Pop culture apologist and anthropologist.
11 stories

Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories

1 Comment
Phil Bray / Disney / Walden Media

If Harry Potter and Huckleberry Finn were each to represent British versus American children’s literature, a curious dynamic would emerge: One defeats evil with a wand, the other takes to a raft to right a social wrong. In a literary duel for the hearts and minds of children, one is a wizard-in-training at a boarding school in the Scottish Highlands, while the other is a barefoot boy drifting down the Mississippi, beset by con artists, slave hunters, and thieves. Both orphans took over the world of English-language children’s literature, but their stories unfold in noticeably different ways.

The small island of Great Britain is an undisputed powerhouse of children’s bestsellers: The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, Winnie-the-Pooh, Peter Pan, The Hobbit, James and the Giant Peach, Harry Potter, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Significantly, all are fantasies. Meanwhile, the United States, also a major player in the field of children’s classics, deals much less in magic. Stories like Little House in the Big Woods, The Call of the Wild, Charlotte’s Web, The Yearling, Little Women, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are more notable for their realistic portraits of day-to-day life in the towns and farmlands on the growing frontier. If British children gathered in the glow of the kitchen hearth to hear stories about magic swords and talking bears, American children sat at their mother’s knee listening to tales larded with moral messages about a world where life was hard, obedience emphasized, and Christian morality valued. Each style has its virtues, but the British approach undoubtedly yields the kinds of stories that appeal to the furthest reaches of children’s imagination.

It all goes back to each country’s distinct cultural heritage. For one, the British have always been in touch with their pagan folklore, says Maria Tatar, a Harvard professor of children’s literature and folklore. After all, the country’s very origin story is about a young king tutored by a wizard. Legends have always been embraced as history, from Merlin to Macbeth. “Even as Brits were digging into these enchanted worlds, Americans, much more pragmatic, always viewed their soil as something to exploit,” says Tatar. Americans are defined by a Protestant work ethic that can still be heard in stories like Pollyanna or The Little Engine That Could.

Americans write fantasies too, but nothing like the British, says Jerry Griswold, a San Diego State University emeritus professor of children’s literature. “American stories are rooted in realism; even our fantasies are rooted in realism,” he said, pointing to Dorothy who unmasks the great and powerful Wizard of Oz as a charlatan.

American fantasies differ in another way: They usually end with a moral lesson learned—such as in the surprisingly zany works by Dr. Seuss who has Horton the elephant intoning: “A person’s a person no matter how small,” and, “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful one hundred percent.” Even The Cat in the Hat restores order from chaos just before mother gets home. In Oz, Dorothy’s Technicolor quest ends with the realization: “There’s no place like home.” And Max in Where the Wild Things Are atones for the “wild rumpus” of his temper tantrum by calming down and sailing home.

Landscape matters: Britain’s antique countryside, strewn with moldering castles and cozy farms, lends itself to fairy-tale invention. As Tatar puts it, the British are tuned in to the charm of their pastoral fields: “Think about Beatrix Potter talking to bunnies in the hedgerows, or A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh wandering the Hundred Acre Wood.” Not for nothing, J.K. Rowling set Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the spooky wilds of the Scottish Highlands. Lewis Carroll drew on the ancient stonewalled gardens, sleepy rivers, and hidden hallways of Oxford University to breathe life into the whimsical prose of Alice in Wonderland.

America’s mighty vistas, by contrast, are less cozy, less human-scaled, and less haunted. The characters that populate its purple mountain majesties and fruited plains are decidedly real: There’s the burro Brighty of the Grand Canyon, the Boston cop who stops traffic in Make Way for Ducklings, and the mail-order bride in Sarah, Plain and Tall who brings love to lonely children on a Midwestern farm. No dragons, wands, or Mary Poppins umbrellas here.

Britain’s pagan religions and the stories that form their liturgy never really disappeared, the literature professor Meg Bachman told me in an interview on the Isle of Skye in the Scottish Highlands. Pagan Britain, Scotland in particular, survived the march of Christianity far longer than the rest of Europe. Monotheism had a harder time making inroads into Great Britain despite how quickly it swept away the continent’s nature religions, says Bachman, whose entire curriculum is taught in Gaelic. Isolated behind Hadrian’s Wall—built by the Romans to stem raids by the Northern barbarian hordes—Scotland endured as a place where pagan beliefs persisted; beliefs brewed from the religious cauldron of folklore donated by successive invasions of Picts, Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, and Vikings.

Even well into the 19th and even 20th centuries, many believed they could be whisked away to a parallel universe. Shape shifters have long haunted the castles of clans claiming seals and bears as ancestors. “Gaelic culture teaches we needn’t fear the dark side,” Bachman says. Death is neither “a portal to heaven nor hell, but instead a continued life on earth where spirits are released to shadow the living.” A tear in this fabric is all it takes for a story to begin. Think Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Dark Is Rising, Peter Pan, The Golden Compass—all of which feature different worlds.

These were beliefs the Puritans firmly rejected as they fled Great Britain and religious persecution for the New World’s rocky shores. America is peculiar in its lack of indigenous folklore, Harvard’s Tatar says. Though African slaves brought folktales to Southern plantations, and Native Americans had a long tradition of mythology, little remains today of these rich worlds other than in small collections of Native American stories or the devalued vernacular of Uncle Remus, Uncle Tom, and the slave Jim in Huckleberry Finn.

Popular storytelling in the New World instead tended to celebrate in words and song the larger-than-life exploits of ordinary men and women: Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Calamity Jane, even a mule named Sal on the Erie Canal. Out of bragging contests in logging and mining camps came even greater exaggerations—Tall Tales—about the giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan, the twister-riding cowboy Pecos Bill, and that steel-driving man John Henry, who, born a slave, died with a hammer in his hand. All of these characters embodied the American promise: They earned their fame.

British children may read about royal destiny discovered when a young King Arthur pulls a sword from a stone. But immigrants to America who came to escape such unearned birthrights are much more interested in challenges to aristocracy, says Griswold. He points to Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, which reveals the two boys to be interchangeable: “We question castles here.”

In Scotland, Bachman in turn suggests the difference between the countries may be that Americans “lack the kind of ironic humor needed for questioning the reliability of reality”—very different from the wry, self-deprecating humor of the British. Which means American tales can come off a bit “preachy” to British ears. The award-winning Maurice Sendak-illustrated book of etiquette: What Do You Say, Dear? comes to mind. Even Little Women is described by Bachman as something of a Protestant “parable about doing your best in trying circumstances.”

Maybe a world not fixated on atonement and moral imperatives is more conducive to a rousing tale. In Edinburgh—an old town like Rome built on seven hills, where dark alleys drop from cobbled streets, dive under stone buildings, and descend crooked stairs to make their way to the sea—8-year-old Caleb Sansom is one kid who thinks so. Digging with his mum through the stacks of the downtown library, he said he likes stories with “naughty animals, doing people things.” Like Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows “who drives fast, gets in accidents, sings, and goes to jail.” As for American books such as The Little House in the Big Woods: “There’s a bit too much following the rules. ‘Do this. Stop doing that.’ Can get boring.”

Pagan folktales are less about morality and more about characters like the trickster who triumphs through wit and skill: Bilbo Baggins outwits Gollum with a guessing game; the mouse in the The Gruffalo avoids being eaten by tricking a hungry owl and fox. Griswold calls tricksters the “Lords of Misrule” who appeal to a child’s natural desire to subvert authority and celebrate naughtiness: “Children embrace a logic more pagan than adult.” And yet Bachman says in pagan myth it’s the young who possess the qualities needed to confront evil. Further, each side has opposing views of naughtiness and children: Pagan babies are born innocent; Christian children are born in sin and need correcting. Like Jody in The Yearling who, forced to kill his pet deer, must understand life’s hard choices before he can forgive his mother and shoulder the responsibility of manhood.

Ever since Bruno Bettelheim wrote The Uses of Enchantment about the psychological meaning of fairy tales, child psychologists have looked at storytelling as an important tool children use to work through their anxieties about the adult world. Fairy-tale fantasies are now regarded as almost literal depictions of childhood fears about abandonment, powerlessness, and death.

Most successful children’s books address these common fears through visiting and revisiting the same emotional themes, says Griswold. In his book, Feeling Like a Kid: Childhood and Children’s Literature, he identifies five basic story mechanisms children find particularly compelling—snug spaces, small worlds, scary villains, lightness or flying, as well as animated toys and talking animals—all part of the serious business of make-believe.

“Kids think through their problems by creating fantasy worlds in ways adults don’t,” Griswold says. “Within these parallel universes, things can be solved, shaped and understood.” Just as children learn best through hands-on activities, they tend to process their feelings through metaphorical reenactments. “Stories,” Griswold noted, “serve a purpose beyond pleasure, a purpose encoded in analogies. Story arcs, like dreams, have an almost biological function.”

It turns out that fantasy—the established domain of British children’s literature—is critical to childhood development. With faeries as voices from the earth, from beyond human history, with a different take on the meaning of life and way of understanding death, Bachman says there’s wisdom in recognizing nature as a greater life force. “Pagan folklore keeps us humble by reminding us we are temporary guests on earth—a true parable for our time.”

Today there may be more reason than ever to find solace in fantasy. With post-9/11 terrorism fears and concern about a warming planet, Griswold says American authors are turning increasingly to fantasy of a darker kind—the dystopian fiction of The Hunger Games, The Giver, Divergent, and The Maze Runner. Like the collapse of the Twin Towers, these are sad and disturbing stories of post-apocalyptic worlds falling apart, of brains implanted with computer chips that reflect anxiety about the intrusion of a consumer society aided by social media. This is a future where hope is qualified, and whose deserted worlds are flat and impoverished. But maybe there’s purpose. If children use fairy tales to process their fears, such dystopian fantasies (and their heroes and heroines) may model the hope kids need today to address the scale of the problems ahead.

Read the whole story
3109 days ago
Compelling ideas about differences between UK/US fairytales.
Stopped at Willoughby
Share this story

How to Get Work Done on the Road

1 Comment

One conversation 25 years ago changed business travel for me forever. My business partner, Kerry Patterson, and I were talking about a book we hoped to write. We had been yakking about it for a couple of years but had made no progress. Let me be more honest: I had made no progress. Kerry seemed to show up with reams of fascinating ideas written out in polished prose while I had a stained airplane napkin with crayon drawings on it. I would mutter an apology for my paltry contribution but point to the 20 days I had been on the road the previous month. After many of these exchanges, Kerry looked at me and said, “Joseph, writers write.”

His point hit me in the gut. It was clear that my career as a consultant would involve lots of travel and I had a choice about what I was going to do with that time. Since then Kerry, our colleagues at VitalSmarts, and I have co-authored five books, hundreds of papers and articles, and developed dozens of bestselling training courses—all while I travel over 100 days a year.

For me the key to being productive while shuttling around the globe is to think of myself in the third person, as someone I need to carefully and deliberately influence. Here are the ways I do that—many that— many of which I used to write this very article!

Make appointments with yourself. Behavioral economists have shown that making good choices is easy if you don’t have to fulfill them now. (Here’s one such study on employee saving.) If you ask me for a lunch order for next week I’m likely to pick healthier choices than if I’m drooling over choices I’ll eat now. The phenomenon is referred to as hyperbolic discounting—the tendency to overvalue rewards now and undervalue them later. This cognitive bias works in my favor when I trick myself into making commitments I will keep at a set time in the future. I am faithful to my calendar; if it says I am supposed to do something, I tend to do it. So I look ahead to big blocks of downtime during travel—for example a five-hour plane trip from San Francisco to New York. This week I arrived at my hotel in Indianapolis, opened my calendar and saw an entry I imposed on myself last week. From 4:30-5:00pm the schedule demanded that I “Outline HBR article.” So I did.

You and Your Team

Stop before you’re done. When I have long tasks to complete—ones that will require multiple work sessions—I’m careful to stop my work at a place that makes it easier (and more pleasant) for me to pick it back up later. For example, if I am in a groove and have a story going that I am enjoying writing, I intentionally stop before I finish it so I can look forward to jumping back in. The schedule entry above was a little piece of motivational trickery as well—notice that I only committed to “outline” this article. I find that this is the piece I procrastinate most on. But once I finish an outline I savor fleshing pieces of it out. So I limited my appointment to finish the hard piece so that I’d feel enthusiastic about picking it up again later.

Create satisfying episodes. Psychologist Roy Baumeister has shown that your motivation is a finite resource. I find this to be especially true in the grind of business travel when my motivation is low. If I think of myself in the first person I tend to be merciless, beating myself up for not getting anything done. When I think of myself in the third person I tend to be more sympathetic of this limited resource. I ask, “How can I maximize Joseph’s motivation?” Rather than forcing myself into a writing death march on a five-hour flight, I determine an amount of that task that would feel meaningful and satisfying to complete. For example, boarding my Indiana flight I thought, “If I can customize my presentation for tomorrow and empty my inbox, I will feel liberated.” So that’s what I did.

Feel the endorphins. Busy people tend not to savor the endorphins that come with completed a task. Develop a habit of stopping and feeling the earned satisfaction from getting a block of work finished. Sit back in your plane seat or on your hotel bed, and take in the joy of having completed something difficult. This creates new neural connections that associate productivity with pleasure rather than resentment.

Use the power of the notepad. The window of time when I first enter a hotel room is crucial for me. For years I noticed that my ritual was to find the TV remote, and turn on CNN. Then I would set up my laptop and purchase the hotel WiFi. While an avalanche of emails downloaded I would begin moving into my closet and bathroom. Every time I followed this ritual I would get sucked into something on the TV or my inbox that would sap my productivity. These days I use another trick on myself. I get an embarrassing amount of gratification out of putting a check in a box. Upon entering a hotel room I grab the free pad of paper on the desk and make a list of the five things I want to get done before dinner. Then, and here’s the not-so high tech part, I draw a little empty box next to each. That way I feel compelled to get them done. Also, don’t turn on the TV!

Reward yourself. One of the reasons people lose their enthusiasm for being efficient and productive is that it can feel like a relentless grind—there’s always more to do. Don’t burn yourself out. If I have a long flight, I’ll make some reasonable commitments to get things done but I also allow time for relaxation and pleasure. Treat yourself as you would a valued employee—give lots of praise and encouragement for the great stuff you get done.

Business travel has been a boon to me over the past 30 years—a time when I’ve done some of my best work. It wouldn’t have ended up that way, however, had Kerry not drawn to my attention the fact that I was using travel as an excuse rather than an opportunity.

Read the whole story
3166 days ago
One of the last lines is the one that resonated most: "Treat yourself as you would a valued employee - give lots of praise and encouragement for the great stuff you get done."
Stopped at Willoughby
Share this story

Dole Whip, Space Mountain’s Hair-Metal Halloween Makeover, and the Terrifying Octopus Parade; or, My First Trip to Disneyland

1 Share

I went to Disneyland for the first time on Wednesday. (ESPN and Grantland are, of course, owned by the Walt Disney Company.) It was amazing. Maybe you were at home reading Helen Macdonald and having thoughts about late capitalism; good for you. Have a tote bag. Sorry I was out there having fun in the actual world. My phone battery was on 27 percent when I got there and that was a worry, but otherwise I was sailing beyond the sunset. You know what else was on 27 percent? The marrow in life when I was done at Disneyland. I’m here to give you some opinions about rides.

1. Enchanted Tiki Room

Strictly speaking, and also unstrictly speaking, and also speaking in every other way, the Enchanted Tiki Room should not exist. Let’s not kid ourselves about what’s going on here. “Brought to you by our friends at Dole Pineapple,” the Tiki Room is a tropical-fruit-whip delivery device wearing a talking-bird-cabaret-show beard. You buy your $11 pineapple-soft-serve float, you kill 20 minutes in an outdoor waiting area where animatronic Polynesian-god statues recite uncomfortably pidgin-ish me-bring-the-lightning speeches about the culture they “represent,” you watch a brief propaganda video about the pineapple industry that was definitely filmed in 1962 and definitely includes classified secrets about the RAND Corporation, and in return, you are shuffled into a small theater where talking birds croon midcentury lounge music. One of the birds is joke-Irish. Another is joke-Mexican. Another is joke-French. America has the largest nuclear arsenal of any country on earth.

It’s so great. Not really in terms of music or stagecraft or engineering or writing or anything. The birds’ patter is purely C material, and I’m grading on the Krusty the Clown curve. “My profile is out of this world,” chirps the French bird. “That’s the problem, señor — it’s not far enough out of this world,” the Mexican bird retorts. But so great. Little kids go out in the aisles and boogie with their tiny arms and hips. Then there’s a piped-in thunderclap and fake rain starts pelting all the windows and the kids all squeal and dive for their parents’ laps. The clacking of the birds’ mechanical beaks is at times louder than the music. You can’t buy atmosphere like that. You can’t even buy the giant rear fins on the lime-green Chevrolet that atmosphere like that makes you think you showed up in. I tried to Instagram the song in which the “girl” birds float down from the ceiling on a chandelier and sing “tweet, tweet tweet, tweet tweet,” but the light was all wrong. Steve Jobs and Walt Disney were alike in many ways but they had incompatible ideas about conditions for low-light photography. Five stars, though. Dole Whip is phenomenal.

2. Splash Mountain

My Verizon connection hit zero stars after 15 minutes in line. Fifteen minutes is about the point when you go “inside” the mountain. Phones don’t work inside mountains, especially Song of the Souththemed mountains doing a delicate conceptual tap dance around the horrifying history of racism that Song of the South represents. From an Imagineering standpoint, you’d like to be able to draw on “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” without thereby tainting your log-flume ride with centuries of white supremacy. It’s a delicate balance. I had mostly been using the Twitter app when my phone crashed to 1x, but I was also checking my personal news algorithm a little.

I have the impression that the liberal intelligentsia mostly disapproves of Disney theme parks. Walt Disney was a neurotic perfectionist who wanted to remake the world into a frictionless, sexless, hyper-designed Utopia based on top-down corporate control — that’s what my friends tend to text me, using Apple products. All I can tell you is that Splash Mountain is freaking psychedelic. Not to see Splash Mountain as a terrifying mind-shredder is to see Splash Mountain through the blindness of your own preconceptions. Inside Splash Mountain you ride a hollowed-out log through a series of riverine caverns, watching bipedal, clothes-wearing forest animals torture each other in weirdly flickering light. Cheerful music plays and occasionally you look up and see the surreally lit underside of a giant mushroom, or a trussed bear hanging from the ceiling, and occasionally the ground gives way and you plunge 30 feet or so down a shrieking watercourse. Mister Bluebird’s on my shoulder! I haven’t slept through the night without drugs in about six months, and I’m telling you, I did not feel that Splash Mountain lied to me about the essential nature of the universe.

3. Space Mountain

space-mountain-disneylandMatthew Simmons/Getty Images

The line is so long. No line could be so long. We went late in the day, and my phone was on 13 percent, and it was touch and go by the end. I made the mistake of uploading two photos; I thought it was over. There was a great big muscle-fetishist-type guy in line ahead of me, the sort of dude who hits the park with a 100-pound girlfriend and a 120-pound barbed-wire biceps tattoo, and I was seriously afraid my battery would conk out and I’d have nothing to look at except the sloppy swigs he glugged down from his gallon jug of water. He had a gallon jug of water. I say “water,” knowing full well it was steroids. His goatee was moist. I don’t want to talk about it. An old man walked past us at one point and sort of sneered to his (the old man’s) wife and went, “All these people with their heads in their phones … I guess they must have very important business.” Yeah, pops, it’s called not succumbing to bodybuilder proximity-despair. You could call this Steve Jobs’s life’s work.

The roller coaster lasts about 180 seconds, but it’s a fun 180 seconds. The ride had already been rebranded for Halloween, so instead of Jupiter or whatever, it involved banking through a lot of flaming skulls and lite-Megadeth album-cover imagery. I laughed and laughed. I guess I like being flung around, if the emotional context is hair-metal enough. It usually isn’t, in my experience. That’s what you go to Tomorrowland for.

4. Terrifying Octopus Parade

Not a ride per se, the terrifying octopus parade was the first thing I saw upon entering Disneyland, and it immediately scrambled my expectations. I discovered that I was standing directly in the path of a parade led by a terrifying giant octopus. It was made of balloons, I think? Right there, hideously bearing down on me, waving its squeaky purple tentacles. It was purple all over. There are no mosquitoes inside Disneyland because the Walt Disney Company quietly deploys a kind of counterrevolutionary proxy force of predatory birds and insects to keep the population down. Like the Sandinistas, but successful. If I were a mosquito, the giant purple octopus is the thing I’m pretty sure would be deployed to rid the park of me. I got out of the way in the nick of time. Don’t fuck with a Disney parade. Every dad in California was already uploading this scene to Facebook. Twelve thousand little girls in princess gowns waved at my near-death experience and beamed at it and twinkled.

5. Pirates of the Caribbean

disneyland-pirates-caribbean-rideBarry King/WireImage

Our boat was called the Juliet. We’d wanted the Captain Mainwaring, but one thing about this life is that you can’t always pick your own boat. Not even at Disneyland. The thing about Disneyland — as opposed to, say, iOS — is that it has to exist in the physical world, which means no level of obsessive attention to detail can smooth out all the pain points. Captain Mainwaring was a pirate who later wrote an important book about piracy, Discourse of Pirates (1618). Steve Jobs could curate a note-taking experience whose resemblance to an actual notebook was purely metaphorical and theoretical; Disneyland needs a bathroom. In the bathroom across from Pirates of the Caribbean, in fact, I heard a dad telling a kid to throw away his paper towels, and the kid was like, “Why,” and the dad said, “Because a million people come through here every day and they do an amazing job keeping it clean.” The kid was very impressed by this and went, “Walt Disney was a great man, Dad.” Walt Disney would probably have preferred to Imagineer physical waste out of biological existence, but as it is, the meticulous nature of Disney design makes itself felt less in the rides than in the interstitial spaces — the areas reserved for human impatience and fallibility and grossness. I would not like to live in a Disney community, but if I ever had to be euthanized, I would like Disney to design the machine that killed me.

Pirates of the Caribbean would be better if they hadn’t added the Johnny Depp animatronics, but look, Disney knows an earner when one lispingly swaggers up to it. Also, there are cannons. Whatever. Several stars!

6. Indiana Jones Adventure

Indiana Jones is a Disney property? This ride shakes a lot, which is cool, and the queue has some very tightly designed switchbacks defined by some really excellently deployed chain-link rope lines. You could feel the Disneyland line architect working at the height of his powers here. The wait moves you through several different Indy-evoking delay-spaces that break up the monotony; there’s a jungle, a temple interior, an old newsreel theater, etc. Of course, no real-life experience breaks up monotony as well as an app. I guess this was my third-least-favorite ride at the park, but it was great, basically. Everything at Disneyland was great. I haven’t been to that many literary parties in New York, but I’ve been to some, and unless you just truly think there’s a bedrock integrity in smoking and making dark comments about other people’s book advances, I don’t see why they’re any more grounded in reality than Disneyland; the perils are just as imaginary. Oh, look, your apartment has London Fields and a Polish movie poster in it. The actor voicing the animatronic Harrison Ford was clearly not Harrison Ford. Every time the cart lurched I laughed like a little kid.

7. Haunted Mansion

The whole thing was redone for Halloween in Nightmare Before Christmas imagery, and I’ve never seen The Nightmare Before Christmas, so I can’t say I really understood what was going on. My fault, though. I dug the fake graves. Dug as in enjoyed, not as in literally scooped out with a shovel. I did not dig any graves at Disneyland, except possibly my own when I scarfed down that Dole Whip.

8. Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters

buzz-lightyear-astro-blasters-00Walt Disney Company

More people use iOS than visit Disneyland, but a consequence of iOS — you could say the whole point of iOS — is to mask the reality of other people. On your phone, your friends are wisps, electrons, instantiations of speech whose claim on your attention you are free to reject at any moment. Disneyland is full of other people. It makes other people inescapable. The little kids with sparkly wings and flashing lights in their hair; the mom bellowing “that’s the worst Belle costume I’ve ever seen!”; the 4-year-old who crashes into your legs and doesn’t even look up because she sees Tigger; the concessions lady who sells you a Vitamin Water and rolls her eyes when you tell her to have a magical day. The ones who gasp at the fireworks and the ones who want to beat the traffic. You could make the case that Walt Disney’s dream for his theme parks was to turn reality into an operating system — into a streamlined, mediated, intuitively navigable interface designed to produce the easiest possible experience of content. All the pathways perfectly laid out, all the buttons where you can find them. But where your phone can just about manage this, Disneyland is always bumping up against the fact of other people. Other people are always in your way, gawping and spraining their ankles and making out in the corner, and this both frustrates the ideal and changes it into something better. California isn’t an operating system, even if you take out the mosquitoes.

What’s weird about this is that Steve Jobs’s and Walt Disney’s parallel visions both produced a sort of bizarre unconscious under their sanitized, willfully innocent surfaces — but the Disney unconscious is so much more bizarre. This is weird because the Disney version is also so much more public. Your phone gives you a private browsing tab, but most of the positive pleasure the Internet offers takes place in some vague otherwhere whose relation to your actual life is often pretty cursory. Disneyland, by contrast, says OK, strap on the wings. It wasn’t only kids doing it. Most of the apps on your phone feel like office space; most of the rides at Disneyland feel like fever dreams, albeit logistically efficient ones.

Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters is a Toy Story–themed ride where you shoot fake ray guns at colorful shapes. You get a score. The ray guns are terrible. Really inaccurate. The sound effects are all squawka squawka squawka. It was so much fun.

Read the whole story
3169 days ago
Stopped at Willoughby
Share this story

Childhood Guilt, Adult Depression?

1 Share

Nicholas Thomas remembers a coat rack. "We were at a family gathering," Thomas said. "I think it was Christmas or something, and we were playing hide-and-go-seek. I knocked over a coat rack and I felt like I had done something terribly wrong." That was when he was 12. Thomas, who was diagnosed with depression at 22 years old, said that he finds himself continually reminding himself of everything that he thought he'd done wrong over the years. "I'd hear a little voice in my head berating me," Thomas said.

Some scientists now believe that extreme feelings of guilt in children, such as the ones Thomas felt, can be a strong warning sign for mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and bipolar disorder later on in life. Research has long linked excessive feelings of guilt to mental disorders in adults—the DSM-V lists feelings of excessive guilt as a symptom for depression. But researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have found that excessive guilt in children might be linked to a part of the brain that is connected to controls for several different mental disorders.

As a part of a 12-year study, the researchers looked at a part of the brain called the anterior insula, which regulates perception, self-awareness, and emotion. Smaller anterior insulas have been linked to anxiety disorders, depression, schizophrenia, and other mood disorders.

The researchers took brain scans of 145 school-aged children. They also asked the caregivers to identify whether their kids had exhibited any symptoms of excessive guilt, such as apologizing constantly for minor misbehavior or feeling guilty about things that had happened a long time ago. The researchers found that feelings of extreme guilt correlated highly with smaller anterior insulas.

"In the kids who had high levels of guilt, even the kids who weren't necessarily depressed, they had smaller anterior insula volume, and that smaller anterior insula volume is predictive of later occurrence of depression," said Joan Luby, one of the study authors. "This research suggests that early childhood experiences impact the way the brain develops."

Luby says that findings, which were published in JAMA Psychiatry in November, are significant because it is one of the first studies that links feelings of excessive guilt in children to physical differences in the brain. "There have been a lot of behavioral studies done with children," Luby said. "In terms of brain changes in children ... there's very little data on that."

Michelle New, a psychologist and associate professor at the George Washington University Medical School in Washington, D.C., said that this research could help pinpoint specific brain anatomy to identify children who are at high risk for later-life mental disorders. "This research is really new and exciting because you can look at changes in the brain, and it shows that early intervention is really important. Dismissing early symptomatology is dangerous," she said. New explained that mental disorders are often latent between the ages of four and 12, and so being able to identify children at high risk for mood disorders helps parents and mental-health professionals engage in preventative measures earlier in life.

In addition, this research provides neurological evidence for what researchers have been starting to suspect: Guilt in early childhood has negative effects on children and may cause later life depression and anxiety. In a study published in 2013 by scientists at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, researchers found that parenting tactics that created feelings of guilt in children caused children to feel an increase in distress and anger for many days afterward. In another study published in 2003, scientists found that children whose parents used guilt-inducing tactics were far more likely to internalize their problems. Depression and anxiety are classic examples of internalizing disorders.

The question is whether guilt causes later life mental disorders or if a biological predisposition to mental disorders causes early symptoms of excessive guilt. But New says that doesn't matter in the clinical setting.

"It's not like that symptom is going to go away," she said. "What's important is that we practice early intervention and prevention."

The researchers at Washington University are also looking at effective ways to help children manage guilt, in case that could mitigate later life mental disorders. Luby says that they are in the early stages of looking at how psychotherapy affects child behavior and how it affects brain function. "We are still in the first year, but my clinical impression is that these kids are getting a lot better," Luby said.

This article was originally published at http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/01/childhood-guilt-adult-depression/384176/

Read the whole story
3475 days ago
Stopped at Willoughby
Share this story

For Cinephiles, Netflix Is Less and Less an Option

8 Comments and 14 Shares

A few months ago I encountered a dilemma I thought had been permanently solved in the age of everything/anywhere media: I really needed to see a particular movie, and I couldn’t find it for rent. I was slotted to write an essay on Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the seminal black independent film by Melvin Van Peebles, but it was unavailable on Netflix’s DVD service, my longtime resource for such fare.

This was weird, because I had rented it once before from Netflix, in 2009.

What had happened to it?

I tried Amazon streaming and iTunes, but no dice. I would have run down to my local video store, but I don’t have a local video store. I struck out at the San Francisco Public Library as well, leaving me with two choices: I was either going to have to buy the DVD, eating into my fee, or try to download it illegally.

Luckily, I found a last-minute solution when my wife borrowed Sweetback from a library in Marin. But the entire process took about a week, leaving me with less time to write about the film.

The episode was disconcerting. I had started using Netflix around the millennium because it seemed like a great idea with no downside (the eventual disappearance of video stores notwithstanding). I was paying a fortune in late fees at my local disc-o-mat, and Netflix’s so-called “long tail” strategy of amassing a vast array of niche content in addition to popular titles appealed to me, as did having the ability to get what looked to be every single movie ever released on DVD delivered straight to my door. And rarely did Netflix disappoint when there was something I wanted to watch, no matter how esoteric.

Which is why I have remained one of the doddering, AARP-eligible movie fans who have never moved to Netflix’s streaming service, despite the company’s best efforts to push me in that direction. True, I sometimes feel like my grandmother, who often mistook cell phones for electric razors, but I have my reasons, the main one being the considerable dearth of content on the streaming side. Here’s a for-instance, and as random benchmarks go it’s not bad: IndieWire reported last year that only six of the movies on Spike Lee’s list of 86 essential films were available on Netflix streaming. (Lee later revised the list, and Netflix currently streams eight of those 94 films.)

The meager selection is so notorious that The Onion targeted it this year. From the humor website in January:

“In a swift and unexpected departure from their present business model, officials from Netflix revealed Wednesday that the company is currently considering adding a good movie to their online streaming service…..“We feel the addition of a popular, above-average, well-made film would provide a nice counterbalance to our existing library of poorly received sequels, totally unknown indie dramas from four or five years ago that you’ve never heard of, and horrendous direct-to-DVD horror features.”

Now Go the DVDs…

And now it seems, while still nowhere as haphazard as the streaming selection, the company’s once reliably complete DVD selection is becoming less so all the time. After my Sweet Sweetback dilemma, I began to note that some DVDs that used to sit patiently awaiting their turn in my queue had dropped down to the “saved” section, where the time of their availability is listed as “unknown.” I think it is safe to say, you can translate that as “never.” Earlier this year, I mentioned this incredibly shrinking DVD phenomenon to John Taylor, the buyer at San Francisco’s Le Video, and he told me Netflix’s DVD collection was now absent a growing number of significant titles, including a passel of Woody Allen films.

Woody Allen? I checked, finding all unavailable as DVDs or Blu-rays: Bananas, Mighty Aphrodite, Everyone Says I Love You, Deconstructing Harry, Sweet and Lowdown, Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask, and September. And just a few months later, additionally AWOL from Allen’s oeuvre: Love and Death, Celebrity, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Small Time Crooks, Bullets Over Broadway, and Take the Money and Run. (Via streaming, you can watch only Annie Hall, Scoop, and Manhattan.)

While Netflix’s legacy DVD service still fares relatively well on the Spike Lee test, 11 films from his original list, or 13 percent, are listed as unavailable or “Very long wait.” Watching the mailbox for a “very long wait,” experience shows, is like waiting for The Great Pumpkin. Such staples of home consumption as La Strada, Raising Arizona and The Road Warrior are included in the missing.

Cinephiles in a Bind

Mark Taylor is KQED’s senior interactive producer for arts and culture and teaches media theory and criticism at USF and the Art Institutes of California. He’s on Netflix’s five DVDs-at-at-a-time plan, which costs $27.99 a month ($33.99 including Blu-ray) and has long used Netflix to preview films he’s considering teaching in class. But he says he can no longer rely on the service for research the way he once did.

“My experience is that you end up with a bunch of things that have a very long wait and then they never come,” he said. “Things that were once available aren’t anymore.” Nine of the films at the top of his DVD queue are very long waits, he said, “sitting there forever.”

Netflix didn’t want to talk to me about their movie catalogue, leaving me to rely on the speculation of a couple of video store folks that the company’s DVD selection is shrinking most likely because it is not replacing damaged disks.

“Things go out of print and become much harder to find,” said David Hawkins, co-owner of Lost Weekend Video in San Francisco. He said that when something is no longer available through the usual outlets, breaks or is stolen, any store has to make a decision about whether to invest in purchasing a copy at prices that can be exorbitant because of its scarcity. (Which still wouldn’t explain why Netflix doesn’t have DVDs like Bullets Over Broadway, Celebrity or Sweet and Low Down, readily available to purchase on Amazon.)

In any event, for those who still rely on Netflix’s DVD service, the conventional wisdom is it would be wise to prepare to be cast adrift entirely. Netflix says it now makes more than twice the profits from streaming than from DVDs. Last quarter, its DVD business lost another 391,000 subscribers, leaving the total number of physical-media dead-enders, still excited by the sight of a fresh red envelope in the mailbox, at 6.3 million in the U.S. That’s compared to about 35 million streamers. Last year, Netflix started closing its distribution centers around the country and recently it stopped shipping on Saturdays. The Guardian reports that Netflix has spent no money on marketing its DVD business this year. Summing it all up, Businessweek wrote last October: “The writing is on the wall … At some point, there’s an end of the line for Netflix’s DVD business. We just don’t quite know yet when that point will come.”

Where Have All The Good Films Gone?

If and when the inevitable does happen, and Netflix sells off its vast supply of DVDs for drink coasters, what will cinephiles like Mark Taylor and I do? Wait for streaming to become as robust as the DVD service once was?

Unlikely. The death of Netflix DVDs could very well spell the end of the golden days of one-stop shopping. Check out this 2013 Netflix PR video communicating that the company should no longer be looked upon as a massive movie library. What it really is, it says, is the “Internet’s largest television network.”

With every title we add, we remain focused on our goal of being an expert programmer (vocal emphasis in the video) offering a mix that delights our members rather than trying to be a broad distributor. We’re selective about what titles we add to Netflix …. we can’t license everything and also maintain our low prices. So we look for those titles that deliver the biggest viewership relative to the licensing costs. This also means that we’ll forego or choose not to renew some titles that aren’t watched enough relative to their costs.

What Netflix is talking about here is not just the absence of exotic fare like Sweet Sweetback, it affects a lot of newer films, too. And that is not going to change anytime soon, writes Farhad Manjoo in his New York Times piece from March called “Why Streaming Sites So Fail to Satisfy.”

“(W)e aren’t anywhere close to getting a service that allows customers to pay a single monthly fee for access to a wide range of top-notch movies and TV shows,” he writes. “For those of us with even slightly selective preferences, we’ll have to pick between different rental and subscription services offering different catalogs of programs, none very extensive, at vastly different price points.”

The reason? Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle put it this way in January:

Old-fashioned video rental stores, and Netflix’s DVD-by-mail service, are governed by something called “first-sale doctrine”: Once I sell you a physical copy of a movie or song, you can do whatever you like with the physical object, except copy it or show it publicly… But streaming is governed by a different set of rules for digital content. You can’t stream a movie to someone unless the rights holders have agreed to let you do so. … Essentially, Netflix cannot afford to buy the rights to all the movies you want to watch.

“The renting of videos was not a permissions-based business model,” says Ted Hope, a film producer and former head of the San Francisco Film Society who is now the CEO of Fandor, a subscription streaming site that focuses on independent and art films. “Any store could buy and rent videos. So it was ideal for access; you could find anything, and every city had one of these great video stores that specialized in breadth of content. The irony is we now get to hear about everything better than we ever did, but accessing it is a real challenge, because the licensing model hasn’t evolved at the same pace of technology. Consumers are at this moment where there’s a gulf between what’s affordable for a platform and what licensers expect to get.”

Back to the Video Store?

Megan McArdle wrote in that same article that Netflix’s movie library “is no longer actually a good substitute for a good movie rental place.”

You can’t get most of the esoteric stuff online whereas a place like San Francisco’s Le Video, run by certified film nuts, is packed with obscure titles you’ve never even heard of. Ah, Le Video. Mark Taylor still makes the trek across the city from his Potrero Hill home when he can’t procure a film more easily. “Le Video has everything,” he says, exaggerating only slightly. The store, renting videos, DVDs, and Blu-rays since 1980, is home to some 80-90,000 titles, still available even in its less roomy incarnation.

So, considering the jejune grab bag of films available via streaming, and assuming streaming may one day be the only game in town, you wonder: Could there be an opportunity for video stores to become relevant again?

Michael Fox is a local film critic who used to regularly frequent Gramophone Video on Polk Street to review films for the CinemaLit film series he runs at the Mechanics’ Institute in San Francisco. “If I wanted to check out The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, for instance, I went to Gramophone,” he said.

So where does he find those films now that the store is closed?

“I’m just not seeing those movies,” he said. “I try and research, do more reading online to get a sense of the picture, or talk to people whose opinions I trust, which is not ideal.”

The few remaining local video stores in San Francisco are barely getting by. Still, they are not devoid of patrons. At Lost Weekend Video on Valencia Street recently, maybe 10 customers entered the store over the course of an hour. I asked one, Cass Cantine of San Francisco, why he still got his movies there. “Local video stores like this have exactly what I want to see when I want to see it,” he said.

What about Netflix?

“Netflix doesn’t carry what I want.”

recent analysis of the video rental industry by business forecasting firm IBIS World held out some hope for brick-and-disc stores, provided they can adapt. While the report said the industry is in “the declining stage of its life cycle,” it conceded that “some niche, specialized stores will be able to maintain a profit.” For example, the report said, stores might offer a deep collection of genre or locally relevant films.

Gwen Sanderson, co-owner of Video Wave in Noe Valley, says for those who want to simply rent a film as opposed to purchasing, many titles are still only available through video stores. She mentions The Seven Percent Solution, a Sherlock Holmes movie starring Alan Arkin as Sigmund Freud, unavailable on Netflix or iTunes and purchasable on Amazon for about $18 (and not carried by the San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, or Berkeley public libraries — still resources for many).

“There are hundreds like this,” Sanderson said. “If we close, people will have to buy them to watch them. The reality is we’re going to leave a lot of options behind that are available to us in our current collection.”

I asked her if she thought video stores could retool themselves as repositories of harder-to-find titles. “I don’t know if we can address that in time to save our business,” she said. But renting rarer films for a higher fee might be one option, she suggested.

Still, if you really want to see a particular film…

… I have found you probably will be able to find it online — somehow, some way — though your ability to overcome technical obstacles, overlook inferior image quality, and tolerate dipping into the louche world of illegal downloading will dictate the quality of the experience. Technology reporter Alex Hearn of the UK’s Guardian stuck up for physical media recently when he wrote, “When it comes to discs, a flaky broadband connection or buggy BT Homehub can’t derail the experience — something that can’t be said for streaming. There’s little worse than settling down for an evening movie and watching it buffer for five minutes, before playing 30 seconds then buffering again.”

Still, it’s a mark of just how much stuff is out there that I was able to find several films online that interviewees in this piece mentioned were unavailable. And with tools like Google’s Chromecast I could even stream them to my TV.

Looked terrible. But you get used to it.


Read the whole story
3578 days ago
I thought I was being paranoid when I bought DVDs of movies I knew I'd want to watch again, worrying that they would disappear down the Memory Hole. Turns out, I was just prescient.

Happily, the library I work at has a great DVD section, but I know we can't buy everything. :(
Stopped at Willoughby
3578 days ago
Share this story
7 public comments
3578 days ago
This phenomenon is multiplied many times over when you're outside the US; each country gets licensing deals separately. It's absurd. I had substantially better selection from a VHS rental shop in Toronto two decades ago.
3578 days ago
Yes. Also, you can't get 98% of the foreign movies you'd want...and I'm not talking abotu obscure stuff. Netflix also puts non-optional subtitles on (most?all?) foreign movies, a greats annoyance, basically enough to put me off.
Northern Virginia
3578 days ago
Library pimp here - check your local library. Mine has a ton of Criterion (especially foreign), and you might luck out, too.
3578 days ago
Sadly, our local Fairfax County library is pretty slim pickings, not sure if it is budget cuts or just the way things are. Basically, just depressing. Back up in Massachussets, where we spend part of the summer, the library system in much much better. Still, may give it a look, I did pretty much give up on the public library system here.
3578 days ago
I'm sorry to hear it. :( Fingers crossed you can find something good.
3578 days ago
Did a library catalog search...nothing there in the DVDs. Three Criterion DVDs for a 1+ million person county.
3578 days ago
Not that we even have Netflix in Australia, but wow.
Melbourne, Australia
3578 days ago
Quad has it right – the cartels have played so many pricing / availability games to avoid a company getting too much control.

In my fantasy world where public policies are designed to benefit everyone, there would be a requirement that any copyrighted work be continuously available for purchase to maintain protected status and the terms would be standardized. So many great films are only available on eBay and it's hard to see any benefit from allowing that to continue for half a century or longer.
Washington, DC
3578 days ago
What about one-of-a-kind type items? Say, a sculpture, or painting. Wouldn't that require artists to continually make replicas or prints available for purchase, or else risk forfeiting any rights to anyone that comes along and starts selling knock-offs?
3578 days ago
I was hit by this again yesterday while getting "Short Cuts" on Netflix only to see there is no delivery ETA.
3578 days ago
@wmorrell: good point – I was referring to digital items where perfect fidelity is the default but if you just limited it to, say, items manufactured in greater than hundreds of units you could cover all of the mass-market stuff while still allowing one-offs for collectors. The other aspect which I think would be worth exploring would be something like an intellectual property tax so you could either offer something for sale (mass-market works) or pay an gradually-increasing assessment to maintain your legal monopoly. That'd, say, allow Disney to keep Song of the South locked up but discourage all of the record labels from sitting on vast dark archives of obscure works they've likely even forgotten they own.
3578 days ago
The tax is an interesting idea. Say allow ten years of gratis monopoly rights, followed by increasing combination of flat-fee and revenue percentage out to current life+75. No chance of ever passing in the US, without some major upheaval. Still promotes creation, while disincentivizing sitting on works just because you can.
3573 days ago
The tax on intellectual property is a fantastic idea. It should be even higher for digital goods kept away from the market. Actually I had already thought of this idea some time ago. If other types of property are taxed, why not IP? If everyone gets to pay a tax to keep their monopoly on the use of a patch of land, there's absolutely no reason the big media companies should be allowed to get away with evading taxation on their monopolies on content.
3578 days ago
sic transit gloria mundi
Earth, Sol system, Western spiral arm
3579 days ago
Strangely, I found Blockbuster Online (when it existed) had much better selection than Netflix's DVD delivery ever dead. Even more weird when you consider Blockbuster was notorious for having almost no selection in-store.
3578 days ago
Copyright strikes again.
3579 days ago
And this is why I won't use streaming services.

Here's The Contrarian Career Advice I Discovered By Practicing Ancient Religions For 6 Months

1 Share

grand canyon meditation contemplationThis post is written by Dale Davidson of The Ancient Wisdom Project and originally appeared on Cal Newport's blog, Study Hacks.

During college, all I wanted to do was become a Navy SEAL. I won an NROTC scholarship, got accepted into training, and was ready to start my career as an operator.

Unfortunately, once I got to training, I realized I didn't want to become a SEAL, and I quit.

Not knowing what to do with my life, I looked to bloggers for help. I discovered Tim Ferriss, and decided that what I needed to do was build a passive-income web business and travel the world.

So I did. I started a (unsuccessful) web business, took off to Egypt to teach and travel, and tried to create the life I thought would make me happy.

The thing is, I wasn't happy. None of the standard blogger advice worked for me. I felt like I would never have a meaningful career or professional life, that there was something fundamentally wrong with me.

So a few months ago, I changed strategies. I started to look outside the blogosphere for help. I began studying and practicing ancient religion and philosophy to figure out how to live a meaningful life. Over time, I added some structure to this project and began to blog about it: calling the whole endeavor the Ancient Wisdom Project.

The reason I chose to study ancient sources of wisdom is because they have survived centuries, and in some cases, millennia, of cultural evolution. They must have done so for a reason – they work. It would be a shame to ignore these philosophies and religions and not extract the hard-earned lessons of billions of people over thousands of years, especially if I can apply those lessons to my life today. 

The Rules of the Project

When planning this project, I realized that learning everything about each religion would be impossible. Scholars can spend their entire careers specializing in a single aspect of a religion or philosophy. I want to improve my life now, not in 30 years.

With the goal of self-improvement and not scholarly expertise, I ultimately settled on the following rules to structure my efforts:

  1. Every month I identify one positive trait or quality I'd like to cultivate in myself (tranquility, compassion, etc.).
  2. I then choose an ancient religion or philosophy that I believe will help me develop that particular trait. These philosophies or religions must be sufficiently ancient (at least 500 years or so) and must still exist in some form today.
  3. After I match the religion with the trait, I select one practice from the religion to adopt for a 30-day period that I feel will be particularly useful. Ideally it's a practice that I can perform on a near daily basis.
  4. Then I do the practice for a one-month period and study the ancient philosophy or religion in order to maximize the effectiveness of the practice.
  5. Finally, I write about the experience on my website.

For example, the first trait I wanted to cultivate was tranquility. After a bit of research, I decided that Stoicism would be perfect for helping me develop this trait.

I then decided to adopt one physical practice and one mental practice.

Dale Davidson in tubFor the physical practice, I decided to take daily ice baths, (to expose myself to physical hardship), and for the mental practice, I chose negative visualization, the act of imagining all the ways your life could be worse.

Over that 30-day period of ice baths and negative visualization, I learned the importance of managing my perceptions of external events and observed noticeable improvement in my daily anxiety level.

Over the past six months, I've explored several sources of ancient wisdom. In addition to Stoicism, I completed 30-day experiments in Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam.

In this article, I want to identify several unexpected pieces of advice from these experiences. I will focus, in particular, on advice relevant to your career, as this is an area that can have a dramatic impact on your wellbeing (for better or worse).

These ideas are not what lifestyle designers will tell you to do, and they aren't always as easy to follow as what you might find in the standard listicle.

But they're based on insights that formed over thousands of years of cultural evolution, and therefore represent some of humankind's best thinking on these issues.

I hope you find this advice as useful as I have…

Contrarian Career Advice from Ancient Sources

Tip 1: Don't pursue promotions.

Promotions are a wonderful tool for companies to motivate their employees. They'll say that if you work hard, you can get a raise and a fancy new title.

For many employees, this is a worthwhile pursuit. There is nothing like external validation and more money to make you feel good about yourself.

But there are two problems with approaching your career this way:

First, promotions are not within your control.

There are a few reasons for this. There are a limited number of positions and titles in any given company. You are restricted by the inherent supply of positions that are available to you.

In addition, someone else will ultimately decide whether you receive a promotion. It might be your boss, it might be a committee, but it's not you. You can't waive a magic wand and give yourself a promotion.

Stoicism, an ancient Greek philosophy, teaches that you should only desire things within your control. Otherwise, you are doomed to be unhappy.

And what is within your control? Here's what Epictetus, a slave turned Stoic sage has to say [Note: All cited passages in this section are from Epictetus]:

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.


Promotions don't fall into the list of things you can control; therefore, you shouldn't desire promotions. If you receive one, you'll soon get used to the new title and larger salary and begin desiring the next promotion. If you are passed over for one, you will be unhappy.

The second major reason you shouldn't seek promotions is that it is likely you will have to compromise something you value in order to attain one.

Are you a creative type in a conservative company? Well, it's unlikely that you'll get a promotion without hiding your creativity to some extent.

Do you like to work on your own but your company emphasizes teamwork? If you stop showing up to meetings, people will question your dedication to the mission.

The pursuit of a promotion will come at a price, and it will sometimes be a price you shouldn't pay.

Is anyone preferred before you at an entertainment, or in a compliment, or in being admitted to a consultation? If these things are good, you ought to be glad that he has gotten them; and if they are evil, don't be grieved that you have not gotten them.

And remember that you cannot, without using the same means [which others do] to acquire things not in our own control, expect to be thought worthy of an equal share of them. For how can he who does not frequent the door of any [great] man, does not attend him, does not praise him, have an equal share with him who does? 

You are unjust, then, and insatiable, if you are unwilling to pay the price for which these things are sold, and would have them for nothing.

Cal Newport, author of the popular blog Study Hacks, says that you should become so good they can't ignore you. I agree that you should become "so good," as that is in your sphere of control, but I say you should be indifferent to whether or not others ignore you. The Stoics would say instead:

"Become so good and stop worrying if others ignore you."

If you happen to win praise and recognition for your good work, great! Just don't let it get to your head. If you do good work and no one cares, be indifferent.

But, for your part, don't wish to be a general, or a senator, or a consul, but to be free; and the only way to this is a contempt of things not in our own control. 

Tip 2: Cultivate humility.

If you've ever taken part in a workplace gripe session with your friends, you know that the conversation usually includes complaints about "idiot coworkers" or "clueless management."

The universality of these comments would make you believe that all employees and bosses everywhere are clueless or evil idiots whose only purpose is to make your work life miserable.

We know this to be false, so what explains this phenomenon?

When you say your coworker or boss is an idiot, the hidden assumption is that you are better than them as human beings. You are not conducting a dispassionate analysis of their behavior and coolly explaining how they can do things better; you're just being arrogant.

This arrogance is making you miserable.

The word Islam, means "submission [to God's will]." Implied in this definition is that you are not the center of the universe, that you shouldn't follow your own desires — you should follow God's desires.

Focusing less on yourself is a key component to humility. Islam reinforces humility by requiring Muslims to pray five times a day (the practice of Salat), which includes a physical act of prostration.

Dale with friendIslam didn't just teach people to practice humility towards God; they also taught that it was important to be humble in the way you relate to others.

Rumi, a famous Sufi poet, once said, "The fault is in the one who blames. Spirit sees nothing to criticize."

Criticism of your coworkers is not really about them; it's about you and your own issues.

In my own experience, I found that by practicing humility, I became happier at work, or at least, less frustrated. If a coworker did something I thought was dumb, I would ask myself, "Am I capable of making similarly stupid mistakes?" Yes, I am. When I thought senior management was making a stupid strategic decision, I asked myself, "Do I know how to run a company better than they do?" No, I don't.

Cultivating a humble attitude towards others at your work will yield better emotional and psychological results than venting at happy hour with your friends.

Tip 3: Ditch work-life balance in favor of sacred rest.

Work-life balance is a hot topic at the moment. We live in an age of distraction and fluid boundaries between work and the rest of our life. We answer work emails at home, personal emails at work. "Leisure" doesn't even seem that relaxing. I'm guilty of binging on Netflix for hours and hours on the weekend. When I'm done, I feel sluggish and unhappy. I'm not working, but I'm not quite resting either.

Modern advice that advocates work-life balance doesn't go far enough. Even the term "work-life balance" doesn't convey the importance of what we need to truly flourish as human beings.

What we need is something like Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.

Shabbat begins on Friday night and ends on Saturday night. If strictly observed, you are not allowed to cook, write, or really do anything that would be considered work. You are also prohibited from using electronic devices, as that would be considered "igniting a fire" (due to electrical sparks in the circuitry of the device).

Does this seem outdated? Overly strict?

I don't think so. To truly rest, you need to commit yourself to activities that are meaningful and rejuvenating, and ruthlessly cut out those that aren't.

Sabbath Manifesto cell phone sleeping bagWhen you can't use your iPhone, buy anything, or even drive, you will naturally do activities that are inherently meaningful. You will spend time with your family, go out for long walks, have fun conversations over long meals (with food you prepared before Shabbat), etc.

It reminds you that you have a life outside of work, that humans aren't "beasts of burden," that our purpose here on Earth goes beyond your career or job.

Consider these words from Abraham Joshua Heschel, a famous Jewish theologian:

The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work. "Last in creation, first in intention," the Sabbath is "the end of the creation of heaven and earth."

The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living.

Instead of complaining that your work is taking over your life, make some portion outside of your life sacred, so you can truly feel rejuvenated.

Cal says that to achieve a remarkable career, we need to learn the art of deep focus at work.

Judaism would say to achieve a remarkable life, we need to learn the art of deep focus at rest as well.

Tip 4: Pay close attention to your feelings.

I've been a slave to my emotions about my work. During particularly boring work assignments, I've fantasized about quitting my job to start a passive income business and traveling the world. In moments of anger, I've wanted to yell at my boss, make a dramatic speech to my coworkers, and storm out of the office.

I found that most lifestyle design bloggers play upon these (normal) feelings and use it to promote bad advice that will lead you to make bad decisions. If your job is boring, they will tell you to quit for an exciting life as an entrepreneur. They will tell you to find your passion or travel the world regardless of what your individual circumstances are.

Your feelings are important, but you need to learn how to correctly assess your feelings in order to make good decisions.

For this, you should follow the Jesuit (a Catholic order) process called the "Discernment of Spirits."

Father Kevin O'Brien, a Jesuit priest, writes:

In discernment of spirits, we notice the interior movements of our hearts, which include our thoughts, feelings, desires, attractions, and resistances. We determine where they are coming from and where they are leading us; and then we propose to act in a way that leads to greater faith, hope, and love.

We pay attention to feelings of consolation"an experience of being so on fire with God's love that we feel impelled to praise, love, and serve God and help others as best as we can," and desolation, "an experience of the soul in heavy darkness or turmoil."

There are a number of rules to follow when practicing discernment that are unexpectedly sophisticated for a practice that is 500 years old.

For example, take the Third Rule:

With cause, as well the good Angel as the bad can console the soul, for contrary ends: the good Angel for the profit of the soul, that it may grow and rise from good to better, and the evil Angel, for the contrary, and later on to draw it to his damnable intention and wickedness.

What this says is that just because something you're doing feels bad or painful, it doesn't mean the activity itself is bad.

Say you're on a particularly stressful project at work. You feel exhausted and frustrated, and you think you should quit your job.

A lifestyle design blogger would say, "Of course you should quit! A job you love would never feel stressful or difficult."

A Jesuit, on the other hand, would ask you if maybe these feelings are temporary, and that if the project is a good one, maybe it's worth completing. It asks you to consider that maybe the "bad angel" is trying to trick you into abandoning a worthwhile effort.

You may protest that you don't believe in angels or God or spirits, but that's not the point. The point is that the Jesuits had an advanced process for paying attention to your feelings that will help you make good decisions and avoid bad ones. The process is careful, methodical, and more importantly, tested over centuries of human experience.

I've used discernment when assessing whether or not I should stay at my job. My job generally leaves me with feelings of desolation. It may seem obvious that I need to quit, right?

Wrong. Using discernment, I discovered what I needed was to do something meaningful and that it didn't have to come from my job.

So what did I do? I started volunteering at a homeless-services organization. I spend a few hours every month serving meals to the homeless. This has provided an immense boost to my happiness.

Do I still have negative feelings about my job? Of course, but I found a way to make it tolerable, which gives me time to assess what I really want to do for my career.

If a 500-year old Jesuit practice can help me, an agnostic, it can certainly help you, too.

Conclusion: The ancients were wise; you should listen to them.

Dale DavidsonNone of this advice is as easy or as sexy as the standard, "quit your job, follow your passion" advice that Cal Newport has quite smartly pointed out is nonsense.

It's not that lifestyle design bloggers are purposely trying to lead you astray; I believe they are really trying to help people have meaningful lives and careers.

However, their greatest weakness is that their advice is not time-tested. Careers are fairly new inventions, and we're all trying to figure out how they fit with our lives. So the fact that there is lots of bad advice out there is not surprising.

The ancients did not attempt to provide career advice per se (though some did), but they did teach people how to live good and meaningful lives in a world that is often cruel and indifferent to our desires. This same advice which has helped billions of people over thousands of years is still relevant to our modern lives and, can help us navigate even modern artifacts, like our careers.

To live a good and meaningful life, you're better off following the example of philosophers like Epictetus, Catholic heroes like Saint Ignatius, or Islamic prophets like Mohammed than you are of following advice from the latest lifestyle design blogger.

But what do I know? I'm just a 26-year old blogger.

SEE ALSO: Here's How Marcus Aurelius Got Himself Out Of Bed Every Morning

Join the conversation about this story »

Read the whole story
3622 days ago
Stopped at Willoughby
Share this story
Next Page of Stories