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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

21 APRIL, 2014

Legendary Harvard Psychologist Jerome Bruner on the Art of “Effective Surprise” and the 6 Essential Conditions of Creativity


“Passion, like discriminating taste, grows on its use. You more likely act yourself into feeling than feel yourself into action.”

One of the greatest preoccupations not only of our culture but of our civilization is the question of what creativity is, dating back to the dawn of recorded thought. But it wasn’t until the advent of modern psychology in the early twentieth century that our answers to the question began to take the shape of something more structured and systematic than metaphysical hunches — there’s Graham Wallace’s model of the four stages of the creative process from 1926, a five-step “technique for producing ideas” from 1939, Arthur Koestler’s famous “bisociation” theory of how creativity works from 1964, and a number of derivative modern ideas.

But one of the most compelling in the past century comes from the influential Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner (b. October 1, 1915), celebrated for his contributions to cognitive psychology and learning theory in education. In 1962, Bruner published On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand (public library) — a wonderfully dimensional exploration of “the act of knowing in itself and how it is shaped and in turn gives form to language, science, literature, and art,” exploring not the biological mystery of left-handedness but the metaphorical mesmerism of the left hand, which has traditionally represented the power of intuition, imagination, and spontaneity: The title of the collection comes from Bruner’s childhood fascination with the symbolism of the right hand as the doer and the left as the dreamer, and it is this toxic divide between the two that he sets out to counter with equal parts insight and irreverence. Articulating the same essential concern that Susan Sontag echoed two decades later in lamenting how the artificial divide between intuition and intelligence limits us, Bruner pits himself “in the role of a would-be mediator between the humanist and the scientist” and gently guides the metaphoric left hand to tickle the right, which has become “too stiff with technique,” into creative awakening.

Jerome Bruner

In one of the most timelessly illuminating essays from the collection, “The Conditions of Creativity,” Bruner writes:

There is something antic about creating, although the enterprise be serious. And there is a matching antic spirit that goes with writing about it, for if ever there was a silent process, it is the creative one. Antic and serious and silent. Yet there is good reason to inquire about creativity, a reason beyond practicality, for practicality is not a reason but a justification after the fact. The reason is the ancient search of the humanist for the excellence of man: the next creative act may bring man to a new dignity.

Noting that there is a “shrillness to our contemporary concern with creativity” — something perhaps even more observably true today than half a century ago, when he pondered the question — Bruner offers an essential caveat: Our search for those sources of dignity through creation is dictated by the cultural patterns of the time. In previous eras, it came from creating works of art in the image of “God,” but the technological boom of the twentieth century — an era “whose massive achievement is an intricate technological order” — brought forth a new preoccupation with pragmatism as a measure of creative merit, at the same time making it insufficient to be “merely useful.” Bruner writes:

The servant can pattern himself on the master — and so he did when God was master and Man His servant creating works in His glory — but the machine is the servant of man, and to pattern one’s function on the machine provides no measure of dignity. The machine is useful, the system in terms of which the machines gain their use is efficient, but what is man?

The artist, the writer, and to a new degree the scientist seek an answer in the nature of their acts. They create or they seek to create, and this in itself endows the process with dignity. there is “creative” writing and “pure” science, each justifying the work of its producer in its own right.

Of psychologists’ task in explicating the process, Bruner admonishes:

Make no mistake about it: it is not simply as technicians that we are bring called, but as adjutants to the moralist. My antic sense rises in self-defense. My advice, in the midst of the seriousness, is to keep an eye for the tinker shuffle, the flying of kites, and kindred sources of surprised amusement.

Indeed, this notion of “surprised amusement” becomes central to Bruner’s conception of creativity, which he defines with succinct elegance:

An act that produces effective surprise [is] the hallmark of the creative enterprise.

It is essential, here to distinguish between creativity and originality. In a sentiment that brings to mind Twain’s famous assertion that plagiarism is the seed of creative work, Alexander Graham Bell’s conviction that “our most original compositions are composed exclusively of expressions derived from others,” and Henry Miller’s poetic debunking of the originality illusion, Bruner cautions:

The road to banality is paved with creative intentions. Surprise is not easily defined. It is the unexpected that strikes one with wonder or astonishment. What is curious about effective surprise is that it need not be rare or infrequent or bizarre and is often none of these things. Effective surprises … seem rather to have the quality of obviousness about them when they occur, producing a shock of recognition following which there is no longer astonishment.

Art by Hollie Chastain from 'Overcoming Creative Block.' Click image for more.

He goes on to outline three kinds of effectiveness in surprise.

Predictive effectiveness is “the kind of surprise that yields high predictive value in its wake” — for instance, as in the most elegant formulae of mathematics and physics, which hold that whenever certain conditions are present, a specific outcome is guaranteed to be produced. (All of these 17 equations that changed the world are excellent examples.) Predictive effectiveness doesn’t always come through surprise — it’s often “the slow accretion of knowledge and urge.” And yet, Bruner argues, “the surprise may only come when we look back and see whence we have come” — the very thing Steve Jobs described in his autobiographical account of his own creative journey, in noting that “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”

Bruner’s second form is formal effectiveness, the kind most frequently encountered in mathematics and logic, and occasionally music. He cites French polymath Henri Poincaré’s famous account of how creativity works, which holds that “sudden illumination” — the mythic Eureka! moment — is the unconscious combinatorial process that reveals “the unsuspected kinship between … facts, long known, but wrongly believed to be strangers to one another.”

The third, Bruner notes, is the hardest to describe. Metaphorical effectiveness is also manifested by “connecting domains of experience that were before apart,” but what distinguishes it from the formal kind is that the mechanisms of connectedness come for the realm of art rather than science and logic — the kind of connectedness that Carl Jung described as “visionary,” in contrast to the merely psychological. (Metaphorical thinking, after all, is at the developmental root of human imagination.) While we are wired to make sense of the world via categorization, “metaphoric combination leaps beyond systematic placement, explores connections that before were unsuspected.”

The unifying mechanism for all three, however, remains what Einstein termed “combinatory play.” Bruner writes:

All of the forms of effective surprise grow out of a combinatorial activity — a placing of things in new perspectives.

Art by Sydney Pink from 'Overcoming Creative Block.' Click image for more.

Echoing Tolstoy’s notion of “emotional infectiousness,” Bruner adds:

There are certain deep sharings of plight among human beings that make it possible the communication of the artist to the beholder… The artist — whatever his medium — must be close enough to these conditions in himself so that they may guide his choice among combinations, provide him with the genuine and protect him from the paste.

And so we get to the true gift of effective surprise:

The triumph of effective surprise is that it takes one beyond the common ways of experiencing the world… Creative products have this power of reordering experience and thought in their image. In science, the reordering is much the same from one beholder of a formula to another. In art, the imitation is in part self-imitation. It is the case too that the effective surprise of the creative [person] provides a new instrument for manipulating the world — physically as with the creation of the wheel or symbolically as with the creation of E = mc2.

The main paradox of such combinatorial creation, however, is that effective surprise is almost always followed by “the exercise of technique” — in other words, creativity requires the fusion of inspiration and technique, which appear at first to be opposite in spirit: one spontaneous, the other derived from repeated deliberate practice. To resolve the “paradox and antimony,” Bruner proposes six essential conditions of creativity:

  1. Detachment and commitment. A willingness to divorce oneself from the obvious is surely a prerequisite for the fresh combinatorial act that produces effective surprise. there must be as a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition a detachment from the forms as they exist… But it is a detachment of commitment. For there is about it a caring, a deep need to understand something, to master a technique, to render a meaning. So while the poet, the mathematician, the scientist must each achieve detachment, they do it in the interest of commitment. And at one stroke they, the creative ones, are disengaged from that which exists conventionally and are engaged deeply in what they construct to replace it.
  2. Passion and decorum. By passion I understand a willingness and ability to let one’s impulses express themselves in one’s life through one’s work… Passion, like discriminating taste, grows on its use. You more likely act yourself into feeling than feel yourself into action… But again a paradox: it is not all urgent vitality. There is decorum in creative activity: a love of form, an etiquette toward the object of our efforts, a respect for materials… So both are necessary and there must surely be a subtle matter of timing involved — when the impulse, when the taming.
  3. Freedom to be dominated by the object. You begin to write a poem. Before long it, the poem, begins to develop metrical, stanzaic,symbolical requirements. You, as the writer of the poem, are serving it — it seems. or you may be pursuing the task of building a formal model to represent the known properties of single nerve fibers and their synapses: soon the model takes over… There is something odd about the phenomenon. We externalize an object, a product of our thoughts, treat it as “out there.” Freud remarked, commenting on projection, that human beings seem better able to deal with stimuli from the outside than from within. So it is with the externalizing of a creative work, permitting it to develop its own being, its own autonomy coming to serve it. It is as if it were easier to cope with there, as if this arrangement permitted the emergence of more unconscious impulse, more material not readily accessible…

    To be dominated by an object of one’s own creation — perhaps its extreme is Pygmalion dominated by Galatea — is to be free of the defenses that keep us hidden from ourselves.

    As the object takes over and demands to be completed “in its own terms,” there is a new opportunity to express a style and an individuality. Likely as not, it is so partly because we are rid of the internal juggling of possibilities, because we have represented them “out there” where we can look at them, consider them.

  4. Deferral and immediacy. There is an immediacy to creating anything, a sense of direction, an objective, a general idea, a feeling. Yet the immediacy is anything but a quick orgasm of completion. Completion is deferred…

    Having read a good many journals and diaries by writers I have come to the tentative conclusion that the principal guard against precocious completion, in writing at least, is boredom. I have little doubt that the same protection avails the scientist. It is the boredom of conflict, knowing deep down what one wishes to say and knowing that one has not said it. one acts on the impulse to exploit an idea, to begin. One also acts on the impulse of boredom, to defer. Thus Virginia Woolf, trying to finish Orlando in February 1928: “Always, always, the last chapter slips out of my hands. One gets bored. One whips oneself up. I still hope for a fresh wind and don’t very much bother, except that I miss the fun that was so tremendously lively all October, November, and December.

  5. The internal drama. There is within each person his own cast of characters* — an ascetic, and perhaps a glutton, a prig, a frightened child, a little man, even an onlooker, sometimes a Renaissance man. The great works of the theater are decompositions of such a cast, the rendering into external drama of the internal one, the conversion of the internal cast into dramatis personae…

    As in the drama, so too a life can be described as a script, constantly rewritten, guiding the unfolding internal drama. It surely does not do to limit the drama to the stiff characters of the Freudian morality play — the undaunted ego, the brutish id, the censorious and punitive superego. Is the internal cast a reflection of the identifications to which we have been committed? I do not think it is as simple as that. It is a way of grouping our internal demands and there are idealized models over and beyond those with whom we have special identification — figures in myth, in life, in the comics, in history, creations of fantasy…

    It is the working out of conflict and coalition within the set of identities that compose the person that one finds the source of many of the richest and most surprising combinations. It is not merely the artist and the writer, but the inventor too who is the beneficiary.

  6. The dilemma of abilities. What shall we say of energy, of combinatorial zest, of intelligence, of alertness, of perseverance? I shall say nothing about them. They are obviously important but, from a deeper point of view, they are also trivial. For at any level of energy or intelligence there can be more or less of creating in our sense. Stupid people create for each other as well as benefiting from what comes from afar. So too do slothful and torpid people. I have been speaking of creativity, not of genius.

Art by Julia Rothman from 'Overcoming Creative Block.' Click image for more.

He ends with an essential disclaimer that sprinkles our cultural compulsion for explaining way the creative process with some much-needed grains of salt.

I end with the same perplexity in attempting to find some way of thinking reasonably about the creative process. A the outset I proposed that we define the creative act as effective surprise — the production of novelty. It is reasonable to suppose that we will someday devise a proper scientific theory capable of understanding and predicting such acts. Perhaps we will understand the energies that produce the creative act much as we have come to understand how the dynamo produces its energy. It may be, however, that there is another mode of approach to knowing how the process generates itself, and this will be the way in which we understand how symbols and ideas … capture [our] thoughts. Often it is the poet who grasps these matters most firmly and communicates them most concisely. Perhaps it is our conceit that there is only one way of understanding a phenomenon. I have argued that just as there is predictive effectiveness, so is there metaphoric effectiveness. For the while, at least, we can do worse than to live with a metaphoric understanding of creativity.

On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand is enormously insightful and enriching in its entirety, exploring such facets of the creative experience as the act of discovery, art as a form of consciousness, our search for identity, and the question of fate in the age of science. Complement it with the excellent A Technique for Producing Ideas, Madeleine L’Engle on creativity and Sarah Lewis on creativity and the difference between mastery and success.

* See 28-year-old Susan Sontag’s ideas about the four people a great writer must be, which she outlined in her diary in December of 1961, shortly after Bruner’s essay was first published. “Jerry Bruner” appeared among her voracious reading diet recorded elsewhere in the diary, so it is highly likely that her concept of the four inner personae was influenced by Bruner.

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21 APRIL, 2014

Trying Not to Try: How to Cultivate the Paradoxical Art of Spontaneity Through the Chinese Concept of Wu-Wei


“Our modern conception of human excellence is too often impoverished, cold, and bloodless. Success does not always come from thinking more rigorously or striving harder.”

“The best way to get approval is not to need it,” Hugh MacLeod memorably counseled. We now know that perfectionism kills creativity and excessive goal-setting limits our success rather than begetting it — all different manifestations of the same deeper paradox of the human condition, at once disconcerting and comforting, which Edward Slingerland, professor of Asian Studies and Embodied Cognition at the University of British Columbia and a renowned scholar of Chinese thought, explores in Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity (public library).

Slingerland frames the paradoxical premise at the heart of his book with an illustrative example: a game called Mindball at his local science museum in Vancouver, in which two players sit opposite one another, each wearing an electrode-equipped headband that registers general activity in the brain, and try to mentally push a metal ball from the center of the table to the other player; whoever does this first wins. There is, of course, a rub:

The motive force — measured by each player’s electrodes, and conveyed to the ball by a magnet hidden underneath the table—is the combination of alpha and theta waves produced by the brain when it’s relaxed: the more alpha and theta waves you produce, the more force you mentally exert on the ball. Essentially, Mindball is a contest of who can be the most calm. It’s fun to watch. The players visibly struggle to relax, closing their eyes, breathing deeply, adopting vaguely yogic postures. The panic they begin to feel as the ball approaches their end of the table is usually balanced out by the overeagerness of their opponent, both players alternately losing their cool as the big metal ball rolls back and forth. You couldn’t wish for a better, more condensed illustration of how difficult it is to try not to try.

Our lives, Slingerland argues, are often like “a massive game of Mindball,” when we find ourselves continually caught in this loop of trying so hard that we stymie our own efforts. Like in Mindball, where victory only comes when the player relaxes and stops trying to win, we spend our lives “preoccupied with effort, the importance of working, striving, and trying,” only to find that the more we try to will things into manifesting, the more elusive they become. Slingerland writes:

Our excessive focus in the modern world on the power of conscious thought and the benefits of willpower and self-control causes us to overlook the pervasive importance of what might be called “body thinking”: tacit, fast, and semiautomatic behavior that flows from the unconscious with little or no conscious interference. The result is that we too often devote ourselves to pushing harder or moving faster in areas of our life where effort and striving are, in fact, profoundly counterproductive.

Art by Austin Kleon from 'Show Your Work.' Click image for more.

Some of the most elusive objects of our incessant pursuits are happiness and spontaneity, both of which are strikingly resistant to conscious pursuit. Two ancient Chinese concepts might be our most powerful tools for resolving this paradox — wu-wei (pronounced oooo-way) and de (pronounced duh). Slingerland explains:

Wu-wei literally translates as “no trying” or “no doing,” but it’s not at all about dull inaction. In fact, it refers to the dynamic, effortless, and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective. People in wu-wei feel as if they are doing nothing, while at the same time they might be creating a brilliant work of art, smoothly negotiating a complex social situation, or even bringing the entire world into harmonious order. For a person in wu-wei, proper and effective conduct follows as automatically as the body gives in to the seductive rhythm of a song. This state of harmony is both complex and holistic, involving as it does the integration of the body, the emotions, and the mind. If we have to translate it, wu-wei is probably best rendered as something like “effortless action” or “spontaneous action.” Being in wu-wei is relaxing and enjoyable, but in a deeply rewarding way that distinguishes it from cruder or more mundane pleasures.

This notion is remarkably similar to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s pioneering concept of flow — that precious state of consciousness where we feel a deep and total immersion in life or creative work, forgetting the passage of time and even such physical needs as hunger and thirst — and subsequent psychological theories that emphasize the value of “problem-creating” over problem-solving as a source of creative energy and fulfillment. It is also at the heart of Lewis Hyde’s famous distinction between work and creative labor. But wu-wei is also different its counterparts in Western psychology:

People who are in wu-wei have de typically translated as “virtue,” “power,” or “charismatic power.” de is radiance that others can detect, and it serves as an outward signal that one is in wu-wei. de comes in handy in a variety of ways. For rulers and others involved in political life, de has a powerful, seemingly magical effect on those around them, allowing them to spread political order in an instantaneous fashion. They don’t have to issue threats or offer rewards, because people simply want to obey them… If you have de, people like you, trust you, and are relaxed around you.

If this too sounds familiar, it might be because it sounds like precisely what David Foster Wallace described in what’s easily the best definition of leadership ever articulated.

We’re drawn to people with wu-wei, Slingerland argues, because we inherently trust the automatic, unconscious mind due to a simple fact from the psychology of trust — because spontaneity is hard to fake, we intuit that spontaneous people are authentic and thus trustworthy. But Western thought has suffered from centuries of oppressive dualism, treating intuition and the intellect as separate and often conflicting faculties — a toxic myth that limits us as a culture and as individuals. Fortunately, Slingerland points out, recent decades have brought a more embodied view of cognition acknowledging the inextricable link between thought and feeling and debunking, as Ray Bradbury so eloquently did, the false divide between emotion and rationality. (We’ve seen, too, that metaphorical thinking is central to our cognitive development, and metaphor is itself rooted in emotion.) The Chinese tradition, on the other hand, has a millennia-long history of cultivating a more integrated model of the human experience:

For the early Chinese thinkers … the culmination of knowledge is understood, not in terms of grasping a set of abstract principles, but rather as entering a state of wu-wei. The goal is to acquire the ability to move through the physical and social world in a manner that is completely spontaneous and yet fully in harmony with the proper order of the natural and human worlds (the Dao or “Way”). Because of this focus on knowing how rather than knowing this or that, the Chinese tradition has spent a great deal of energy over the past two thousand years exploring the interior, psychological feel of wu-wei, worrying about the paradox at the heart of it, and developing a variety of behavioral techniques to get around it. The ideal person in early China is more like a well-trained athlete or cultivated artist than a dispassionate cost-benefit analyzer.

Slingerland poses a pause-giving contrast:

The ideal person in Western philosophy is not only disembodied but also radically alone.

And yet this ideal runs counter to our biological and social truths:

In reality, we are not autonomous, self-sufficient, purely rational individuals but emotional pack animals, intimately dependent on other human beings at every stage of our lives. We get along, not because we’re good at calculating costs and benefits, but because we are emotionally bound to our immediate family and friends and have been trained to adopt a set of values that allows us to cooperate spontaneously with others in our society. These shared values are the glue that holds together large-scale human groups, and a key feature of these values is that they need to be embraced sincerely and spontaneously — in an wu-wei fashion — to do their job. This is why the tensions surrounding wu-wei and de are linked to basic puzzles surrounding human cooperation, especially in the anonymous, large communities we tend to inhabit today.

What wu-wei gives us, Slingerland argues, is “a sense of being at home in some framework of values, however vague or tenuous,” which allows us “to recover the crucial social dimension of spontaneity” — something else that distinguishes it from Western concepts like “flow.” Because contextual fuzziness is a central feature of human psychology, the barriers to spontaneity tend to very among people and between situations, but the result is the same:

We have been taught to believe that the best way to achieve our goals is to reason about them carefully and strive consciously to reach them. Unfortunately, in many areas of life this is terrible advice. Many desirable states — happiness, attractiveness, spontaneity — are best pursued indirectly, and conscious thought and effortful striving can actually interfere with their attainment.

Page from 'Neurocomic,' a graphic novel about how the brain works. Click image for more.

One centerpiece of the paradox comes from an important cognitive duality: Our thinking is steered by two distinct systems, each beholden to its own rules and characteristics — the same two systems responsible for the marvels and flaws of our intuition. The first, known as System 1, is dominated by “hot cognition”; fast, automatic, and largely unconscious, it is primitive and significantly older in evolutionary terms, which means that, thanks to eons of practice and repeat use, it tends to be fairly fixed. The second kind, System 2, is characterized by “cold cognition” — slow, deliberate, rational, and conscious reasoning, which evolved more recently and is thus more flexible. The former is what we associate with the body, the latter with the mind. When System 1 takes over, with its impulsive and short-sighted reactivity, we often run into problems in the long run. Slingerland explains:

This isn’t because hot cognition doesn’t take future consequences into account. The problem is that this system’s conception of relevant consequences was fixed a long time ago, evolutionarily speaking, and is fairly rigid. “Sugar and fat: good” was for most of our evolutionary history a great principle to live by, since acquiring adequate nutrition was a constant challenge. For those of us fortunate enough to live in the affluent industrialized world, however, sugar and fat are so widely and freely available that they no longer represent unqualified goods — on the contrary, allowing ourselves to indulge in them to excess has a variety of negative consequences. The great advantage of cold cognition is that it is capable of changing its priorities in light of new information.

Slingerland points to two key theories that explain how “one (relatively) hairless ape managed the transition from tribe to state” and why the two systems of cognition arose. One holds that the development of external social institutions like laws, punishments, money, and rewards gradually came to keep our pre-wired, internal hot cognition in check as our cognitive control centers perpetually churn to override, repress, or redirecting it. Slingerland sums it up:

Civilization is about the triumph of cold cognition over hot.

But more recent work in Western philosophy and social science has pulled this theory into question for reasons more aligned with the concept of wu-wei, suggesting that cold cognition simply doesn’t have the strength and stamina to keep hot cognition under control 24/7. Instead, it’s something else that motivates our cooperative behavior — something doesn’t have to do with rewards as punishments and instead bridges the two systems through a deeper mechanism:

According to this view, the key to getting lots of strangers to work together is not to create an endless stream of new laws or institutions but to create a set of shared values. Laws are something you merely obey. Values are something you feel. Once internalized, values function just like other forms of hot cognition — fast, automatic, unconscious, wu-wei. Looked at this way, we can begin to see how the paradox of wu-wei emerges as a kind of natural consequence of our transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers and city dwellers.

Slingerland cites Cornell psychologist Robert Frank’s pioneering work on why we cooperate, which suggests that the most important lubricant of our social interactions are powerful emotions that keep us honest rather than cognitive evaluations of prospective rewards and punishments. In the long run, the payoffs of cooperation come only when we stop consciously trying to force them — a finding in stark contrast with the basic tenets of contemporary Western culture, which rewards cold cognition to an extreme and invariably pushes us to strive deliberately and systematically for things only attainable once we let go. Slingerland writes:

If you’re just using rewards and punishments — the rational, self-interested, cold-cognition strategy — it doesn’t matter what people feel on the inside. You set up the incentives, let people figure them out, and then judge them purely on their behavior. In the values model, on the other hand, what people are really feeling on the inside is crucial: if I can’t trust that you’re committed to the same ideals that I’m committed to, there’s no way we can work together.

That’s where “the paradox of wu-wei” arises — the conundrum of trying not to try. To be sure, this isn’t advocacy for passivity and resignation but for the mindful cultivation of those tendencies in ourselves that promise to bear fruit as behaviors and qualities we aspire to in the long run. Slingerland puts it elegantly:

You can cultivate your sprouts: try to identify incipient tendencies of desirable behavior within you, and then nurture and expand them until they are strong enough to take over. Or you can just go with the flow: forget about trying, forget about not trying, and just let the values that you want to embrace pick you up and carry you along.

Illustration by Alessandro Sanna from 'The River.' Click image for more.

There is also an ebb and flow of the two systems over the natural course of life: Cold-cognition strategies like “carving and polishing” tend to be more beneficial earlier in life as well as when we’re acquiring new skills, where deliberate practice is the key to mastery. But after a certain point of expertise, the very strategies that helped us make progress early on now lodge us into the “OK plateau” of autopilot and cold cognition starts hindering rather than powering progress. This, Slingerland notes, might also be true of morality:

A deeply ingrained moral disposition could become too rigid as you age, in which case you might need to shift to the sprout or letting-go approach.

On a social level, one solution to this paradox is what Slingerland calls “ethical bootstrapping” — the idea that the desirable behaviors and qualities we cultivate within ourselves emanate out to have a small but perceptible positive effect on others, “which causes them to act in an incrementally more morally positive way, which in turn feeds back on us.” Slingerland brings this back to the reality of our everyday lives, by way of the ancient Chinese:

This has immediate, practical implications for how you go about arranging your daily life. The early Confucians put an enormous amount of effort into modifying their immediate aesthetic environment — clothes, colors, layout of living spaces, music — so that it would reflect the values of the Confucian Way. Although most of us no longer embrace the Way, we can use the same techniques to foster our own particular set of values. If you can set up your home and workplace, to the extent you have control over it, to reflect your tastes and values, the things that make you feel good and at home, you’re going to be better off. You’ll have more wu-wei and more de.


The basic idea is simple. You choose a desirable model, then reshape your hot cognition to fit by immersing yourself in reminders and environmental cues. How this repetition eventually causes the new internal disposition to become sincere and self-activating is a bit of a mystery — intellectually, the paradox remains — but it seems to work in practice.

This disposition isn’t rooted in just philosophy. Recent findings in psychology and social science, Slingerland points out, have indicated that this is a central feature of our how our minds work:

A growing literature in the psychology of perception has demonstrated that, when it comes to certain difficult visual tasks — exercises where subjects are asked to locate a target shape in the midst of a large array—simply relaxing and letting the answer “pop out” works much better than actively trying. Similarly, when one is stymied by a problem, simply leaving it alone and doing something else is often the best way to solve it. Doing nothing allows your unconscious to take over, and, as we’ve seen, the unconscious is often better at solving certain types of particularly complex problems.

This, of course, is something nearly every model of the creative process accounts for, acknowledging the importance of an “incubation” phase, or what Lewis Carroll so memorably termed “mental mastication.” To create the conditions for this essential state, Slingerland advises that we do what we tend to intuit is important but rationally resist: “Sleep in, take a walk, go weed your garden.” He encapsulates the essence of this approach:

The sort of knowledge that we rely on most heavily is hot, emotionally grounded “knowing how” rather than cold, dispassionate “knowing that.” We’re made for doing, not thinking. This has significant implications for everything from how we educate people to how we conduct public debates, make public policy decisions, and think about our personal relationships.


Our modern conception of human excellence is too often impoverished, cold, and bloodless. Success does not always come from thinking more rigorously or striving harder.

In the rest of Trying Not to Try, Slingerland further explores the social and spiritual dimensions of wu-wei, how to better cultivate them in our daily lives, and why spontaneity is central to our ability to trust, play, and love. Complement it with Oliver Burkeman on how over-planning limits our happiness and success and Alan Watts on why living with uncertainty is the secret to a full life.

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18 APRIL, 2014

How a Smile Saved Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Life: A Soul-Lifting Meditation on Our Shared Humanity


“Care granted to the sick, welcome offered to the banished, forgiveness itself are worth nothing without a smile enlightening the deed.”

Though researchers since Darwin may have spent considerable effort on the science of smiles, at the heart of that simple human expression remains a metaphysical art — one captured nowhere more beautifully and grippingly than in a short account by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, found in Letter to a Hostage (public library) — the same exquisite short memoir he began writing in December of 1940, a little more than two years before he created The Little Prince on American soil, which also gave us his poignant reflection on what the Sahara desert teaches us about the meaning of life.

In a creative sandbox for what would become Saint-Exupéry’s most famous line in The Little Prince — “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” — he writes:

How does life construct those lines of force which make us alive?


Real miracles make little noise! Essential events are so simple!

One such essential event in Saint-Exupéry’s life had to do with the mundane miracle of a simple smile, a gift he so poetically describes as “a certain miracle of the sun, which had taken so much trouble, for so many million years, to achieve, through ourselves, that quality of a smile which was pure success.” He once again channels the spirit of his famous Little Prince line and writes:

The essential, most often, has no weight. The essential there, was apparently nothing but a smile. A smile is often the essential. One is paid with a smile. One is rewarded by a smile. And the quality of a smile might make one die.

Indeed, in a subsequent chapter, Saint-Exupéry recounts an incident that rendered a smile very much the difference between life and death — his life and death. One night during his time in Spain as a journalist reporting on the Civil War, he found himself with several revolver barrels pressed tightly into his stomach — the militia of the rebel forces had snuck up on him under the veil of the dark and captured him in “solemn silence,” staring at his tie — “such a luxury was not fashionable in an anarchist area” — rather than his face. He recounts:

My skin tightened. I waited for the shot, for this was the time of quick trials. But there was no shot. After a complete blank of a few seconds, during which the shifts at work appeared to dance in another universe — a kind of dream ballet — my anarchists, slightly nodding their heads, bid me precede them, and we set off, without hurry, across the lines of junction. The capture had been done in perfect silence, with an extraordinary economy of movement. It was like a game of creatures of the ocean bed.

I soon descended to a basement transformed into a guard post. Badly lit by a poor oil lamp, some other militia were dozing, their guns between their legs. They exchanged a few words, in a neutral voice, with the men of my patrol. One of them searched me.

Saint-Exupéry didn’t speak Spanish, but understood enough Catalan to gather that his identity documents were being requested. He tried to communicate to his captors that he had left them at the hotel, that he was journalist, but they merely passed around his camera, yawning and expressionless. The atmosphere, to his surprise, wasn’t what one would expect of an anarchist militia camp:

The dominant impression was that of boredom. Boredom and sleep. The power of concentration of these men seemed exhausted. I almost wished for a sign of hostility, as a human contact. But … they gazed at me without any reaction, as if they were looking at a Chinese fish in an aquarium.

(One has to wonder whether that desire for contact, whatever its nature or cost, might be a universality of the human condition — the same impulse that drives trolls to spew the venom of hostility as a desperate antidote to their own apathy and existential boredom. Aggression is, perhaps, the only form of contact of which they are capable, and yet it is contact they crave so compulsively.)

After a tortuous period of observing his captors wait for nothing in particular, Saint-Exupéry grew increasingly exasperated with a longing for contact, for the mere acknowledgement of his existence. He paints the backdrop of the miracle that would take place:

In order to load myself with the weight of real presence, I felt a strange need to cry out something about myself, which would impose upon them the truth of my existence — my age for instance! That is impressive, the age of a man! That summarizes all his life. This maturity of his has taken a long time to achieve. It was grown through so many obstacles conquered, so many serious illnesses cured, so many griefs appeased, so many despairs overcome, so many dangers unconsciously passed. It has grown through so many desires, so many hopes, so many regrets, so many lapses, so much love. The age of a man, that represents a good load of experience and memories. In spite of decoys, jolts, and ruts, you have continued to plod like a horse drawing a cart.

Saint-Exupéry was thirty-seven at the time.

But what happened next had nothing to do with the achievement of age, or the gravitas of maturity, or any other willful self-assertion. Instead, it was driven by the simplest, most profound form of shared humanity:

Then the miracle happened. Oh! a very discreet miracle. I had no cigarette. As one of my guards was smoking, I asked him, by gesture, showing the vestige of a smile, if he would give me one. The man first stretched himself, slowly passed his hand across his brow, raised his eyes, no longer to my tie but to my face, and, to my great astonishment, he also attempted a smile. It was like the dawning of the day.

This miracle did not conclude the tragedy, it removed it altogether, as light does shadow. There had been no tragedy. This miracle altered nothing visible. The feeble oil lamp, the table scattered with papers, the men propped against the wall, the colors, the smell, everything remained unchanged. Yet everything was transformed in its very substance. That smile saved me. It was a sign just as final, as obvious in its future consequences, as unchangeable as the rising of the sun. It marked the beginning of a new era. Nothing had changed, everything was changed. The table scattered with papers became alive. The oil lamp became alive. The walls were alive. The boredom dripping from every lifeless thing in that cellar grew lighter as if by magic. It seemed that an invisible stream of blood had started flowing again, connecting all things in the same body, and restoring to them their significance.

The men had not moved either, but, though a minute earlier they had seemed to be farther away from me than an antediluvian species, now they grew into contemporary life. I had an extraordinary feeling of presence. That is it: of presence. And I was aware of a connection.

The boy who had smiled at me, and who, until a few minutes before, had been nothing but a function, a tool, a kind of monstrous insect, appeared now rather awkward, almost shy, of a wonderful shyness — that terrorist! He was no less a brute than any other. But the revelation of the man in him shed such a light upon his vulnerable side! We men assume haughty airs, but within the depth of our hearts, we know hesitation, doubt, grief.

Nothing had yet been said. Yet everything was resolved.

Original watercolor for The Little Prince by Saint-Exupéry. Click image for more.

Saint-Exupéry ends with a reflection on the sacred universality and life-giving force of that one simple gesture, the human smile:

Care granted to the sick, welcome offered to the banished, forgiveness itself are worth nothing without a smile enlightening the deed. We communicate in a smile beyond languages, classes, and parties. We are faithful members of the same church, you with your customs, I with mine.

Four years after he wrote Letter to a Hostage, which is a sublime read in its totality, Saint-Exupéry disappeared over the Bay of Biscay never to return. Popular legend has it that Horst Rippert, the German fighter pilot who shot down the author’s plane, broke down and wept upon hearing the news — Saint-Exupéry had been his favorite author. What a tragic form of contact, war.

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