August 31, 2011

Acting essentially: How, too

On 18 August, I flew southwest on Southwest. First, I flew from Chicago to Phoenix. It was there that I boarded an essentially Southwest flight. That plane flew me from Phoenix to Orange County and then went on to San Jose.

My flight from Phoenix to Orange County was miles better than my flight from Chicago to Phoenix, and I don’t think that’s just because it was many miles shorter. In fact, I think it’s because Southwest was flying an essentially Southwest route when it took me from Phoenix to Orange County. The chief flight attendant spoke an unmistakably southwestern English. She sarcastically explained the procedures for a water landing to a cabin of people who would soon pass over the Sonoran Desert and dropped a “y’all” that said “This ain’t my first rodeo, Cowboy.” She’d probably flown that route a thousand times before.

The flight couldn’t have gone more smoothly. Granted, it was only an hour long, but I’ve never walked off a plane feeling rejuvenated. I had been delayed for three hours trying to leave Chicago, and that flight refreshed me. I think it’s because Southwest Airlines was acting essentially, and acting essentially is a paragon of how.

People doing what they do best, or acting essentially, gets the job done well. The doer acts with confidence and care, in the spirit of muscle memory. This helps others as only jobs well done can and prevents logistics from overwhelming the doer.

“That’s great, Nathan, but your pleasant flight means nothing to me.” Well it should, because you too can act essentially! (Putting all four of the requisite commas in that last sentence renders it unreadable.)

Malcolm Gladwell observes in Outliers that most people reach peak competence with jobs in their tenth year. Thus, he says that it takes 10,000 hours to perfect a job. Why were the Beatles so successful? They logged their 10,000 hours of rock and roll before any other four-piece British band by playing eight-hour sets in a Hamburg strip club. Why is Bill Gates a billionaire? He had access to a computer years before most and spent his youth running programs through it well into the night. So, both the Beatles and Bill Gates were content to toil in obscurity. Providence just had it that they struck it rich.

But not only were the Beatles and Bill toiling in obscurity, they were acting essentially. (The Beetles and Bill is a straight-to-video entomological production of Bill Nye the Science Guy.) We now consider the Beatles as essentially rock and roll, and Bill Gates is essentially a computer nerd. Sometimes, however, your essential activity may not be what pays the bills.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone made obscene cartoons in college, but those cartoons got in the hands of Hollywood higher-ups. Soon, Trey and Matt were writing, producing and voicing South Park. They’re still doing so fourteen, going on fifteen years later.

But Trey is a lover of musicals at heart. That’s why, four years before South Park, Trey and Matt made Cannibal! The Musical. This year, they won nine Tonys for The Book of Mormon. I’m going to go ahead and claim those Tonys as a triumph for essential acting.

Can you imagine the sheer logistical weight of scoring, producing and directing a Broadway musical? Now, imagine doing all that while you have a weekly animated show to write, voice and direct. Why haven’t Trey and Matt collapsed? Trey, at least, wasn’t hampered by logistics in working on The Book of Mormon. Logistics aren’t overwhelming when you’re confident — i.e., not thinking about yourself — and have an abiding care for what you’re doing. That care is quiet, too. The excitement may have subsided some, but something deeper is there in its place. Also, Trey drinks Dayquil to pull all-nighters.

And while professors can fret about lesson plans well into the night, conveying information in an engaging way is no problem when they’re talking about their pet subjects. Just let Sonia Sorrell talk about Galla Placidia or John Struloeff go off on Leo Tolstoy. The logistics of lesson plans don’t matter when they’re explaining what’s essential to them. If professors act essentially, the information teaches itself.

“So, discover what you love to do and do it a lot! You’ll make lots of money! You’ll be famous!” No. Find activity that makes you forget yourself. That’s a good sign you’re enjoying what you’re doing. Even if you’re not doing it better than other people, you’re doing it for a decent reason. But just because you’re doing something well doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing something good.

August 02, 2011

What do you know?: Selfishness and saber

Re-watching Tron: Legacy on Blu-ray last night got me thinking. It wasn’t the stunning visuals or superb score that got me. (Buy the Daft Punk soundtrack on Amazon and you get a bonus track.) It was Jeff Bridges’s pseudo-Buddhism.

The Dude’s philosophy is pretty much the same outside the Grid as inside it. In the film, Olivia Wilde tells Sam Flynn that the Dude’s been teaching her ‘the art of the selfless.’ (Yes, I refer to movie characters interchangeably as their character’s name, actor’s name and character’s name from other movies. Essentially, I just call people what they’re most known for. That’s why, as an actor, you have to be a larger personality than your role or you’ll be forever typecast. Sorry, Daniel Radcliffe. You’ll forever be Harry Potter.)

I get that Buddhism strives to annihilate self or, rather, realize that selfhood is an illusion. I can’t get on board with that. But I can get on board with the diminution of the self. (Is ‘getting on board’ a train metaphor? I guess, then, I’ll take the midnight train headed for Humility City.)

Selfishness can take many forms. At one extreme, self-worship is pride. Secure people roll their eyes at the proud, but insecure people flock to the proud like Harold and Kumar to White Castle. (I’d give an example of a proud person here, but I can only think of real people I’ve placed in my Acquaintances circle on Google+. It wouldn’t be very nice to name them. Then this would turn into a gossip blog. Also, I’m being highly parenthetical this post. I’ll stop.) On the other hand, self-hate can attract secure people and drive away the insecure. Gregory House can hardly move for the number of doctors catering to him at Princeton Plainsboro, but many of his weak-minded patients can’t bear him.

I think it’s a good practice to go through your own thoughts and writings and, metaphorically or literally, underline the pronouns. How often are they first-person?

I think self-absorption traps people in their own minds and keeps them living only present wonderings. Memory and anticipation kind of fall away when all you can do is think about stuff on your own. Insulated in thought, it’s difficult to experience things outside of yourself. In fact, for all the thinking going on, it’s really difficult to know things.

Spanish and French both have two words for the verb ‘to know.’ While referencing the French words would be more academic — I hate that — it would also be plagiarizing Lewis scholar Michael Ward’s lectures on his book Planet Narnia. So, I’ll still use his ideas but I’ll translate them into Spanish.

Saber is to know something as a fact. Conocer is to know someone or some place personally. Conozco South Kensington.* Yo sé a Señor Cornwallis. But, and this is important not just to this blog post but my senior thesis, espero que conozca a Señor Cornwallis.

*Now’s as good a time as any to link to this YouTube video I found of Conan touring London. It aired on his old Late Night program. If I’m being real, he really hasn’t been as funny since he left New York.

As C.S. Lewis, the patron saint of Protestants, once said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.” Thinking about yourself less means you can think outside your present time, remember and project. But selflessness also allows you to really know other things and, more importantly, other people more fully.

I really think it’s just the economic principle of the Crowding out effect applied to the individual. You can only know of things if you’re selfish because your person is too crowded to let anything enter in. You can only Know things by allowing them to enter into yourself. (Yes, I just distinguished between the two ways of knowing by capitalizing the conocer. And while I’m sorry for the parenthetical, I’m sorrier English doesn’t have two different words to express the difference.)

So, go out there and learn something. Hopefully you can gain some Knowledge, because I’m pretty sure knowing stuff doesn’t really help you relate to people. Knowing stuff, however, does, because the personal can more easily be shared than the abstract and impersonal. Plus, Knowing stuff is good practice for Knowing people, which is probably a better end than Knowing stuff anyway.