Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

24 MAY, 2013

Love Letter as Obit: How To Praise Like David Ogilvy

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“Many nice men are too dumb to be anything else.”

Few are the legends of communication arts whose legacy tells us something not merely about how to sell well but how to live well, whose minds reveal something deeper about the inner workings of the self rather than the mere machinery that fueled “the century of the self,” who teach us something not only about the tricks of the commercial trade but also about what makes the human heart tick. Among those exceptional few is advertising icon and original “Mad Man” David Ogilvy. From the out-of-print 1986 gem The Unpublished David Ogilvy (public library) — the same compendium of his lectures, memos, and lists that gave us his 10 timeless tips on writing — comes this memo sent to a veteran copywriter on April 2, 1971, which bespeaks with equal measure Ogilvy’s unapologetic standards, his wry wit, and his self-conscious but unrelenting humanity:

Harry just read me the letter you wrote me yesterday, on your anniversary.

Shyness makes it impossible for me to tell any man what I think of him when he is still alive. However, if I outlive you, I shall write an obituary along these lines:

––––––––– was probably the nicest man I have ever known. His kindness to me, and to dozens of other people, was nothing short of angelic.

Many nice men are too dumb to be anything else. But ––––––––– was far from dumb. Indeed, he had a superb intelligence.

His judgment of men and events was infallible; I came to rely on it more and more as the years went by.

He was one of my few partners who worked harder and longer hours than I did. He gave value for money. And he knew his trade.

He was an honest man, in the largest sense of the word. He had a glorious sense of humor.

He had the courage to challenge me when he thought I was wrong, but he always contrived to do it without annoying me.

There was nothing saccharine about him. Tolerant as he was, he did no like everybody; he disliked the people who deserved to be disliked.

He never pursued popularity, but he inspired universal affection.

The Unpublished David Ogilvy is fantastic in its entirety, a treasure trove of wisdom on business, creative culture, and the human condition.

Photograph via Ogilvy One

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24 MAY, 2013

The Philosophy of Immortality

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“Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”

“If we are continually inadequate in love, uncertain in decision and impotent in the face of death, how is it possible to exist?,” Rilke famously asked. “The idea that you’d have to say ‘goodbye’ to all this — even though it’s infuriating and maddening and frightening and horrible, some of the time — is even more infuriating and maddening and horrible: How do you spend this time without perpetually being so broken-hearted about saying the eventual goodbye?,” Maira Kalman pondered.

In this short interview for Brain Pickings, pop-philosophy hunter-gatherer Filip Matous sits down with Cambridge University philosopher Stephen Cave to crack open some of the insights from his fascinating book, Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization (public library) — which also gave us this stimulating, if unsettling meditation on the mortality paradox.

The crux of Cave’s argument falls somewhere between Montaigne’s reflections on death and the art of living and John Cage’s affinity for Zen Buddhism.

We, like all living things, want to live on — we want to project ourselves into the future, we have this will to live. And yet, unlike other living things, we have to live in a knowledge that this will is going to be thwarted, that we’re going to die. And so we might have to live with this sense of personal apocalypse — the worst thing that could possibly happen, will. This is what it means to be mortal.

But this very sense of our inevitable mortality might also be a steering wheel for life: Cave reminds us that “busy is a choice” and that how we spend our time shapes who we become:

The American novelist Susan Ertz says, “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” I think there’s a lot of truth in that: Actually, it’s the fear of death rather than the love of life, often, that’s motivating us. If people complain that they don’t have enough time, why do they watch so much TV? It doesn’t seem, actually, when we look at the way people behave, that lack of time is their problem. On the contrary … when you look at how much time we waste, [it seems] that life is already too long — so long that we become complacent and we waste great swathes, so many hours. And, in fact, being conscious of the fact that our time is limited is what makes us really value and appreciate the time that we have.

Cave touches on Tolstoy’s wisdom, observing:

There’s a kind of conspiracy of silence… We, culturally, don’t like to talk about death. I think we need to talk about death because only by talking about our mortality can we understand the lives we’re leading and why we’re leading them the way we’re leading them.

Immortality remains a must-read, and the Ernest Becker book mentioned in the conversation, The Denial of Death, is also very much worth a read.

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23 MAY, 2013

Presence, Not Praise: How To Cultivate a Healthy Relationship with Achievement

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Why instilling admiration for hard work rather than raw talent is the key to fostering a well-adjusted mind.

Despite ample evidence and countless testaments to the opposite, there persists a toxic cultural mythology that creative and intellectual excellence comes from a passive gift bestowed upon the fortunate few by the gods of genius, rather than being the product of the active application and consistent cultivation of skill. So what might the root of that stubborn fallacy be? Childhood and upbringing, it turns out, might have a lot to do.

In The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves (public library), psychoanalyst and University College London professor Stephen Grosz builds on more than 50,000 hours of conversation from his quarter-century experience as a practicing psychoanalyst to explore the machinery of our inner life, with insights that are invariably profound and often provocative — for instance, a section titled “How praise can cause a loss of confidence,” in which Grosz writes:

Nowadays, we lavish praise on our children. Praise, self-confidence and academic performance, it is commonly believed, rise and fall together. But current research suggests otherwise — over the past decade, a number of studies on self-esteem have come to the conclusion that praising a child as ‘clever’ may not help her at school. In fact, it might cause her to under-perform. Often a child will react to praise by quitting — why make a new drawing if you have already made ‘the best’? Or a child may simply repeat the same work — why draw something new, or in a new way, if the old way always gets applause?

Grosz cites psychologists Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller’s famous 1998 study, which divided 128 children ages 10 and 11 into two groups. All were asked to solve mathematical problems, but one group were praised for their intellect (“You did really well, you’re so clever.”) while the other for their effort (“You did really well, you must have tried really hard.”) The kids were then given more complex problems, which those previously praised for their hard work approached with dramatically greater resilience and willingness to try different approaches whenever they reached a dead end. By contrast, those who had been praised for their cleverness were much more anxious about failure, stuck with tasks they had already mastered, and dwindled in tenacity in the face of new problems. Grosz summarizes the now-legendary findings:

Ultimately, the thrill created by being told ‘You’re so clever’ gave way to an increase in anxiety and a drop in self-esteem, motivation and performance. When asked by the researchers to write to children in another school, recounting their experience, some of the ‘clever’ children lied, inflating their scores. In short, all it took to knock these youngsters’ confidence, to make them so unhappy that they lied, was one sentence of praise.

He goes on to admonish against today’s culture of excessive parental praise, which he argues does more for lifting the self-esteem of the parents than for cultivating a healthy one in their children:

Admiring our children may temporarily lift our self-esteem by signaling to those around us what fantastic parents we are and what terrific kids we have — but it isn’t doing much for a child’s sense of self. In trying so hard to be different from our parents, we’re actually doing much the same thing — doling out empty praise the way an earlier generation doled out thoughtless criticism. If we do it to avoid thinking about our child and her world, and about what our child feels, then praise, just like criticism, is ultimately expressing our indifference.

To explore what the healthier substitute for praise might be, he recounts observing an eighty-year-old remedial reading teacher named Charlotte Stiglitz, the mother of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who told Grosz of her teaching methodology:

I don’t praise a small child for doing what they ought to be able to do,’ she told me. ‘I praise them when they do something really difficult — like sharing a toy or showing patience. I also think it is important to say “thank you”. When I’m slow in getting a snack for a child, or slow to help them and they have been patient, I thank them. But I wouldn’t praise a child who is playing or reading.

Rather than utilizing the familiar mechanisms of reward and punishment, Grosz observed, Charlotte’s method relied on keen attentiveness to “what a child did and how that child did it.” He recounts:

I once watched Charlotte with a four-year-old boy, who was drawing. When he stopped and looked up at her — perhaps expecting praise — she smiled and said, ‘There is a lot of blue in your picture.’ He replied, ‘It’s the pond near my grandmother’s house — there is a bridge.’ He picked up a brown crayon, and said, ‘I’ll show you.’ Unhurried, she talked to the child, but more importantly she observed, she listened. She was present.

Presence, he argues, helps build the child’s confidence by way of indicating he is worthy of the observer’s thoughts and attention — its absence, on the other hand, divorces in the child the journey from the destination by instilling a sense that the activity itself is worthless unless it’s a means to obtaining praise. Grosz reminds us how this plays out for all of us, and why it matters throughout life:

Being present, whether with children, with friends, or even with oneself, is always hard work. But isn’t this attentiveness — the feeling that someone is trying to think about us — something we want more than praise?

The Examined Life goes on to explore such enduring facets of the meaning of existence as our inextinguishable urge to change ourselves, the gift of ignorance, and the challenges of intimacy, deconstructing the wall in philosopher Simone Weil’s famous prison parable to reveal the many dimensions in which our desire “to understand and be understood” manifests.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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