WEEKLY VIEWS, REVIEWS & NEWS FROM THE OKANAGAN MEDIA APPLIANCE
The Longing for Identity
NUMBER 112llFOR THE WEEK OF DECEMBER 9-15, 2013
Searching in All the Wrong Places
For many people, their Twitter account or Facebook page is their identity. It's the place where they present themselves to the world. These sites have taken off partly because our other identities have weakened over the last decade.
People once defined themselves by their job, church, nation and family. But in these secular, jobless, globalised times when ever more of us live alone, we are no longer very sure who we are.
We are what we do. We choose professions that suit our identity, and then those professions enhance our identity. Meticulous types become accountants, and then accountancy makes them even more meticulous. Men in particular have always defined themselves partly through their work. But that era is ending. With the economic crisis and technological change (robots are taking over the world), ever fewer of us have satisfying jobs or stay in the same profession for life. People are ceasing to be their jobs. That is forcing them to find new identities.
Professional identities change over time. For journalists, when the internet arrived the result was nonstop writing for falling pay. Nowadays journalists seem to be strivers and, increasingly, women. The fastest way to feminise a profession is to reduce pay. Journalism is being replaced by PR.
Academia used to attract people who liked ideas. But with the decline of grand theory, and the pressure to publish endless papers, academics now tend to be hardworking types willing to devote their lives to minuscule specialities.
The victims of these changes lose their professional identities. This happens to most advertising copywriters, for instance, after about age 40. The person's story about who they are suddenly collapses.
We middle classes are simply experiencing what the working classes have been through since the 1970s. Miners and factory workers had hard, sometimes unpleasant jobs but these jobs conferred identity - in part precisely because they were hard. Today most working-class jobs entail serving people: pouring coffee, driving taxis or looking after toddlers or geriatrics. But it's difficult to construct an identity from servile work.
A class divide separates people who choose their job from people who don't. Today's young people mostly don't. If they have work, it's often servile. That means they have to define themselves without the benefit of professional identity. Many do it through consumption: you are your Mac or your favourite kind of coffee.
Social media offer other strategies. On Twitter, we get 160 characters to write our biography - state our identity. Many just name their favourite sports teams, bands, or TV shows. The dead space for many used to be between their ears, now it's all over cyberspace, sending out empty messages about empty people leading meaningless lives, into the void.
Getting a Good Fix on Failure
HAPPINESS FOR PEOPLE WHO CAN'T STAND POSITIVE THINKING
Oliver Burkeman || Developing a healthier approach to failure may be easier than you'd think. The work of the Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that our experiences of failure are influenced overwhelmingly by the beliefs we hold about the nature of talent and ability - and that we can, perhaps quite straightforwardly, nudge ourselves towards a better outlook.
Each of us can be placed somewhere on a continuum, Dweck argues, depending on our "implicit view" - or unspoken attitude - about what talent is and where it comes from. Those with a "fixed theory" assume that ability is innate; those with an "incremental theory" believe that it evolves through challenge and hard work. If you're the kind of person who strives mightily to avoid the experience of failure, it's likely that you reside near the "fixed" end of Dweck's continuum.
Fixed-theory people approach challenges as occasions on which they are called upon to demonstrate their innate abilities, and so they find failure especially horrifying: to them, it's a sign that they tried to show how good they are, but didn't measure up. The classic example is the young sports star encouraged to think of himself as a "natural" - but who then fails to put in sufficient practice to realise his potential. If talent is innate, his unspoken reasoning goes, then why bother?
Incremental-theory people are different. Because they think of abilities as emerging through tackling challenges, the experience of failure has a completely different meaning for them: it's evidence that they are stretching themselves to their current limits. If they weren't, they wouldn't fail. The relevant analogy here is with weight training: muscles grow by being pushed to the limits of their current capacity, where fibres tear and reheal. Among weightlifters, "training to failure" isn't an admission of defeat - it's a strategy.
Happily, Dweck's studies indicate that we are not saddled for life with one mindset rather than another. Some people manage to alter their outlook simply by being introduced to the fixed versus incremental distinction.
Alternatively, it's worth trying to recall it next time failure strikes: next time you flunk an exam, or mishandle a social situation, consider that it's happening only because you're pushing at the limits of your present abilities. And should you wish to encourage an incremental outlook in your children, Dweck advises, take care to praise them for their effort, rather than their intelligence: focusing on the latter is likely to exacerbate a fixed mindset, making them more reluctant to risk encountering failure in the future.
The incremental mindset is the one more likely to lead to sustainable success. But the deeper point is that possessing an incremental outlook is a happier way to be, whether or not it leads to any outstanding success. It is a win-win proposition, for which the only precondition is a heartfelt willingness to lose.
The gurus of positivity and optimism can't bear to contemplate that there might be happiness to be found in embracing failure as failure, not only as a technique for achieving success. But, as the Zen-influenced writer Natalie Goldberg argues, there is an openness and honesty in failure, a down-to-earth confrontation with reality that can seem lacking at the higher altitudes of success. Perfectionism is one of those traits that many people seem secretly, or not-so-secretly, proud to possess, since it hardly seems like a character flaw.
Yet, at bottom, it is a fear-driven striving to avoid the experience of failure at all costs. At the extremes, it is an exhausting and permanently stressful way to live: there is a greater correlation between perfectionism and suicide, researchers have found, than between feelings of hopelessness and suicide. To fully embrace the experience of failure, not merely to tolerate it as a stepping stone to glory, is to abandon this constant straining never to put a foot wrong - and to relax.
David Graeber || It's as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen.
Sure, in the old inefficient socialist states like the Soviet Union, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system made up as many jobs as they had to (this is why in Soviet department stores it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat). But, of course, this is the very sort of problem market competition is supposed to fix.
According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seeking firm is going to do is shell out money to workers they don't really need to employ. Still, somehow, it happens.
While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours, since the rest of their time is spent organising or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets.
The answer clearly isn't economic: it's moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the '60s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.
Once, when contemplating the apparently endless growth of administrative responsibilities in academic departments, I came up with one possible vision of hell. Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don't like and are not especially good at. Say they were hired because they were excellent cabinet-makers, and then discover they are expected to spend a great deal of their time frying fish. Neither does the task really need to be done - at least, there's only a very limited number of fish that need to be fried. Yet somehow, they all become so obsessed with resentment at the thought that some of their co-workers might be spending more time making cabinets, and not doing their fair share of the fish-frying responsibilities, that before long there's endless piles of useless badly cooked fish piling up all over the workshop and it's all that anyone really does.
I think this is actually a pretty accurate description of the moral dynamics of our own economy.
If the creative process were understood as a cheap, renewable, problem-solving resource, it would be demanded as a dominant part of public school curricula. Every pupil would be studying music, sculpture, dance, acting, drawing, poetry, and writing - not to create more artists, but to nurture people in whom senses and skills operate at peak efficiency. This is how we will train the integrated and organized minds to appreciate nuance and detail and to make the creative leaps necessary to keep culture and industry vital. This is where we will find the renewable resources to produce more beautiful products, architecture, and cultural expression. Design sense and keen aesthetics, after all, are not merely right-brain "creative" activities - they are forms of intelligence. Look at the patterns on a computer chip. It is impossible to separate their function from their design. In fact, part of the intelligence imbedded in them is design. The same is true for a honeycomb. The repetitive octagon of the honeycomb is the most efficient design for maximizing storage capacity in a given space. A chambered nautilus, the valves of the heart, a coral reef, a kimono, and a lacquered bowl all represent a fusion of form and function that is a kiind of heightened problem-solving intelligence. This intelligence, which can be studied, learned, replicated, and reproduced, needs to be integrated into our schools' curricula if we want to reap the public rewards inherent in a highly skilled, educated citizenry and labor force. - Peter Coyote
Finally, there is a club that will have us. Limited memberships available. Get in early before they're gone: www.proofclub.ca
Club | Laboratory | School | Kitchen | Gallery | Lounge | Workshop | Speakeasy | Incubator | Library | Makerspace | Emporium | Studio
The Journey of Creative Ageing
The most recent issue of the Okanagan Institute journal Sage-ing with Creative Spirit, Grace and Gratitude is online at www.sageing.ca
A volunteer publication of the Okanagan Institute, intended as an initiative for collaboration and sharing, the journal presents the opportunity for the free exchange of wisdom gleaned from creative engagement, and is focused on honouring the transformational power of creativity. We hope that your perspective on the arts and creative engagement might also change as you read stories of Okanagan artists, experienced and emerging, who engage in art for the joy of stimulating personal and community wisdom and well-being.
A JOURNAL OF THE ARTS & AGING
"One of the strengths that sages possess, regardless of age, is a willingness to be educated by all things. Curiosity leads them to learn from all they encounter. They do not judge people or situations. When one relaxes into just being, everything can nourish and stimulate. For those who embrace life as a sage-ing experience, things come to them from the world and from the events in their lives. By taking time and giving attention to creatively respond to what might at first seem ordinary and not deserving of notice, life ripens with significance and meaning."