Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

01 AUGUST, 2012

Cheating the Impossible: Wire-Walker Philippe Petit on Education, Creativity, and Patience


The art of self-correction and the value of tenacity in a world obsessed with instant results.

On August 7th, 1974, shortly after the World Trade Center was erected, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit stood in front of the impossible and took it full stride as he walked 200 feet between the Twin Towers, 1,368 feet above ground, on a 55-pound balancing rope. Dubbed “the artistic crime of the century,” the feat — which took place almost exactly a century after the first crossing of the East River on wire — took six years of planning. Petit — who never finished formal education — had to acquaint himself with the most esoteric details of engineering, architecture, and the physics of wind, among other preemptive intricacies. In Cheating The Impossible: Ideas and Recipes from a Rebellious High-Wire Artist, the latest release from TEDBooks, Petit tells his story in a broader context of how to live life with “patience and tenacity” in an age of silver bullets and shortcuts.

A lifelong autodidact, Petit dedicates much of the book to the nature and conditions of learning, and how those relate to concepts like curiosity and discovery, including an emphasis on the role of serendipity in invention and creativity:

Why does problem solving bring me joy? Because it’s a game. The multitude and the diversity in shape and color of the building blocks, the solutions, found in my basket provide me with extensive and entertaining permutations — and the solutions keep multiplying: those lurking as shadows of existing ones; those not yet invented; those that hibernate, awaiting the spring of chance. Among the few things I retained from my brief high school attendance was, ‘Man’s greatest inventions were found by accident.’ At the time, I wondered if there were a point to staying indoors collecting knowledge.

Maybe I have an advantage over the classically educated. Often, students are encouraged to abandon the problem in the cold and to rush to warm themselves at the table of contents of thick books of knowledge. I cannot stress enough the importance of learning to unknot the problem (I’m tempted to say ‘the streetwise way’) as opposed to focusing on acquisition of the right answer — possibly one major flaw of what I would refer to as a ‘formal education.’ Are my street education, my autodidact beginnings, my Luddite inclinations and my disregard for rules what allow me to approach a problem and hear whenever it whispers its solution — which is most of the time? For instance, I delight in the types of quizzes that present a problem related to one element and which can be solved by that same element. Allow me to describe just one among a great variety of clever little bar challenges that are supposed to reward the perpetrator with a free drink: the well-known ‘How can you pick up three matches using only a fourth one?’ Here the problem has to do with fire (matches), and it is solved by fire. Set the three matches into a little tripod, red heads touching on top. Light the fourth match and bring the fire under the match heads, let it burn for a second, then gently blow. You can now lift the ‘welded’ tripod using only the fourth match because fire has fused the three heads together. Is it my unorthodox way of life that permits me, once I assemble a display of clever solutions, to know for sure that the best one is undoubtedly the most pleasing, the one exuding simplicity, elegance and poetry?

Petit echoes Mark Van Doren’s famous aphorism that “the art of teaching is the art of assisted discovery” in this anecdote about the intellectual spark of his early education experience:

I was measuring myself by dint of rejections and invitations while my experiments, mostly foolish, forged my personality. From 6 to 16, the only teachers I listened to were those who hardly talked to me: once a week, the old lady at the Art Institute and the old man at the Horseback Riding Academy. I was the youngest student at both places, and both those masters were miserly with their words, although expert at opening doors — and keeping them ajar — for their students to venture in (I always felt I was sneaking in). These two teachers were masters of instructions by gestures — instead of a verbal compliment, they offered a barely perceptible nod of the head. They favored education to come from within; they wanted their pupils to be overcome by the excitement of discovering. I remember vividly my first class in both establishments.

He argues against the industrialized model of formal education and makes a case for the autodidactic way:

The knowledge I acquired through constant struggle was much more valuable to me than if it had been dispensed by a talkative, didactic professor intending to fill my head. Today’s education, with its crash courses, its CliffsNotes, its how-to videos, its Internet instant answers and its multitude of shortcuts gives the impression of winning the race against time, but what it really does is spread insidiously the frailties of artificialness. I have the certitude that although the sum of my autodidactic discoveries took a long time to crystallize, I did not lose any time. In fact, I won; the result remains solidly anchored inside me, and it will fuel my creativity for the rest of my life.

(An ideal model for education would, of course, incorporate both, making room for “useful useless knowledge” and fostering a new culture of learning that borrows the best of both academia’s structured guidance and the curiosity-driven approach of the autodidact.)

Petit stresses the importance of integrating mind and body — an argument echoing sociologist Howard Gardner’s celebrated theory of multiple intelligences, among which is the bodily-kinetic.

It is by entering the road that leads to perfection that I will amaze and inspire myself, then by extension, inspire others. When the path is steep, I instruct my mind, my soul to pull my body by the sleeve. How could I pursue intellectual challenges were I not to remain awake and working furiously? How can my arts profit from the physical discipline of constant practice if I am not on an intellectual lookout, every second, to understand the reason something escapes my control? I must become my own coach, my own stage director, my own critic and reviewer. My thoughts must balance my actions.

I’ve turned self-correction into an art.

Petit ties this intermeshing of body and mind to the additive nature of creative influence, something we’ve recently discussed:

Definitely, body and mind swim in concert. So when I ‘attack’ (here, by electing this term, I choose to feel how aggressive and harsh a first step can be), when I attack a white sheet of Vergé with graphite to render a rigging knot, I become the rope. I travel backward in time inside the rope’s core, through my own naively truncated history of art: I hold hands for an instant with the vermillion dancers of Henri Matisse; I startle Egon Schiele as he is about to begin the self-portrait with his head bent; I carefully step over the creaky oak floor being scraped, so as not to disturb Gustave Caillebotte; I hide with Georges de La Tour to observe in delight the intricate pickpocketing choreography of three daring Gypsy girls; I help the young assistant of Leonardo da Vinci to tidy up the atelier before the master returns from his study at the morgue, and prior to entering the Lascaux cave to marvel at the freshly painted bison, I always find myself on Easter Island, standing still at the base of a giant Moai rock-smiling at me with all his sacred 30 tons.

Ultimately, Petit’s message is one of self-empowerment:

I make a dream come true via the dual conviction that life is not worth living if I do not dedicate it to the making of the dream and, simultaneously, that I would choose death over not working on making the dream come true!

Empowering, yes, but perhaps a bit extreme — then again, let’s not forget we’re taking advice from a man who walks on wire.

In a refreshing touch, each chapter of Cheating The Impossible — which you can get directly through TEDBooks for the full multimedia experience — is accompanied by Petit’s recommendation for a song and a work of literature that capture the essence of the section’s message — for the chapter titled “Where, why, when?,” for instance, Petit recommends Erik Satie’s Six Gnossiennes performed by pianist Evelyne Crochet and Italo Calvino’s story The Baron in the Trees, and for “In pursuit of the impossible,” he suggests a score of Duke Ellington’s “Sunset and the Mockingbird” from The Queen’s Suite and Paul Auster’s Moon Palace.

Sample some of Petit’s singular brand of “holy madness” with his 2012 TED talk:

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

30 JULY, 2012

Henry Miller on Reading, Influence, and What’s Wrong with Education


“Our whole theory of education is based on the absurd notion that we must learn to swim on land before tackling the water. It applies to the pursuit of the arts as well as to the pursuit of knowledge.”

Henry Miller was a notoriously disciplined writer. It comes as no surprise, then — given the relationship between reading and writing, and the importance of learning the parallel skills of both — that he was also a voracious reader, unafraid to acknowledge the borrowing and repurposing of ideas. In The Books in My Life (public library; public domain), originally published in 1952, he offers a singular lens on his approach to reading, using that as a vehicle for a larger meditation on our culture’s relationship not just with books, but with knowledge itself.

Miller’s insights touch on modern concerns about the brokenness of industrialized education and echo Abraham Flexner’s 1939 essay on the usefulness of useless knowledge:

In this age, which believes that there is a short cut to everything, the greatest lesson to be learned is that the most difficult way is, in the long run, the easiest. All that is set forth in books, all that seems so terribly vital and significant, is but an iota of that from which it stems and which it is within everyone’s power to tap. Our whole theory of education is based on the absurd notion that we must learn to swim on land before tackling the water. It applies to the pursuit of the arts as well as to the pursuit of knowledge. Men are still being taught to create by studying other men’s works or by making plans and sketches never intended to materialize. The art of writing is taught in the classroom instead of in the thick of life. Students are still being handed models which are supposed to fit all temperaments, all kinds of intelligence. No wonder we produce better engineers than writers, better industrial experts than painters.

My encounters with books I regard very much as my encounters with other phenomena of life or thought. All encounters are configurate, not isolate. In this sense, and in this sense only, books are as much a part of life as trees, stars or dung. I have no reverence for them per se. Nor do I put authors in any special, privileged category. They are like other men, no better, no worse. They exploit the powers given them, just as any other order of human being. If I defend them now and then — as a class — it is because I believe that, in our society at least, they have never achieved the status and the consideration they merit. The great ones, especially, have almost always been treated as scapegoats.

But Miller’s central concern is a kind of anatomy of influence, a hope to reverse-engineer the alchemy of where a writer’s good ideas come from by honoring his sources of creative spark:

The principal aim underlying this work is to render homage where homage is due, a task which I know beforehand is impossible of accomplishment. Were I to do it properly, I would have to get down on my knees and thank each blade of grass for rearing its head. What chiefly motivates me in this vain task is the fact that in general we know all too little about the influences which shape a writer’s life and work. The critic, in his pompous conceit and arrogance, distorts the true picture beyond all recognition. The author, however truthful he may think himself to be, inevitably disguises the picture. The psychologist, with his single-track view of things, only deepens the blur. As author, I do not think myself an exception to the rule. I, too, am guilty of altering, distorting and disguising the facts — if ‘facts’ there be. My conscious effort, however, has been — perhaps to a fault– in the opposite direction. I am on the side of revelation, if not always on the side of beauty, truth, wisdom, harmony and ever-evolving perfection. In this work I am throwing out fresh data, to be judged and analyzed, or accepted and enjoyed for enjoyment’s sake. Naturally I cannot write about all the books, or even all the significant ones, which I have read in the course of my life. But I do intend to go on writing about books and authors until I have exhausted the importance (for me) of this domain of reality.

To have undertaken the thankless task of listing all the books I can recall ever reading gives me extreme pleasure and satisfaction. I know of no author who has been mad enough to attempt this. Perhaps my list will give rise to more confusion — but its purpose is not that. Those who know how to read a man know how to read his books.

(Learn how to read Carl Sagan and Alan Turing through their reading lists.)

In the preface, reflecting upon the experience of putting his list together, Miller echoes previous considerations of non-reading as an intellectual choice on par with reading itself:

One of the results of this self-examination — for that is what the writing of this book amounts to — is the confirmed belief that one should read less and less, not more and more…. I have not read nearly as much as the scholar, the bookworm, or even the ‘well-educated’ man — yet I have undoubtedly read a hundred times more than I should have read for my own good. Only one out of five in America, it is said, are readers of ‘books.’ But even this small number read far too much. Scarcely any one lives wisely or fully.

Reiterating his own insights on originality and offering a complement to Susan Sontag’s advocacy of direct experience over “ideas,” he continues:

The vast body of literature, in every domain, is composed of hand-me-down ideas. The question — never resolved, alas! — is to what extent it would be efficacious to curtail the overwhelming supply of cheap fodder. One thing is certain today — the illiterate are definitely not the least intelligent among us. If it be knowledge or wisdom one is seeking, then one had better go direct to the source. And the source is not the scholar or philosopher, not the master, saint, or teacher, but life itself — direct experience of life. The same is true for art. Here, too, we can dispense with ‘the masters.’

The Books in My Life goes on to explore the fabric of Miller’s intellectual life, woven of a broader discourse on creativity and knowledge. Six decades after its publication, it remains equal parts timeless and timely.

Maria Bustillos

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

30 JULY, 2012

Maira Kalman on Walking as a Creative Device and the Difference Between Thinking and Feeling


“It’s very important not to be bored…for too long. More than a minute.”

Last week, Maira Kalmanartist extraordinaire, prolific author, unequaled visual storyteller — shared some poignant, beautifully human thoughts on existence and happiness. From the same interview series comes Kalman’s equally wonderful meditation on the difference between thinking and feeling, touching on Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Anne Lamott’s insights on rationality vs. intuition, and the power of walking as a generative force of intellect, awareness, and creativity:

I walk everywhere in the city. Any city. You see everything you need to see for a lifetime. Every emotion. Every condition. Every fashion. Every glory.

Kalman’s proclivity for walking and movement as a gateway to a higher sensibility is something a number of great creators have in common. Dickens and Hugo were avid walkers during ideation; Burns often composed while “holding the plough”; Twain paced madly while dictating; Goethe and Scott composed on horseback; Mozart preferred the back of a carriage; Lord Kelvin worked on his mathematical studies while traveling by train. Drawing on these anecdotes, Rosamund E. Harding suggests in the 1932 gem An Anatomy of Inspiration:

It is possible that the rhythmical movement of a carriage or train, of a horse and to a much lesser degree of walking, may produce on sensitive minds a slightly hypnotic effect conducive to that state of mind most favourable to the birth of ideas.

Here are some of the drawings that make cameos in the video. From The Principles of Uncertainty:

From Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World):

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

27 JULY, 2012

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge


“The real enemy is the man who tries to mold the human spirit so that it will not dare to spread its wings.”

In an age obsessed with practicality, productivity, and efficiency, I frequently worry that we are leaving little room for abstract knowledge and for the kind of curiosity that invites just enough serendipity to allow for the discovery of ideas we didn’t know we were interested in until we are, ideas that we may later transform into new combinations with applications both practical and metaphysical.

This concern, it turns out, is hardly new. In The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge (PDF), originally published in the October 1939 issue of Harper’s, American educator Abraham Flexner explores this dangerous tendency to forgo pure curiosity in favor of pragmatism — in science, in education, and in human thought at large — to deliver a poignant critique of the motives encouraged in young minds, contrasting those with the drivers that motivated some of history’s most landmark discoveries.

We hear it said with tiresome iteration that ours is a materialistic age, the main concern of which should be the wider distribution of material goods and worldly opportunities. The justified outcry of those who through no fault of their own are deprived of opportunity and a fair share of worldly goods therefore diverts an increasing number of students from the studies which their fathers pursued to the equally important and no less urgent study of social, economic, and governmental problems. I have no quarrel with this tendency. The world in which we live is the only world about which our senses can testify. Unless it is made a better world, a fairer world, millions will continue to go to their graves silent, saddened, and embittered. I have myself spent many years pleading that our schools should become more acutely aware of the world in which their pupils and students are destined to pass their lives. Now I sometimes wonder whether that current has not become too strong and whether there would be sufficient opportunity for a full life if the world were emptied of some of the useless things that give it spiritual significance; in other words, whether our conception of what .is useful may not have become too narrow to be adequate to the roaming and capricious possibilities of the human spirit.

Flexner goes on to explore the question from two points of view — the scientific and the humanistic, or spiritual — and recounts a conversation with legendary entrepreneur and Kodak founder George Eastman, in which the two debate who “the most useful worker in science in the world” is. Eastman points to radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi, but Flexner stumps Eastman by arguing that, despite his invention, Marconi’s impact on improving human life was “practically negligible.” His explanation bespeaks a familiar subject — combinatorial creativity and the additive nature of invention:

Mr. Eastman, Marconi was inevitable. The real credit for everything that has been done in the field of wireless belongs, as far as such fundamental credit can be definitely assigned to anyone, to Professor Clerk Maxwell, who in 1865 carried out certain abstruse and remote calculations in the field of magnetism and electricity…. Other discoveries supplemented Maxwell’s theoretical work during the next fifteen years. Finally in 1887 and 1888 the scientific problem still remaining — the detection and demonstration of the electromagnetic waves which are the carriers of wireless signals — was solved by Heinrich Hertz, a worker in Helmholtz’s laboratory in Berlin. Neither Maxwell nor Hertz had any concern about the utility of their work; no such thought ever entered their minds. They had no practical objective. The inventor in the legal sense was of course Marconi, but what did Marconi invent? Merely the last technical detail, mainly the now obsolete receiving device called coherer, almost universally discarded.

Hertz and Maxwell could invent nothing, but it was their useless theoretical work which was seized upon by a clever technician and which has created new means for communication, utility, and amusement by which men whose merits are relatively slight have obtained fame and earned millions. Who were the useful men? Not Marconi, but Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz. Hertz and Maxwell were geniuses without thought of use. Marconi was a clever inventor with no thought but use.

Flexner goes on to contend that the work of Hertz and Maxwell is exemplary of the motives underpinning all instances of monumental scientific discovery, bringing to mind Richard Feynman’s timeless wisdom.

[Hertz and Maxwell] had done their work without thought of use and that throughout the whole history of science most of the really great discoveries which had ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.

Upon Eastman’s surprise, Flexner defends the idea of curiosity as a guiding principle in science and innovation:

Curiosity, which may or may not eventuate in something useful, is probably the outstanding characteristic of modern thinking. It is not new. It goes back to Galileo, Bacon, and to Sir Isaac Newton, and it must be absolutely unhampered. Institutions of learning should be devoted to the cultivation of curiosity and the less they are deflected by considerations of immediacy of application, the more likely they are to contribute not only to human welfare but to the equally important satisfaction of intellectual interest which may indeed be said to have become the ruling passion of intellectual life in modern times.

This lament, alas, is timelier than ever. As Columbia biological sciences professor Stuart Firestein reminds us in the excellent Ignorance: How It Drives Science, grant applications for scientific research are now routinely denied on the grounds of being “curiosity-driven” — a term used in a pejorative sense whereas, ironically, it should describe the highest aspiration of science, something many a great scientist can speak to.

Flexner goes on to give several more examples, pointing to the work of Einstein, Faraday, Gauss, and other legendary scientists, then sums it all up with a thoughtful disclaimer:

I am not for a moment suggesting that everything that goes on in laboratories will ultimately turn to some unexpected practical use or that an ultimate practical use is its actual justification. Much more am I pleading for the abolition of the word ‘use,’ and for the freeing of the human spirit. To be sure, we shall thus free some harmless cranks. To be sure, we shall thus waste some precious dollars. But what is infinitely more important is that we shall be striking the shackles off the human mind and setting it free for the adventures which in our own day have, on the one hand, taken Hale and Rutherford and Einstein and their peers millions upon millions of miles into the uttermost realms of space and, on the other, loosed the boundless energy imprisoned in the atom. What Rutherford and others like Bohr and Millikan have done out of sheer curiosity in the effort to understand the construction of the atom has released forces which may transform human life; but this ultimate and unforeseen and unpredictable practical result is not offered as a justification for Rutherford or Einstein or Millikan or Bohr or any of their peers.


With the rapid accumulation of ‘useless’ or theoretic knowledge a situation has been created in which it has become increasingly possible to attack practical
problems in a scientific spirit. Not only inventors, but ‘pure’ scientists have indulged in this sport. I have mentioned Marconi, an inventor, who, while a benefactor to the human race, as a matter of fact merely ‘picked other men’s brains.’ Edison belongs to the same category.


Ehrlich, fundamentally speculative in his curiosity, turned fiercely upon the problem of syphilis and doggedly pursued it until a solution of immediate practical use — the discovery of salvarsan — was found. The discoveries of insulin by Banting for use in diabetes and of liver extract by Minot and Whipple for use in pernicious anemia belong in the same category: both were made by thoroughly scientific men, who realized that much ‘useless’ knowledge had been piled up by men unconcerned with its practical bearings, but that the time was now ripe to raise practical questions in a scientific manner.

Flexner sums up the idea that, as Steve Jobs famously observed, “creativity is just connecting things” and, as Mark Twain put it, “all ideas are second-hand” in this beautiful articulation, adding to history’s greatest definitions of science:

Thus it becomes obvious that one must be wary in attributing scientific discovery wholly to anyone person. Almost every discovery has a long and precarious history. Someone finds a bit here, another a bit there. A third step succeeds later and thus onward till a genius pieces the bits together and makes the decisive contribution. Science, like the Mississippi, begins in a tiny rivulet in the distant forest. Gradually other streams swell its volume. And the roaring river that bursts the dikes is formed from countless sources.

He extends this into a vision for the future of education, touching on points we’ve more recently seen made by contemporary education reform thinkers like Sir Ken Robinson and John Seely Brown:

Over a period of one or two hundred years the contributions of professional schools to their respective activities will probably be found to lie, not so much in the training of men who may to-morrow become practical engineers or practical lawyers or practical doctors, but rather in the fact that even in the pursuit of strictly practical aims an enormous amount of apparently useless activity goes on. Out of this useless activity there come discoveries which may well prove of infinitely more importance to the human mind and to the human spirit than the accomplishment of the useful ends for which the schools were founded.

The prescience of Flexner’s insights on education continues, eventually circling back to the whole of the human condition:

The subject which I am discussing has at this moment a peculiar poignancy. In certain large areas — Germany and Italy especially — the effort is now being made to clamp down the freedom of the human spirit. Universities have been so reorganized that they have become tools of those who believe in a special political, economic, or racial creed. Now and then a thoughtless individual in one of the few democracies left in this world will even question the fundamental importance of absolutely untrammeled academic freedom. The real enemy of the human race is not the fearless and irresponsible thinker, be he right or wrong. The real enemy is the man who tries to mold the human spirit so that it will not dare to spread its wings, as its wings were once spread in Italy and Germany, as well as in Great Britain
and the United States.


Justification of spiritual freedom goes, however, much farther than originality whether in the realm of science or humanism, for it implies tolerance throughout the range of human dissimilarities. In the face of the history of the human race what can be more silly or ridiculous than likes or dislikes founded upon race or religion? Does humanity want symphonies and paintings and profound scientific truth, or does it want Christian symphonies, Christian paintings, Christian science, or Jewish symphonies, Jewish paintings, Jewish science, or Mohammedan or Egyptian or Japanese or Chinese or American or German or Russian or Communist or Conservative contributions to and expressions of the infinite richness of the human soul?

For more of Flexner’s timeless, timelier than ever insights on education and the human spirit, see Iconoclast: Abraham Flexner and a Life in Learning.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.