Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘John W. Gardner’

01 OCTOBER, 2014

The Unsung Heroes of Innovation: A 1964 Manifesto for the Role of the Critic-Curator in How Ideas Spread

By:

“It would be a mistake to distinguish too sharply between those who contribute a new way of doing and those who contribute a new way of thinking.”

“Art doesn’t explain itself,” music critic Greil Marcus observed in considering what the history of rock ‘n’ roll reveals about innovation. The role of context — that mesh of explanations enveloping an idea in a sheath of meaning to reveal why it matters and why we should pay attention — is essential in the cultural uptake of any new concept. I have long believed the role of the cultural critic or curator — the celebrator of ideas — to be one of helping people discern what matters in the world and understand why it matters, of elevating the meaningful from the fleeting and, in the process, elevating the human spirit toward progress. The great social science writer John W. Gardner explores this notion with unparalleled elegance and economy of words in a section of Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society (public library) — his excellent, forgotten field guide to keeping your company and your soul vibrantly alive, written in 1964 but enormously relevant to modern entrepreneurship, politics, and personal growth.

The most meaningful, impactful, and enduring innovations, Gardner argues, often come quietly, even surreptitiously:

The new thing rarely comes on with a flourish or trumpets. The historic innovation looks exciting in the history books, but if one could question those who lived at the time, the typical response would be neither “I opposed it” nor “I welcomed it,” but “I didn’t know it was happening.”

The unsung heroes of innovation, Gardner suggests, are those who shed light on the new and noteworthy, who extend an invitation to people to pay attention and care — a function all the more vital today, half a century later, when there is so much more vying for our attention and it is so much more straining to distinguish between the noteworthy and the merely noisy.

Illustration from 'Flashlight' by Lizi Body. Click image for more.

Those who bring attention to valuable ideas, then, are themselves vital agents of change, without whom the inventors and their creations would slide under the cultural radar and into obscurity. Editor Ursula Nordstrom did this for a young and insecure Maurice Sendak. Publisher John Martin did it for Charles Bukowski. Ralph Waldo Emerson did it for young Walt Whitman.

To give a great idea wings, Gardner suggests, is at least as valuable as to hatch it:

The capacity of public somnolence to retard change illuminates the role of the critic… Critics who call attention to an area that requires renewal are very much a part of the innovative process…

One of the most serious obstacles to clear thinking about renewal is the excessively narrow conception of the innovator that is commonly held. It focuses on technology and on the men who intent specific new devices: Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone; Marconi and wireless; Edison and the phonograph; the Wright Brothers and the airplane.

Gardner returns to the underappreciated, vital role of the critic-celebrator in amplifying the ideas that improve society and precipitate progress:

We tend to think of innovators as those who contribute to a new way of doing things. But many far-reaching changes have been touched off by those who contributed to a new way of thinking about things…

It would be a mistake to distinguish too sharply between those who contribute a new way of doing and those who contribute a new way of thinking.

Today, Gardner himself is an underappreciated celebrator of the human spirit and his Self-Renewal endures as a timeless manifesto for what true progress requires. Sample it further with Gardner on what children can teach us about risk, failure, and personal growth, then see some related thoughts on how to cultivate wisdom in the age of information.

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.

15 AUGUST, 2014

What Children Can Teach Us About Risk, Failure, and Personal Growth

By:

“Our fear of failure … assures the progressive narrowing of the personality.”

“If I limit myself to knowledge that I consider true beyond doubt,” E.F. Schumacher wrote in his timelessly wonderful A Guide for the Perplexed in 1977, “I minimize the risk of error but I maximize, at the same time, the risk of missing out on what may be the subtlest, most important and most rewarding things in life.” In the decades since, the notion of embracing risk and failure has become one of the most common tropes in motivational talks, self-help books and business articles alike. It’s been championed by everyone from Ray Bradbury, who considered failure essential to creativity, to Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull, who argued for the importance of cultivating a failure-fearless culture, but none more eloquently than social science writer John W. Gardner in a section of Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society (public library) — his altogether fantastic, forgotten field guide to keeping your company and your soul vibrantly alive, which remains a must-read as much for entrepreneurs as for those of us on a private journey of self-transcendence.

Illustration from Lisbeth Zwerger's imaginative interpretation of Alice in Wonderland. Click image for more.

Gardner considers what children’s supple membrane for experience can teach us about the role of failure in learning and growth:

One of the reasons why mature people are apt to learn less than young people is that they are willing to risk less. Learning is a risky business, and they do not like failure. In infancy, when the child is learning at a truly phenomenal rate — a rate he will never again achieve — he is also experiencing a shattering number of failures. Watch him. See the innumerable things he tries and fails. And see how little the failures discourage him. With each year that passes he will be less blithe about failure. By adolescence the willingness of young people to risk failure has diminished greatly. And all too often parents push them further along that road by instilling fear, by punishing failure or by making success seem too precious. By middle age most of us carry in our heads a tremendous catalogue of things we have no intention of trying again because we tried them once and failed — or tried them once and did less well than our self-esteem demanded.

Artwork from 'Fail Safe,' Debbie Millman's illustrated-essay-turned-commencement address. Click image for more.

The cost of our ever-shrinking comfort zone, Gardner argues, is tremendous:

We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure. It is a powerful obstacle to growth. It assures the progressive narrowing of the personality and prevents exploration and experimentation. There is no learning without some difficulty and fumbling. If you want to keep on learning, you must keep on risking failure — all your life. It’s as simple as that.

Self-Renewal is a trove of timeless wisdom in its entirety. Sample it further here and complement it with Sarah Lewis’s elegant treatise on the gift of failure across the history of creative culture.

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.

14 JULY, 2014

The Art of Self-Renewal: A Timeless 1964 Field Guide to Keeping Your Work and Your Soul Vibrantly Alive

By:

“The self-renewing man … looks forward to an endless and unpredictable dialogue between his potentialities and the claims of life — not only the claims he encounters but the claims he invents.”

In 1964, the prolific social science writer John W. Gardner published Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society (public library) — a forgotten book of extraordinary prescience and warm wisdom, which rings even timelier today. It’s a must-read as much for entrepreneurs and leaders seeking to infuse their organizations with ongoing vitality as it is for all of us as individuals, on our private trajectories of self-transcendence and personal growth.

Gardner explores what it takes for us — as individuals, as a society, even as a civilization — to cultivate the capacity for self-renewal so vital to countering “the dry rot produced by apathy, by rigidity and by moral emptiness,” which often comes with attaining a certain level of complacent comfort or success. Referencing his previous book, Excellence — an equally prescient exploration of the educational system, its promise and its limitations, and the role of high standards in cultivating character — Gardner writes:

High standards are not enough. There are kinds of excellence — very important kinds — that are not necessarily associated with the capacity for renewal. A society that has reached heights of excellence may already be caught in the rigidities that will bring it down. An institution may hold itself to the highest standards and yet already be entombed in the complacency that will eventually spell its decline.

And yet, noting that “social renewal depends ultimately on individuals,” Gardner writes:

If a society hopes to achieve renewal, it will have to be a hospitable environment for creative men and women. It will also have to produce men and women with the capacity for self-renewal… Men and women need not fall into a stupor of mind and spirit by the time they are middle-aged. They need not relinquish as early as they do the resilience of youth and the capacity to learn and grow.

Illustration by Tove Jansson for 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

Self-renewal, he points out, requires a certain give-a-shitness — as E.B. White wrote in his beautiful letter to a man who had lost faith in humanity, “As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate.” Gardner argues:

The renewal of societies and organizations can go forward only if someone cares. Apathy and lowered motivation are the most widely noted characteristics of a civilization on the downward path.

He later adds:

Everyone, either in his career or as a part-time activity, should be doing something about which he cares deeply. And if he is to escape the prison of the self, it must be something not essentially egocentric in nature.

[…]

Institutions are renewed by individuals who refuse to be satisfied with the outer husks of things. And self-renewal requires somewhat the same impatience with empty forms.

In a sentiment that John Mooallem would come to echo half a century later (“Maybe you have to believe in the value of everything to believe in the value of anything”), Gardner argues that self-renewal is impossible “unless we share a vision of something worth saving” and writes:

Unless we attend to the requirements of renewal, aging institutions and organizations will eventually bring our civilization to moldering ruin. Unless we cope with the ways in which modern society oppresses the individual, we shall lose the creative spark that renews both societies and [individuals]. Unless we foster versatile, innovative and self-renewing men and women, all the ingenious social arrangements in the world will not help us.

Echoing Buckminster Fuller’s admonition against specialization and Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous aphorism that “an expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows,’”) Gardner outlines the process by which we fizzle out, socially and personally:

A society decays when its institutions and individuals lose their vitality.

[…]

When organizations and societies are young, they are flexible, fluid, not yet paralyzed by rigid specialization and willing to try anything once. As the organization or society ages, vitality diminishes, flexibility gives way to rigidity, creativity fades and there is a loss of capacity to meet challenges from unexpected directions. Call to mind the adaptability of youth, and the way in which that adaptability diminishes with the years. Call to mind the vigor and recklessness of some new organizations and societies — our own frontier settlements, for example — and reflect on how frequently these qualities are buried under the weight of tradition and history.

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

Pointing to an infant’s openness to experiences and gradual acquisition of habits for navigating the world, Gardner echoes Henry Miller’s timeless wisdom on the secret of remaining young at heart and writes:

Each acquired attitude or habit, useful though it may be, makes [the infant] a little less receptive to alternative ways of thinking and acting. He becomes more competent to function in his own environment, less adaptive to changes.

All of this seems to suggest that the critical question is how to stay young. But youth implies immaturity. And though everyone wants to be young, no one wants to be immature. Unfortunately, as many a youth-seeker has learned, the two are intertwined.

From this springs the natural question of how one might “advance toward maturity without advancing toward rigidity and senility,” to which Gardner answers:

There may be a point at which raw young vitality and mature competence and wisdom reach a kind of ideal balance, but there is no possibility of freezing change at that point, as one might stop the motion in a home movie. There is nothing static in these processes.

Once again, this brings to mind Henry Miller’s memorable observation that “all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis,” as well as his longtime lover and lifelong friend Anaïs Nin’s defense of the fluid self. Gardner brings this paradox back to the notion of a vitally self-renewing society:

In the ever-renewing society what matters is a system or framework within which continuous innovation, renewal and rebirth can occur.

And yet, Gardner points out in a caveat all the more relevant today, it’s important to understand that renewal is different from “innovation,” more dimensional and integrated with the whole microcosm of life, more rooted in an appreciation of the fact that everything builds on what came before:

Renewal is not just innovation and change. It is also the process of bringing the results of change into line with our purposes. When our forebears invented the motor car, they had to devise rules of the road. Both are phases of renewal. When urban expansion threatens chaos, we must revive our conceptions of city planning and metropolitan government.

Mesmerized as we are by the idea of change, we must guard against the notion that continuity is a negligible — if not reprehensible — factor in human history. It is a vitally important ingredient in the life of individuals, organizations and societies. Particularly important to a society’s continuity are its long-term purposes and values. These purposes and values also evolve in the long run; but by being relatively durable, they enable a society to absorb change without losing its distinctive character and style. They do much to determine the direction of change. They insure a society will not be buffeted in all directions by every wind that blows.

A sensible view of these matters sees an endless interweaving of continuity and change.

[…]

The only stability possible is stability in motion.

Gardner goes on to explore all the ways in which we imprison ourselves — something Albert Camus had contemplated a decade earlier — and examines “the individual’s own intricately designed, self-constructed prison [and] incapacity for self-renewal.” In one particularly interesting aside, he points to the commencement address genre — arguably the modern secular sermon — as a testament to how, unless we guard against it, life pushes us from a capacity for self-renewal to chronic rigidity: One of the most common commencement messages is to keep on growing and never settle, and yet Gardner notes that many of the wide-eyed recipients of that message are “absolutely mummified” by middle age and “even some of the people who make the speeches are mummified.” He considers what’s at play:

As we mature we progressively narrow the scope and variety of our lives. Of all the interests we might pursue, we settle on a few. Of all the people with whom we might associate, we select a small number. We become caught in a web of fixed relationships. We develop set ways of doing things.

Half a century before modern cognitive science revealed the same, Gardner observes one of our most toxic existential tendencies:

As the years go by we view our familiar surroundings with less and less freshness of perception. We no longer look with a wakeful, perceiving eye at the faces of people we see every day, nor at any other features of our everyday world.

Illustration from 'The London Jungle Book' by Bhajju Shyam. Click image for more.

Echoing the ethos of the marvelous London Jungle Book, Gardner notes that the vivid experience of travel holds such allure to most of us precisely because it offers such “freshness of perception”:

At home we have lost the capacity to see what is before us. Travel shakes us out of our apathy, and we regain an attentiveness that heightens every experience. The exhilaration of travel has many sources, but surely one of them is that we recapture in some measure the unspoiled awareness of children.

So what can we do to “avert the hardening of the arteries” that attacks both societies and individuals? Decades before Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s pioneering work on “growth” vs. “fixed” mindsets, Gardner proposes a strikingly similar framework for understanding, and improving, our capacity for self-renewal:

Most human beings go through their lives only partially aware of the full range of their abilities.

[…]

Most abilities are not so readily evoked by the common circumstances of life. The “mute, inglorious Miltons” are more numerous than one might suppose, particularly in an age in which even an articulate Milton might go unnoticed, certainly unrewarded. Most of us have potentialities that have never been developed simply because the circumstances of our lives have never called them forth.

Exploration of the full range of his own potentialities is not something that the self-renewing man leaves to the chances of life. It is something he pursues systematically, or at least avidly, to the end of his days. He looks forward to an endless and unpredictable dialogue between his potentialities and the claims of life — not only the claims he encounters but the claims he invents. And by potentialities I mean not just skills, but the full range of his capacities for sensing, wondering, learning, understanding, loving, aspiring.

One prerequisite for self-renewal, Gardner argues, is self-knowledge — something all the more relevant today, when we’re so busy being productive that we neglect to be present, lulling ourselves into a trance of doing as we forget to be, becoming absent from our own lives. Gardner writes:

We can keep ourselves so busy, fill our lives with so many diversions, stuff our heads with so much knowledge, involve ourselves with so many people and cover so much ground that we never have time to probe the fearful and wonderful world within… By middle life most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves.

[…]

The individual who has become a stranger to himself has lost the capacity for genuine self-renewal.

Related to self-knowledge and of equal importance to our capacity for self-renewal is cultivating our capacity for love, as well as our capacity for friendship. Gardner writes:

Another characteristic of the self-renewing man is that he has mutually fruitful relations with other human beings. He is capable of accepting love and capable of giving it — both more difficult achievements than is commonly thought. He is capable of depending on others and of being depended upon. He can see life through another’s eyes and feel it through another’s heart…

The man or woman who cannot achieve these relationships is imprisoned, cut off from a great part of the world of experience. The joy and suffering of those we love are part of our own experience. We feel their triumphs and defeats, their hopes and fears, their anger and pity, and our lives are richer for it…

Love and friendship dissolve the rigidities of the isolated self, force new perspectives, alter judgments and keep in working order the emotional substratum on which all profound comprehension of human affairs must rest.

Half a century later, Self-Renewal remains a remarkable and prescient read in its entirety — Gardner goes on to explore how we can optimize our capacity for self-renewal by understanding its obstacles and essential conditions, the limits of individuality, how our attitudes toward the future impact it, its relationship with creativity and innovation, and more. Complement it with another wonderful read on learning to see the familiar world with new eyes.

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.