Hey Wendy Moore! If you missed last week's edition – an illustrated field guide to mythic monsters, Brian Eno's reading list of 20 books essential for sustaining civilization, Mark Rothko on the transcendent power of art, and mor – you can catch up right here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation – every little bit helps. And if you've already done so, thank you wholeheartedly for making all of this possible.
The commencement address is a special kind of modern communication art, and its greatest masterpieces tend to either become a book – take, for instance, David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life, Neil Gaiman on the resilience of the creative spirit, Ann Patchett on storytelling and belonging, and Joseph Brodsky on winning the game of life – or have originated from a book, such as Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life. One of the greatest commencement speeches of all time, however, has an unusual story that flies in the face of both traditional trajectories.
In 2000, Villanova University invited Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, journalist, and New York Times op-ed columnist Anna Quindlen to deliver the annual commencement address. But once the announcement was made, a group of conservative students staged a protest against Quindlen's strong liberal views. The commencement was cancelled. "I don't think you should have to walk through demonstrators to get to your college commencement," Quindlen lamented. Rather than retreat, however, she emailed the undelivered commencement address to a Villanova graduate student who had expressed disappointment at the situation. Years before the social web as we know it today, the speech spread like wildfire across the internet. A few months later, Quindlen expanded it into the short and lovely book A Short Guide to a Happy Life (public library).
I’ve never earned a doctorate, or even a master’s degree. I’m not an ethicist, or a philosopher, or an expert in any particular field… I can’t talk about the economy, or the universe, or academe, as academicians like to call where they work when they’re feeling kind of grand. I’m a novelist. My work is human nature. Real life is really all I know.
And know it she does:
Don’t ever confuse the two, your life and your work. That’s what I have to say. The second is only a part of the first. Don’t ever forget what a friend once wrote to Senator Paul Tsongas when the senator had decided not to run for reelection because he’d been diagnosed with cancer: “No man ever said on his deathbed I wish I had spent more time at the office.”
Don’t ever forget the words on a postcard that my father sent me last year: “If you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.”
Quindlen considers the question of the self and what makes us who we are, what makes us worthy of being. And while the great Annie Dillard may have cautioned to not "ever use the word 'soul,' if possible," it seems impossible to address the question of what makes a meaningful life without addressing the human soul, which Quindlen does beautifully:
There are thousands of people out there with the same degree you have; when you get a job, there will be thousands of people doing what you want to do for a living. But you are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life. Your particular life. Your entire life. Not just your life at a desk, or your life on the bus, or in the car, or at the computer. Not just the life of your mind, but the life of your heart. Not just your bank account, but your soul.
People don’t talk about the soul very much anymore. It’s so much easier to write a résumé than to craft a spirit. But a résumé is cold comfort on a winter night, or when you’re sad, or broke, or lonely, or when you’ve gotten back the chest X ray and it doesn’t look so good, or when the doctor writes “prognosis, poor.”
Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss.
Even those trying to find their purpose, even those engaged in fulfilling work, and even those of us lucky enough to have no separation between "life" and "work," can get consumed by our modern cult of productivity. Quindlen's words come as a vital reminder of what matters, what counts, what the true aliveness of life is:
You cannot be really first-rate at your work if your work is all you are.
So I suppose the best piece of advice I could give anyone is pretty simple: get a life. A real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house. Do you think you’d care so very much about those things if you developed an aneurysm one afternoon, or found a lump in your breast while in the shower?
Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over the dunes, a life in which you stop and watch how a red-tailed hawk circles over a pond and a stand of pines. Get a life in which you pay attention to the baby as she scowls with concentration when she tries to pick up a Cheerio with her thumb and first finger.
Turn off your cell phone. Turn off your regular phone, for that matter. Keep still. Be present.
Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure, it is work.
Here, Annie Dillard, who so memorably expounded the power of presence over productivity in the making of a rich life, would have agreed. For Quindlen, however, an even richer life than that of simply being present is one of being present with a palpable generosity of spirit towards the world:
Get a life in which you are generous. Look around at the azaleas making fuchsia star bursts in spring; look at a full moon hanging silver in a black sky on a cold night. And realize that life is glorious, and that you have no business taking it for granted. Care so deeply about its goodness that you want to spread it around. Take the money you would have spent on beers in a bar and give it to charity. Work in a soup kitchen. Tutor a seventh-grader.
All of us want to do well. But if we do not do good, too, then doing well will never be enough.
Illustration by Maurice Sendak from I'll Be You and You Be Me by Ruth Krauss
Quindlen, who had a jarring confrontation with the mortality paradox early in life – at nineteen, she lost her mother to ovarian cancer and spent her sophomore year of college administering morphine while her peers partied – considers the Alan Wattsian idea that putting at rest our resistance to the inevitability of death liberates us to be more alive. (Sarah Lewis put this beautifully when she observed, "When we surrender to the fact of death, not the idea of it, we gain license to live more fully, to see life differently.") Quindlen reflects on the tragedy that split her life into a "before" and an "after":
It is so easy to waste our lives: our days, our hours, our minutes. It is so easy to take for granted the pale new growth on an evergreen, the sheen of the limestone on Fifth Avenue, the color of our kids’ eyes, the way the melody in a symphony rises and falls and disappears and rises again. It is so easy to exist instead of live. Unless you know there is a clock ticking.
“Before” and “after” for me was not just before my mother’s illness and after her death. It was the dividing line between seeing the world in black and white, and in Technicolor. The lights came on, for the darkest possible reason.
And I went back to school and I looked around at all the kids I knew who found it kind of a drag and who weren’t sure if they could really hack it and who thought life was a bummer. And I knew that I had undergone a sea change. Because I was never again going to be able to see life as anything except a great gift.
Watercolor by Alessandro Sanna from The River
"We have entered a new age of fulfillment, in which the great dream is to trade up from money to meaning," philosopher Roman Krznaric wrote in his fantastic manifesto for finding meaningful work, but Quindlen reminds us that the luxury of seeking fulfillment rather than mere survival came at a price – and yet how easily we take it for granted:
It’s ironic that we forget so often how wonderful life really is. We have more time than ever before to remember it. The men and women of generations past had to work long, long hours to support lots and lots of children in tiny, tiny houses. The women worked in factories and sweatshops and then at home, too, with two bosses, the one who paid them, and the one they were married to, who didn’t. . . . Our jobs take too much out of us and don’t pay enough.
Life is made up of moments, small pieces of glittering mica in a long stretch of gray cement. It would be wonderful if they came to us unsummoned, but particularly in lives as busy as the ones most of us lead now, that won’t happen. We have to teach ourselves how to make room for them, to love them, and to live, really live.
This is not a dress rehearsal, and that today is the only guarantee you get.
Photograph by Myron Davis for The Meaning of Life
How, then, are we to fully inhabit the miracle of our existence, that cosmic accident by the grace of which we ended up alive, here, now? Quindlen offers a gateway to presence:
Consider the lilies of the field. Look at the fuzz on a baby’s ear. Read in the backyard with the sun on your face. Learn to be happy. And think of life as a terminal illness, because, if you do, you will live it with joy and passion, as it ought to be lived.
A Short Guide to a Happy Life is the kind of read that stays with you for a long time, the sort you revisit again and again when the ground beneath your feet shakes and you reach for a reminder of the solid center. Complement it with more fantastic commencement addresses by Bill Watterson, Joss Whedon, Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Jacqueline Novogratz, Aaron Sorkin, Barack Obama, Ray Bradbury, J. K. Rowling, Steve Jobs, Robert Krulwich, Meryl Streep, and Jeff Bezos
:: MORE / SHARE ::
"You gotta be willing to fail… if you’re afraid of failing, you won’t get very far," Steve Jobs cautioned. "There is no such thing as failure – failure is just life trying to move us in another direction," Oprah counseled new Harvard graduates. In his wonderfully heartening letter of fatherly advice, F. Scott Fitzgerald gave his young daughter Scottie a list of things to worry and not worry about in life; among the unworriables, he listed failure, "unless it comes through your own fault." And yet, as Debbie Millman observed in Fail Safe, her magnificent illustrated-essay-turned-commencement-address, most of us "like to operate within our abilities" – stepping outside of them risks failure, and we do worry about it, very much. How, then, can we transcend that mental block, that existential worry, that keeps us from the very capacity for creative crash that keeps us growing and innovating?
That's precisely what curator and art advocate Sarah Lewis, who has under her belt degrees from Harvard and Oxford, curatorial positions at the Tate Modern and the MoMA, and an appointment on President Obama’s Arts Policy Committee, examines in The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery (public library) – an exploration of how "discoveries, innovations, and creative endeavors often, perhaps even only, come from uncommon ground" and why this "improbable ground of creative endeavor" is an enormous source of advantages on the path to self-actualization and fulfillment, brought to life through a tapestry of tribulations turned triumphs by such diverse modern heroes as legendary polar explorer Captain Scott, dance icon Paul Taylor, and pioneering social reformer Frederick Douglass. Lewis, driven by her lifelong "magpie curiosity about how we become," crafts her argument slowly, meticulously, stepping away from it like a sculptor gaining perspective on her sculpture and examining it through other eyes, other experiences, other particularities, which she weaves together into an intricate tapestry of "magpielike borrowings" filtered through the sieve of her own point of view.
Lewis begins with a visit with the women of Columbia University's varsity archery team, who spend countless hours practicing a sport that requires equal parts impeccable precision of one's aim and a level of comfort with the uncontrollable – all the environmental interferences, everything that could happen between the time the arrow leaves the bow and the time it lands on the target, having followed its inevitably curved line. From this unusual sport Lewis draws a metaphor for the core of human achievement:
There is little that is vocational about [contemporary] culture anymore, so it is rare to see what doggedness looks like with this level of exactitude… To spend so many hours with a bow and arrow is a kind of marginality combined with a seriousness of purpose rarely seen.
In the archers' doggedness Lewis finds the central distinction that serves as a backbone of her book – far more important than success (hitting the bull's-eye) is the attainment of mastery ("knowing it means nothing if you can’t do it again and again"), and in bridging the former with the latter lives the substance of true achievement. (The distinction isn't unlike what psychologist Carol Dweck found in her pioneering work on the difference between "fixed" and "growth" mindsets.) Lewis writes:
Mastery requires endurance. Mastery, a word we don’t use often, is not the equivalent of what we might consider its cognate – perfectionism – an inhuman aim motivated by a concern with how others view us. Mastery is also not the same as success – an event-based victory based on a peak point, a punctuated moment in time. Mastery is not merely a commitment to a goal, but to a curved-line, constant pursuit.
This is why, Lewis argues, a centerpiece of mastery is the notion of failure. She cites Edison, who famously said of his countless fruitless attempts to create a feasible lightbulb: “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” (Another less famous Edison anecdote paints this in even more vivid detail: When one of his inventions failed, Edison locked himself in his lab with five of his men and declared he would not come out until the puzzle was solved; he spent sixty-four hours working continuously with no sleep, until he conquered the challenge, then slept for thirty hours to recover.)
In fact, Lewis points out that embedded in the very word "failure" – a word originally synonymous with bankruptcy, devised to assess creditworthiness in the 19th century, "a seeming dead end forced to fit human worth" – is the bias of our limited understanding of its value:
The word failure is imperfect. Once we begin to transform it, it ceases to be that any longer. The term is always slipping off the edges of our vision, not simply because it’s hard to see without wincing, but because once we are ready to talk about it, we often call the event something else – a learning experience, a trial, a reinvention – no longer the static concept of failure.
In its stead, Lewis offers another 19th-century alternative: "blankness," which beautifully captures the wide-open field of possibility for renewal, for starting from scratch, after an unsuccessful attempt. Still, she considers the challenge of pinning down into plain language a concept so complex and fluid – even fashionable concepts like grit fail failure:
Trying to find a precise word to describe the dynamic is fleeting, like attempting to locate francium, an alkali metal measured but never isolated in any weighted quantity or seen in a way that the eye can detect – one of the most unstable, enigmatic elements on the Earth. No one knows what it looks like in an appreciable form, but there it is, scattered throughout ores in the Earth’s crust. Many of us have a similar sense that these implausible rises must be possible, but the stories tend to stay strewn throughout our lives, never coalescing into a single dynamic concept… The phenomenon remains hidden, and little discussed. Partial ideas do exist – resilience, reinvention, and grit – but there’s no one word to describe the passing yet vital, constant truth that just when it looks like winter, it is spring.
When we don’t have a word for an inherently fleeting idea, we speak about it differently, if at all. There are all sorts of generative circumstances – flops, folds, wipeouts, and hiccups – yet the dynamism it inspires is internal, personal, and often invisible… It is a cliché to say simply that we learn the most from failure. It is also not exactly true. Transformation comes from how we choose to speak about it in the context of story, whether self-stated or aloud.
One essential element of understanding the value of failure is the notion of the "deliberate incomplete." (Cue in Marie Curie, who famously noted in a letter to her brother: "One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.") Lewis writes:
We thrive, in part, when we have purpose, when we still have more to do. The deliberate incomplete has long been a central part of creation myths themselves. In Navajo culture, some craftsmen and women sought imperfection, giving their textiles and ceramics an intended flaw called a “spirit line” so that there is a forward thrust, a reason to continue making work. Nearly a quarter of twentieth century Navajo rugs have these contrasting-color threads that run out from the inner pattern to just beyond the border that contains it; Navajo baskets and often pottery have an equivalent line called a “heart line” or a “spirit break.” The undone pattern is meant to give the weaver’s spirit a way out, to prevent it from getting trapped and reaching what we sense is an unnatural end.
There is an inevitable incompletion that comes with mastery. It occurs because the greater our proficiency, the more smooth our current path, the more clearly we may spot the mountain that hovers in our gaze. “What would you say increases with knowledge?” Jordan Elgrably once asked James Baldwin. “You learn how little you know,” Baldwin said.
A related concept is that of the "near win" – those moments when we come so close to our aim, yet miss it by a hair:
At the point of mastery, when there seems nothing left to move beyond, we find a way to move beyond ourselves. Success motivates. Yet the near win – the constant auto-correct of a curved-line path – can propel us in an ongoing quest. We see it whenever we aim, climb, or create with mastery as our aim, when the outcome is determined by what happens at the margins.
Here, again, it's useful to consider Carol Dweck's influential work on mindsets, in which she found that students who equated success with a reflection of their natural ability learned much less than those who saw it as a product of their effort; the former group dreaded failure as a tell-tale sign of their insufficiency, while the latter saw in it an invitation to change course, to try harder, to grow.
But while a "near win" may be an invitation to grow, it is anything but comfortable. One of the most easily discernible manifestations of its anguish is found among Olympic medalists. Lewis cites the work of Cornell psychologist Thomas Gilovich, who found that silver medalists were far more frustrated with having lost than bronze medalists. It is a phenomenon first discovered by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who in the 1980s found that people were far more frustrated about missing a flight by five minutes than by thirty. And yet the "near win" is also the reason why silver medalists are more likely to win the gold next time around – victory seems possible, yet not as far away as for the bronze medalists, so the "near win" is experienced as a nudge to sharpen focus and try harder rather than a discouragement. Lewis writes:
A near win shifts our view of the landscape. It can turn future goals, which we tend to envision at a distance, into more proximate events. We consider temporal distance as we do spatial distance. (Visualize a great day tomorrow and we see it with granular, practical clarity. But picture what a great day in the future might be like, not tomorrow but fifty years from now, and the image will be hazier.) The near win changes our focus to consider how we plan to attain what lies in our sights, but out of reach.
Masters are not experts because they take a subject to its conceptual end. They are masters because they realize that there isn’t one. On utterly smooth ground, the path from aim to attainment is in the permanent future.
For one of her illustrative case studies, Lewis turns to the legacy of pioneering polar explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott, whose 1911 expedition to the South Pole is considered by many the greatest unfinished journey of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration and “the world’s most tragically famous failure” – Scott and his entire crew perished before reaching the end of their quest. A century later, modern-day polar explorer Ben Saunders set out to complete Scott's journey, which would be the longest unsupported polar expedition in human history – 1,800 miles or, as Lewis puts it, "the length of sixty-nine marathons back to back." She considers what might possess people like Saunders to attempt such seemingly deadly feats:
People driven by a pursuit that puts them on the edges are often not on the periphery, but on the frontier, testing the limits of what it is possible to…
:: READ FULL ARTICLE / SHARE ::
In 1988, Bill Moyers produced a series of intelligent, inspiring, provocative conversations with a diverse set of cultural icons, ranging from Isaac Asimov to Noam Chomsky to Chinua Achebe. It was unlike any public discourse to have ever graced the national television airwaves before. The following year, the interviews were transcribed and collected in the magnificent tome Bill Moyers: World of Ideas (public library). But for all its evenness of brilliance, one conversation in the series stands out for its depth, dimension, intensity, and timelessness – that with philosopher Martha Nussbaum, one of the most remarkable and luminous minds of our time, who sat down to talk with Moyers shortly after the publication of enormously stimulating book The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy.
Moyers begins by framing Nussbaum's singular approach to philosophy and, by extension, to the art of living:
MOYERS: The common perception of a philosopher is of a thinker of abstract thoughts. But stories and myths seem to be important to you as a philosopher.
NUSSBAUM: Very important, because I think that the language of philosophy has to come back from the abstract heights on which it so often lives to the richness of everyday discourse and humanity. It has to listen to the ways that people talk about themselves and what matters to them. One very good way to do this is to listen to stories.
Reflecting on the timeless wisdom of the Greek myths and tragedies, particularly Euripides's Hecuba, Nussbaum considers the essence of good personhood, which necessitates accepting the basic insecurity of existence and embracing uncertainty. She tells Moyers:
To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the human condition of the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed; it's based on being more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from its fragility.
The paradox of the human condition, Nussbaum reminds us, is that while our capacity for vulnerability – and, by extension, our ability to trust others – may be what allows for tragedy to befall us, the greatest tragedy of all is the attempt to guard against hurt by petrifying that essential softness of the soul, for that denies our basic humanity:
Being a human means accepting promises from other people and trusting that other people will be good to you. When that is too much to bear, it is always possible to retreat into the thought, "I'll live for my own comfort, for my own revenge, for my own anger, and I just won't be a member of society anymore." That really means, "I won't be a human being anymore."
You see people doing that today where they feel that society has let them down, and they can't ask anything of it, and they can't put their hopes on anything outside themselves. You see them actually retreating to a life in which they think only of their own satisfaction, and maybe the satisfaction of their revenge against society. But the life that no longer trusts another human being and no longer forms ties to the political community is not a human life any longer.
Illustration by Alice and Martin Provensen from The Iliad and the Odyssey: A Giant Golden Book
Things get significantly more complicated, however, when we find ourselves in binds that seem to call for tragedy by asking us to make impossible choices between multiple things we hold dear. Nussbaum illustrates this by pointing to Aeschylus's Agamemnon, in which the king-protagonist has to choose between saving his army and saving his daughter. The same tragedy plays out on a smaller scale in everyday dilemmas, such as juggling your career with being a good parent. Most of the time, as Nussbaum puts it, the two "enrich each other and make the life of each of them better." But sometimes, practical circumstances pose such insurmountable challenges like an important meeting and your child's school play happening at the same time – one of these two priorities inevitably suffers, not because you are a bad parent or a bad leader, but because life just happens that way. Therein lies the human predicament – the more we aspire to live well, according to our commitments and priorities, the more we welcome such tragic choices. And yet the solution isn't not to aspire. Nussbaum tells Moyers:
Tragedy happens only when you are trying to live well, because for a heedless person who doesn't have deep commitments to others, Agamemnon's conflict isn't a tragedy…
Now the lesson certainly is not to try to maximize conflict or to romanticize struggle and suffering, but it's rather that you should care about things in a way that makes it a possibility that tragedy will happen to you. If you hold your commitments lightly, in such a way that you can always divest yourself from one or the other of them if they conflict, then it doesn't hurt you when things go badly. But you want people to live their lives with a deep seriousness of commitment: not to adjust their desires to the way the world actually goes, but rather to try to wrest from the world the good life that they desire. And sometimes that does lead them into tragedy.
Perhaps Alan Watts was right when he advised not to fight the world's contradictions but to conceive of the universe as "a harmonious system of contained conflicts."
Bill Moyers: World of Ideas is a treasure trove in its entirety, featuring many more conversations with luminaries spanning art, science, psychology, literature, the creative spirit, and just about every aspect of life. Complement this particular one with Nussbaum's advice on living a full life.
:: MORE / SHARE ::
In 2012, artist Austin Kleon gave us Steal Like an Artist, a modern manifesto for combinatorial creativity that went on to become one of the best art books that year. He now returns with Show Your Work! (public library) – "a book for people who hate the very idea of self-promotion," in which Kleon addresses with equal parts humility, honesty, and humor one of the quintessential questions of the creative life: How do you get "discovered"? In some ways, the book is the mirror-image of Kleon's debut – rather than encouraging you to "steal" from others, meaning be influenced by them, it offers a blueprint to making your work influential enough to be theft-worthy. Complementing the advice is Kleon's own artwork – his signature "newspaper blackout" poems – as a sort of meta-case for sharing as a modern art that requires courage, commitment, and creative integrity.
Kleon begins by framing the importance of sharing as social currency:
Almost all of the people I look up to and try to steal from today, regardless of their profession, have built sharing into their routine. These people aren’t schmoozing at cocktail parties; they’re too busy for that. They’re cranking away in their studios, their laboratories, or their cubicles, but instead of maintaining absolute secrecy and hoarding their work, they’re open about what they’re working on, and they’re consistently posting bits and pieces of their work, their ideas, and what they’re learning online. Instead of wasting their time “networking,” they’re taking advantage of the network. By generously sharing their ideas and their knowledge, they often gain an audience that they can then leverage when they need it – for fellowship, feedback, or patronage.
He later considers the seemingly obvious but underappreciated heart of sharing – something most obviously and gruesomely assailed by trolls and haters, but also routinely forgotten amidst our more subtle everyday negligence – and writes:
The act of sharing is one of generosity – you’re putting something out there because you think it might be helpful or entertaining to someone on the other side of the screen.
One of the myths antithetical to this networked generosity, Kleon points out, is that of the lone genius – a creator propelled by divine inspiration along a path of solitary work. But while this notion might be deeply engrained in our cultural mythology of genius, it is not only false but also toxic to the creative spirit, to the kinship of creativity that Robert Henri so memorably extolled. Kleon writes:
If you believe in the lone genius myth, creativity is an antisocial act, performed by only a few great figures – mostly dead men with names like Mozart, Einstein, or Picasso. The rest of us are left to stand around and gawk in awe at their achievements.
Instead, he borrows Brian Eno's term "scenius" as a healthier alternative in conceiving of creativity:
Under this model, great ideas are often birthed by a group of creative individuals – artists, curators, thinkers, theorists, and other tastemakers – who make up an “ecology of talent.”
Being a valuable part of a scenius is not necessarily about how smart or talented you are, but about what you have to contribute—the ideas you share, the quality of the connections you make, and the conversations you start. If we forget about genius and think more about how we can nurture and contribute to a scenius, we can adjust our own expectations and the expectations of the worlds we want to accept us. We can stop asking what others can do for us, and start asking what we can do for others.
Indeed, this is what history's greatest booms of innovation embody, from the cross-pollination at the heart of "the age of insight" in early-twentieth-century Vienna to the broader cultural history of how good ideas spread. But more than a way to explain history, "scenius" is one of the best models for making sense of the modern world – as Kleon keenly observes, the internet itself is "a bunch of sceniuses connected together, divorced from physical geography." Finding yourself a "scenius" to belong to is an essential part of making sure your work takes root in culture.
Another of Kleon's life-tested pointers focuses on embracing the status of amateur – not in the derogatory sense, but in the revolutionary spirit that propelled H.P. Lovecraft's Amateur Press Association, the proto-model of blogging. Being an amateur harnesses the Zen notion of "beginner's mind" – a state of openness to possibility that closes up as we get calcified in expertise. After all, Frank Lloyd Wright put it perfectly when he asserted that "an expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows.'" However, the gift of the amateur – or the "curious outsider," a term I've used for myself – is not only an openness to uncertainty, but also a boundless enthusiasm with a sharp focus. Kleon writes:
Amateurs [are] just regular people who get obsessed by something and spend a ton of time thinking out loud about it... Raw enthusiasm is contagious.
The world is changing at such a rapid rate that it’s turning us all into amateurs. Even for professionals, the best way to flourish is to retain an amateur’s spirit and embrace uncertainty and the unknown.
This intersection of the scenius and the amateur, Kleon argues, is a hotbed of creative power:
The best way to get started on the path to sharing your work is to think about what you want to learn, and make a commitment to learning it in front of others. Find a scenius, pay attention to what others are sharing, and then start taking note of what they’re not sharing. Be on the lookout for voids that you can fill with your own efforts, no matter how bad they are at first. . . . Share what you love, and the people who love the same things will find you.
This notion of doing what you love and sharing it also goes to the heart of a familiar quarterlife-crisis concern: finding your voice. Kleon offers the beautifully simple, if uncomfortable, answer:
The only way to find your voice is to use it. It’s hardwired, built into you. Talk about the things you love. Your voice will follow.
One of Kleon's more unusual creative-centering strategies has to do with letting death put life in perspective – every morning, he begins his day by reading the obituaries in the paper. It might seem like an odd habit, but it's actually a remarkable tool for clarifying one's priorities. Citing Maira Kalman's memorable observation that "the sum of every obituary is how heroic people are, and how noble," Kleon writes:
Obituaries are like near-death experiences for cowards. Reading them is a way for me to think about death while also keeping it at arm’s length. Obituaries aren’t really about death; they’re about life. . . . Reading about people who are dead now and did things with their lives makes me want to get up and do something decent with mine. Thinking about death every morning makes me want to live.
In another section, Kleon advises to send a "daily dispatch" to your community, a practice that counters the equally toxic myth of the overnight success – something I feel very strongly about myself – and instead turns the invisible process of your becoming, as a person and an artist, into something people can see. Kleon writes:
Overnight success is a myth. Dig into almost every overnight success story and you’ll find about a decade’s worth of hard work and perseverance. Building a substantial body of work takes a long time – a lifetime, really—but thankfully, you don’t need that time all in one big chunk. So forget about decades, forget about years, and forget about months. Focus on days.
A daily dispatch is even better than a résumé or a portfolio, because it shows what we’re working on right now. . . . A good daily dispatch is like getting all the DVD extras before a movie comes out – you get to watch deleted scenes and listen to director’s commentary while the movie is being made.
One way of knowing what to share is to understand the notion of "stock and flow" – an economic concept that Robin Sloan transformed into an apt metaphor for media. "Stock" refers to the timeless, evergreen stuff – things as interesting and meaningful today as they are in a year or even a decade. "Flow" is the reverse-chronology feed of short snippets of the present, things that "remind people you exist" – tweets, Instagram photos, and so forth. The key is to keep up your flow without letting it detract or distract from your stock, on which you continue working in the background. But the two aren't diametrically opposed – with some pattern-recognition, bits of flow can coalesce into stock. Kleon writes:
Social media sites function a lot like public notebooks—they’re places where we think out loud, let other people think back at us, then hopefully think some more. But the thing about keeping notebooks is that you have to revisit them in order to make the most out of them. You have to flip back through old ideas to see what you’ve been thinking. Once you make sharing part of your daily routine, you’ll notice themes and trends emerging in what you share. You’ll find patterns in your flow.
When you detect these patterns, you can start gathering these bits and pieces and turn them into something bigger and more substantial. You can turn your flow into stock. For example, a lot of the ideas in this book started out as tweets, which then became blog posts, which then became book chapters. Small things, over time, can get big.
Indeed, this notion of fragmentary accumulation of big ideas is closely linked to one of the most important points Kleon makes, a throwback to his first book: Our minds are constantly assembling bits and pieces from the things we are exposed to, our interests and our influences, which we then combine into our own ideas about the world. But the two processes – collecting and creating – are intertwined. After all, as Amanda Palmer eloquently reminded us, "we can only connect the dots that we collect." Kleon writes of the osmosis:
We all carry around the weird and wonderful things we’ve come across while doing our work and living our lives. These mental scrapbooks form our tastes, and our tastes influence our work.
There’s not as big of a difference between collecting and creating as you might think. A lot of the writers I know see the act of reading and the act of writing as existing on opposite ends of the same spectrum: The reading feeds the writing, which feeds the reading. “I’m basically a curator,” says the writer and former bookseller Jonathan Lethem. “Making books has always felt very connected to my bookselling experience, that of wanting to draw people’s attention to things that I liked, to shape things that I liked into new shapes.”
Your influences are all worth sharing because they clue people in to who you are and what you do – sometimes even more than your own work.
One of Kleon's most urgent points, by virtue of being the least understood and least applied in our day-to-day lives online, has to do with our integrity around acknowledging this interplay of curating and creating by giving credit to others whenever we share their work. Kleon captures this contemporary conundrum beautifully:
If you share the work of others, it’s your duty to make sure that the creators of that work get proper credit. Crediting work in our copy-and-paste age of reblogs and retweets can seem like a futile effort, but it’s worth it, and it’s the right thing to do. You should always share the work of others as if it were your own, treating it with respect and care. When we make the case for crediting our sources, most of us concentrate on the plight of the original creator of the work. But that’s only half of the story – if you fail to properly attribute work that you share, you not only rob the person who made it, you rob all the people you’ve shared it with. Without attribution, they have no way to dig deeper into the work or find more of it.
Online, the most important form of attribution is a hyperlink pointing back to the website of the creator of the work. This sends people who come across the work back to the original source. The number one rule of the Internet: People are lazy. If you don’t include a link, no one can click it. Attribution without a link online borders on useless: 99.9 percent of people are not going to bother Googling someone’s name.
And here comes the money quote, which I couldn't second more zealously and which I wish could be sticky-noted onto ever computer screen in the world – a neglected but essential form of modern media hygiene:
What if you want to share something and you don’t know where it came from or who made it? The answer: Don’t share things you can’t properly credit. Find the right credit, or don’t share.
The rest of Show Your Work! goes on to explore how Vonnegut's taxonomy of the shapes of stories applies to sharing your art, why giving "freely and abundantly," in the words of Annie Dillard, is the key to reaping great rewards, how finding your people helps you find yourself, why asking for help without shame is the only way to get it, and more.
If you haven't already, do treat yourself to Kleon's Steal Like an Artist and his disarmingly wonderful blackout poetry.
:: MORE / SHARE ::