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Kevin Kelly’s ‘Excellent Advice for Living’
Words to the Wise: Reviewing the Techno-Optimist’s New Book of Aphorisms
If you’re like me, you spent most of your twenties messing up your life, and your thirties were spent paying for those mistakes. Consequently, in your forties you’re too humbled by circumstances to have much to say. What do I know? By your fifties, however, it’s possible you might finally have something worth listening to.
For what it’s worth, I’m only forty-seven. Given the above, please feel free to ignore everything I say below—unless I’m quoting Kevin Kelly. Please don’t ignore what Kevin Kelly has to say. For one thing, he’s older than me. For another, he’s lived a much more interesting life.
Kelly the Man
My first experience of Kevin Kelly came unawares. One thing I did right in my twenties was read Wired magazine. I started in my late teens, picking it up whenever I saw copies at bookstore newsstands. I also avidly read HotWired, the digital version of the magazine and one of the first publications of its kind online.
I didn’t pay attention to such things at the time, but Kelly was the founding editor and served in that capacity until 1999. In general I’m an optimist when it comes to technology—when it comes to most things, really. Kelly and his editorial direction probably deserve some of the credit.
His path to Wired—and beyond—remains unconventional. Kelly picked up a copy of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog in high school. “It changed my life,” he said. “It was like being given permission to invent your own life. . . . It was called ‘access to tools’ and it gave you tools to create your own education, your own business, your own life.”
Kelly dropped out of college and never pursued a degree. Instead, he spent the 1970s photographing Asia on $2,500 a year. Per my observation at the start, many people probably assumed he was throwing away his twenties. But the period and its adventures turned out to be preparatory.
By the 1980s, Kelly was back in the U.S. and working with Stewart Brand himself. From 1983 to 1990, he edited and oversaw Whole Earth Review along with the publication of several editions of the Whole Earth Catalog. Technology and software was always part of his purview, so it also made sense that in 1985 he helped Brand launch the Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link, better known as the WELL, an early online community and public access point to the Internet. (It’s still around.)
Along the way, Kelly never lost his original love for tools, nor broadening people’s access to them. In 2003, a few years after leaving Wired, he started Cool Tools which is still publishing recommendations for gadgets, apps, hardware, websites, and more twenty years later. He’s also written several best-selling books on technology and its social impacts. Kelly might be most famous for concocting the 1,000 True Fan theory, which basically undergirds the Substack business model.
It’s no surprise that through these and other adventures—too many to list here—Kelly has picked up some useful insights about life worth sharing.
Kelly the Aphorist
The origins of Excellent Advice for Living go back to Kelly’s sixty-eighth birthday. (For those counting, that’s eighteen years past the reasonable-advice threshold I mention above.) To mark the occasion, he wrote sixty-eight aphorisms to share with his adult children and posted them to his website.
He added to the list over the next couple of years. I consulted it several times in that period. Wherever my eye landed, there was something useful, amusing, or thought-provoking. When I discovered that he had fleshed out the list as a book, I was thrilled. When my review copy arrived, I devoured it in an afternoon, underlining, asterisking, notating, and scribbling as I went. I’ve dipped in and out of it ever since, reading a few pages at a time.
Excellent Advice for Living features 450 aphorisms on all sorts of subjects. Here are ten of many I flagged while I was reading, chosen at random:
“The advantage of a ridiculously ambitious goal is that it sets the bar very high so even if your effort falls short, it may exceed an ordinary success.”
“Shorten your to-do list by asking yourself, ‘What is the worst that will happen if this does not get done?’ Eliminate all but the disasters.”
“Be prepared: When you have 90% of a large project completed, finishing the final details will take another 90%. Houses and films are famous for having two 90%s.”
“If you are not embarrassed by your past self, you have probably not grown up yet.”
“The foundation of maturity: Just because it’s not your fault doesn’t mean it’s not your responsibility.”
“You can be whatever you want to be, so be the person who ends meetings early.”
“When you are stuck, explain your problem to others. Often simply laying out a problem will present a solution. Make ‘explaining the problem’ part of your troubleshooting process.”
“Speak confidently as if you are right, but listen carefully as if you are wrong.”
“As long as an idea stays in your head, it is perfect. But perfect things are never real. Immediately put an idea down into words, or in a sketch, or as a cardboard prototype. Now your idea is much closer to reality because it is imperfect.”
“When you are stuck, make a long list of everything that cannot possibly work. On that list will be a seed that leads to a solution that will work.”
Kelly the Optimist
Four hundred and fifty aphorisms could get tedious, though, right? What’s the unifying idea that holds them all together? Without that, it’s just a collection of offhanded ideas, stray thoughts, and toss-away sentiments.
For me the through-line is Kelly’s irrepressible optimism. “In the long run,” as he says, “optimists shape the future.” There’s a bit more about why Kelly says that’s so in this conversation with Tim Ferriss.
Every bit of advice in the book is given with the assumption that the reader is more than a reader. He or she is an actor with agency in the world. Equipped with useful insights about the way the universe works—physically, culturally, socially, economically—readers can improve their small corner of it. And maybe a much bigger part of it, too.
That goes all the way back to Stewart Brand’s original vision for the Whole Earth Catalog, and it clearly left a mark on Kelly. Put a few of the ideas in Excellent Advice for Living to work, and the impact is bound to multiply.
Best of all, you can start doing that work at any age you choose. And there’s really no mistakes to make anyway; as Kelly’s life shows, it’s all just learning for your next adventure.
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