Tag Archives: Maria Popova

What Everybody Needs

What Everybody Needs

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“The more personal you are willing to be and the more intimate you are willing to be about the details of your own life, the more universal you are.”

“In 1994, Sherwin Nuland (1930–2014) — a remarkable surgeon and Yale clinical professor who in his nearly four decades of practice cared, truly cared, for more than 10,000 patients — received the National Book Award for his humanistic masterwork How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter (public library), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize that year. It is one of the most existentially elevating books I’ve ever read — an inquiry as much into how we exit this life as into how we fill its living moments with meaning, integrity and, ultimately, happiness. Four years later, Nuland followed up with How We Live (public library), addressing the art of aliveness — that spectacular resilience of which the human body and mind are capable — with equal wisdom and warmth.

Shortly after Nuland’s death in the spring of 2014, Krista Tippett — host of the sublime public radio show On Being and enchantress of the human spirit through the communion of conversation — shared her talk with Nuland, recorded several years earlier. The entire episode is absolutely fantastic, but one particular passage both illuminates the heart of Nuland’s legacy and articulates beautifully an essential, elemental truth — the same one at which Tolstoy and Gandhi arrived — that we, both as individuals and as a civilization, so easily let ourselves forget:

Do you know what I learned from writing [How We Die], if I learned nothing else? The more personal you are willing to be and the more intimate you are willing to be about the details of your own life, the more universal you are… And when I say universal, I don’t mean universal only within our culture… There’s a lot of balderdash thrown around — “You don’t understand people who live in Sri Lanka and their response to the tsunami because you just don’t know that culture.”

Well, there’s an element of that — but, to me, cultural differences are a kind of patina over the deepest psychosexual feelings that we have, that all human beings share.

To illustrate the inextricable connectedness of these deeper human truths, Nuland turns to a maxim that scholars attribute to the first-century Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a great burden.” The phrase, the spirit of which Lucinda Williams echoed in her sublime paean to compassion, appears in the epitaph of Nuland’s excellent memoir of his father, Lost in America. He tells Tippett:

When you recognize that pain — and response to pain — is a universal thing, it helps explain so many things about others, just as it explains so much about yourself. It teaches you forbearance. It teaches you a moderation in your responses to other people’s behavior. It teaches you a sort of understanding. It essentially tells you what everybody needs. You know what everybody needs? You want to put it in a single word?

Everybody needs to be understood.

And out of that comes every form of love.

If someone truly feels that you understand them, an awful lot of neurotic behavior just disappears — disappears on your part, disappears on their part. So if you’re talking about what motivates this world to continue existing as a community, you’ve got to talk about love… And my argument is it comes out of your biology because on some level we understand all of this. We put it into religious forms. It’s almost like an excuse to deny our biology. We put it into pithy, sententious aphorisms, but it’s really coming out of our deepest physiological nature.

Listen to the full episode of On Being below and be sure to subscribe to this ennobling gift Krista Tippett puts into the world, then treat yourself to Nuland’s indispensable How We Live and How We Die. Dive deeper into the latter here.”

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Bukowski’s Letter of Gratitude to the Man Who Helped Him Quit His Soul-Sucking Job and Become a Full-Time Writer

Bukowski’s Letter of Gratitude to the Man Who Helped Him Quit His Soul-Sucking Job and Become a Full-Time Writer

“…They call it “9 to 5.” It’s never 9 to 5, there’s no free lunch break at those places, in fact, at many of them in order to keep your job you don’t take lunch. Then there’s overtime and the books never seem to get the overtime right and if you complain about that, there’s another sucker to take your place.

You know my old saying, “Slavery was never abolished, it was only extended to include all the colors.”

And what hurts is the steadily diminishing humanity of those fighting to hold jobs they don’t want but fear the alternative worse. People simply empty out. They are bodies with fearful and obedient minds. The color leaves the eye. The voice becomes ugly. And the body. The hair. The fingernails. The shoes. Everything does.

As a young man I could not believe that people could give their lives over to those conditions. As an old man, I still can’t believe it. What do they do it for? Sex? TV? An automobile on monthly payments? Or children? Children who are just going to do the same things that they did?

Early on, when I was quite young and going from job to job I was foolish enough to sometimes speak to my fellow workers: “Hey, the boss can come in here at any moment and lay all of us off, just like that, don’t you realize that?”

They would just look at me. I was posing something that they didn’t want to enter their minds.

Now in industry, there are vast layoffs (steel mills dead, technical changes in other factors of the work place). They are layed off by the hundreds of thousands and their faces are stunned:

“I put in 35 years…”

“It ain’t right…”

“I don’t know what to do…”

They never pay the slaves enough so they can get free, just enough so they can stay alive and come back to work. I could see all this. Why couldn’t they? I figured the park bench was just as good or being a barfly was just as good. Why not get there first before they put me there? Why wait?

I just wrote in disgust against it all, it was a relief to get the shit out of my system. And now that I’m here, a so-called professional writer, after giving the first 50 years away, I’ve found out that there are other disgusts beyond the system.

I remember once, working as a packer in this lighting fixture company, one of the packers suddenly said: “I’ll never be free!”

One of the bosses was walking by (his name was Morrie) and he let out this delicious cackle of a laugh, enjoying the fact that this fellow was trapped for life…”

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How Our Delusions Keep Us Sane: The Psychology of Our Essential Self-Enhancement Bias

How Our Delusions Keep Us Sane: The Psychology of Our Essential Self-Enhancement Bias

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Rethinking the Placebo Effect: How Our Minds Actually Affect Our Bodies

 

“In 2013, Neil deGrasse Tyson hosted a mind-bending debate on the nature of “nothing” – an inquiry that has occupied thinkers since the dawn of recorded thought and permeates everything from Hamlet’s iconic question to the boldest frontiers of quantum physics. That’s precisely what New Scientist editor-in-chief Jeremy Webb explores with a kaleidoscopic lens in Nothing: Surprising Insights Everywhere from Zero to Oblivion(public library) – a terrific collection of essays and articles exploring everything from vacuum to the birth and death of the universe to how the concept of zero gained wide acceptance in the 17th century after being shunned as a dangerous innovation for 400 years. As Webb elegantly puts it, “nothing becomes a lens through which we can explore the universe around us and even what it is to be human. It reveals past attitudes and present thinking.”

Among the most intensely interesting pieces in the collection is one by science journalist Jo Marchant, who penned the fascinating story of the world’s oldest analog computer. Titled “Heal Thyself,” the piece explores how the way we think about medical treatments shapes their very real, very physical effects on our bodies – an almost Gandhi-like proposition, except rooted in science rather than philosophy. Specifically, Marchant brings to light a striking new dimension of the placebo effect that runs counter to how the phenomenon has been conventionally explained. She writes:

It has always been assumed that the placebo effect only works if people are conned into believing that they are getting an actual active drug. But now it seems this may not be true. Belief in the placebo effect itself – rather than a particular drug – might be enough to encourage our bodies to heal.

She cites a recent study at the Harvard Medical School, in which people with irritable bowel syndrome were given a placebo and informed that the pills were “made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes.” As Marchant notes, this is absolutely true, in a meta kind of way. What the researchers found was startling in its implications for medicine, philosophy, and spirituality – despite being aware they were taking placebos, the participants rated their symptoms as “moderately improved” on average. In other words, they knew what they were taking wasn’t a drug – it was a medical “nothing” – but the very consciousness of taking something made them experience fewer symptoms.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from The Lion and the Bird

This dovetails into recent research confirming what Helen Keller fervently believed by putting some serious science behind the value of optimism. Marchant sums up the findings:

Realism can be bad for your health. Optimists recover better from medical procedures such as coronary bypass surgery, have healthier immune systems and live longer, both in general and when suffering from conditions such as cancer, heart disease and kidney failure.

It is well accepted that negative thoughts and anxiety can make us ill. Stress – the belief that we are at risk – triggers physiological pathways such as the “fight-or-flight” response, mediated by the sympathetic nervous system. These have evolved to protect us from danger, but if switched on long-term they increase the risk of conditions such as diabetes and dementia.

What researchers are now realizing is that positive beliefs don’t just work by quelling stress. They have a positive effect too – feeling safe and secure, or believing things will turn out fine, seems to help the body maintain and repair itself… Optimism seems to reduce stress-induced inflammation and levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. It may also reduce susceptibility to disease by dampening sympathetic nervous system activity and stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. The latter governs what’s called the “rest-and-digest” response – the opposite of fight-or-flight.

Just as helpful as taking a rosy view of the future is having a rosy view of yourself. High “self-enhancers” – people who see themselves in a more positive light than others see them – have lower cardiovascular responses to stress and recover faster, as well as lower baseline cortisol levels.

Marchant notes that it’s as beneficial to amplify the world’s perceived positivity as it is to amplify our own – something known as our “self-enhancement bias,” a type of self-delusion that helps keep us sane. But the same applies to our attitudes toward others as well – they too can impact our physical health. She cites University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, who has dedicated his career to studying how social isolation affects individuals. Though solitude might be essential for great writing, being alone a special form of art, and single living the defining modality of our time, loneliness is a different thing altogether – a thing Cacioppo found to be toxic:

Being lonely increases the risk of everything from heart attacks to dementia, depression and death, whereas people who are satisfied with their social lives sleep better, age more slowly and respond better to vaccines. The effect is so strong that curing loneliness is as good for your health as giving up smoking.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from The Lion and the Bird

Marchant quotes another researcher, Charles Raison at Atlanta’s Emory University, who studies mind–body interactions:

It’s probably the single most powerful behavioral finding in the world… People who have rich social lives and warm, open relationships don’t get sick and they live longer.

Marchant points to specific research by Cacioppo, who found that “in lonely people, genes involved in cortisol signaling and the inflammatory response were up-regulated, and that immune cells important in fighting bacteria were more active, too.” Marchant explains the findings and the essential caveat to them:

[Cacioppo] suggests that our bodies may have evolved so that in situations of perceived social isolation, they trigger branches of the immune system involved in wound healing and bacterial infection. An isolated person would be at greater risk of physical trauma, whereas being in a group might favor the immune responses necessary for fighting viruses, which spread easily between people in close contact.

Crucially, these differences relate most strongly to how lonely people think they are, rather than to the actual size of their social network. That also makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, says Cacioppo, because being among hostile strangers can be just as dangerous as being alone. So ending loneliness is not about spending more time with people. Cacioppo thinks it is all about our attitude to others: lonely people become overly sensitive to social threats and come to see others as potentially dangerous. In a review of previous studies … he found that tackling this attitude reduced loneliness more effectively than giving people more opportunities for interaction, or teaching social skills.

Illustration by André François for Little Boy Brown, a lovely vintage ode to childhood and loneliness

Paradoxically, science suggests that one of the most important interventions to offer benefits that counter the ill effects of loneliness has to do with solitude – or, more precisely, regimented solitude in the form of meditation. Marchant notes that trials on the effects of meditation have been small – something I find troublesomely emblematic of the short-sightedness with which we approach mental health as we continue to prioritize the physical in both our clinical subsidies and our everyday lives (how many people have a workout routine compared to those with a meditation practice?); even within the study of mental health, the vast majority of medical research focuses on the effects of a physical substance – a drug of some sort – on the mind, with very little effort directed at understanding the effects of the mind on the physical body.

Still, the modest body of research on meditation is heartening. Marchant writes:

There is some evidence that meditation boosts the immune response in vaccine recipients and people with cancer, protects against a relapse in major depression, soothes skin conditions and even slows the progression of HIV. Meditation might even slow the aging process. Telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes, get shorter every time a cell divides and so play a role in aging. Clifford Saron of the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, and colleagues showed in 2011 that levels of an enzyme that builds up telomeres were higher in people who attended a three-month meditation retreat than in a control group.

As with social interaction, meditation probably works largely by influencing stress response pathways. People who meditate have lower cortisol levels, and one study showed they have changes in their amygdala, a brain area involved in fear and the response to threat.

If you’re intimidated by the time investment, take heart – fMRI studies show that as little as 11 hours of total training, or an hour every other day for three weeks, can produce structural changes in the brain. If you’re considering dipping your toes in the practice, I wholeheartedly recommend meditation teacher Tara Brach, who has changed my life.

But perhaps the most striking finding in exploring how our beliefs affect our bodies has to do with finding your purpose and, more than that, finding meaning in life. The most prominent studies in the field have defined purpose rather narrowly, as religious belief, but even so, the findings offer an undeniably intriguing signpost to further exploration. Marchant synthesizes the research, its criticism, and its broader implications:

In a study of 50 people with advanced lung cancer, those judged by their doctors to have high “spiritual faith” responded better to chemotherapy and survived longer. More than 40 percent were still alive after three years, compared with less than 10 percent of those judged to have little faith. Are your hackles rising? You’re not alone. Of all the research into the healing potential of thoughts and beliefs, studies into the effects of religion are the most controversial.

Critics of these studies … point out that many of them don’t adequately tease out other factors. For instance, religious people often have lower-risk lifestyles and churchgoers tend to enjoy strong social support, and seriously ill people are less likely to attend church.

[…]

Others think that what really matters is having a sense of purpose in life, whatever it might be. Having an idea of why you are here and what is important increases our sense of control over events, rendering them less stressful. In Saron’s three-month meditation study, the increase in levels of the enzyme that repairs telomeres correlated with an increased sense of control and an increased sense of purpose in life. In fact, Saron argues, this psychological shift may have been more important than the meditation itself. He points out that the participants were already keen meditators, so the study gave them the chance to spend three months doing something important to them. Spending more time doing what you love, whether it’s gardening or voluntary work, might have a similar effect on health. The big news from the study, Saron says, is “the profound impact of having the opportunity to live your life in a way that you find meaningful.”

Philosopher Daniel Dennett was right all along in asserting that the secret of happiness is to “find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.”

Each of the essays in Nothing: Surprising Insights Everywhere from Zero to Oblivion is nothing short of fascinating. Complement them with theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss on the science of “something” and “nothing.”

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June 30, 2014 · 6:51 pm

Alan Watts on Money vs. Wealth

I started by quoting sections of the article and then halfway through I realized I was quoting every other paragraph, so here’s the whole article:

 

“by 

“The moral challenge and the grim problem we face is that the life of affluence and pleasure requires exact discipline and high imagination.”

“What would you do if money was no object?”pioneering British philosopher Alan Watts, who popularized Zen teachings in the West, asked inone of his most memorable lectures. And yet, despite our best efforts not to worry about it, money is an object — so much so that it renders the question all the more urgent and pressing today, in our age of growing corporate greed coupled with increasing income inequality. Watts revisits the issue in greater depth in an essay titled “Wealth Versus Money,” found in the altogether fantastic 1970 anthology Does It Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality(public library) — a poignant exploration of our tendency to confuse money with wealth, a manifestation of our more general inclination to mistake symbol for reality, which Watts considers “the peculiar and perhaps fatal fallacy of civilization.”

Watts writes:

Civilization, comprising all the achievements of art and science, technology and industry, is the result of man’s invention and manipulation of symbols — of words, letters, numbers, formulas and concepts, and of such social institutions as universally accepted clocks and rulers, scales and timetables, schedules and laws. By these means, we measure, predict, and control the behavior of the human and natural worlds — and with such startling apparent success that the trick goes to our heads. All too easily, we confuse the world as we symbolize it with the world as it is.

 

Alan Watts, early 1970s (Image courtesy of Everett Collection)

 

Among our most toxic symbol-as-reality tricks springs from the concept, use, and pursuit of money:

Money is a way of measuring wealth but is not wealth in itself. A chest of gold coins or a fat wallet of bills is of no use whatsoever to a wrecked sailor alone on a raft. He needs real wealth, in the form of a fishing rod, a compass, an outboard motor with gas, and a female companion. But this ingrained and archaic confusion of money with wealth is now the main reason we are not going ahead full tilt with the development of our technological genius for the production of more than adequate food, clothing, housing, and utilities for every person on earth.

Watts goes on to make a prediction — idealistic at the time, bittersweetly naive in retrospect — that “if we get our heads straight about money,” by the year 2000 “no one will pay taxes, no one will carry cash, utilities will be free, and everyone will carry a general credit card.” It’s worth noting that while some of it came true, and some might soon as we shift away from traditional currency, we have simply replaced one monetary currency with another, rather than evolving to embody Watts’s vision of redefining wealth altogether. He returns to the vital distinction:

Money is a measure of wealth, and we invent money as we invent the Fahrenheit scale of temperature or the avoirdupois measure of weight… By contrast with money, true wealth is the sum of energy, technical intelligence, and raw materials.

Considering the question of the national debt — “a roundabout piece of semantic obscurantism” — Watts argues that we go into debt, as individuals and as nations, precisely because we confuse money with wealth, the worst symptom of which is war:

No one goes into debt except in emergency; and therefore, prosperity depends on maintaining the perpetual emergency of war. We are reduced, then, to the suicidal expedient of inventing wars when, instead, we could simply have invented money — provided that the amount invented was always proportionate to the real wealth being produced…

If we shift from the gold standard to the wealth standard, prices must stay more or less where they are at the time of the shift and — miraculously — everyone will discover that he has enough or more than enough to wear, eat, drink, and otherwise survive with affluence and merriment.

 

Illustration from ‘How People Earn and Use Money,’ 1968. Click image for details.

 

And yet, Watts recognizes, there is enormous cultural resistance to such an awareness, one reinforced by our material monoculture:

It is not going to be at all easy to explain this to the world at large, because mankind has existed for perhaps one million years with relative material scarcity, and it is now roughly a mere one hundred years since the beginning of the industrial revolution. As it was once very difficult to persuade people that the earth is round and that it is in orbit around the sun, or to make it clear that the universe exists in a curved space-time continuum, it may be just as hard to get it through to “common sense” that the virtues of making and saving money are obsolete.

Understanding the distinction between money and wealth, Watts argues, would help us realize that “there are limits to the real wealth that any individual can consume” — that we can’t really “drive four cars at once, live simultaneously in six homes, take three tours at the same time, or devour twelve roasts of beef at one meal.” Acknowledging the semi-serious facetiousness of this picture, he writes:

I am trying to make the deadly serious point that, as of today, an economic utopia is not wishful thinking but, in some substantial degree, the necessary alternative to self-destruction.

The moral challenge and the grim problem we face is that the life of affluence and pleasure requires exact discipline and high imagination.

 

Illustration from ‘How People Earn and Use Money,’ 1968. Click image for details.

 

Reflecting on how easily we become habituated to comfort, affluence, and pleasure, Watts echoes Bertrand Russell’s lament — “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?” — and notes:

Affluent people in the United States have seldom shown much imagination in cultivating the arts of pleasure.

He paints an alternative picture for cultivating the art of leisure in its proper form — an idea glimmers of which we begin to see in the groundswell of today’s maker culture:

A leisure economy will provide opportunity to develop the frustrated craftsman, painter, sculptor, poet, composer, yachtsman, explorer, or potter that is in us all — if only we could earn a living that way. Certainly, there will be a plethora of bad and indifferent productions from so many unleashed amateurs, but the general long-term effect should be a tremendous enrichment of the quality and variety of fine art, music, food, furniture, clothing, gardens, and even homes — created largely on a do-it-yourself basis.

And yet what prevents us from truly cultivating such an economy is a fundamental disconnect. He admonishes:

Here’s the nub of the problem. We cannot proceed with a fully productive technology if it must inevitably Los Angelesize the whole earth, poison the elements, destroy all wildlife, and sicken the bloodstream with the promiscuous use of antibiotics and insecticides. Yet this will be the certain result of the technological enterprise conducted in the hostile spirit of a conquest of nature with the main object of making money.

 

Illustration from ‘How People Earn and Use Money,’ 1968. Click image for details.

 

While this problem has been tragically exacerbated since Watts’s day, it’s worth remembering that our choices — our individual, everyday choices — matter. But equally important, Watts points out, are the choices made by those who hold power in the world, both commercial and political. Noting that “many corporations — and even more so their shareholders — are unbelievably blind to their own material interests,” Watts writes:

It is an oversimplification to say that this is the result of business valuing profit rather than product, for no one should be expected to do business without the incentive of profit. The actual trouble is that profit is identified entirely with money, as distinct from the real profit of living with dignity and elegance in beautiful surroundings…

To try to correct this irresponsibility by passing laws (e.g., against absentee ownership) would be wide of the point, for most of the law has as little relation to life as money to wealth. On the contrary, problems of this kind are aggravated rather than solved by the paperwork of politics and law. What is necessary is at once simpler and more difficult: only that financiers, bankers, and stockholders must turn themselves into real people and ask themselves exactly what they want out of life — in the realization that this strictly practical and hard–nosed question might lead to far more delightful styles of living than those they now pursue. Quite simply and literally, they must come to their senses — for their own personal profit and pleasure.

What it takes to return to our senses, Watts argues, is to reconsider our illusion of the separate ego and acknowledge our interconnectedness with the world in all its material and metaphysical manifestations:

Coming to our senses must, above all, be the experience of our own existence as living organisms rather than “personalities,” like characters in a play or a novel acting out some artificial plot in which the persons are simply masks for a conflict of abstract ideas or principles. Man as an organism is to the world outside like a whirlpool is to a river: man and world are a single natural process, but we are behaving as if we were invaders and plunderers in a foreign territory. For when the individual is defined and felt as the separate personality or ego, he remains unaware that his actual body is a dancing pattern of energy that simply does not happen by itself. It happens only in concert with myriads of other patterns — called animals, plants, insects, bacteria, minerals, liquids, and gases. The definition of a person and the normal feeling of “I” do not effectively include these relationships. You say, “I came into this world.” You didn’t; you came out of it, as a branch from a tree.

It all comes full circle as we begin to see that this notion of the artificial ego is at the root of our mistaking money for wealth and symbol for reality:

The greatest illusion of the abstract ego is that it can do anything to bring about radical improvement either in itself or in the world. This is as impossible, physically, as trying to lift yourself off the floor by your own bootstraps. Furthermore, the ego is (like money) a concept, a symbol, even a delusion — not a biological process or physical reality.

Does It Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality is a wonderful and soul-expanding read in its entirety. Complement it with Watts on happiness and how to live with presenceour media gluttony, and how the ego keeps us from becoming who we really are.”

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June 6, 2014 · 4:53 pm

How To Be a Nonconformist: 22 Irreverent Illustrated Steps to Counterculture Cred from 1968

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May 28, 2014 · 5:50 pm

The Backfire Effect: The Psychology of Why We Have a Hard Time Changing Our Minds

by 

“How the disconnect between information and insight explains our dangerous self-righteousness.

On the internet, a giant filter bubble of our existing beliefs, this can run even more rampant — we see such horrible strains of misinformation as climate change denial and antivaccination activism gather momentum by selectively seeking out “evidence” while dismissing the fact that every reputable scientist in the world disagrees with such beliefs. (In fact, the epidemic of misinformation has reached such height that we’re now facing a resurgence of once-eradicated diseases.)

“In disputes upon moral or scientific points, ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”

McRaney traces the crushing psychological effect of trolling – something that takes an active effort to fight – back to its evolutionary roots:

Have you ever noticed the peculiar tendency you have to let praise pass through you, but to feel crushed by criticism? A thousand positive remarks can slip by unnoticed, but one “you suck” can linger in your head for days. One hypothesis as to why this and the backfire effect happen is that you spend much more time considering information you disagree with than you do information you accept. Information that lines up with what you already believe passes through the mind like a vapor, but when you come across something that threatens your beliefs, something that conflicts with your preconceived notions of how the world works, you seize up and take notice. Some psychologists speculate there is an evolutionary explanation. Your ancestors paid more attention and spent more time thinking about negative stimuli than positive because bad things required a response. Those who failed to address negative stimuli failed to keep breathing….”

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May 20, 2014 · 6:28 pm

The Pace of Productivity and How to Master Your Creative Routine

by 

““When you work regularly, inspiration strikes regularly.”

We seem to have a strange but all too human cultural fixation on the daily routines and daily rituals of famous creators, from Vonnegut toBurroughs to Darwin — as if a glimpse of their day-to-day would somehow magically infuse ours with equal potency, or replicating it would allow us to replicate their genius in turn. And though much of this is mere cultural voyeurism, there is something to be said for the value of a well-engineered daily routine to anchor the creative process. Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind (public library), edited by Behance’s 99U editor-in-chief Jocelyn Glei and featuring contributions from a twenty of today’s most celebrated thinkers and doers, delves into the secrets of this holy grail of creativity.

Reflecting Thomas Edison’s oft-cited proclamation that “genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration,” after which 99U is named, the crucial importance of consistent application is a running theme. (Though I prefer to paraphrase Edison to “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent aspiration” — since true aspiration produces effort that feels gratifying rather than merely grueling, enhancing the grit of perspiration with the gift of gratification.)

In the foreword to the book, Behance founder Scott Belsky, author of the indispensable Making Ideas Happen, points to “reactionary workflow” — our tendency to respond to requests and other stimuli rather than create meaningful work — as today’s biggest problem and propounds a call to arms:

It’s time to stop blaming our surroundings and start taking responsibility. While no workplace is perfect, it turns out that our gravest challenges are a lot more primal and personal. Our individual practices ultimately determine what we do and how well we do it. Specifically, it’s our routine (or lack thereof), our capacity to work proactively rather than reactively, and our ability to systematically optimize our work habits over time that determine our ability to make ideas happen.

[…]

Only by taking charge of your day-to-day can you truly make an impact in what matters most to you. I urge you to build a better routine by stepping outside of it, find your focus by rising above the constant cacophony, and sharpen your creative prowess by analyzing what really matters most when it comes to making your ideas happen.

One of the book’s strongest insights comes from Gretchen Rubin — author ofThe Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun, one of these7 essential books on the art and science of happiness, titled after her fantasticblog of the same name — who points to frequency as the key to creative accomplishment:

We tend to overestimate what we can do in a short period, and underestimate what we can do over a long period, provided we work slowly and consistently. Anthony Trollope, the nineteenth-century writer who managed to be a prolific novelist while also revolutionizing the British postal system, observed, “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.” Over the long run, the unglamorous habit of frequency fosters both productivity and creativity.

Frequency, she argues, helps facilitate what Arthur Koestler has famously termed “bisociation” — the crucial ability to link the seemingly unlinkable, which is the defining characteristic of the creative mind. Rubin writes:

You’re much more likely to spot surprising relationships and to see fresh connections among ideas, if your mind is constantly humming with issues related to your work. When I’m deep in a project, everything I experience seems to relate to it in a way that’s absolutely exhilarating. The entire world becomes more interesting. That’s critical, because I have a voracious need for material, and as I become hyperaware of potential fodder, ideas pour in. By contrast, working sporadically makes it hard to keep your focus. It’s easy to become blocked, confused, or distracted, or to forget what you were aiming to accomplish.

[…]

Creativity arises from a constant churn of ideas, and one of the easiest ways to encourage that fertile froth is to keep your mind engaged with your project. When you work regularly, inspiration strikes regularly.

Echoing Alexander Graham Bell, who memorably wrote that “it is the man who carefully advances step by step … who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree,” and Virginia Woolf, who extolled the creative benefits of keeping a diary, Rubin writes:

Step by step, you make your way forward. That’s why practices such as daily writing exercises or keeping a daily blog can be so helpful. You see yourself do the work, which shows you that you can do the work. Progress is reassuring and inspiring; panic and then despair set in when you find yourself getting nothing done day after day. One of the painful ironies of work life is that the anxiety of procrastination often makes people even less likely to buckle down in the future.

Riffing on wisdom from her latest book, Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life, Rubin offers:

I have a long list of “Secrets of Adulthood,” the lessons I’ve learned as I’ve grown up, such as: “It’s the task that’s never started that’s more tiresome,” “The days are long, but the years are short,” and “Always leave plenty of room in the suitcase.” One of my most helpful Secrets is, “What I do every day matters more than what I do once in a while.”

With a sentiment reminiscent of William James’s timeless words on habit, she concludes:

Day by day, we build our lives, and day by day, we can take steps toward making real the magnificent creations of our imaginations.

Entrepreneurship guru and culture-sage Seth Godin seconds Rubin and admonishes against confusing vacant ritualization with creative rituals that actually spur productivity:

Everybody who does creative work has figured out how to deal with their own demons to get their work done. There is no evidence that setting up your easel like Van Gogh makes you paint better. Tactics are idiosyncratic. But strategies are universal, and there are a lot of talented folks who are not succeeding the way they want to because their strategies are broken.

The strategy is simple, I think. The strategy is to have a practice, and what it means to have a practice is to regularly and reliably do the work in a habitual way.

There are many ways you can signify to yourself that you are doing your practice. For example, some people wear a white lab coat or a particular pair of glasses, or always work in a specific place — in doing these things, they are professionalizing their art.

He echoes Chuck Close (“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), Tchaikovsky (“a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”) E. B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”), and Isabel Allende (“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”), observing:

The notion that I do my work here, now, like this, even when I do not feel like it, and especially when I do not feel like it, is very important. Because lots and lots of people are creative when they feel like it, but you are only going to become a professional if you do it when you don’t feel like it. And that emotional waiver is why this is your work and not your hobby.

Manage Your Day-to-Day goes on to explore such facets of the creative life asoptimizing your idea-generationdefying the demons of perfectionism,managing procrastination, and breaking through your creative blocks, with insights from magnificent minds ranging from behavioral economist Dan Arielyto beloved graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister.”

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June 3, 2013 · 5:24 pm

Gay in America: A Photographic Tapestry of Faceted Humanity

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“A cultural leap forward, or what Alaskan fishermen, Oregonian fathers, and NYC artists have in common.

From Molly Landredth’s tender vintage portraits of modern queer life to 19-year-old Iowan Zach Wahl’s brave message for marriage equality to Dan Savage’s paradigm-changing It Gets Better project, it’s a time of heartening change for the mainstream’s growing awareness of just how faceted and diverse LGBTQ culture is. It is precisely this faceted humanity that photographer Scott Pasfield, a gay man himself, sought to capture in Gay in America, traveling 54,000 miles across 50 states in 3 years to weave a powerful, profoundly human tapestry of 140 fathers, brothers, sons, and friends from all walks of life, religions, ethnicities, and backgrounds, who happen to be homosexual males. From lawyers to artists to teachers to farmers, his perceptive, deeply personal portraits paint a layered picture of contemporary gay (male) life, the first-ever large-scale photographic survey of gay men in America.

People always tell you to shoot what you love, and that objective led me to this project. I knew I wanted to photograph a subject that I cared deeply about, and to create a body of work that would make a positive difference in people’s lives… I decided that I would find and meet a gay man from every state, listen to their stories, and photograph them in the hope that I could turn that material into a book that would change people’s opinions and educate — the book that I wish had existed when I was a lad. I wanted to produce a profound collection of ordinary, proud, out gay men who would otherwise never find the spotlight.” ~ Scott Pasfield

Alongside each portrait is the subject’s first-hand story — sometimes joyful, sometimes solemn, always earnest.

Alex, Seward, Alaska

 

Josh & Joseph, Eugene, Oregon

 

Mudhillin, Newark, Delaware

 

Michael & Allen, Delta Junction, Alaska

 

For Pasfield, the project was as much a public service as it was a personal journey. He writes in the preface:

A year before my father’s death [from lung cancer], I started going to a regular group-therapy session for gay men in New York City. That is where I met my partner, Nick. When I was struggling through my father’s illness, he was there for me, calling me in Florida, making sure I was okay. When I came back to New York, we both realized we had fallen in love over the past months and we couldn’t ignore it anymore. The hard part was, Nick was with someone else, and he still wasn’t out to his family. He had two major hurdles to jump before our relationship could begin, and he did so, with grace and with courage. This year we celebrate our thirteenth anniversary together.”

Dallas Voice has a fantastic interview with Pasfield, in which he reflects on the role the Internet played in painting a truly dimensional portrait of gay culture.

The Internet played a big part in how I found people. It would have been much more difficult to find them [10 or 20 years ago]. The thing that surprised me the most is the regularness of all these guys. I think most outspoken gay men and all facets of the LGBT community are those people who defined themselves very much by being gay and they have that issue that they really want to share with the world. They’re very outspoken. I think the type of men I was looking for aren’t as outspoken as a lot of those advocates are. That difficulty in finding them was made so much easier by the Internet. Ten, maybe 20 years ago, I’m not quite sure how I would have found the same men because they’re not going to gay community centers, most of them. They’re not out at a lot of gay bars or clubs in urban areas. I think that that’s one of the major differences doing it now. That I was really able to connect with a lot of gay men that are for the most part under the radar and what most see of the gay community.”

Thoughtful and perspective-shifting, Gay in America reveals the dimensions of humanity well past sexuality, a powerful step towards a culture that no longer conflates sexual orientation with human identity and a worthy addition to the best photography books of 2011.

Images courtesy of Scott Pasfield

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May 30, 2013 · 8:06 pm

Be All Your Selves: Joss Whedon’s 2013 Wesleyan Commencement Address on Embracing Our Inner Contradictions

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““Identity is something that you are constantly earning. It is a process that you must be active in.”

On the heels of this season’s finest commencement addresses — including Debbie Millman on courage and the creative lifeGreil Marcus on the artificial divide between “high” and “low” culture, andArianna Huffington on redefining success — comes screenwriter, producer, composer, and actor Joss Whedon, who delivered the 2013 Wesleyan commencement address, brimming with sometimes uncomfortable but invariably profound reminders of our purpose and challenges as human beings.

Annotated highlights below.

 

Whedon begins with a rather atypical subject for graduation speeches — the mortality paradox:

What I’d like to say to all of you is that you are all going to die. … You have, in fact, already begun to die. You look great. Don’t get me wrong. And you are youth and beauty. You are at the physical peak. Your bodies have just gotten off the ski slope on the peak of growth, potential, and now comes the black diamond mogul run to the grave. And the weird thing is your body wants to die. On a cellular level, that’s what it wants. And that’s probably not what you want.

I’m confronted by a great deal of grand and worthy ambition from this student body. You want to be a politician, a social worker. You want to be an artist. Your body’s ambition: Mulch. Your body wants to make some babies and then go in the ground and fertilize things. That’s it. And that seems like a bit of a contradiction. It doesn’t seem fair. For one thing, we’re telling you, “Go out into the world!” exactly when your body is saying, “Hey, let’s bring it down a notch. Let’s take it down.”

And that’s actually what I’d like to talk to you about. The contradiction between your body and your mind, between your mind and itself. I believe these contradictions and these tensions are the greatest gift that we have.

Like science, Whedon argues, human identity is inherent contradiction, driven by “something that is a constant in your life and in your identity, not just in your body but in your own mind, in ways that you may recognize or you may not.” And given what we know about the myth of one-dimensional personality, this makes sense. But this ability to recognize and embrace our inner conflicts and bipolar tensions, Whedon assures as he echoes Bruce Lee, is a blessing rather than a curse — one of the hallmarks of being human, even. In that respect, he reminds us, like Anaïs Nin eloquently did, that our identity is in constant revision — or, as Vi Hart memorably put it“Your greatest creation is yourself. Like any great work of art, creating a great self means putting in hard work, every day, for years.” Whedon urges:

You have, which is a rare thing, that ability and the responsibility to listen to the dissent in yourself, to at least give it the floor, because it is the key — not only to consciousness, but to real growth. To accept duality is to earn identity. And identity is something that you are constantly earning. It is not just who you are. It is a process that you must be active in.

Whedon goes on to encourage us to try embracing rather than eradicating those inner paradoxes of which we’re all woven:

This contradiction, and this tension … it never goes away. And if you think that achieving something, if you think that solving something, if you think a career or a relationship will quiet that voice, it will not. If you think that happiness means total peace, you will never be happy. Peace comes from the acceptance of the part of you that can never be at peace. It will always be in conflict. If you accept that, everything gets a lot better.

In a nod to one of science’s core principles, which is the constant critical thinking that battles the vanity of certainty, Whedon speaks for the value of questioning your convictions before you become to ossified to nimbly respond to criticism:

Because you are establishing your identities and your beliefs, you need to argue yourself down, because somebody else will. Somebody’s going to come at you, and whatever your belief, your idea, your ambition, somebody’s going to question it. And unless you have first, you won’t be able to answer back, you won’t be able to hold your ground. You don’t believe me, try taking a stand on just one leg. You need to see both sides.

“It is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar,” Anaïs Nin observed“In disputes upon moral or scientific points, ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent,” Martine advised in his famous 1866 do’s and don’ts of conversation“so you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.” And yet, Whedon argues, ours is a culture Simone de Beauvoir would wince at, one staggeringly uncomfortable with ambiguity and fixated on righteous reductionism — a toxic tendency where change is most critical and urgent:

[Our culture] is not long on contradiction or ambiguity. … It likes things to be simple, it likes things to be pigeonholed—good or bad, black or white, blue or red. And we’re not that. We’re more interesting than that. And the way that we go into the world understanding is to have these contradictions in ourselves and see them in other people and not judge them for it. To know that, in a world where debate has kind of fallen away and given way to shouting and bullying, that the best thing is not just the idea of honest debate, the best thing is losing the debate, because it means that you learn something and you changed your position. The only way really to understand your position and its worth is to understand the opposite.

That doesn’t mean the crazy guy on the radio who is spewing hate, it means the decent human truths of all the people who feel the need to listen to that guy. You are connected to those people. They’re connected to him. You can’t get away from it. This connection is part of contradiction. It is the tension I was talking about. This tension isn’t about two opposite points, it’s about the line in between them, and it’s being stretched by them. We need to acknowledge and honor that tension, and the connection that that tension is a part of. Our connection not just to the people we love, but to everybody, including people we can’t stand and wish weren’t around. The connection we have is part of what defines us on such a basic level.

Ultimately, what makes Whedon’s speech so beautiful is that he takes one of commencement addresses’ most contrived tropes and turns it on its head, gives it trampled flatness new dimension:

So here’s the thing about changing the world. It turns out that’s not even the question, because you don’t have a choice. You are going to change the world, because that is actually what the world is. You do not pass through this life, it passes through you. You experience it, you interpret it, you act, and then it is different. That happens constantly. You are changing the world. You always have been, and now, it becomes real on a level that it hasn’t been before. And that’s why I’ve been talking only about you and the tension within you, because you are — not in a clichéd sense, but in a weirdly literal sense — the future.

After you walk up here and walk back down, you’re going to be the present. You will be the broken world and the act of changing it, in a way that you haven’t been before. You will be so many things, and the one thing that I wish I’d known and want to say is, don’t just be yourself. Be all of yourselves. Don’t just live. Be that other thing connected to death. Be life. Live all of your life. Understand it, see it, appreciate it. And have fun.

Complement Whedon’s with more timeless words of wisdom from graduates, including Neil Gaiman on making good artBill Watterson on creative integrity, and David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life.

Portrait of Joss Whedon by Joe Pugieliese for Wired; public domain images via Flickr Commons

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May 29, 2013 · 4:11 pm