A practical guide to always doing your best

Die empty

Todd Henry
Portfolio, 2015 Reprint

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A book that offers something new by not offering anything radical. A book that believes not in always being your best but always doing your best.

Many a self-help book starts by setting itself a tall order so it comes as no surprise when it falls short of delivering. Todd Henry’s book, Die empty, sets out with a somewhat grandiose aim too but, surprisingly, it manages to deliver a practical, actionable set of advices to help readers as promised—and keeps it up at least during the first chunk of the book. As it progresses it appears to be drawn out, starts targeting businessmen (seemingly unaware of this) and relies heavily on clichés. Yet, if you patiently pick up titbits you might come away gaining a lot from this book; not a lot of which will be new to you, but rather a lot of which you will find is told in an effective, eye-opening manner designed to make the idea last in your mind. In the end that is what makes Die empty a book worth reading.

The purpose of it all

The book starts of with an anecdote—one of many to come—in which Mr Henry speaks of how the urban planner and artist Candy Chang once created used a large chalkboard to make a work of art covering one wall of an abandoned home in her neighbourhood. On it she wrote the prompt ‘Before I die I want to __________’ several times and left chalks around for passers by to fill in the blanks. And many did, enough to spread the exercise to over a hundred cities around the globe. Mr Henry uses this to explain what connects a lot of people: the simple fact that we are aware of our limited time here on earth and that we all have something we want to do. Consistent practises can help us unleash our best work everyday, he says, so in the end we don’t regret how we spent our lives.

It was my wife who brought this book to my attention when she shared with me another of Mr Henry’s anecdotes. (It turns out, however, that this isn’t from Die empty but from Mr Henry’s previous book The accidental creative although he recounts it again briefly in this one.) A friend once asked a strange and unexpected question: ‘What do you think is the most valuable land in the world?’ It is neither Manhattan, says the friend, nor the oil fields of the Middle East, nor the goldmines of Africa. The most valuable land in the world is the graveyard; in the graveyard are buried all of the unwritten novels, never-launched businesses, unreconciled relationships. In short, all things that people thought they would get back to ‘tomorrow’, but their tomorrows soon ran out. This is a great idea, and Mr Henry uses this to urge readers to empty themselves of all the creativity lingering inside them. Rely on sustained effort, he says, not accident. The effort will be well worth it.

People often regret not having treated their life with purpose, he points out while clarifying the purpose of his book: to bring a newfound clarity and sense of urgency to how you approach your work on a daily basis. ‘In writing this book’, he says, ‘I’m taking my own advice and not leaving my best, most important work inside me.’ Good point, I remember smiling to myself.

The ‘sense of urgency’ can understandably be mistaken for a mindset of getting things done urgently, at all costs. Mr Henry rightly takes time to correct this. He compares this to Karoshi, an idea that has long interested me, saying, specifically, that the idea behind Die empty is not about working all the time, or working past reasonable limits; never ignore everything else in your life to get things done. Don’t work frantically, says Mr Henry, reiterating a point he mentioned multiple times in the book: make steady, critical progress. Dying empty is not the same as living ‘like there’s no tomorrow’.

Karoshi is a Japanese term that refers to occupational sudden death, or dying from overwork.

What counts as work?

The core belief of this book, therefore, is that your days are finite, that you have the capacity to make a contribution to the world, and that you cannot work with huge expectations in return for what you do. Making a point I particularly liked, Mr Henry talks of the overemphasis of what he terms ‘celebrity and recognition’ that is rampant in society today. This sort of outlook is unquestionably dangerous; one needs to work without expecting such recognition (more on this in a moment).

Another much-needed clarification Mr Henry provides has to do with what ‘work’ is: ‘Your body of work,’ says he, ‘should consist of what’s most important to you.’ He quotes Steve Jobs’s famous speech at this point, where the co-founder and former CEO of Apple famously said he stands before a mirror and asks himself, ‘if today were the last day of my life would I want to do what I’m about to do today? And whenever the answer has been “no” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something ... Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is one of the most important tools I’ve encountered to help me make the big choices in life.’ That should help you pick what you work on.

A lot of people suffer from ‘purpose paralysis’, the fear of getting things wrong, and—here is something Mr Henry puts beautifully—they get frustrated ‘when the daily grind of work doesn’t seem to reward [their] pursuit’. This makes it all the more important to understand what one means when one refers to their ‘work’. Your work, he says rather succinctly, is your effort to create value where it didn’t previously exist.

He then goes on to describe three types of work, explaining how most of us always tend to focus on two and ignore one of these: mapping, meshing and making. Mapping is planning out your approach; making is actually doing the work; meshing is the so-called ‘work between the work’, skill acquisition, broadening your focus onto other areas of your industry or even other industries etc.—activities that ‘stretch and grow you’.

Mr Henry calls the ‘Developer’ mindset one where we focus equally on all three; this is what we should all strive to develop. But most of us fall, instead, into one of three other categories of mindset. Some of us focus on mapping and making, forgetting meshing. He calls this the ‘driver’ mindset—which makes us narrowly effective but generally unable to take advantage of opportunities; drivers have will and determination but they end up putting this to little use. Next, some of us focus on making and meshing, forgetting to map. This is the ‘drifter’, who goes by whim, and, because he has no map, cannot plan, has no strategy, and ends up with many wasted opportunities, failing to follow through on ideas effectively. And finally some of us focus on meshing and mapping—the ‘dreamer’—becoming obsessed with ideas and personal growth, which sounds effective but without focusing on ‘making’ dreamers never work on something long or well enough for it to matter.

To explain how the work we do can affect people and contribute in ways we cannot always imagine or do not always expect, and to see why we should work anyway, regardless of whether we see these effects ourselves, Mr Henry relates the tale of the Detroit-based singer–songwriter Sixto Rodriguez who released songs for a few years in the 70s in the United States but remained practically invisible there: his music never took off. Unbeknownst to him his album reached South Africa when someone from the US carried it on a trip there and, over the next two decades he became a cult icon in South Africa, no less than The Beatles. He was so far disconnected from all this that not only did he have no idea about his fame and impact, but also was believed to be dead already. It was only towards the end of the 90s—when someone realised Rodriguez had actually been living a quiet life in the States and tracked him down and he flew to South Africa to perform live—that he realised how important his work had been to so many people.

You do not always know the full impact of your work, as Mr Henry points out. You might never know it in all your life. And then he asks, had Rodriguez not received recognition, would it have diminished the impact of his work? I understand that not all of our work can have the same impact as Rodriguez’s, and to think that someone somewhere is looking at our work as central to their life would be taking it a bit too far, but the point is still valid: work without expectations because recognition is not alone what makes your work meaningful.

Flashy statements and clichés

Despite the unambiguous, action-oriented suggestions, the book is not entirely free from clichés and flashy terms such as ‘the seven deadly sins of mediocrity’, listed as rather cheesy acronyms going from A to G: aimlessness (define your aim), boredom (maintain disciplined curiosity), comfort (step out of your comfort zone), delusion (know your limits and your capabilities alike), ego (get over it, accept failure, grow), fear (try to question rather than fear the unknown), guardedness (remedy relational outages in your life). These ‘seven deadly sins’ do serve a purpose ultimately in that they define the purpose of the subsequent chapters of this book, each of which deals with one sin and methods to overcome it (mentioned briefly above in parentheses).

In speaking of passion Mr Henry talks about ‘productive passion’, i.e. passion driven by compassionate anger, the sort of unrest that makes you feel like you want to step in either on behalf of those who are suffering or in order to solve a problem. Choose a battle line that will shape every step you take, he says and goes on to quote how the Boka restaurant group’s statement ‘blow people away’ offered a targeted purpose of every person working for the company, from the managers to the waiters: Did what you do blow them away? Will this blow people away? What can I do for my customers today to blow them away?

There are other clichés too, such as maintaining a notebook where you jot things down, a practice that I have myself been employing for years now and one that has been around for centuries. Make a list of everything you want to do or know you should have done but have not. These form your open loop, says Mr Henry, and then suggests you start working daily to close these loops. This amounts to clichéd advice and is not particularly helpful in any way in which it has not already been presented. He goes on to use this to suggest we develop a sense of curiosity. Pursue inspiration via probing questions and stay curious—do not sit back and wait for it. This, again, uncharacteristically of the rest of the book, is not all that actionable.

More cliches come in the form of step, sprint and stretch goals—merely fancy names for short-, mid- and long-term goals—and the suggestion of performing constant SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis on yourself. These are both classic techniques marketing executives have been taught for ages and every other self-help and personal development book targeting marketing majors mentions these almost matter-of-factly. It is also around this point that ‘Die empty’ lost me briefly, with a shift towards marketing jargon and suggestions seemingly targeted at businessmen, a direction the book was taking that I felt Mr Henry seemed blissfully unaware of.

And some other gems

As said earlier, to dismiss the book just because it carries some clichés would be wrong—although the existence of said clichés must be addressed, as they were a moment ago—because there are some impressive points Mr Henry makes throughout.

I like that there is a principle at the beginning of every chapter about what the chapter deals with and there are simple questions, called checkpoints, at the end of every chapter. This is in line with the generally action-oriented nature of this book and is a particularly good thing.

Another idea that appealed to me were Mr Henry’s thoughts on boredom not least because they were in line with my own thoughts and because they agreed with an essay I am currently working on (and which I hope to publish here sometime soon): boredom cannot be gotten over because we have (in our gadgets) a ‘seductive’ stream of entertainment. But, he points out, it is during boredom that we have our best ideas.

And then there is what he calls ‘the curse of familiarity’, how we often mistake a passing familiarity with knowledge. Although we have read a bit about things and although (or in my opinion ‘because‘) we have quick access to an endless stream of information via the Web, we end up believing we have the required knowledge at hand while, in reality, we have ‘not done the heavy lifting’ yet to fully understand how our newfound knowledge fits into our perception. If this idea appeals to you I recommend reading The knowledge illusion by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach as this idea is somewhat central to that book. In short, Mr Henry says intellectual growth occurs not from titbits of information but from considering and integrating it.

Towards the end of the book he takes a moment to further clarify what dying empty means from a positive sense. Do not ask yourself what you will do if today is your last day to live. Humorously, but also rightly, he points out that you might want to binge eat pizza and jump off a plane if today is your last day. Instead, he suggests that we ask ourselves how we would spend our day if we would be accompanied today by someone who would watch our every move, take detailed notes, draw conclusions and write a definitive book about us. On some level this technique sounds considerably less morbid and a lot pleasanter and more promising than the ‘last day alive’ scenario.

Live with a focus on E.M.P.T.Y., he says finally, putting forth a last cheesy acronym. Focus on your Ethics, focus on your Mission, focus on the People, focus on Tasks, focus on You.

I like books I can read in a few days. As dull as the comparison might seem, these are like soda cans rather than richly blended teas, best for when we are on-the-go, hurrying through our days, rather than sitting back one evening and sipping patiently. To me these serve as stepping stones between longer, more considered reads. And I am particularly overjoyed when such a book can offer as much as Die empty does because, in spite of falling in the self-help genre, the book offers more than just bland motivations or calls for action; it offers suggestions we can actually put to use and that alone, to me, makes this book worth reading.