Confession time: I bought Arbitrary, Stupid Goal because I thought it was a book on productivity. There it was on Kottke. There it was on Amazon. There it was in my Kindle app.
I can be forgiven for this given that the book opens with the story of the Wolfawitz family, “who wanted to go on vacation but didn’t know where.” So they came up with the idea of “a two-week road trip driving to as many towns, parks, and counties as they could that contained their last name: Wolfpoint, Wolfville, Wolf Lake, etc. They read up and found things to do on the way to these other Wolf spots: a hotel in a railroad car, an Alpine slide, a pretzel factory, etc.” In other words: they adopted an arbitrary, stupid goal.
But: “When they came back from vacation, they felt really good. It was easily the best vacation of their lives, and they wondered why. My father says it was because the Wolfawitzes stopped trying to accomplish anything. They just put a carrot in front of them and decided the carrot wasn’t the important part but chasing it was.”
So, expecting a non-fiction book by a graphic designer on the importance of just doing something — anything — to move a project forward, I found myself transported, instead, to Greenwich Village in the 1970’s and the lives of the people who work and eat in a greasy spoon called Shopsin’s. This morning, when I finished the book, I found myself homesick for a place I’ve never been and longing to visit a neighborhood that no longer exists.
The memoir borrows structure from memory itself. One phrase links to another. A gum ball machine on a counter becomes a catalyst for a story about the neighborhood womanizer. A recipe for Thai noodles gives way to memories of a heavily-drugged John Belushi curled up under a restaurant booth. If you’ve spent a happy evening ping-ponging stories with friends — the kind of conversation where the back-and-forth exchange is more important than the structure or order of the tales being told — you’ll feel right at home with the meandering, random-but-not organization of this sweet book.
Embedded in all this, there is a sort of productivity tip: life itself is a lurching, unpredictable journey from one point to the next. So, rather than drift, pick some random, stupid, arbitrary goal — an achievement to pursue, a quest that can act as a lens for refining your vision of the world, a person to love — and, just like that, meaning emerges from the chaos.
Highlights and Lessons Learned
I admire this book’s honest, unembellished tone. Everything about the text, from the author’s vocabulary to the structure of each story, feels spontaneous and organic. There’s no pretense intended; every moment recounted here feels as unpracticed as a conversation with a friend.
As a writer, of course, I know there’s a lot of work behind prose that doesn’t feel like a lot of work. It’s good to be reminded, though, of the power of evident simplicity.