The Fountain Pen And The Firehose

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I freaked a lot of people out in law school. Especially first year…

I handwrite at the speed of molasses. Maybe because I print in all caps. Which is funny considering what that means online (#OldYeller) and how it wars with my outward facing manner.

But that’s not what this story is about.

Slothful handwriting was never an issue. Until law school. Especially. First. Year.

There’s a lot of pressure to perform the first year. It’s your one chance to “make” Law Review. An honor that opens legions of wood-paneled doors and follows you in all its arcane glory for decades. Everyone’s gunning for it. Generally, the top 10% make it. And you can only make it first year. Because once on, you’re put to work for the next two years writing and researching and editing.

Let’s add another wrinkle. Most of your first year grades are based on a single exam, given at the end of the year. One test. One day. One grade. For. An. Entire. Year.

How you perform on that day matters. And most exams are written. By hand.

Which brings us full circle to my dilemma. I have one chance to impress. And I write like a slug. But there’s actually one thing I do slower. Read.

So, here I am. Faced with a 15-page fact-pattern, followed by a single question.

“Identify all potential causes of action, argue both sides, apply all relevant rules of law and decide who wins each and why.”

Oh shit.

Minutes in, people on all sides start to write. And write. And write. Pages and pages of blue books snap over as the sound of madly-scrawling pens consumes the room.

The firehose approach to essay test-taking is, apparently, alive and well. Spray the page. Write everything you’ve ever learned. Not just during the semester, but since birth. If you came out of the womb with a priori knowledge or you’ve developed the ability to tap into alternative realms, write that, too. Screw it, it’s all points. And you need every point you can get.

Then, pray the TA grading your paper:

  1. Isn’t drunk,
  2. Has already loaded up on black coffee, and
  3. Doesn’t mind wading through a vast ocean of caca in the quest to uncover the handful of true gems that’ll land you the points needed to rock the grade.

This option isn’t open to me. I can’t do the firehose. On a technical level, I just can’t write that fast. For every four or five “blue books” my classmates amass, I can write maybe one.

So I sit. Knowing every word I write needs to be a direct hit. It needs to count. I can’t settle for a point or check mark every three pages. For me, it needs to come every three words.

Fifteen minutes pass. I sit.

Thirty minutes. Still nothing.

Not a word in my first and what would become my only blue book. I seem to stare out into oblivion. Friends see this and, I’d later learn, get a bit spooked. They think I’ve frozen. But something else is happening.

I’m in a bit of a processing trance. Synthesizing facts, arguments, laws, conclusions. Arguing both sides in my head. Applying, battling, refuting, judging and resolving. Pattern recognition consumes me. Because once I begin to write, every concept needs to be fully formed, or as close as I can come.

I can’t do the firehose. I can’t spray and pray. I have to do more of the fountain pen. Slow deliberate strokes, indelibly rendered in a single pass.

Every. Word. Must. Count.

Finally I begin to write, a solid 45-minutes to an hour after most have begun. I complete a single blue book, walk to the front of the room and turn it in 15 minutes early. From the outside looking in, this appears to confirm my friends’ assumptions. I’d lost it.

A few weeks later, I get my results. Top 10%. Law Review.

It would take me years to understand what really happened though.

My apparent “linguistic disability” forced me to function on a level of extreme value-driven hyper-efficiency. I scored points. But there was something bigger going on.

It was about respect.

People don’t want to have to work to know what you know. Tweet this.

When you force the person who you seek to serve to be pummeled by the spray of the firehose as a precursor to receiving the true nuggets of wisdom you have to share, how receptive do you think that person becomes? Contrast that with listening deeply, thinking more deeply, taking your time and then offering pre-digested, immediately-actionable tactical strikes with less frequency.

Not only is this more helpful and respectful to the recipient, it’s also more likely to keep those in a position to judge you in a state of mind that makes them not only place a higher value on your contribution, but want more. More of what you have to share. More of what you see. More of you.

This is especially true in the world in which we live today. Because, increasingly, we live and breath into a barrage of constant connection and information. A firehose world.

How do you shine in that world?

Be a source of value. But, maybe more important. Be a source of ease.


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68 responses

68 responses to “The Fountain Pen And The Firehose”

  1. Nick Reese says:

    JF — This is amazing.

    You are spot on.

    Concise and synthesized information is the clear path to winning hearts and minds, now and in the years to come.

  2. “Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?” ― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

    There are a lot of mud slingers out there. Thanks for being someone who consistently refreshes me with wisdom and clarity.

  3. Doug McDavid says:

    I agree.

    I strive to make
    every e-mail
    a business poem.

    I’m learning the coaching discipline
    to make my contribution
    with questions.

  4. C.C. Chapman says:

    Once again you inspire me with a simple twist on the reality of how we live our lives.


  5. Pamela Miles says:

    Insightful as always, Jonathan, and crowned with a dollop of self-disclosure.

    It seems to come down to the difference between self-expression (getting it out) and communication (getting it across).

    You are adept at straddling the divide, making your writing both interesting and informative, both a pleasure to read and up-lifting.

  6. Just like Susan Cain’s book QUIET, this post reminds me that who I am and how I am is valuable. Thank you dear friend. 🙂

  7. Bernardo says:


    The imagery in this post reminds me of the simplicity yet majestic power that someone like Seth Godin can command.

    Often times his short, three sentence posts have more mass and gravity than a few books on the subject. And, I have to imagine that these are the result of a lifetime of a rigorous and disciplined habit of condensing truth into its most essential and relevant forms.

    Thank you for this brave and much needed reminder.


  8. Ease. Thanks for writing this. Great wisdom, as usual!

  9. Jill Rowe says:

    Spot on Jonathan!
    I respect and appreciate this thought and need to remind myself of it when talking. In writing it’s a bit easier as I can edit as I go along (if typing). In a conversation it will serve me to listen deeply, give myself time, space and confidence to wisely and thoughtfully choose my response.

    Thanks for this wisdom!!

  10. Greg Wise says:

    Actually I am faced with that very issue today… and reading your situation has put me at ease… to go in and state what I know and if they like it… they like it… it has nothing to do with my feeling. It’s more on them to understand and except.
    Thanks Jonathon.

  11. chris hill says:

    absolutely agree. We all speed through our news feeds and such, that we now only need to hook them in early, but make sure that value is provided every step along the way, and I think those that will win will be able to communicate more efficiently and effectively than the others

  12. Josh Garofalo says:

    Your mentioning of the fountain pen led me to wonder if one would write more concisely and with better choices of words if writing those words required effort. Assuming you are simultaneously ambitious and somewhat lazy like most human beings, it would seem that the one writing with the fountain pen would be most likely to put his/her effort into communicating their point with fewer and better chosen words.

    I wonder if it’s an accident that so many of the great quotes and timeless pieces of literature seem to come before the age of computers?

  13. I was a fire hose in law school and decided against being a fire hose as a lawyer, choosing to stick with real estate instead. Beautiful description of that familiar and truly tense environment, Jonathan. Great analogy for us in any business now.

  14. elise says:

    This came at the perfect time for me. Was very engaged with how it was going to turn out in the end! Nice one.

  15. Thank you for that great blog post. You are an inspiration. It shows how we are influenced by how our creations are evaluated and we should sometimes stop and think if the evaluation is fair, and if we are fair ourselves.

  16. Karen Wright says:

    Wish I’d had this at my fingertips this morning as I was doing battle with the 16 year old who, I am now absolutely sure, processes similarly. Looking forward to a much more productive conversation this evening. Thanks, JF!

  17. Monica says:

    Wow! I needed to hear that today. Growing up in academia I did the firehose method, and I thought that was how to do business. Last year I bought my first fountain pen. Now I know why. Thanks for your amazing honesty and wisdom.

  18. Jonathan,

    This message rings so true with me. I’ve been wrestling with this very issue so your words are timely. It’s time to put down the firehose and deliver value in a more thoughtful and respectful way.

    More frequency does not equal more value.

    Thank you for the inspiration.

  19. Monica Orban says:

    Well said, well written. Thank you for shining your light on value and respect for an individual’s time.

  20. Great stuff Jonathan, thanks! Your Law Review story was awesome and helped to me to make sense of their entire message. Quality, not quantity. Less is more. Keep is simple stupid. These all seem clearer now. Thanks again, Cheers!

  21. Matt says:

    Serve your audience, don’t ask your audience to serve you. Well done, cool writeup.

    “People don’t want to have to work to know what you know.”

  22. Thanks for this. In a world of stress and busy, ‘unsubscribe’ button has been my best friend lately as I sift through the world of hype and noise and get down to what is truly meaningful to me…. ease and quiet.

  23. Matt Greener says:

    In an age where time is highly valued, respecting other’s time is highly valuable.

    When I read the title I expected something different, this was much better!

  24. David says:

    Makes me wonder… Did Jonathan write this post first with a pen?

  25. Jeff Goins says:

    I like it. For me, it’s a simple question: “Is this about me or about them?”

    My greatest moments of growth in life have always happened when it was the latter. And my greatest disappointments and failures have been when it was the former.

    • Us vs. them can usually be translated thus:
      short term gain vs. long term relationships

      It can be challenging to shoot for the long term win. But I’ve yet to see it not pan out. When will we learn? 🙂

  26. Lee says:


    I agree wholeheartedly with this post. In a world full of Top 10 lists (no, let’s make it Top 27 or something… make it stand out?) and much of the same information simply repeated or re-arranged, your projects bring tremendous clarity, guidance and wisdom.

    With Gratitude,


  27. Pidge Meade says:

    Wow. Just wow. Thank you for this.

  28. Albert Einstein said, “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”

    Thanks for the reminder, Jonathan. It serves me well in life, and work and love.


  29. Francoise says:

    well explained Jonathan.
    Your firehose picture kind of says it all at once.
    Thank you.

  30. I think it was Mark Twain who once said he needed 30 days to write 2 pages, but could give you 30 pages in 2 days. There’s a power in thoughtful brevity, but it takes work – work that most people think they don’t have time for.

    Believe me, I’ve worked with people who push for “2 pages in two days”. And while what you deliver is often passable, it’s not always the best it could have been with more deliberate thinking.

    I’ve tried to structure as much of my life as possible away from deadlines because of that. It’s not always possible, and you still need to “ship” as Godin would say, but when you can peel away the deadline and go for succinct quality (and still ship), I’ve yet to see an outcome that was WORSE than rushing to publish.

  31. This story really drew me in. At first, I was like your classmates…what’s going on here? The imagery in my head was right there with you though. I think I have an issue with being too brief, assuming that someone already knows more than me and that I ought to keep my comments short. Which can work against me. There are so many moments when another will drone on and on about an idea and I’ll be sitting there thinking, didn’t I just say that 10 minutes ago? So, “impactful” is a message I needed to hear. Thanks, JF!

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Ha, you and me both, LB! I tend to be pretty direct and sometimes think people confuse caring, but efficient with kirt and aloof.

  32. Karen Gordon says:


    This hits the target and I’ve shared with many people in my office today. Too many people in the corporate world use the firehose spray everywhere thinking / feeling it makes them seem smarter and more powerful. Instead the power of the fire hose repels those who were looking to learn something.

    Thank you!

  33. Indika says:

    Thanks for this Jonathan! Clarity and brevity seem to follow each other along… This made me reflect and want to make some changes in the way I work and write. Much appreciated.

  34. Thank You! I’ve been maintaining a commitment in my business to simplify the complicated for clients. I feel that goes against the way most consultants work. And sometimes against my own tendency to process externally or go for the quick response which is often the longest. But you validate the value of being succinct, and well thought out!

  35. Another Lee says:

    This was just what I needed today! Amazingly insightful and spot on. I am so grateful I have found your site, Jonathan. You’re so right — it’s about respect and being a source of value and a source of ease in our hyper-connected world. THANK YOU!

  36. Marti says:

    This explains a lot about you! You might just be *the* most densely packed collection of carbon in the world. A moment with you is like a moment in the sun (protected of course!) under a brilliant blue sky. Thanks for being you.

  37. Lisa says:

    Spot On! – over the years in corporate I have tussled with the notion of ‘think out loud’ so folks get to follow your logic versus ‘boil it down’ so you can be succinct in your discussions.

    At this point of my career I have to and want to make it easy for everyone – including myself. So that means closing my door and giving myself time/space to think out loud so that I can boil it down.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

  38. Nick Brown says:

    This was a really dope article.

    It was a great reminder to slow down and think through your decisions. Be deliberate!

    This is definitely something I am working on. I’m very reluctant to slow down and THINK through decisions. So much emphasis is put on launching your company in 48 hours or failing fast and cheaply that real thinking is sometimes seen as the antithesis of success.

    Again thanks for sharing!

  39. Jonathan…

    As soon as I read “blue books”, I was taken back in time to a similar situation as yours. There I sat in Theatre II, test questions in one hand, pen in the other, with the blank page of the blue book staring up at me from the desk. My fellow classmates began furiously scribbling as my pen remained limp and my armpits suddenly felt incredibly damp.

    It felt like forever just sitting there, but like you, after a few minutes of becoming clear not only about what was my answer, but how I wanted to answer it, the words began to flow. It was a long time ago in that college classroom, but I’ll never forget that feeling of utter terror at first and then relative calm as clarity and brevity took over.

    Thanks for a brilliant article and for giving me an opportunity to revisit a sweet moment in time. If I remember correctly, I got an A- on the exam.

    p.s. Despite their propensity for being messy, I’ve always loved fountain pens.

  40. Ann Stanley says:

    Brilliant. Think more. Spray less. How do I help my slow-writing students, though?

  41. Wow! You are an amazing writer – this kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time, asking myself “did he do it? what happens next?” It was a complete pleasure to write.

    I’ve always had the firehose approach in my talking (I’ve been asked if my mouth gets tired before), but recently I’ve been trying to put a little more work into trying to slow down, leave space for others, listen and make my answers more on point and less “spray and pray”. It’s been slow, hard work, but I believe in the cause so I keep doing it.

    You just gave me reason #1,256,734 why I admire you: you already do that. And it comes across in everything you do: your interviews, blog posts like this, your talks. You ponder, you prepare, and then you shoot to hit the target, not just spray around. I guess this snail-writing was a blessing for you after all!

  42. As someone who took those same law school exams (on computer, thankfully!) and who processes much more through writing than thinking things through in my head, I’ve learned the power of editing to reach the same end.

    Mark Twain said it better than I can: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

  43. Megan says:

    Thank you! Reading this took me back to my college (and school) days. I, too, am a slow reader and a slow writer. I would often be the last left in the exam room, with more than one question to finish. Sometimes I didn’t finish. But in my undergraduate degree, I and another student shared the top place in the course across two faculties. In group work, I am the one lagging as everyone seems to be belting through to “work out the answer”. If I go quiet, I can process to get the answer. I often wonder if this has something to do with an introverted/introspective operating style. A leaning to deeply process and carefully articulate so others understand? Whatever it is, I take from your message, Jonathan, that quality trumps quantity. Thanks, again.

  44. David says:

    What is delightful is that a weakness was turned into a strength. Unintentional as it was very effective. Cool.

  45. Sara Bryce says:

    In a world where vasts amounts of information abound, a reminder of the difference between information and wisdom is refreshing.
    If all we can do is regurgitate information instead of using our own creative energies to make valuable contributions, how will we ever get outside the box?
    Thanks for being uniquely you Jonathan!

  46. dangerous christian says:

    Amen! Too many of us need to be sources of ease as well as value. We need to put the fire hoses down and pick up the fountain pens. There we can give with grace; and with grace we can truly give. Peace.

  47. I know the feeling I’m very slow writer too but it does make me focus on saying what is important. I am thankful for my slow writing!

  48. Enrique Fernandez says:

    A wise and thoughtful perspective.

    As a first year, the article hits home. I now have a justification to mask my lackadaisical tendencies. Thanks, for sharing!

  49. Nancie says:

    When I was in grad school I had a TA write on a paper that I had submitted…”You write simply and elegantly.” and I aced the paper. I have always remembered his words.

  50. Thank you Jonathan. It is always a relief to find that my own slow but deep processing does not in fact indicate that I am weird, and to remember that it does not in fact put me at any disadvantage unless I let my reality and identity be defined by others.

  51. Love the post Jonathan. Makes me think twice about what I’m posting and why these days.

    How do you think this relates to the whole idea of using quantity over quality for learning purposes? Do you think the firehose has it’s place for learning? The more crappy guitars you make the better you will get. Is there a time for the firehose and a time for the fountain pen?

  52. This post is helping me tremendously in preparation for a speaking event I am both nervous and thrilled to do. My mouth can be like a firehouse when I speak and I really want to be more of the fountain pen. I aspire to word economy, leaving my audience with profound wisdom vs. a lot of useless facts. Thank you! xo

  53. Shelley says:

    Jonathan, I love this. I love how you describe and validate something of my experience as well. Deliberate, day dream, consider, design in your mind, then write.


  54. Dude,

    What you said there, about the blue books, and taking a ton of time to just sit and think while everybody else is scribbling like mad possibly just for the sake of scribbling, that was me in college. And that’s still me, just on a larger scale. Haha!

    Yes, I am definitely a fountain pen man (although I prefer a good old-fashioned number two pencil), not a firehoser.

    Amen, Jonathan, amen, Well written this one.

  55. Wan says:

    “Be a source of value. But, maybe more important. Be a source of ease.”
    Well said, Jonathan.

    I’ll take it slow like always.

  56. TC says:

    This is a great writing about being straight to the point. I love the way you turned your weakness to strength. Understanding your abilities and yourself is the first lesson you need to master.

  57. […] The fountain pen and the firehose “Be a source of value. But maybe more important, be a source of ease.” […]

  58. Scott Asai says:

    Less is more right? This has helped my style as a blogger be short and sweet. I think it’s easier to read. And the reader’s opinion counts more than mine. Thanks for this post.

  59. David Redfern says:

    I have been selling like this for years; think before approaching and make the right proposition.

    Been sacked from more sodding jobs than I care to think of.

    But I persist, cos its the right way to treat people.

  60. […] The fountain pen and the firehose “Be a source of value. But maybe more important, be a source of ease.” […]

  61. Ryan says:

    Great article! When it comes to writing less is always more. Brings back nightmares of law school. The only thing that got me through was planning. Every Sunday I’d sit down with my planner ( and block out when I was going to do everything.

  62. Shikha says:

    Dear JF

    Not only are your words easy to understand , but so are the simplified equations in which you lay out the various variables of personal and professional conundrums.
    Your linguistic limitations help you rehash concepts into phrases as easy as a nursery rhyme – a bottomline for life (sort of). So I guess I am saying it’s pretty rad to see someone able to transform their weaknesses into strengths. Keep up the ace work ! Cheers , Shikha

  63. Jim says:

    Well said. I admire your confidence and ability to recognize that limit and use it to its full advantage. You have a strength that you continue to use on GLP, and thank you for sharing that.

    I know I’m a fire-hose guy, but by throwing everything out there and then taking the time to sort through it I’m able to organize my thoughts. So, I take this as a challenge, to be more concise in my writing, and make every word that I share count.


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