Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

01 FEBRUARY, 2013

Susan Sontag’s Radical Vision for Remixing Education

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A new order of knowledge for cultivating lifelong learning.

“Our whole theory of education,” Henry Miller famously lamented, “is based on the absurd notion that we must learn to swim on land before tackling the water.” With its factory schooling model, its biologically unsound schedules, and its failure to account for different types of intelligence, the modern education system leaves much to be desired in terms of encouraging creativity, critical thinking, and hands-on learning.

From the recently released volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library; UK) — one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012, which gave us Sontag’s wisdom on writing, boredom, censorship, and aphorisms, and her illustrated insights on love and art — comes a somewhat radical but in many ways brilliantly sensible vision for education. Writing 40 years ago, in a diary entry from January of 1973, Sontag inverts the traditional sequence of schooling, envisioning for education what Stefan Sagmeister has done for work with his model of time-shifted retirement via distributed sabbaticals, and above all seconding Miller’s insistence on learning by doing.

Sontag writes:

Why not eliminate schooling between age 12-16? It’s biologically + psychologically too turbulent a time to be cooped up inside, made to sit all the time. During these years, kids would live communally — doing some work, anyway being physically active, in the countryside; learning about sex — free of their parents. Those four ‘missing’ years of school could be added on, at a much later age. At, say, age 50-54 everyone would have to go back to school. (One could get a deferment for a few years, in special cases, if one was in a special work or creative project that couldn’t be broken off.) In this 50-54 schooling, have strong pressure to learn a new job or profession — plus liberal arts stuff, general science (ecology, biology), and language skills.

This simple change in the age specificity of schooling would a) reduce adolescent discontent, anomie, boredom, neurosis; b) radically modify the almost inevitable process by which people at 50 are psychologically and intellectually ossified — have become increasingly conservative, politically — and retrograde in their tastes (Neil Simon plays, etc.)

There would no longer be one huge generation gap (war), between the young and the not young — but 5 or 6 generation gaps, each much less severe.

After all, since most people from now on are going to live to be 70, 75, 80, why should all their schooling be bunched together in the first 1/3 or 1/4 of their lives — so that it’s downhill all the way  

Early schooling — age 6-12 — would be intensive language skills, basic science, civics, the arts.  

Back to school at 16: liberal arts for two years
Age 18-21: job training through apprenticeship, not schooling

Complement with Sister Corita Kent’s 10 rules for students and teachers and Bertrand Russell’s 10 commandments of education.

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01 FEBRUARY, 2013

Ambiverts, Problem-Finders, and the Surprising Secrets of Selling Your Ideas

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“It is in fact the discovery and creation of problems rather than any superior knowledge, technical skill, or craftsmanship that often sets the creative person apart.”

Whether it’s “selling” your ideas, your writing, or yourself to a potential mate, the art of the sell is crucial to your fulfillment in life, both personal and professional. So argues Dan Pink in To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others (public library; UK) — a provocative anatomy of the art-science of “selling” in the broadest possible sense of the word, substantiated by ample research spanning psychology, behavioral economics, and the social sciences.

Pink, wary of the disagreeable twinges accompanying the claim that everyone should self-identify as a salesperson, preemptively counters in the introduction:

I’m convinced we’ve gotten it wrong.

This is a book about sales. But it is unlike any book about sales you have read (or ignored) before. That’s because selling in all its dimensions — whether pushing Buicks on a lot or pitching ideas in a meeting — has changed more in the last ten years than it did over the previous hundred. Most of what we think we understand about selling is constructed atop a foundation of assumptions that have crumbled.

[…]

Selling, I’ve grown to understand, is more urgent, more important, and, in its own sweet way, more beautiful than we realize. The ability to move others to exchange what they have for what we have is crucial to our survival and our happiness. It has helped our species evolve, lifted our living standards, and enhanced our daily lives. The capacity to sell isn’t some unnatural adaptation to the merciless world of commerce. It is part of who we are.

One of Pink’s most fascinating arguments echoes artist Chuck Close, who famously noted that “our whole society is much too problem-solving oriented. It is far more interesting to [participate in] ‘problem creation.’” Pink cites the research of celebrated social scientists Jacob Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who in the 1960s recruited three dozen fourth-year art students for an experiment. They brought the young artists into a studio with two large tables. The first table displayed 27 eclectic objects that the school used in its drawing classes. The students were instructed to select one or more objects, then arrange a still life on the second table and draw it. What happened next reveals an essential pattern about how creativity works:

The young artists approached their task in two distinct ways. Some examined relatively few objects, outlined their idea swiftly, and moved quickly to draw their still life. Others took their time. They handled more objects, turned them this way and that, rearranged them several times, and needed much longer to complete the drawing. As Csikszentmihalyi saw it, the first group was trying to solve a problem: How can I produce a good drawing? The second was trying to find a problem: What good drawing can I produce?

As Csikszentmihalyi then assembled a group of art experts to evaluate the resulting works, he found that the problem-finders’ drawings had been ranked much higher in creativity than the problem-solvers’. Ten years later, the researchers tracked down these art students, who at that point were working for a living, and found that about half had left the art world, while the other half had gone on to become professional artists. That latter group was composed almost entirely of problem-finders. Another decade later, the researchers checked in again and discovered that the problem-finders were “significantly more successful — by the standards of the artistic community — than their peers.” Getzels concluded:

It is in fact the discovery and creation of problems rather than any superior knowledge, technical skill, or craftsmanship that often sets the creative person apart from others in his field.

Pink summarizes:

The more compelling view of the nature of problems has enormous implications for the new world of selling. Today, both sales and non-sales selling depend more on the creative, heuristic, problem-finding skills of artists than on the reductive, algorithmic, problem-solving skills of technicians.

Another fascinating chapter reveals counterintuitive insights about the competitive advantages of introversion vs. extraversion. While new theories might extol the power of introverts over traditional exaltations of extraversion, the truth turns out to be quite different: Pink turns to the research of social psychologist Adam Grant, management professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania (my alma mater).

Grant measured where a sample of call center sales representatives fell on the introversion-extraversion spectrum, then correlated that with their actual sales figures. Unsurprisingly, Grant found that extraverts averaged $125 per hour in revenue, exceeding introverts’ $120. His most surprising finding, however, was that “ambiverts” — those who fell in the middle of the spectrum, “not too hot, not too cold” — performed best of all, with an hourly average of $155. The outliers who brought in an astounding $208 per hour scored a solid 4 on the 1-7 introversion-extraversion scale.

Pink synthesizes the findings into an everyday insight for the rest of us:

The best approach is for the people on the ends to emulate those in the center. As some have noted, introverts are ‘geared to inspect,’ while extraverts are ‘geared to respond.’ Selling of any sort — whether traditional sales or non-sales selling — requires a delicate balance of inspecting and responding. Ambiverts can find that balance. They know when to speak and when to shut up. Their wider repertoires allow them to achieve harmony with a broader range of people and a more varied set of circumstances. Ambiverts are the best movers because they’re the most skilled attuners.

Pink goes on to outline “the new ABCs of moving others” — attunement (“the ability to bring one’s actions and outlook into harmony with other people an with the context you’re [sic] in”), buoyancy (a trifecta of “interrogative self-talk” that moves from making statements to asking questions, contagious “positivity,” and an optimistic “explanatory style” of explaining negative events to yourself), and clarity (“the capacity to help others see their situations in fresh and more revealing ways and to identify problems they didn’t realize they had”).

For a taste of what makes To Sell Is Human worth picking up, here are some familiar faces and favorite voices:

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31 JANUARY, 2013

Why We Write: Mary Karr on the Magnetism and Madness of the Written Word

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“Be willing to be a child and be the Lilliputian in the world of Gulliver.”

Why do writers — great writers — write? Literary history has given us some timeless answers from George Orwell, Joan Didion, Joy Williams, and David Foster Wallace — but the question remains ever-open. That’s precisely what editor Meredith Maran sets out to address in the anthology Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do (public library; UK), which features such literary all-stars as Jennifer Egan, James Fray, Susan Orlean, and Michael Lewis.

One of the volume’s sharpest contributions comes from memorist, essayist and poet Mary Karr, author of the humorous and harrowing memoir series The Liar’s Club (1995), Cherry (2000), and Lit (2009). With her signature blend of uncompromising honesty, wry wit, and exquisite self-awareness that somehow manages to keep from bleeding into the naggy self-consciousness chronic of writers, Karr faces the written word with equal parts faith and irreverence.

I write to dream; to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit the dead. I have a kind of primitive need to leave a mark on the world. Also, I have a need for money.

I’m almost always anxious when I’m writing. There are those great moments when you forget where you are, when you get your hands on the keys, and you don’t feel anything because you’re somewhere else. But that very rarely happens. Mostly I’m pounding my hands on the corpse’s chest. The easy times are intermittent. They can be five minutes long or five hours long, but they’re never very long. The hard times are not completely hard, but they can be pretty hard, and they can go on for weeks.

On remembering, despite the painful labor, to write with joy:

I usually get very sick after I finish a book. As soon as I put it down and my body lies down and there’s not that injection of adrenaline and cortisol, I get sick. I have a medium-shitty immune system so that doesn’t help. All of that said, writing feels like a privilege. Even though it’s very uncomfortable, I constantly feel very lucky.

On defeating the demons to access the gods of clarity:

When I went into a mental institution after I stopped drinking, my writing took a great leap forward — or at least people started paying a lot more for it. I was more clear and more openhearted, more self-aware, more suspicious of my own motives. I was more of a grown-up.

On the broken economics of the literary world, the myth of the rockstar-writer, and the choice of creative purpose over money:

I still don’t support myself as a writer. I support myself as a college professor. I couldn’t pay my mortgage on the revenue from my books. The myth is that you make a lot of money when you publish a book. Unless you write a blockbuster, that’s pretty much untrue. Starting when I was five, I always identified as a writer. It had nothing to do with income. I always told people I was a poet if they asked what I did. That’s what I still tell them now.

On the routine joy of unhinging oneself from the writing routine:

For me the best time is at the end of the day, when you’ve written and forgotten. You wrote longer than you expected to. You’ve been so absorbed in it that it got late. You unhitch yourself from the plow.

On the present state of book publishing, with a reminder that it’s only as dystopian as we make it:

Currently nobody really knows how to sell books. The whole system is changing, and nobody knows how to make money in this industry in any kind of reliable way. The industry has this blockbuster mentality that permits a shitty TV star to publish his shitty book and sell three million copies in hardcover, and then you never hear about it again. All the energy is focused on those blockbuster books because they have the most immediate, short-term return. People have been saying it’s the end of the novel since Hemingway. I don’t feel that dire about it. I think more people read than used to read. You have more people reading worse books, but they’re still reading books.

Karr ends with some synthesized wisdom for writers:

  • The quote I had tacked to my board while I was writing Lit is from Samuel Beckett, and it’s really helpful: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better.”
  • Any idiot can publish a book. But if you want to write a good book, you’re going to have to set the bar higher than the marketplace’s. Which shouldn’t be too hard.
  • Most great writers suffer and have no idea how good they are. Most bad writers are very confident. Be willing to be a child and be the Lilliputian in the world of Gulliver, the bat girl in Yankee Stadium. That’s a more fruitful way to be.

Why We Write is excellent in its entirety. Pair it with H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, Margaret Atwood’s 10 practical tips, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

Photograph via Poetry Foundation

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