Brain Pickings

Kierkegaard on Our Greatest Source of Unhappiness

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Hope, memory, and how our chronic compulsion to flee from our own lives robs us of living.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard memorably wrote in reflecting on why presence matters more than productivity. “On how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it,” Henry Miller asserted in his beautiful meditation on the art of living. And yet we spend our lives fleeing from the present moment, constantly occupying ourselves with overplanning the future or recoiling with anxiety over its impermanence, thus invariably robbing ourselves of the vibrancy of aliveness.

In a chapter of the altogether indispensable 1843 treatise Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (public library), the influential Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855), considered the first true existentialist philosopher, explores precisely that — how our constant escapism from our own lives is our greatest source of unhappiness.

Kierkegaard, who was only thirty at the time, begins with an observation all the timelier today, amidst our culture of busy-as-a-badge-of-honor:

Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work.

(It’s worth remembering, here, that “busy is a decision” — one we constantly make, and often to our own detriment.)

In a latter chapter, titled “The Unhappiest Man,” he returns to the subject and its deeper dimension:

The unhappy person is one who has his ideal, the content of his life, the fullness of his consciousness, the essence of his being, in some manner outside of himself. The unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself. But one can be absent, obviously, either in the past or in the future. This adequately circumscribes the entire territory of the unhappy consciousness.

He considers how the very architecture of our language perpetuates our proclivity for absence:

The unhappy one is absent. But one is absent when living in the past or living in the future. The form of expression is important, for it is evident, as philology also teaches us, that there is a tense that expresses present in the past, and a tense that expresses presence in the future; but the same science also teaches us that there is a pluperfect tense in which there is no present, as well as a future perfect tense with the same characteristics. These are the hoping and remembering individuals. Inasmuch as they are only hoping or only remembering, these are indeed in a sense unhappy individuals, if otherwise it is only the person who is present to himself that is happy. However, one cannot strictly call an individual unhappy who is present in hope or in memory. For what one must note here is that he is still present to himself in one of these. From which we also see that a single blow, be it ever so heavy, cannot make a person the unhappiest. For one blow can either deprive him of hope, still leaving him present in memory, or of memory, leaving him present in hope.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Kierkegaard goes on to explore these two key forms of escapism from presence, via hope and via memory:

Consider first the hoping individual. When, as a hoping individual (and of course to that extent unhappy), he is not present to himself, he becomes unhappy in a stricter sense. An individual who hopes for an eternal life is, indeed, in a certain sense an unhappy individual to the extent that he renounces the present, but nevertheless is strictly not unhappy, because he is present to himself in the hope and does not come in conflict with the particular moments of finitude. But if he cannot become present to himself in hope, but loses his hope, hopes again, and so on, then he is absent from himself not just in the present but also in the future, and we have a type of the unhappy. Though the hoping individual does not hope for something that has no reality for him, he hopes for something he himself knows cannot be realized. For when an individual loses hope, and instead of becoming a remembering individual, wants to remain a hoping one, then we get this form.

Similarly if we consider the remembering individual. If he finds himself present in the past, strictly he is not unhappy; but if he cannot do that but remains constantly absent from himself in a past, then we have a form of the unhappy.

Memory is pre-eminently the real element of the unhappy, as is natural seeing the past has the remarkable characteristic that it is gone, the future that it is yet to come; and one can therefore say in a sense that the future is nearer the present than is the past. That future, for the hoping individual to be present in it must be real, or rather must acquire reality for him. The past, for the remembering individual to be present in it, must have had reality for him. But when the hoping individual would have a future which can have no reality for him, or the remembering individual remember a past which had had no reality for him, then we have the genuinely unhappy individuals. Unhappy individuals who hope never have the same pain as those who remember. Hoping individuals always have a more gratifying disappointment. The unhappiest one will always, therefore, be found among the unhappy rememberers.

For a potent antidote, pair this with Alan Watts on how to live with presence and Anna Quindlen on how to live rather than exist, then see Albert Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons.

Either/Or is a consciousness-expanding read in its entirety. Complement it with Kierkegaard on the relationship between creativity and anxiety.

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Pixar Cofounder Ed Catmull on Failure and Why Fostering a Fearless Culture Is the Key to Groundbreaking Creative Work

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Why the greatest enemy of creative success is the attempt to fortify against failure.

“Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before,” Neil Gaiman urged in his commencement-address-turned-manifesto-for-the-creative life. “The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them — especially not from yourself,” philosopher Daniel Dennett asserted in his magnificent meditation on the dignity and art-science of making mistakes. And yet most of us, being human and thus fallible yet proud, go to excruciating lengths to avoid making mistakes, then once we inevitably do, we take great pains to hide them from ourselves and the world. But this, argues Pixar cofounder Ed Catmull with the help of journalist Amy Wallace in an especially enthralling chapter of the altogether excellent Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (public library), is a grave mistake itself — not only from an abstract moral standpoint, but also as a practical strategy for cultivating a strong creative culture in a company and an entrepreneurial spirit within ourselves as individuals.

What makes Catmull, who created Pixar along with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter and is now president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, particularly compelling is his yin-yang balance of seeming opposites — he is incredibly intelligent in a rationally-driven way yet sensitive to the poetic, introspective yet articulate, has a Ph.D. in computer science but is also the recipient of five Academy Awards for his animation work. This crusade to uncouple fear and failure is thus delivered not with the detached and vacant preachiness of self-help books and lifestyle manuals but with the sensitive sagacity of someone who has been, and continues to be, on the front lines of truly pioneering creative work.

Ed Catmull (Photograph by Deborah Coleman, Pixar)

Catmull begins by pointing out that failure, for most of us, is loaded with heavy baggage — a stigma that failure is bad and a sign of weakness, engrained in us early and hard. For all of our aphorisms about the upside of failure and even our most elegant contemplations of failure’s gift, we still carry deep-seated fear and paralyzing aversion to it, to our own detriment. We are so terrified to be wrong and so uncomfortable with the unknown that we often opt for safety and security over breaking new ground. Catmull writes:

We need to think about failure differently. I’m not the first to say that failure, when approached properly, can be an opportunity for growth. But the way most people interpret this assertion is that mistakes are a necessary evil. Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality). And yet, even as I say that embracing failure is an important part of learning, I also acknowledge that acknowledging this truth is not enough. That’s because failure is painful, and our feelings about this pain tend to screw up our understanding of its worth. To disentangle the good and the bad parts of failure, we have to recognize both the reality of the pain and the benefit of the resulting growth.

Artwork from 'The Ancient Book of Myth and War,' a side project by four Pixar animators. Click image for details.

Most people, Catmull argues, would go to any length to avoid failure — but not Pixar’s Andrew Stanton, known around the studio for his frequent counsel to “fail early and fail fast” and “be wrong as fast as you can.” Catmull quotes Stanton, who sees failure the way one ought to see learning to ride a bike — an endeavor practically impossible to master without falling and stumbling first:

“Get a bike that’s as low to the ground as you can find, put on elbow and knee pads so you’re not afraid of falling, and go,” he says. If you apply this mindset to everything new you attempt, you can begin to subvert the negative connotation associated with making mistakes. Says Andrew: “You wouldn’t say to somebody who is first learning to play the guitar, ‘You better think really hard about where you put your fingers on the guitar neck before you strum, because you only get to strum once, and that’s it. And if you get that wrong, we’re going to move on.’ That’s no way to learn, is it?”

And yet many people, including within Pixar, often misinterpret the point. Echoing Debbie Millman’s assertion that “if you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t taking enough risks,” Catmull writes:

[Many people] think it means accept failure with dignity and move on. The better, more subtle interpretation is that failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration. If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders especially, this strategy — trying to avoid failure by out-thinking it — dooms you to fail.

Color script for 'The Incredibles' from 'The Art of Pixar.' Click image for details.

While fortifying against failure and avoiding mistakes may seem like admirable goals, Catmull argues that they are ultimately misguided. He cites the example of the Golden Fleece Awards, which in 1975 began spotlighting government-funded projects that were epic wastes of money. While such scrutiny might have its place and no doubt comes from a place of seeking betterment, Catmull argues that “failure was being used as a weapon, rather than as an agent of learning” — the awards had a chilling effect, rendering researchers and government agencies so terrified of being “awarded” that they began taking fewer risks and innovating less. (If you’ve read Stuart Firestein’s excellent book Ignorance: How It Drives Science, you’d nod wistfully upon recognizing that this flawed ethos is the fundamental premise of science funding today, where researchers are routinely being discouraged from pursuing “curiosity-driven” experimentation and are being awarded grants for safe, “hypothesis-driven” research.)

Catmull elegantly distills the result:

In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk. They will seek instead to repeat something safe that’s been good enough in the past. Their work will be derivative, not innovative. But if you can foster a positive understanding of failure, the opposite will happen.

For people and companies seeking to do original, innovative work, this is clearly a losing proposition. Catmull offers an antidote:

If we as leaders can talk about our mistakes and our part in them, then we make it safe for others. You don’t run from it or pretend it doesn’t exist. That is why I make a point of being open about our meltdowns inside Pixar, because I believe they teach us something important: Being open about problems is the first step toward learning from them… We must think of the cost of failure as an investment in the future.

Creating a fearless culture enables people to explore new areas and pursue ideas with much less hesitation and trepidation, “identifying uncharted pathways and then charging down them.” It also fosters a greater appreciation of decisiveness, liberating us from the constant preemptive questioning of whether the path we’re about to head down is the right one. That way, Catmull argues with an inadvertent wink to Steve Jobs’s famous assertion that “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards,” also allows people to see what they couldn’t possibly see when starting out. Catmull captures the creativity-stifling effect of overplanning:

If you seek to plot out all your moves before you make them — if you put your faith in slow, deliberative planning in the hopes it will spare you failure down the line — well, you’re deluding yourself. For one thing, it’s easier to plan derivative work — things that copy or repeat something already out there. So if your primary goal is to have a fully worked out, set-in-stone plan, you are only upping your chances of being unoriginal. Moreover, you cannot plan your way out of problems. While planning is very important, and we do a lot of it, there is only so much you can control in a creative environment. In general, I have found that people who pour their energy into thinking about an approach and insisting that it is too early to act are wrong just as often as people who dive in and work quickly. The overplanners just take longer to be wrong (and, when things inevitably go awry, are more crushed by the feeling that they have failed). There’s a corollary to this, as well: The more time you spend mapping out an approach, the more likely you are to get attached to it. The nonworking idea gets worn into your brain, like a rut in the mud. It can be difficult to get free of it and head in a different direction. Which, more often than not, is exactly what you must do.

Color script for 'Up' from 'The Art of Pixar.' Click image for details.

With a sentiment that calls to mind David Foster Wallace’s exquisite definition of leadership, Catmull concludes:

The antidote to fear is trust, and we all have a desire to find something to trust in an uncertain world. Fear and trust are powerful forces, and while they are not opposites, exactly, trust is the best tool for driving out fear. There will always be plenty to be afraid of, especially when you are doing something new. Trusting others doesn’t mean that they won’t make mistakes. It means that if they do (or if you do), you trust they will act to help solve it. Fear can be created quickly; trust can’t. Leaders must demonstrate their trustworthiness, over time, through their actions — and the best way to do that is by responding well to failure.

[…]

Rather than trying to prevent all errors, we should assume, as is almost always the case, that our people’s intentions are good and that they want to solve problems. Give them responsibility, let the mistakes happen, and let people fix them. If there is fear, there is a reason — our job is to find the reason and to remedy it. Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover.

In the remainder of Creativity, Inc., Catmull goes on to explore the art of grappling with change and randomness, the role of honesty in innovation, and more, using Pixar’s own becoming as a springboard for broader insights on the nature and secrets of creative success. Pair it with Sarah Lewis’s indispensable exploration of creativity and the gift of failure.

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David Bowie Narrates the Pioneering Soviet Children’s Symphony Peter and the Wolf

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How the clarinet cat and the oboe duck lifted the Iron Curtain for a magical performance.

In early 1936, compelled to cultivate a taste for music in young children, Natalya Sats, director of Moscow’s Musical Theater for Children, commissioned the legendary Ukrainian (then-Soviet) composer, pianist and conductor Sergei Prokofiev to create an innovative musical symphony for children. His answer was Peter and the Wolf, which made its debut on May 2 that year — a whimsical fable-like story whose narrator is accompanied by an orchestra of woodwinds, brass, percussion, and strings. Each character in the story is represented by a different instrument — flute for the bird, oboe for the duck, clarinet for the cat, French horns for the wolf, bassoon for the grandfather, and so forth — with the idea of not only introducing children to classical music but also tickling their metaphor-hungry minds and inviting them to form symbolic auditory associations.

Over the decades that followed, Prokofiev’s fresh and groundbreaking symphony swelled into a cross-cultural classic that attracted dozens of recordings by some of the twentieth century’s greatest performers from all over the world. Among them was David Bowie: In 1978, in the middle of the Cold War, RCA Victor released David Bowie Narrates Peter and the Wolf — a gorgeous recording of the Prokofiev classic, which Bowie made as a present for his 7-year-old son, Duncan, with music performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra.

For a taste of this unusual and immeasurable delight, here is the beginning of the piece:

This is the story of Peter and the wolf.

Each character in the tale is going to be represented by a different instrument of the orchestra. For instance, the bird will be played by the flute. (Like this.) Here’s the duck, played by the oboe. The cat by the clarinet. The bassoon will represent grandfather. The wolf by the French horns. And Peter by the strings. The blast of the hunters’ shotguns played by the kettle drums.

The entire recording of David Bowie Narrates Peter and the Wolf is well worth hearing — sample it below, then complement it with this vintage guide to the 7 essential skills of listening to music and a wonderful 1954 children’s jazz primer by none other than Langston Hughes.

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