Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

26 FEBRUARY, 2013

What Now? Advice on Writing and Life from Ann Patchett

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“Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected.”

In 2006, writer Ann Patchett gave the commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College, her alma mater. The speech, a worthy addition to history’s most memorable graduation addresses, spurred such wide resonance that it was soon adapted into a small and lovely hardcover book titled What Now? (public library) and designed by none other than the great Chip Kidd — a fate not entirely uncommon, also shared by David Foster Wallace’s celebrated This Is Water commencement-address-turned-book.

Patchett opens:

If all fairy tales begin ‘Once upon a time,’ then all graduation speeches begin ‘When I was sitting where you are now.’ We may not always say it, at least not in those exact words, but it’s what graduation speakers are thinking. We look out at the sea of you and think, Isn’t there some mistake? I should still be sitting there. I was that young fifteen minutes ago, I was that beautiful and lost.

Having once sat in those very chairs herself, Patchett offers a poetic, bittersweet meditation on the elasticity of time:

Time has a funny way of collapsing when you go back to a place you once loved. You find yourself thinking, I was kissed in that building, I climbed up that tree. This place hasn’t changed so terribly much, and so by an extension of logic I must not have changed much, either.

Echoing Steve Jobs, who in his own fantastic commencement address famously cautioned that “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards,” Patchett urges these new graduates to be sure to return at some point — this, she argues, would let them reflect on the series of small choices which, as William James put it a century ago, “[spin] our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone.” Patchet writes:

Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected, how one decision leads you to another, how one twist of fate, good or bad, brings you to a door that later takes you to another door, which aided by several detours — long hallways and unforeseen stairwells — eventually puts you in the place you are now. Every choice lays down a trail of bread crumbs, so that when you look behind you there appears to be a very clear path that points straight to the place where you now stand. But when you look ahead there isn’t a bread crumb in sight — there are just a few shrubs, a bunch of trees, a handful of skittish woodland creatures. You glance from left to right and find no indication of which way you’re supposed to go. And so you stand there, sniffing at the wind, looking for directional clues in the growth patterns of moss, and you think, What now?

Borrowing in part from great scientists and in part from great poets, Patchett advocates for embracing uncertainty as a positive force:

Sometimes not having any idea where we’re going works out better than we could possibly have imagined.

Patchett goes on to offer a treasure trove of insight on the craft of writing, from honing your daily routine to dealing with rejection. Complement What Now? with more fantastic advice for graduates — or for anyone turning a new leaf of any variety — from Neil Gaiman and Jacqueline Novogratz.

Photograph courtesy Ann Patchett

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21 FEBRUARY, 2013

Bertrand Russell on Human Nature, Construction vs. Destruction, and Science as a Key to Democracy

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On the art of acquiring “a high degree of intellectual culture without emotional atrophy.”

In 1926, British philosopher, mathematician, historian, and social critic Bertrand Russell — whose 10 commandments of teaching endure as a timeless manifesto for education, whose poignant admonition is among history’s greatest insights on love, whose message to descendants should be etched into every living heart — penned Education and the Good Life (public library), exploring the essential pillars of building character through proper education and how that might relate to broader questions of politics, psychology, and moral philosophy.

One of Russell’s key assertions is that science education — something that leaves much to be desired nearly a century later — is key to attaining a future of happiness and democracy:

For the first time in history, it is now possible, owing to the industrial revolution and its byproducts, to create a world where everybody shall have a reasonable chance of happiness. Physical evil can, if we choose, be reduced to very small proportions. It would be possible, by organization and science, to feed and house the whole population of the world, not luxuriously, but sufficiently to prevent great suffering. It would be possible to combat disease, and to make chronic ill-health very rare. … All this is of such immeasurable value to human life that we dare not oppress the sort of education which will tend to bring it about. in such an education, applied science will have to be the chief ingredient. Without physics and physiology and psychology, we cannot build the new world.

Still, Russell is sure to offer a disclaimer, advocating for the equal importance of the humanities, and asks:

What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?

The humanities, he argues, help develop the imagination which, like many great scientists have attested, is key to progress:

It is only through imagination that men become aware of what the world might be; without it, ‘progress’ would become mechanical and trivial.

[…]

Cast-iron rules are above all things to be avoided.

In a mechanistic civilization, there is grave danger of a crude utilitarianism, which sacrifices the whole aesthetic side of life to what is called ‘efficiency.’

Echoing Galileo’s concerns about science and dogma, Russell writes:

Passionate beliefs produce either progress or disaster, not stability. Science, even when it attacks traditional beliefs, has beliefs of its own, and can scarcely flourish in an atmosphere of literary skepticism. … And without science, democracy is impossible.

[…]

Neither acquiescence in skepticism nor acquiescence in dogma is what education should produce. What it should produce is a belief that knowledge is attainable in a measure, though with difficulty; that much of what passes for knowledge at any given time is likely to be more or less mistaken, but that the mistakes can be rectified by care and industry. In acting upon our beliefs, we should be very cautious where a small error would mean disaster; nevertheless it is upon our beliefs that we must act. This state of mind is rather difficult: it requires a high degree of intellectual culture without emotional atrophy. But though difficult it is not impossible; it is in fact the scientific temper. Knowledge, like other good things, is difficult, but not impossible; the dogmatist forgets the difficulty, the skeptic denies the possibility. Both are mistaken, and their errors, when wide-spread, produce social disaster.

In a later chapter, he considers another double-edged sword of dogmatic thinking:

It is a dangerous error to confound truth with matter-of-fact. Our life is governed not only by facts, but by hopes; the kind of truthfulness which sees nothing but facts is a prison for the human spirit.

But one of Russell’s most important assertions, reminiscent of the old Cherokee parable of the two wolves, explores the fundamental predispositions of human nature:

In the immense majority of children, there is the raw material of a good citizen and also the raw material of a criminal.

[…]

The raw material of instinct is ethically neutral, and can be shaped either to good or evil by the influence of the environment.

In a related meditation, Russell articulates beautifully something ineffable yet essential, something we too frequently forget, of which a dear friend recently reminded me, and writes:

Construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it. … We construct when we increase the potential energy of the system in which we are interested, and we destroy when we diminish the potential energy. … Whatever may be thought of these definitions, we all know in practice whether an activity is to be regarded as constructive or destructive, except in a few cases where a man professes to be destroying with a view to rebuilding and are not sure whether he is sincere.

[…]

The first beginnings of many virtues arise out of experiencing the joys of construction.

[…]

Those whose intelligence is adequate should be encouraged in using their imaginations to think out more productive ways of utilizing existing social forces or creating new ones.

Education and the Good Life is a remarkable read in its entirety — highly recommended.

Artwork: “Choosing Sides” by Owen Mortensen, courtesy my living room wall

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21 FEBRUARY, 2013

Anaïs Nin on Real Love, Illustrated by Debbie Millman

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“Where the myth fails, human love begins. Then we love a human being, not our dream, but a human being with flaws.”

To celebrate beloved author and dedicated diarist Anaïs Nin, here is the second installment in my ongoing collaboration with author, artist, philosopher, design interviewer extraordinaire Debbie Millman, based on a 1941 entry from The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 (public library). Like our first collaboration, this beautiful typographic collage drawing is based on one of Nin’s most timeless insights on love, culled from her many volumes of diaries and her love letters with Henry Miller. Like last time, the artwork is available on Society6, with 100% of proceeds benefiting A Room of Her Own, a foundation supporting women writers and artists. Enjoy:

Complement this beauty with Nin’s timeless meditations on the meaning of life, Paris vs. New York, embracing the unfamiliar, and why emotional excess is essential to creativity.

See more of Debbie’s beautiful visual essays and poems online and in print, and follow her on Twitter.

Previous Brain Pickings artist series have included Susan Sontag on art and on love by Wendy MacNaughton, Anaïs Nin on life by Lisa Congdon, and Salvador Dalí’s “My Struggle” by Molly Crabapple.

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:





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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.