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David DeSteno on the Psychology of Compassion and Resilience

How to use the intricate balance of altruism and self-interest to our collective advantage.

Last week, I journeyed to this year’s PopTech conference, where one of the most compelling talks came from psychologist David DeSteno, director of Northeastern University’s Social Emotions Lab and author of the fascinating Out of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us, one of last year’s 11 finest psychology books. DeSteno examines the science of compassion and resilience, and explores emerging ideas for leveraging the mechanisms of the mind that enable them:

The distress we see someone experiencing — the compassion we feel for them — isn’t determined by the objective facts on the ground; it’s determined by who’s looking. … It’s not the severity or the objective facts of a disaster that motivate us to feel compassion and to help — it’s whether or not we see ourselves in the victims.


So You Want To Be a Writer: Bukowski Debunks the “Tortured Genius” Myth of Creativity

“unless it comes unasked out of your heart and your mind and your mouth and your gut, don’t do it.”

Why do writers — great writers — write? We’ve heard from George Orwell, Joan Didion, and Susan Sontag. But one of the most poignant answers comes from a somewhat unlikely source: Charles Bukowski — he both cynical and soulful, and always unapologetically irreverent.

With lines like “unless the sun inside you is / burning your gut,” reminiscent of Ray Bradbury, and “unless it comes out of / your soul like a rocket,” reminiscent of Anaïs Nin, “so you want to be a writer,” from the altogether fantastic volume Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way: New Poems (public library), is a necessary reminder that, contrary to the culturally toxic tortured-genius myth, to create is to celebrate rather than bemoan life.

Enjoy this beautiful reading by Tom O’Bedlam, who also gave us Dorianne Laux’s sublime “Antilamentation”:

so you want to be a writer

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.
if you’re trying to write like somebody
forget about it.

if you have to wait for it to roar out of
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.

if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you’re not ready.

don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.

For more first-hand insight on the writing life, see Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 guidelines for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, Margaret Atwood’s 10 practical tips, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.


Vintage Indian Matchbook Labels

A vibrant tale of cultural history and brand power.

Matchbook (public library), from the wonderful Tara Books, collects more than 500 striking Indian matchbox labels gathered by Shahid Datawala over the course of several decades, at once reminiscent of vintage Soviet propaganda in their visual language and of mid-century American travel posters in their vibrant colors, and yet entirely singular and culturally distinctive in overall sensibility. The designs, which advertise everything from guns to violins and inhabit the curious space between culture and commerce, do more than brand the product — with their animated, loud identity, they demand attention as standalone objects of fixation, almost fetishistic in their seductive boldness. At the same time, the avalanche of imitation that the most popular designs sparked — often comic in its complete disregard for and oblivion to modern intellectual property norms — bespeaks a key characteristic of any powerful brand: the hunger for imitation.

The history of the Indian match industry has a fascinating history itself — from its roots in Swedish capital, to the boom of local production in the 1920s that propelled self-made Indian entrepreneurs from the lower castes into newfound independence, to its Golden Age following the Indian liberation from British rule. At once a tool of state economic planning, actively incentivizing local jobs, and a mecca of child labor employing kids as young as six, the story of the matchbox industry parallels the evolution of Indian society in the twentieth century. V. Geetha writes in a short essay contextualizing the images:

More generally, in the Indian context, labels came to circulate as tokens of shared culture and connoted commercial goodwill. … Ultimately, the charm of match labels, even for those that commission them, must be linked to visual pleasure, renewed on an everyday basis. And through these images, the humble matchstick resonates — in a convoluted, barely recognized fashion — with mythic and historical memory, valorized icons and images, an fantasies of consumption.

Matchbook is itself shaped like a matchbox and comes in a beautiful matt-laminated slipcase.


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