Brain Pickings

Why the Best Roadmap to an Interesting Life is the One You Make Up as You Go Along: Daniel Pink’s Commencement Address

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“Sometimes, the only way to discover who you are or what life you should lead is to do less PLANNING and more LIVING — to burst the double bubble of comfort and convention and just DO stuff.”

On the heels of Shonda Rhimes’s spectacular 2014 Dartmouth commencement address comes another wonderful addition to the greatest commencement addresses of all time. Author Daniel Pink — whose books explore such endlessly fascinating subjects as the art of persuasion, the science of what actually motivates us, and the benefits of being an “ambivert” — addressed the 2014 graduating class at Northwestern University’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, from which Pink himself graduated in 1986 with a degree in linguistics before getting his J.D. from the Yale Law School.

The gist of Pink’s message echoes Rilke’s wisdom on living the questions and Picasso’s beliefs about drawing, reminding us with equal parts humor and urgency about the perils of making plans in the most existential sense possible. Transcribed highlights below.

Sometimes you have to write to figure it out…

This advice wasn’t just savvy guidance for how to write — it might be the wisest advice I know for how to live… The way to be okay, we all believe, is to have a specific plan — except may it’s not…

The smartest, most interesting, most dynamic, most impactful people … lived to figure it out. At some point in their lives, they realized that carefully crafted plans … often don’t hold up… Sometimes, the only way to discover who you are or what life you should lead is to do less planning and more living — to burst the double bubble of comfort and convention and just do stuff, even if you don’t know precisely where it’s going to lead, because you don’t know precisely where it’s going to lead.

This might sound risky — and you know what? It is. It’s really risky. But the greater risk is to choose false certainty over genuine ambiguity. The greater risk is to fear failure more than mediocrity. The greater risk is to pursue a path only because it’s the first path you decided to pursue.

Or, as a wise woman put it: “imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time. Start now. Not 20 years from now, not two weeks from now. Now.”

For more wisdom from this singular genre of modern sermons, see Kurt Vonnegut on kindness and the power of great teachers, Anna Quindlen on the essentials of a happy life, George Saunders on the power of kindness, David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life, Neil Gaiman on the resilience of the creative spirit, Patti Smith on life and making a name for yourself, and Joseph Brodsky on winning the game of life.

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Picasso on Intuition, How Creativity Works, and Where Ideas Come From

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“To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing.”

“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work,” painter Chuck Close memorably scoffed. “Show up, show up, show up,” novelist Isabelle Allende echoed in her advice to aspiring writers, “and after a while the muse shows up, too.” Legendary composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky put it similarly in an 1878 letter to his benefactress: “A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.” Indeed, this notion that creativity and fruitful ideas come not from the passive resignation to a muse but from the active application of work ethic — or discipline, something the late and great Massimo Vignelli advocated for as the engine of creative work — is something legions of creative luminaries have articulated over the ages, alongside the parallel inquiry of where ideas come from. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most succinct and elegant articulation comes from one of the greatest artists of all time.

Picasso having lunch at the Brasserie Lipp, chatting with Pierre Matisse, Henri Matisse's son. Photograph by Brassaï.

This was one of the questions the famed Hungarian photographer Brassaï posed to Pablo Picasso over the course of their 30-year-long interview series, collected in Conversations with Picasso (public library) — the same superb 1964 volume that gave us Picasso on success and why you should never compromise creatively. When Brassaï asks whether the painter’s ideas come to him “by chance or by design,” Picasso slips in some sidewise wisdom on the tyranny of “creative block” and responds:

I don’t have a clue. Ideas are simply starting points. I can rarely set them down as they come to my mind. As soon as I start to work, others well up in my pen. To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing… When I find myself facing a blank page, that’s always going through my head. What I capture in spite of myself interests me more than my own ideas.

The chalk portrait of Picasso that Henri Matisse drew blindfolded. Photograph by Brassaï.

To further illustrate this notion that the best creative work happens when the rational, self-editing mind gets out of the way of the intuitive inclination — something Ray Bradbury articulated beautifully in a 1974 interview — Picasso offers an illustrative example. Despite being both a professional admirer and a personal friend of Matisse’s, he cites the painter’s notoriously methodical creative process as a betrayal of this notion that an artist should honor his or her initial creative intuition:

Matisse does a drawing, then he recopies it. He recopies it five times, ten times, each time with cleaner lines. He is persuaded that the last one, the most spare, is the best, the purest, the definitive one; and yet, usually it’s the first. When it comes to drawing, nothing is better than the first sketch.

Making Picasso's point visible: In 2010, MoMA curators used X-ray technology to reveal the many iterations behind Henri Matisse's painting 'Bathers by a River,' on which the painter worked for eight years between 1909 and 1917.

Conversations with Picasso is an enormously rewarding read in its entirety. Complement this particular extract with a five-step “technique for producing ideas” from 1939, then revisit David Lynch on where ideas come from and some thoughts on the subject from Neil Gaiman.

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Malcolm Gladwell on Criticism, Tolerance, and Changing Your Mind

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“That’s your responsibility as a person, as a human being — to constantly be updating your positions on as many things as possible. And if you don’t contradict yourself on a regular basis, then you’re not thinking.”

At a recent event from the New York Public Library’s wonderful LIVE from the NYPL series, interviewer extraordinaire Paul Holdengräber sat down with Malcolm Gladwell — author of such bestselling books as The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (public library), Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (public library), Outliers: The Story of Success (public library), and his most recent, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (public library) — to reflect on his career, discuss the aspects of culture that invigorate him with creative restlessness, and update his 7-word autobiography.

The entire conversation, embedded below, is well worth the time — there’s something rather magical about witnessing two minds of great intellect collide with great humanity — but three of Gladwell’s points gave me particular pause. Excerpts and transcribed highlights below.

Gladwell offers a brilliant and increasingly urgent criticism of contemporary criticism — a form of discourse that, at its best, is an increasingly rare art and, at its worst, breeds a vicious cycle of compulsive people-pleasing as a futile defense against hateful trolling:

Criticism is a privilege that you earn — it shouldn’t be your opening move in an interaction…

[…]

The notion that the only way you can critically engage with a person’s ideas is to take a shot at them, is to be openly critical — this is actually nonsense. Some of the most effective ways in which you deal with someone’s idea are to treat them completely at face value, and with an enormous amount of respect. That’s actually a faster way to engage with what they’re getting at than to lob grenades in their direction…

If you’re going to hold someone to what they believe, make sure you accurately represent what they believe.

Gladwell echoes comedian Bill Hicks’s spectacular letter on what freedom of speech really means and laments the hypocrisies of what we call “tolerance”:

What we call tolerance in this country, and pat ourselves on the back for, is the lamest kind of tolerance. What we call tolerance in this country is when people who are unlike us want to be like us, and when we decide to accept someone who is not like us and wants to be like us, we pat ourselves on the back… So when gays want to be like us and get married, we finally get around and say, “Oh, isn’t that courageous of me, to accept gay people for finally wanting to be like us.”

Sorry — you don’t get points for accepting someone who wants to be just like you. You get points for accepting someone who doesn’t want to be like you — that’s where the difficulty lies.

But perhaps Gladwell’s most culturally important point — and I say this as someone who ardently advocates for the uncomfortable luxury of changing one’s mind — has to do with the tyranny of our irrationally immovable opinions:

I feel I change my mind all the time. And I sort of feel that’s your responsibility as a person, as a human being — to constantly be updating your positions on as many things as possible. And if you don’t contradict yourself on a regular basis, then you’re not thinking.

[…]

If you create a system where you make it impossible, politically, for people to change [their] mind, then you’re in trouble.

See the full conversation below, find Gladwell’s books here and help support The New York Public Library’s wonderful programming here.

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