144 - The power of putting first things first


personal development

After Christopher Nolan had finished the script for Oppenheimer, he first took it to his longtime visual effects supervisor Andrew Jackson. The fulcrum for the story, as Nolan calls it, was the Trinity Test. Nolan, as always, didn’t want to use computer-generated imagery, and so his question to Jackson was whether the Trinity Test could be re-created within those constraints.

_I mean we always knew that the Trinity test would have to be a showstopper. It's the fulcrum that the whole story turns on and when I finished the script, one of the first people I showed the script to was my visual effects supervisor because I wanted to take CG off the table and see if you know he could come up with real world methodologies for producing the effect of, you know, the first atomic blast. _

Nolan handed over the next several months of his life to Jackson. What did Jackson do?

…and so he spent months and months and months doing all these experiments and figuring out all these methods, some very very small and microscopic, some of them absolutely colossal and then the process of going out to the desert, you know, with Ruth De Jong [the production designer], building the bunkers as they would have been so that we could shoot in the middle of the night in the desert in the real places and get these guys there to really experience some measure of what that tension would have been like that crazy night, just building up and the weeks before building up, worrying about the weather…

Nolan wanted to find out if the tension of the first atomic blast could be recreated in the middle of the New Mexico desert. It was only after he was convinced that it could be that he felt ready to undertake Oppenheimer.

He then shot the decades-spanning movie in 57 days flat.

How could someone who was so painstaking in the conceptualization of the visuals for the project be so swift, almost hasty, with the filming?

This kind of productivity, by the way, is not limited to Nolan’s most recent project. It’s a running theme. Nolan runs tight ships. He finishes under schedule, under project.

Nor is this kind of productivity limited to filmmaking. You see it across domains.

The secret behind such high yield is the answer to the paradox of productivity. Or the answer to what I call the choice BETWEEN first-order fast and lifetime slow AND first-order slow and lifetime fast.

The preoccupations of genius

Says Scott Young, author of the book Ultralearning and someone who shot to fame with his MIT Challenge (he learned the entire 4-year MIT curriculum for computer science, without taking any classes):

On the face of it, the idea that we should do fewer things and obsess over quality seems to contradict the idea that those who have the most hits are the ones who took a lot of shots.

For someone who has struggled to pull off a month of no-phone Sundays and breaks into a cold sweat any time his three year old mimics him on the phone, the paradox Young is pointing to is not lost on me. I have seen it earlier, though at the time I didn’t have the radar to catch it. The moment of reading Young’s quote takes me back to John McPhee’s Draft No. 4,_ _to this passage under the chapter Structure.

Out the back door and under the big ash was a picnic table. At the end of summer, 1966, I lay down on it for nearly two weeks, staring up into branches and leaves, fighting fear and panic, because I had no idea where or how to begin a piece of writing for The New Yorker.


_The subject was the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey. I had spent about eight months driving down from Princeton day after day, or taking a sleeping bag and a small tent. I had done all the research I was going to do—had interviewed woodlanders, fire watchers, forest rangers, botanists, cranberry growers, blueberry pickers, keepers of a general store. _


The piece would ultimately consist of some five thousand sentences, but for those two weeks I couldn’t write even one.

I see shades of Nolan’s Trinity Test in McPhee’s account.

I suspect McPhee, prolific as any writer of non-fiction with twenty-nine books, one of which was about just one tennis match, didn’t think there was anything unusual about the kind of time he spent in thought in the face of a looming crisis.

First-order slow (eight months researching a piece), lifetime fast (twenty-nine books).

Focus and mindset

The opposite of meaningful change is automatic change. The difference between the two is the difference between what we choose and what has been chosen for us. This implies someone is choosing on our behalf. Who is?

Us. Our attention is automatic. It naturally settles on the path of least resistance. The appeal of such a path is speed. Do things quickly. Start the project immediately. Show progress right away.

Nolan’s methods disregard this need for quick progress. What he turns his attention to is the hardest, the slowest, the most meaningful, part of the project: the Trinity Test.

McPhee labors over the structure of his pieces.

Neither does anything that is automatic. Both go for the effortful.

Longtime readers of this newsletter may know of monkeys and pedestals and opportunity-cost thinking as two systems of thought that prescribe tackling the hardest part of the problem first.

I want to pull the curtains on another core component needed to pull off hard things: the skill of subtraction. Directing your efforts at the absolutely essential, and leaving out everything else. Here’s Jony Ive, ex-chief design officer at Apple, from a 2014 interview:

One of the things Steve [Jobs] would say because, I think, he was concerned that I wasn’t [focused enough]... he would say, How many things have you said no to?


What focus means is saying no to something that you, with every bone in your body, you think is a phenomenal idea and you wake up thinking about it but you say no to it because you’re focusing on something else.

Apart from the fact that one needs focus to accomplish incredible feats of human art such as Oppenheimer or Levels of the Game or the iPhone when it first came out, one needs it for putting a full stop to whatever it is that’s consuming them today. The truly ambitious are worried sick that they’ll run out of time. They focus so that they can finish.

The rest are left searching for excuses to hold on to a dear project as if it were the last one. If they give that up, they give up their best shot at greatness. If this one thing they know and somewhat understand comes to an end, who knows what else they may be pitted against? There’s a fear that runs cold in their veins. They fear they cannot rise to that unknown occasion, so they drag their feet. They distract themselves, they meander.

Even the genius doesn’t have access to a reservoir of confidence at all times. Says McPhee in Draft No. 4:

To lack confidence at the outset seems rational to me. It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before has worked out well. Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you.

Yet, McPhee’s gotten over this problem of lack of confidence at least twenty-nine times in his career. Genius has a sense they can level up to whatever the situation demands. They may not know for sure, but they have a sense that their true potential is unknown. The rest say to themselves: This is the best I’ll ever be.

1️⃣Build capacity for deep work: Train yourself to work at full capacity for blocks of time.

Maker and Manager time - rhythmic scheduling of deep work, status schedule

I’m my own boss time - bimodal scheduling

Your calendar

2️⃣Have self-binding mechanisms: Build systems that kill distractions

[Andrew Huberman self-binding; Anna Lembke self-binding]

Chirstopher Nolan doesn’t carry a phone on him. Nor does he have an email. He claims he’s easily distracted so it’s best for him to stay away from digital addictions. What if he did have a phone and an inbox with him. That would allow him to undertake parallel projects, and then…

✔Unable to physically be on set, he would ask for meeting notes, demand a detailed weekly list of everything the crew accomplished, ask the team to include him in all important meetings without committing his schedule to the project or defining what was important to him.

✔Unavailable in person, he would make himself accessible 24/7 on Teams, Slack, email, and Whatsapp. He would also ensure that for each of the projects he oversaw, the team was onboarded on his favorite project management software, his favorite people enablement platform, and so on. His time and energy would go into onboarding and orientation and best-practice sharing.

✔Unable to pick the best resources for parallel projects, given his breakneck speed, he would make do with cast and crew who did other shifts on other projects. Who were available to him on time-share, dotted line reporting, and so on.

Nolan gave 57 days of his everything to Oppenheimer. If he lived our plugged-in lives, he probably would never have finished the project or the final product would not have passed muster.

How do you get to self-binding? Allow yourself to feel guilty. Then do something about it. Most of us escape guilt with meaningless work that gives the appearance of progress. So, avoid meaningless work.

3️⃣Say no (know yourself, escape mimesis): John Ive story about Steve Jobs’s focus

Courage to stick to the vision comes from knowing oneself as per our inner scorecard not by society’s scorecard

Nolan understands that his strengths are the structure in his storytelling. He hardly ever follows a linear narrative, frequently intercuts knows, employs a musical device called Shepard’s tone that allows him to convey a continuously rising crescendo as the different narrative strands rise, peak, and fall.

4️⃣ Develop something that matters to you and give it up (Spike up opportunity cost)

[Impact Science experience of bachelors]

Nolan’s sets offer a clue to his priorities. You will find no monitors, no chairs, and no trailers on location where Nolan films. Actors stand between takes. After a take, they have no monitors to check their work on. They simply have to trust the director’s judgment. Nolan seldom insists on additional takes. His filming habits are surprisingly stripped down. Surprising because, for comparison, Stanley Kubrick, the filmmaker behind The Shining and 2001: A Space Odyssey and Eyes Wide Shut, was notorious for putting his cast through the wringer.

Nolan also is known to give a lot of creative freedom to his actors. Which is a euphemism for very few cues. Gary Oldman recounts that over six years of working with Nolan for the Batman franchise, he could bring to mind only a couple of instances of advice-giving from Nolan. One of which was, ‘There’s more at stake.’

On Oppenheimer, Robert Downey Jr. recounts that in his efforts to strike the right tone for his portrayal of Lewis Strauss, he started to stray from the script. To which Nolan’s response was striking:

_Robert, you seem to be doing a lot of improv out there. If you get scared out there, just float gently back to the text. _

Nolan’s words were striking because they did not insist on a method. He was okay with his actors taking creative liberties as long as they stayed close to the script.

This is only, we can assume, the outcome of a plan Nolan has carefully laid out. What is the plan?

Put first things first. Everything that happens happens in the service of the story.

How do you create bandwidth for your Trinity Test?

Choose a life of focus. Choose a life of subtraction.

_Many efforts that ultimately lead to giant leaps in your creative work seem fantastically unproductive. They require you to scale back your “normal” work drastically. They cause you to lose clients and turn down contracts. For the outside world obsessed with visible busyness, it looks like you’re just wasting time. _



you will never be on a set that is more dialed in. Where the only thing that could go wrong is us.

Molly Graham, career operations exec (Facebook, CZI, Quip) and builder of Facebook’s early people philosophy and systems, writes:

_When I first became a manager, I had a tendency to micromanage my employees’ process — “how” they did things instead of “what” they produced. _

_Controlling how work gets done only makes your company slower. Employees will inevitably do things that make you cringe, take different approaches than you, and sometimes even truly mess up. But it’s rare that the best answer is to try to control their process. _

_It’s tempting to manage how employees work. But in 90% of cases, what really matters is: Did you hit the goal? _

_To run a successful company, particularly one past a certain size, controlling the “how” is simply not an option. You have to learn to be extraordinary at aligning around the “what” and at coaching people as they go. _

It seems to me that what the goal is to Graham is what the story is to Nolan. How do I know? I don’t. But I suspect so because of Graham’s tactical advice for leaders and captains of the ship.

You can also state what’s important to you in broad strokes so your employees can watch out for it. I’ll often say, “Let’s deliver this project by this date, and here are two things I want you to keep an eye on. First, I want to manage the cost of XYZ. Second, I’m worried that we’re going to hurt this other product line or initiative, so let’s think about how to prevent that.

The more senior your employees are, the more fuzzy your “what’s” can and should be. Part of being senior is the ability to bring granularity to broad goals, to have judgment about what “good” looks like, and to know when to ask for more clarity.

Think back to Nolan’s words to Downey Jr: float gently back to the script. That advice could easily confuse a lesser professional but on an experienced actor, it has the desired effect.

However seductive such laissez-faire methods may seem, they induce anxiety. When the stakes are high, there’s a huge temptation to wrest back control.

Graham shines light here:

What if your team isn’t hitting goals? What if you have an anxiety attack because an employee did something wrong? It’s tempting to crack down on the “how” — to do it yourself or to send those rage emails or Slacks. But you have a few other options:

  1. Let things play out
  2. Coach on the “how”
  3. Realign on the “what”
  4. Coach preventatively so it doesn’t happen in the first place

Yet, in business, we seem to have the perfect excuse to skip past these options. Control is paramount. But control is a deep want. It is a sign of fear.

Graham and Nolan don’t seem to be afraid. Why?

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