Two Lists

This is part five of my “Draft One” series on writing the first draft of a novel.

My past articles featured a strategy to Go Big with creative endeavors, a tactic for small but meaningful progress with Pomodoro, a principle of Don’t Miss Two days, and a framework to reduce uncertainty with Bones Before Flesh. My next learning was another strategy.

#5: Two Lists

One of my favorite Netflix originals is Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, a TV series about a 30-something New Yorker interpreting the oddities of modern life. An episode that continues to resonate with me is the season one finale, in which Aziz narrates The Bell Jar’s famous fig tree metaphor:

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree…from the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked…I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

This fig tree is often taken out of context and seen as depressing. But it’s the opposite for the protagonist—Esther—who ends the book with a fiery ambition to carve her own path. It’s a metaphor that many of us can relate to—with so many opportunities at our fingertips, so many paths, making a choice is crippling. The more fortunate you are, the more difficult this becomes. As a healthy American with a degree, stable income, and no dependents (other than my avocado tree), I can do almost anything…

But I can’t do everything.

This is hard to accept. There are so many interesting things to do, how could I possibly pick? Paralysis is a natural response, and it’s understandable because the action is scary. Moving to that place you always wanted to live means saying goodbye to your current home—to friends, family, comfort—and accepting you might be lonely. Pursuing your dream job is scary because what if you fail and come to face the hard truth that you don’t have what it takes? Speaking with someone you find attractive can be humiliating if they reject you. Choices are hard and scary. But holding out and not choosing is worse because opportunities expire and drop to the ground like rotten, uneaten figs.

Those expiring figs terrify me, more than probably anything else. They terrify me so much that I swing far from paralysis in the pursuit of everything. Write a novel! Direct movies! Launch a tech company! Craft a board game more impossibly perfect than Catan! Have a family! Travel the world by train! Climb the Seven Summits! Problem is, when I chase all these things, I end up with none of them. Most things worth doing require a volume of attention and energy that cannot be split.

Confucius might have said some version of that, but its concept is far from confusing. I can’t do all those things above—especially at once. If I’m lucky, I could have one. As devastating as it is to choose one and say no to everything else, the truth is clarifying. We must make the hard choices, or they’ll be made for us.

Toward the end of WWII, German forces were spread thin—like an overambitious Risk player occupying too much of the board. Despite their superior weaponry and large battalions, the Nazis faced a war on two fronts. To the west, they faced the allied powers of France, Great Britain, and the United States. To the east, they battled the Soviet Union. Focus split, Germany collapsed under attrition, and the good guys waxed Hitler’s dirty ‘stache.

This pattern is nothing new—there’s a long history of military defeat from the two-front war—but this concept has become a mental model applicable to countless domains and circumstances. Most famously, Warren Buffet applied it to his business life in the form of Two Lists.

TL;DR: Buffet asks a young person to list the 25 things they want to achieve next year. He then asks them to circle the top five. Those become List A: The only items this person will focus on for the year. The other 20 items become List B: The items the person will actively avoid next year. List B is the enemy list, the second rabbits, the remaining figs. These items are most likely to disrupt the success of List A. They’re distractions.

The Two Lists acknowledge that everything has a cost. Even junk like a free t-shirt takes up real estate in your drawer, saps mental energy as you actively decide whether to wear it each day, incites guilt as you throw it out, or wastes time as you bring it to Goodwill. It’s an easy concept to overlook, but not creating a List B could come at the cost of List A.

Time and time again, I’ve taken on too many projects and not finished any of them. When writing the first draft of this novel, I constantly wanted to work on other things: an interactive highpointing map, a GIF explainer site, a gift-giving app, a personal finance blog, three different board games, and—of course—a bunch of other writing projects. But all of these were distractions. To make traction on my novel, I needed to actively manage those List B items. Say no to many so I could give a resounding YES to a few. Like a bouncer at an exclusive nightclub, I only let in the most attractive guests. And if COVID’s taught us anything, it’s the importance of maximum occupancy.

Ironically, I got distracted writing this article by diving too deep into weird corners of NFT-land. Guess I have a new guest in List B.