Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

20 MAY, 2014

Seth Godin on Vulnerability, Creative Courage, and How to Dance with the Fear: A Children’s Book for Grownups

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“If you just pick one human you can change for the better, with work that might not work — that’s what art is.”

At the 2014 HOW conference, Debbie Millman, host of the excellent interview show Design Matters and a remarkable mind, sat down with the prolific Seth Godin to discuss courage, anxiety, change, creative integrity, and why he got thrown out of Milton Glaser’s class. She used an unusual book of Godin’s as the springboard for their wide-ranging conversation: V is for Vulnerable: Life Outside the Comfort Zone (public library) — an alphabet book for grownups illustrated by Hugh MacLeod with a serious and rather urgent message about what it means and what it takes to dream, to live with joy, to find our purpose and do fulfilling work.

I had the pleasure of seeing and recording the conversation — transcribed highlights below.

On how moving away from the economy of scarcity is changing the motives for making books:

[You used to] create an item that is scarce, and that thing that you created that is scarce has value because it’s scarce and you can sell it. In the world we live in now, none of those things are true — we don’t know the people that made the internet, we don’t have to pay them. And we type something, or we design something, and it can be seen by hundreds of thousands or millions of people, if it spreads. That’s a whole new way to think about how we make things. So why bother making a book, ever again? What’s the point, if can reach ten times as many people with a blog post as will ever read one of my books? … If I’m going to make a book, there’d better be a reason experientially.

On why he used the format of a children’s book to shake grownups into absorbing a serious message:

I wanted to capture the way [that] I felt as a three-year-old when my mom read me a book. I wanted to capture the way, as a parent, I felt when I read a book to my kids. And that feeling isn’t something we get when we hand a kid an iPad in a restaurant and say, “Don’t bother me.” Something magical happens when we read a book to a kid, when we’re read a book.

So I wanted to steal that feeling — that’s why the format looks like a kids’ book, so that I could get to that part of your head that’s pre-cynical, the part of your head that isn’t yet afraid of what other people are going to think of you, the part of your head that has the bravery to do this work that matters. If I can steal that and get in, that’s my goal.

Anxiety is experiencing failure in advance. Tell yourself enough vivid stories about the worst possible outcome of your work and you'll soon come to believe them. Worry is not preparation, and anxiety doesn't make you better.

On what telling ourselves that we’re limited in our work by faulty others — crappy clients, bad bosses — is really about:

My thesis of humanity is that we are not squirrels. If you watch squirrels in the fall, they all do the same thing — they hide the acorns and stuff, they never help each other out, and they don’t do anything non-squirrel-like. They’re just squirrels — that’s their job. We’re beyond that, I would hope. And if we’re spending a lot of time in squirrel-like behavior, we’re selling ourselves short.

There are so many people in this world that don’t have the leverage and the trust and the promise that we’re lucky enough to be born with. With got this huge head-start, and to use it just to hide acorns feels to me like a cop-out.

When we see the designers that we admire and the people that we look up to, they also have lousy clients. They also have bosses that are pushing them to fit in — but they refuse. Because it’s hard to refuse, and that’s the work. The work isn’t kerning — everyone here knows how to kern… Kerning just gets done for you — that’s not the craft. The craft is looking the client in the eye and saying “No” — that’s the part that computers are never going to be able to do for us.

Vulnerable is the only way we can feel when we truly share the art we've made. When we share it, when we connect, we have shifted all the power and made ourselves naked in front of the person we've given the gift of our art to. We have no excuses, no manual to point to, no standard operating procedure to protect us. And that is part of our gift.

On anxiety and Steven Pressfield’s notion of the Resistance in creative work and the value of being disagreeable — for the right reasons — in the client business:

The discipline … is to first understand that “No” might mean you want to make art, but “no” might also mean you’re hiding — that being disagreeable is a perfect way to hide from criticism, because if you’re disagreeable enough, you won’t have any customers, you won’t have to do anything scary… I think we have to be disagreeable in the service of the client, not disagreeable in the service of the Resistance — that when we’re being disagreeable, we’re doing it on behalf of the client achieving more — not our ego achieving more, not us being more famous, but the client getting more of what he or she wants. That means you have to pick clients not who pay, but who want the things that you want.

Quality, like feedback, is a trap. To focus on reliably meeting specifications (a fine definition of quality) is to surrender the real work, which is to matter. Quality of performance is a given, it's not the point.

A beautiful definition of design:

Design, at its core, thrives when a human being cares enough to do work that touches another — it doesn’t thrive when it gets more “efficient.”

On how what to do, as creative people, when our amphibian brain begins to whisper into our mind’s ear every possible disaster scenario and assuring us of our prospective failure:

That is what we do for a living — we dance with the Resistance, we don’t make it go away. You cannot make it go away — you cannot make the voice go away, you cannot make the fear go away, because it’s built in. What you can do is when it shows up, you say “Welcome! I’m glad you’re here. Let’s dance about this.”

[…]

What we need to do is say, “What’s the smallest, tiniest thing that I can master and what’s the scariest thing I can do in front of the smallest number of people that can teach me how to dance with the fear?” Once we get good at that, we just realize that it’s not fatal. And it’s not intellectually realize — we’ve lived something that wasn’t fatal. And that idea is what’s so key — because then you can do it a little bit more.

On reconciling making art with making a living and how the sacrifices that art necessitates clash with our chronic discomfort with uncertainty, using Patti Smith’s time as a starving artist as a humbling example:

There’s a collision of the cultural and the Resistance and many other things, which is: “I would like to make art, but I’d like to do it while making a steady income, and I want to make sure that steady income is respected by everyone around me and has no uncertainty associated with it.” Well, there’s a good reason not a lot of people make art, and that’s one of them. If you read Patti Smith’s book about her and Robert [Mapplethorpe] called Just Kids … she was homeless for years — HOMELESS! — living on bread from the garbage can, sleeping in the park, to make her art. And what’s fascinating about the first third of the book is never once does she say, “I’m a homeless person.” She says, “I’m an artist who hasn’t found her muse yet.” She’s on her way to being an artist and the homelessness is a temporary moment…

But what the industrial economy seduced us into believing is that the deal was simple: You work your day doing something you’re not proud of, and you decompress at night with television and whisky, and on weekends you can go for a run. Right? Do that forever, and forty years from now you’re dead — that’s the deal. And we sold that deal to a lot of people.

Gifts are the essence of art. Art isn't made as part of an even exchange, it is your chance to create imbalance, which leads to connection. To share your art is a requirement of making it.

On the difference between those who want more and aren’t getting it and those who want more and do get it:

It’s back to this idea of what are we truly afraid of. I am more afraid of settling — I am more afraid of not giving what I can give — than I am afraid of doing it. And so when we’re sitting quietly, there’s a debate we have to have with ourselves all the time, which is: “What is my work?” And if “My work is to have more impact,” I don’t think we start by asking — I think we start by giving… Once you get hooked on that, culturally, then doors open — doors open because your work precedes you. You are your work — not your resume, but the ruckus you have made before, the people you have touched before…

Can you name someone who has built a life around that who’s a failure? I can’t!

Zabaglione is a delightful Italian dessert consisting mostly of well-whipped foam. It takes a lot of effort to make by hand. Each batch comes out a little different from the previous one. It's often delicious. It doesn't last long. It's evanescent. And then you have to (get to) make another batch.

On creative courage — something Millman herself has addressed beautifully — culminating with an exquisite addition to history’s finest definitions of art:

For the [creative person], what’s going on outside is trivial compared to what is going on inside… Don’t try to change the structure of the outside world [hoping that] then you’ll be fine, then you’ll be creative and then you’ll be brave. No. First, figure out how to be creative and brave and courageous, and the outside world will change on your behalf…

It’s always the same case — it’s always the case of you’re a human, trying to connect to another human. And if you just pick one human that you can change for the better, with work that might not work — that’s what art is.

The full conversation is well worth listening to, and V is for Vulnerable is an unusual delight in its entirety.

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19 MAY, 2014

Leo Buscaglia on Education, Industrialized Conformity, and How Stereotypes and Labels Limit Love

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“Labels are distancing phenomena. They push us away from each other.”

In the winter of 1969, shortly after a young woman he considered one of his brightest and most promising students committed suicide, Leo Buscaglia decided to deal with the flurry of confusion by starting an experimental class at the University of Southern California where he taught, exploring the most essential elements of existence — “life, living, sex, growth, responsibility, death, hope, the future.” The obvious common tangent, “the only subject which encompassed, and was at the core of all these concerns,” was love. So he simply called his course “Love Class.” While some of his fellow faculty members dismissed the subject as “irrelevant” and mocked its premise, the university agreed to let Buscaglia teach it on the condition that it be without course credit and he teach it free of salary in his spare time. Over the three years that followed, the course — not a scholarly or deeply philosophical study of love but “a sharing of some of the practical and vital ideas, feelings and observations” related to the human condition — earned Buscaglia the moniker “Dr. Love” and became one of the university’s most popular classes, drawing students of all ages and backgrounds. In 1972, Buscaglia published the most universal and important of those ideas in a slim and potent volume titled Love: What Life Is All About (public library).

The book opens with an adaptation of a magnificent lecture titled “Forward to Love,” which Buscaglia delivered in 1970 at a school in Texas, focusing on a more oblique and abstract but no less crucial aspect of love: how the laziness of stereotypes stifles its spirit and labels limit its transcendent power.

Buscaglia begins by looking at the nursery of social beliefs — the education system:

Education should be the process of helping everyone to discover his uniqueness, to teach him how to develop that uniqueness, and then to show him how to share it because that’s the only reason for having anything.

This might sound obvious — a tired truism, even — and yet it’s antithetical to how most formal education unfolds, even today, with its model of industrialized conformity. Buscaglia offers a poignant example:

[The art teacher] comes racing in from another class and has time only to nod to the teacher, turn around and say, “Boys and girls, today we are going to draw a tree.” She goes to the blackboard, and she draws her tree which is a great big green ball with a little brown base. Remember those lollipop trees? I never saw a tree that looked like that in my life, but she puts it up there, and she says, “All right, boys and girls, draw.” Everybody gets busy and draws.

If you have any sense, even at that early age, you realize that what she really wanted was for you to draw her tree, because the closer you got to her tree, the better your grade. If you already realized this in grade one, then you handed in a little lollipop, and she said, “oh, that’s divine.” But here’s Junior who really knows a tree as this little woman has never seen a tree in her life. He’s climbed a tree, he’s hugged a tree, he’s fallen out of a tree, he’s listened to the breeze blow through the branches. He really knows a tree, and he knows that a tree isn’t a lollipop! So he takes purple and yellow and orange and green and magenta crayons and he draws this beautiful freaky thing and hands it in. She takes one look and shrieks. “Brain damaged!”

Illustration from 'How To Be a Nonconformist' (click image for more)

To drive the point home, Buscaglia offers another illustrative tale titled The Animal School — a story he loves “because it’s so wild, yet so true”:

The animals got together in the forest one day and decided to start a school. There was a rabbit, a bird, a squirrel, a fish and an eel, and they formed a Board of Education. The rabbit insisted that running be in the curriculum. The bird insisted that flying be in the curriculum. The fish insisted that swimming be in the curriculum, and the squirrel insisted that perpendicular tree climbing be in the curriculum. They put all of these things together and wrote a Curriculum Guide. Then they insisted that all of the animals take all of the subjects. Although the rabbit was getting an A in running perpendicular tree climbing was a real problem for him; he kept falling over backwards. Pretty soon he got to be sort of brain damaged, and he couldn’t run any more. He found that instead of making an A in running, he was making a C and, of course, he always made an F in perpendicular tree climbing. The bird was really beautiful at flying, but when it came to burrowing in the ground, he couldn’t do so well. He kept breaking his beak and wings. Pretty soon he was making a C in flying as well as an F in burrowing, and he had a hellava time with perpendicular tree climbing. The moral of the story is that the animal who was valedictorian of the class was a mentally retarded eel who did everything in a halfway fashion. But the educators were all happy because everybody was taking all of the subjects, and it was called a broad-based education.

Illustration from 'The Animal Fair' (click image for more)

Buscaglia’s most important point, however, is that such industrialized conformity transcends the education system and bleeds into our everyday lives, at all layers and levels of society — its product is a narrow definition of intelligence and ability, which results in a narrow field of belonging, which in turn casts everyone outside of it as a misfit. We then use these labels to produce culturally toxic stereotypes and polarities that say nothing about those being labeled and a great deal about those doing the labeling. Buscaglia writes:

How many kids have not been educated just because someone pinned a label on them somewhere along the line? Stupid, dumb, emotionally disturbed. I have never known a stupid child. Never! Never! I’ve only known children and never two alike. Labels are distancing phenomena. They push us away from each other. Black man. What’s a black man? I’ve never known two alike. Does he love? Does he care? What about his kids? Has he cried? Is he lonely? Is he beautiful? Is he happy? Is he giving something to someone? These are the important things. Not the fact that he is a black man or Jew or Dago or Communist or Democrat or Republican.

He goes on to share a rather unique experience from his own childhood:

I was born in Los Angeles, and my parents were Italian immigrants. A big family. Mama and Papa were obviously great lovers! They came from a tiny village at the base of the Italian Swiss Alps where everyone knew everyone. Everyone knew the names of the dogs, and the village priest came out and danced in the streets at the fiestas and got as drunk as everybody else. It was the most beautiful scene in the world and a pleasure to be raised by these people in this old way. But when I was taken, at five, to a public school, tested by some very official-looking person, the next thing I knew I was in a class for the mentally retarded! It didn’t matter that I was able to speak Italian and an Italian dialect. I also spoke some French and Spanish — but I didn’t speak English too well and so I was mentally retarded. I think the term now is “culturally disadvantaged.” I was put into the class for the mentally retarded, and I never had a more exciting educational experience in my life! Talk about a warm, pulsating, loving teacher. Her name was Miss Hunt, and I’m sure she was the only one in the school who would teach those “dumb” kids. She was a great bulbous woman. She liked me even if I smelled of garlic. I remember when she used to come and lean over me, how I used to cuddle! I did all kinds of learning for this woman because I really loved her. Then one day I made a tremendous mistake. I wrote a newspaper as if I were a Roman. I described how the gladiators would perform and so on. The next thing I knew I was being retested and was transferred to a regular classroom after which I was bored for the rest of my educational career.

He returns to the perilous effect of labels — something that Maya Angelou famously lamented — and reminds us that social forces are the cumulative result of our individual choices:

Labels are distancing phenomena — stop using them! And when people use them around you, have the gumption and the guts to say, “What and who are you talking about because I don’t know any such thing.” … There is no word vast enough to begin to describe even the simplest of man. But only you can stop it. A loving person won’t stand for it. There are too many beautiful things about each human being to call him a name and put him aside.

Buscaglia ends with a reminder of how our disembodied illusion of separateness contributes to our inability to inhabit our own selves and how the pathologically overlooked gift of human touch reconnects us not only with each other, but with our own deepest humanity:

We are constantly moving away from ourselves and others. The scene seems to be how far away you can get from another person, not how close you can get to them. I’m all for going back to the old-fashioned thing of touching people. My hand always goes out because when I touch somebody, I know they are alive. We really need that affirmation…

We need not be afraid to touch, to feel, to show emotion. The easiest thing in the world to be is what you are, what you feel. The hardest thing to be is what other people want you to be, but that’s the scene we are living in. Are you really you or are you what people have told you you are? And are you interested in really knowing who you are because if you are, it is the happiest trip of your life.

The rest of Buscaglia’s Love: What Life Is All About, an exquisite addition to these must-read books on the psychology of love, goes on to explore our ancient quest to define it, the notion that it’s a learned phenomenon, the interplay between love and strength, the responsibilities of love, and more. Complement it with Van Gogh on love, Stendhal on its seven stages, and the science of how “limbic revision” rewires the brain in love.

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19 MAY, 2014

Eve Ensler on How Trauma Makes Us Leave Our Bodies and Disconnect from Ourselves

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“Many of us have left our bodies — we’re not embodied creatures, we’re not living inside our own muscles and cells and sinews.”

At a recent event from the excellent Books at Noon series at The New York Public Library, I had the pleasure of seeing Eve Ensler — activist, playwright, author of the paradigm-shifting 1998 cultural classic The Vagina Monologues, and founder of the magnificent V-Day movement — discuss her harrowing, humbling, and ultimately hope-giving memoir, In the Body of the World: A Memoir of Cancer and Connection (public library).

In this particularly poignant segment, Ensler who has spent decades working with women survivors of some of the most brutal sexual violence on the planet, cracks open our most painful mind-body schism and spiritual rupture:

I think — from my own life experience, and certainly what I’ve discovered in many women and men across the planet — is [that] when we’re traumatized, when we’re beaten, when we’re raped, we leave our bodies. We disconnect from ourselves. And if it’s true that one out of every three women on the planet have been raped or beaten, which is a U.N. statistic, that’s a billion women.

Many, many of us have left our bodies — we’re not embodied creatures, we’re not living inside our own muscles and cells and sinews. And so we’re not in our power, we’re not in our energy.

[…]

It’s been a long journey to get fully back into my body. And, certainly, what I’ve seen everywhere in the world is that the more traumatized people are, the less connected they are to their own source of strength, their own source of inspiration, intuition, heart — everything.

Listen to the full interview on iTunes and do subscribe to the fantastic Books at Noon podcast.

Without a sliver of exaggeration, In the Body of the World is a soul-stretching, life-changing read.

Ensler is also the founder of City of Joy, an infinitely heartening community for women survivors of gender violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, offering group counseling, sexual and economic empowerment, self-defense, and creative expression through storytelling, dance, and theater.

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