Let’s Talk About Cats

Picture a cat.

Now picture that cat in your home, somewhere near you.

What do you imagine that cat doing?

Don’t overthink it. Whatever immediately came to mind when I said to imagine a cat in the room with you works fine.

Got it?

So, what did you imagine?

Was it something you’ve seen a cat do before? Chase a laser pointer? Stare out a window at some birds? Knock something off a table? Curl up and purr in your lap?

Remember that. Keep your imaginary cat in the back of your mind for a few minutes.


Recently, my daughter looked down at our lazy, 13-year-old cat lounging on the carpet.

“When’s Luna gonna get bigger?”

I paused. “She’s already fully grown. That’s as big as she gets.”

Sprout started to pout. “So I’m never gonna get to ride her‽”

I didn’t see that one coming.

What Sprout did just then? That was beginner’s mind in action.


You see a cat, or you imagine a cat, and your experiences tell you about things that cats do. They tell you purposes cats have. You catalog and categorize the things you see in the world around you.

This thing is a cat. This thing is like a cat. This thing is not a cat.

Time passes. More things make their way into the matrix of your memory. All thoroughly cross-referenced and orderly.

And that’s why you didn’t consider riding your imaginary cat.

You have your reasons, and they’re good reasons. They’re true. It would be foolish to try and actually ride a housecat.

But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be an imaginary possibility.


I want to try to break down how Sprout came to this moment. My guess is she had some combination of these thoughts (not necessarily in this order):

  1. There’s Luna.

  2. I love my cat so much, I can’t handle it.

  3. I am small, and so is Luna.

  4. I am growing.

  5. Is Luna growing? Ask a grown up.

  6. I can ride animals, like that time I rode Oreo the pony.

  7. If Luna was bigger, I could ride her!

  8. When will Luna be big enough for me to ride? Ask a grown up!

Her creative process for this idea probably involved memories, established facts, and questions about the unknown.

It’s unlikely she’s seen anyone riding a cat, so that’s a novel element. It’s an aspect of the unknown.

It's just a picture of He-Man on Battle Cat.

I am absolutely certain Sprout has never watched He-Man in any form, so I’m ruling out this as an influence.

However, that element of the unknown is an extension of the known. She’s not just creating this possibility out of nowhere.


So why am I doing a deep dive on two sentences from my daughter, besides the fact that they made me laugh really hard?

What I saw in her in that moment was a piece of the larger creative process: The desire to create something that does not currently exist, except in the mind.

It reminded me of the beginning of Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

The more we learn about an idea, or a process, or an art form, the more it can constrict our thinking. That which has already been proven, or has already been done, suggests boundaries for what can still be learned or done.

It limits the questions you ask, or the solutions you attempt.

While I can’t deny there is value to be had in deep study of anything you want to work with, be it a creative medium, a scientific field, or any job with its set of processes and requirements, adhering to strongly to “the way things are done” can stifle novel solutions.

The best cinematic expression I’ve seen of this comes from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. While training on Dagobah, Luke whines to Yoda about how he couldn’t possibly lift an X-Wing using the Force. He says that even though he can lift rocks with it, an X-Wing is much heavier.

Luke knows the weight of objects, and he knows his capacity to physically lift objects. He applies these rules to how he thinks the Force works.

And Yoda attempts to convince him that his strict adherence to just these facts isn’t helping him.

Yoda: 'You must unlearn what you have learned.'

In this example, Yoda lifts the X-Wing out of the swamp using the Force to make a point: This is something new to you that you don’t yet understand. It isn’t a muscle. It doesn’t use your body. You can’t hold onto the same rules you learned from interacting with heavy objects using your body.


There’s a method to test and explore ideas. To not feel like everything is already decided for you, or that what you already know is an impenetrable wall, halting your progress.

Anchor your ideas in what you know, but test those boundaries of possibility. Ask questions, the way Sprout did.

Think about what happens if something you see as a hard rule could bend, just a little.

Then chase that notion.

It’s mental jujitsu. Use the weight of the knowledge you already have against itself, and try to swing it to the side to see if it will make way for something unexpected.

To be clear: I do not have all the answers to this, or a simple, listicle-friendly process for people to follow. It’s something I wrestle with regularly, too.

What I do know is that some ideas are less solid and impenetrable than they seem, and it’s important to be able to test your ideas to understand them as they truly are.

It does you no favors to look at a suggestion and see it as a rule, or vice-versa, like the difference between a stop sign and a yield.


One caveat: This doesn’t mean that all ideas formed in this Beginner’s Mind state are great ideas.

I can’t tell you how many times since having this conversation with Sprout that I’ve had to stop her from straddling Luna in preparation to actually try to ride the cat.

The Be Here Now Box

Last semester I chose to take a stand on student phone use in class.

I wasn’t just getting the occasional person doing a bad job hiding that they were texting in the middle of class. People would take out their phones multiple times during an hour-long lecture. People would keep earbuds in. People in the front row would sit staring at their phones for extended periods, right in front of me.

Talk to any educator and you’ll get plenty of kids-these-days gripes on the subject (as if kids always paid 100% attention to classes before phones). But phones do present a particular, difficult problem.

Teaching at a university instead of at a high school or middle school, I didn’t want to use an authoritarian demand for phones to stay out of the classroom with draconian penalties would only make students work slightly harder to hide phone use, and would force me to distract myself from teaching to enforce it.

I had to think about the underlying problem. If this were just about making sure I had all eyes on me for the entire lecture, it would feel like an ego problem, and it would be easier to deal with that by adjusting my expectations and taking some time for self reflexion. I could solve that problem more easily than convincing a room full of adults to stop touching their phones.

But looking at the work my students turned in, I saw there was a different reason to question their phone use: focus. With so many students getting marked down on their assignments for unforced errors that showed they weren’t focusing, I had a larger beast to slay than students not paying attention in class.

They weren’t paying attention to what they were doing, full stop.

Whatever solution I proposed had to be voluntary (so I could avoid the enforcement problem). It had to be persuasive. It had to use social pressure.

That’s when I came up with THE BE HERE NOW BOX.

FullSizeRender.jpg

The best part about having a box is that you’ve got a physical prop. Something to hold up and point to. A novel object that draws attention.

I made my pitch: This isn’t about me — It’s about you. You’re not getting the class you’re paying for if you don’t pay attention. You’re giving up control of your attention by letting something distracting sit within arm’s reach for this hour. You may think that it doesn’t effect your attention, but studies show that multi-tasking not only reduces willpower but cognitive performance.

Being next to your phone distracts you, and you won’t even perceive any change in your attentiveness or mental ability.

So, if they were able; if they didn’t have any pending obligation or potential emergency that might require them to take immediate action, I asked them to make a choice: To take control of their attention and put their phone in the box. Make one decision this hour instead of having to make the choice to ignore your phone over and over throughout the hour.

It worked. Sort of.

Some classes participated more than others. The classes that needed it the most were also the most reluctant. But I saw an overall increase in participation, and the class that put the most phones in the box had the highest grades.

Anecdotal? Sure. It definitely wasn’t a controlled study. But it happened.

But that was last semester.

I knew I wanted to bring the box back for the new semester, but I wanted to refine my pitch. I figured if there was a way to pitch it more effectively, I could get more people to try it out. If I could find a better argument, better facts, or a more persuasive opening statement…

If I could do a better job, maybe more people would give it a shot.

But what did it actually mean to do a better job? How was I measuring success? More students putting aside their phones? More consistency from the students who initially tried it out? Students telling me they made their own box at home? Better student performance on assignments, showing an increase in mindful attention?

What was a win?

I was stuck, so I decided to try blogging about it to see if I could generate a better sense of what I wanted to say. But that pointed my attention to another problem.


I have a backlog of unfinished ideas and drafts for blog posts. Some abandoned, some not even started.

Over the last year, I had some posts that were well-received. Some work I got paid to write. A few posts got more views in a month than the blog had seen in a year.

It was cool. I felt cool.

And then I felt like I needed to do more of the same thing. Or try to maximize the value of that new audience. Or just do something. Anything.

And the ideas kept piling up, but nothing got posted.

It wasn’t until I got deep into watching The Good Place that I felt like I had the language to describe what was going on with me. That feeling of my brain turning into a Möbius strip of indecision, twisting and circling with justifications, re-evaluations, and new new directions.

Nothing felt good enough, because nothing felt like it was definitely that one thing that would move me forward. That would take the “I’m a Writer” part of my career to the next level. To even help me figure out what level I was on.

Good Place - Chidi Fork Garbage Disposal.gif

I was going full-Chidi.


There’s a passage in Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind about fruitless work towards a goal:

One day while he was studying under Nangaku, Baso was sitting, practicing zazen…

Nangaku saw him sitting like a great mountain or like a frog. Nangaku asked, “What are you doing?” “I am practicing zazen,” Baso replied. “Why are you practicing zazen?” “I want to attain enlightenment; I want to be a Buddha,” the disciple said. Do you know what the teacher did? He picked up a tile, and he started to polish it. In Japan, after taking a tile from the kiln, we polish it to give it a beautiful finish. So Nangaku picked up a tile and started to polish it. Baso, his disciple, asked, “What are you doing?” “I want to make this tile into a jewel,” Nangaku said. “How is it possible to make a tile a jewel?” Baso asked. “How is it possible to become a Buddha by practicing zazen?” Nangaku replied. “Do you want to attain Buddhahood? There is no Buddhahood besides your ordinary mind. When a cart does not go, which do you whip, the cart or the horse?” the master asked.

The book is one of my go-to totems for when I’m totally freaking out, and I happened to flip over to this passage. Fortunate timing.

And then I remembered a post from CJ Chilvers on the why of blogging in the present moment:

The pros advise that long-form writing (going deep into a subject) is the best way to get any real attention and deal with the way Google, Facebook and Twitter have transformed how information is consumed online. You post something epic once in a great while, and promote over and over. Attention spans are shorter and readers aren’t using RSS anymore. If you want attention and sales, you have to go out and grab the attention, then offer something with extreme value to get the authority to sell something. They’re correct.

The hobbyists (and one prominent pro — Seth Godin) profess that it’s the opposite that has the most positive impact on your life and mental health: short-form writing, and just getting your ideas out there. They’re correct.

I’ve been thinking about this in my own life and career for the past month and I think I’ve come up with a theory: one is a business model, one is a life model.

​I’ve watched this site get stale; turning instead to the pursuit of likes and retweets, and the spending too much time chasing the empty satisfaction that comes from a “good” tweet.

I haven’t spent enough time trying to see what I actually value, and what I actually want to get out of my brain and into the world.

I’ve spent so much time trying to re-define what success is, I stopped producing anything that could get me closer to… Well, any definition of feeling successful.

So, as I’m getting closer to my birthday at the end of the week, I’m resolving to be less precious this year. I’m resolving to stop treating a blog as a means to an end, but instead as an end unto itself. To focus on satisfaction instead of success.

Success is as much given as it is earned. Satisfaction doesn’t require outside intervention.

The only way I’ll be satisfied is if I learn to take pride in my words themselves instead of pride in how widely my words travel.

My phone isn’t the only thing I need to put away if I’m going to get real work done.

Simple Fluid Portable Musical

If I had my druthers, I would have a writing shed. Some windows, a power outlet for my laptop and some speakers, and a desk wide enough to spread out some notebooks and a coffee mug. A wall for a cork board and dry erase board. Maybe even a second outlet for a space heater.

There have been lots of different ways I’ve defined the ideal writing space. There were a string of coffee shops I thought were ideal back when I was living in the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area where I did a lot of work. Sometimes a library would be my ideal spot to sit and attack the keyboard. I’ve even made efforts to make whatever desk space I have where I live meet some kind of ideal conception of what it is that I want to make it feel like The Happiest, Most Productive Writing Space On The Planet.

But there’s only so much you can really control. For me, the days of having wide open hours for work are gone (at least for a while). It’s an any port in a storm mentality, where the dining table is as good as a desk, or the phone needs to be as good as a laptop. Five minutes by itself needs to be as useful as five minutes in a full hour of work.

While listening to a podcast on the Four Noble Truths, the speaker mentioned how there is a lot of discussion from the Buddha on the cause of suffering, but the speaker is often asked why Buddha didn’t also explain the cause of happiness. He responds:

When there is a cause, your happiness… is dependent on the cause being there. […] and to feel relaxed and at home, it’s best for there not to be a condition that’s required. Because then you’re able to bring your happiness, your peace into any situation. It’s portable.

-Gil Fronsdal

It reminded me of this quote which puts it another way:

Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.

-C.S. Lewis

It’s not always possible or helpful to remove all conditions when you’re undertaking a task like writing. For example, writing without a writing implement. However, the principle is the same: attach your writing space and your process to as few conditions as possible. Be fluid. If you need an anchor, find one that’s easily portable, like music.

I’ve always worked while listening to music. It’s a way to create a writing space anywhere you have access to headphones. And if you make music as portable as possible (no streams, so lack of internet doesn’t interfere), it’s something always available to you.

Maybe it’s a certain song or album that puts you in the headspace for a project. A well-curated playlist that, or a shuffled selection of familiar favorites. The music can be that small luxury that helps keep your focus off the larger, frequently unnecessary desires that may feel important to your workspace or Your Process.

What is truly essential to you getting the work done? What are the things that you tell yourself are necessary, and how many of them can you go without? There is value in ritual, and to actions that create a transition from non-work to work time, but ask yourself: What’s the most portable version?

The Four Noble Truths (for Protagonists)

This is a play on the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, making some alterations to suggest a way of looking at character and storytelling.

1. All protagonists suffer.

We don’t watch movies about people who are content unless those people are about to have their world shattered. The key here is content. A character can be happy or cheerful and still be suffering.

Content people don’t have inner drives leading them to action. They don’t have unfulfilled dreams that nag at them, searching for a form of expression. Content people eat breakfast, go to work, run errands, and maybe watch a little television.

Content people are boring. We will not pay $11 to sit in a theater and watch a person start watching American Idol, only to doze off because they had a big, satisfying dinner. We don’t set the DVR to record the full season of Jack Enjoys Reading In His Peaceful Backyard.

A protagonist shouldn’t be content. Something should be bothering them, large or small. But what, and why?

2. A protagonist’s suffering is caused by their desire.

They want something. Something specific. It could be to go on a date with their secret crush, land a big promotion, or get revenge by finding and murdering the person who killed their family. The status quo of their lives is different from what they wish it was.

But there is a limitation to what kind of desire a protagonist should have.

3. There is an end to the protagonist’s suffering.

There needs to be an end game. Under what conditions does the protagonist get the win? What does it look like for them to no longer suffer from their desire?

There are clear cut situations like winning a tournament or catching a criminal. There are less clear cut end game conditions that are no less real, like a character getting over a loss who learns to find happiness or love again. The key here is that there is either a definitive point where the character wins or loses, or the character at least believes there is a point where they will achieve their desire.

4. There is a way for the protagonist to end their suffering.

If the protagonist’s goal isn’t something concrete that they can achieve through their own effort, it’s not a story. Sure, they may have something that they want, and they may be suffering because of it, but you still need to fill 90+ minutes of screen time. There must be something that they can do to determine whether or not they succeed in achieving their desire.

Say your character wants to win the World Series. They can’t just wish it to be true. They have to train. They have to make sure their team works well together. They have to win games during the regular season. And let’s get specific. Say your protagonist is getting old. Their career should have been over last season. They’re also fighting their own body in order to achieve this goal.

This way of looking at storytelling taps in to something about how we, as humans, relate to stories. We all have desires. We all have things we wish were different. Tapping into that aspect of human nature can not only work to create more believable characters, but can make sure those characters have something to do.