There was a lot of inherent cultural relativism in the science fiction I discovered then. It gave me the idea that you could question anything, that it was possible to question anything at all. You could question religion, you could question your own culture’s most basic assumptions. That was just unheard of—where else could I have gotten it? You know, to be thirteen years old and get your brain plugged directly into Philip K. Dick’s brain!
That wasn’t the way science fiction advertised itself, of course. The self-advertisement was: Technology! The world of the future! Educational! Learn about science! It didn’t tell you that it would jack your kid into this weird malcontent urban literary universe and serve as the gateway drug to J. G. Ballard.
And nobody knew. The people at the high school didn’t know, your parents didn’t know. Nobody knew that I had discovered this window into all kinds of alien ways of thinking that wouldn’t have been at all acceptable to the people who ran that little world I lived in.
Our collective obsession with elite students and institutions means public conversations about college are increasingly irrelevant to the lives of many of the actual students.
George Saunders is a gem.
There’s this theory that self-esteem has to do with getting confirmation from the outside world that our perceptions are fundamentally accurate. What Doug does at this meeting is increase my self-esteem by confirming that my perception of the work I’d been doing is fundamentally accurate. The work I’ve been doing is bad. Or, worse: it’s blah. This is uplifting–liberating, even—to have my unspoken opinion of my work confirmed. I don’t have to pretend bad is good. This frees me to leave it behind and move on and try to do something better.
When you take a class with the Harvard University art historian Jennifer Roberts, your first task is always to choose a work of art, then go and look at it, wherever it’s displayed, for three full hours.
I read Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis, and really enjoyed it. It’s one of those “hub” books you come across every so often, where you realize there are spokes sticking out into a bunch of other stuff that’s been on your mind lately.
Gallwey’s working theory here is about the internal dichotomy between “Self 1” and “Self 2” in performance. Self 1 is that voice inside, that part of you that “knows” how to do things, that instructs, urges, reprimands, exhorts. Self 2 is the one that does things. Given that Self 1 is so eager to “try hard” and correct and evaluate, successful practice and performance is about building trust for Self 2 and learning through practice and simple observation.
Letting go of judgments does not mean ignoring errors. It simply means seeing events as they are and not adding anything to them.
Mindfulness! There’s a flip side of that, too – Self 1 can be too pleased with itself when things are going well. Self-congratulations also takes you out of the moment. I really like this section, about avoiding criticism as we learn:
When plant a rose seed in the earth, we notice that it is small, but we do not criticize it as “rootless and stemless”. We treat it as a seed, giving it the water and nourishment required of a seed. When it first shoots up out of the earth, we don’t condemn it as immature and underdeveloped; nor do we criticize the buds for not being open when they appear. We stand in wonder at the process taking place and give the plant the care it needs at each stage of its development. The rose is a rose from the time it is a seed to the time it dies. Within it, at all times, it contains its whole potential.
Another interesting bit:
If you think you are controlled by a habit, then you will feel you have to try to break it. […] There is no need to fight old habits. Start new ones.
And I thought this was nicely phrased…
Natural focus occurs when the mind is interested.
Focus isn’t something we do, it’s something that results.
I also like one final section on the games that people play aside from the actual game itself. We each tend to embrace different goals within the game: to be perfect, to be better than the other guy, to appear to be great, to bond, to learn, to be challenged, etc. Each of these motivations influence and contaminate and distract us from performance to some degree.
Very highly recommended!
Some other related posts around here: Never try to look cool and learn something at the same time. Nervous is good. Performance vs. editing. In order to have your best performance you have to be relaxed. That eye-on-the-object look. Reality not maybe is zen. Festina lente. Willing to be shit at things. Forever the 5-year-old of something. A good coach made you suffer in a way that suited you.
If the experience is demoralizing and alienating, our community has squandered your potential. The tricky part is that the computer has no idea that you’re just a beginner.
Key Takeaway #1: Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.
Key Takeaway #2: High school students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90 percent of their classes.
Key takeaway #3: You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.
Never try to look cool and learn something at the same time. You must have an awkward phase.
Below the original is my attempt to copy Sargent’s painting. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how people learn to paint. I’m starting to think that maybe copying paintings you like is a good way to study other people’s paintings technique while forcing yourself to learn some basic skills along the way. I gather that this is how students learned to paint back in the day, so it seems like a good thing to try in my spare time.
The painting took about an hour to complete, but I feel like I learned a lot in that time. Here are my random notes in case you are interested…
This entire thing is fantastic.
I love the fact that I’m bad at [things], you know what I’m saying? I’m forever the 35-year-old 5-year-old. I’m forever the 5-year-old of something.
I used to feel guilty about books I own but haven’t read. They’d sit in piles making me feel unworthy as a writer, and reader. And no matter how many books I’d read in a year, I’d always find myself buying more. I couldn’t win. It was a destructive cycle and it drove me mad. One day I realized there was another way to frame my behavior. The goal should not be efficiency because efficiency makes you conservative. As a writer I need an ambitious curiosity, not a safe one. It’s good to take bets on books at the limits of my comfort zone.
I am not a scholar and the majority of my references have been culled from my personal library, allowing me to check them without difficulty. But I read in zigzags, I travel from one book to the next, and this is not without risks. It is quite possible that here and there, certain interpretations or comparisons are stretched or simply gratuitous. However, this book is a journey—and travelers should be aware that paths leading nowhere are also part of the trip.
The inventor’s real genius was not to build a chess-playing machine. It was to be the first to notice that, in the modern world, there is more mastery available than you might think; that exceptional talent is usually available, and will often work cheap.
And there lies what I think of now as the asymmetry of mastery – the mystery of mastery, a truth that is for some reason extremely hard for us to grasp. We over-rate masters and under-rate mastery. That simplest solution was the hardest, partly because they underestimated the space inside the cabinet, but also because they overestimated just how good the chess player had to be.
A man should never be ashamed to own he has been in the wrong, which is but saying in other words, that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.