Five Questions: Dan Waber

Tuesday, 24 July, 2007

The 40/365 project

Five Questions is where I talk to bloggers about their projects and some of the other things they are doing. I ask {Q}uestions, and hopefully get some {A}nswers.

In January 2006, Dan Waber, looking for a way to mark his then upcoming fortieth birthday, hit upon the ambitious idea of writing 40 words a day, every day for a year, about 365 acquaintances both past and present. So began the x365 project

{Q} What inspired this project?

{A} The prospect of turning 40. I wanted to mark the occasion in some way that wouldn’t be completely retrospective, but would recognize that I was arriving at 40 as the sum of my years.

About two weeks before my birthday I started thinking of ideas, just listening to the popcorn popper of my internal idea factory until something arrived that struck me as appropriate.

I got the idea to write 40 words a day about a different person for 365 days, and at first thought it might fit the bill, but, figured I’d better make sure that I could really do it before I built a blog for it and jumped in.

I didn’t want to get to 291 people and think, who on Earth can I write about next? So started with the list.

365 is a funny number, it’s small enough that it’s easy to think “yes” or “no” to the question of whether you know the names of that many people interesting enough to write 40 words about, but big enough that you really can’t be sure either way.

The only way to know for sure is to make the list.

{Q} A list of 365 people? How did you find doing that?

{A} The first 100 came pretty easy, the first day. The second 100 was much more difficult, and took another couple of days. At that point it got very difficult and I had to adopt a range of strategies to work through my memory.

Names would tend to come in pockets of memory, I’d go through the years of my life in a very chronological fashion and think of classmates, or campmates, or neighbours, then I’d go through in a very achievement oriented way, thinking of people I worked jobs with, or worked on projects with, any system of combing through the neurons with a different shaped comb or in a different direction, I tried it.

When I got to 300 I thought it might be impossible, that I simply didn’t know another 65 people.

All through the process I’d sometimes remember a person but no name, sometimes a name but no story, sometimes there was nothing interesting, or, since it was going to be published on the web, nothing positive I could say.

I’d write down the name or a way to recall the story, just jot a little something as a marker in case I needed to come back to that and try to remember more.

Often I’d change one of these marginals to a good name just through the process of recollection, but when I got to 300 and the pickings were really slim, I started actively going through this list and realized a few things.

If I worked at it, I could find a name where one was missing. I could find something interesting about them all, if I worked at it.

And if there was truly nothing positive I could say about a certain person, then I didn’t feel any hesitation in saying so. The last 65 took me about a week. But when I had it in hand, I realized that I knew a lot of really interesting people.

I knew I wanted to start with my mom because, well, I started with my mom and this was a project that would begin and end on my birthday after all.

The rest of the list was shuffled randomly and I simply wrote about whichever person was next on the list.

{Q} 40 words ok. But everyday for 365 days? Just how difficult (or easy) was it, really?

{A} For me, it was easy. And got easier as I got more practice. Many of the later entries were exactly 40 words the first time I took a pause to do a word count. Every morning, it was just the first thing I did.

Having the list done in advance kept me from having to do the memory rummaging part of the process, and working straight through a randomized list kept me from having to ruminate over who would get written about today. It was a simple routine to slip into.

{Q} A lot of other bloggers, both over and under 40, have jumped on the x/365 bandwagon. Did you expect so many people to pick up on your idea?

{A} The initial announcement I did for the project was a challenge to others to try it themselves, so I recognized – after making the list – that it was a worthwhile exercise for others to attempt, and certainly hoped people would take me up on the challenge.

It’s tremendously affirming to realize how many interesting people you know, and how many you’ve forgotten or were right on the cusp of forgetting forever.

So in that regard I wasn’t surprised at the number of people who picked up on it – I was glad to see others have the same opportunity to experience what I’d experienced (and was experiencing through the process of the writing).

I think what surprised me most (and continues to surprise me) is how many people started it and then stopped after less than two weeks.

Stopping after 291 I can understand, life happens, or without a list in advance the task of remembering new people kept getting harder. But after less than two week? That’s a transiency of enthusiasm I have trouble understanding.

The blogroll gets weeded out periodically, and a lot more people started then quit than appear there – I leave on the blogroll any blogs that are still up, but remove links to blogs that have been taken down.

It seems a lot of people’s creative eyes were bigger than their creative stomachs. I was also surprised at the number of people who said some version of, “It’s a great idea, but I’m going to do it differently.”

And then abandoned the age-based fixed word count, or, the daily nature, or that they needed to remember the person’s name, or whatever. I’m not sure if it’s related or not but those people also had the highest rate of non-completion.

{Q} So, for you, what was turning 40 really like?!

{A} Just like any other day, really. I never dreaded turning any particular age, mostly because I’m still about 19 in my brain and often don’t recognize that geezer in the mirror.

Age is really not something that is a major factor in any aspect of my life, but I was aware that in turning 40 I was probably about halfway through with my turn here and that I might fly a little lighter through the second half if I safely stowed away some of the joys I’d collected so far.

Thanks Dan!

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  • Hi John,
    Good post. I think like a 19years old @ 45 years old :)
    Cheers !

    jamy at 11:48 pm on Tuesday, 24 July, 2007
  • Thanks Jamy :) … I’m wondering how I think now… probably very incoherently! ;)

    John at 10:37 pm on Wednesday, 25 July, 2007