It’s no secret for those who know me, and perhaps not, either, for people who read the blog regularly, that I think a lot about existential issues: what gives life meaning, what it means to lead an authentic life, how we can connect to others in genuine ways and … the terrible truth that we’re going to die. I can’t really help it; it’s just what I think about, and in one way or another, informs most everything that I do.
Recently I stumbled across an interesting piece on the (always great) psychology website Creativity Post about meditating on existential issues as a way to develop deeper meaning in our lives. We’re all gonna die, but not all of us will really live, the article suggests, and maintains that reflecting on a study outlining the top five regrets of the dying can be a useful method for meaning meaningful choices about our lives in the here and now: “Dying people don’t wish they had more money or that they had twerked on Robin Thicke at the VMAs. They dream of more enjoyment and authentic pursuits with the people they loved. If we are to live well, we’ll need to re-evaluate how we’re currently living and pursue valuable goals, purpose, friendship and happiness.” So I got to thinking: maybe it would be interesting to reflect on the top five regrets of the dying and how they might inform our library practice. So here’s a bit how I think they might inform mine …
You ain’t no punk, you punk.
You wanna talk about the real junk?
If I ever slip, I’ll be banned ’cause I’m your garbageman.
Well you can’t dig me you can’t dig nothin’.
Do you want the real thing, or are you just talkin’?
Yeah it’s just what you need when you’re down in the dumps.
One half hillbilly and one half punk.
Big long legs and one big mouth.
The hottest thing from the North to come out of the South.
Do you understand? do you understand?
Just came across a great article (via Scott Barry Kaufman’s excellent Twitter feed) about the “secret” of how creative people spend their time. Some excerpts:
A Hungarian psychology professor once wrote to famous creators asking them to be interviewed for a book he was writing. One of the most interesting things about his project was how many people said “no.” Management writer Peter Drucker: “One of the secrets of productivity (in which I believe whereas I do not believe in creativity) is to have a VERY BIG waste paper basket to take care of ALL invitations such as yours — productivity in my experience consists of NOT doing anything that helps the work of other people but to spend all one’s time on the work the Good Lord has fitted one to do, and to do well.”
Secretary to novelist Saul Bellow: “Mr Bellow informed me that he remains creative in the second half of life, at least in part, because he does not allow himself to be a part of other people’s ‘studies.’ ”
Photographer Richard Avedon: “Sorry — too little time left.”
Secretary to composer György Ligeti: “He is creative and, because of this, totally overworked. Therefore, the very reason you wish to study his creative process is also the reason why he (unfortunately) does not have time to help you in this study. He would also like to add that he cannot answer your letter personally because he is trying desperately to finish a Violin Concerto which will be premiered in the Fall.”The professor contacted 275 creative people. A third of them said “no.”
Their reason was lack of time. A third said nothing. We can assume their reason for not even saying “no” was also lack of time and possibly lack of a secretary.
Time is the raw material of creation. Wipe away the magic and myth of creating and all that remains is work: the work of becoming expert through study and practice, the work of finding solutions to problems and problems with those solutions, the work of trial and error, the work of thinking and perfecting, the work of creating. Creating consumes. It is all day, every day. It knows neither weekends nor vacations. It is not when we feel like it. It is habit, compulsion, obsession, vocation. The common thread that links creators is how they spend their time. No matter what you read, no matter what they claim, nearly all creators spend nearly all their time on the work of creation. There are few overnight successes and many up-all-night successes.
I think this point couldn’t be more important for educators: to teach our students and as a lens to view our own professional and personal habits. Want to publish more? Write more articles? Start a blog? Be a better librarian? Take pictures? Learn to play the guitar? There’s no mystery to any of this stuff: it’s about putting in the work at stuff you’re passionate about doing, and lots of study and practice and effort. In the words of John Calipari, you gotta love the grind.
Know yourself, know your worth.
As readers may by now be very well aware, here are Rule Number One we’re all about the evidence when it comes to instruction. This being the case, I’m quite weary of “threshold concepts” as anything other than a moderately useful way to think about the deeper structure of what we’re doing. My skepticism about them is, largely, that they are not scientifically supported. Since they are the basis of much of the new ACRL IL Standards, however, I initially figured they must be based in the science of learning (for why else would we base our professional standards on them?!) and, after not being able to find any scientific literature on them, I once emailed a famous cognitive scientist of learning whose work I’ve read much of asking him if he could point me toward some of the literature. He wrote back saying “What’s a threshold concept?” i.e., you can’t define a threshold concept in any scientifically measurable way, and that’s why there’s no educational psychology literature on them.
Which brings me to the following (unscientific) anecdote. I’m on one of my universities major academic committees. This morning that committee met. Recently a faculty member for that committee attended a workshop on information literacy since we’re assessing it on this committee. He reported back that IL is a lot about threshold concepts. When he reported back to this group of faculty what a threshold concept is they literally thought it was the most insane thing they’d ever heard. One remarked, and I quote, “That [i.e., the idea that there is a concept that causes a permanent cognitive revolution within a student] is literally fantastical.” Like, it’s up there with tooth fairies and Santa Claus and leprechauns from the hood.
These are the kinds of things I think of, FWIW, when I think about librarian perceptions; how faculty perceive us; and why it might be important to understand the actual science of learning.
*Addendum: I haven’t read too much criticism of threshold concepts in IL, but when I was quickly Googling some stuff earlier, I came across Lane Wilkinson’s super, super smart post on all of this. It’s a great overview of some of the problems related to threshold concepts, and also more evidence that philosophy, and philosophical librarians, matter.
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
For any Smiths or Morrissey fans out there, I wrote a short piece published today by Ethos Review about how Morrissey’s lyrics capture the inherent pain of the human condition. An excerpt:
What Morrissey captures is not the pain of being a teenager; he captures—with constant wit and humor that is often overlooked—the underlying struggle of human life, which existential psychology summarizes in four “givens of existence”: (i) our coming to terms with the fact that we must die; (ii) the difficulty of taking responsibility for our ultimate freedom to lead authentic lives; (iii) our isolation from others; and (iv) the search for meaning in a world where none is antecedently given. Morrissey knows how hard these things are to do and has made that his subject matter. In this sense, Morrissey is a classic existential hero—he knows what nothing means and keeps on playing—and, in a Nietzschean spirit, his art brings us back from our difficulties to a fuller acceptance of life. As J.D. Salinger once said, “God have mercy on the lonely bastard.”
You can read the rest courtesy of the fine folks at Ethos.