Brain Pickings

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

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“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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June 12, 1918: Einstein’s Divorce Agreement and the Messiness of the Human Heart

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“In the case of a divorce, I would grant you significant pecuniary advantages through particularly generous concessions.”

It is always astounding to observe the readiness with which posterity comments on the private lives of public figures — the more prominent the latter, the more cynical the former. Couple that with our lamentable but all too human tendency to appease our own insecurities about imperfection by pointing out the flaws — perceived flaws, rather, based on alleged and unscrutinized “facts” — of others, and you get one of the saddest sports in our culture: poking holes in genius through hubristic commentary on the flawed intimate relationships of luminaries. Couples like John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald are frequent fare for the simplistic opinions of cynics — people who never met the couple in question, much less were present at their kitchen table or in their bedroom.

The truth, of course, is that nobody really knows exactly what transpires between two hearts — including, more often than we like to admit, the two people in whose chests they beat. But one can get a far more accurate and nuanced impression of a relationship’s complexities by engaging with the first-hand realities of those involved, through their letters and journals and memoirs, than by simply borrowing the opinions of posterity’s self-appointed pundits.

Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić

Nowhere is this truer than in the life of “the quintessential modern genius” and thus the most alluring target for that cultural sport: Albert Einstein’s relationship with his first wife, the Serbian physicist Mileva Marić, is mired in various allegations that boil down to some version of Einstein as a selfish egomaniac. But reading their prolific correspondence, which includes a great many beautiful love letters early on and deeply sorrowful exchanges as their love begins, or even seeing the Alan Alda play based on that correspondence, leaves one acutely aware of how much more nuance and dimension there is to their relationship, as to any relationship.

Even then, we’ve hardly glimpsed a fragment of the couple’s private truth. But there emerges a distinct sense that the unraveling of their love was the case of two strong-willed, ambitious individuals, both of enormous intellect and emotional capacity, who in growing up together — they had met when Albert was seventeen and Mileva twenty-one — simply grew apart.

Wedding photograph of Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić, January 6, 1903

By 1912, the relationship was strained beyond repair. They separated in 1914, after eleven years of marriage and eighteen as a couple. Soon, Einstein grew an epistolary romance and fell in love with Elsa Löwenthal, his cousin. (This was far from uncommon in that era.) In 1916, he suggested a formal divorce, but after Mileva developed a heart condition and began suffering from fever attacks, he retracted the idea. “From now on, I’ll not trouble her any more with the divorce,” he wrote to a friend.

But tensions continued to rise and as Mileva’s condition improved, Einstein proposed divorce for the second time in January of 1918, in a letter found in Princeton University’s newly released digital archive of Einstein’s papers — which also gave us Einstein on the fickle nature of fame — and included in The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Volume 8: The Berlin Years: Correspondence, 1914–1918 (public library). What is most extraordinary is not only that he beseeches his wife for a divorce with such desperation as to practically bribe her, not only that he so readily offers his Nobel Prize money as part of the bribe, but that he does so three whole years before he actually got the Nobel Prize.

Dear Mileva,

The endeavor finally to put my private affairs in some state of order prompts me to suggest the divorce to you for the second time. I am firmly resolved to do everything to make this step possible. In the case of a divorce, I would grant you significant pecuniary advantages through particularly generous concessions.

  1. 9,000 M [$1,560 then, $26,000 now] instead of 6,000 M, with the provision that 2,000 of it be deposited annually for the benefit of the children.
  2. The Nobel Prize — in the event of the divorce and in the event that it is bestowed upon me — would be ceded to you in full a priori. Disposal of the interest would be left entirely to your discretion. The capital would be despited in Switzerland and placed in safe-keeping for the children. My payments named under (1) would then fall away and be replaced by an annual payment which together with that interest totals 8,000 M. In this case you would have 8,000 M at your free disposition.
  3. The widow’s pension would be promised to you in the case of a divorce.

Naturally, I would make such huge sacrifices only in the case of a voluntary divorce. If you do not consent to the divorce, from now on, not a cent about 6,000 M per year will be sent to Switzerland. Now I request being informed whether you agree and are prepared to file a divorce claim against me. I would take care of everything here, so you would have neither trouble nor any inconveniences whatsoever.

Einstein ends with an endearing note about his elder son, Hans Albert, with whom he corresponded a great deal and once offered the secret to learning anything in a different letter. After a few well-wishing remarks about Mileva’s health, he writes:

Albert’s letters delight me exceedingly; fro them I see how well the boy is developing intellectually and in character… Kisses to the children.

Illustration from 'On a Beam of Light,' a children's book about Einstein's life. Click image for more.

Two months later, Einstein wrote to his Swiss friend Heinrich Zangger, perhaps his closest confidante at the time:

My wife and I now have quite a satisfactory relationship, despite my wanting to divorce… There is a lively exchange of letters between me and her; and now I believe that it works best if I discuss all matters openly with her.

On June 12, 1918, a divorce agreement was finally laid out, translating Einstein’s promise into legalese. The hypothetical but confidently awaited Nobel Prize money remains a centerpiece of the agreement, which includes the following clause:

Prof. Einstein shall instruct, in the event of a divorce and in case he receives the Nobel Prize, the [award money] to become the property of Mrs. Mileva Einstein and shall deposit this capital in trust at a Swiss bank.

He goes on to stipulate that in the event of Mileva’s death or remarriage, the award money should be transferred to their two sons instead.

Einstein in 1921

Mileva agreed and they divorced in 1919. In 1921, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize “for his services to Theoretical Physics,” which were instrumental in catalyzing the rise of quantum physics. He received his prize money a year later and, being a man of his word, promptly transferred the funds to Mileva. Some years later, when their younger son was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Einstein’s Nobel Prize paid for the young man’s towering and otherwise prohibitively expensive treatment.

Complement with Einstein on why we are alive, his legendary conversation with the Indian philosopher and fellow Nobel laureate Tagore, his little-known correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois on race and racial justice, and his answer to a little girl’s question about whether scientists pray.

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24-Year-Old William Styron on Happiness, Presence, and the True Measure of Maturity, in a Letter to His Father

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“I’ll always hate the stupid and the bat-brained and the petty. But it doesn’t seem nearly so important anymore to hate, as try to understand.”

William Styron (June 11, 1925–November 1, 2006) is one of the most influential writers of the past century, a man as doggedly dedicated to the craft of writing as he was to his unflinching faith in the human ability to discern right from wrong and, based on that discernment, to act nobly, however difficult the choice might be. Nowhere does the wholehearted idealism for which he is most beloved shine more luminously than in a letter Styron sent to his father in the spring of 1949, found in Selected Letters of William Styron (public library) — the same marvelous compendium that gave us the young man, while still a senior at Duke, on why a college education is a waste of time for writers.

Right around the time Alan Watts was beginning to popularize Eastern philosophy in the West, formulating his enduring ideas on happiness and how to live with presence, 24-year-old Styron arrives at these eternal truths through incredibly insightful introspection, articulated with the intellectual elegance and pulsating prose of a great writer.

Having just moved to New York and settled into an apartment in Brooklyn, Styron begins with an endearing rant on rent — second only to Vonnegut’s — certain to delight and mildly infuriate any past or present New Yorker with its embedded testament to the collusion of time, capitalism, and rent gouging:

Dear Pop,

I am writing this letter from my new home in — you wouldn’t believe it — Brooklyn. I arrived in New York a little over a week ago, immediately began hunting around for an apartment, but found that places to live in are still terribly difficult to get, even though I had heard beforehand that things had loosened up somewhat. The last isn’t true at all. You’d think that everyone in the country had converged upon New York, and that each was making a concerted effort to get an apartment, room — even an alcove somewhere. I suppose that it all involves some terrifically complicated economic theory, but it still strikes me as being a gigantic sort of fraud — that one has to knock his brains out and pay away his soul to boot to be able to get a roof over his head and a minimum of the necessities of life.

Brooklyn by pioneering photographer Berenice Abbott from her series 'Changing New York.' Click image for more.

But such struggles, young Styron precociously intuits, feed the empathetic muscle that fortifies the heart of all idealism and creative purpose:

I guess it’s merely the fact that I’m politically naïve, and that the way to knowledge is mainly through experience — such experience as I am going through now. I suppose, too, that 99% of the radicals, so-called liberals, and Communists are only that way, not through any a priori, bookish idealism, but because they were broke once, or out in the rain, and had to turn to some politico-economic father confessor. Which from my point of view is all the more reason for bucking life as you see it — artistically speaking, that is — or accepting it, or making the most of it — writing about it faithfully, in the long run, and not getting mixed up with the soothsayers. I suppose that if you really catch hell from life — as an untouchable, say, or a sharecropper — your artistic instincts wither, and you become political. That’s natural enough. But Americans are political enough as it is. We’ve got nearly everything, and we still bitch about this and that at every turn.

Which is all by way of saying that though I somehow resent not being able to settle down in a cozy Greenwich Village apartment at $40 a month, I am still glad to be in Brooklyn in a clean and decent place…

Actually I hope I’m not giving the impression that I’m complaining, because this is a pretty nice place by anyone’s standards. It’s in an old weatherbeaten house overlooking Prospect Park. There are plenty of trees around, plenty of grass, and big windows to look at the grass through. I’m in an apartment on the ground floor — two rooms, bath, kitchen, all furnished, $70 a month — the rent being impossible were it not for the fact that I am — or will be in June — sharing the apartment with Bob Loomis of Duke, who is coming to N.Y. to get a job. Split, the rent will be $9 a week, utilities included, which isn’t bad.

Quite apart from the gobsmacking amusement of the then-and-now rent comparison — my own tiny apartment in Brooklyn, mere blocks from Styron’s, costs about fiftyfold as much — there is a deeper reward to his reflections, one found in the mindfulness with which he counters his complaints with an antidote of gratefulness.

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

Decades before Pico Iyer asserted that “what gives you lasting happiness is not the stuff you have but the use you make of it,” young Styron reflects on the real source of happiness, which has to do with mastering the art of presence, and the true measure of maturity, which requires learning how to be alone and savor one’s own company. He writes:

For some reason, although I’m not exactly ecstatic about the world and life in general, I’m very happy. I don’t know why that should be, as I’ve always thought of myself as an exceptionally melancholy person.* Maybe the melancholy was merely adolescent, and maybe, though I can’t really sense it, I’m growing up, or reaching an “adjustment,” as the psychologists say. Whatever it is, it’s nice.

It’s not love — love of a girl, that is, because I haven’t found her yet.** It’s not the excitement of being in New York, because I’ve been in New York before and now know how to take with a grain of salt its synthetic stimuli (though I still love New York). Actually I don’t know what it is. For the past four or five days I’ve been alone, not seeing anyone or talking to anyone I know except over the phone. Ordinarily this aloneness would have made me miserable, utterly wretched. But I haven’t minded it at all. I haven’t drunk hardly anything — a few beers, that’s all. And yet I’ve been quite content, suffused with a sort of pleasant well-being that demanded really nothing strenuous of myself, or of anyone else.

Perhaps it’s merely that I’ve gained a measure of Emerson’s self-reliance. Perhaps it’s just that, for some reason I can’t put my finger on, I feel surer of myself than I ever have before — more confident of my worth and my ultimate success, and less fearful of failure.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Mary Oliver’s wonderful notion of “a seizure of happiness,” Styron describes a quality of vibrant presence at the heart of his contentment:

Maybe — again for some reason I haven’t quite been able to analyze — I’m finding that life excites me, appeals to me in a way I’ve never felt before. I still have awful moments of despair, and I guess I always will, but they don’t seem to be as overpowering as in the past. I don’t take so much pleasure in my despondency any more; I try to throw my bleak moods off — which again perhaps is a sign that I’m growing up.

I don’t know how this novel will turn out. Naturally, I hope it’s good. But best of all is the fact that I’m not afraid of its being bad, literarily speaking, provided I know I’ve done my best. In the meantime I’m taking great pleasure in living, and in being alone without being a recluse. At night, after I’ve worked through the day, I walk up Church Avenue to Flatbush and thence down Flatbush, enjoying every minute of the walk.

Atlantic Terminal Tower, Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn. Illustration by James Gulliver Hancock from 'All the Buildings in New York.' Click image for more.

But his most heartening insight is the precocious awareness that kindness, selflessness, and empathic understanding are not merely a gift to others but, above all, a gift to ourselves. Nearly a decade before Jack Kerouac advised that you should “practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now” and three decades before Kurt Vonnegut admonished that “hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide,” Styron tells his father:

It’s somehow all of a sudden wonderfully exciting. Maybe it’s just forgetting one’s self for a minute, not trying to be smug and self-centered and aloof. And I’ve learned to do finally — at least with far less effort and self-consciousness — something that three or four years ago you told me was one of the touchstones of maturity: being nice to people even when they’re not nice to you… I’ll always hate the stupid and the bat-brained and the petty. But it doesn’t seem nearly so important anymore to hate, as try to understand.

Styron considers the ever-elusive art of balance in his closing lines, planting the seed for the beautiful credo that would come to define his literary legacy:

It’s incredible how one runs about frantically at times like a rat in a maze, not really knowing right from wrong (and often really not caring), victim of one’s own passions and instincts rather than master of one’s own soul. I suppose the proper thing to do is just to stop every now and then and say, Where am I heading? Actually, though I’m still much like the psychologist’s rat, I find myself asking myself that question almost too often. I suppose the very fact that I realize my indulgence in too much introspection is another sign (I hope) of maturity. Too much brooding is unhealthy and, although I still have my slumps, I’ve begun to realize that one of the great secrets is striking a balance between thought and action… Living, acting, thinking; not just vegetating neurotically, on one hand, or blundering about, on the other hand, like so many people do, like trapped flies. It’s a hard balance to strike, but I think it can be done, and that in this exciting-sorrowful age of ours it can make great literature.

Nineteen years later, Styron would win the Pulitzer Prize for transmuting that hard balance into great literature.

Selected Letters of William Styron is a trove of wisdom in its hefty totality. Complement it with young Hunter S. Thompson’s equally precocious, if bittersweet in hindsight, letter of advice on living a meaningful life and young Sylvia Plath’s breathtaking, and at least as bittersweet in hindsight, letters to her mother on living wholeheartedly.

* Decades later, Styron became painfully reacquainted with his melancholy nature and its deeper pathology — an experience he would come to recount in the 1990 masterwork Darkness Visible, perhaps the most powerful memoir of depression ever written.

** Styron did find the girl four years later in a young Baltimore poet named Rose Burgunder, who soon become Rose Styron and, after loving Bill until his dying day, brought to life this very collection of letters.

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