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Follow Your Passion, and Other Fallacies of Vocation

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What do you want to be when you grow up? And how do you know?

I asked these questions of my small group this week. My motive was a selfish one: I wanted to know how other people approached this challenge of structuring life, making plans, pursuing ambitions, and finding fulfillment—assuming it’s possible.

Half of the room stared back at me with dumbfounded expressions. I assume they, like me, hadn’t been asked that question since they were very young. At some point in our adolescence the question shifts from “What do you WANT to do” to “What ARE you going to do,” which is a very different question. The former question is open-ended and provocative, as it calls us to imagine a happier (though sometimes riskier) vocational reality. The latter query implies that you have the answers, that you know who who are, what your passions are, and how the puzzle pieces will fit together. That’s a lot of pressure.

The funny thing is that, as a culture, we shroud both questions with flawed thinking. We approach the problem of vocation linearly: You like XYZ, so you go to school, learn how to do XYZ, and get a job doing XYZ. But what if you don’t know what you like? What if you don’t know what to study to best achieve your goals? What if there aren’t job descriptions that match your passion? Here are three fallacies blocking us from discovering and defining our vocation, as well as the video that prompted this blog post.

Fallacy #1: That we should have a passion we know we want to pursue. 
For years I thought something was wrong with me. I have always craved diverse experiences to help myself grow, an approach to life which many might argue is healthy. Nevertheless I watched in envy as others focused their efforts and enthusiasm toward mastery of individual skill. I neither knew how to do this nor could imagine limiting myself to a single discipline. Apparently, though, I’m not alone. William Damon in The Path to Purpose says that only 20% of people know the passions they want to pursue from an early age. This means that the other 80% of us spend a lot of time thinking we should be in the 20%, racking our brains for the single passion that supposedly will guide our lives. But why should we limit ourselves? We live in a world where individuals increasingly switch careers, sometimes multiple times. More people are pursuing different interests simultaneously, helped along by technology. Opportunities abound for learning new skills, largely thanks to the internet, where we see Youtube turning cooking newbies into culinary masters, Lynda.com turning Luddites into Adobe aficionados, and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) offering college-level instruction at no cost. In other words, there is no need to pressure ourselves into a single passion to pursue.

Fallacy #2: Believing our BA determines vocation. 
I will never forget the night when my high school guidance councilor asked a group of 50 parents how many of them were working in the same field as their college majors. Only two of them raised their hands. Why then, given this telling display, do we put so much emphasis on college major decisions? The only constant is change, after all. And how are students supposed to know what they want unless they get to taste the real world, wrestle with its ups and downs, and structure their education accordingly? We have it backwards: students instead spend all their time in high school jumping through hoops and taking tests just to get into good colleges, but all without any idea of what their education is for or how it will be applied in their lives. Then they are told to focus their interests into a course of study to prepare for work which most of them have never experienced. Why do we do this, especially if we are going to change our career trajectories anyway? Like the councilor said, everyone can just relax about majors.

Fallacy #3: Believing that school makes us experts.
Many people rely solely on formal learning environments for gaining the necessary expertise to approach their vocation. But as with the first fallacy, too many students cannot structure their education around passions they don’t have, and as with the second, students rarely can rely on their major to guide their career choices. Sarah Stein Greenberg puts the problem this way in this great video from Wired:

If I told you that if you exercised every day for the next four years so that you would stay fit and healthy for life, you’d think I was crazy; but this is exactly how we approach learning in college.

We think that four years of college is sufficient education to get us through life. But why four years? It’s arbitrary when you think about it. More than this, learning through experience is, in many ways, much more powerful than classroom lessons. We need to see ourselves as life-long learners, willing to experiment and fail, wherein we learn best. “Expert” is a relative term anyway, so does it help to assume we will ever become experts, constantly judging ourselves by nebulous standards and an antiquated educational model?

Breaking free of these fallacies will likely take some time. As individuals, this involves upsetting misconceptions; unlearning can often be harder than learning. It means a paradigm shift, a reorientation of how we see ourselves as learners and workers. As communities, it means asking questions like, “How might we help people find their vocations through experience as well as school?” and “How might we re-imagine school and workplaces so that they better foster learning and passion development?” The answers to these questions are complex and will likely be fraught with concerns over cost, efficacy, and fear of change. But imagine a world in which students try their hands at real world work, understand how their education is preparing them to solve problems, and structure their own learning around a mission, instead of a major

The Stanford d.School is currently asking many of these questions. Here is a video of two of the d.School leaders discussing the question: How might we design our lives? I really appreciate their posture toward the problem, and I gained some good insights from their conversation. Please share your thoughts on the video and the post below.

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3 Merits of the Mobile Field Trip

I love learning about learning. I love thinking about what makes for a great learning experience, and what makes them fun, invigorating, and lasting. It was a delight therefore to learn about The Urban Greenlab project happening here in Nashville. The Urban Greenlab’s mission is to facilitate a range of educational and social programs that inspire participants from all socioeconomic backgrounds to make sustainability a bigger part of their lives—in their homes, neighborhoods, and businesses. They are a…

“nonprofit dedicated to improving the health and well-being of our city through sustainability. We fill a gap by offering programs that inspire people of all ages to incorporate sustainability into their daily lives. Our new Mobile Lab, a science-based interactive classroom that travels to local schools, is inspiring the next generation of sustainability leaders! Workshops on everything from green building to urban agriculture spark positive changes at home and work that save money, improve health, and conserve resources.”

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This Mobile Lab is the object of my focus today. I hope soon to see it person. It strikes me as a fantastic idea for a sustainable (of course) and reproducible way to engage students in hands-on learning experiences around subjects that directly apply to their own lives. It is a free, mobile field trip; a museum that comes to you. How cool is that??!?!

I see three reasons for why this is a great idea from a layman’s point of view.

  1. It’s accessible. If you want to provide kids with a field trip, it doesn’t get easier than having the field trip come to you. This transformed trailer can set up shop in a school parking lot and immediately turn an ordinary school day into an extraordinary learning experience without the folderol of permission slips, chaperones, or snacks. Most importantly, it is available to schools that might not otherwise have the financial capacity to provide these hands-on learning experiences for their kids. The Mobile lab provides an innovative solution to the barrier of cost for lower-income area schools.
  2. It’s real. Sustainability and environmental issues bring up questions that are relevant to all of us. By contrast, so much of the American curriculum in public schools feels disconnected from the students’ lives; few teachers and parents help students make the connection for how, say, learning about calculus or the Jazz age or proper use of ellipses adds to their preparation for the real world. This is not to say that any of these subjects are unimportant, but it is rare today for students to break away from the prescribed curriculum to challenge their real-time, real-life perceptions of the real world.
  3. It’s immersive. I will never forget visiting Plymouth Plantation, a living history site in Massachusetts, and sitting on a bear pelt learning from a Native American guide in front of an open fire about how tomahawks were made. I was surrounded by the smells, the textures, and the scenes of what life was like for people living at the time of the Pilgrims’ arrival. The immersive factor is so critical to learning, and I feel strongly that whatever we can do to replicate and build on those experiences for other learners will be well worth our time. The mobile lab is a fantastic and innovative approach to this immersion challenge. Learners step inside and are surrounded by new ideas and the opportunity to engage, inevitably to emerge changed and challenged.

I wonder, how might we use this model elsewhere and for other subject matter? How might we reimagine immersive, hands-on learning experiences, and make them more accessible to more learners? Join me in thinking on these great questions!

 

 

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3 Lessons in How People Learn

There is a funny paradox in education: teachers can teach their hearts out, but it doesn’t mean that anyone is learning.

Even with the best of intentions and Herculean efforts, teachers cannot guarantee that the information they’re transmitting is being received. Teaching and Learning are separate processes; their overlap may not be as wide as we might think. This paradox is particularly pertinent today, as headlines regularly bombard us with the question:

Are American schools failing our students?

It’s a legitimate question. As my father always likes to say, we live in a world with exponential rates of change. The pace of innovation is accelerating. Are new generations learning what they need to keep up and, most importantly, HOW to adapt, problem-solve, and excel?

So what are we to do with this paradox? Do teachers teach in vain? Not at all. But it does imply that the best teaching carefully mirrors how people learn, increasing the overlap in the Venn diagram between learning and teaching. Therefore, a closer look at how people learn should point us in the direction of disruptive innovation desperately needed in our educational systems.

With this in mind, I’ve been doing some reading into how people learn. I am reading about formal learning environments like school as well as about learning outside of school, including in museums, in work environments, and the ways in which we teach ourselves. So far, I have gleaned several fascinating concepts:

  1. Learners, not teachers, make their own meaning. 
    Back when I used to teach people how to facilitate small groups, I frequently had to correct people (gently) who wanted to force their beliefs on other people. “People need to learn at their own pace,” I would say. “No one tells us what to believe except us. People need to come to conclusions on their own.” The more I read about learning, and especially in museums, the more I realize how widely this principle applies. Meaning-making, apparently a technical term, is when people construct their own understanding and narratives through combining new information and concepts with their own knowledge and experiences. As Deborah Perry says in her book, What Makes Learning Fun, “museums as institutions are becoming increasingly constructivist environments, places where visitors construct their own meanings by actively engaging with exhibits, programs, objects, and phenomena.” This suggests that learning is indeed the responsibility  of the learner, not the teacher, and that the opportunity to interact with—instead of passively receive—new information and ideas is key to making meaning. An environment emphasizing active engagement allows learners to challenge their presuppositions, question what they don’t understand, and shape the meaning for themselves.calvin-and-hobbes-fundamental-rights-small
  2. Conversation is one of the most essential tools for learning. 
    I read an article recently (which I regret to say I can no longer find) talking about how children today are growing up without engaging in meaningful conversations with either adults or peers. The article cited a decrease in interactive play (especially between parents and children), the rise in media, and the ever-increasing demands for testing in schools as the culprits of this negligence. The consequences of limiting human to human interaction are easy to predict: children grow up not knowing how to express themselves, without having their ideas challenged, and without the ability to ask questions. Without learning to communicate, the resulting “grown-ups” become poor spouses, difficult teammates, and even worse parents. Conversation from the early ages, then, is essential; it is not something we do after we gain knowledge and wisdom, but what we do to become knowledgeable and wise. It makes sense: When communicating ideas to someone else, we are actively shaping those ideas to be received by that person. This active manipulation of thoughts does not happen when we passively receive information from a lecturer or a screen. Learners need to speak and share and question, as well as listen, in order for new concepts to sink in. As Perry says, “By talking with their companions, museum visitors make sense of their experiences and create deeper understanding, and by engaging with the stuff of museums, they talk more with their companions (Silverman 1990). It’s a two-way street. In this sense, learning is conversation, and conversation is learning. ‘What a group talks about, it thinks about; . . . talking is a tool for socially constructed thought, not just evidence of it; and . . . talk supports the gradual alteration and development of goals during the course of a visit’ (Leinhardt and Knutson 2004, 159).”ch-21
  3. Learners have prerequisite conditions for learning to be effective.
    I have long felt, and occasionally written, that formal education, and especially high school, needs to do a better job of communicating the purpose of education to students. In this article, the author cites William Damon, leading expert in human development and author of The Path to Purpose, as saying “that students today may be high achievers but they have no idea what for. He believes that this sense of meaninglessness is one of the main contributors to the skyrocketing suicide and depression rates among our youth… the American College Health Association reported in 2011 that 30 percent of undergraduates were so depressed they could hardly function.” This article in the same vein says, “students need to be clear why they are learning what they are learning. If they do not understand why, schoolwork will either be boring or meaningless to them, causing tons of worry and stress. They will be doing it simply to advance through the next hoop—high school graduation or college admission—not for its own inherent value.” Schools, museums, and other learning institutions would do well to connect the curriculum to the learners’ big picture sense of purpose. Adding to this, Perry in her book on museums that learners need to be sufficiently motivated in order to learn anything:”museum visitors will be more likely to have satisfying, intrinsically motivating experiences when their engagements with exhibits meet their needs to
    (a) be part of a communication process,
    (b) have their curiosity piqued,
    (c) feel safe and smart,
    (d) be challenged,
    (e) be in charge of their learning, and
    (f) be playful.”
    This idea that learners need to meet these criteria suggests that teachers and designers should shape the learning environment accordingly. Consider this video showing New Orleans High School students are asked what would make their education more meaningful. Their answers are profound and point to a deep need to rethink school. 

 

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Getting Gritty, part 3

A year and a half ago I wrote a 2 part series called Getting Gritty. This is the third installment on this theme. Part 1 defines grit and examines the life of Leonardo DaVinci and his remarkable perseverance, and Part 2 discusses the balance of grit and rest as the formula for prolific creative activity. 

What do Leonardo DaVinci, Julia Child, and Bob Dylan all have in common? Our first answer to this might be “genius,” meaning natural talent, or “success,” meaning they were in the right place at the right time. The temptation for those of us struggling to live creative and productive lives is to think that they had something we don’t have—or worse, can’t have. If you are like me and fall prey to this temptation, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that what these great minds have in common is something we too can have: grit. The bad news is that what we need to be like these great minds is grit.

True Grit. No, not the classic western. I’m talking about the “stick-to-it-ness” that characterizes many if not all of the most prolific and creative people across history. These figures lived through what Adam Westbrook, creator of the video essay below, calls “The Difficult Years,” or those years of hard work, sweat, and tears that history often ignores. He cites author Robert Green who defines that period as “A largely self-directed apprenticeship that lasts some five to ten years [and] receives little attention because it does not contain stories of great achievement or discovery.”

Five to ten years, no achievement. That is a tough pill to swallow, especially for our instant gratification generation, a people trained to believe hard work is the stuff of fast movie montages and is over before we can blink. Is this really what it takes?

Um, well, yes. Sorry to break it to you. Grit is the thing that links great minds, and if we seek to accomplish creative feats then we must keep working, disregarding failures and the lack of an audience. We must keep creating. Todd Henry, author of the Accidental Creative, urges his readers and podcast listeners often to undertake “unnecessary creating,” meaning creative activity that we do for ourselves, for fun, and not for money. Pursuing our passions is the best training for prolific creative accomplishment; passion and grit go hand in hand.

And that is the good news. When we think of bearing down and getting gritty, we might think that this means assuming supernatural self-discipline. While discipline is important, willpower only goes so far. The only thing powerful enough to push us to this level of creative pursuit is passion, love of the craft, love of beauty, and a surviving hope that, no matter how long it takes, someone else will share that love with you.

In this video essay we learn about the profound passion of Vincent Van Gogh, and while I believe he went overboard by sacrificing his health to his art, his grittiness inspires me to push past a temporary lack of the spoils of “success” and just keep creating.

“Far better to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt

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Why No One Understands You: an epiphany in good communication.

“No one cares about your feelings,” the professors told us on the first day of class. “If you have come to write about your feelings you can get out now. We are not kidding.” This class, unofficially dubbed the Fascist School of Writing, was the most wonderful class I ever took in my life and, incidentally, this jarring banishment of emotional baggage led to the most valuable lesson of communication I ever heard.

Whether you are a writer, filmmaker, politician, nonprofit guru, or entrepreneur, if you’ve ever tried to ‘improve your impact’ or ‘extend your reach,’ I expect you regularly hear platitudes like

  • “Produce audience-driven communication”
  • “Always answer the question, ‘Why should I care?'”
  • and “Start with Why.”

Each of these true directives points to two implications: first, that we tend to be terrible communicators, and second, that good communication has something to do with understanding our audience.

As to the first dour implication, I recently read on the blog The Creativity Post this passage about our communication handicap:

“Schools don’t teach communication. They teach math, (not very well), some science, history and give rote instructions about rigid grammatical rules, but give very little guidance on how to express ideas clearly. When we enter professional life, we immerse ourselves in the jargon and principles of our chosen field and obediently follow precepts laid out by our respective priesthoods. Yet we rarely put serious effort toward expressing ourselves in a language that can be understood by those outside our tribe. Then we wonder why our ideas never get very far.”

 As the post describes, our dysfunctional communication skills inhibit our ability to connect with others and realize our potential for innovation. It’s one thing to have ideas to share, but if no one can understand us, we limit the value of our ideas. Therefore, we have a deep incentive to pay attention not just to what we communicate, but how we communicate.

This passage also points to the second implication, the idea that communicators need to pay more attention to those with whom they communicate. Who are they? What is their context? What matters to them? Is it similar or different to the communicator’s context? Good communication demands that these questions be addressed.

Even if the communicator asks these questions, though, it does not guarantee that the answers will be applied. This is where the Fascist School of Writing drops its epiphanic bomb. The reason our feelings were not wanted in that classroom was because feelings were not going to persuade anybody. Feelings are one-directional and un-directable; they come out from us and land wherever they land. When we share our feelings, we are getting something off our chest. In other words, it is all about us. When we share ideas, by contrast, we want those ideas to germinate in the minds of others. If we seek to disperse our ideas well, we need to take control over how they get disseminated and understand more about where they take root.

On the first day of my writing course the professors explained that readers think differently from writers. Writers are obsessed with things–stuff that needs to be organized into a logical flow. Stuff is made of nouns. Writers love to arrange sentences around nouns. The problem is that readers look for actions. They want to know what’s happening, where things are going, the movement from A to B. They look for the verbs. Acknowledging this distinction confronts the writer with a critical decision: Will she depend on the readers to figure out her noun sequence and risk losing their interest and/or comprehension? Or will she adjust her approach to make it more reader-friendly, i.e. action-oriented? The answer is obvious in terms of what she should do, but as many readers know, few writers reorient themselves enough to make it easier for the reader to read, let alone more pleasant.

The big takeaway from this lesson is not only that readers and writers think differently, but that the burden of communication (i.e. getting ideas across successfully and comprehensively) lies on the writers, NOT the readers. Communicators need to reorient their whole message to begin from the audiences’ context and communicate in ways our audiences think. Why? Because we can’t afford to delude ourselves that our audience will stick around if we bore or confuse them. We also shouldn’t fall prey to the temptation of thinking they are too stupid to understand us. They are not stupid, but neither are they patient. The responsibility lies with us to escort them through our argument, beginning with something that our audience believes to be important. If we want to move someone’s point of view from point A to Point B, then we have to start at Point A. This might sound simplistic, but reflect for a moment on how many times you’ve read an article or watched a presentation in which the writer or the speaker assumed you agreed with him from the beginning, or used jargon without defining it, or spent your valuable time in the weeds of irrelevant details. Annoying, isn’t it? Learn from such instances. After all, no one is useless; as the saying goes, everyone can serve as a bad example. Do what these communicators failed to do: respect your audience.

Good communication, therefore, is about taking responsibility for your message and stewarding/manipulating/reshaping it in ways your audience can appreciate. This means making it easier for your audience to receive and comprehend your ideas, instead of making them do backflips. This involves starting where they are starting. It involves getting out of your own head and into theirs’. It is about carrying them along step by step. Oh, and heaven forbid you make the path enjoyable for them.

Communicators, take to heart the words of Lady Galadriel: This task was appointed to you. If you do not find a way, no one will.

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Stop Telling Me to Follow My Dreams: 3 pitfalls of life advice

#BillWatersonisagenius

If you have ever sought out career advice, you were probably told one or more of the following:

  1. Follow your dreams
  2. Live out your passions
  3. Do what you love
  4. Work where your greatest passion meets the greatest need
  5. Find your inner voice
  6. Perseverance is key
  7. Embrace your unique story

During my time of soul searching for my own professional next steps I heard these platitudes over, and over, and over again. In short, these statements are all true. The problem is that they lack context. In search of this context, I attended many networking events for creative professionals like myself. Many of them feature speakers sharing about their experience in their creative fields. Like a fly bumping into the glass and believing the next time will be different, I come to these events anticipating, if not something life-changing, then at least something useful. Alas, I often leave heaving a sigh.

Put another way, these speakers fall into one or more of the following traps:

  1. The speaker forgets he/she is making an argument. 
    Any communication you create–article, letter, lecture, film, etc.–in which you want your audience to think differently by the end is an argument. In the case of these network lectures, the speaker’s goal is, or should be, to empower their audience, and make them believe that they have the capacity to do great work. Most of the time, the speakers forget that they need to persuade. They cover the WHATs of the conclusions they’ve drawn, but neglect the HOWs and WHYs. You can tell me THAT your string of accomplishments was hard to come by, but I won’t care and I certainly won’t be helped until you tell me WHY it was hard, WHY you were driven to persevere, and HOW you solved the problems that hindered you. Without these critical elements, it would be faster if you just sent me your resume.
  2. The speaker fails to tell a story. 
    These days it feels cliche to say that the best way connect with an audience is through story. I couldn’t agree more, but like Inigo in The Princess Bride, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.” Stories require conflict. Think about it–all stories recount something that went wrong: Nemo gets stolen, Dorothy and Toto are stuck in Oz, Bernie is dead. Stories involve pivotal moments, dealing with change, and the decisions that make or break the protagonist(s). At the last networking event I sat through, the speaker told the “story” of how he really wanted to join this band so he worked really hard and practiced all the time and beat out 99 people to get the one spot. Face:palm. Story:fail. There is no conflict in this anecdote, and therefore it is not a story. Life, and the pursuit of creative success, is full of conflict, and if you are going to tell me about your experience I want to hear the juicy details of the obstacles in your way and how you made the decisions that shaped your path.
  3. The speaker edits his/her story and loses his credibility. 
    There are (at least) two ways in which speakers edit their stories and, in so doing, ruin their credibility. The first is similar to my point about conflict, in that the speaker leaves out the parts they’d probably wish to forget, i.e. how hard something was, how long something took, or how they never really knew what they were doing. These details about doubts, fears, and failures create an empathetic connection with the audience. After all, most of the audience is there to be comforted and encouraged. We need to know we are not alone. If the speaker glosses over the harder times, I begin to doubt their story altogether. This leads me to the second way speakers edit their experience: they are not forthcoming about when they were lucky. Being in the “right place at the right time” is not a skill, it is an accident. Knowing the “right people” is not only a function of diligent networking, but it is also luck of the draw. Access to the right tools–education, technology, an uncle in high places– can make all the difference, but access is rarely something we gain by merit. As Malcolm Gladwell tells us in Outliers, both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs gained access to computers way earlier than other mortals, and at a time when they were both unhindered by restrictions or responsibilities and allowed to experiment. While extraordinary innovators in their own right, the argument stands that Gates and Jobs owe much if not most of their success to this unusual good fortune. Likewise, if you are going to preach platitudes with your advice, you should have the humility to point out that you were blessed with great business partner, or with a professor who gave you a job recommendation, or with a pile of gold you found in a ditch, or whatever else helped you leapfrog towards your goals.

My goal with this post is twofold: first, I hope this encouraged other soul-seekers like myself in their quest for thorough advice, and second, I hope anyone who is giving advice can adjust the content and delivery of their thoughts to be most advantageous for their audiences. Please comment below and keep the conversation going!

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The Hellish Life of a Writer, according to Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl

From a very young age I adored Roald Dahl. I devoured all of his books, several of them many times over. I befriended the BFG and Willy Wonka and abhorred the Trunchbull and the Twits. I loved the whimsey of all of the books (except The Witches…never read it…too scary) and appreciated how tangibly, and sometimes grotesquely, Dahl could describe a scene.

I recently reread Boy, Dahl’s childhood memoirs, remembering that I liked it when I was young. I wondered how I differently I would view it as an adult. My first impression was one of shock; most of the book describes in gruesome detail the school whippings Dahl and his friends endured. I had no memory of so much child abuse in that book. Dahl seems to be part of a club of authors, along with Lewis, Orwell and, I’m sure, many others, who never forgot the injustices of boarding school discipline. Apart from the descriptions of little boys’ striped bottoms, I am glad to have read Boy again. My second impression affirmed my liking of Roald Dahl in the first place. His pacing of storytelling is excellent. I got swept up in the flow and dearly wanted to hear the end of each of his anecdotes. His details are wonderful; I can see the whole scene in front of me from the twitching orange mustaches to the gnarled cracked knuckles of the dirty hand reaching into the candy jar. There is so much to emulate in Roald Dahl’s style.

But the most impactful take-away from this second reading comes from a passage at the end of Boy in which Dahl takes a sudden tangent from his story to bemoan the life of a writer:

“The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him. If he is a writer of fiction he lives in a world of fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not. Two hours of writing fiction leaves this particular writer absolutely drained. For those two hours he has been miles away, he has been somewhere else, in a different place with totally different people, and the effort of swimming back into normal surroundings is very great. It is almost a shock. The writer walks out of his workroom in a daze… a person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.” (BOY, 171-172)

According to Dahl, the writer lifestyle does not sound very nice. As with any creative profession, the task of creating on cue weighs very heavily on the writer. It demands focus and drive and persistence. There is no structure, as with other professions, on which a writer can rely. He or she must create it alone. They risk the alienating consequences of going to imaginary places during the work day. But, is it just me, or is there an undertone of grim satisfaction? There is something enticing about this description. At least for me, he fails to warn me away from writing as a profession. I feel, instead, a (masochistic?) attraction to what he says. Being drained doesn’t scare me if it means I created a new world or lived through the lens of a new character. As a creative, I already live in a world of fear–fear of disappointing myself and others, fear of coming up short–this is nothing new to me. Am I such a fool? Absolute freedom. I’ll take that. Thank you, Mr. Dahl.

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Friday Rehash: Live from An Abandoned Church

I just found out yesterday that the church where I was baptized closed as a center of worship. I don’t know the details, but I gather it was a long time in coming. I remember well the stone building on its tree-filled property that abutted the very fancy Sleepy Hollow Country Club. We used to hop the church’s fence to go see the Country Club’s 4th of July Fireworks. I remember the smell of the church; some sort of lemon cleanser that didn’t quite mask the lingering mustiness. I remember that time with the youth group playing Sardines in the darkened church when one kid hid under the organ and almost set off a mouse trap. I can play back our family’s home videos in my head, images of my mom performing goofy skits, or of my brother, age 3, bedecked in a cotton-ball-covered tunic and looking straight into the camera to announce, “I’m a sheep!”

It’s funny how much I remember. I haven’t had any affiliation with the place in probably fifteen years.

I assume the property will go on to a new purpose, and perhaps even serve again as a place of worship for new people. I pray this is the case. Even so, as many memories as those walls held for so many families, I can’t help but feel like maybe there is something good to gather from this. It’s just a building. We need to keep that perspective. It is an earthly thing. This is not to say that God does not consecrate spaces or bless material things; He cares about the physical. But He cares a lot–oh so much more–for us. He wants a relationship with us. He wants us to pursue Truth (yes, that is a capital T). He does not want us to go through the motions. He wants a church of vibrant, faith-filled people, and this body, this church, can meet anywhere, whether it is in a hut, or a cathedral, or on a dusty road where Christ once said, “The son of man has nowhere to lay his head,” then bid us to follow him.

In honor of these sentiments, I want to share with you again a project I did with a musician friend a few months back. It is a song called, “We Are Dead,” performed live in an abandoned church. Peter McKeown of Woodferd astounds listeners with his musical prowess and thoughtful poetry. This song touches on the juxtaposition of the temporal and eternal, and so when Peter came to me saying he wanted to do a video in an empty church, it couldn’t have been more appropriate. In some ways, the lyrics and the song are a little shocking, but I hope you hear, as I do, the underlying hope: some things do last forever. We just have to make sure we know what those are.

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Filed under Photography, Questions, Running Commentary on whatever tickles the fancy, True Stories, Video/Film

Redesigning School. Yes Please.

I just stumbled across this fantastic video discussing whether our educational systems are actually harming our creative potential. The talk reminded me of an epiphany I had while at school, so I thought I would share.

It hit me toward the end of my second year of college. A singular notion, it had never occurred to me before. I was sitting at my desk in my dorm rewriting a paper on subject matter I thoroughly did not understand (Descartes’ astronomical physics–long story). I was so far from understanding it, in fact, that my professor refused to critique my first draft because it was so terribly off the mark (“It’s so bad I can’t even read it,” I believe were his actual words…nice, really nice). So I sat there struggling and it occurred to me that I wasn’t doing this for him. I wasn’t even doing this for the grade. I was at college to educate myself. 

Over the next few months this idea kept reemerging. I wasn’t there to passively fill the blanks on my transcript. My education should be cultivating ME. I could use it to design ME, use it as a tool to sculpt my future and the person I wanted to be. As painfully obvious as this observation might seem, many students of my generation and younger exist in such a highly structured system that we end up floating right through it, never wondering whether we have any say in how the structure is made or can question if the system is good or bad or a combination. Those of us who can endure jump through hoop after hoop after hoop, right up to the point that we realize we don’t know who we are, what we want, or what use we can make of ourselves in this world.

So there I was, half way through college and only just starting to realize why I was there at all. The extent to which I learned anything useful depended, not on my teachers or curriculum, but on whether or not I owned my education. A good friend of mine helped me, albeit unwittingly, see how far I was from achieving this. She had been homeschooled her whole life. For any interest she harbored, she and her family figured out how to pursue it, whether it was public speaking or language acquisition or fencing. She grew up thinking it was normal to choose her own paths of study, thinking it was normal to speak with adults as an equal, and owning the right to investigate, question, and create. I watched her, marveling at her utter lack on inhibition and her seemingly effortless accomplishments. How do I even begin to take that much ownership over my learning?

I am still learning this lesson. But now I am in the real world, lacking that safe harbor of college where I could try anything under the sun to see if I liked it. At least I could help my sister avoid the same mistakes. A few years ago, as my sister was making her college decision, she suffered from burnout and constantly felt disoriented.  I encouraged her to take a gap year. I wanted her to understand that diving back into school was not her only option. Many kids struggle with this. They just keep going from grade to grade to grade to college to grad school, etc. The idea of stopping, resting, and living their own lives–well, it warps their little paradigms. My sister took her gap year, and it wasn’t easy. For the first time in her life she had to figure out what she was going to do every day. She would get frustrated easily, but every adult she talked to confirmed her decision by declaring longingly, “Man, I wish I had taken a gap year.” In the end, she didn’t regret it. During that year she studied art history in Italy and the experience stirred such a passion in her that she has since excelled in her coursework at school and appears positively giddy at the idea of a career in art conservation.

This video touches on many of these similar ideas. Speaker Sarah Stein Greenberg, executive director of the Stanford d.School, says “If I told you that if you exercised everyday for four years and at the end of the four years you would be fit for the rest of your life, you would laugh… but essentially, that’s the model we have baked into college.” Four years is, when you think about it, an arbitrary timeframe for college, and most of us get it at the beginning of our adult life when few of us have had any experience of real world problem solving. The result is that students don’t know how to apply what they learn while at school and then they leave and discover they won’t know how to learn what they need to apply. One of the suggestions introduced in this video is the idea of a six year college program that students can start and stop as needed and in which they are encouraged to mingle real world work and big life problems with the safety and freedom of the classroom. See what you think. I’d love to hear your feedback.

FYI…sorry, but the video won’t embed properly. here is the link:
http://player.cnevids.com/embed/5461131c61646d38b4080000/5176e89e68f9daff42000013

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Colors of Ravenna

DSC_1979When traveling through Italy, you see a lot of churches. After two weeks I’ve lost count of how many we’ve seen. The big kahuna, of course, is St. Peter’s Basilica, where just a step through the door strikes most visitors dumb. They are all wandering around, bumping into each other, twirling slowly to take in the vastness. All over Italy tourists do this clumsy dance through the myriad of church naves. How many of these visitors, I wondered, are moved by what they see? Specifically, how many of them are moved to worship?

This question came up for me while I was visiting St. Peters. About three quarters through my visit I saw a nun just standing and staring, at what I could not be sure. I watched the back of her as she stood. She didn’t move. I wondered, from my protestant prospective, what she felt about what she saw. What did this place mean to her? Was this the culmination of a grand pilgrimage? As I pondered these questions, I suddenly realized that this place, in all its baroque lavishness, held little spiritual significance for me. The surrounding opulent artwork eclipsed the fact that the church was supposed to be a holy space. I hope that I am in the minority and that others can look to such spaces as aids for connecting with God. But in that moment I concluded that many of the Italian churches exemplified an aesthetic I couldn’t connect with spiritually, and as a result I found it hard to appreciate those spaces as places of worship. Why was this?
There were, however, two wonderful exceptions. The first came in Ravenna, and the second in Assisi. I will discuss Assisi at a later time, but let me tell you about the colors of Ravenna.
Ever since reading a History of Byzantium many years ago, Josh wanted to see the mosaic portraits of Justinian and Theodora, so Ravenna made it onto our itinerary early on. I thought it sounded neat, but otherwise did not know what to expect. We walked into the church and looked up to see a large frescoed rotunda. That’s nice, I thought. But when we turned around our breath was taken away. The main alter of the church was covered floor to ceiling in the most beautiful, most colorful mosaics I ever saw. I couldn’t believe it was possible to achieve such colors at that time in history, let alone with mosaics. Blues and golds and reds and greens seem to dance in intricate, pixelated swirls across every surface. Faces with distinct visages and personalities looked down on us and directed our attention to the central figure of Christ whose portrait loomed from the center part of the ceiling. I looked into his face and admired the colors which so beautifully reflected the colors of His created world. This, I thought, was a holy space I could get excited about.
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look up.

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Theodora, eternally in purple.

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color explosion.

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a different kind of cubism?

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just keep spinning.

It is amazing how much color connects with our emotions. Artists have known this for millennia. Of course, many of them were limited in their color choice by the expense of different dyes, but they knew that color meant so much more to the composition than just filling in white spaces. Color speaks to us subconsciously, makes us feel things we might not feel otherwise. Consider this picture where you can see both the frescoed dome and the mosaic enclave. What do you notice? What do you feel? Which side attracts you more and why?
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This is, of course, an entirely subjective exercise and I would be fascinated to hear why your answers might differ from mine. To me, many Renaissance compositions exhibit pinks, purples, and creams that strike me as harsh. They make the holy figures seem somehow distant and cold (which is ironic considering the reddish palette is technically called “warm”). By contrast, the mosaics with their greens, blues, and golds seem lively, inviting, and hopeful. They speak to me of triumph and renewal and joy. There was such a naturalistic beauty in those colors that I wanted to count myself a part of the stories they helped depict. Indeed, I felt very much connected to those faces, connected to their reason for worship, and I was grateful.
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Virgins and Martyrs.

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colors of ancient crypts.

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Josh in awe.

 

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