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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

25 MARCH, 2015

Reinventing the Secular Sermon: Remarkable Commencement Addresses by Nora Ephron, David Foster Wallace, Ira Glass, and More

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How to live life “on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”

We live in an era where religion is, thank “god,” increasingly being displaced by culture and secular thought. And yet, secular education and the arts have a great deal to learn from religion as a mode of seeding values of good-personhood and disseminating ideas about the meaning of life. The contemporary secular equivalent of the sermon — religion’s most potent ideological delivery mechanism, that compact packet of wisdom on how to be a decent human being and lead a good life — is the commencement address. This singular genre of intergenerational hand-me-down advice accomplishes something no other form of modern communication does — it inverts our culture’s skewed balance of cynicism and hope and fosters what Oscar Wilde called a “temperament of receptivity” to deliver messages we would dismiss as trite in any other context; here, however, we know that trite means vitally true — it means hard-earned, life-tested, experience-proven truths about the simplest yet most difficult tenets of existence.

Now, some of the greatest commencement addresses of all time have been neatly packaged in Way More than Luck: Commencement Speeches on Living with Bravery, Empathy, and Other Existential Skills (public library) — a compendium of timeless wisdom including classics like David Foster Wallace’s indispensable This Is Water, delivered at Kenyon College in 2005, and Norah Ephron’s piercing 1996 Wellesley College speech, as well as contemporary masterworks of the commencement genre by This American Life host Ira Glass, writer Michael Lewis, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, artist and educator Debbie Millman, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, actor Bradley Whitford, and more.

The book opens with artist, author, and Design Matters host Debbie Millman’s 2013 San Jose State University commencement address, which was originally and exclusively published right here on Brain Pickings. She writes:

For most of my adult life, I traveled a safe path. I remember in vivid detail the moment I began my journey: August 1983, the hot muggy summer of David Bowie’s Modern Love and Synchronicity by the Police.

A few months after I graduated college, I stood on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Bleeker Street in New York City, wearing pastel blue trousers, a hot pink V-neck tee shirt, and bright white Capezio oxfords. I lingered at the intersection, peering deep into my future, and contemplated the choice between the secure and the uncertain, between the creative and the logical, between the known and the unknown. I dreamed of being a successful artist, but inasmuch as I knew what I wanted, I felt compelled to consider what was reasonable in order to ensure my economic security. Even though I wanted what my best friend once referred to as the whole wide world, I thought it was prudent to compromise. I told myself it was more sensible to aspire for success that was realistically attainable, perhaps even failure-proof. It never once occurred to me that I could succeed at what I dreamed of.

As I look back on this decision nearly thirty years later, I try to soothe myself with this rationale. I grew up in an atmosphere of emotional and financial disarray, so my impulse as a young woman was to be tenaciously self-sufficient. As a result, I’ve lived within a fairly fixed set of possibilities.

Her decision, Millman points out, is far from uncommon — most of us, in one form or another, limit our own possibilities. But what begins as a reasonable and voluntary self-protection mechanism often gathers exponential momentum that ends up dragging us down life-paths further and further from our dreams:

I discovered these common, self-imposed restrictions are rather insidious, though they start out simple enough. We begin by worrying that we aren’t good enough, that we’re not smart enough or talented enough to get what we want. And then we voluntarily live in this paralyzing mental framework, rather than confront our own role in this self-fulfilling paralysis. Just the possibility of failing turns into something self-fulfilling. We begin to believe that these personal restrictions are in fact fixed limitations of the world. We go on to live our lives, all the while wondering what we can change and how we can change it. And we calculate and re-calculate when we’ll be ready to do the things that we really want to do. And we dream. If only. If only. One day. Someday.

But then, Millman argues, we meet “someone more courageous” than we are, a person who “didn’t determine what was impossible before it was possible,” and something in us is reawakened. (The very purpose of a commencement speaker, after all, is to be such an awakening example of that courageous someone, a preemptive living proof that there is hope for transcending those self-imposed limitations.) Turning to Robert Frost’s famous proclamation, Millman transmutes the secret of a great poem into the secret of a great life:

The grand scheme of a life — maybe, just maybe — is not about knowing or not knowing, choosing or not choosing. Perhaps what is truly known can’t be described or articulated by creativity or logic, science or art. Perhaps it can be expressed by the most authentic and meaningful combination of the two: poetry.

As Robert Frost once wrote, “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is never a thought to begin with.”

I recommend the following course of action for those, like you, who are just starting out, or who, like me, may be re-configuring midway through. Heed the words of Robert Frost. Start with a big fat lump in your throat. Start with a profound sense of wrong, a deep homesickness, a crazy lovesickness, and run with it. If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve. Do what you love. And don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can. Imagine immensities. Don’t compromise and don’t waste time. In order to strive for a remarkable life, you have to decide that you want one. Start now. Not twenty years from now. Not thirty years from now. Not two weeks from now. Now.

Dick Costolo (Photograph by Joi Ito)

That same year, Twitter CEO and former improv comedian Dick Costolo took the podium at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He recounts moving to Chicago, young and broke, hoping to get into the legendary improv comedy group Second City, the yellow-brick road to Saturday Night Live and “ultimate fame and glory.” Eventually, he got to study with the acclaimed director Martin Demont. He shares one exchange with Demont that shaped his approach to life:

Steve Carell was out on stage improvising something. I was backstage and I came up with this amazing line and I thought, “I’ve gotta get out there and get this line out.” So I went out on stage and started trying to move the scene in the direction of what I wanted to say, and Martin stops the scene and says to the whole class (but really he was talking to me): “You can’t plan a script. The beauty of improv is you’re experiencing it in the moment. If you try to plan what the next line is going to be, you’re just going to be disappointed when the other people don’t do or say what you want them to, and you’ll stand there frozen.” He stopped everyone in the room and said, “Be in this moment.”

This became a powerful parable for how over-planning limits our happiness — a lesson that reemerged in a different guise when “the Internet happened” around the same time. Recognizing it as an “extensible structure with amazing possibilities,” Costolo dove in and helped build a number of companies over the years that followed, including Twitter. He illustrates how not planning a script enabled this humble startup to become a global force:

When [Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey] sent out his first tweet — “just setting up my twttr” — he didn’t plan for President Obama to declare victory on that platform in the 2012 election. None of us at Twitter thought that during the earthquake and ensuing tsunami in Fukushima, Japan, that our platform would be a great alternative means of communication if mobile networks were spotty in the aftermath. Certainly none of us even hoped, let alone considered, that our platform would be used to help organize protests across the Middle East and Egypt during the Arab Spring.

Here’s the amazing thing about what I’ve observed from those things. Not only can you not plan the impact you’re going to have, you often won’t recognize it even while you’re having it.

[…]

The impact is what others frame for you and the world after it happens. The present is only what you’re experiencing and focused on right now.

Echoing Steve Jobs’s legendary 2005 Stanford commencement address“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” — Costolo reflects on Twitter’s unexpected journey and his own unscripted career outcome:

You cannot draw that path looking forward. You can’t draw any path looking forward. You have to figure out what you love to do and what you have conviction about, and go do that.

He exhorts graduates to unmoor themselves from the system of external expectations that is formal education — a special kind of societal script — and plunge into the uncomfortable but infinitely rewarding task of writing their own ongoing, open-ended internal scripts:

You are no longer meeting and exceeding expectations. There are no expectations; there’s no script. When you’re doing what you love to do, you become resilient, because you create that habit. You create the habit of taking a gamble on yourself and making courageous choices in service of what you love.

If, on the other hand, you do what you think is expected of you or what you’re supposed to do, and chaos ensues — as it surely will — you will look to external forces for what to do next, because that will be the habit you have created for yourself. You’ll be standing there frozen on the stage of your own life. If you’re just filling a role, you will be blindsided.

Michel Uslan (Photograph by Robert Sciarrino)

Speaking at Indiana University Bloomington in 2006, Batman / Dark Knight franchise originator and executive producer Michael Uslan echoes what college-aged André Gide’s rules of conduct penned a century and a half earlier — “One should want only one thing and want it constantly. Then one is sure of getting it.” — and counsels graduates:

You must knock on doors until your knuckles bleed. Doors will slam in your face; I guarantee it. You must pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and go back and knock again. It’s the only way to achieve your goals in life.

This calls to mind Adrienne Rich’s spectacular 1977 Douglass College commencement address, in which she argued that an education is not something you get, but something you claim. An opportunity, Uslan seems to suggest, is equally something you actively claim rather than passively get.

Bradley Whitford (Photograph by Frank Franklin II)

Bradley Whitford, perhaps best-known for his role as White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman on The West Wing, opens his 2004 University of Wisconsin–Madison address by lamenting the quintessential commencement challenge of speaking to “a big, distracted crowd that thinks they know everything about everything.” (This, indeed, might explain one of the most prevalent commencement-address tropes — the speaker’s admission of not remembering who spoke at his or her own graduation many years earlier. Perhaps part of our youthful arrogance is the tendency to dismiss as irrelevant any information with which we aren’t sufficiently familiar — like, say, a prominent but unknown to us cultural figure tasked with delivering a commencement address — and bar it from entering our long-term memory.)

Whitford shares his six most important life-learnings, which he dubs “Everything I Need to Know in Life I Learned on My Way to a Humiliating Audition”:

Number One: Fall in love with the process and the results will follow. You’ve got to want to act more than you want to be an actor. You’ve got to want to do whatever you want to do more than you want to be whatever you want to be, want to write more than you want to be a writer, want to heal more than you want to be a doctor, want to teach more than you want to be a teacher, want to serve more than you want to be a politician. Life is too challenging for external rewards to sustain us. The joy is in the journey.

Number Two: Very obvious: do your work. When faced with the terror of an opening night on Broadway, you can either dissolve in a puddle of fear or you can get yourself ready. Drown out your inevitable self-doubt with the work that needs to be done. Find joy in the process of preparation.

Number Three: Once you’re prepared, throw your preparation in the trash. The most interesting acting and the most interesting living in this world have the element of surprise and of genuine, honest discovery. Be open to that.

This third piece of advice parallels what we now know about the role of “effective surprise” in creativity, including the supreme creative act of forging one’s life-path. Whitford, like Costolo, admonishes against the tendency to peg our sense of arrival on having fulfilled external expectations:

You’ve all spent the majority of your lives in school, where your work is assigned to you and you’re supposed to please your teachers.

The pressure to get into wonderful institutions like this is threatening to create a generation of what I call hiney-kissing requirement-fulfillers. You are all so much more than that. You’ve reached the wonderful and terrifying moment where you must be your own guide. Listen to the whispers inside you.

Whitford offers the fourth of his learnings:

You are capable of more than you think. If you’ve ever smashed a mosquito on your arm, there is a murderous Richard III inside you. If you’ve ever caught your breath at the sight of someone dipping their toes into Lake Mendota in the late afternoon sun over at the Union, you, too, have Romeo’s fluttering heart.

Echoing Anna Deavere Smith on the importance of listening in a culture of speaking, Whitford continues:

Number Five: Listen. It is the most difficult thing an actor can do, and it is the most riveting. You can’t afford to spend your life like a bad actor stumbling through a predetermined performance that is oblivious to the world around you. We can’t afford it either. Listening isn’t passive. It is an act of liberation that will connect you to the world with compassion and be your best guide as you navigate the choppy waters of love, work, and citizenship.

And finally, Number Six: Take action. Every story you’ve ever connected with, every leader you’ve ever admired, every puny little thing that you’ve ever accomplished is the result of taking action. You have a choice. You can either be a passive victim of circumstance or you can be the active hero of your own life. Action is the antidote to apathy and cynicism and despair. You will inevitably make mistakes. Learn what you can and move on. At the end of your days, you will be judged by your gallop, not by your stumble.

Speaking to the 1996 graduating class at Wellesley College, her own alma mater, Nora Ephron begins by offering some perspective on where the world was thirty-four years earlier, when she was sitting in one of those seats herself — an era when “if you needed an abortion, you drove to a gas station in Union, New Jersey, with $ 500 in cash in an envelope, and you were taken, blindfolded, to a motel room and operated on without an anesthetic”; when women were asked to, and complied without so much as a second thought, to strip and have their “posture pictures” taken; when there was a mandatory class called Fundamentals, Fundies, in which women were actually “taught how to get in and out of the back seat of the car.” Ephron, a master at the art of rhetorical buildup where no detail is superfluous to the ultimate point, writes:

Why am I telling you this? It was a long time ago, right? Things have changed, haven’t they? Yes, they have. But I mention it because I want to remind you of the undertow, of the specific gravity. American society has a remarkable ability to resist change, or to take whatever change has taken place and attempt to make it go away.

In a sentiment that has aged lamentably well in the two decades since — a fact that speaks equally to Ephron’s genius and to our culture’s tectonic, toxically reluctant pace of change — she adds:

Don’t underestimate how much antagonism there is toward women and how many people wish we could turn the clock back. One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, “Don’t take it personally,” but listen hard to what’s going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally. Understand: Every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you. Underneath almost all those attacks are the words: get back, get back to where you once belonged… The acquittal of O. J. Simpson is an attack on you. Any move to limit abortion rights is an attack on you — whether or not you believe in abortion. The fact that Clarence Thomas is sitting on the Supreme Court today is an attack on you.

Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.

There is, of course, the mandatory David Foster Wallace classic, delivered at Kenyon College in 2005 and considered the beloved author’s only public talk directly addressing his views on the meaning of life. The speech, the original delivery of which you can hear in full here, is strewn with his singular gems of deeply irreverent, deeply urgent wisdom. Among them:

I submit that this is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.

But for all of his antiauthoritarian incisiveness, Wallace reveals himself once again as a sensitive soul concerned with the essential currency of the human experience — kindness:

Please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Jonathan Safran Foer (Photograph by Graeme Mitchell)

This theme of kindness — for what else is there? — recurs throughout most commencement addresses, but nowhere with more timely poignancy than in the speech Jonathan Safran Foer delivered at Middlebury College in 2013. He recounts finding himself on a Brooklyn park bench across from a teenage girl who was crying into her phone. As she sobbed “I know, I know, I know… Mama, I know,” he wondered about what portion of the fragile human experience she was coming to know. Reflecting on his inner tussle with whether to try comforting her or to continue staring into his own device pretending not to have noticed, Foer considers how technology has come to mediate our experience of who we are to one another, as people bearing witness to crying strangers:

It is harder to intervene than not to, but it is vastly harder to choose to do either than to retreat into the scrolling names of one’s contact list, or whatever one’s favorite iDistraction happens to be. Technology celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat.

He chronicles how we got to this paradoxical place:

Most of our communication technologies began as diminished substitutes for an impossible activity. We couldn’t always see one another face to face, so the telephone made it possible to keep in touch at a distance. One is not always home, so the answering machine made a kind of interaction possible without the person being near his phone. Online communication originated as a substitute for telephonic communication, which was considered, for whatever reasons, too burdensome or inconvenient. And then texting, which facilitated yet faster, and more mobile, messaging. These inventions were not created to be improvements upon face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it.

But then a funny thing happened: We began to prefer the diminished substitutes.

Foer traces our sliding scale of communicational convenience — making a phone call is easier than traversing space across time to meet someone in person; leaving a voicemail is easier than investing in the cognitive and emotional tennis match of a two-way conversation; sending an email is easier still, for it removes the emotional undertones of vocal inflection and enables us to deliver an even more sterile one-way message; texting reduces whatever complexity of meaning there might have remained in an email to mere information, distilled to a bare minimum of sentiment. (There is something to be said, too, for the demise of correspondence, which ushered in the death of mutual response and the rise of mutual reaction.) Foer considers the outcome of this process:

As the expectation for articulateness is further reduced, and another shell is offered to hide in. Each step “forward” has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.

The problem with accepting — with preferring — diminished substitutes is that over time, we, too, become diminished substitutes. People who become used to saying little become used to feeling little.

[…]

I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts.

He returns to the encounter with the sobbing girl, which precipitated his concerned contemplation:

Most of the time, most people are not crying in public, but everyone is always in need of something that another person can give, be it undivided attention, a kind word, or deep empathy. There is no better use of a life than to be attentive to such needs. There are as many ways to do this as there are kinds of loneliness, but all of them require attentiveness, all of them require the hard work of emotional computation and corporeal compassion. All of them require the human processing of the only animal who risks “getting it wrong” and whose dreams provide shelters and vaccines and words to crying strangers.

[…]

Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be messy, and painful, and almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die.

Complement Way More than Luck with some of the genre’s greatest secular sermons not included in the book: Joseph Brodsky on winning at the game of life (University of Michigan, 1988), Kurt Vonnegut on boredom, belonging, and hate (Fredonia College, 1978), Bill Watterson on creative integrity (Kenyon College, 1990), Neil Gaiman on courage and the creative life (University of the Arts, 2012), Patti Smith on learning to count on yourself (Pratt University, 2010), George Saunders on the power of kindness (Syracuse University, 2013), and Anna Quindlen’s undelivered Villanova address on the secret to a happy life.

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24 MARCH, 2015

Umberto Eco’s Antilibrary: Why Unread Books Are More Valuable to Our Lives than Read Ones

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How to become an “antischolar” in a culture that treats knowledge as “an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order.”

“It is our knowledge — the things we are sure of — that makes the world go wrong and keeps us from seeing and learning,” Lincoln Steffens wrote in his beautiful 1925 essay. Piercingly true as this may be, we’ve known at least since Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave that “most people are not just comfortable in their ignorance, but hostile to anyone who points it out.”. Although science is driven by “thoroughly conscious ignorance” and the spiritual path paved with admonitions against the illusion of thorough understanding, we cling to our knowledge — our incomplete, imperfect, infinitesimal-in-absolute-terms knowledge — like we cling to life itself.

And yet the contour of what we know is a mere silhouette cast by the infinite light of the unknown against the screen of the knowable. The great E.F. Schumacher captured this strange dynamic in the concept of adaequatio — the notion that “the understanding of the knower must be adequate to the thing to be known.” But how do we face our inadequacy with grace and negotiate wisely this eternal tension between the known, the unknown, the knowable, and the unknowable?

That’s what Lebanese-American scholar, statistician, and essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb explores in a section of his modern classic The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (public library) — an illuminating inquiry into the unknowable and unpredictable outlier-events that precipitate profound change, and our tendency to manufacture facile post-factum explanations for them based on our limited knowledge.

Taleb uses legendary Italian writer Umberto Eco’s uncommon relationship with books and reading as a parable of the most fruitful relationship with knowledge:

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

Tsudoku: Japanese for leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piled up together with other unread books. Illustration by Ella Frances Sanders from 'Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World.' Click image for more.

Eco himself has since touched on humanity’s curious relationship with the known and the unknown in his encyclopedia of imaginary lands, the very existence of which is another symptom of our compulsive tendency to fill in the gaps of our understanding with concrete objects of “knowledge,” even if we have to invent them by the force of our imagination. Taleb adds:

We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property to be protected and defended. It is an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order. So this tendency to offend Eco’s library sensibility by focusing on the known is a human bias that extends to our mental operations. People don’t walk around with anti-résumés telling you what they have not studied or experienced (it’s the job of their competitors to do that), but it would be nice if they did. Just as we need to stand library logic on its head, we will work on standing knowledge itself on its head.

Illustration from 'The Three Astronauts,' Umberto Eco's little-known vintage semiotic children's book. Click image for more.

Noting that his Black Swan theory centers on “our misunderstanding of the likelihood of surprises” because we underestimate the value of what we don’t know and take what we do know “a little to seriously,” Taleb envisions the perfect dancer in the tango with knowledge:

Let us call this an antischolar — someone who focuses on the unread books, and makes an attempt not to treat his knowledge as a treasure, or even a possession, or even a self-esteem enhancement device — a skeptical empiricist.

Complement The Black Swan, which is fascinating it its totality, with astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in a culture obsessed with certitude, philosopher Hannah Arendt on how unanswerable questions give shape to the human experience, and novelist Marilynne Robinson on the beauty of the unknown.

HT Bobulate

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24 MARCH, 2015

Jane Goodall Tells Her Remarkable Life-Story, Animated

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How, in the midst of twentieth-century patriarchy, a young woman without so much as a university degree forever changed the course of modern science.

Legendary English primatologist and United Nations Messenger of Peace Jane Goodall (b. April 3, 1934) is not only an enormously influential scientist, who paved the way for our evolving understanding of animal consciousness, but also a thoroughly impressive spirit who never ceases to embody what it means to be a conscious human being. From Blank on Blank and Avi Ofer — the animator behind the fluid dynamics of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” — comes this magnificent animated adaptation of Goodall’s 2002 conversation with Science Friday host Ira Flatow, part of The Experimenters, a mini-series celebrating visionary innovators in science.

From how she turned her childhood dream into a reality to why she believes undiscovered Yeti-type species exist to how her research radically overturned the scientific establishment’s longstanding anthropoarrogance of considering humans the only animals capable of using tools, the world’s most beloved Dame-Doctor recounts her remarkable life-story and the formidable resistance she had to overcome on the way to becoming one of humanity’s most significant scientific minds.

JANE GOODALL: Of course at that time we were defined as man the toolmaker. That was supposed to differentiate us more than anything else in the rest of the animal kingdom.

IRA FLATOW: You discovered that chimps could make tools.

JANE GOODALL: David Greybeard, bless his heart, I saw him crouched over a termite mound. The whole thing putting in the grass, picking the termites up, picking up a leafy twig and stripping off the leaves which is the beginning of tool making. I couldn’t actually believe it. I had to see it about four times before I let Louis Leakey know and then I sent a telegram and he sent back his famous, “Ha ha now we must redefine ‘man,’ redefine ‘tool,’ or accept chimpanzees as humans.”

Complement with Goodall’s life and legacy in a sweet illustrated children’s book, her answers to the Proust Questionnaire, and her moving meditation on science and spirituality.

For more Blank on Blank goodness, see their animated adaptations of John Lennon and Yoko Ono on love, David Foster Wallace on ambition, and Janis Joplin on creativity and rejection.

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23 MARCH, 2015

Better than Before: A Psychological Field Guide to Harnessing the Transformative Power of Habit

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How to lay a steadfast foundation for “the invisible architecture of daily life.”

“We are spinning our own fates, good or evil… Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar,” William James wrote in his seminal 1887 treatise on habit, the bundle of behavior he called the “enormous fly-wheel of society.” In the century since, our civilizational love affair with habit has only intensified — we’ve become besotted with the daily routines of luminaries and transfixed by the psychology of the perfect daily routine, as if replicating the way successful people structure their time would somehow sprinkle the pixie dust of success over our own lives. But as much as we lust after these shiny routines and beneficial behaviors, we still have an enormously hard time changing our habits. And yet, as Mary Oliver memorably wrote, “The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us.”

In Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives (public library), Gretchen Rubin picks up where James left off, integrating a wealth of insight from psychology, sociology, and anthropology in an illuminating field guide to harnessing the transformative power of habit in modern life. The idea for this book came from a recurring observation Rubin made in the aftermath of her last, the indispensable The Happiness Project — readers kept telling her about a “before and after” pattern in their conquest of happiness, wherein the formation of a particular habit became a major turning point. So she set out to explore the deeper mysteries of these obvious turning points — why we have a hard time forming even habits we enjoy, what separates people who are able to adopt or drop habits overnight from those who aren’t, how we rationalize our willful blindness to the consequences of our habits, and more.

Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

Rubin, a self-described “kind of street scientist,” writes:

Habits are the invisible architecture of daily life. We repeat about 40 percent of our behavior almost daily, so our habits shape our existence, and our future. If we change our habits, we change our lives.

The most valuable aspect of habit, Rubin suggests, is its capacity to become an automated conservation mechanism for self-control, that enormously taxing exertion of our willpower:

Self-control is a crucial aspect of our lives. People with better self-control (or self-regulation, self-discipline, or willpower) are happier and healthier. They’re more altruistic; they have stronger relationships and more career success; they manage stress and conflict better; they live longer; they steer clear of bad habits. Self-control allows us to keep our commitments to ourselves. Yet one study suggests that when we try to use self-control to resist temptation, we succeed only about half the time, and indeed, in a large international survey, when people were asked to identify their failings, a top choice was lack of self-control.

[…]

And that’s why habits matter so much. With habits, we conserve our self-control.

Although the commonly agreed upon definition of habit includes several attributes of the behavior — it is recurrent, cued by a specific context, often performed unconsciously, acquired through repetition — Rubin argues that the true root of habit is decision-making or, rather, the lack thereof. A habit alleviates the cognitive load of having to choose one course of action over another and, in doing so, relieves our exertion of willpower:

Habits make change possible by freeing us from decision making and from using self-control.

[…]

When possible, the brain makes a behavior into a habit, which saves effort and therefore gives us more capacity to deal with complex, novel, or urgent matters. Habits mean we don’t strain ourselves to make decisions, weigh choices, dole out rewards, or prod ourselves to begin. Life becomes simpler, and many daily hassles vanish.

Because the application of self-control itself stresses our cognitive resources, a solid infrastructure of habit matters all the more when we’re under stress:

When we’re worried or overtaxed, a habit comforts us. Research suggests that people feel more in control and less anxious when engaged in habit behavior… When we’re anxious or tired, we fall back on our habits, whether bad or good… For this reason, it’s all the more important to try to shape habits mindfully, so that when we fall back on them at times of stress, we’re following activities that make our situation better, not worse.

And yet there is a fine line between alleviating the cognitive load of decision-making and succumbing to a mindless trance of existence that carries us through life. (I have written about this previously in contemplating the crucial equipoise of routine and ritual.) Touching on the strange psychology of our warped time-perception, Rubin readily acknowledges this:

Habits speed time, because when every day is the same, experience shortens and blurs; by contrast, time slows down when habits are interrupted, when the brain must process new information.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Thoreau on what it means to be truly awake and Annie Dillard’s famous proclamation that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Rubin adds:

Habit makes it dangerously easy to become numb to our own existence.

For good and bad, habits are the invisible architecture of daily life.

Illustration by Sydney Smith from 'Sidewalk Flowers,' a visual ode to the art of presence. Click image for more.

Indeed, this is Rubin’s most vital point — while habits require no decision-making in their application, with their formation we decide our destiny; we are, as James wrote, “spinning our fates” whenever we set a new habit into motion or screech an old one to a halt. In addressing these “twin riddles of how to change ourselves and how to change our habits,” Rubin reflects on her own life:

Habit is a good servant but a bad master. Although I wanted the benefits that habits offer, I didn’t want to become a bureaucrat of my own life, trapped in paperwork of my own making.

Instead, she set out to understand how we can cultivate only those habits that make us “feel freer and stronger.” She outlines the sequential interplay of conscious and unconscious behaviors at the root of fruitful habit-formation:

When we change our habits, we change our lives. We can use decision making to choose the habits we want to form, we can use willpower to get the habit started; then — and this is the best part — we can allow the extraordinary power of habit to take over. We take our hands off the wheel of decision, our foot off the gas of willpower, and rely on the cruise control of habits.

That’s the promise of habit.

To be sure, an over-reliance on habit puts us at risk of hitting the “OK plateau” of performance and personal growth, but Rubin makes room for the necessary conscious counterpoint to behavioral cruise control:

For a happy life, it’s important to cultivate an atmosphere of growth — the sense that we’re learning new things, getting stronger, forging new relationships, making things better, helping other people. Habits have a tremendous role to play in creating an atmosphere of growth, because they help us make consistent, reliable progress… By mindfully choosing our habits, we harness the power of mindlessness as a sweeping force for serenity, energy, and growth.

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

Rubin goes on to identify several key psychological archetypes that determine our relationship with habit, the most fascinating of which deals with how we handle the two types of expectations in life — outer (such as our work obligations and the law) and inner (such as our moral values and personal commitments). She identifies four distinct groups into which everyone falls:

  • Upholders respond readily to both outer expectations and inner expectations.
  • Questioners question all expectations, and will meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified.
  • Obligers respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations.
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike.

Arguably the most delicate balance of inner and outer expectations takes place in intimate relationships, where we constantly tussle with the polarizing pull of retaining our individual habits, which help us maintain our sense of identity, and negotiating shared habits, which bring us closer together into coupledom. In a sentiment that calls to mind a lament from young Susan Sontag’s diary regarding her unhappy marriage — “In marriage, I have suffered a certain loss of personality,” she wrote on Valentine’s Day in 1957 — Rubin cautions:

Changing a habit is much more challenging if that new habit means altering or losing an aspect of ourselves.

But this relationship between habit and identity is largely a matter of the same inner storytelling on which our sanity relies. Rubin writes:

Research shows that we tend to believe what we hear ourselves say, and the way we describe ourselves influences our view of our identity, and from there, our habits. If I say, “I’m lazy,” “I can’t resist a sale,” “I’ll try anything once,” “I never start work until the last minute,” or “I’m lucky,” those ideas become part of my identity, which in turn influences my actions.

[…]

In one study, one group of registered voters was asked, “How important is it to you to vote?” while another group was asked “How important is it to you to be a voter?” The second group was more likely to vote in the next election, because voting had been cast as an expression of identity — “This is the kind of person I am” — not just a task to be done.

[…]

Identity can help us live up to our own values: “I’m not someone who wastes time at work,” “I’m no shirker,” “If I say I’ll show up, I show up.”

Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

In the remainder of Better Than Before, Rubin goes on to explore what we can do to break out of the limiting identities we habitually lock into, why the habit-identity pipeline flows in two directions in interpersonal relationships, and how we can begin to lay the foundation of fruitful habits. Complement it with Mary Oliver on habit and the cognitive science of the ideal daily routine.

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