Good stories seldom come from happy experiences - Tim Kreider, "We Learn Nothing"
We talk a lot at the IdeaFestival about being curious since an ability to adapt to circumstance, to take in another view, to change direction, is indispensable to innovation. Useful innovation can't happen without a willingness to experiment, or at the very least, to recognize an important difference between then and now when we see it. But reading a collection of essays from Tim Kreider over the weekend, "We Learn Nothing," I stumbled on something that made me realize that curiosity has a finite quality. From his essay "The Referendum:"
Quite a lot of what passes itself off as a dialogue about our society consists of people trying to justify their own choices (pursuing a creative career instead of making money; breastfeeding over formula; not having children in an overpopulated world) as the only right or natural ones by denouncing others’ as selfish and wrong. So it’s easy to overlook that it all arises out of insecurity. Hidden beneath all this smug certainty is a desperate cluelessness, and the naked 3 A.M. terror of regret.
The problem is, we only get one chance at this, with no do-overs. Life is an unrepeatable experiment with no control. In his novel about marriage, Light Years, James Salter writes: “For whatever we do, even whatever we do not do prevents us from doing its opposite. Acts demolish their alternatives, that is the paradox.”
Curiosity isn't cost free. I've certainly been guilty over the years of over thinking things dwelling on rarities or falling into rutted thinking to the point of being paralyzed from acting. We introverts are like that - the thing that energizes us and gives us pleasure, mulling over ideas, can also become a substitute for moving our hands and feet. But it's also frightening, and as a consequence I am, like many of you, prone to rationalizing any one outcome by comparing it against the decisions made by others.
Most choices of course won't have noticeable consequences. But repeated action informed by a curiosity interested in the outcome, gives us not just results, but like the data from repeated experiments, truths. Unfortunately, the truths in many of our lives can be a source of pain. Reading another book over the break, Nadia Bolz-Weber's "Pastrix" - yes, I read A LOT - I ran across a quote from David Foster Wallace that sums up the danger for the experimenter.
The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.
Kreider's description of a "desperate cluelessness" is in reality the unfocused fear of anxiety. What I learned again over the Thanksgiving break is that this anxiety about the path not taken comes at a price as well. And that while the referendum may in some abstract sense keep the options alive or serve to rationalize the choices already made, it can also prevent me from paying down the purchase on my story, whatever it may finally be.
How Do You Reach An Audience? Watch Chris Bliss' "Comedy is Translation"
If there is no respect, there is no connection. - Chris Bliss
With academic roots in comparative literature and a career in comedy that has spanned decades, Chris Bliss delivers a laugh filled, frank and inspiring talk on the power of comedy as translation, saying that the form offers us "permission to question the relevance of any topic." And while in an introductory aside he is quick to point out to the audience that his talk will in places betray a point of view, there is no need to be afraid. "I won't be using any language or subject matter that isn't commonly heard on public school playgrounds."
Unlike playgrounds - or in the grown up workaday world of break room discussions and cable news broadcasts - Bliss explains that comedy works because the final success or failure of the exchange depends on skillfully acknowledging an essential balance of power, the unspoken assumptions that each of us bring to any conversation, while simultaneously transcending those assumptions to shed new light.
What I found so intriguing while sitting in the audience listening to him is how alike comedy and the adventurous and curious spirit are. Comedy, like curiosity, never stops probing, even when it fails. Comedy, like curiosity, never sets the parameters so that conclusions are baked into the discussion. Comedy, like curiosity, entertains multiple possibilities that may or may not be currently in conflict. Comedy, like curiosity, suspends judgement, even if for a moment. Comedy, like curiosity, is open, expansive, receptive to something true, even hard truths, and yet remains hopeful.
Bliss explains elsewhere why comedy works so well “as a bridge to new perspectives:”
Comedy succeeds at this because it travels along a distinct wavelength from other forms of language…. What I’m talking about is that unique power that the best comedy and satire has to circumvent our ingrained perspective - comedy as the philosopher stone. [It] takes the base metal of conventional wisdom and transforms it through ridicule into a different way of seeing and, ultimately, of being in the world. [It is] a communication that doesn’t just create greater understanding within the individual… [but] somehow manages to speak to and expand our own individual concept of self-interest.
Robert Frost once said that "poetry is what gets lost in translation." Insofar as poetry is nearer to the truth than any straightforward telling of the facts could ever hope to achieve, I think Bliss would agree that comedy, depending on the skill of the writer, is likewise essential because it too speaks to the full range of human experience. The vast majority of us will never acquire the comedic skill and practiced timing needed to discuss, much less transcend, the touchy subjects Bliss and any other successful comedians will address. One reason, I suspect, is an unwillingness to fail spectacularly and in public.
Don't miss the final several minutes of his presentation at IdeaFestival 2013. You won't be disappointed!
At this year’s IdeaFestival, many noticed a theme: mindfulness. It’s strange, because IdeaFestival director Kris Kimel intentionally aims to keep the festival theme-free. The hope is that by eliminating a track or theme, we’ll promote rich inter-disciplinary discussion. But with Maria Konnikova, author of “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes,” kicking off the conference followed by magician/journalist Alex Stone, discussing the mind’s hidden powers, and speakers like Oliver Burkeman urging us to take a step back from the happiness-trap and tuning in to uncertainty, it’s not hard to see why.
But perhaps noticing the “mindfulness” theme was not solely due to the substance of the talks. It may have been, in part, because of how popular the subject is these days.
As all trendy media topics wear out their luster, is it possible that “mindfulness” has been overplayed? A recent article in the Scientific American caught my attention. According to Gary Stix, mindfulness “may not be good for everything”:
The vast majority of headlines arrive in your browser resonating with hyperbolic overtones:
“Pioneering Lee School uses mindfulness for pupils to beat stress and boost exams”
“How to Manage Your 40,000 Thoughts A Day and Keep Moving Forward”
“How Does Mindfulness Reduce Depression?”
“The value of mindfulness in Jewish Life”
In the inevitable contrarian dialectics of journalism, this string of good news cannot continue forever. In other words, can mindfulness—and the meditation practices that foster it—really be good for everything?
This is not to say that we shouldn’t be mindful—it should be universally acknowledged that paying attention, looking up from your smartphone, and taking the time to reflect are all good things that we should aspire to do more of. But, as Stix points out, a recent study showed that people who rated low on mindfulness actually outperformed others on tasks like learning to ride a bike and making quick decisions:
Those registering lower on a test that measured mindfulness were able to identify more quickly a series of repeating geometric patterns on a computer screen that they were unaware they were learning. This type of unconscious, or implicit, learning is the same automatic mental process used in teaching yourself to ride a bike or that a child marshals in intuiting underlying grammatical rules by listening to the ways a parent strings together sentences.
The lesson, I think, is to avoid quick pro/con decisions about big, complex topics. “Mindfulness” may be a worthy goal, but it is not one-dimensional. Using the word to create buzz may, after all, be robbing the concept of its full, beautiful complexity.
Like the many stories of unexpected connection that occurred on the magic couch on the belvedere during IdeaFestival 2013, this video will remind you that human touch may be the most powerful force in the world, even when that connection is awkward or staged.
The gentle astonishment at a kind of unexpected grace expressed by those who participated in this photographer's experiment will move you.
Sharing a story means that in some sense we stake our reputation on it. That's why sharing a story is not the same thing as enjoying a story, reading a story, or even learning from a story.
I know for certain that there are plenty of stories that get read, but not shared. I have seen the statistics on io9's back end. But when we measure a story's success by virility, which is what we must do in the age of social media, the content of our popular culture changes. We measure success by what people aren't afraid to share with their neighbors, rather than what people will read on their own.
Newitz traces success in the journalistic process from "meme" to "valley of ambiguity" to "truth-telling." It was her point above about digital culture and what gets passed along that really grabbed my attention. Deeply immersed in social media, like her, I sometimes wonder whether, despite the scale of information being shared, the wider conversation has taken on a bland similitude, a dull sameness, and whether we have lost patience with complexity or ambiguity.
At the IdeaFestival, we don't ask people to share the stories they hear because they confirm an existing bias, or because no one would dare question something she heard at IdeaFestival - or for that matter at an IF University event or IF Lexington (stay tuned!). As Kris Kimel has said many times, we don't do tracks. The sheer variety of people and stories are staggering. And because of the breadth of the information one is likely to encounter at the IdeaFestival, a prior understanding may be challenged.
I like to think of the festival as a place where you can "read on your own." And in fact, the IdeaFestival has succeeded because of great listeners and readers, people able to suspend judgement long enough for a speaker to be heard, who will listen for a bit longer and who understand - thank goodness! - that the world isn't limited to what they may understand at any single moment in time.