practice of embracing what is in your control and reminding yourself what's not, then what odd advice. What, after all, is more outside of your control than what's going on in my head?

Empathy is a tool for correcting for your own biases. When your boss is short with you, it's natural for anxiety about your job to bubble-up and just ruin your day. That anxiety is soothed, though, when you know your boss is having a really hard time at home.

You may, as a practiced stoic designer, react to your anxiety here in either circumstance the same way. But greater context definitely makes it easier.

We see and vouch for the benefit of "practicing empathy" in design work all the time, right? It sounds a little foreign to phrase it like that, but what we're doing with usability testing is generating enough understanding to make the next strategic decision.

Getting inside of our users' heads provides context and evidence for the choices we make about what's actually in our control: the service we provide.

Craft virtuously.

Please take a second to ❤ this post. Or, if you’re new here, subscribe to Stoic Designer. You can get Stoic Designer as a podcast instead

Remember that design is not art, but a practice.

Resolve to know what you control

The end of year reckoning is often a punch to the gut, but it shouldn't be.

Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do. Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you. Sanity means tying it to your own actions.

— Marcus Aurelius

How concerned are you with the sound of your job title? I care. To me, a good job title can act like a key that, in a speaker’s or writer’s bio, at a networking event, on twitter, wherever, can unlock clout. But how much of the job title - let alone you being hired in the first place - is really in your control?

What, if anything, did you treat yourself to over the holidays? How much of your sense of well-being is tied to the roof over your head, the number of shows you binged, or what’s in the fridge? How much of any of that is in your control?

The end of the year is wrapped-up in self-evaluation and resolution, and what I would encourage us to carry in to the new year is appreciation for how little is actually within our sphere of control. We can control our actions - but circumstance, opportunity, luck: the greater part of the mix that are our careers? - we can only control how we act or react.

What sense is there in tying our happiness to a lottery? Consider, instead, resolving to

  • be less reactive

  • think first

  • and memento mori 💀

for a Happy New Year.

Craft virtuously,
Michael Schofield

Please take a second to ❤ this post. Or, if you’re new here, subscribe to Stoic Designer.

Remember that design is not art, but a practice.

Scipio's Villa and the Product Over Time


I am resting at the country-house which once belonged to Scipio Africanus himself; and I write to you after doing reverence to his spirit and to an altar which I am inclined to think is the tomb of that great warrior. — Seneca, “On Scipio’s Villa”

Scipio Africanus was a consul and general of ancient Rome — a famous one. He defeated Hannibal, an enemy of Rome widely considered one of the greatest military commanders in history. Some 200 years after his death, our boy Seneca vacationed in one of Scipio’s homes.

There, he wrote a lot about Scipio’s bath. Bear with the excerpts:

I have inspected the house, which is c onstructed of hewn stone; the wall which encloses a forest; the towers also, buttressed out on both sides for the purpose of defending the house; the well, concealed among buildings and shrubbery, large enough to keep a whole army supplied; and the small bath, buried in darkness according to the old style, for our ancestors did not think that one could have a hot bath except in darkness. It was therefore a great pleasure to me to contrast Scipio’s ways with our own.

This bath was apparently to a certain Roman class unfit.

But who in these days could bear to bathe in such a fashion? We think ourselves poor and mean if our walls are not resplendent with large and costly mirrors; … if our swimming-pools are not lined with Thasian marble; … and finally, if the water has not poured from silver spigots. … We have become so luxurious that we will have nothing but precious stones to walk upon.

In this bath of Scipio’s there are tiny chinks—you cannot call them windows—cut out of the stone wall in such a way as to admit light without weakening the fortifications; nowadays, however, people regard baths as fit only for moths if they have not been so arranged that they receive the sun all day long through the widest of windows ….

In the early days, however, there were few baths, and they were not fitted out with any display. For why should men elaborately fit out that which, costs a penny only, and was invented for use, not merely for delight?

“Poor fool,” they say, “he did not know how to live!”

As much as it looks like this letter’s taking this trajectory, Seneca isn’t really bemoaning the then-current Roman’s extreme opulence. Rather, he’s making a point — not the only point, but a big one — about the minimum viable product.

Scipio’s bath was a solution designed for a functional job-to-be-done: he got dirty when working outside, so he bathed. Seneca actually makes the point that Scipio’s generation washed-off sweat and dirt, but the job-to-be-done of Roman baths contemporary to Seneca had changed from wash off dirt to wash off ointments and perfumes. The windows of Scipio’s bath were narrow and defensible. Those 200 years later in Rome did not require defense.

We can look at this like the roadmap of a service over time. Even a core job to be done — to safely wash dirt and sweat — given enough time wobbles on its axis, and what was demonstrable user need for safety diminishes enough in favor of other priorities: comfort, duration of bath, society. The new job to be done resembles the original, but requirements for the service provided have changed.

Different features — broader windows, hotter temperatures — with demonstrable need were added to Roman baths over time. With that time, what were surely attractive, newfangled features at some point became basic expectations: for Seneca’s contemporaries, it was no longer a nice feature to have a hot bath, but a prerequisite for basic service.

One of the Stoic Designer themes here is that the product is ephemeral: it is a means to an end, not an end unto itself. What we haven’t explored as much is that the service isn’t static, either, its life-cycle is just longer than the product. Jobs to be done are like meandering rivers. External pressures — good and bad — make the river wind this way, then that way, and over time they become all different rivers - or they dry-up entirely.

In Seneca’s letter about Scipio’s Villa, he tries to make the point that contemporary Romans should try to understand as much about the time of Scipio as much as Scipio-the-person to fully put into perspective his style of living. It is a lesson about putting yourself in another person’s shoes. To Stoic Designers, though, this is also a lesson that the user experience is a metric defined in part by its point in time. For us to measure the quality of a service, it’s not sufficient to understand what and how, but also when.

Craft virtuously.

P.S., please take a second to ❤ this post and comment.

Remember that design is not art, but a practice.

Michael Schofield

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