Speaking notes from keynote for the Writer’s Guild of Alberta 2018 AGM.
I will begin by introducing the work I do, but before that I need to mention the word avuncular.
My work focuses on performance. I love learning how people do, what they do, when they do, what they do. For me, Aristotle’s “you are what you repeatedly do” is everything.
I spend my life studying elite performance. It always seemed to me that the best way to learn was to watch how people actually do their work. My talks and workshops share what I learn. One day after a talk a friend called me and asked me to go for a walk. On that walk he told me I should remind people I am speaking about my research, and not my life or else I risk coming off a little…avuncular. I have thanked him for that note every year since. The most recent time was last month when we met in LA.
So, when I speak about performance please know that I am reporting what I have observed in others, not what I do. The truth is, I am incapable of learning anything without failing miserably first and then realizing “ah, that’s why you don’t do it that way.”
Next, I will declare two biases to contextualize what I will say:
First: I believe that whatever this life is, its core is love. If we think of knowledge coming in two forms: pure and applied, then my belief in love is my pure philosophy. My applied philosophy, or the approach I use to guide my actions is my second bias. I believe art is more important than anything else.
Studying great performers, I read or hear a lot of interviews with accomplished people. Often, and I’m sure you can think of examples, I’ve heard a great writer say something self-deprecating like, “well what I do is not rocket science,” or, “what I do is not as important as brain surgery.” That is wrong. Art is more important than brain surgery. Art is more important than rocket science.
Einstein said so, and he knew a thing or two about the issue.
Artists need to remember that humility is good, but the phrase “false humility” exists for a reason. It means that sometimes what you call humility is actually lying.
These are my beliefs. I share them because for the rest of my talk I’m going to speak from research. I will combine work I have done for two separate books. The first is a study of meaning and technology throughout time, and the second is a follow up to a book I wrote arguing that creativity is more important than critical thinking. The first is a long, detailed study of societal conditions that impact the way we think and pursue meaning, the second is a handbook designed to give away my system for helping people improve performance. If I were to summarize the information, it would be this: failure to come to terms with the nature of the shift between a book-based and a digital society will doom you to pain and suffering but making everything better is easy.
Before we go any further I need to make a quick announcement:
I want to mention the upcoming workshops the Writers Guild of Alberta is doing as the result of a grant from the Canada Council’s “Digital Strategy Fund.” What the Writers Guild of Alberta does to address the changes Council outlines as part of that strategy will have a profound impact on everyone in this room. I am on the record supporting Simon Breault and the council’s approach, and that of the Honourable Minister Melanie Joly from Canadian Heritage. The reason for my support has nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with performance. I have worked in digital technology my entire life and their approach is refreshingly well-informed.
Some of what I will say will address these issues, but for now I want to say that Canadian Heritage and the Canada Council clearly understand the scale and scope of the digital shift. They are giving us a tremendous opportunity. Our challenge is taking them up on their offer.
The reason I agreed to work on with the WGA on this project is that for all the good Council and Heritage have done, they are struggling to help writers and publishers. They know it and want to address the gap. Let’s help them do it.
Okay. Back to work.
You are what you repeatedly do.
You are what you repeatedly do.
You are what you repeatedly do.
You are what you repeatedly do reminds us that whatever we do we strengthen. When Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea of the “10,000-hour rule” he was telling us that we are what we repeatedly do. Malcolm Gladwell is a great interpreter of research, but his book missed emphasizing a crucial point. Your 10,000 hours need to be highly focused. A lot of people spend ten thousand hours golfing and still suck. That is because they have mastered the art of being mediocre. You are what you repeatedly do tells us that practice might get you to Carnegie Hall, but it also tells us that if you sit still and do what you are told for four years of a university degree, not only will you not get a job, you will leave dumber than when you arrived.
Who would want to hire someone who would just sit there doing something they do not care about for four years? These people have become masters of mediocrity. They have strengthened the muscles of accepting less. What is most frightening about this is that you cannot just start from zero the next day, you have to work for years to undo your mediocrity practice, because, “you are what you repeatedly do.”
What this research tells us is that if you are a “problem solver,” you repeatedly look for problems. If you criticize, you repeatedly complain. You are what you repeatedly do. Practice strengthens precisely those muscles used in its execution.
In this presentation, I discuss the current cultural climate drawing on my work in the area and offering suggestions for how to live in it. I speak for around 45-minutes, so we have time to chat. During my talk, I will show the most beautiful slideshow you have ever seen.
I will begin with an experiment for you to do.
You do not need to do anything outward, I will just mention something we will think about. It is an exercise I call the face. I think of my grandma’s face, but you should use a face that works for you. The idea is to think of a face that looks at you with joy. Not desire, or need, or interest, just joy. Generally, parents, spouses, children and friends are not a good choice because their attention is too engaged. If you cannot think of a face, it works to build one, it just takes a little more time. A couple of hints if you can’t think of a face: pets work well, famous people or spiritual leaders don’t. You want to think of a face that would look at you the same way if you had just won an award or just fallen flat on your face.
So, here we go.
Close your eyes. If it makes you uneasy to close your eyes all the way, leave them open a crack but look down so you don’t have anyone directly in view.
Now, see the face. Use your mind to see the face. Review it in as much detail as possible. Actively notice the details of the face, if you notice other aspects of their appearance and the setting, that’s fine, but keep your focus on the face. If you get distracted that’s great – it gives you the chance to work on returning to the face.
The face you see expresses love and approval that cannot increase or decrease. It is a constant and wants nothing from you. Can you see the face? Keep seeing it, and actively noticing its details. If you feel like you have noticed all the detail start again and just keep seeing the face. Don’t think about the character or stories, just see the face in the moment of first meeting. Seeing you makes the face smile. Keep seeing it. Your job is to develop your ability to see this face with greater and greater clarity.
Gradually, if you can, notice how the face makes you feel.
Do not worry if the exercise is hard. I promise you, the exercise works for everyone. Just keep going.
For the rest of my talk, whenever I say the phrase, “you are what you repeatedly do,” I want you to do the exercise. See the face. That way even if what I say sucks, you still leave with a new practice, and I will succeed in bringing you the feeling I want you to have.
Can we try it once? I will say the phrase and you will do the exercise.
Blah, blah, blah…you are what you repeatedly do.
See the face? Do you see it? That’s my slideshow.
Uta Hagen said, “artists are the most courageous people in the world, and actors are the most courageous artists.” I love that quote. You should only study with teachers who know their subject is the most important in the world. At the same time, Hagen misses something that provides an insight into a problem we share.
Hagen is talking about vulnerability.
Successful creators share similarities, but have a lot of differences, but there is a universal law: if you can find a way to be vulnerable in your art the audience will love you. It is a paradoxical law because it is easy to understand but difficult to do. Compounding the difficulty is the problem of success. Once we take the instruction seriously, we find a way to be more vulnerable. Unfortunately, the minute it works, we become aware it is working and it slips away. The desire to get it back actually makes it harder to do so.
When thinking about vulnerability in art, with due respect to Hagen, I wonder if writers aren’t the most courageous artists? It’s true the actor’s vulnerability is judged face to face, but the writer opens themselves and their writing sutures the walls of the opening leaving the wound open for the rest of their lives. How often do we wish we could pull back some of our early writing and close that wound?
You are what you repeatedly do.
We cannot determine whether actors or writers are more courageous, but we should consider the changing conversation about writing. A data-driven world responds well to visible behaviour but misses the inner world. As cognitive science explodes, we are creating an evidence-based view of humanity using behaviours that are easy to quantify. We need to talk about the way we connect internally through words. Because we lived for so long in a culture of book-based learning, we took the magic of words for granted. We did not need to make the case for their power, it was a given.
Consider the notion of taking people or things for granted. In a room full of writers, I imagine many of you have had to apologize for taking those you love for granted while you focused on finding the right word, phrase, or sound. Your love for them did not change, but your focus caused behavioural conditions that when measured externally lead to problems. When we consider the world, we can only attend to a few areas. We identify regions of relative stability and withdraw active reflection. Looked at in a different way, human beings adapt quickly to current conditions. We acclimate then begin to believe this moment is the way the world works.
On the grand scale, this means many aspects of the ways society works are taken for granted. Then, every once in a while, large structures shake. Natural disasters, wars, and financial crises shake large structures back into focus.
Philosophers sometimes refer to these frames as, “the background.” Sitting here you are thinking many different thoughts. Maybe a little about what I am saying, a bit about the temperature of the room, the comfort of your chair, or perhaps the part of the schedule you are looking forward to after the bald guy shuts up. Then, perhaps I introduce a controversial claim which leads to a heated question and answer session. We forget about the heat and the chair, and even that future event, and focus on the issue. But…if at any point the floor falls away everything changes. The background is that which is most important, and so reliable it falls out of consideration.
In a society built on books, we took the background of book technology for granted. For generations, it was a given that people understood the essential contributions of the librarian, the archivist, the editor, the publisher, printer and critic. They were so essential and so important we stopped actively declaring their importance because to do so would be to state the obvious. That is predictable and sensible behavior, but in moments of major change these essential areas are then left defenceless, and without advocates.
You are what you repeatedly do.
Imagine an administrator doing their best to live in the digital age.
Everything is changing. Everyone is worried. What can they do? They look at the library and say, “we need computers.” With limited funds, decisions are made about what is and is not important. Adding computers is important, but it now means cutting something else. Usually these items are called “non-essential items,” or, “non-essential staff.” But, if they are part of the background they are – by definition – essential. Suddenly that which is essential to reading and writing is at a disadvantage. The work of the librarian, archivist, historian, editor or publisher is without the promotional support that focuses on authors. What is lost is the understanding built into the DNA of writing that writers are not alone, they are part of a community of writing.
The tradition of acknowledging that supportive community is marked by a tone of humility. The humility is not feigned, it is part of ritual deference to the keepers of ideas. That tradition is the most powerful and long-lasting community in the world. Every group at every time entrusts a select few who commit to apolitical, non-ideological, service to, and preservation of, ideas. We did not shout this from the rooftops because we all knew it. But when, as has happened recently, we experience a transformation of the primary means of organizing knowledge the lack of demonstrative narrative support for these essential roles makes them easy targets for budget cuts.
When we look at human history there are four primary periods of knowledge. The first is the age of speech, writing, print, and digital. Each transformation altered every aspect of society, and each transformation has been both larger, and more rapid than the last.
Scholars such as Brian Stock and Mary Caruthers show the impact of the last shift, from manuscript to print culture. The impact fundamentally transformed religion, economics, politics, culture, and cognition. People living at the time spoke of the change. They knew everything was different, and that what was happening was too big for them to understand.
One of the most famous literary examples used to describe this experience is in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Archdeacon, waving a book in one hand and pointing to the cathedral with the other cries, “This Will Destroy that…” His response is mocked in the book, and by critics, but he was right. Their background was a society where church and state were a unified force. There was no way to imagine a challenge to that authority.
The printing press changed everything. It changed the way we think. When we engage the world through book-based information we begin to structure knowledge in our minds following book-based structures. The only major institution that was not fundamentally altered was the community of people committed to ideas. Universities, libraries, writers, editors, critics, and publishers continued working by remembering their commitment was to words and ideas and not a specific technology.
You are what you repeatedly do.
According to scholars the information age began at the latest in the 1940s. Marshall McLuhan spent an entire career shouting about it. Why are we are still talking about it as if it were new?
When you consider the words coming from the Canada Council and from the Ministry of Heritage their approach to the digital age contains two revealing components. The first is the addition of programs to support digital artists. The second, which was the product of extensive cross-country consultations, discusses the need to help people get caught up. If you read it, it is hard not to notice a hint that this is our last chance to join the 21st Century. It does us no good to pretend we are preparing for the future. The digital revolution happened, its leaders are dead or retired. The background shifted.
Now, before we worry we should remember what happens when we have shifts in the background. Yes, everything is changing, and rapid change will be the norm for the rest of our lives. But we will be fine. We won’t actually notice how quickly things change. After all, many haven’t noticed the digital revolution and we are three quarters of a century in! Large-scale changes in the background mean adjustment of the frame, but within the frame, change is subtler.
By way of analogy: let’s assume all the writers here use Microsoft Word.
Think of the digital transformation like this: for hundreds of years we write using Microsoft Word on a computer running Windows. Then, seemingly overnight, we replace all the Windows machines with Apple machines. It is a whole new operating system. Everything about the way knowledge is structured is altered, but you still just use Microsoft Word.
Attention to the change will make your life and work easier and better. Lack of attention means there will be strange errors in your work that do not make any sense and cause a great deal of frustration because they shake the foundations of your awareness but provide no evidence of their cause. Experiencing this kind of shift causes profound anxiety because it is on a massive scale, but everything seems the same. The experience is one of alienation and unease. Ideas and norms, we believed in, and counted on, betray us, yet do so without leaving evidence for us to evaluate. Those living during the introduction of print spoke about this experience constantly.
What I can tell you with a great deal of certainty is that the need for writing, for good writing, has increased and will continue to increase. Our great concern, and particularly for those who care deeply for words, is that the force of this transformation hit along a fault line that runs through the ancient structures of writing, editing and publishing. If we do not actively work to transfer the background of ideas that has served us through the ages of storytelling, writing, and print, we will lose the most precious and powerful work ever created. We will be the first to fail in thousands of years.
From the Epic of Gilgamesh to what you are writing today, we have worked with the support of an international system of those who impartially care for information. The tradition developed by storytellers, singers, librarians, archivists, scholars, and interested members of society, whose education included the formal study of reading and writing, is the greatest achievement of our species. It has survived major transformations in the past, but only when those who cared for ideas worked deliberately to update the system.
Digital technology is ideally suited to support the long-held practices of the keepers of ideas. The problem is us, but it is no one’s fault. There was no way we could prepare, but it is clear that we have been slow to respond, and several political decisions have made the problem worse.
So, what precisely is the problem, and how do we solve it? The problem is our primary means of engagement: language, has been left in the hands of those who do not understand it. What do we do? What did they do in the other transformations?
How about this: one of the more successful approaches during the last transformation came from something called guilds. They promoted the new approaches to knowledge and led the transformation while protecting their members from the rough edges of change. They brought Drama back and made it possible for there to be a Shakespeare. If only we had a guild of writers to turn to…
If we did, here is the problem and solution I would bring to them:
CP Snow spoke of a division between the sciences and humanities. Others followed with similar evaluations. More recently intellectual historian and media studies scholar Mark Poster spoke of the divide. Poster, who spent most of his life as media theorist and intellectual historian turned to the study of information technology in his final works. He pointed out that at the climax of book-based society we moved into an educational structure that streamed students in a way that created a perfect storm.
You are what you repeatedly do.
In general terms, the structure streams those with a proclivity for arts and letters away from math and science…as early as possible. Simultaneously, those with talents for Math and Science are moved away from courses arts and culture. The result is a society experiencing the largest technological revolution in human history created by people with little to no engagement with culture. Meanwhile, cultural criticism is written by people with little to no training in Science and Mathematics.
The result is a digital world several decades ahead of the majority of the population. Meanwhile, political and intellectual discussion is focused on winning the battle between left and right focused almost maniacally on a reconsideration of how to live in the Industrial Age.
The sight of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg in front of both houses of Congress after his company admitted they were responsible for undermining the American electoral process and receiving not a single question that demonstrated a knowledge of digital technology age is terrifying. It sent a very clear message to those who work in high tech. We do not know what we do not know. When we ask ourselves, “why we are seeing the rise of nightmarish phantoms of politics gone by,” We should remember the American election was decided by computers not people.
How do you write in difficult times? Do the face exercise.
We are the ones who get to live through the greatest transition in human history, and you as writers are inherently sensitive beings which means you will feel the anxiety more than most. But, we cannot afford to let you take a day off. We are in the information age, you are digital artists, our chief operating system is computer code, it is our primary literacy. What is computer code? Basic mathematics, just simple arithmetic, and well-formed sentences. In English.
The world does not need more information. Our world needs better information. There is no single craft or practice that can provide an individual or group with more power than the ability to write. If you know how to properly use a semicolon you are the 1%. Computer code may look odd to you, but I assure you it is simple, and responds to one thing only: precise composition. What this means is that while the last few decades focused on literary content, what we need now is a laser-like focus on craft. Craft in education, craft in journalism craft in fiction, craft in poetry, craft in performance, and craft in living. At moments of great transformation, we must attend to the background.
How do you how write in difficult times? Ask Viktor Frankl who wrote one of the world’s most influential books about his experience in a concentration camp. Can you imagine asking, Hey Vic, how come you don’t spend any time talking about the crazy guy leading the country in your book? Where are are the great satirical pieces about how small his hands are? Instead Frankl spoke about smiling while looking at the Nazi guards. The reason? If one has to live under those circumstances you have to be glad you are not a Nazi. Ask Mary Wollstonecraft whose Vindication of the Rights of Women is still more progressive than anything being proposed today.
To riff on a recent best seller, I offer you, “one rule for living in times of Chaos.” Focus on setting. Time and place. Those who were aware of that used digital technology to deliver election results in the United States that no one could believe. Well, no one that is who read cultural commentators focused on the battle between left and right. I bet on that election, and won every bet, and I’m just a Drama professor in Calgary. But I can read numbers.
Want a more positive example? Digital technology brought down Harvey Weinstein.
If we are concerned about politics, perhaps it is time for us to ask the real question: the digital question. Why don’t Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Alibaba, pay attention to left vs right? Because they know the it’s irrelevant. The industrial is over. Capitalism vs Marxism? Why not horse versus horseless carriage?
So, who will step forward and help navigate this new world?
Those who live a deliberately creative life. To live a creative life is to choose to align oneself with the positive forces of existence. What creature can take in the horrors of the Holocaust, of slavery, the abuse of women, the suffering of the sick and poor, and respond with truth and beauty? Great writers show us the way forward by facing reality with eyes and hearts open, reminding us that yes, we do bad things, but we can choose to create and not destroy.
You are what you repeatedly do.
Let us look at reality using data confirmed by the United Nations and World Health Organization and backed by mountains of scholarly evidence: poverty, disease, intolerance, and violence have been decreasing steadily for years.
Everywhere on earth. Health and education indicators have been improving the whole time. Everywhere on earth. More art is being created than ever before. Why is it that these facts are hard to hear?
Consider America before the most recent presidential election. Two of my favourite institutions were struggling. The New York Times and Saturday Night Live. Both we’re hemorrhaging money and credibility. Their stock in both is booming since the last US election. Multiple studies have shown that while evidence of human progress is profound, reporting and cultural commentary has steadily become more nihilistic.
What if the question we should be asking is:
With massive, tested evidence that everything is getting better why are we talking about how to survive difficult times? Who benefits from us thinking we are at war with one another?
The next time you face upsetting information remember Professor BJ Fogg at Stanford. Fogg is widely believed to be the most influential behavioural psychologist in history. Why? He came up with research that showed us how to manipulate human behaviour. He did it because he wanted to make the world a better place. Media companies now use it to prioritize fear-based language which our reptilian brains cannot be trained to ignore. The greatest technological minds on the planet are running our communication systems bereft of training in ethics, culture, poetry, or philosophy.
Professor Fogg and his team created the models being used to generate fake news. To keep you looking at your phone and computer longer than you would if you could exercise free will. Fogg publicly denounced this use of his research for years. Those working in the tech sector have repeatedly blown the whistle on these abuses. In that sector, people have been asking for greater collaboration with the Arts for years. Steve Jobs said the key to success is the combination of Arts and Science, the healing of the CP Snow rift. Bill Gates philanthropy has saved tens of millions of lives as confirmed by the World Health Organization. People are good, and love is the default force of the world. If we are to return to a more accurate representation of reality, and to build a better society we need you to write.
You are what you repeatedly do.
As someone who has worked in digital my whole life, I can tell you that the new world does not need you to learn computer code, networked living requires increased expertise. William Gibson, one of the leading commentators on the information age does not understand computers. He does what you do: write.
Do not pay attention to bad writing. The book brought down the church. The computer brought down America, but ideas and the good always win. Our job is to ensure that more good writing gets into the world.
Think of it this way: maybe the reason you feel terrible is your diet. Our information diet must improve if we are to survive. Right now – all we consume is empty calories. We are on a refined sugar information diet. We need literary nutrition.
Celebrate those who are resilient, celebrate those who rise above, celebrate the best of what we can achieve because at moments of great transformation if we do not attend to the background the floor falls out and we plunge into the void.
The horrible ideas that are shouted at us every moment are offensive, and poorly written. They are beneath your consideration. Do not eat them.
The only way you can lose an argument with someone incapable of reason, compassion, and the composition of a grammatically correct sentence, is to allow them to upset you so much you cannot put pen to page.
You are writers. You are part of a global tradition that has existed for thousands of years. You cannot be defeated. If somehow, we launched all the bombs and scorched the last alive will sit around the campfire telling stories. Whatever the conditions, the deliberately creative respond to the universe in harmony with the force that gives life.
You are what you repeatedly do.
If this is getting too positive for you, and you want to stay angry, fine.
Perhaps this will convince you. Steve Bannon spoke openly about his model for success. He used it in the US election, and with several other governments around the world helping create the supposedly anti-democratic wave. What is the formula? He said, “keep them fighting over identity politics while you focus on data.”
When reporting on recent protests media outlets often feature a montage of humorous protest signs. One of the most common says, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit.” You don’t, but if you do, just know that people like Steve Bannon will working on the data while you do.
I will close by returning to our face exercise. Such is the power of the digital manipulation that is occurring even while I we speak about it. Some of us you have been checking our devices to get another hit of information from sources we know are lying to us, and we know damage our physical, emotional and psychological health. That is one heck of a drug. What do you pay for it? The personal information that allows them to increase your addiction and their control of your life and our world.
When liars shout at you in poorly formed language, remember the face exercise. Do it to help you return to the space where you can write. You are more dangerous as a writer than you are trying to march in the streets in opposition to an enemy whose weapons are bouncing off satellites.
How do you write in difficult times? Ask Eleonora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt. Duse developed the most powerful acting system in the world. That was not possible because she was not allowed. She was an Italian woman living in the 19th Century, so she was not permitted to do so. She spent no time talking about that injustice, she lived a deliberately creative life. Recognizing the power of what Duse had done, Sarah Bernhardt watched her, and copied the system. Bernhardt, a French woman of the same period was not allowed to act. Living a deliberately creative life, she toured the world, performing all the major leading roles from the Dramatic catalogue. She quite literally showed us a woman could play every role a man could with one exception: she was significantly better. In 1913, and 1918 she performed here at what is now the Grand Theatre. Recognizing the genius of these two women, two Russians wrote down their approach, so they could teach it to their actors – the called it the system. They wanted to use it because they had read plays by Anton Chekhov and knew they needed something special to perform them. Continuing that trend, a group of American actors translated it into English and started calling it method acting. It is the approach that has won more awards – Tony’s, Oscars and Golden Globes – than any other. We hear a lot about the method, as if it were an approach that meant losing control, which is the opposite of what it is.
In the method, actors learn how to do simple exercises that allow them to wipe away the pain of daily life, so they can do their best work. Once they finish, they do the exercise again, so they can return to the state needed to live in a constantly distracting world.
You are what you repeatedly do.
The face is an exercise I developed from my training in method acting. It is used to take care for the artist, so they can do their best work. It is used to remind us that the primary energy of life is creative. Is love.
Now, let me close with a group exercise you can use with your friends. I call it Beauty practice. When you meet begin – always begin – by sharing one description of something beautiful. Explain how it achieves what it achieves. Not your opinion, and now its impact, but how it achieves beauty. This practice prioritizes looking for beauty first and understanding how to create beautiful work. You do not need to work too hard at it, because beauty is infinitely more powerful than hateful statements made in poorly formed sentences. I promise you that strengthening your connection to your light will diminish the powers of darkness more than anything else you can do…and… you will sell more books and save the world to boot. Because that is the way life works.
My love to you all.