There is a man who minted the concept of flow, that optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where a person is fully immersed in what they are doing.
Many people in the pop-psy, positive psychology movement think of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as a genius for this. A rock star. A hero.
My favorite part about Csikszentmihalyi is that he is a climber.
"Whenever a climber leaves the known paths, he enters an area without rules or routines to rely on. The only advice comes from deep inside the self, and hopefully the motivation is true. At such moments, the mountaineer is creative, not merely a participant in sport. This creativity manifests itself in styles of climbing or in exploration of unknown areas. It is impossible to cram mountaineering into a sport framework. To me there are as many ways to experience the mountains as there arc real and passionate emotional bonds with the mountains. If you allow my earlier sarcasm, permit me a momentary contact with the mystical. I conclude that mystery is essential to mountaineering. What is unveiled to the individual when involved with creative mountaineering forms part of a new bond with the mountain experience." –Voytek Kurtyka, the consummate alpinist/artist/philosopher in “The Art of Suffering”
The beauty of play is that there is an implied margin of safety. If a surprise endangers you, it is no longer playful. Climbing is perverse in that it forces a psychology of entering and exiting a continual string of danger, or at least of perceived danger. The game becomes the dance with the margin of safety itself.
Are there categories for surprises?
Clearly, say, discovering some hidden talent, is much deeper and more rewarding than unexpectedly receiving a birthday cake. And that cake, in turn, is a far greater experience for the hungry child than for the sick diabetic.
Almost anyone prefers cake to a surprise triple-bypass surgery.
Yet Dan Gilbert quotes a man who was wrongfully imprisoned for 37 years as saying his ordeal was “a glorious experience”; another man who was paralyzed from the neck down said that before his accident, he “didn’t appreciate others nearly as much as I do now.”
Climbing, the art of suffering, has another lesson to teach: resilience.
Sometimes, the simplest things in life are the worst at strengthening our resilience. For the diabetic struggling with a sweet tooth, that piece of cake might be his greatest challenge, despite the expectation that he control his diabetes. And yet the falsely imprisoned convict has less expectation upon him, making it all the more awe-inspiring when he is able to persevere and even thrive through his sentence.
In my own life, I find that taking hold of stressors, and applying them intentionally and gradually, strengthens my resilience. I have taken up climbing, running, cycling. I embrace suffering within these disciplines and in doing so, empower myself to defeat suffering elsewhere in my life.
And maybe my obsession with suffering comes out of early childhood, and maybe it was nurtured through mountaineering and climbing. But it has taken a new shape, not of merely enduring, but harnessing, and hopefully I will use that process to reduce suffering in the world.
A motivated life is one with well-balanced surprises, and control over one's suffering.
And just like the realization that maybe Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, Jack Nicholson and Steve Jobs aren't the best role models, comes the realization, too, that our favorite bloggers are broken people.
I was speaking with my father about great scientists and artists, and whether their abrasive, abusive personal lives were offset by their great contributions to humanity. He seemed to think they were.
I said "Isn't a planet of 7 billion big enough to not need to idolize these deeply flawed individuals?"
He replied "Fair enough."
I think about the thousands who idolized Alex McCandless and his journey Into The Wild, spurred to his death by the writings of Tolstoy and Thoreau and Jack London.
Can we afford this trail-and-error, survival by any means, evolutionary way of living any more?
Today's 'globalized' economy isn't the same as it once was. And while we can admire the writings of these great minds much as we admire vintage cars and antique furniture, we cannot afford today's writers being the social equivalent of running leaded gasoline and chopping old-growth forest.
It may run great or look good, but at what cost?
We are finally learning that popularity and power have very little to do with sustainability when it comes to our energy sources. What about our ideas?
This is highlighted best, to me, by our superstar bloggers.
We are enamored that they are like us, better or bigger versions of us, sometimes also with our flaws equally amplified through artfully written personae. Yet I am afraid we are addicted to them just like we are to 'reality' television.
Are the real people, the ones behind the blogs, the kind of people who can build a stronger society?
My feeling is they are shockingly poorly rounded. And yet they work hard and achieve all sorts of success.
So how do you choose to measure a person? By what they say, by the greatest of their accomplishment? Or by the smaller things?
I cannot help but think of Pete Seeger. Here is a man who seems to live by his word. He strummed his banjo on national television the same way he strums it around a campfire. And a while back, I saw him go out of his way, at 94 years old, to bend over and pick up a small piece of litter.
I said, "Let me get that, Pete!" But he waved me off.
It was just a part of what Pete does, who he is.
I strive to be as true to myself as possible. I aim to deliver what people expect out of me. At the same time, I have huge expectations of myself to justify my own existence and all the resources I have used up and opportunities I have squandered. We all have an obligation to cherish this great gift we have been given.
I enjoy the work of trying to be a better person.
Making a positive impact on my world is one of the noblest burdens I could have the pleasure of bearing.
Sometimes, you just have to pick up other people's trash.
My About.me bio concludes with a line beginning "I'm into learning..."
This morning, going through and making some edits, I had to wonder if that would mislead people into thinking I was more of a bookworm and less of the social education entrepreneur that I wanted that to imply.
I waffled, and I really feel like education is a dirty word these days. I don't want to EDUCATE people, I want to facilitate the social experiences that lead them to learning gains. I have to confess though, that I can't think of the right word to blend social facilitation and independent learning into one. "I'm into realization" sounds too buzzwordy and obscure, to me.
So am I missing the mark? I think the answer is yes, but with a caveat. The kind of people I love are life-long learners. Even deeper than that, they are seekers of truth and experience. I hope they recognize a kindred soul in those three words, almost as if sharing a fetish or recognizing membership in an exclusive club (of course, learning need not be exclusive, but that's a different post).
The human meta-cognitive ability to learn about learning about learning, has got to trump opposable thumbs. It enables us to develop our brains through a runaway feedback loop, the results of which are the mind-boggling arrays of philosophy, culture, science and technology. Being into learning is that most sacred of confessions of transcendence.
While awkwardly touched-on in the article, (apparently a man recently committed suicide in a cathedral in defense of his philosophical beliefs), strangely absent from the discussions was the mention that philosophy often endangers its students.
I have met enough philosophy students to know that they are not the best-adjusted people upon entering college. Who am I to judge? Neither was I. I'm a college dropout, via a mental health withdrawl.
(Warning: generalization ahead.) The students who turned to philosophy wound up in some sort of terrifying secular cult. They suffered the same as I, plus drug addictions or self-destructive behavior, plus some really nutso theories that they struggled to reconcile with the challenges they confronted in reality.
Newsflash: Some of the biggest names in philosophy are wrong. Maybe their ideas are 'logically' defensible. But there is often an implication that philosophy in the whole has some sort of applicability to real life. This can cause its adherents incredible grief.
I suffered similar grief, complicated by the overwhelm of a thoughtful existence. It's a crazy mixed-up world we live in. What was my greatest recovery? Not religion or philosophy, but experience. I bought a motorcycle and spent my savings riding around the country for four months. Best money I ever spent.
It gave me the anchor of experience, a vital reference through which I might view my personal struggles.
The trip also taught me to respect practical considerations, and with a busted motorcycle, by myself, in the middle of nowhere, I would quickly learn whether an idea worked or not, regardless of how implausible it seemed.
It is implied that philosophy is one part math or science and one part art or literature. The truth is, science cannot exist without some way to test your ideas. I would strongly support a philosophy that required its students to test every supposition, every tenet, every theory. Otherwise, it does not deserve the affiliation.
To gain a belt in a martial art, one generally has to spar. This is the application of the theory, the student's own interpretation of the structure they were taught, as applied to a realistic confrontation.
This is why I strongly support the US style of learning philosophy in a historical perspective. As a student you get to see, at least from someone's perspective, whether or not the ideas worked in a given real-life scenario.
Today, though, I meet very smart kids who don't know how to figure out workable solutions to basic problems. With the social and environmental issues facing my generation and beyond, we cannot afford this sort of education.
In the US, students of all forms desperately need support in learning to apply theory to reality. Basic philosophy might help, but there are serious red flags in the way philosophers and professors can convince so many students to believe assertions which are useless, completely ridiculous, or sometimes downright dangerous.
If you think philosophy professors are harmless, just look at the recent controversy at Geneseo. Not only did a professor lecture with grievous ignorance of the social issues at hand, but his list of publication is a laundry list of half-baked ideas and misguided application. This is a clear example of someone stewing in academic privilege for too long.
Outward Bound's co-founder, Kurt Hahn, thought about things differently:
"I regard it as the foremost task of education to insure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self denial, and above all, compassion."
His methods? Experiential learning, the real-time application of knowledge as it is learned.
Critical in this age is not just philosophy but a balance between the thoughtful and the applied. Perhaps a blend of Outward Bound's leadership training and France's core philosophy?
So, I recently finished "Unconscious Branding" which J gave me for Christmas, bless her heart.
Mostly a how-to guide about applying recent developments in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, the book is a great foundational play-by-play overview for well-intentioned marketing. There are lots of case studies.
Another great book, that you might not think of as being chock full of case studies, is the Steve Jobs Biography. I just finished that one yesterday.
And now I'm beginning to read "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers", by a biology/neurology researcher and professor, mostly coming from a zoological perspective, which has always been one of my favorite perspectives because it tends to keep people from saying absolutely dumb things about people not being animals just like the rest of 'em.
And also because I heart Richard Dawkins, even if he, unfortunately, has decided to judo-flip evangelical creationism with equally short-sighted evangelical evolutionism.
But I digress.
The branding/marketing book taught me that people respond to baser instincts, namely defensive ones- the brain is a homeostasis machine, first and foremost. To get someone to do something, appeal to the 'reptile' brain.
The Steve Jobs book taught me that dedication and single-mindedness help produce great things, as does that feeling of a good play: where the tension of the crew and actors is equal and palpable, and stress rises and falls as a group. In a play, for no particular reason all these people are going nuts, but the high level of camaraderie is equally nuts. I think if you tried to shut down a play in the middle of hell week you'd have a mutiny because in some ways a fully-invested performance is more important than life itself. And I've always wondered, what is it about certain circumstances, like a play or a rocket launch, or a climbing expedition or a sail around cape horn- that encourages this thicker-than-blood bond, this synergy in a group of otherwise extremely different people? Then the Zebra stress book tells me animals don't get ulcers basically because people overcomplicate things.
We get all bent out of shape over continual risks to our survival or perception. We stress out when there's no need to.
So I realized: Steve Jobs was successful because he was able to get everyone on the same stress playbook, so-to-speak, by scaring the shit out of everyone at the same times. He also forced people to either become experts at managing their own stress responses, or he burned them out of the company, increasing his odds of keeping only strongly motivated and dedicated people on his team.
He also used these baser instincts to propel people into doing nearly impossible feats- by forcing his team into picturing things at the bottom (this is shit), people are more willing to gamble for big payoffs. It’s a crucial part of “reality distortion”.
He somehow intuited a way to force himself and others to do amazing things by conducting that stress response.
This also explains why the saying “Stick with the system” (our new product slogan at RMS, whether people realize it or not) is nigh-magical to Andy and I.
It is playing off of people’s risk aversion. And when people are generally fairly comfortable, there is no reason they would want to break the system, because that induces a stress or anxiety response.
RMS has a system, we take care of the stress for you.
“System” implies the individual need not take the blame if something goes wrong, they are merely a cog in the machine. It allows a deferral of responsibility, just like in big corporations (or at RMS). We are taking on the accountability of you using our system.
Mirror-image: In order to get people devoted to really big hard scary tasks, Jobs had to make the individuals each personally accountable for perhaps even more than what was really within their control.
And this might also explain the paradox of why A-types tend to be super stressed-out in order to get really high grades but every once in a while you get a casual cucumber who can just waltz through with top grades.
Most of the time, I don't think it's because that person is a genius- I think it's probably because they figured out a way to get their brain to focus single-mindedly on things for a while, and so they get to reap the benefits of that single-mindedness.
Most people have to get stressed out to get that focused.
And sometimes, we get so stressed that our stress responses go haywire and harm us.
And that's where the Zebra book seems to be headed. I'll let you know.
Maybe some people have figured out other systems, ways of accomplishing single-minded focus and dedication without triggering a stress response.
What if people had learned to flip the roles of what we generally consider the conscious and unconscious brain?
What about Zen Buddhism?
Could that be the secret key to unlock human potential without getting as bent out of shape?