TAoN No. 51: The Joy of Making ... Nothing

PLUS: Neighborhood Calendar Challenge, a new icebreaker, and more

The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy In the Everyday offers exercises, prompts, provocations, games and things you can actually do to build attention muscles, stave off distraction, pick up on what everybody else overlooked, and experience the joy of noticing. Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Knopf. This newsletter offers related news and ideas and noteworthy projects that have come along since I finished the book. ****Subscribe or unsubscribe at: robwalker.substack.com.****

Make Nothing; Have Fun

I hope you’ll forgive a somewhat rushed/abbreviated version of the newsletter; the TAoN team is based in New Orleans, and thus spent some of the usual weekend newsletter-writing time preparing for the possibility of being hit by two hurricanes this week. It’s now clear that’s not going to happen, but having spent most of my life in hurricane-prone areas, I like to believe that the more I prepare for the worst, the more likely that prep will turn out to have been a waste of time. It’s almost a game.

And that, turns out, is my theme this week.

A recent New York Times piece on “play” makes a point that I don’t think gets made often enough:

“One way to think about play is an action you do that brings you a significant amount of joy without offering a specific result.” That means taking a bike ride because it’s fun, not because you’re trying to lose five pounds. “A lot of us do everything hoping for a result. It’s always, ‘What am I getting out of this?’ Play has no result.

Regular readers know that I really like the idea of doing something even though it has “no result” — at least not in the sense of a preordained payoff or goal. I think people too often get too hung up on whether they are spending their time in a way that leads to “making” something. Making something, and sharing your creativity — that’s great! But engagement with the world is a noble goal on its own, whether it leads to some particular act of creation or not. It’s okay to make nothing. It’s okay to play.

From that Times piece:

Social media can inspire people to do things for the purpose of sharing, as the platforms themselves encourage external validation. Since play is supposed to be intrinsically motivated, you might have more fun keeping it to yourself.

“It’s very important that we have moments of play all for ourselves.” Whether it’s kneading dough in the kitchen or riding your bike around the neighborhood, next time you do something fun, don’t share the activity online. This can help you focus on the pure joy of doing something fun for yourself.

In The Art of Noticing book I describe an exercise (partly inspired by Ian Bogost’s super-smart book Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games) that involves converting a workaday trip to Walmart (or some other blah retail environment) into a game, by keeping an eye out for the most absurd product you encounter.

Childish? Yes. That’s the point! Children are often really good at inventing games that relieve the monotony of any situation. Embrace that. In fact, I was going to offer more specific examples, but maybe it’s better to stop and make this week’s prompt a broad one:

  • Invent a game you can play in your everyday life — even if nobody else knows about it.

Don’t worry about a “result.” Don’t worry about making or creating. Just have fun.


I’ve been going through the (digital) notebook where I collected material for The Art of Noticing, and picking out fun/useful stuff that didn’t end up in the book, and sharing (even if they’re “old”) three examples per issue. Here goes:

Neighborhood Calendar Challenge Update

A few weeks back I wrote that I’ve been taking snapshots around my neighborhood with an eye toward compiling enough (12) to create a 2021 calendar, and issued a call for you to join me:

Make a neighborhood calendar. This could mean personal neighborhood landmarks (spots you’d miss if you moved), or a recurring category: flowers, architectural details, birds, trees, even just a particular color, anything you want. Document all the interesting mailboxes or fence ornaments or store banners or the backs-of-stop-signs or whatever it is — good, bad, indifferent-but-interesting — that you have noticed recurs through your neighborhood.

More here.

I’ve heard fun ideas from a number of you, but I’m pleasantly surprised to report that very dear friend of TAoN Joshua Glenn has already created a calendar! It’s a collection of images of water-meter covers in his neighborhood — example above. Fantastic!

I mentioned earlier that I’ve made calendars in the past using Cafepress. There’s also Zazzle. Josh used Mixbook, and applauded the results. Another reader recommended Walgreens, and yet another recommended Costco. Other tips are welcome. And of course I’d love to hear about it if you’re working on a calendar. As I said earlier: I like having a goal associated with the end of 2020. Keep me posted consumed@robwalker.net

Icebreaker Of The Week

  • Reminder: There’s now a central collection spot for all the icebreakers to date, here. || There’s also an Icebreaker Slack app, here. (Back story on that here.)

This week’s icebreaker comes from an anonymous reader:

If you had one opportunity to permanently change someone's life (better or worse) who would it be and how would you change it?

That probably doesn’t need any further explanation. Although maybe I would add something like: “politicians excluded”!

As always:

Send your favorite icebreaker (whether you made it up or found it elsewhere) to consumed@robwalker.net

In Other News

@asophiawood, @enjoying_my_fucking_life, @carladiana

  • Welcome to new subscribers drawn here by the kind shout-out from Mark Frauenfelder’s new newsletter, The Magnet! For those unfamiliar: The Magnet is an eclectic collection of cool/useful finds. Check out a sample issue of here. (Naturally I subscribe.)

  • Artist and writer Kathleen Jennings has been publishing a very cool Observation Journal (explanatory intro here) that I suspect TAoN readers will enjoy.

  • MMUSEUMM is open again, with new digital access; more here. “Mmuseumm is a style of storytelling about the modern world. It is Object Journalism.” (My Organist piece on this here.)

Okay, that’s it! Next issue in two weeks.

As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, and your icebreakers: consumed@robwalker.net.

Thanks for reading!

P.S. If you enjoyed this, share it and/or sign up here: robwalker.substack.com.

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All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032 

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