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Either/Or: Kierkegaard on the Tyranny of Choice and How to Transcend the Trap of Double Regret

“True eternity lies not behind either/or but ahead of it.”

“You can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth,” Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek observed in his beautiful meditation on complementarity as the quantum of life.

Nearly two centuries earlier, the influential Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) explored the abiding metaphysical dimension of this notion in his 1843 masterwork Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (public library), which also gave us his abiding wisdom on our greatest source of unhappiness and the only true cure for our existential emptiness.

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Shortly after his contemporary Charles Darwin compiled his amusing list of the pros and cons of marriage, Kierkegaard begins with this common conundrum and extrapolates from it the larger principle of how we confront our existential dilemmas:

If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or if you do not marry, you will regret both; whether you marry or you do not marry, you will regret both. Laugh at the world’s follies, you will regret it; weep over them, you will also regret it; if you laugh at the world’s follies or if you weep over them, you will regret both; whether you laugh at the world’s follies or you weep over them, you will regret both. Believe a girl, you will regret it; if you do not believe her, you will also regret it; if you believe a girl or you do not believe her, you will regret both; whether you believe a girl or you do not believe her, you will regret both. If you hang yourself, you will regret it; if you do not hang yourself, you will regret it; if you hang yourself or you do not hang yourself, you will regret both; whether you hang yourself or you do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the sum of all practical wisdom.

To get caught in this bind of “double regret,” Kierkegaard cautions, is to reduce eternity to “a painful succession of moments in time.” He writes:

It isn’t just in single moments that I view everything aeterno modo [in the mode of eternity], as Spinoza says; I am constantly aeterno modo. Many people think that’s what they are too when, having done the one or the other, they combine or mediate these opposites. But this is a misunderstanding, for the true eternity lies not behind either/or but ahead of it.

Transcending the trap of either/or, Kierkegaard suggests, is an immense expansion of possibility, which is in turn life’s greatest reward:

Were I to wish for anything I would not wish for wealth and power, but for the passion of the possible, that eye which everywhere, ever young, ever burning, sees possibility. Pleasure disappoints, not possibility.

Complement the indispensable Either/Or with Kierkegaard on boredom, the trap of busyness, the power of the minority, why haters hate, and how anxiety enhances creativity rather than hindering it, then revisit Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska’s wondrous poem “Possibilities” — the most beautiful articulation of the burden and blessing of choice ever committed to words.

BP

The Magic and Logic of Powerful Public Speaking: TED Curator Chris Anderson’s Field Guide to Giving a Great Talk

How to master the generous art of inspiration and avoid the pitfalls of attention-hungry manipulation.

The Magic and Logic of Powerful Public Speaking: TED Curator Chris Anderson’s Field Guide to Giving a Great Talk

“Words are events, they do things, change things,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her sublime reflection on telling and listening. “They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.” This mutual transformation takes place in a special atmosphere that exists in no other realm of life — one Paul Goodman captured beautifully in his taxonomy of the nine kinds of silence, among which he listed “the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear.”

The architecture of that singular atmosphere is what TED curator Chris Anderson explores in TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking (public library) — a contemporary counterpart to George Plimptom’s advice on public speaking, drawing on Anderson’s experience in hosting some of the most electrifying, inspiring, and mobilizing idea-packets of our time, delivered from the TED stage to more than a billion people around the world who hunger for intellectual, creative, and spiritual nourishment.

Photograph by Bret Hartman / TED
Photograph by Bret Hartman / TED

Anderson paints the backdrop for the uncommon magic of a powerful talk:

The house lights dim. A woman, her palms sweating, her legs trembling just a little, steps out onto the stage. A spotlight hits her face, and 1,200 pairs of eyes lock onto hers. The audience senses her nervousness. There is palpable tension in the room. She clears her throat and starts to speak.

What happens next is astounding.

The 1,200 brains inside the heads of 1,200 independent individuals start to behave very strangely. They begin to sync up. A magic spell woven by the woman washes over each person. They gasp together. Laugh together. Weep together. And as they do so, something else happens. Rich, neurologically encoded patterns of information inside the woman’s brain are somehow copied and transferred to the 1,200 brains in the audience. These patterns will remain in those brains for the rest of their lives, potentially impacting their behavior years into the future.

The woman on the stage is weaving wonder, not witchcraft. But her skills are as potent as any sorcery.

Ants shape each other’s behavior by exchanging chemicals. We do it by standing in front of each other, peering into each other’s eyes, waving our hands and emitting strange sounds from our mouths. Human-to-human communication is a true wonder of the world. We do it unconsciously every day. And it reaches its most intense form on the public stage.

But perhaps because this everyday wonder emanates from our basic humanity, it is also highly susceptible to basic human fallibility. Anderson goes on to enumerate the most common pitfalls in public speaking and provides strategies for countering them. In my own experience of having witnessed hundreds of live public talks over the years, at TED and elsewhere, the worst of these foibles is a kind of narcissistic greed on behalf of the speaker — a lack of the core generosity of spirit that lends all true art its power.

Anderson writes:

Sometimes speakers get it exactly backwards. They plan to take, not give.

[…]

Reputation is everything. You want to build a reputation as a generous person, bringing something wonderful to your audiences, not as a tedious self-promoter. It’s boring and frustrating to be pitched to, especially when you’re expecting something else.

[…]

The key principle is to remember that the speaker’s job is to give to the audience, not take from them.

TED2009, Long Beach, CA, February 3-7, 2009.  credit: TED / Asa Mathat
Photograph by Asa Mathat / TED

Anderson admonishes against another side of the same coin — a kind of transactional pseudo-generosity, in which the speaker creates the illusion of giving in order to wrest out of the audience a desired response. Amid our Pavolvian culture, in which our interior sense of worth is increasingly predicated on constant exterior reinforcement, this temptation is difficult to resist — “likes” and retweets and view counts become a toxic quantitative measure of the quality of our work and, at their most perilous, a sort of valuation of our character. To engage in public life is to be increasingly aware of the vast potential for such response, and to grub for it.

A grave mistake in public speaking, Andersen cautions, is this tendency to try to manipulate one’s way into positive reinforcement — a tendency resulting in talks that “flatter to deceive,” which in turn commodify the greatest gift a speaker can give an audience. Andersen writes:

Absolutely one of the most powerful things you can experience when watching a talk is inspiration. The speaker’s work and words move you and fill you with an expanded sense of possibility and excitement. You want to go out and be a better person… I believe in inspiration’s power.

But it’s a power that must be handled with great care.

When a great speaker finishes her talk and the whole crowd rises to its feet and applauds, it’s a thrilling moment for everyone in the room. The audience is excited by what they’ve heard, and for the speaker, it’s indescribably satisfying to receive such powerful recognition.

But the promise of this satisfaction, Anderson admonishes, can be so alluring that speakers might be tempted to manipulate their way into it — which, of course, not only never works but always backfires. Nothing embitters the sweetness of mutual appreciation more effectively than one side’s ego-driven greed for affirmation. Anderson writes:

Here’s the thing about inspiration: It has to be earned. Someone is inspiring not because they look at you with big eyes and ask you to find it in your heart to believe in their dream. It’s because they actually have a dream that’s worth getting excited about. And those dreams don’t come lightly. They come from blood, sweat, and tears.

Inspiration is like love. You don’t get it by pursuing it directly.

[…]

Inspiration can’t be performed. It’s an audience response to authenticity, courage, selfless work, and genuine wisdom.

In this authentic responsiveness, Anderson argues, lies the great promise of a powerful talk — a promise built on the intersection of our most ancient longings, encoded in our elemental humanity, and the singular rewards of our time, an era marked by enormous potential for connection, cross-pollination, and mutual expansion, unimaginable to our ancestors. He writes:

We’re wired to respond to each other’s vulnerability, honesty, and passion — provided we just get a chance to see it. Today, we have that chance… We are physically connected to each other like never before. Which means that our ability to share our best ideas with each other matters more than it ever has. The single greatest lesson I have learned from listening to TED Talks is this: The future is not yet written. We are all, collectively, in the process of writing it.

What is an idea, anyway? You can think of it as a packet of information that helps you understand and navigate the world.

[…]

Your mind is teeming with ideas, and not just randomly — they’re carefully linked together. Collectively, they form an amazingly complex structure that is your personal worldview. It’s your brain’s operating system, it’s how you navigate the world, and it’s built out of millions of individual ideas.

For a necessary complement to TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, see Anna Deavere Smith on the art of listening in a culture of speaking, then revisit Ursula K. Le Guin on the magic of human communication.

BP

Urbanism Patron Saint Jane Jacobs on Our Civic Duty in Cultivating Cities That Foster a Creative Life

“People ought to pay more attention to their instincts.”

Urbanism Patron Saint Jane Jacobs on Our Civic Duty in Cultivating Cities That Foster a Creative Life

Only a few times a century, if we’re lucky, a book comes along to prod the popular imagination with so powerful a challenge to our basic assumptions that it revises common sense and we begin to inhabit our everyday reality differently, looking upon the most mundane aspects of our world with new eyes. Among those rare books is the 1961 masterwork The Death and Life of Great American Cities by the great author, activist, and urbanism patron saint Jane Jacobs (May 4, 1916–April 25, 2006). Upending the old dogma of urban renewal and ushering in a radical reevaluation of what makes cities thrive, Jacobs issued a clarion call for creating a civic culture that nurtures the essential elements of robust public life. Hers was a bottom-up, people-first vision for cities, in many ways a counterpoint to the top-down grandiosity of her archnemesis Robert Moses.

Several months after the publication of her groundbreaking book, Jacobs sat down with Mademoiselle editors Eve Auchincloss and Nancy Lynch for a wide-ranging conversation, preserved in Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (public library) — perhaps the most direct glimpse of the ideas and ideals that animated one of the liveliest, most visionary minds of the past century.

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Jacobs considers how intelligently designed cities enlarge their denizens’ capacity for living a creative life:

Big cities offer the greatest range of opportunity for people with unusual wares or new ideas. It takes a great big city to support either commerce or culture that isn’t absolutely standardized. And if we have big cities that are unable to offer services, then we are not getting the salient advantages.

What stands in the way of reaping these advantages, Jacobs argues, is the artificial lumping together of elements based on superficial characteristics — from the segregation of low-income citizens in housing projects to the clustering of art galleries and museums in designated districts. She examines the larger forces at work:

These things don’t happen inevitably. All this segregation has been deliberately prescribed — like the mammoth museums, the Lincoln Centers, the housing projects. Extraordinary powers of government have been created to make possible such islands of single use, because it was thought that this is the way to organize cities. It’s not just a matter of reversing the process, though, because mere planlessness isn’t enough. We have bad unplanned areas as well as bad planned ones. Change will come about — and I believe it will — first from understanding the problem a city is, and then changing the methods of dealing with it. But there’s a step before that, and this sounds negative, but I think we won’t really get things done differently and better until citizen resistance makes it impossible — or too frustrating — to do things as they are being done now.

Nearly a century after Nietzsche admonished against confusing constructive and destructive rebellion, Jacobs cautions against the illusion that the mere demolition of the status quo is a fruitful form of advancement:

I certainly don’t think we should simply call present methods to a halt and consider that in itself progress. All it is is an opportunity to begin to do things differently and better.

Illustration from Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City
Illustration from Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City

She points to the necessity of eradicating automobile use as an example — a necessity all the more urgent today, as we are finally confronting the gruesome effects of carbon emission on climate change:

I think people are pretty suspicious of schemes that offer them nothing for something. We should get rid of the automobiles, but in a positive way. What we need is more things that conflict with their needs — wider sidewalks, more space for trees, even double lines of trees on some sidewalks, dead ends not for foot traffic but for automobiles, more frequent places for people to cross streets, more traffic lights — they’re an abomination to automobiles, but a boon to pedestrians. And then we should have more convenient public transportation.

[…]

We constantly sacrifice all kinds of amenities for automobiles. I think we can wear down their number by sacrificing the roadbed to some of our other needs instead. It’s a switch in values.

With an eye to her own neighborhood, she considers the elements of a healthy urban community:

Greenwich Village is livable, and the demand for city districts that are lively and interesting to live in and safe on the streets is much greater today than the supply… Of course you wouldn’t want to reproduce the Village, but the same principles that work here can work other places, and do. The mixture of residential, commercial, cultural, and manufacturing buildings all in one neighborhood, the mixture of old and new buildings, the short blocks. In describing the neighborhood I live in in my book I was really describing a fairly ordinary sort of city place. Its values don’t depend on a special kind of ethnic group or a high income. People from cities all over the country tell me that I was describing the kind of place where they live. I’ve been criticized for having a Bohemian or a working-class point of view. I don’t know what class point of view I have, but it’s city life I’ve been describing, and this is recognized by many, many people who live city lives. I think people who say that I am describing one peculiar kind of place — maybe it ought to be preserved, but it has nothing to do with cities in general — just haven’t experienced city life at firsthand. And they aren’t using their eyes.

Illustration from Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City
Illustration from Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City

But despite the powerful large-scale forces at play, Jacobs argues, what is preventing the cultivation of such thriving communities is our tendency to mistrust our instincts about our own needs, which in turn curtails our ability to exercise our power as citizens in having those needs met:

If it’s a community, if it’s stable, if people stay put, then you have a livable place. People ought to pay more attention to their instincts. There is an intuitive sense of what is right and comfortable and pleasant… When a lot of experts say one thing, then people stop trusting themselves. This is a mistake. After all, everybody who lives in the city can be an expert about cities.

[…]

There’s this notion that certain groups of people must be sacrificed for the common good, but nobody quite defines what this common good is. Actually, of course, it is made up of a lot of smaller goods. It’s not at odds with good for people in the concrete.

[…]

People do have feelings, they express them in every way they can, even while they are being ridden over roughshod. But they’re intimidated by experts who tell them what they feel is selfish and ignorant, and unfortunately they are willing to believe it.

Writing mere months before Eleanor Roosevelt made her timeless case for the power of personal conviction and our individual responsibility in social change, Jacobs points to one particularly acute manifestation of this civic resignation:

Suburbs are perfectly valid places to want to live, but they are inherently parasitic, economically and socially, too, because they live off the answers found in cities. But I don’t blame only the planners. By implication I blame everyone who knows in his bones that things are being done wrong and won’t trust himself enough to act like the citizen of a self-governing country. We’ve had an awful abdication of the responsibility of citizens.

Responding to the common lazy criticism that hers is a kind of physical determinism giving too much credence to the city’s ability to shape our values and our way of life, Jacobs offers an illustrative metaphor:

Suppose you are designing a room for a meeting. That’s very different from determining what the meeting is going to decide. Society is an endless meeting, where people can be heard and seen and things can happen. But what the meeting decides is out of the hands of the designer except insofar as he is another member of society. The planners of garden cities had it all decided what the meeting should decide, what life should be like for people, what was and what wasn’t good for them. This is true of all utopian thinking.

[…]

I believe that lively cities where society can operate in an intense way make meetings out of which very fertile and ingenious decisions can come. But if people are isolated, fragmented, if one income class is set off from other income classes, the meeting simply does not occur. If different kinds of talents don’t come together, if different sorts of ideas don’t rub up against one another, if the necessary money never comes in juxtaposition with the necessary vision, the meeting doesn’t occur.

Ultimately, Jacobs argues, what is keeping us from effecting change in our own cities is a certain learned helplessness that begins early in life and is calcified by the education system:

If I were running a school, I’d have one standing assignment that would begin in the first grade and go on all through school, every week: that each child should bring in something said by an authority — it could be by the teacher, or something they see in print, but something that they don’t agree with — and refute it.

Complement Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview and Other Conversations with this illustrated love letter to Jacobs, then revisit her contemporary E.B. White on the poetics of what makes a great city.

BP

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