Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

22 DECEMBER, 2014

Why We Lost Leisure: David Steindl-Rast on Purposeful Work, Play, and How to Find Meaning in the Magnificent Superfluities of Life

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“A piece of music doesn’t come to an end when its purpose is accomplished. It has no purpose, strictly speaking. It is the playful unfolding of meaning.”

“Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive,” Seneca wrote in his sublime meditation on the shortness of life, adding that when we reap these contemplative fruits of leisure, all the ages that have passed before ours are added to our own — “unless we are very ungrateful.” Two millennia later, in 1926, philosopher Bertrand Russell reflected on the urgent need to undo the Industrial Revolution’s legacy of equating an efficient life with a life worth living when he lamented: “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?” In the centuries since Seneca and decades since Russell, we have forgotten more and more how to imbue leisure with the kind of gratefulness that makes possible its true purpose of contemplation — instead, we treat leisure as a luxury, as another good to be gotten from the hamster wheel of material achievement.

In one particularly pause-giving portion of his Essential Writings (public library), the Benedictine monk and interfaith dialogue activist David Steindl-Rast — best known for championing the practice of gratefulness, defined as “the inner gesture of giving meaning to our life by receiving life as a gift” — addresses with great gentleness and great firmness our warped modern understanding of leisure:

Leisure … is not the privilege of those who can afford to take time; it is the virtue of those who give to everything they do the time it deserves to take.

Brother David Steindl-Rast

Our culture betrays this in one aspect especially — the toxic divide between “work” and “life.” I often find myself saddened when people talk of “work-life balance” — a notion that implies we need to counter the unpleasantness we endure in order to make a living with the pleasurable activities we long to do in order to feel alive. Steindl-Rast makes a vitalizing case for reclaiming this ennobling purpose of leisure not outside the context of work but within it:

To recover a healthy understanding of leisure is to come a long way toward understanding contemplation. But few words we use are as misunderstood as the word “leisure.” This shows itself right away when we speak of work and leisure as a pair of opposites. Are the two poles of activity really work and leisure? If this were so, how could we speak of leisurely work? It would be a blatant contradiction. We know, however, that working leisurely is no contradiction at all. In fact, work ought to be done with leisure, if it is to be done well.

What then is the opposite of work? It is play. These are the two poles of activity: work and play.

Finding purposeful work is, of course, perhaps the surest way of resolving this paralyzing polarization — but Steindl-Rast cautions against confusing purpose with productivity, pointing to meaning as the differentiating factor:

Whenever you work, you work for some purpose. If it weren’t for that purpose, you’d have better things to do than work. Work and purpose are so closely connected that your work comes to an end, once your purpose is achieved. Or how are you going to continue fixing your car once it is fixed?…

In play, all the emphasis falls on the meaning of your activity… Play needs no purpose. That is why play can go on and on as long as players find it meaningful. After all, we do not dance in order to get somewhere. We dance around and around. A piece of music doesn’t come to an end when its purpose is accomplished. It has no purpose, strictly speaking. It is the playful unfolding of meaning that is there in each of its movements, in every theme, every passage: a celebration of meaning. Pachelbel’s Canon is one of the magnificent superfluities of life. Every time I listen to it, I realize anew that some of the most superfluous things are the most important for us because they give meaning to our human lives.

When our purposeful work also is meaningful, we will have a good time in the midst of it. Then we will not be so eager to get it over with. If you spend only minutes a day getting this or that over with, you may be squandering days, weeks, years in the course of a lifetime. Meaningless work is a form of killing time. But leisure makes time come alive. The Chinese character for being busy is also made up of two elements: heart and killing. A timely warning. Our very heartbeat is healthy only when it is leisurely.

The heart is a leisurely muscle. It differs from all other muscles. How many push-ups can you make before the muscles in your arms and stomach get so tired that you have to stop? But your heart muscle goes on working for as long as you live. It does not get tired, because there is a phase of rest built into every single heartbeat. Our physical heart works leisurely. And when we speak of the heart in a wider sense, the idea that life-giving leisure lies at the very center is implied. Never to lose sight of that central place of leisure in our life would keep us youthful.

C.S. Lewis echoed this beautifully in his memorable meditation on friendship, where he argued that things “like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself” have no survival value but are among “those things which give value to survival.” Reframed in this way, leisure reveals itself as precisely one of those things — not a luxury of life, but an essential vitalizer of it.

In the remainder of his Essential Writings, Steindl-Rast goes on to explore how the practice of gratefulness — which is different from gratitude — enriches our experience of such vital, often misapprehended and misapplied aspects of the human experience as silence, love, and hope. Complement it with Parker J. Palmer on the art of inner wholeness and Alan Watts on how to live with presence, then treat yourself to Steindl-Rast’s wonderfully grounding and elevating TED talk on gratefulness:

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In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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19 DECEMBER, 2014

Take Away the A: An Unusual Illustrated Alphabet Book about How We Make Meaning

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A playful celebration of the magic of language.

As a lover of unusual alphabet books, I was gladdened by this year’s crop of particularly wonderful additions, including Maira Kalman’s imaginative design history primer, Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag and Oliver Jeffers’s magnificent short stories for the letters, Once Upon an Alphabet. Joining them is Take Away the A: An Alphabeast of a Book! (public library) by writer Michaël Escoffier and illustrator Kris Di Giacomo — an irreverent exploration not only of the letters and their alphabetic order, but also of how they come together to form words and convey ideas. Each letter of the alphabet is removed from one word to produce another as the two are depicted in a humorous semi-sensical vignette of confused meanings. A weary pig and chicken hitchhike on the side of the road because without its M, their farm has suddenly gotten too far; a family of snails find themselves bewildered at the dinner table as their aunt loses her U and becomes an ant; a terrified chicken realizes that without the X, the two foxes staring it down become foes. What emerges is a playful celebration of language not as a dry, mathematical exercise in letter-organization but as a living organism, in which letters make meaning through a vast mesh of metaphorical associations driven by the imagination — the very faculty that is the hallmark of children’s minds.

Throughout the story, there is also a subtle, wistful lament about our relationship to animals, its only protagonists. A monkey sits atop a cash register, collecting change, because without his K, he makes money selling bananas; but monkeys — as well as their primate relatives, chimps — have a long and heartbreaking history of being abused as money-makers in the hands of humans, from circuses to labs to the illegal pet trade. Having lost their O, a party of four — a duck, a zebra, an antelope, and a wolf — are fur-clad at tea time; the cruel price of fur garments, of course, is always animal lives.

In another vignette, the polar bears lose their E and find themselves at the zoo, behind bars, as a human father and child ogle them while enjoying their ice cream, sold to them by a displaced penguin.

But rather than embitter the story, these subtleties only enrich and elevate it by offering possible topics of education and conversation so understated as to offer parents the choice of whether or not to gently broach these darker issues with the child-reader. What remains at the forefront is the irreverent sweetness of the story, full of fable-like characters — there is the wolf, and the fox, and the ant, and the mouse — who behave in delightfully unfablelike ways.

A touch of continuity tickles the masterful pattern-recognition machine that is the human mind at any age. I was especially charmed by the ample and imaginative cameos of the orange octopus, always cheeky, and the little white mouse, a perennial cautious bystander and occasional bold partaker in the quirky alphabetic adventures.

Take Away the A, which is sheer delight in its totality, comes from Brooklyn-based independent publisher Enchanted Lion, maker of such timelessly rewarding treasures as The Lion and the Bird, The River, Little Boy Brown, Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical, The Jacket, and Wednesday, and a strong presence among the year’s best children’s books.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion; photographs my own

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

19 DECEMBER, 2014

John Maeda on Creative Leadership, Talking vs. Making, and Why Human Relationships Are a Work of Craftsmanship

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“You make relationships. One at a time. With the same painstaking attention to craft that you knew as a maker.”

“A leader’s real ‘authority’ is a power you voluntarily give him,” David Foster Wallace wrote in what remains the wisest meditation on leadership I’ve ever encountered, “and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily.” But for many people in creative fields — artists, designers, filmmakers, writers — “leadership” remains an alienating notion that belongs in the business world or, worse, politics. And yet in an age of increasing creative collaboration and a world where any creative person putting a piece of herself out there is a “marketer,” whether willingly or not, the question of how a creative person can also be a great leader without sacrificing her art is an increasingly urgent one.

The delicate marriage of these two domains of mastery, often falsely framed as contradictory, is what design sage John Maeda explores in an interview found in Make Your Mark: The Creative’s Guide to Building a Business with Impact (public library) — the most recent installment in the series of entrepreneurship and self-enhancement field guides by 99U editor-in-chief Jocelyn Glei, which previously explored how to hone your creative routine and how to make your own luck.

Maeda — who headed research at the MIT Media Lab for thirteen years, spent the following six as president of the Rhode Island School of Design, and is one of the kindest, most thoughtful, and most generous human beings I know — considers the often uncomfortable shift from maker to leader that paralyzes many creative people:

When you make things with your hands, you force something into being. You sand it, you cut it, you fold it… You do everything to build it from end to end. Whereas leading requires a lot of talking, a lot of communicating — not using your hands. And when you’re a creative who makes things, you immediately build a distinction between the talkers and the makers. And makers tend to look down on talkers. And leaders are talkers. You don’t trust them, but now you’re one of them. [laughs] At first you think you can’t make anything with your hands anymore. But you can. You make relationships. One at a time. With the same painstaking attention to craft that you knew as a maker.

This notion that human relationships are an act of creativity and craftsmanship, a supreme art, is something Van Gogh captured a century and a half earlier, and yet it remains a counterintuitive idea in a culture that continues to subscribe to the lone genius myth, in art and in business, despite towering counterevidence and beautifully argued cases against it. Maeda speaks to this dangerous fallacy:

As a leader, you are alone — and accountable for the needs of the whole. The whole is the product. And you’re making it. You own it. And you succeed and fail by it… True creative leaders recognize that they live and die by their team.

Essentially, Maeda exposes the vital but overlooked parallels between making great artifacts and making great movements or communities — both are acts of creativity and require great craftsmanship. The difference, he points out, is in the delay of the payoff from the fruits of the creator’s labor:

The timeline is longer. A lot longer. You don’t get the immediate gratification that you might as a designer when the timelines are shorter. But artists are used to delayed gratification… and manage ambiguity better than anyone else.

Maeda is the author of Redesigning Leadership, in which he explores the many dimensions of the subject in greater depth and detail.

Complement Make Your Mark — which includes wisdom on entrepreneurship and the creative life from Seth Godin, Tim O’Reilly, Scott Belsky, and more — with the first two installments in the series, then revisit Lisa Congdon’s field guide to the psychology and practicalities of becoming a successful artist and Pixar cofounder Ed Catmull on the key to creative leadership.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.