Hi <<First Name>>,
It’s been a wild couple of months, to say the least. I hope you’re staying safe and healthy. It’s important to put your health first, and productivity second. If you see reading and learning as a healthy way to pass the time (and I’d call some of my reading almost therapeutic), then this could be a very valuable email for you.
Steve Jobs once related human intelligence like sedimentary layers; as a species, we’re building up a mountain, and we all have a chance to contribute a little layer to make the mountain a little higher. These three books are about people who have made significant contributions in their own layers, in all sorts of different fields and ways. I got a lot of energy and insights from reading about these people’s lives, and I’m sure you will as well:
Creating Minds by Howard Gardner
Gardner’s book set out to move forward the understanding of creativity, particularly by providing brief biographies of creative individuals in the modern era and gaining insights from each, and across all, of their lives. It was a dense book — I found the portraits on Freud and Picasso the best, but the rest of them pretty bland — but his combination of other people’s creative theories preceding and following the biographies were really interesting.
On lessons from creative people: (1) Creative individuals spend a considerable amount of time reflecting on what they are trying to accomplish, whether or not they are achieving success (and, if not, what they might do differently). (2) Creative individuals leverage their strengths. They determine their strongest area and build their achievements around these potent intelligences. They do not worry about what they do not do as well; they can always get help from others and perhaps barter their areas of strength with those who have complementary skills. (3) Creative individuals frame their experiences. Such people are highly ambitious, and they do not always succeed, by any means. But when they fail, they do not waste much time lamenting; blaming; or, at the extreme, quitting.
On academic measurements of creativity: The remaining conclusion is, in my view, devastating for the enterprise of measuring creativity using paper-and-pencil tests. Despite a few suggestive findings, it has not been possible to demonstrate that creativity tests are valid. That is, high scores on a creativity test do not signal that one is necessarily creative in one's actual vocation or avocation, nor is there convincing evidence that individuals deemed creative by their discipline or culture necessarily exhibit the kinds of divergent-thinking skills that are the hallmark of creativity tests.
On the unconscious: It is not surprising that Freud, arguably the most important psychologist of his era, also contributed to an understanding of creativity—and this, despite his oft-quoted laments that "before creativity, the psychoanalyst must lay down his arms" and that "the nature of artistic attainment is psychoanalytically inaccessible to us." To begin with, Freud's illustration of the centrality of unconscious processes underscored the point that creative activity is not a direct reflection of deliberate intention; much of its impetus and significance remain hidden from the individual creator and, quite possibly, from those in his or her community as well.
On ironic creativity: Indeed, knowledge that one will be judged on some criterion of “creativeness" or "originality" tends to narrow the scope of what one can produce (leading to products that are then judged as relatively conventional); in contrast, the absence of an evaluation seems to liberate creativity.
Peter Medawar, on analysis: “The analysis of creativity in all its forms is beyond the competence of any one accepted discipline. It requires a consortium of talents: Psychologists, biologists, philosophers, computer scientists, artists, and poets would all expect to have their say. That ‘creativity is beyond analysis’ is a romantic illusion we must now outgrow.”
On elements of creativity: “Csikszentmihalyi identifies three elements or nodes that are central in any consideration of creativity: (1) the individual person or talent; (2) the domain or discipline in which that individual is working; and (3) the surrounding field that renders judgments about the quality of individuals and products.”
Figuring by Maria Popova
This book is set in the 1800s, with historical figures like Maria Mitchell, Harriet Hosmer, Margaret Fuller, and Emily Dickinson. It was a really great read. I know Popova best for her work at Brain Pickings, where she works curating and signal-boosting some of the world’s best creative work, and she stitches them together in a really beautiful, thoughtful, piece of work. I loved learning more about each of the characters’ creative work, especially their determination to make something of a world that did not set them up to succeed. This book is also filled with their attempts to answer questions of life, love, and meaning that we all must face in quiet moments. As we all face isolation, this book might be the most relevant out of the three.
On interpretation: But interpretation invariably reveals more about the interpreter than about the interpreted. The gap between intention and interpretation is always rife with wrongs, especially when writer and reader occupy vastly different strata of emotional maturity and intellectual sophistication.
On idolatry: Galileo, who was right about so much, was also wrong about so much—something worth remembering as we train ourselves in the cultural acrobatics of nuanced appreciation without idolatry.
Maria Mitchell, on awards: "Medals are small things in the light of the stars. There's only one thing in the world of any real importance, and that is goodness.”
Maria Mitchell, on authenticity: “The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to what I was not.”
Maria Mitchell, on critical thinking: "We cannot accept anything as granted beyond the first mathematical formulae. Question everything else.
Maria Mitchell, on failure: “He who has never failed somewhere, that man can not be great. Failure is the true test of greatness.”
Maria Mitchell, on aging: “As our circle of friends narrows, they naturally seem to clasp us in a closer embrace. It is the sad mercy of growing old, that we outlive one and another of those we love.”
Maria Mitchell, on spirituality: “And I know of no picture in the history of religion more weakly pitiable than that of the Holy Church trembling before Galileo, and denouncing him because he found in the Book of Nature truths not stated in their own Book of God—forgetting that the Book of Nature is also a Book of God.
It seems to be difficult for anyone to take in the idea that two truths cannot conflict.”
Bruce Lee by Matthew Polly
I remember watching Bruce Lee’s movies as a young boy with my father, who found Bruce’s work very inspiring. Picking up this definitive, unauthorized, biography was a no-brainer for me, and it was a great read. There’s some wisdom in this book, given Bruce’s philosophical explorations and his superstar successes. I really like author Matthew Polly’s words: “His death was not a tragedy, because his life was a triumph.” Or in Bruce’s words, “I did what I wanted to do. What I’ve done, I’ve done with sincerity and to the best of my ability. You can’t expect much more from life.” Maybe it’s more simple than that; it was good getting to know this person, who grew up with the same skin color as me and in the same place as my parents, wrestle with issues that are really relatable to anyone who moves to North America, and try to succeed on his or her own terms.
On ego: Most alpha males are unable to subsume their egos and as a consequence never improve or grow. In contrast, Bruce cleverly chose to temporarily follow William until he had enough time to study William’s techniques and become the better fighter. In the short term, he had to be submissive; in the long run he planned to reverse the power dynamic. This strategy, which Bruce employed throughout his life, was the key to his success. He later repeated this technique with Steve McQueen in Hollywood in order to learn how to become a movie star.
Bruce Lee, on relaxing: That was it! I must relax. However, right there I had already done something contradictory, against my will. That was when I said I must relax, the demand for effort in "must" was already inconsistent with the effortlessness in relax. When my acute self-consciousness grew to what the psychologists called “double-blind” type, my instructor would again approach me and say, “Preserve yourself by following the natural bends of things and don’t interfere. Remember never be in frontal opposition to any problem, but control it by swinging with it. Don’t practice this week. Go home and think about it.
On kung fu: The joke in China is kung fu is a way to trick thirteen-year-old boys into meditating.
On evolution: But perhaps the greatest gift his students gave to Bruce was forcing him to evolve as a martial artist. When he arrived he was wedded to Chinese kung fu, convinced of its superiority. But the sheer size of Americans made him adapt. Techniques that worked in Ip Man’s class were easily thwarted by opponents who were eight inches taller and a hundred pounds heavier.
Bruce Lee, on teaching: “Teachers should never impose their favorite patterns on their students. They should be finding out what works for them, and what does not work for them. The individual is more important than the style.”
Bruce Lee, on if racism bothered him: "No, because I know where I am going. I’m going this way. They are going back that way."
On Jeet Kune Do: “Bruce's problem as a teacher was that he could pass on his ideas, but not his talent, and you needed both for Jeet Kune Do to work.”
On Bruce Lee’s library: His personal library would grow to more than 2,500 books. "Bruce carried a book with him wherever he went," says Linda. "I frequently saw him sitting quietly reading while there was household uproar all around him—children crying, doors slamming, conversations taking place everywhere. Bruce was able to read a book while performing a series of strenuous exercises.” In his notepads, Bruce copied down passages from his favorite authors: Plato, Hume, Descartes, and Aquinas from the Western tradition; Lao-tzu, Chuang-tzu, Miyamoto Musashi, and Alan Watts from the Eastern.
On Bruce Lee’s schedule: Bruce was a fanatic about training and he had the free time to do it. As one of his L.A. students enviously noted, “To Bruce every day seemed like a weekend because he never had a steady job like most of us.” From Monday to Sunday he routinely did the same thing: He jogged in the morning and then sharpened his martial tools with five hundred punches, five hundred finger jabs, and five hundred kicks. In the afternoon, he spent time in his library—reading philosophy books, calling up his agent or his pals. In the early evening he lifted weights three nights per week.
Bruce Lee, on jogging: “Jogging is not only a form of exercise to me. It is also a form of relaxation. It is my own hour every morning when I can be alone with my thoughts.”
I hope that some of these passages unlock the hidden doors of your mind. Maybe some will serve as catalysts for change. And remember, they’re signposts. It’s up to you whether you want to apply them or not. Reply to this and let me know which quotes or books resonate with you, what you think of the newsletter, and if there’s anything I can support you with.
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