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Art (with a capital A)

fART

Preface: art (with a lowercase ‘a’)

When you step back and look at it, art is simply a way of communicating. We are all trying to communicate something—who we are, what we see, how we think. We each have much more going on in our heads than we are capable of expressing. So we write stories, play music, dance, paint, act, or any number of creative pursuits. We try to communicate ourselves, our understanding of the world, our experiences—all the things that seem impossible to share with someone in casual conversation.

Children make art. Adults too. Professionals, amateurs, even “uncreatives” can make art. Art is not a mystery. It’s people sharing with one another—communicating (or at least trying to). And that’s what makes it is so valuable. Unfortunately, art is not always “Art.”

Art (with a capital A)

In some ways “art is dead” in the sense that Art (with a capital A) is about celebrity—a singular Artist who paints on a canvas and creates a masterpiece. Van Gogh, Picasso, Mondrian, Da Vinci—they may have had something valid to share with the world, but so do countless other individuals of the past, present, and future.

We no longer live in a time of the lone genius tinkering away, hoping to create a masterpiece. The world has become too complex for meaningful work to be done in isolation. Consider the computer animation company, Pixar, for example. Pixar is arguably one of the greatest mixed media “artists” of our time—a multiplier of many talented people working together to tell expressive stories. There is no amount of “creative genius” that can out-master that level of collaboration. And in this way, the Artist-as-sacrosanct mentality of the art world is perhaps irrelevant to modern life.

Individuals will always create. There is something very human about making and expressing what words cannot express. But the “Art World” as it stands today—the network of museums, auction houses, art schools, periodicals, and collectors—seems to be stodgy and outdated. It is yet another industry fighting for relevance well past its prime.

As the internationally recognized street artist, Banksy, puts it:

Art is not like other culture because its success is not made by its audience. The public fill concert halls and cinemas every day, we read novels by the millions and buy records by the billions. ‘We the people’ affect the making and the quality of most of our culture, but not our art.

The art we look at is made by only a select few. A small group create, promote, purchase, exhibit, and decide the success of art. Only a few hundred people in the world have any real say. When you go to an art gallery you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires.

Perhaps if you had fully explored what the rest of life has to offer, then Art would provide an endless world of new exploration and interpretation. Perhaps Art is the ultimate luxury—the final, superfluous status symbol of privilege.

But then again, maybe I’m wrong. After all, it’s far easier to dismiss something completely than to recognize its nuance and complexity.

Banksy. Wall and Piece. Mainaschaff: Publikat, 2005. (Amazon).

Catmull, Ed, and Amy Wallace. Creativity, Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. New York: Random House, 2014. (Amazon)

Conover, Adam. “Adam Ruins Fine Art.” Adam Ruins Everything. 08 August 2017. (Link)

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Night People

let me sleep plzzzDear “Night Person,”

Your decision to start working on that nagging project late at night or your sudden interest down an obscure internet rabbit hole at 2 A.M. is not an innate proclivity. It’s not some natural predisposition that’s outside of your control. It’s your brain being selfish. It’s a mind unwilling to give up control to being unconscious—a tired toddler trying to stay engaged for as long as it can before falling asleep. It’s a form of mental FOMO. Recognize it. Acknowledge it. Go to bed.

Yours truly,

Sleepy

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A Lotto’ Hope

burn money burnThere are different kinds of hope. There’s the empowered kind—the kind that Martin Luther King Jr. championed. Empowered hope is what allows people to face improbable odds and still carry on, knowing that what they are hopeful for is worth the fight. Empowered hope encourages us to do better and to be better. It’s what drives us forward. And then there’s disempowered hope—wishful thinking. This is the hope that buying a lottery ticket will make you a millionaire—all the rewards with none of the effort.

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Hiding

hiding.jpgI’m hiding. Lots of people are. I write in my journals, draw in my notebooks, make notes on my phone as I walk to work. It’s a prolific exercise amounting to… well… nothing. I rarely share my work or discuss my ideas. Even my wife, the person who is closest to me, is exposed to only the tip of the iceberg. And why is this—why do we hide from people?

People intuitively understand that there is a common fear to express oneself, to be oneself. It’s a fear of what others might think or how we’ll be perceived or maybe a product of our own self-criticism—I don’t know what it is exactly. But there is a barrier for many of us. We just don’t want to give too much away. It feels safer to put on the mask and keep the real stuff out of sight.

Yet when we get brave and open up—those rare instances—the results can be surprising. Sharing can trigger others to share, and they often confirm our own experience. We hear about other people facing the same challenges that we face. We learn that we’re not alone in thinking crazy thoughts, or perhaps we are, but there are valid alternatives that would never have occurred to us. No matter how “good” we think we are, when we share, we allow other people to do the same.

There will always be better—better writers, better businesspeople, better artists, better communicators, better whatever. But so what? If you’re already doing the activity, then you might as well share it. I might as well share it. It’s time to stop hiding.

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Merry Christmas! (from the Southern Hemisphere)

Santa Hammock

It’s warm here in New Zealand—a Christmas experience I’m certainly not accustomed. Growing up in the American Heartland, we often enjoyed a traditional white Christmas—chill in the air, snowmen on the front lawn, festive decorations with vibrant light displays. Now that we’ve moved to the other side of the world, it doesn’t really feel like Christmas. But I can’t complain.

Warm weather in December has it’s benefits (outdoor barbecues, swimming at the beach, and going on hiking trips, to name a few).  That being said, living in a different country can be a mind-bending experience. Every day is Opposite Day.

There are the more obvious differences between the United States and New Zealand: The seasons are reversed so summer is winter, spring is autumn, and so on; the people drive on the left side of the road rather than the right; they speak English (or what seems to be English) with an accent; and the timezone change means it’s tomorrow, today. But there are also some less obvious distinctions.

In New Zealand, light switches flick up and down, but down is “on” and up is “off.” The moon’s surface has craters, but there’s no illusion of a man’s face from this angle. Appetizers are called entrees, and entrees are called mains. Circumcision for baby boys is the exception not the rule. Pick up a jar of “mayonnaise” from the supermarket and you might find a sweet, gloopy sauce made without eggs. And when comparing political parties to the U.S., New Zealand conservatives are liberal, and their liberals are, well, even more liberal.

It’s a world of small differences—differences that add up to create a largely different experience. This holiday season, as families celebrate Christmas across the globe, they do so in different ways. We may agree on the name for this season, but the details can get a bit a hazy.

Does Santa get milk and cookies or biscuits and bourbon? Is it Santa, Saint Nicholas, or actually an old witch named Befana? Real tree, synthetic tree, or no tree at all? Stockings or shoes? Christmas ham, lamb, or deep-fried caterpillar?

Whether celebrating at home, traveling to visit friends and family, or moving halfway around the world, I hope you enjoy what makes your Christmas different—what makes it special to you. Happy Holidays!

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Being A Follower Is Hard Work

follow the leader

Most organizations assume that leadership has to be taught but that everyone knows how to follow. This assumption is based on three faulty premises:
(1) that leaders are more important than followers,
(2) that following is simply doing what you are told to do, and
(3) that followers inevitably draw their energy and aims, even their talent, from the leader.

—Robert Kelly, “In Praise of Followers” (1988)

Life is a balance between doing and observing. Leaders generally preoccupy themselves with the former, while followers tend to err on the side of the latter. But whichever role we find ourselves, both taking action and stopping to listen are required for success. That being said, being a follower is hard work. Despite the common misconception that following is a passive, submissive process, effective following is an active and demanding challenge. In fact, being a good follower is arguably more difficult than being a good leader for at least three reasons:

1.) There is far less glory in the role of a follower. Take movie awards for instance: Each year the Academy Awards honors the best and brightest of film with twenty-four categories. An overwhelming emphasis is placed on individual participants—actors, directors, composers. And even second tier awards (categories like “Best Visual Effects”) are received by only a few people representing a team of hundreds. This is not to mention the financial disparity between follower roles like special effect teams and leader roles like individual directors.

Our culture celebrates the individual, the star, the hero, relegating the many hands behind the scenes to tiny, scrolling names after the audience has already left the theatre. However true the phrase, “Behind every great leader you will find a great team,” followers are not adequately recognized for their efforts. We must instead take pride in what was accomplish overall, not the acclaim we received in the process.

2.) Also, being an effective follower may require more energy than being a leader. In the world of unmanned flight, drone aircraft often fly in groups with one drone leading the rest. These unmanned aerial vehicles expend various amount of fuel (energy) depending on their position within the group. A problem with managing these groups is that follower drones burn more fuel, especially during quick maneuvering, than the aircraft they follow.

Not only do followers have to spend time and energy performing their own duties, they must be constantly monitoring their team and proactively assess what’s next. As followers, we must preempt and adapt to the changes our leaders make. The more influence someone else has on our lives, the more likely our efforts will be duplicated, changed mid-project, or scrapped altogether.

3.) Followers also run the risk of becoming overly dependent. Unlike leaders who often act independently, followers have the dangerous opportunity to abdicate responsibility and opinion. This can lead to unhealthy dependence on outside leadership. Unfortunately, lack of agency can cause feelings of apathy, resentment, powerlessness, and depression, which followers must mange accordingly.

Over-dependence can also leave us directionless in times of change—aimlessly wandering when we are without something to follow. There are times when who or what we follow (be it our children, spouse, career, religious leaders, etc.) disappear suddenly (empty nesters, widows, retirement, scandals, and so on). Some of these drastic changes are inevitable patterns of life, but some changes are unexpected. And whether we’re anticipating a change or taken by surprise, we need to have a plan. We need an opinion and a direction we’d like to take.

Followers must constantly fight the urge to defer our opinions and decisions to whoever’s in charge. Simply due to the nature of the role, it is more difficult as followers to take responsibility and decide the direction of our lives than it is for the leaders who influence them.

So why would anyone be a follower? If being a follower provides fewer rewards for our efforts, requires more energy, and puts us at risk of apathy, resentment, and aimlessness, then why would we choose to follow? Why not look to lead instead?

Well for one, we do it for love. We allow our children, our spouses, our desire to change the world outweigh our personal gain. We follow because we must, because there’s no other choice. No person has the capacity to lead every moment of every aspect of his life (nor would it be healthy). And most important, we follow, because when it comes down to it, there’s really no such thing as followers and leaders; there are only arbitrary labels and titles that we assign one another.

Each of us vacillates between following and leading, sometimes switching from one role to the next in an instant. A dirty diaper leads us to the changing table, after which we lead an infant to the park or the grocer or a bike ride. A boss gives us an assignment, in which hours later, we find ourselves “managing up”— guiding them through a proposal.

Every relationship we have, every goal we’re trying to accomplish, is a constant give and take. We must find a balance between totalitarian rule and total apathy, between doing and observing. We may not be the lead dancer at any given moment, but we also cannot go limp—dead weight for our partner to lug around the dance floor. No matter which role we find ourselves—whether leading or following—life is not a passive process.

Kelley, Robert E. “In Praise of Followers.” Harvard Business Review. (November 1988) 142-148. (Source 1) (Source 2)

Dubner, Stephen J. “No Hollywood Ending for the Visual-Effects Industry.” Audio podcast. Freakanomics Radio. freakanomics.com, 22 February 2017. (Source)

Choi, Jongug, and Yudan Kim. “Fuel efficient three dimensional controller for leader-follower UAV formation flight.” International Conference on Control, Automation and Systems, Seoul, Korea, 2007. (Source)

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If We Were Like Trees

Tree TabooIf trees could read, would they? Or would the fact that books have been printed on mulched up tree guts for centuries be a barrier to literary exploration? And while books may last for years, what would trees think of magazines? As silly as personification is, this line of questioning leads us to the real topic of today’s discussion: If we were like trees, would we live our lives differently?

Most of who we are is invisible. Humans are visual creatures with as much as two-thirds of our brains associated with vision. We use this ability to observe our three dimensional world, yet there’s a fourth dimension—time—that makes up the majority of who we are. Our experiences, our long years of life—the more diverse these are, the larger we “grow.” But it can be difficult to sense the enormity of a large life.

If we were like trees, we could stand in awe of the expansive lives of one another. We could marvel at the large trunks and broad canopies of our elders. We could see one another—our branching, our scars, our history carved into the physical embodiment of our years.

As much as we try, the material world does not provide an accurate representations of who we are. The cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the jobs we have, the photos we post—these are poor substitutions for the real thing. Even our bodies don’t tell the whole story. Wrinkles, blemishes, thinning hair—these might give away our age, but to accurately tell our life story? Impossible.

Unable to directly observe the experiences of others, we settle for sensing the shape of a person’s life through indirect measures—their demeanor, their stories, their stuff. Material wealth is often (mistakenly) used as a proxy for life worth. If we were like trees—if our bodies were a physical representation of our experiences—there would be less need for ancillary metrics. Just by looking, we would see the complexity and worthiness of even the poorest among us.

Also, unlike humans who reach a mature size a fifth of the way into our lives, trees continually grow larger over time. And not only that, they actually accelerate their growth as they age, meaning older trees are better at being trees (i.e. removing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere). Imagine a life where your years of “peak performance” are always ahead of you, a life where you’re always getting better.

As humans age, our bodies become frail, small, and insignificant. There is no visual representation of all that a person has accomplished, all the people they’ve influenced, loved, and touched. The vastness of their experience is easily overlooked and under-appreciated. Yet the lives of our aged population are like the trees—enormous amounts of time and energy to be marveled.

We must be careful not to under-appreciate our elders—those people we call parents, grandparents, or great grandparents. We may not be able to see the immensity of their time here on earth, but we should be able to sense the scale of their lives and what they provide us.

When an old tree dies in the woods, it falls to the ground. It lies there like a giant among new growth, leaving a large space for smaller trees to fill. It decomposes providing nutrients for the next generation. That’s the circle of life. And the larger a tree’s life—the larger, physically, that tree was—the more it provides after death. To quote Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Perhaps humans too can embody the grand scale of a long life. We cannot see it directly, but it is still there, like the massive size of a fallen tree.

Many of us fear death, because it represents the end. We are afraid of regret, afraid of not having done or experienced enough. But what if we were like trees? Perhaps death would be seen as just the beginning—our large lives giving back to the small, the young, the future.

Stephenson, Nathan, et al. “Rate of Tree Carbon Accumulation Increases Continuously with Tree Size.” Nature 507.7490 (2014): 90-93. (Source)

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