Since scarcity is the basic economic problem, if it does not exist then there is no reason for my economics course. Devoting time to the study of how people use limited resources to fulfill unlimited wants and needs should help us to discover how to best utilize the resources we have at our disposal. – Kurt Bills
I’ve been told I shouldn’t tell you this – but I’m going to anyway. And I bet you won’t guess what it’s all about.
At this time of year the holiday movies come out and at some point you will see Santa writing a list and he’ll be doing that with a dip pen, perhaps a quill. Certainly not a ballpoint or even a fountain pen. As I write everything with a decades old editor, the chance to experiment with centuries old writing technology was one that I couldn’t pass up. And as in our material age we have amassed everything in the world at one point or another, I found a crumpled bag in the loft with an assortment of calligraphy nibs, pen holders and ink.
Of course, it’s not enough to just use a dip pen – you also need to find out a bit about these instruments and their history. And in doing that I stumbled across Ted Bishop and his essay on Virginia Woolf and her inks. It turns out that you can make ink at home, Bishop has the recipe on his site, all you need are gall nuts, a growth ok oak trees, gum arabic, ferrous sulphate and wine and you’ll be writing using the ink of Shakespeare. The dip pen that you’ll use to write with is a symbol of the act and the seal of the US Copyright Office, which I have very loosely copied in the picture at the start, showed a dip pen lifting off the paper symbolising that your copyright came into existence the instant you fixed your idea on paper. It’s now been replaced with a boring “c” thing that has no history to it.
But history matters. But in what way – how do you go about studying the past and what is in it? In Bishop’s essay he talks about realizing that when he looked at Woolf’s work earlier he had focused on the literary aspects of it, without worrying about how it was physically constructed. He has a quote by Anthea Callen, from the book Bright Earth: Art and the invention of color by Philip Ball, that goes “Any work of art is determined first and foremost by the materials available to the artist, and by the artist’s ability to manipulate those materials”
Now this is a statement that is obvious and also very deep. I wonder if there is a term for that, something that is both intuitively right and carries the burden of huge meaning. If you generalise that statement and put it into management speak and you can bear the dilution of the language that comes with doing that you get something on the lines of, “Any work depends first and foremost on the resources available to the worker, and by the worker’s ability to work those resources.”
When you look at the world through this lens it starts to become clear that people who have achieved great things achieved them because they had resources and were able to work them. That’s obvious. Bill Gates was born at the right time to the right parents and had the right resources available to him and was able to work those resources to build the business that made him one of the richest men in the world. What’s less obvious is that Gates was also restricted in his options of what to do, he probably had little choice but to go on and get rich. He probably wouldn’t have fared well trying to be a basketball star or a local city counsellor on the fast track to becoming President. Unless he had the right resources and knew how to work them.
This rule applies to you and me. What are the resources we have and how do we work them? I have spent the better part of my life, three quarters of it so far, trying to do what is expected of me. As I said at the start of this post I’m still being told how to act and be. And that has worked, to some extent, but it’s also been a bit like swimming against the tide. It’s only when I stopped doing that and started working with the resources I had – the ones I knew how to work – that things have started to become easier and simpler and clearer.
And then, when you think about it, this observation applies to everything else. If you’re looking at your business, the options you have depend on the resources available to you and your ability to work those resources. Learning a new skill, trying a new method, experimenting with a new approach – everything you do comes down to resources and capability and you have to have both if you want to do anything. So, if you don’t have one or the other, the first job is to go out and get them and then you can start doing something and making something of your life and business.
That’s not the answer people want, is it? They want the shortcut, the hack, the quick way, the rocketship – not the long plod to Dullsville. But here’s the thing. When you slow down and stop trying so hard you might get the time to see what’s really important. And if you see what’s important you can focus on that and do it well and you’ll end up being successful, and if you’re not successful you’ll at least be happy; and if being happy is not being successful then I’m not sure you know what success really is.
Coming back then, to the dip pen, do you think it went out of fashion because it was supplanted by something better? I think you’ll probably agree that it wasn’t. The things that came later, washable ink, biros, cartridge pens, and all the other stationery we love, are more convenient, less messy, but really what’s happened is that we don’t really see the need for writing any more. We scribble notes to each other and type everything that matters into a computer somewhere. And that’s a loss – with all that choice we’re leaving behind the mark-making capabilities that marked us out as human. We’re leaving them for better, smarter stuff but for some of us the choice is really not about one or the other but both-and. Learn how to use computers and write your own code. Learn how to use a dip pen and make your own ink.
Because it comes down to resources and capability, and the more you have of those that matter to you the more likely it is that you’ll be able to do what makes you happy.