Young Isaac Asimov was obsessed with words.

As a preschooler in 1920s New York, his immigrant parents could not read English. He asked older kids on the block to teach him the alphabet and the sound of each letter. He wandered around, sounding out words on signs and everywhere else. He soon taught himself to read - and then he ran into a problem.

Once I could read, and as my ability to read improved rapidly, there turned out to be a serious problem. I had nothing to read. My schoolbooks lasted me just a few days. I finished every one of them in the course of the first week of the term and thereafter was educated for that half year. The teacher had very little to tell me. [...]

What to do? My father got me a library card and, periodically, my mother would take me to the library. [...] My father assumed that any book that was in a public library was suitable reading and so he made no attempt to supervise the books I took out. And I, without guidance, sampled everything.

I. Asimov by Isaac Asimov, pg. 23-24

And he did sample everything - from several libraries. Greek mythology, Shakespeare, Dickens - and eventually, fiction led to nonfiction. Asimov would later credit this eclectic reading with providing the foundation for his prolific writing career. However, he was also influenced by 'literature' of a rather different sort.

The year was 1929 - during the depths of the great depression - and nine-year-old Isaac Asimov was stuck working in his father's candy store. Nineteen hours a day, from 6 A.M. to 1 A.M., the store was nearly always open - weekends and holidays included. But Isaac knew better than to complain; their family got by, which is more than could be said for many during the depression. How did the long hours and hard work affect him? Isaac recalls,

On the adverse side of the ledger, they cut down my free time to virtually nothing. They wiped out any hopes of a social life even during my teenage years, and in the time when I might have discovered women, I could only do so from afar. [...] Yet I didn't resent it.

I. Asimov by Isaac Asimov, pg. 37

Why didn't he resent it? This was before the days of television, and people searching for what Asimov called "trash food for the mind" turned to fictional stories in magazines. High-class magazines - referred to as "slick magazines" - were printed on quality paper with smooth, neatly-trimmed edges. By contrast, cheaper publications were printed on rough paper, and were called "pulps". The candy store carried pulps.

From superheroes to westerns, from sports to science fiction, each magazine had a specialty. Isaac's father considered them 'trash' and preferred that his son only read 'proper' books. But he eventually relented, and Isaac would read each one carefully and place it back on the stands, seemingly untouched and ready for purchase.

These magazines influenced his writing and inspired the start of his career - he would go on to sell stories to some of the same magazines he enjoyed as a child.

More importantly, however, reading pulp fiction made the long hours of work pleasant, and this association instilled a strong work ethic that would later enable his prodigious writing output.

I have kept the candy-store hours all my life. I wake at five in the morning. I get to work as early as I can. I work as long as I can. I do this every day in the week, including holidays. I don't take vacations voluntarily and I try to do my work even when I'm on vacation. (And even when I'm in the hospital.) [...]

I can only say that there were certain advantages offered by the candy store that had nothing to do with mere survival, but, rather, with overflowing happiness, and that this was so associated with the long hours as to make them sweet to me and to fix them upon me for all my life.

I. Asimov by Isaac Asimov, pg. 38

Asimov went on to write or edit over 500 books, becoming one of the best known science fiction writers of his time.

In his book Atomic Habits, author James Clear refers to this type of association as "Temptation Bundling." He explains,

Temptation bundling is one way to apply a psychology theory known as Premack's Principle. Named after the work of professor David Premack, the principle states that "more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors." In other words, even if you don't really want to process overdue work emails, you'll become conditioned to do it if it means you get to do something you really want to do along the way.

Atomic Habits by James Clear, pg. 109

By combining the pleasure of the pulp magazines with the work of the candy store, Asimov was conditioning himself to put in the long hours needed to produce his writing projects. You can use temptation bundling too - just choose a habit that you would like to make part of your identity, and then find something you already enjoy to associate with it. Who knows - you may even become the next Isaac Asimov!

Young John Boyd was fascinated by airplanes. During the third grade, he drew sleek, futuristic planes in his schoolbooks, and then stared at them with a strange fixation. A fellow student later remarked, "I'd swear he was flying that airplane."

John Boyd

This sense of focus became more apparent as time progressed. Sometimes he would go into a trance - staring intently in space, unconscious of those around him - as he came up with an idea about aerial tactics or aerodynamics. He would then go around talking excitedly to anyone who would listen. When Boyd started smoking cigars, he became a fire hazard - gesticulating wildly, he would punctuate his points with jabs of his cigar. He once burned a hole in a general's tie.

Boyd had tremendous stamina when his mind was engaged. Fueled by dozens of candy bars and about ten cups of coffee a day - 'smart juice,' he called it - Boyd would work eighteen- and twenty-hour days. He read book after book, seeking some nugget of information that would help his research.

Sometimes he read too much. While technically present at the hospital when his fifth daughter was born, Boyd remained in the hallway - bent over his books.

He learned by talking - a lot. Boyd's close friends would receive phone calls at all hours of the night. The first was Vernon Spradling, Boyd's boss at Nellis Air Force Base.

"Spradling residence."

"Sprad? John."

"Hey, John. What is it?"

"Sprad, I've had a breakthrough."

"What time is it?"

"Sprad, remember that equation I was telling you about this morning?"

"John, tomorrow might be a better - "

"Now I know what was missing. I figured it out."

And off he would go for an hour or two talking about a calculus equation, ignoring all Spradling's efforts to postpone the conversation. Spradling's contribution was an occasional grunt or noncommital "Uh-huh." Initially he thought that if he didn't respond to Boyd's conversation, Boyd would hang up. But after several months of these late-night calls, Spradling realized that Boyd did not want a conversation; Boyd simply wanted to talk. He talked to learn: as he went through his monologues, his thoughts bounced around, various theses were tried and rejected until finally he had gained a better understanding of whatever it was that was on his mind. After an hour or two, Boyd would say, "Thanks for helping me out, Sprad. You've been a big help." And he would hang up.

Another friend, Tom Christie, knew how persistent Boyd could be. These phone calls could last for most of the night, much to the annoyance of Christie's wife. One night, he decided not to answer - and listened in amazement as the phone kept ringing for 32 minutes.

Pierre Sprey came up with a name for these late-night interruptions:

"Sprey referred to these calls as the 'pain' and said they were the price of admission for Boyd's friendship. One weekend Christie and Spinney and Burton were out of town and Boyd spent much of Friday and Saturday night on the phone with Sprey. On Monday, Sprey called the others to complain about their leaving town at the same time."

Why would Spradling, Christie, Sprey, and others put up with this annoyance? After all, their friendship was not risk-free - affiliation with a man as polarizing as Boyd could hinder any hope of significant career advancement.

Part of the reason may lie in a speech that he often gave later in his career - his "To Be or to Do" speech. Ray Leopold - at the time a young captain at the Pentagon - is the first person known to have heard this speech from Boyd.

"Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road," he said. "And you're going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go." He raised his hand and pointed. "If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments." Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction. "Or you can go that way and you can do something - something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won't have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference." He paused and stared into Leopold's eyes and heart. "To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That's when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?"

Boyd challenged them to do something - to make a difference. He challenged them - not just their patience, but intellectually. When he called late at night to talk about some new book he discovered, they bought and read it too. They helped him clarify his thinking, and opened up new areas for him to explore. In doing this, they contributed directly to his discoveries. Boyd's great achievements - Energy-Maneuverability Theory, Patterns of Conflict, the OODA Loop - all these belonged as much to them as Boyd. By helping Boyd, they could do something.

Today, will you be somebody, or do something?

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