“In order to think we must speculate with images.” — Aristotle
It’s impossible to remember anything without seeing the image in our head first. With a little effort, we can activate our brains to become conscious recorders.
But the banality of everyday life tends to dull the senses. Blind to routines which automate thinking, we float by the external world without acknowledging its subtleties. Mobile phones further exacerbate attention; some people admit that the addictiveness of the rectangular glow makes walking harder.
We must force ourselves to look for distinctiveness. No one ever forgets a purple cow or rainbow zebra, even if it’s a figment of our imagination.
There is a photograph coming at you every few seconds, and hype is the lingua franca. It has become hard to stand still, wrapped in the glory of a single image, as the original viewers of old paintings used to do. The flood of images has increased our access to wonders and at the same time lessened our sense of wonder. We live in inescapable surfeit.
We all want to experience pleasure all the time. But it’s utility is temporary, the dopamine hit comes and goes. Addiction is the attempt to make it last forever. Spinning the social media wheel, again and again, is a prime example of its superficiality.
Happiness, on the other hand, “is long-term, additive and generous.” It’s a state of mind built over time through sustained effort toward true connection and generosity. It’s a deeper emotional investment with zero emphases on cash-value.
We have two choices: the taking of short-term dopamine or the giving of long-term serotonin. We become what we choose.
Like the cubicle before it, which intended to be the ‘action office’ and instead resembled prisons where no one ran into each other, the open floor layout encourages serendipity but has come to resemble a chaotic classroom. External conversations crimp the thinking voice inside a person’s head.
Focus is already scarce in a digital world. Deep work needs time to bloom. Perhaps that’s why working from home is still the best option of all.
The Intuitive Thing: Ray Bradbury on the Arts. I love what Ray Bradbury said about books versus movies in this interview: “when you read…you’re creating it in your own theater inside your head. But a film is total realism. You can’t change it, it’s right there, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
“Our job is to imagine a better future, because if we can imagine it, we can create it. But it starts with that imagination.” Tim O’Reilly explains why we should avoid envisioning a dystopian society where robots wipe out humans.
Steve Jobs died six years ago today. He was 56 years old. His uniqueness, unconventional leadership, and big-picture thinking will never be forgotten.
Jobs made tech fashionable. He made sure to remind us that we are the creators.
Below are some of my favorite Jobs’ quotes.
“Make something wonderful, and put it out there.”
“Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.’
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”
“When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”
A book triggers the imagination. A movie tells all.
A book can change your life. A film can change your perception, but only momentarily.
Reading creates a theater inside your ahead.
When it comes to reading versus watching a screen, it’s all about mind control. You can either make your own mental movie or acquiesce to the images fed on a wall. Said Ray Bradbury in an interview with Bradbury scholar Sam Weller:
It’s different because when you read it, you’re creating it in your own theater inside your head. But a film is total realism. You can’t change it, it’s right there, there’s nothing you can do about it. You can change a book in your mind. Every book is like Japanese flowers that go into your head and they sink down through the water inside your head, and then open out. The difference between books and film is books are unreality. They open up inside the head. They become yours. They’re more personal. Films are immediate and insistent. They’re like a bully. They bully you with their brilliance and you can’t turn away from them. Later you may, in remembrance, change them, but you can’t have the immediate thing that the book does where it fantasizes in the head. After all, it’s only print, it doesn’t mean anything. You have to learn at a certain age how to read those symbols and turn them into paper flowers that open in the mind. A film makes you think you know everything — you don’t. You can’t escape film.
“Reality is an activity of the most august imagination,” said poet Wallace Stevens.
What we call reality emerged from human ingenuity. So if we can take today’s tools and use them for good we’ll naturally have a better future.
Instead, we are building technology that paints a future dystopia. Hackers hijacked Facebook, Google, and Twitter and filled them with fake news during the 2016 election. What did we think was going to happen with free-flowing information? “The art of debugging a computer program is to figure out what you really told the computer to do instead of what you thought you told it to do,” quipped Andrew Singer, director of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois. Meanwhile, Amazon is replacing its workers with bots.
While we can expect software manipulation to continue, there are still reasons to be hopeful. As Tim O’Reilly points out, we should be looking at ways to work with artificial intelligence to fuel productivity and innovation.
We have to make it new. That’s a wonderful line from Ezra Pound that’s always stuck in my brain: “Make it new.” It’s not just true in literature and in art, it’s in our social conscience, in our politics. We have look at the world as it is and the challenges that are facing us, and we have to throw away the old stuck policies where this idea over here is somehow inescapably attached to this other idea. Just break it all apart and put it together in new ways, with fresh ideas and fresh approaches.
We have a choice: we can deny optimism and permit darkness or we can build a brighter future. For every time Google chooses to be evil, or Facebook invades our privacy in an attempt to make stockholders happy, there’s another rocket Elon Musk is building that takes us from New York to Shanghai in 39 minutes.
There’s a lot to be hopeful for, as experiments should continue to be encouraged. The real question is how can we create a society for both rapid technological advancement and reflexive sociopolitical change. How do ‘we make it new’ without throwing out the stuff that made it good in the first place?
Creativity isn’t a faucet; you can’t just turn it on at a moment’s notice and expect genius to flow out.
So what should you do in a creative rut?
The comedian Aziz Ansari takes the lack of inspiration as a sign to do nothing at all.
“I’m not gonna make stuff just for the sake of making stuff. I want to make stuff ’cause I’m inspired. Right now I don’t really feel inspired.”
Creativity comes in waves; it ebbs and flows but finds its way back to people that are “open to detours.” Taking a walk or going on travel never fail to reignite the curious mind.
However, some artists like painter Chuck Close and writer Steven Pressfield encourage their colleagues to get to work daily. Said Close: “Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.”
Making stuff is a habit; whether you’re having a good or bad day, feeling inspired or out of gas, there’s no excuse not to sit your ass down and get to work.
Everything is practice.
Whether you let creativity happen or you force it out, keep the faucet on so it can at least drip. All creative slumps are merely temporary.
Everyone waits for the web to come to them. Such passiveness means that humans leave their decision-making up to algorithms. But don’t hide behind the machines; look yourself in the eyes as you would others and pick yourself to succeed.
The internet could save you feeling stuck. It liberates the amateur photographer or writer from holding back on their interests and tastes and instead encourages them to show the world their art. The barrier between consumer and maker is thinner than ever.
Don’t wait for the internet to come to you. Use it proactively to stumble into new worlds that inspire you to recast what you think you already know. Experiment with its distribution and feedback.
The internet is a tool you use to make stuff. Just as code changes, you too can sense patterns and update your skill set through trial and error. There’s no reason to shy away from individual oddities; feel free to trespass your fear by getting some skin in the game too.
What is it about train journeys that make us feel more alive than taking a plane or riding in the car?
For one, trains are part of the environment. Like snakes, they can weave in and out of nature. They go unimpeded into mountains, cities, forests, and slither by oceans.
There’s no better way to see the world than riding the train.
It gives us a chance to paint the world with our eyes. Each blink of an eye flashes novelty, like scrolling an Instagram feed into life.
Trains are just what we need in a dizzying mobile-first society. They give us a chance to slow down, but at the same time light up the brain with curiosity and compel us to see more, do more, and appreciate the beauty of our surroundings.
PS. I took the train from Seattle down to Los Angeles once, not quite the length of Moscow to the Far-East on the Trans-Siberian Railway, but undoubtedly a memorable one. It was an excellent time to reflect on my own life’s journey and to take pictures. I wrote a semi-fictional book about the trip earlier this year, which you can read for free right here.