Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘RSA’

17 JUNE, 2015

A Stop-Motion Love Letter to the Power of Curiosity

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“The more you know, the more you want to know… the more connections you can make between the different bits of knowledge… the more ideas you have, which is why curiosity is really the wellspring of creativity.”

“It is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown,” wrote pioneering polar explorer Ernest Shackleton in reflecting on the feat that nearly took his life, adding: “The only true failure would be not to explore at all.” This vitalizing power of exploration applies as much to the exterior world we inhabit as it does to the interior. Upon turning eighty and looking back on his extraordinary life, Henry Miller observed: “Perhaps it is curiosity — about anything and everything — that made me the writer I am. It has never left me.” And yet in the century since Shackleton and the decades since Miller, despite the proliferation of access to knowledge, we seem to have lost our appetite for this singular human faculty that propels us forward. We’ve lulled ourselves into a kind of complacency, where too often we’d rather be right than uncertain or — worse yet — wrong, forgetting that “useful ignorance,” to borrow Thoreau’s beautiful term, is precisely what helps us transcend the limits of our knowledge and stretch our ability.

That vital force of self-transcendence is what Arts University Bournemouth student and self-taught animator Georgina Venning explores in her immeasurably delightful stop-motion animation of an excerpt from Ian Leslie’s RSA talk, based on his book Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It (public library).

The piece is one of the winners in the Moving Pictures category of the 2015 RSA Student Design Awards, which invite emerging designers and artists to examine social, environmental, and economic issues through compelling visual communication driven by design thinking. The category itself is an offshoot of RSA’s existing series of animated shorts, which has previously given us such gems as Susan Cain on the power of introverts and Brené Brown on vulnerability and the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Venning’s film is impressively meticulous beyond the beautiful papercraft — in order to create consistent natural light throughout the animation, she filmed one frame per day, at the exact same time of day.

Curiosity is a muscle — use it or lose it. It’s something that we consciously have to nurture in ourselves, in our families, in classrooms, at work.

Sometimes I hear that curiosity and creativity are killed by too many facts — but, actually, the opposite is true: The more you know, the more you want to know. Not only that, but the more you know, the more connections you can make between the different bits of knowledge that you have in your head and therefore the more ideas you have, which is why curiosity is really the wellspring of creativity.

Technology is replacing routine work — and that’s what technology replaces first and has done throughout history. So intellectually curious people — people who are capable of learning throughout their career, of asking questions (good questions), of adapting and collaborating with others from different disciplines; people who are capable of really thriving in this world of non-routine work, in other words — are the people who are going to do better.

In the introduction to the book, Leslie considers humanity’s historically contentious relationship with curiosity and writes:

Our oldest stories about curiosity are warnings: Adam and Eve and the apple of knowledge, Icarus and the sun, Pandora’s box. Early Christian theologians railed against curiosity: Saint Augustine claimed that “God fashioned hell for the inquisitive.” Even humanist philosopher Erasmus suggested that curiosity was greed by a different name. For most of Western history, it has been regarded as at best a distraction, at worst a poison, corrosive to the soul and to society.

There’s a reason for this. Curiosity is unruly. It doesn’t like rules, or, at least, it assumes that all rules are provisional, subject to the laceration of a smart question nobody has yet thought to ask. It disdains the approved pathways, preferring diversions, unplanned excursions, impulsive left turns. In short, curiosity is deviant. Pursuing it is liable to bring you into conflict with authority at some point, as everyone from Galileo to Charles Darwin to Steve Jobs could have attested.

A society that values order above all else will seek to suppress curiosity. But a society that believes in progress, innovation, and creativity will cultivate it, recognizing that the inquiring minds of its people constitute its most valuable asset. In medieval Europe, the inquiring mind — especially if it inquired too closely into the edicts of church or state — was stigmatized. During the Renaissance and Reformation, received wisdoms began to be interrogated, and by the time of the Enlightenment, European societies started to see that their future lay with the curious and encouraged probing questions rather than stamping on them. The result was the biggest explosion of new ideas and scientific advances in history.

The great unlocking of curiosity translated into a cascade of prosperity for the nations that precipitated it. Today, we cannot know for sure if we are in the middle of this golden period or at the end of it. But we are, at the very least, in a lull.

In the remainder of Curious, Leslie goes on to explore our best strategies for jolting ourselves out of that lull by cultivating more diverse modes of curiosity that ensure our flourishing in an increasingly complex world. Complement it with Isaac Asimov on curiosity and risk-taking and Marie Curie on curiosity, wonder, and the spirit of adventure in science.

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21 OCTOBER, 2010

Sir Ken Robinson on Creativity and Changing Educational Paradigms

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What’s not to love about RSA Animate? Here’s their animated adaptation of Sir Ken Robinson’s talk about changing educational paradigms, based on one of the best TED talks of all time, in which Sir Ken makes a compelling case for how schools are killing creativity:

We have a system of education that is modeled on the interest of industrialism and in the image of it. School are still pretty much organized on factory lines — ringing bells, separate facilities, specialized into separate subjects. We still educate children by batches.

With his signature soundbite-ready cadence and perfectly timed wit, Sir Ken — always the intellectual showman — once again manages to ruffle some academic feathers while raising some important questions. I’m particularly on board with his emphasis on the role of divergent thinking:

Divergent thinking isn’t the same thing as creativity. I define creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value. Divergent thinking isn’t a synonym but is an essential capacity for creativity. It’s the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question, lots of possible ways to interpret a question, to think laterally, to think not just in linear or convergent ways, to see multiple answers, not one.

The full talk is well worth watching:

Robinson’s most recent book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, is an absolute must-read, wherever you may stand on education.

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23 SEPTEMBER, 2010

Steven Johnson on Where Good Ideas Come From

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“Chance favors the connected mind.”

After their animated exploration of capitalism, the RSA are back with a visual distillation of one of the most important questions in creative culture: Where do good ideas come from? Steven Johnson tackles the grand question with insights from his latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, and a historical perspective on innovation throughout human civilization.

Johnson’s answer strongly echoes the Brain Pickings mission — to build a rich and wide-spanning pool of mental resources that serve as the building blocks of creativity.

That’s the real lesson: Chance favors the connected mind.” ~ Steven Johnson

Also worth watching: Johnson’s recent TED talk, one of our favorites this year:

Where Good Ideas Come From comes as a fine addition to these must-read books by TEDGlobal speakers.

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14 SEPTEMBER, 2010

Capitalism Five Ways, Animated

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What smiling has to do with personal redemption and the economic outlook.

Is RSA the new TED? During the past year, the London-based Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts (RSA) has burst onto the scene, offering a steady diet of videos created with a TED-like formula. They’re short. They’re animated and visually snappy. And they’re substantive too. But while TED is all about bringing the inspiration, RSA videos tend toward critique. Take the four videos below. Though varied in focus, they all circle around a common theme — the flaws running through our contemporary capitalist system.

DANIEL PINK: DRIVE

First up, Daniel Pink, the bestselling author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, makes the point that traditional motivation schemes — namely, bonuses — rarely achieve their intended results. Research repeatedly finds that the bigger the bonus, the worse the performance. (Hello CEOs.) So what does motivate us? The desire to be self-directed, which Pink distills into a trifecta of success: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: SMILE OR DIE

In the United States, we’re all about positive psychology. Optimism is built into our DNA. But if you ask Barbara Ehrenreich, author of the bestselling book Nickel and Dimed, she’ll tell you it’s not such a good thing. In short, positive thinking keeps getting us nickeled and dimed.

SLAVOJ ZIZEK: FIRST AS TRAGEDY, THEN AS FARCE

Slavoj Zizek, one of today’s most influential philosophers/theorists, picks up where Ehrenreich leaves off. Reworking Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic, or that strange relationship between money making and personal redemption, Zizek gives you this observation. Increasingly, modern capitalism tries to blur the boundaries between making purchases and doing social good. We’re made to feel like we’re creating good karma every time we buy. It’s a bit of hoodwinking that keeps us happy and spending, and our eyes off the ball.

STEPHEN DUBNER & STEVEN LEVITT: SUPERFREAKONOMICS

And then to pull this thread along a little further. Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, authors of the bestselling Freakonomics, dig into economic research that shows this dark reality: On the economic field, there’s no such thing as altruists. Players that look altruistic are greedy in the end.

DAVID HARVEY: CRISES OF CAPITALISM

What caused the 2008 financial crisis? Many have assumed that the capitalist system somehow malfunctioned. Credit default swaps and liar loans – they piled up and caused an otherwise good system to go down. But David Harvey, a long left-leaning social theorist and geographer, takes things a step further. The crisis was built into capitalism itself, he argues. It was part of capitalism’s internal logic. And, with that, we get the most penetrating critique.

All of these videos are excerpts of longer lectures, each running about 30 minutes. You can watch them in full here: Pink, Ehrenreich, Zizek, Dubner/Levit and Harvey. And when you do, you’ll really see how well the medium enhances the message.

Dan Colman edits Open Culture, which brings you the best free educational media available on the web — free online courses, audio books, movies and more. By day, he directs the Continuing Studies Program at Stanford University, and you can also find him on Twitter.

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