Friday, January 7, 2011

Malcolm Gladwell: Notes Toward A Practical Theory Of Life

So I've been going through my usual midwinter funk, this time with extra sauce. I haven't been blogging because a) my thoughts are too disordered for me to be able to write well, and b) there would be too much temptation to complain.

However, it has not been entirely miserable. I've done a fairly healthy amount of reading, and it has been remarkably rewarding. I'll want to mention John Waters's latest book, for instance, but the most significant experience I had was discovering the works of Malcolm Gladwell.

I've been communicating with a number of people on their reaction to the book Outliers, in particular Catherine Schaff-Stump. Here's part of our exchange, and here's another. I promised I'd acquire the book itself and respond to the work rather than the response to it.

Well, when the missus was visiting family in Florida, I had my usual withdrawals. One night I woke up at midnight, knew I was awake, and went prowling around for something to read. Fiction gives me difficulties these days; I wanted something soft and easy to understand. I found a book on the shelf called Blink, a yard sale rescue item.

I was blown away. When I started thinking, "Man, those people talking up Outliers ought to be reading this guy," I remembered the time my brother and I spent nearly a year with him trying to get me to read this short story in Omni called Johnny Mnemonic, while I pushed Neuromancer on him, both of us convinced we'd found the greatest science fiction ever. Of course after all the fighting and outrage had cleared out, we realized we'd both discovered William Gibson. (Typically, Duncan found him first. I'm always late to the party.)

I got up from bed and checked the computer; sure enough, Gladwell wrote both books and a third called Tipping Point. So the next day I walked to four different local stored and located Tipping Point, and then performed an act of grim dedication. I bought Outliers new, in hardback, from a big chain store. God have mercy on my sin-blistered soul.

This is exemplary non-fiction, with direct, intelligent prose and an understated but distinct authorial presence. These works gave me the much-appreciated pleasure of the company of a congenial mind, one rich in intelligence, common sense, diligence, and humanity. I do not agree with everything he says, and I feel that in Outliers, he begins to have serious trouble with unstated theses and the making of assumptions -- there is a sense of fatigue there. Or possibly desperation.

Because underneath the smooth surface of his presentation, Gladwell shows every sign of being passionately concerned with one of life's most serious question, and by implication concerned with life's only serious question.

Why do some people succeed and some fail? More specifically, why do so many gifted people fail? How is it that some people are able to change their circumstances radically, while others seem trapped by their position in life?

How does this apply to me?

How should I live my life?

That is the only important question. All others derive from it. And Malcolm Gladwell made me think about it. Hard. Because he doesn't just have speculation. He's got solid, verified observation, and he draws useful conclusions. He's been thinking about a lot of things that have occupied me recently, and he's in a position to have a better understanding of them then I do.

Rather than do a serious critique -- which will come, after I've had time to seriously read and notate the books -- let me tell you how my attitudes and approaches to life have changed in response to my initial reading. I did not digest these books, or ponder them, I gulped them down in raw steaming chunks. These are the personal responses I took away.

1
My big problem is not mental illness, it is class. It would be proper for me to attempt to gain access to the perquisites of the middle class, rather than defiantly shake my fist from the gutter.

My sister and I spoke of this yesterday morning. The difference between the way she was raised and the way I was raised left her a member of the lower middle class, and me a member of the lower class. It is distinct.

This is an issue in my relationship with the missus. She's upper middle/lower upper class, and the clash between my short-sighted fatalism and her arrogant entitlement provides us with hours of amusement.

In these books, Gladwell points out over and over again, subtly and overtly, that poverty carries with it a mental and emotional burden, and this burden predisposes a person to failure.

To be working class is to know that all you have has been given to you, and it could be taken away at any moment. Any bad decision you make can cost you everything. Starving in the gutter is not a metaphor; it is an activity. Have you ever felt your belly eat itself? Fuck you. And there is no profit to be made from your commitment, passion, and action. No benefit accrues from effort. The guy who spends half the day jacking off in the men's room takes home the same check you do. And honestly, if this is the best you can do you're a loser, plain and simple. You are a burden, everything you have is taken away from someone else, and if you attract any attention it will come in the form of trouble. So if you like attention, you better like trouble too.

This is the real key to my experience of life. I know people who are, like me, high-functioning mentally ill. And they own houses. They have careers. They take vacations.

Because somewhere down the line they got the information that they deserved to have their needs met. That the world was going to provide for those needs.

And this feeling of basic confidence in one's right to exist is a powerful thing. It might be more honest to say that the elimination of pride and confidence is shattering. That it prevents a person from functioning properly in the world.

So now I know why it's important for me to feel as though I deserve to have my needs and desires met. This condition I exist in is not virtuous; it is a pathological response to stress and trauma. It inhibits the quality of life of those who care for me. And it will certainly shorten my life if indulged.

But I find myself resistant, and the resistance is based on two feelings. One is that I am falling into sin, that to care for oneself is both vain and definitively selfish, the other is that my ability to physically dominate a situation might be compromised by an appearance that says anything other than, "I do not give a shit, and I am ready to die at any minute."

Honestly? You ask me what I want to look like? My mind immediately flashes to one of those Somalian dudes with a hyena on a chain. This must be modified at the very least.

So how does one go about addressing such an existential disaster?

Gladwell posted some signs, and I found they led somewhere productive.

2
Style Is Substantial

Nice is a word that's always given me problems. I am a tremendous supporter of nice in the Elwood Dowd sense, but the importance of things looking nice, or being nice has always bothered me. "Why should I have to dress nice, why should I have to clean up?" was a question whose answer always hinged on other people. Why should I have to dress differently just because of them? I don't mind clutter, I know where everything is. Why should it make any difference?

Gladwell makes it plain, over and over, that it makes a difference. A big difference. Coke tastes different out of the can. When New York literally cleaned up its infrastructure, it metaphorically cleaned up its crime problem. And when I wear a sport coat, people treat me differently. Because I went to the trouble of telling them that I'm a person worthy of respect.

In our house, there is a sharp division of height. Everything over five-six or so is mine. And for decades, there have been piles of books and CDs and bags of old bank statements and every little bit of crippy-crappy that gets handed to me that I don't care about accumulating on the tops of our shelves and dressers and so on.

Thinking about how New York got cleaned up, I started the week by clearing all those off. Interestingly, it's lighter downstairs -- they were actual hovering dark presences. More importantly, I'm trying to send a message to myself -- no more darkened unexamined corners. Everything out in the open, neat and tidy.

And now I understand that clothes are a language, and a personal signifier as well. The semiotics of personal presentation are the most controllable aspect of one's public person, and frequently it's the most instrumental.

I typically dress in a ragged T-shirt and too-big jeans held up by a too-big belt and muddy hiking boots. My hair is usually overgrown and vaguely... Ever see a picture of Gabby Hayes? Like that. I've had people throw change in my lap while I was waiting for the bus.

My clothes and person say, 'this is someone who is almost but not quite able to take care of himself, he's clean enough so that he probably doesn't live on the street, but if he wears pajamas they have feet.' Like it or not, this is a limited but accurate view.

I'm going to figure out how to make my appearance make the equally limited-but-accurate statement that, 'this is an artist, confident, and capable, a professional creator fit to act at the highest level.' I have it on good authority that I am not a wannabe, I'm a professional waiting to get paid. Time to start dressing in a fashion that allows others to view me in that light as easily as possible.

This is going to be a whole other post or series of posts in itself. Conquering my style issues is going to be a fucking bear.

But at least I know.

(A brief postscript -- the missus went mad and dragged me to a thrift store this afternoon. I agreed, but told her I would not buy anything that didn't grab me. That if I was going to make the clothing thing work, it would have to be based on positive feedback and pleasure -- on a sense that I was doing something that I wanted to do.

So when we stepped into the store, they were playing the Edgar Winter Group instrumental Frankenstein [you know I love this one - bwa-bwa-bwabwa-bwabwabwa-bwa!], and the very first men's garment I saw was a Ramones-style leather jacket that fit me? [I'm six-three and oddly built.] This is a garment I've wanted for more than twenty years, and the first time in my motherfucking life I go clothes shopping for fun I find one for thirty dollars, half off. Well. I changed my attitude. If I get to rock, this is going to be fun! When I picked up my niece this afternoon I dressed up a bit; she and her sister agreed that I was definitely on the right track.)

3
I Am Part Of Something Larger Than Myself

I know how important other people are to me. I'm starting to figure out how important I am to other people.

These books make it plain that we are literally part of one another. People who spend time together divide up mental chores unconsciously, by ability -- so when you're together, each of you has an extended mental capacity.

You ever get together with someone and just go, 'whew, I needed that?' You did need that. And they needed you. And guess what?

Your successes and failures impact the quality of their lives in a myriad of ways both subtle and overt. When we rise, we lift other with us. So there actually is a moral obligation to treat ourselves not just well, but in a way that maximizes our health and joy in life. Because we are always examples and models as well as individuals.

This applies to art as well. While Gladwell didn't deal with the arts per se, these books strongly reinforced my notion that art is one of the primary influences on the weltenschaung, and that as an artist regardless of my conventional success and failure, I have already began to exert an influence on the tone of the world. There is a real power here, and one largely unrecognized.

But I now feel that by exerting myself in my chosen fields, I can have a positive effect on both the people I care for, and the world at large.

Further. I am not simply an isolated individual. My well-being is of significance to many others, and by failing myself, I am failing them -- and these patterns have all kinds of complex feedback loops.

People who are happy and strong make me feel better. They help me. The more happy strong people there are, the better. So if I can turn me into a happy strong person, I make life better for others. It's a straightforward conclusion. To seek benefits and advantages for myself is not an entirely selfish pursuit. To seek abnegation and minimization is not a selfless act; rather, it is the pursuit of eccentricity at cost to those closest to me.

4
I Live in a Rice Economy

One of the flaws in Outliers is Gladwell's failure to think things through to a conclusion. I feel as if his need for journalistic distance is at odds with the very personal drive behind his work.

The section on rice cultures was where his thoughts scattered. He convincingly argued that rice cultures have the strongest work ethic because rice cultivation is successful in direct proportion to the labor and skill of the farmer. The harder they work, the more they are rewarded. The smarter they work, the more they are rewarded.

Gladwell states that we could learn from these cultures. But learn what? He emphasizes the effort and time involved in successful rice farming, and demonstrated that this level of commitment produces spectacular results anywhere it is applied.

But he also points out earlier in Outliers that that level of commitment is a hardship, is demanding, and if it doesn't produce a profit in itself? It is expensive, and someone other than the practitioner must foot the bill. It is this simple. Do I really have to point out that this is a fairly serious class issue as well? I wouldn't have gotten my outlier hours in if I hadn't been a) crazy and b) disabled. This is how America trains its artists, he said bitterly.

He also points out that the values of a rice culture evaporate outside an environment where there is not a directly perceptible connection between effort and benefit. Like it or not, in our culture the connections between labor, ability, and success are frequently diffuse and unpredictable. Many people find no healthy motivation to engage in life on this basis. Gladwell does not address this issue -- I'm not convinced he pondered it consciously while writing this work.

But I am an artist. I know from experience that I am happiest when I work a ten-to-twelve hour creative workday encompassing a variety of challenging activities, and that my work drastically improves under those circumstances. Work is healthy for me, and the more I do, the better I am, the better my odds of success.

As I said, this post might have been a bit muddled, a bit pointless. I'm struggling with the midwinters right now. Haven't eaten in two days, and the ulcer feels like someone's trying to dig their way out of me with a Popsicle stick. Blaaaaaaaaaaargh. But I am not giving up, not wallowing in negativity and passivity. I am making progress.

I've got warm feelings toward the work of Malcolm Gladwell. If you see him, tell him I said thanks.

5 comments:

cathschaffstump said...

Sean:

I've read this.

I've been living my middle-class lifestyle in spades today, and I have a service weekend coming up (Bryon is helping his parents with his dad's tumor while I host people who have to come to Iowa to put their former cat to sleep with the current owners who are also friends), so it's going to be a moment or two before I respond with anything cogent.

That said, count on it. Our backgrounds are not as dissimilar as all that, and I see a lot here to chew on.

Peace and new jackets,

Cath

ps Looking forward to seeing you Vegas side.

Neil Vogler said...

Hi Sean. It seems the road to self-improvement is paved with questionable clothing choices. Seriously though, this is a fascinating, revealing, and startlingly honest post, and I respect what you're doing on this blog immensely. Keep talking -- we, the also-yet-to-feel-like-fully-formed-adults, are listening. N

Sean Craven said...

Catherine, I'm so sorry about all the painful circumstances you're dealing with. But I'm very much looking forward to your thoughts. To be honest, you are frequently on my mind when I consider these things -- to be honest, you impress me as a remarkably able, well-adjusted, and accomplished person. How the hell does she do that, I wonder.

Vegas is going to be a blast.

Neil, I gotta say, I thought for a few minutes before I grabbed the jacket. I mean, I'm forty-six, for pete's sake. But what the heck. It stops the wind.

Thank you for your kind words. I've been getting a great deal of pleasure from your blog as well.

The subject of achieving maturation in a culture that feels broken is gonna be a subject I return to with some predictability. It's what the novel's about. Until I solve the problem at least for myself, I'm not going to be able to stop worrying away at it. Like a dog with a pig's hoof, I'm not fazed by the indigestability of the object of my fascination.

-W said...

Sean,

I began reading your post this morning and realized that I need to wait until I had time to properly digest it. I too suffer and have been suffering from midwinter blahs along with generally weirdness, the addressing of which has been backburnered by a traumatizing amount of paying work. (Like I should complain, I know.)

Anyway, excellent post. I've read or perused a number of books in the success/fail/personal growth genre for ideas on living life effectively and hadn't come across this Gladwell feller yet. But as I sit here in my PJs and hoodie, surrounded by clutter, and having the education and skills of an upper middle class individual yet living a lower middle class existence (at best), your post hits at the crux of most of my frustrations, and might be worth a look. Thanks for sharing.

Warren

davidmaas said...

Come to Europe, where everyone has those existential rights and the government is responsible for not being able to enjoy them.