• Books
  • “You need to ask smaller questions”

    With every turn of the page of Humans of New York: Stories I was reminded of that saying “Be kind; everyone is fighting a great battle.” The micro stories that accompany each photo are fascinating. And must reading for anyone who is a writer.

    My favorite photos are the “microfashion” ones of toddlers in adorable attire.

    My favorite story might be the one on page 326:

    “I’m a neuroscience researcher.”
    “If you could give one piece of advice to a large group of people, what would it be?”

    “Listen to your inner voice.”

    “You’re a scientist. Isn’t ‘inner voice’ a spiritual term?”

    “Bullshit! You’ll hear scientists talking about following their inner voice as much as you’d hear a musician or priest.”

    “So how do you know which of your thoughts are your true inner voice?”

    “All of them are! The question is – how much weight do you give them? How much authority do you give your own thoughts? Are you taking them seriously? Or are you sitting in front of the damn tube letting other people tell you what to think?”

    “Studying the brain is like working in a toy store. Nothing could be more fucking fun.”

    “What do you think is the greatest weakness of the brain?”

    “That’s a lousy question! I’m not answering it.”

    “Why is it a lousy question?”

    “What do you want me to say? Road rage? That we get pissed and shoot people? That the newest parts of our brain should have been in the oven a little longer? How’s that going to help you? If you ask a crappy question, you’ll never get a decent answer. You need to ask smaller questions – questions that give you a pathway to finding some pertinent information. The major advances in brain science don’t come from asking crappy questions like, “What is consciousness?” They come from microanalysis. They come from discovering pertinent information at the cellular level.”

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  • Books
  • On becoming a “dedicated spirit,” falling in love with a work, and the marriage of marriages

    David Whyte is my favorite poet because he also understands the corporate and business world and brings his poetry into business workshops. In his book The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship he describes how we have the ability to fall in love with another person, a work, and even ourselves.

    On becoming a dedicated spirit:

    “…we reach a certain threshold where our freedom to choose seems to disappear and is replaced by an understanding that we were made for the world in a very particular way and that this way of being is at bottom nonnegotiable. Like the mountain or the sky, it just is. […]The only question is whether you will respond, whether you will not turn away, whether you will turn toward it – whether, in effect, you will become a dedicated spirit.”
    We put so much emphasis on finding our calling or vocation when in reality our work often finds us:
    To glimpse our vocation, we must learn how to be sought out and found by a work as much as we strive to identify it ourselves. We must make ourselves findable by being seen; to do that we must hazard ourselves and make ourselves available to the world we want to enter. Finding and being found is like a mutual falling in love. To have a possibility of happiness we must at the beginning fall in love at least a little with our work. We can choose a work on a mere strategic, financial basis, but then we should not expect profound future happiness as a result.”
    He uses Robert Louis Stevenson as an example in the marriage section of the book, which is the only downside of the book, as Stevenson doesn’t interest me much. But Whyte’s insights on marriage are well worth reading:
    “Marriage is where we realize the other person actually is alive and has notions and desires that have very little to do with our own hopes and dreams. Marriage is where we have to be larger than the self who irst made the vows. Marriage is where we learn self-knowledge; were we realize that arts of our own makeup are stranger even than the stranger we have married and very dificult for another person to live with…Marriage is where al of these dificult revelations can consign us to imprisonment or help us become larger, more generous, more amusing, more animated participants in the human drama.”
    I really enjoyed his use of Jane Austen as a example of how to write even if you have less than ideal conditions for writing. If you are a writer Whyte pretty much eliminates any possible excuse you have for not writing:

    The greatest, most prized excuse for a writer is the lament over our lack of time in which to write. It is a false and paper-thin defense against another more difficult, underlying dynamic: The inability to have the will to find the time. It is quite sobering to find with experience that if we write only a hundred words a day – a normal paragraph – we will have a book of ninety thousands words in three years. Three years is about the average time for a good prolific writer to produce a new work, given that the first year is often spent not writing at all, the second year telling ourselves that we must write, and the third in a gradually increasing frenzy building up to perhaps three or four thousands words a day.

    The sober truth is that any of us can find the time to write a book, no matter the schedule of unstoppable events in our life. Finding the part of us that wants to write the book is a different matter altogether.

    Indeed.

    Finally, I appreciate how he looks at the work/life/relationship balance in a different and more nuanced way. The “marriage of marriages” as he calls it:

    “…the need to live in multiple contexts, multiple layers and with multiple people all at the same time without choosing between them. A kind of spiritual and imaginative multitasking.”

     

     

  • Books
  • On parallel careers and creating your life list

    Being multi-dimensional is the key to happiness according to Living in More Than One World: How Peter Drucker’s Wisdom Can Inspire and Transform Your Life. This book is packed with helpful tips on how to reevaluate your work in the second half of life, particularly if you are a knowledge worker.

    A second successful second half of life includes:

    Developing a second career.

    Having parallel careers. These are something that didn’t previously exist in your life and are noncompetitive with your main career. They can morph into a second career or post-retirement career. They give you a window into other worlds and don’t necessarily give you an income. Of course these should not turn into the shadow careers Steven Pressfield warns against.

    Social entrepreneurship and volunteer work.

    There is an exercise called a Total Life List that is central to the book. It’s a private, ongoing exercise that involves creating a list of:

    1. Immediate family (current and future)
    2. Extended family (current and future)
    3. Closer work colleagues (people you interact with most often in the workplace)
    4. Friends (current and future goals)
    5. People in your various professional networks (current and future goals)
    6. Various places of current employment and (briefly) what your work entails (current and future goals)
    7. Professional affiliations and associations (current and future goals)
    8. Ongoing learning activities (current and future goals)
    9. Teaching (if any)(current and future goals)
    10. Volunteer activities (current and future goals)
    11. Work with nonprofit organizations, or social entrepreneurship (current and future goals)
    12. Mentoring (current and future goals)
    13. Outside interests of all types, including areas such as sports leagues, amateur interest societies, religious/spiritual activities or study, book groups, or creative areas such as writing, art, or playing music (current and future goals)
    14. Exercise and other mind-body activities (current and future goals)

    If, like me, you have never read any of Peter Drucker’s 40 books, then this book is a good place to start because it is a synthesis of his main teachings.

     

     

  • Books
  • On playing hurt and abandoning shadow careers: Steven Pressfield’s guide to creating your life’s work

    Sometimes a slim volume is packed with wisdom. Such is the case with Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work by Steven Pressfield.

    His concept of “shadow careers” is very interesting and one I hadn’t ever thought of before:

    “Sometimes, when we’re terrified of embracing our true calling, we’ll pursue a shadow calling instead. That shadow career is a metaphor for our real career. Its shape is similar, its contours feel tantalizingly the same. But a shadow career entails no real risk. If we fail at a shadow career, the consequences are meaningless to us.

    …Are you getting your Ph.D. in Elizabethan studies because you’re afraid to write the tragedies and comedies that you know you have inside you?…Are you working in a support capacity for an innovator because you’re afraid to risk becoming an innovator yourself?

    …If you’re dissatisfied with your current life, as yourself what your current life is a metaphor for. That metaphor will lead you towards your true calling.”

    That insight alone is worth the brief amount of time it takes to read this book. Fortunately there’s more:

    The amateur dreads becoming who she really is because she fears that this new person will be judged by others as ‘different.’

    […]

    Here’s the truth: the tribe doesn’t give a shit.

    There is no tribe.

    […]

    Each individual is so caught up in his own bullshit that he doesn’t have two seconds to worry about yours or mine, or to reject or diminish us because of it.

    When we truly understand that the tribe doesn’t give a damn, we’re free. There is no tribe, and there never was.

    Our lives are entirely up to us.

    Pressfield also writes about how a professional trusts mystery and that the Muse always delivers. Here are his five axioms derived from this principle:

    1. Work over your head. It’s possible to write from a place that is far deeper than your personal ego. For example, an author who writes a character who is smarter than they are.
    2. Write what you don’t know. Pressfield wrote a screenplay about prison life even though he had never set foot in a prison. More than one person asked him afterwards where he did his time.
    3. Take what the defense gives you. There are bad stretches in any endeavor where you feel like giving up. To fight the resistance Pressfield urges us to “take what you can get and stay patient. The defense may crack late in the game. Play for tomorrow.”
    4. Play hurt. There is never a good time to switch careers or start a new project. “Athletes play hurt. Warriors fight scare. The professional takes two aspirin and keeps on truckin’.
    5. Sit chilly.  This maxim comes from a famous teacher of horsemanship. Horses are highly sensitive creatures and will pick up on any anxiety the rider feels in the saddle. “Sit chilly” means to stay in your seat even in moments of terror or panic.

    I’m embarrassed to admit I still haven’t read Pressfield’s The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles even though I’ve come across dozens of admonitions to read this classic book. That one will now go to the top of my reading heap.

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