Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

26 MAY, 2014

Thoreau on the Greatest Gift of Growing Old

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How happiness feeds on the hard-earned blessing of making fewer apologies for our existence.

“Living has yet to be generally recognized as one of the arts,” Karl De Schweinitz wrote in his 1924 guide to the art of living, and as with any art, genius-level mastery at it is only accomplished through hours upon hours of deliberate practice. It’s a truth that Henry David Thoreau, one of the great masters of the art of living, illustrates in a particularly beautiful passage from The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) — the same treasure trove of wisdom that gave us Thoreau on what success really means, friendship and sympathy, and why not to quote Thoreau.

Writing in the afternoon of October 20 of 1857, shortly after his fortieth birthday, Thoreau does what he does best, drawing from an everyday encounter a profound existential parable:

I saw Brooks Clark, who is now about eighty and bent like a bow, hastening along the road, barefooted, as usual, with an axe in his hand; was in haste perhaps on account of the cold wind on his bare feet. When he got up to me, I saw that besides the axe in one hand, he had his shoes in the other, filled with knurly apples and a dead robin. He stopped and talked with me a few moments; said that we had had a noble autumn and might now expect some cold weather. I asked if he had found the robin dead. No, he said, he found it with its wing broken and killed it. He also added that he had found some apples in the woods, and as he hadn’t anything to carry them in, he put ’em in his shoes. They were queer-looking trays to carry fruit in. How many he got in along toward the toes, I don’t know. I noticed, too, that his pockets were stuffed with them. His old tattered frock coat was hanging in strips about the skirts, as were his pantaloons about his naked feet. He appeared to have been out on a scout this gusty afternoon, to see what he could find, as the youngest boy might. It pleased me to see this cheery old man, with such a feeble hold on life, bent almost double, thus enjoying the evening of his days. Far be it from me to call it avarice or penury, this childlike delight in finding something in the woods or fields and carrying it home in the October evening, as a trophy to be added to his winter’s store. Oh, no; he was happy to be Nature’s pensioner still, and birdlike to pick up his living. Better his robin than your turkey, his shoes full of apples than your barrels full; they will be sweeter and suggest a better tale.

Illustration from 'Henry Hikes to Fitchburg,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

But perhaps the greatest gift of old age is that of unselfconsciousness — 150 years after Thoreau, in reflecting on her long career of interviewing creative icons, Debbie Millman observed that the only two people not plagued by the characteristic self-doubt of creators were Milton Glaser and Massimo Vignelli who, not coincidentally, were both in their eighties. Thoreau, too, arrives at the same appreciation in considering the old man:

This old man’s cheeriness was worth a thousand of the church’s sacraments and memento mori’s. It was better than a prayerful mood. It proves to me old age as tolerable, as happy, as infancy… If he had been a young man, he would probably have thrown away his apples and put on his shoes when he saw me coming, for shame. But old age is manlier; it has learned to live, makes fewer apologies, like infancy.

Illustration from 'Henry Builds a Cabin,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 is a beautiful read in its totality. Complement it with these sweet and poignant illustrated adaptations of Thoreau’s life and thought, then treat yourself to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s exquisite reading of John Masefield’s “On Growing Old.”

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26 MAY, 2014

The Oppressed Majority: A Poignant French Short Film about a World in Which Men Are Subject to Sexism

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A tragicomic day in the life of a man who struggles for equality in a mirror-image society dominated by women.

“Those who travel with the current will always feel they are good swimmers,” NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam wrote in his extraordinary exploration of society’s hidden biases, “[and] those who swim against the current may never realize they are better swimmers than they imagine.” That’s precisely what French filmmaker Eleonore Pourriat brings to life with imaginative vividness, elegantly waltzing between the hilarious and the heartbreaking, in her brilliant and pause-giving short film Oppressed Majority — a day in the life of a man who faces subtle sexism and unabashed sexual violence in a mirror-image society dominated by women. Laugh, cry, think twice:

For a deeper look at the serious issue beneath the comic veneer, see Vedantam’s indispensable The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives — a perspective-shifting even, if not especially, for those of us who consider ourselves well-intentioned and are thus most susceptible to unwitting biases.

Thanks, Julie

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23 MAY, 2014

The Long Game: Brilliant Visual Essays on the Only Secret to Creative Success, from Leonardo da Vinci to Marie Curie

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Why showing up day in and day out without fail is the surest way to achieve lasting success.

“Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time,” a wise woman once said — a seemingly simple observation that is among the 7 most important things I’ve learned in the many years of doing what I do. This notion of doggedness is something countless admired creators have advocated — from Anthony Trollope’s advice to aspiring writers to Tchaikovsky’s admonition about work ethic — and it’s even something scientists have confirmed, in finding that “grit” is a greater predictor of success than intelligence. And yet, as a culture that worships at the altar of immediacy and instant gratification, we continue to romanticize the largely mythic notion of the overnight success, overlooking the years of struggle and failure that paved the way for some of humanity’s most admired and accomplished luminaries.

That mythology of genius is precisely what British filmmaker Adam Westbrook explores in his fantastic video essay series The Long Game — a feat of storytelling partway between Kirby Ferguson’s remix culture documentaries and Temujin Doran’s cinematic essays.

The first installment tackles the story of one of history’s most celebrated artists: Leonardo da Vinci, it turns out, got his big break at the age of 46 — elderly by the era’s life expectancy standards.

In the second installment, inspired in part by Robert Greene’s book Mastery (public library), Westbrook explores the notion of “the difficult years” — those rough stretches in a creative career that separate the ones who persevere and end up celebrated as “geniuses” from those who throw in the towel and sink into obscurity. From the seven years Marie Curie spent in poverty while researching radioactivity to the nine years of thankless writing Stephen King plowed through before selling his first novel, Westbrook reminds us that showing up day in and day out without fail is the surest way to achieve lasting success.

This celebration of youth, coupled with technology, has distorted our perception of time — the world moves faster, and so do our expectations. Today, we want success in seventeen levels, or seventeen minutes, seventeen seconds — and when the promise of something new and better is just a click away, who wants to wait seventeen years? But that’s the thing that connects all of these great people — they played the long game.

All of us have the brain, and the talent, and the creativity to join them. But now, right when it matters, do any of us have the patience?

Complement with this magnificent read on the difference between mastery and success and an important revision of the “10,000 hours rule” of excellence.

Thanks, Kirby

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