Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

27 JUNE, 2013

Legendary Optimist Helen Keller on Her Greatest Regret

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“Out of this sorrowful experience I understand more fully all human strivings, thwarted ambitions, and the infinite capacity of hope.”

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement; nothing can be done without hope,” Helen Keller (June 27, 1880–June 1, 1968) wrote in her timeless essay on optimism. But though Keller may endure as a pinnacle of achievement driven by a superhuman spirit, she was also profoundly human — even she was not immune to the vulnerability of insecurity and insufficiency. In this short segment from a vintage documentary, at once heartening and heartbreaking, Keller shares her greatest regret and how she uses it as a springboard for emapthy:

It is not blindness or deafness that bring me my darkest hours — it is the acute disappointment in not being able to speak normally. Longingly, I think how much more good I might have done if I had only acquired natural speech. But out of this sorrowful experience I understand more fully all human strivings, thwarted ambitions, and the infinite capacity of hope.

Complement this with an annotated reading of Keller’s indispensable Optimism and her stirring first experience of dance.

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26 JUNE, 2013

Iconic Graphic Designer Milton Glaser on Art, Money, Education, and the Kindness of the Universe

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“If you perceive the universe as being a universe of abundance, then it will be. If you think of the universe as one of scarcity, then it will be.”

Milton Glaser — legendary mastermind of the famous I♥NY logo, author of delightful and little-known vintage children’s books, notorious notebook-doodler, modern-day sage of art and purpose — is celebrated by many as the greatest graphic designer alive. From How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer (public library) — the same fantastic anthology of conversations with creative icons that gave us Paula Scher’s slot machine metaphor for creativity and Massimo Vignelli on intellectual elegance, education, and love — comes a fascinating and remarkably heartening conversation that reveals the inner workings of this beautiful mind and beautiful spirit.

What E. B. White has done for writing — “A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down,” he memorably asserted — Glaser has done for the visual arts, a legacy Debbie Millman captures beautifully in the introduction to the interview:

While other great designers have created cool posters, beautiful book covers, and powerful logos, Milton Glaser has actually lifted this age he inhabits. Because of his integrity and his vision, he has enabled us all to walk on higher ground, and it is that for which we should be especially grateful.

In fact, this ethos is reflected in Glaser’s timeless addition to history’s finest definitions of art:

Work that goes beyond its functional intention and moves us in deep and mysterious ways we call great work.

Glaser shares the wonderful and sweetly allegorical story of how he became an artist:

The story of how I decided to become an artist is this: When I was a very little boy, a cousin of mine came to my house with a paper bag. He asked me if I wanted to see a bird. I thought he had a bird in the bag. He stuck his hand in the bag, and I realized that he had drawn a bird on the side of a bag with a pencil. I was astonished! I perceived this as being miraculous. At that moment, I decided that was what I was going to do with my life. Create miracles.

His early childhood, in fact, was a petri dish for his genesis as an artist. He recounts another memory that presaged his gift for welcoming not-knowing in order to know life more richly as the muse of his mastery, a skill that would become the guiding principle of his creative ethos:

I was eight years old, and I had rheumatic fever. I was at home and in bed for a year. In a certain sense, the only thing that kept me alive was this: Every day, my mother would bring me a wooden board and a pound of modeling clay, and I would create a little universe out of houses, tanks, warriors. At the end of the day, I would pound them into oblivion and look forward to the next day when I could recreate the world.

[…]

I think that, to some degree, this is part of my character as a designer: To keep moving and not get stuck in my own past. This is what I try very hard to do.

I think at that moment in my life, I found a peculiar path: To continually discard a lot of the things that I knew how to do in favor of finding out what I didn’t. I think this is the way you stay alive professionally.

In the context of discussing those early memories, however, Glaser offers an important disclaimer about the limitations of our memory and its imperfections:

Memory is treacherous; you can’t depend on it. It is basically always recreated to reinforce your anxiety or to make yourself look better, but whatever actually did happen is totally susceptible to subjective interpretation. I absolutely don’t trust my memory.

Glaser seconds Alan Watts’s timeless wisdom on profit vs. purpose and gets to the heart of how to find your purpose so you can worry less about money:

I never had the model of financial success as being the reason to work. When I was at Push Pin, none of the partners made enough money to live on. It took ten years for us to make as much as a junior art director in an agency. We were making $65 a week! But money has never been a motivating force in my work. I am very happy to have made enough money to live as well as I do, but I never thought of money as a reason to work. For me, work was about survival. I had to work in order to have any sense of being human. If I wasn’t working or making something, I was very nervous and unstable.

Echoing Frank Lloyd Wright’s aphorism that “an expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows,'” Glaser rejoices in the glory of keeping the internal fire of learning ever-ablaze:

That is a great feeling: when you feel the possibility of learning. It’s a terrible feeling to feel you can’t learn or have reached the end of your potential.

Touching on Sister Corita Kent’s 10 rules for learning and Bertrand Russell’s commandments for teachers, Glaser — a revered educator himself — goes on to offer an articulate vision for what the art of education really means:

What you teach is what you are. You don’t teach by telling people things.

[…]

I believe that you convey your ideas by the authenticity of your being. Not by glibly telling someone what to do or how to do it. I believe that this is why so much teaching is ineffective. … Good teaching is merely having an encounter with someone who has an idea of what life is that you admire and want to emulate.

Echoing Rilke’s counsel to live the questions, Richard Feynman’s advocacy of allowing for doubt, John Keats’s insistence on the power of “negative capability”, and Anaïs Nin’s faith in the richness of living with ambiguity, Glaser reflects on the immutable impermanence of everything, the very thing he once intuited in his childhood experience of sculpting and destroying his modeling clay creations:

There is no security in the world, or in life. I don’t mind living with some ambiguity and realizing that eventually, everything changes.

But the most powerful aspect of Glaser’s ethos, one all the more necessary as a lifeboat amidst today’s flood of cynicism, is his unrelenting optimism — an essential antidote to the zero-sum-game mentality of success that plagues so much of our modern thinking:

If you perceive the universe as being a universe of abundance, then it will be. If you think of the universe as one of scarcity, then it will be. And I never thought of the universe as one of scarcity. I always thought that there was enough of everything to go around — that there are enough ideas in the universe and enough nourishment.

In extending this conviction to the most tender aspiration of the human heart, our longing to belong, he echoes Ted Hughes’s poignant reflection on our inner child and adds to literary history’s most beautiful definitions of love:

Do you perceive you live your life through love or fear? They are very different manifestations. My favorite quote is by the English novelist Iris Murdoch. She said, “Love is the very difficult understanding that something other than yourself is real.” I like the idea that all that love is, is acknowledging another’s reality.

Acknowledging that the world exists, and that you are not the only participant in it, is a profound step. The impulse towards narcissism or self-interest is so profound, particularly when you have a worry of injury or fear. It’s very hard to move beyond the idea that there is not enough to go around, to move beyond that sense of “I better get mine before anybody else takes it away from me.”

How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer remains indispensable from cover to cover. Complement it with this lovely short film on Glaser by the late and great Hillman Curtis.

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25 JUNE, 2013

The Dark: An Illustrated Meditation on Overcoming Fear from Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen

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A heart-warming allegory about what it means to make peace with our demons.

Daniel Handler — beloved author, timelessly heartening literary jukeboxer — is perhaps better-known by his pen name Lemony Snicket, under which he pens his endlessly delightful children’s books. In fact, they owe much of their charisma to the remarkable creative collaborations Snicket spawns, from 13 Words illustrated by the inimitable Maira Kalman to Who Could It Be At This Hour? with artwork by celebrated cartoonist Seth. The latest Snicket gem is at least as exciting — a minimalist yet magnificently expressive story about a universal childhood fear, titled The Dark (public library) and illustrated by none other than Jon Klassen.

In a conversation with NPR, Handler echoes Aung San Suu Kyi’s timeless wisdom on freedom from fear and articulates the deeper, more universal essence of the book’s message:

I think books that are meant to be read in the nighttime ought to confront the very fears that we’re trying to think about. And I think that a young reader of The Dark will encounter a story about a boy who makes new peace with a fear, rather than a story that ignores whatever troubles are lurking in the corners of our minds when we go to sleep.

The Dark is part My Father’s Arms Are a Boat, part Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, but mostly the kind of singular treat only Snicket can deliver.

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24 JUNE, 2013

What a Stunt Pilot Teaches Us about Creativity, Impermanence, and the Meaning of Life

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“Who could breathe, in a world where rhythm itself had no periods?”

“Buildings fall; even the earth perishes. What was yesterday a cornfield is to-day a bungalow,” Virginia Woolf observed in her timeless meditation on language and impermanence, “But words, if properly used, seem able to live for ever.” “I have always looked upon decay as being just as wonderful and rich an expression of life as growth,” Henry Miller reflected. And yet our notion of creativity is very much linked to the visible, the tangible, the audible — in other words, the palpable and lasting. But if we were to take Brian Eno’s advice — “Stop thinking about art works as objects,” he urged, “and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences.” — what, exactly, would that mean? How would those creative experiences manifest?

From The Writing Life (public library) by Annie Dillard — the same gem of a book that gave us Dillard on presence over productivity and an altogether indispensable addition to the collected wisdom of beloved writers — Dillard adds to history’s finest definitions of art through the story of a stunt pilot she befriended and the unrelenting dedication with which he pursued an art that is purely ephemeral, exemplary of precisely such a “trigger for experience”:

The air show announcer hushed. He had been squawking all day, and now he quit. The crowd stilled. Even the children watched dumbstruck as the slow, black biplane buzzed its way around the air. Rahm made beauty with his whole body; it was pure pattern, and you could watch it happen. The plane moved every way a line can move, and it controlled three dimensions, so the line carved massive and subtle slits in the air like sculptures. The plane looped the loop, seeming to arch its back like a gymnast; it stalled, dropped, and spun out of it climbing; it spiraled and knifed west on one side’s wings and back east on another; it turned cartwheels, which must be physically impossible; it played with its own line like a cat with yarn. How did the pilot know where in the air he was? If he got lost, the ground would swat him.

Rahm did everything his plane could do: tailspins, four-point rolls, flat spins, figure 8’s, snap rolls, and hammerheads. He did pirouettes on the plane’s tail. The other pilots could do these stunts, too, skillfully, one at a time. But Rahm used the plane inexhaustibly, like a brush marking thin air.

His was pure energy and naked spirit. I have thought about it for years. Rahm’s line unrolled in time. Like music, it split the bulging rim of the future along its seam. It pried out the present. We watchers waited for the split-second curve of beauty in the present to reveal itself. The human pilot, Dave Rahm, worked in the cockpit right at the plane’s nose; his very body tore into the future for us and reeled it down upon us like a curling peel.

Like any fine artist, he controlled the tension of the audience’s longing. You desired, unwittingly, a certain kind of roll or climb, or a return to a certain portion of the air, and he fulfilled your hope slantingly, like a poet, or evaded it until you thought you would burst, and then fulfilled it surprisingly, so you gasped and cried out.

The oddest, most exhilarating and exhausting thing was this: he never quit. The music had no periods, no rests or endings; the poetry’s beautiful sentence never ended; the line had no finish; the sculptured forms piled overhead, one into another without surcease. Who could breathe, in a world where rhythm itself had no periods?

Dave Rahm

Rahm applied this same wabi-sabi disposition of embracing impermanence not only to his art, but also to his life, straddling both sides of the mortality paradox. Dillard recalls a conversation with a young crop-duster pilot, an occupation so dangerous — “They fly too low. They hit buildings and power lines. They have no space to fly out of trouble, and no space to recover from a stall.” — that the average life expectancy of a pilot is five years, then reflects on Rahm’s bittersweet choice:

Over breakfast I asked him how long he had been dusting crops. “Four years,” he said, and the figure stalled in the air between us for a moment. “You know you’re going to die at it someday,” he added. “We all know it. We accept that; it’s part of it.” I think now that, since the crop duster was in his twenties, he accepted only that he had to say such stuff; privately he counted on skewing the curve. I suppose Rahm knew the fact, too. I do not know how he felt about it. “It’s worth it,” said the early French aviator Mermoz. He was Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s friend. “It’s worth the final smashup.” Rahm smashed up in front of King Hussein, in Jordan, during a performance. The plane spun down and never came out of it; it nosedived into the ground and exploded.

Amidst a cultural sensibility where we use tangible art to anchor ourselves to the present, to ourselves, to life, Dillard — in her signature habit of gently, pointedly pulling at the loose threads of which the meaning of life is woven — pulls some of our core assumptions into question, at once uncomfortable and beautifully liberating:

“Purity does not lie in separation from but in deeper penetration into the universe,” Teilhard de Chardin wrote. It is hard to imagine a deeper penetration into the universe than Rahm’s last dive in his plane, or than his inexpressible wordless selfless line’s inscribing the air and dissolving. Any other art may be permanent. I cannot recall one Rahm sequence. He improvised. If Christo wraps a building or dyes a harbor, we join his poignant and fierce awareness that the work will be gone in days. Rahm’s plane shed a ribbon in space, a ribbon whose end unraveled in memory while its beginning unfurled as surprise. He may have acknowledged that what he did could be called art, but it would have been, I think, only in the common misusage, which holds art to be the last extreme of skill. Rahm rode the point of the line to the possible; he discovered it and wound it down to show. He made his dazzling probe on the run. “The world is filled, and filled with the Absolute,” Teilhard de Chardin wrote. “To see this is to be made free.”

No words can be written to articulate just how fantastic — how necessaryThe Writing Life is in its entirety.

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