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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

22 MAY, 2013

Arianna Huffington on Redefining Success: 2013 Smith College Commencement Address

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“Money and power by themselves are a two-legged stool — you can balance on them for a while, but eventually you’re going to topple over.”

At the zenith of commencement season and its treasure trove of timeless advice — including Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, Greil Marcus on “high” and “low” culture, Neil Gaiman on making good art, and Bill Watterson on creative integrityArianna Huffington shares her wisdom with the young women of the 2013 Smith College graduating class, expounding on the message of her 2007 semi-memoir, On Becoming Fearless…in Love, Work, and Life (public library). Like some of history’s most memorable commencement addresses, the import at the heart of hers calls for redefining our notion of success by doing away with the treacherous idols of money and power, and instead focusing on the three W’s — well-being, wonder, and wisdom — with an eye toward the next wave of feminism. Transcript highlights and discussion below.

At the center of her argument is a call to challenge our fetishism of money and instead focus on meaning:

Commencement speakers are traditionally expected to tell graduates how to go out there and climb the ladder of success, but I want to ask you, instead, to redefine success.

[…]

At the moment, our society’s notion of success is largely composed of two parts: money and power. In fact, success, money and power have practically become synonymous.

But it’s time for a third metric, beyond money and power — one founded on well-being, wisdom, our ability to wonder, and to give back. Money and power by themselves are a two-legged stool — you can balance on them for a while, but eventually you’re going to topple over. And more and more people, very successful people, are toppling over. Basically, success the way we’ve defined it is no longer sustainable. It’s no longer sustainable for human beings or for societies. To live the lives we want, and not just the ones we settle for, the ones society defines as successful, we need to include the third metric.

Irreverently riffing off 1954 Smith graduation speaker Alistair Cooke’s notorious counsel that women’s way to the top would be determined by whom they marry, Huffington advises graduates to “sleep their way to the top” — in the literal sense. Like another wise woman, who knows that sleep is “the greatest creative aphrodisiac,” Huffington emphasizes how profoundly sleep impacts your every waking moment, from your creativity to your mood to your risk of obesity, smoking, and heart disease:

In 2007, sleep deprived and exhausted, I fainted, hit my head on my desk, broke my cheekbone and got four stitches on my right eye. And even as it’s affecting our health, sleep deprivation will also profoundly affect your creativity, your productivity, and your decision-making. The Exxon Valdez wreck, the explosion of the Challenger Space Shuttle, and the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island — all were at least partially the result of decisions made on too little sleep.

[…]

We have to change workplace culture so that it’s walking around drained and exhausted that’s stigmatized. … What adding well-being to our definition of success means is that, in addition to looking after our financial capital, we need to do everything we can to protect and nurture our human capital.

Huffington goes on to note that the Huffington Post newsroom, like in Thomas Edison’s lab and library, is equipped with nap rooms to boost productivity. Echoing Bertrand Russell’s timeless meditation on education and the good life, in which he rhetorically asked, “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?,” she points to the essential gift of which the money-mill robs us:

The problem is that as long as success is defined by just money and power, climbing and burnout, we are never going to be able to enjoy that other aspect of the third metric: wonder.

I was blessed with a mother who was in a constant state of wonder. Whether she was washing dishes or feeding seagulls at the beach or reprimanding overworking businessmen, she maintained her sense of wonder, delighted at both the mysteries of the universe and the everyday little things that fill our lives.

Huffington adds to other cultural icons’ collected wisdom on the meaning of life:

I’m convinced about two fundamental truths about human beings. The first truth is that we all have within us a centered place of wisdom, harmony, and strength. This is a truth that all the world’s religions — whether Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or Buddhism — and many of its philosophies, hold true in one form or another. . . . The second truth is that we’re all going to veer away from that place again and again and again. That’s the nature of life. In fact, we may be off-course more often than we are on-course. . . . When we’re in that centered place of wisdom, harmony and strength, life is transformed from struggle to grace and we are suddenly filled with trust — no matter the obstacles, challenges and disappointments. Because there is a purpose to our lives, even if it is sometimes hidden from us, and even if the biggest turning points and heartbreaks only make sense as we look back, not as we are experiencing them. So we might as well live life as if, as the poet Rumi put it, “Everything is rigged in our favor.”

She concludes by asking this next generation of reconstructionists to conceive of a new way to think about success, particularly in the context of the question of how to be a woman in the world today, by seeking greater access to ourselves first and foremost, rather than greater access to power and its proxies:

So please don’t settle for just breaking through glass ceilings in a broken corporate system or in a broken political system, where so many leaders are so disconnected from their own wisdom that we are careening from one self-inflicted crisis to another. Change much more than the M to a W at the top of the corporate flowchart. Change it by going to the root of what’s wrong and redefining what we value and what we consider success.

And remember that while there will be plenty of signposts along your path directing you to make money and climb up the ladder, there will be almost no signposts reminding you to stay connected to the essence of who you are, to take care of yourself along the way, to reach out to others, to pause to wonder, and to connect to that place from which everything is possible. “Give me a place to stand,” my Greek compatriot Archimedes said, “and I will move the world.”

So find your place to stand — your place of wisdom and peace and strength. And from that place, lead the third women’s revolution and remake the world in your own image, according to your own definition of success, so that all of us — women and men — can live our lives with more grace, more joy, more empathy, more gratitude and, yes, more love.

Pair with Huffington’s On Becoming Fearless…in Love, Work, and Life, then complement with other fantastic commencement addresses by Bill Watterson, Debbie Millman, Neil Gaiman, Greil Marcus, David Foster Wallace, Jacqueline Novogratz, Ellen DeGeneres, Aaron Sorkin, Barack Obama, Ray Bradbury, J. K. Rowling, Steve Jobs, Robert Krulwich, Meryl Streep, and Jeff Bezos.

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20 MAY, 2013

How Creativity in Humor, Art, and Science Works: Arthur Koestler’s Theory of Bisociation

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“The discoveries of yesterday are the truisms of tomorrow, because we can add to our knowledge but cannot subtract from it.”

At a recent TED salon, New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff presented his theory of humor as “a conflict of synergies,” which reminded me of a wonderful concept from Arthur Koestler’s seminal 1964 anatomy of creativity, The Act Of Creation (public library). Koestler coins the term bisociation to illustrate the combinatorial nature of creativity — the reason it operates like a slot machine, relies on the mind’s pattern-recognition machinery, and requires the synthesis of raw material into “new” ideas.

Koestler diagrams his theory and explains:

The pattern underlying [the creative act] is the perceiving of a situation or idea, L, in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference, M1 and M2. The event L, in which the two intersect, is made to vibrate simultaneously on two different wavelengths, as it were. While this unusual situation lasts, L is not merely linked to one associative context, but bisociated with two.

I have coined the term ‘bisociation’ in order to make a distinction between the routine skills of thinking on a single ‘plane,’ as it were, and the creative act, which … always operates on more than one plane. The former can be called single-minded, the latter double-minded, transitory state of unstable equilibrium where the balance of both emotion and thought is disturbed.

Koestler goes on to discuss the forms this creative instability takes in humor, art, science. In a chapter on the varieties of humor, he explores how the bisociation theory of creativity can be applied to analyzing “any specimen of humor”:

The procedure to be followed is this: first, determine the nature of M1 and M2 . . . by discovering the type of logic, the rules of the game, which govern each matrix. Often these rules are implied, as hidden axioms, and taken for granted — the code must be de-coded. The rest is easy: find the ‘link’ — the focal concept, word, or situation which is bisociated with both mental planes; lastly, define the character of the emotive charge and make a guess regarding the unconscious elements that it may contain.

He then applies this technique to various types of humor. The pun is one example of bisociation in action:

The pun is the bisociation of a single phonetic form with two meanings — two strings of thought tied together by an acoustic knot. Its immense popularity with children, its prevalence in certain forms of mental disorder (‘punning mania’), and its frequent occurrence in the dream, indicate the profound unconscious appeal of association based on pure sound.

He then examines how bisociation manifests in science vs. art:

In the discoveries of science, the bisociated matrices merge in a new synthesis, which in turn merges with others on a higher level of the hierarchy; it is a process of successive confluences towards unitary, universal laws. . . . The progress of art does not display this overall ‘river-delta’ pattern. The matrices with which the artist operates are chosen for their sensory qualities and emotive potential; his bisociative act is a juxtaposition of these planes or aspects of experience, not their fusion in an intellectual synthesis — to which, by their very nature, they do not lend themselves. This difference is reflected in the quasi-linear progression of science, compared with the quasi-timeless character of art, its continual re-statement of basic patterns of experience in changing idioms. If the explanations of science are like streams joining rivers, rivers moving towards the unifying ocean, the explanations of art may be compared to the tracing back of a ripple in the stream to its source in a distant mountain-spring.

A pillar of Koestler’s theory is the difference between bisociation and mere association, and the criteria for true creativity inhabit that very difference:

The term ‘bisociation’ is meant to point to the independent, autonomous character of the matrices which are brought into contact in the creative act, whereas associative thought operates among members of a single pre-existing matrix.

In examining “the criteria which distinguish bisociative originality from associative routine,” Koestler singles out the most important litmus test:

The previous independence of the components that went into a ‘good combination’ [is] a measure of achievement. Historically speaking, the frames of reference of magnetism and electricity, of physics and chemistry, of corpuscles and waves, developed separately and independently, both in the individual and the collective mind, until the frontiers broke down. And this breakdown was not caused by establishing gradual, tentative connections between individual members of the separate matrices, but by the amalgamation of two realms as wholes, and the integration of the laws of both realms into a unified code of greater universality. Multiple discoveries and priority disputes do not diminish the objective, historical novelty produced by these bisociative events — they merely prove that the time was ripe for that particular synthesis.

Koestler, as we know, was an enormous advocate of the importance of ripeness in the creative process. He then maps bisociation onto the infrastructure and hierarchies of knowledge:

Minor, subjective bisociative processes do occur on all levels, and are the main vehicle of untutored learning. But objective novelty comes into being only when subjective originality operates on the highest level of the hierarchies of existing knowledge.

He then turns to the psychology underpinning phenomena like “generational amnesia” — our tendency to take for granted ideas once they are in place, and to forget what the world was like before they existed:

The discoveries of yesterday are the truisms of tomorrow, because we can add to our knowledge but cannot subtract from it. When two frames of reference have both become integrated into one it becomes difficult to imagine that previously they existed separately. The synthesis looks deceptively self-evident, and does not betray the imaginative effort needed to put its component parts together.

But this, he argues, is where art and science once again diverge:

In this respect the artist gets a better deal than the scientist. The changes of style in the representative arts, the discoveries which altered our frames of perception, stand out as great landmarks for all to see. The true creativity of the innovator in the arts is more dramatically evident and more easily distinguished from the routine of the mere practitioner than in the sciences, because art (and humor) operate primarily through the transitory juxtaposition of matrices, whereas science achieves their permanent integration into a a cumulative and hierarchic order.

There is, however, another important criterion that distinguishes true creativity, a sort of unconscious processing similar to what T. S. Eliot famously observed. Koestler writes:

[The creative act] involves several levels of consciousness. In problem-solving pre- and extra-conscious guidance makes itself increasingly felt as the difficulty increases; but in the truly creative act both in science and art, underground levels of the hierarchy which are normally inhibited in the waking state play a decisive part.

One of the inevitable byproducts of bisociation, he argues, is the demolition of existing dogma:

The re-structuring of mental organization effected by the new discovery implies that the creative act has a revolutionary or destructive side. The path of history is strewn with its victims: the discarded isms of art, the epicycles and phlogistons of science.

Koestler admonishes against over-reliance on habit, which, even though William James may have framed it as the key to happiness, is the tool of association rather than bisociation and thus the enemy of the creative act:

The skills of reasoning rely on habit, governed by well-established rules of the game; the ‘reasonable person’ — used as a standard norm in English common law — is level-headed instead of multi-level-headed; adaptive and not destructive; an enlightened conservative, not a revolutionary; willing to learn under proper guidance, but unable to be guided by his dreams.

He concludes the chapter by summing up the distinguishing features of associative and bisociative thought, or habit and originality, “somewhat brutally” in a tally of contrasts:

The Act Of Creation is absolutely fantastic — necessary, even — in its entirety. It will change the way you think about everything, including thinking itself.

River delta image: “The Lagoon” by Jamie Meunier

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20 MAY, 2013

May 20, 1990: Advice on Life and Creative Integrity from Calvin and Hobbes Creator Bill Watterson

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“The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive.”

‘Tis the season for glorious life advice dispensed by cap-and-gown-clad elders to cap-and-gown-clad youngsters, emanating a halo effect of timeless wisdom the rest of us can absorb any day, at any stage of life. On May 20, 1990, Bill Watterson, creator of the beloved Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, took the podium at Kenyon College — the same stage David Foster Wallace would occupy 15 years later to deliver one of history’s most memorable commencement addresses — and gave the graduating class a gift of equally remarkable insight and impact.

Watterson begins the speech by articulating the same sentiment at the heart of the most unforgettable commencement addresses: the notion that not-knowing is not only a part of the journey, but an integral part:

I have a recurring dream about Kenyon. In it, I’m walking to the post office on the way to my first class at the start of the school year. Suddenly it occurs to me that I don’t have my schedule memorized, and I’m not sure which classes I’m taking, or where exactly I’m supposed to be going.
As I walk up the steps to the postoffice, I realize I don’t have my box key, and in fact, I can’t remember what my box number is. I’m certain that everyone I know has written me a letter, but I can’t get them. I get more flustered and annoyed by the minute. I head back to Middle Path, racking my brains and asking myself, “How many more years until I graduate? …Wait, didn’t I graduate already?? How old AM I?” Then I wake up.

Experience is food for the brain. And four years at Kenyon is a rich meal. I suppose it should be no surprise that your brains will probably burp up Kenyon for a long time. And I think the reason I keep having the dream is because its central image is a metaphor for a good part of life: that is, not knowing where you’re going or what you’re doing.

Like Chuck Close (“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), Isabel Allende (“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”), E. B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”), and Tchaikovsky (“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”), Watterson speaks to the importance of work ethic and grit — but, like Freud, he places playfulness at the epicenter of creativity:

It’s surprising how hard we’ll work when the work is done just for ourselves. And with all due respect to John Stuart Mill, maybe utilitarianism is overrated. If I’ve learned one thing from being a cartoonist, it’s how important playing is to creativity and happiness. My job is essentially to come up with 365 ideas a year.

If you ever want to find out just how uninteresting you really are, get a job where the quality and frequency of your thoughts determine your livelihood. I’ve found that the only way I can keep writing every day, year after year, is to let my mind wander into new territories. To do that, I’ve had to cultivate a kind of mental playfulness.

[…]

At school, new ideas are thrust at you every day. Out in the world, you’ll have to find the inner motivation to search for new ideas on your own. With any luck at all, you’ll never need to take an idea and squeeze a punchline out of it, but as bright, creative people, you’ll be called upon to generate ideas and solutions all your lives. Letting your mind play is the best way to solve problems.

[…]

A playful mind is inquisitive, and learning is fun. If you indulge your natural curiosity and retain a sense of fun in new experience, I think you’ll find it functions as a sort of shock absorber for the bumpy road ahead.

Watterson stresses the importance of refueling the drained creative tank not by indulging in mindless entertainment but by nourishing stimulation — because, after all, “garbage in, garbage out”:

We’re not really taught how to recreate constructively. We need to do more than find diversions; we need to restore and expand ourselves. Our idea of relaxing is all too often to plop down in front of the television set and let its pandering idiocy liquefy our brains. Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery — it recharges by running.

On the importance of defining your own success and holding on to your sense of purpose:

You may be surprised to find how quickly daily routine and the demands of “just getting by” absorb your waking hours. You may be surprised to find how quickly you start to see your politics and religion become matters of habit rather than thought and inquiry. You may be surprised to find how quickly you start to see your life in terms of other people’s expectations rather than issues.

Recounting his early days of weathering the rejection storm, Watterson illustrates the soul-crushing effect of doing intellectually and creatively vacant money-work rather than work true to your calling:

For years I got nothing but rejection letters, and I was forced to accept a real job.

A REAL job is a job you hate. I designed car ads and grocery ads in the windowless basement of a convenience store, and I hated every single minute of the 4-1/2 million minutes I worked there. My fellow prisoners at work were basically concerned about how to punch the time clock at the perfect second where they would earn another 20 cents without doing any work for it. … It was a rude shock to see just how empty and robotic life can be when you don’t care about what you’re doing, and the only reason you’re there is to pay the bills.

In fact, the central message of Watterson’s speech is that the myth of the overnight success is just that — a myth — something cultural icons like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell knew well. At the end of the day, what counts is not prestige or money but pure joy in the work:

I tell you all this because it’s worth recognizing that there is no such thing as an overnight success. You will do well to cultivate the resources in yourself that bring you happiness outside of success or failure. The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive. At that time, we turn around and say, yes, this is obviously where I was going all along. It’s a good idea to try to enjoy the scenery on the detours, because you’ll probably take a few.

I still haven’t drawn the strip as long as it took me to get the job. To endure five years of rejection to get a job requires either a faith in oneself that borders on delusion, or a love of the work. I loved the work.

Drawing comic strips for five years without pay drove home the point that the fun of cartooning wasn’t in the money; it was in the work. This turned out to be an important realization when my break finally came.

But as his comic strip became wildly successful and he was tossed into the $12-billion-a-year cartoon merchandising business, Watterson found himself “spending almost as much time screaming at executives as drawing” and saw the gruesome other side of the same coin:

Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in. Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values, rules and rewards.

The so-called “opportunity” I faced would have meant giving up my individual voice for that of a money-grubbing corporation. It would have meant my purpose in writing was to sell things, not say things. My pride in craft would be sacrificed to the efficiency of mass production and the work of assistants. Authorship would become committee decision. Creativity would become work for pay. Art would turn into commerce. In short, money was supposed to supply all the meaning I’d need.

But of course even then, long before the proclaimed “new age of fulfillment, in which the great dream is to trade up from money to meaning,” Watterson knew that what was being offered to him was a robbery rather than a gift. In reflecting on the experience, he revisits the question of work ethic, this time in light of defining your own success:

You will find your own ethical dilemmas in all parts of your lives, both personal and professional. We all have different desires and needs, but if we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, we will live passively and unfulfilled. Sooner or later, we are all asked to compromise ourselves and the things we care about. We define ourselves by our actions. With each decision, we tell ourselves and the world who we are. Think about what you want out of this life, and recognize that there are many kinds of success.

He stresses the vital difference between “having an enviable career” and “being a happy person,” admonishing about the “hedonic treadmill” of achievement:

Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential — as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.

You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.

He concludes by echoing Rilke:

Your preparation for the real world is not in the answers you’ve learned, but in the questions you’ve learned how to ask yourself.

Complement with more soul-stirring wisdom from Debbie Millman, Neil Gaiman, Greil Marcus, David Foster Wallace, Jacqueline Novogratz, Ellen DeGeneres, Aaron Sorkin, Barack Obama, Ray Bradbury, J. K. Rowling, Steve Jobs, Robert Krulwich, Meryl Streep, and Jeff Bezos.

Thanks, @monicapillai

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