Zen and the Art of Writing Emails

I’m going tell you about the greatest email writer I have ever encountered. But first, allow me to set the stage onto which this man entered at approximately 10:30am each weekday morning — glowing, a lighthouse of consciousness in the amphetamine soaked seas of high-tech life.

The reality of work in Silicon Valley is not dissimilar to anywhere else, especially in one critical aspect — you have to write a lot of emails. Shit, sometimes it feels like all you do is write emails. And if you have ever worked in any office, then you know this feeling: that coffee is kicking in, the music is just right, and you are dropping into the flow. Emails are pouring out of you like concerto’s oozed from the fingers of Mozart. You know just what to say.

Why yes Jessica from accounting, I just finished that expense report and am attaching it here. Have a great long weekend!

You have the answers.

Hi Matt, I fixed a typo on slide twelve but otherwise the presentation looks great. See you at 2:15 for the design review.

You are taking initiative.

For ten minutes you are the master of the universe. The world is at your fingertips. You have taken control of the email cannon, and are blasting messages throughout the office. You are asserting yourself into the corporate conversation. You can hear the dings from your co-workers computers echoing in the distance. This is why they hired you.

But this illusive email zone-state is merely a flickering of consciousness. After fifteen minutes you are feeling so good about your morning that you get up and go take a leak. And upon returning to your desk, eight new messages have arrived: you’re not sure how to reply to the first, you make a sticky note to remind you about the second, and before you know it, once again, your email inbox has become a portal from which a toxic sludge of bits and bytes pours onto your desktop from some otherworldly digital dimension. The walls are closing in on you, your breath suddenly shallow.

You are back at the mercy of the email albatross.

But Tim – the greatest email writer I have ever encountered – does not suffer this fate. No, Tim has side-stepped the eternal wheel of carbon copies and cortisol into a parallel dimension of productivity. That place which you touch from time to time — that email zone. Tim lives there. He breaths its air, his feet firmly plant on its sacred soil. For he has become one with the eternal Tao of email answering.

It’s 10:30 am. The tall, athletic man with a perfectly shaved head casually strolls into the office having just finished his morning workout. He is wearing his signature black, slim-cut North Face parka. His Nike minimalist running shoes don’t make a sound as he glides purposefully across the polished concrete floor to the espresso machine. The beans are ground, the milk foamed, and the coffee grinds expelled into the bamboo compost bin with a single tap; not one superfluous motion was made in the process. Tim takes a sip of his cappuccino, and smiles.

I catch eyes with Tim as he walks to his desk. He gives a nearly imperceptible nod. And then with ninja fluidity, he perches onto his blue exercise-ball chair, setting down his cappuccino, cracking his neck and dawning the kind of posture which would bring a tear of joy to your chiropractor’s eye, all in one cat-like motion.

Is this guy some sort of undercover Shaolin monk? Or perhaps an exiled Zen master? It could be, actually. No one really knew who he is, or where he lives, or even what he does exactly. But boy could this guy write an email.

And before you can blink, Tim has hit the spacebar to wake up his silver MacBook Pro, flicked open his inbox, and begun executing on his email hit-list. Compositions begin to dance onto his monitor. They are are concise, detailed, subjects effectively titled. His messages say only what is necessary, not a word more or less; they cut to the very essence of the situation. And above all, his discernment of whom to CC demonstrates deep insight into the very nature of the human condition.

Meanwhile, the rest of us office grunts are wallowing under the grips of full blown email anxiety. Across from my desk, Anthony, between messages, is breathing like a cross-fitter preparing to dead lift a new personal record. Eric rubs his bloodshot eyes and rests his forehead on his keyboard. Cory is headed to the men’s room to pop a couple more Adderall. And when the purchasing department throws me a curveball, I stare into the distorted reflection of myself in my stainless steel water bottle, and ponder just walking out the front door never to return.

Tim knows no road blocks. He hasn’t just understood that the obstacle is the way — he has become the way. Never have I seen such steely reserve in the face of inbox overwhelm. Once every so often, the rhythmic clicking of his keyboard falters, and I turn to watch as he looks up from his monitor and dawns a blank stare. For a moment, he peers off into the abyss, to some place far, far away in reflective silence. Eventually, he blinks, a faint grin curls his lips, and he returns to typing.

After several hours of this, Tim will stand up, crack a joke with whoever happens to be nearby, and then he will stroll out of the office for the day with the satisfaction of a job well done.

This man was living on the cutting edge of performance. He was boldly blazing a trail into the future of consciousness, bringing acute presence of mind to the clenched-gut, amphetamine riddled reality of the high-tech working world. Tim hadn’t simply achieved a healthy work-life balance, this man was balancing on the knife edge of human potential.

He had transformed the open-plan office space into a dojo, an arena for his cultivation of mastery. He was expressing the fullness of his unique character. I mean, I’m talking about unobstructed self-realization in action, right before my eyes, people.

The way I see it, if you have an office job there are two choices: surrender to a lifetime of staring at water bottles and battling the email albatross. Or become Tim.

And, as I watched this master composer of emails at work, I realized something about myself. It was one of those hard truths, which take time to admit. But I couldn’t deny the reality: that black, slim-cut North Face parka would not look good on me. No, readers, I knew in my heart that I could not, I would not, become the man I was born to be under the roof of a high-tech San Francisco design firm. I was not Tim — I had something else to offer the world. I didn’t know what that was just yet. But I did know that it involved getting the hell out of Silicon Valley.

And this is exactly what I did.