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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

17 JUNE, 2015

A Stop-Motion Love Letter to the Power of Curiosity

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“The more you know, the more you want to know… the more connections you can make between the different bits of knowledge… the more ideas you have, which is why curiosity is really the wellspring of creativity.”

“It is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown,” wrote pioneering polar explorer Ernest Shackleton in reflecting on the feat that nearly took his life, adding: “The only true failure would be not to explore at all.” This vitalizing power of exploration applies as much to the exterior world we inhabit as it does to the interior. Upon turning eighty and looking back on his extraordinary life, Henry Miller observed: “Perhaps it is curiosity — about anything and everything — that made me the writer I am. It has never left me.” And yet in the century since Shackleton and the decades since Miller, despite the proliferation of access to knowledge, we seem to have lost our appetite for this singular human faculty that propels us forward. We’ve lulled ourselves into a kind of complacency, where too often we’d rather be right than uncertain or — worse yet — wrong, forgetting that “useful ignorance,” to borrow Thoreau’s beautiful term, is precisely what helps us transcend the limits of our knowledge and stretch our ability.

That vital force of self-transcendence is what Arts University Bournemouth student and self-taught animator Georgina Venning explores in her immeasurably delightful stop-motion animation of an excerpt from Ian Leslie’s RSA talk, based on his book Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It (public library).

The piece is one of the winners in the Moving Pictures category of the 2015 RSA Student Design Awards, which invite emerging designers and artists to examine social, environmental, and economic issues through compelling visual communication driven by design thinking. The category itself is an offshoot of RSA’s existing series of animated shorts, which has previously given us such gems as Susan Cain on the power of introverts and Brené Brown on vulnerability and the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Venning’s film is impressively meticulous beyond the beautiful papercraft — in order to create consistent natural light throughout the animation, she filmed one frame per day, at the exact same time of day.

Curiosity is a muscle — use it or lose it. It’s something that we consciously have to nurture in ourselves, in our families, in classrooms, at work.

Sometimes I hear that curiosity and creativity are killed by too many facts — but, actually, the opposite is true: The more you know, the more you want to know. Not only that, but the more you know, the more connections you can make between the different bits of knowledge that you have in your head and therefore the more ideas you have, which is why curiosity is really the wellspring of creativity.

Technology is replacing routine work — and that’s what technology replaces first and has done throughout history. So intellectually curious people — people who are capable of learning throughout their career, of asking questions (good questions), of adapting and collaborating with others from different disciplines; people who are capable of really thriving in this world of non-routine work, in other words — are the people who are going to do better.

In the introduction to the book, Leslie considers humanity’s historically contentious relationship with curiosity and writes:

Our oldest stories about curiosity are warnings: Adam and Eve and the apple of knowledge, Icarus and the sun, Pandora’s box. Early Christian theologians railed against curiosity: Saint Augustine claimed that “God fashioned hell for the inquisitive.” Even humanist philosopher Erasmus suggested that curiosity was greed by a different name. For most of Western history, it has been regarded as at best a distraction, at worst a poison, corrosive to the soul and to society.

There’s a reason for this. Curiosity is unruly. It doesn’t like rules, or, at least, it assumes that all rules are provisional, subject to the laceration of a smart question nobody has yet thought to ask. It disdains the approved pathways, preferring diversions, unplanned excursions, impulsive left turns. In short, curiosity is deviant. Pursuing it is liable to bring you into conflict with authority at some point, as everyone from Galileo to Charles Darwin to Steve Jobs could have attested.

A society that values order above all else will seek to suppress curiosity. But a society that believes in progress, innovation, and creativity will cultivate it, recognizing that the inquiring minds of its people constitute its most valuable asset. In medieval Europe, the inquiring mind — especially if it inquired too closely into the edicts of church or state — was stigmatized. During the Renaissance and Reformation, received wisdoms began to be interrogated, and by the time of the Enlightenment, European societies started to see that their future lay with the curious and encouraged probing questions rather than stamping on them. The result was the biggest explosion of new ideas and scientific advances in history.

The great unlocking of curiosity translated into a cascade of prosperity for the nations that precipitated it. Today, we cannot know for sure if we are in the middle of this golden period or at the end of it. But we are, at the very least, in a lull.

In the remainder of Curious, Leslie goes on to explore our best strategies for jolting ourselves out of that lull by cultivating more diverse modes of curiosity that ensure our flourishing in an increasingly complex world. Complement it with Isaac Asimov on curiosity and risk-taking and Marie Curie on curiosity, wonder, and the spirit of adventure in science.

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16 JUNE, 2015

Adam Smith’s Underappreciated Wisdom on Benevolence, Happiness, and Kindness

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“Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love.”

“Spiritual health and material well-being are not enemies: they are natural allies,” wrote E.F. Schumacher in his timeless clarion call for “Buddhist economics,” penned amid the hippie counterculture of the early 1970s. But it was another visionary economist, as far from hippie culture in both time and ideology as possible, that made the most convincing case for this very concept two centuries earlier — a mind, paradoxically enough, presently celebrated for just about the opposite sentiment.

The great Scottish moral philosopher, political economy pioneer, and Enlightenment maven Adam Smith (June 16, 1723–July 17, 1790) is best known for authoring the 1776 masterwork The Wealth of Nations — a foundational text of behavioral economics two centuries before behavioral economics existed. It originated the famous “invisible hand” metaphor for how socially beneficial outcomes can be traced back to the self-interested actions of individuals. True to our modern incapacity for nuance, Smith’s “invisible hand” has come to symbolize a rather bleak view of the human spirit as bedeviled by inescapable selfishness. And yet Smith’s own views were more generous and elevating — something he explored in his eclipsed but excellent earlier work, the 1759 treatise The Theory of Moral Sentiments, full of timeless wisdom on ambition, success, good personhood, the far-from-linear relationship between money and happiness, and that wonderfully old-fashioned notion of “benevolence,” so urgently needed in our divisive world today.

The book’s opening sentence alone is a masterpiece of prose and philosophy:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.

That misunderstood aspect of Smith’s philosophy and its applications to our everyday lives is what Russ Roberts explores in How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness (public library). I share a certain kinship of spirit with Roberts, who hosts the EconTalk podcast, in dusting off forgotten and often misunderstood ideas, restoring their original dimension flattened by our sound bite culture of superficial familiarity, and recontextualizing them as timeless technologies of thought that help us live happier, more ennobled lives — which is precisely what he does with Smith’s text.

Roberts recounts chancing upon this obscure book and being, to his own surprise, deeply enchanted by its relevance to so much of modern life:

The book changed the way I looked at people, and maybe more important, it changed the way I looked at myself. Smith made me aware of how people interact with each other in ways I hadn’t noticed before… [He] helped me understand why Whitney Houston and Marilyn Monroe were so unhappy and why their deaths made so many people so sad. He helped me understand my affection for my iPad and my iPhone, why talking to strangers about your troubles can calm the soul [and] how morality is built into the fabric of the world.

[…]

The Theory of Moral Sentiments is a book of observations about what makes us tick. As a bonus, almost in passing, Smith tells us how to lead the good life in the fullest sense of that phrase.

Roberts disentangles one of our most chronic confusions — that between self-interest and selfishness. Citing Smith’s famous line — “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” — he unpacks the deeper, more dimensional meaning:

People are fundamentally self-interested, which is not the same thing as selfish.

[…]

Yes, you are profoundly self-interested. But for some reason, you do not always act in what appears to be your self-interest… Given our self-love, why do we so often act selflessly, sacrificing our own well-being to help others?

One answer would be that we are inherently kind and decent, filled with what Smith calls benevolence or what we moderns call compassion. We are altruistic; we care about others and hate to see them suffer. Yet Smith reminds us that losing our finger bothers us more than millions losing their lives.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird.' Click image for more.

When we are altruistic, according to Smith, “it is not that feeble spark of benevolence … capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love.” Rather, we are compelled to behave honorably before an “impartial spectator” — a kind of unconscious stand-in for conscience, a form of secular accountability that displaces the vice-policing gods of organized religions; or, as Roberts puts it, “a figure we imagine whom we converse with in some virtual sense, an impartial, objective figure who sees the morality of our actions clearly.” When faced with a moral choice, we answer to this imaginary arbiter of righteousness. Smith himself writes:

It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct. It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration.

Roberts terms this “The Iron Law of You,” which he illustrates with a relatable modern example:

You think more about yourself than you think about me. There’s a corollary to the Iron Law of You — the Iron Law of Me. I think more about myself than I do about you. That’s just the way the world works.

Ever send someone an e-mail asking for a favor and he or she doesn’t respond? It’s easy to forget that the recipient, like you perhaps, gets way too many e-mails to respond promptly. Your e-mail means more to you than it does to the person whose help you need. There’s no reason to take it personally. When I don’t hear back from someone, I assume that the person never received the e-mail in the first place. I resend it a few days later without mentioning (or complaining) that I sent it before.

[…]

The impartial spectator reminds us that we are not the center of the universe. Remembering that we are no more important than anyone else helps us play nicely with others. The impartial spectator is the voice inside our head that reminds us that pure self-interest is grotesque and that thinking of others is honorable and noble — the voice that reminds us that if we harm others in order to benefit ourselves, we will be resented, disliked, and unloved by anyone who is looking on impartially.

Illustration by Benji Davies from 'The Storm Whale.' Click image for more.

Smith himself elegantly captures this dual role of the impartial spectator in both our self-reliance and our sense of belonging:

It is not the love of our neighbour, it is not the love of mankind, which upon many occasions prompts us to the practice of those divine virtues. It is a stronger love, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honourable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters.

Roberts explains how this drives our actions and reverberates across the essential arts of living, from personal growth to a capacity for presence:

The modern calculus of economics that looks at material costs and benefits alone is a flawed calculus. It’s perfectly rational to tip in a restaurant that you’ll never visit again, donate anonymously to charity, give blood without expecting to use blood in the future, and even donate a kidney without being paid for it. People who do those things do them gladly… Smith believes that our desire for approval from those around us is embedded within us, and that our moral sense comes from experiencing approval and disapproval from others. As we experience those responses, we come to imagine an impartial spectator judging us.

Whether or not honorable behavior is really motivated by people’s imagining a watchful and judgmental impartial spectator, the concept gives us a powerful tool for self-improvement. Imagining an impartial spectator encourages us to step outside ourselves and view ourselves as others see us. This is a brave exercise that most of us go through life avoiding or doing poorly. But if you can do it and do it well, if you can hover above the scene and watch how you handle yourself, you can begin to know who you really are and how you might improve. Stepping outside yourself is an opportunity for what is sometimes called mindfulness — the art of paying attention instead of drifting through life oblivious to your flaws and habits.

The impartial spectator, far beyond enhancing our standing with the non-imaginary spectators in our lives by steering us toward behavior that is perceived as decent and kind, actually helps us reach the intrinsic rewards of taking comfort in our own decency and kindness. Smith himself puts it best in one of his most famous and enduring passages:

Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred. He desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be praised by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of praise. He dreads, not only blame, but blameworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be blamed by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of blame.

In a complementary sentiment, Smith writes:

What so great happiness as to be beloved, and to know that we deserve to be beloved? What so great misery as to be hated, and to know that we deserve to be hated?

Roberts translates this in the language of our most intimate rewards:

Loveliness isn’t an investment looking for a return. That’s why you don’t keep score in a good marriage — I did this for you, so now it’s your turn to do something for me. I went to the grocery, so you have to run the kids to soccer. I was nice to you when you were under stress. Now I’m under stress, so you have to be nice to me. Or I’m up four to one, so the next three tasks fall on you…

If you think of your actions as a husband or wife as an investment or a cost-benefit analysis, you don’t have a marriage motivated by love. You have a mutually beneficial arrangement. I can have that with my butcher or my baker. I don’t want that arrangement with my wife. In a good marriage, you get pleasure from helping your spouse simply because that’s the kind of partner you want to be — a lovely one.

[…]

Smith’s ideal is achieved when your inner self mirrors your outer self.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce's Ulysses. Click image for more.

This convergence of being lovely in one’s private person and being publicly beloved is what we might call “authenticity” today. This harmonic symmetry, Roberts points out, isn’t revealed in our grand gestures but in our small daily choices — the nanoscale of the-right-thing-to-do — which add up to our larger character. That’s why we often fail, on the small and practical level, to live up to the ideals we espouse philosophically — and yet we continue to think of ourselves as highly moral people, thanks to the uniquely human talent of self-delusoin. Roberts writes:

One explanation for selfishness — or, worse, cruelty — is that some people don’t imagine an impartial spectator, have no desire to imagine one, and in fact have no interest in being lovely. This is a tempting way to view our fellow human beings: people who don’t act the way we think they should are immoral or evil.

But Adam Smith had a different idea of why we fail to live up to the standards an impartial spectator might set or the standards of the people around us whose respect and affection we’d like to earn: we are prone to self-deception. The impartial spectator whom we imagine and whose counsel we hear isn’t quite as impartial as we’d like to think. In the heat of the moment, when we are about to act, our self-love often overwhelms any potential role for the impartial spectator, “the man within the breast,” our conscience: “…the violence and injustice of our own selfish passions are sometimes sufficient to induce the man within the breast to make a report very different from what the real circumstances of the case are capable of authorising.”

[…]

We want not only to be loved, we want to think of ourselves as lovely. Rather than see ourselves as we truly are, we see ourselves as we would like to be. Self-deception can be more comforting than self-knowledge. We like to fool ourselves.

In the remainder of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, Roberts goes on to explore how this quarter-millennium-old text can teach us to fool ourselves less and, in doing so, enhance rather than compromise our happiness. Complement it with the psychology of how our delusions keep us sane and Albert Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons.

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15 JUNE, 2015

How to Be Extraordinary: William James on the Psychology of the Second Wind and How to Release Our Untapped Human Potential

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“Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake… We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.”

“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in contemplating what it really means to be awake, adding: “Only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life.” Those rare individuals are the ones who lift themselves out of ordinary life’s mediocrity and, through the sheer force of their creative and intellectual wakefulness, rise to the level of the extraordinary. They are the people we come to celebrate as luminaries, those whose ideas endure for centuries. But what is this mysterious force that jolts a human being into such wakeful aliveness from which greatness blossoms?

That’s what legendary philosopher and founding father of modern psychology William James (January 11, 1842–August 26, 1910) addressed half a century after Thoreau’s famous words, in a superb speech he delivered before the American Philosophical Association at Columbia University in December of 1906. It was published in the January 1907 issue of the journal Philosophical Review under the title “The Energies of Men” and was eventually included in the out-of-print 1967 compendium The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition (public library), which remains the finest record of James’s mind to date.

James begins with the curious psychological phenomenon of the “second wind,” familiar to everyone from athletes to artists to entrepreneurs — a perplexity that had captivated his imagination for years:

Everyone knows what it is to start a piece of work, either intellectual or muscular, feeling stale… And everybody knows what it is to “warm up” to his job. The process of warming up gets particularly striking in the phenomenon known as “second wind.” On usual occasions we make a practice of stopping an occupation as soon as we meet the first effective layer (so to call it) of fatigue. We have then walked, played, or worked “enough,” so we desist. That amount of fatigue is an efficacious obstruction on this side of which our usual life is cast. But if an unusual necessity forces us to press onward a surprising thing occurs. The fatigue gets worse up to a certain critical point, when gradually or suddenly it passes away, and we are fresher than before. We have evidently tapped a level of new energy, masked until then by the fatigue-obstacle usually obeyed… In exceptional cases we may find, beyond the very extremity of fatigue-distress, amounts of ease and power that we never dreamed ourselves to own — sources of strength habitually not taxed at all, because habitually we never push through the obstruction, never pass those early critical points.

James reflects on his longtime quest to find a psychological theory of the second wind and examines what carries us over this initial plateau of fatigue, toward ever-greater heights of productivity and excellence:

It is evident that our organism has stored-up reserves of energy that are ordinarily not called upon, but that may be called upon: deeper and deeper strata of combustible or explosible material, discontinuously arranged, but ready for use by anyone who probes so deep, and repairing themselves by rest as well as do the superficial strata. Most of us continue living unnecessarily near our surface.

[…]

Of course there are limits: the trees don’t grow into the sky. But the plain fact remains that men the world over possess amounts of resource which only very exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Click image for more.

One reason we don’t push ourselves past those self-imposed limits, James argues, is that we fear the exertion might exhaust us beyond repair — we fear, in other words, burnout. (This phrase as a term for psychoemotional fatigue from sustained effort wouldn’t come into popular use until 1975, many decades after James so elegantly encapsulated it.) And yet such fears, he assures us, are ungrounded, for we humans are remarkably adaptable creatures:

The organism adapts itself, and as the rate of waste augments, augments correspondingly the rate of repair.

I say the rate and not the time of repair. The busiest man needs no more hours of rest than the idler… Anyone may be in vital equilibrium at very different rates of energizing [but] a man who energizes below his normal maximum fails by just so much to profit by his chance at life.

The question then becomes how to train people — individuals, communities, nations — “up to their most useful pitch of energy,” which James notes is “the general problem of education, formulated in slightly different terms.” Although this energy is a quantitative measure, he considers its crucial qualitative aspect:

In measuring the human energies of which I speak, qualities as well as quantities have to be taken into account. Everyone feels that his total power rises when he passes to a higher qualitative level of life.

Illustrating this with a qualitative hierarchy — at some of which Thoreau may have scoffed — James writes:

Writing is higher than walking, thinking is higher than writing, deciding higher than thinking, deciding “no” higher than deciding “yes”—at least the man who passes from one of these activities to another will usually say that each later one involves a greater element of inner work than the earlier ones, even though the total heat given out or the foot-pounds expended by the organism, may be less… We need a particular spur or effort to start us upon inner work; it tires us to sustain it; and when long sustained, we know how easily we lapse.

A century before our increasingly urgent quest for stillness, James cautions that this inner work requires not the “maximum of locomotion” propelling our cult of outer productivity, our habitual “hurrying and jumping about in incoordinated ways,” but the very opposite:

Inner work, though it so often reinforces outer work, quite as often means its arrest. To relax, to say to ourselves … “Peace! be still!” is sometimes a great achievement of inner work.

Illustration by Judith Clay from 'Thea's Tree.' Click image for more.

He considers the osmosis of inner and outer work in the grand metabolic machinery energizing the human spirit:

When I speak of human energizing in general, the reader must therefore understand that sum-total of activities, some outer and some inner, some muscular, some emotional, some moral, some spiritual, of whose waxing and waning in himself he is at all times so well aware. How to keep it at an appreciable maximum? How not to let the level lapse? That is the great problem.

To account for the wide variability in our walks of life, James divides this problem into two sub-problems:

  1. What are the limits of human faculty in various directions?
  2. By what diversity of means, in the differing types of human beings, may the faculties be stimulated to their best results?

He articulates beautifully the all too relatable daily ebb-and-flow of our psychic and physical energy:

Every one is familiar with the phenomenon of feeling more or less alive on different days. Every one knows on any given day that there are energies slumbering in him which the incitements of that day do not call forth, but which he might display if these were greater. Most of us feel as if a sort of cloud weighed upon us, keeping us below our highest notch of clearness in discernment, sureness in reasoning, or firmness in deciding. Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.

In a necessary caveat, James offers an early and incredibly succinct diagnostic definition of depression half a century before the first edition of the DSM — the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, psychiatry’s bible — was published:

In some persons this sense of being cut off from their rightful resources is extreme, and we then get the formidable neurasthenic and psychasthenic conditions with life grown into one tissue of impossibilities, that so many medical books describe.

Returning to the question of our untapped potential and underused energies, he points to habit as the mechanism by which we lull ourselves into the mindless trance of the daily grind — something doubly poignant today, amid a culture that frames life as a series of tasks to be accomplished, urging us to show up for these tasks with compulsive productivity while being absent from our own lives and passive in the real act of living. Two millennia after Seneca’s memorable admonition against this habitual trance, James writes:

As a rule men habitually use only a small part of the powers which they actually possess and which they might use under appropriate conditions.

[…]

The human individual thus lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimum. In elementary faculty, in co-ordination, in power of inhibition and control, in every conceivable way, his life is contracted like the field of vision of an hysteric subject — but with less excuse, for the poor hysteric is diseased, while in the rest of us it is only an inveterate habit — the habit of inferiority to our full self — that is bad.

[…]

We are each and all of us to some extent victims of habit-neurosis. We have to admit the wider potential range and the habitually narrow actual use. We live subject to arrest by degrees of fatigue which we have come only from habit to obey. Most of us may learn to push the barrier farther off, and to live in perfect comfort on much higher levels of power.

Illustration from 'About Time' by Vahram Muratyan. Click image for more.

James, of course, was well aware that habit — like any technology of thought — is a coin with two sides, one mindless and one mindful: Half a decade earlier he had penned his timeless treatise on harnessing the positive power of habit.

Indeed, he argues that cultivating fruitful habits of mind is what separates those who attain their highest possible selves from those who live their lives short of their full potential. Habit, James argues, is how we transmute difficulty into opportunity for growth — it is the key to our resilience and adaptability, the very mechanism of how we stretch ourselves.

He illustrates this with the example of how a simple villager adapts, despite his paralyzing initial shock, to life in the big city — an example far more metaphorical today than James intended a century ago, for we are now all bewildered villagers trying to steady ourselves amid the disorienting and ever-accelerating stimulation of modern life. He writes:

The rapid rate of life, the number of decisions in an hour, the many things to keep account of, in a busy city man’s or woman’s life, seem monstrous to a country brother. He doesn’t see how we live at all. A day in New York or Chicago fills him with terror. The danger and noise make it appear like a permanent earthquake. But settle him there, and in a year or two he will have caught the pulse-beat. He will vibrate to the city’s rhythms; and if he only succeeds in his avocation, whatever that may be, he will find a joy in all the hurry and the tension, he will keep the pace as well as any of us, and get as much out of himself in any week as he ever did in ten weeks in the country.

The stimuli of those who successfully spend and undergo the transformation here, are duty, the example of others, and crowd-pressure and contagion. The transformation, moreover, is a chronic one: the new level of energy becomes permanent. The duties of new offices of trust are constantly producing this effect on the human beings appointed to them.

What a beautiful notion this is, “new offices of trust” — how else do we stretch ourselves beyond what we believed ourselves to be capable of if not by being ordained into such a new office of trust, be it by love or leadership or new parenthood? James adds:

A new position of responsibility will usually show a man to be a far stronger creature than was supposed.

A decade before women won the right to vote and more than half a century before the dawn of modern feminism as we know it, James argues that women are better than men at rising to such “new offices of trust”:

John Stuart Mill somewhere says that women excel men in the power of keeping up sustained moral excitement. Every case of illness nursed by wife or mother is a proof of this; and where can one find greater examples of sustained endurance than in those thousands of poor homes, where the woman successfully holds the family together and keeps it going by taking all the thought and doing all the work — nursing, teaching, cooking, washing, sewing, scrubbing, saving, helping neighbors, “choring” outside — where does the catalogue end?

Like an Oliver Sacks of his day, James illustrates his point with a patient case study:

Jeanne Chaix, eldest of six children; mother insane, father chronically ill. Jeanne, with no money but her wages at a pasteboard-box factory, directs the household, brings up the children, and successfully maintains the family of eight, which thus subsists, morally as well as materially, by the sole force of her valiant will… Human nature, responding to the call of duty, appears nowhere sublimer than in the person of these humble heroines of family life.

Illustration by Amrita Das from 'Hope Is a Girl Selling Fruit,' a semi-autobiographical Indian children's book celebrating women's freedom and mobility. Click image for more.

A century before Neil Gaiman memorably asserted that good ideas come from desperation and deadlines, James considers what uncorks “human nature’s reserves of power”:

The stimuli that carry us over the usually effective dam are most often the classic emotional ones, love, anger, crowd-contagion or despair. Despair lames most people, but it wakes others fully up. Every siege or shipwreck or polar expedition brings out some hero who keeps the whole company in heart.

A decade later, legendary polar explorer Ernest Shackleton attested to this notion. And, indeed, James’s most crucial point is that challenges, far from breaking us, reanimate us and push to transcend what we thought our limits were — something that calls to mind Nietzsche’s famous case for why a full life requires embracing rather than avoiding difficulty. But reaping these self-transcendent benefits requires mastering the uncomfortable art of changing our mind, the chronic reluctance to which psychologists have since termed “the backfire effect” — our evolving ideas, James argues, are what stretch us and carry us over our plateaus of personal growth:

Ideas [are] dynamogenic agents, or stimuli for unlocking what would otherwise be unused reservoirs of individual power.

One thing that ideas do is to contradict other ideas and keep us from believing them. An idea that thus negates a first idea may itself in turn be negated by a third idea, and the first idea may thus regain its natural influence over our belief and determine our behavior. Our philosophic and religious development proceeds thus by credulities, negations, and the negating of negations.

But whether for arousing or for stopping belief, ideas may fail to be efficacious, just as a wire, at one time alive with electricity, may at another time be dead. Here our insight into causes fails us, and we can only note results in general terms. In general, whether a given idea shall be a live idea depends more on the person into whose mind it is injected than on the idea itself… Not every one can use [the same] ideas with the same success.

But despite our wide variability in soil, as it were, there are some conditions that are universally fertile in planting good seeds of character:

As certain objects naturally awaken love, anger, or cupidity, so certain ideas naturally awaken the energies of loyalty, courage, endurance, or devotion. When these ideas are effective in an individual’s life, their effect is often very great indeed. They may transfigure it, unlocking innumerable powers which, but for the idea, would never have come into play. “Fatherland,” “the Flag,” “the Union,” “Holy Church,” “the Monroe Doctrine,” “Truth,” “Science,” “Liberty,” Garibaldi’s phrase, “Rome or Death,” etc., are so many examples of energy-releasing ideas. The social nature of such phrases is an essential factor of their dynamic power. They are forces of detent in situations in which no other force produces equivalent effects, and each is a force of detent only in a specific group of [people].

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

James speaks to the importance of idea-incubation and makes an implicit case against the epiphany as a sudden and independent event:

A belief that thus settles upon an individual always acts as a challenge to his will. But, for the particular challenge to operate, he must be the right challengee… The idea may be in the mind of the challengee for years before it exerts effects; and why it should do so then is often so far from obvious that the event is taken for a miracle of grace, and not a natural occurrence.

In a sentiment somewhat bittersweet in our age of dwindling appetite for real conversations in which two minds behold one another with thoughtfulness over an ample period of time, James adds:

Conversions, whether they be political, scientific, philosophic, or religious, form another way in which bound energies are let loose. They unify us, and put a stop to ancient mental interferences. The result is freedom, and often a great enlargement of power.

“The Energies of Men” is in the public domain and is available as a free digital text from The Internet Archive. Find more of James’s timeless wisdom in the indispensable The Writings of William James, then revisit his timelessly insightful exploration of the psychology of habit and the elevating story of how he chose the life of purpose over the life of profit.

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12 JUNE, 2015

Elizabeth Gilbert on Inspiration, What Tom Waits Taught Her About Creativity, and the Most Dangerous Myth for Artists to Believe

By:

“It’s a relationship, it’s a conversation, and all [the muse] wants is to be treated with respect and dignity — and it will return ten thousand times over.”

Few writers enchant the modern imagination with such soulful, pleasurable prose and sheer generosity of spirit as Elizabeth Gilbert. The famous Ole! with which she ends her magnificent TED talk, one of the most viewed talks of all time, has become a clarion call for the creative spirit by which we stubbornly summon the ever-elusive muse, and it reverberates throughout her most recent book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (public library) — an investigation of the somewhat miraculous, somewhat methodical workings of inspiration.

Since all creative work is the product of extensive incubation, as T.S. Eliot believed, the inquiry into creativity itself is no exception: Long before the release of the book, Gilbert incubated many of these ideas in her long, layered, and thoroughly rewarding conversation with The New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber. Here are some particularly delectable highlights.

On the machinery of inspiration and the artist’s immutable frustration at failing to will the muse, which F. Scott Fitzgerald articulated brilliantly a century earlier:

You know, it’s the same thing as the question of free will and destiny, the question of creativity — you, the artist, you’re not the puppet of the piano, you’re not the puppet of the muse, but you’re not its master, either. It’s a relationship, it’s a conversation, and all it wants is to be treated with respect and dignity — and it will return ten thousand times over.

On profiling Tom Waits and what the encounter taught her about the relationship between inspiration and perspiration — something Leonard Cohen addresses beautifully in the now-legendary interview from which Holdengräber is quoting:

ELIZABETH GILBERT: I loved him so much and I loved so much what he said about the process of songwriting that can apply also to the process of making art, the process of writing a book.

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: What did he say?

EG: He said that every single song has an individual character. He believes in the magic and the muse and the true believin’ — he’s on our team. He said, “Every single song has its own individual character and you can’t treat each song the same way, because it wants to be treated differently and there are songs that are like scared birds that you have to sneak up on over the course of months in the woods.”

PH: And he had an experience which is not unlike that poet where he’s caught in traffic precisely.

EG: He was caught in traffic. He had one song, and he talks about songs that you have to bully and songs that are like dreams through a straw, and then this one: He said that there are songs that don’t want to exist, and you have to let them go, and you have to let them not haunt you — which is another way to not become insane as an artist. And he was driving down the freeway one day…

PH: …in Los Angeles…

EG: …in Los Angeles, and he heard a little tiny trace of a beautiful melody, and he panicked because he didn’t have his waterproof paper, and he didn’t have his tape recorder, and he didn’t have a pen, he didn’t have a pencil — he had no way to get it.

PH: He only had his car in Los Angeles.

EG: And he thought, “How am I going to catch this song?” And he started to have all that old panic and anxiety that artists have about feeling like you’re going to miss something, and then he just slowed down and he looked up at the sky, and he looked up and he said, “Excuse me, can you not see that I’m driving? If you’re serious about wanting to exist, come back and see me in the studio. I spend six hours a day there, you know where to find me, at my piano. Otherwise, go bother somebody else. Go bother Leonard Cohen.”

PH: And I love that, and I love that because … Leonard Cohen, when asked about inspiration, he said, “If I knew where inspiration came from, I would go there more often.”

EG: But you know, there’s a way to go there more often, and it’s to show up at your desk at six o’clock every morning.

PH: The Herzog line, “get back to work.”

EG: It’s the Sitzfleisch. How do you say it?

PH: I’ll tell you. Sitzfleisch.

EG: Sitzfleisch.

PH: Sitzfleisch means literally the meat you have on your tushie.

EG: Ass flesh, in less —

PH: …to keep yourself sitting.

EG: The ability to sit.

On Norman Mailer and the perils of buying into the Tortured Genius archetype — a criticism to which the stark contrast with Gilbert’s usual radiance of mind and deeply uncynical perspective only adds import:

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: There’s a line which you like to quote which happened here on this stage when I brought Günter Grass together with Norman Mailer when Mailer said that “every one of my books has killed me a little more.”

ELIZABETH GILBERT: Honestly, that’s how I feel about that… I’m sorry: Norman Mailer was a great man, he was a great — well, he wasn’t a great man, he was a great writer in certain regards — but it just bores me. I find myself very gently falling asleep when I hear somebody like that, who lived a long, robust life…

PH: …very robust…

EG: …wrote a pile of books that made him famous, that made every woman in the world want to sleep with him — and he did — say that his work was killing him. I just, I’m like, pff, just boo, you know? I’m sorry, rest in peace, Norman, but you know.

PH: You’re writing against that.

EG: I am so vividly against that and I also just think, are you kidding? First of all, who are you kidding? You know, he was the biggest narcissist in the world — it gave him a platform, it gave him attention, it gave him fame, it gave him notoriety, it gave him a way to run for mayor of New York, it gave him everything: It gave him life. And the ingratitude of it is what irritates me, because I feel like if you’re lucky enough — if you’re lucky enough ever in your life to be able to walk in a creative path — then at least be grateful. And it sounds like an indignant, spoiled rich child to me, and I hate it… I just hate it.

And you know why? I don’t hate it for him — because I don’t really care about Norman Mailer’s life — I hate it for the people who were in that audience that night, and who thought, “Oh, yes, true,” you know, or “I’m an aspiring writer, and therefore I must feel that, I should be feeling that way too,” and he’s teaching that and perpetuating it. And it’s a cancer.

Many of Mailer’s contemporaries pushed back — from Ray Bradbury, who tirelessly championed the sheer love of writing and often proclaimed that he never worked a day in his life, to Susan Sontag, who was a true celebrator of writing and of writers (and who, incidentally, once publicly eviscerated another of Mailer’s toxic attitudes).

Few writers in our own time provide more vitalizing an antidote to that cancer than Gilbert, a concentrated dose of which she delivers in Big Magic.

The event was part of the library’s LIVE from the NYPL series, which has also given us such stimulations as Cheryl Strayed’s no-nonsense advice to aspiring writers, Malcolm Gladwell on criticism, tolerance, and the art of changing your mind and Anna Deavere Smith and Sarah Lewis on aesthetic force. The audio recordings of the series belong to the finest podcasts for a fuller life. Join me in supporting The New York Public Library so they may continue making such gifts to the public possible.

Photographs by Jori Klein for NYPL

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