A Day in the Life of Ben Lillie

Ben Lillie is a high-energy particle physicist who left the ivory tower for the wilds of New York’s theater district. He has a B.A. in physics from Reed College, a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Stanford University, and a certificate in improv comedy from the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. He is the cofounder and director of The Story Collider, where people are invited to tell stories of their personal experience of science. He is also a Moth StorySLAM champion and a former writer for TED.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenLillie.

 

Ben LillieCourtesy of Ben Lillie

Ben Lillie

 

What I’m working on:

Most of my time, of course, is spent on The Story Collider. We have people tell true, personal stories about science live on stage, then put some of those up as podcasts. That, and the fact that there’s only two of us full time, means I do a ton of different things. We find people who want to tell stories (about half are from pitches, half we solicit), help them write drafts and rehearse the live performance. We produce the live events, which mainly involves sending a metric ton of scheduling emails and then not forgetting about 20 different things the day of, writing our hosting bits, and then making sure all the right things happen at the right time. I also get to handle the accounting / web maintenance / other fun bits of a two-person nonprofit.

I have a couple side projects that are incredibly fun. I teamed up with a couple other scientists and an improv comedy group called Thank You Robot to make Science Exclamation Point. It’s an evening show with five-minute science lectures followed by improv comedy sets that draw from the talk. We did it on a lark, and it turned out to be far better and more fun than any of us hoped. Rose Eveleth and I also run Science Studio, a curated collection of the best science multimedia on the web, and it’s great finding new things for that.

I’m also getting back into a thing where I write words and then publish them just as text. TON readers may have heard of it. I think it could really take off. More seriously, I’ve been playing with ways of interleaving science and narrative, like in this essay for Jess Zimmerman’s The Archipelago, where the science isn’t actually part of the story but helps frame it and give it a different inflection. I’m working on more pieces in that vein, so stay tuned. There’s also the inevitable book-proposal developing.

Where I work:

I live in Manhattan. We don’t have an office, so I do the work from home + coffee shop + park (ok, nap) + diner + furiously take notes on my phone as something occurs to me walking down the street thing.

Two of the five desks.Ben Lillie

Two of the five desks.

At home I have what I call my five-desk system. There are five places I alternate between: a walking desk, my kitchen counter, the couch, the bed, and an actual normal perfectly ordinary desk that doesn’t even have a secret compartment in it or anything. The walking desk works for everything except sustained writing or thought. I use it a lot for replying to email or while listening to audio (something I do a lot of, reviewing stories), or sometimes reading—the Kindle desktop app with the font set very large works surprisingly well for reading while walking. While I’m actually writing I’ll use the other four, switching every half hour or so. When I’m outlining I pace up and down the apartment and scare the crap out of the cat.

Daily routine:

I wake up at 7:00 a.m. I don’t have any choice in this, and it’s proved pointless trying to sleep in after that, no matter how hard I try or party the night before. I get up, make coffee, do a quick email triage and then read the news. And by news I mean Twitter.

After that it depends wildly on what’s happening that day. I have three broad classes of days:

  • Normal workdays. I spend most of these at home, or coworking at a coffee shop with friends. This is mostly about email and (if I’m lucky) writing.
  • Meeting days. I have a lot of meetings, by phone or in person. I try to schedule as many as possible for the same day so that’s all I’m doing and other days are clear. Those days I’ll be bouncing around the city, often having a phone call as I walk from one coffee meeting to the next.
  • Show days. If there’s a show in the evening I’m pretty useless the rest of the day with nerves and anxiety. I generally distract myself with a novel and naps till 4:00 p.m., when show prep starts in earnest. Then I’m 100 percent on till everything’s over at 11:00 p.m. or so.

Most productive part of my day:

This depends a lot on what needs doing. Between 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. I often can crank through a ton of emails and administrative issues. My best writing is usually done after dinner, when the flood of emails has stopped, the cat is vainly trying to annoy birds through the window, and I can dance to Spotify like no one is judging.

Most essential ritual or habit:

I watch absurd BBC comedy shows at least once a day to reset my brain. I have no idea why (or if) this works.

Darwin’s 1837 sketch of a phylogenetic tree.

Mobile device:

iPhone. My iPhone case has the famous image of Darwin’s first drawing of a phylogenetic tree. I mention this because of the enormous number of science writers and scientists who don’t recognize it when I show them.

I will definitely buy an Apple Watch, because I’m a twerp. (See previous graf for proof.)

Computer:

MacBook Air. I also have an Apple Display I can connect it to if I want to see things bigger. I have the cheapest Chromebook that exists for taking to coffee shops and writing. Anyone could steal that thing and I wouldn’t care. Seriously, go for it.

Essential software/apps/productivity tools:

The only thing I personally couldn’t live without is Scrivener, particularly the full-screen writing mode. The amount that I’ll feel shitty about myself for escaping out of that to check Twitter is just enough to mostly keep me from doing it.

For running The Story Collider, we depend on shared Google Docs to keep track of shows and stories for the podcast. Brian, my cofounder, and I were both physicists and are used to coding and terrible interfaces, so a lot of our site runs on direct access to an SQL database and an Amazon S3 system. I do not recommend that.

I just got the Mac version of Mailbox and it’s magic. I’d been using Mailbox on my phone, but the ability to process mail quickly from my laptop keyboard, including easy keyboard shortcuts for rescheduling mail, has revolutionized how I handle the email torrent. I’ve gone from ~300 emails in my inbox most days to ~5. I had been using the Gmail web interface and Boomerang, but a few design differences can make a world of difference.

Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:

Twitter/Facebook surfing and video games. Sid Meyer’s Civilization is my Moby Dick. Related: I’ve never found time to read Moby Dick.

My reading habits:

I’m generally reading several books at once, bouncing between them. I’d blame this on social media but: a) I’ve been doing that since long before social media existed, and b) that’s bunk. For books I really want to dig into I’ll get a physical book and make time in the evening to read it. Most books I’ll read on my phone, often in whatever downtime or subway time I have.

As for the subjects, I’m always reading new science books. (I just fell in love with Michael Benson’s Cosmigraphics, a gorgeous compendium of imagery of our concepts of the universe.) Recently I’ve also been doing a deep dive into narrative structure and mythic story structure. Highly recommended: Trickster Makes This World, by Lewis Hyde.

Novels are completely different. I’ll “read” one at a time, almost always as an audiobook.

Sleep schedule:

As I mentioned, I wake up at 7:00 a.m. Every. Single. Damn. Grghghgeriphghgh. Day.

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