Here are SIX things I learned, thought were interesting, or found useful.
How (And When) Emotions Are Made
For nearly three decades, Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett has been studying the brain. In particular, her research is focused on unlocking where emotions—calmness, panic, happiness, anxiousness, nervousness, pleasantness, unpleasantness, and so on—come from and how they shape our lives. When I read her work, I couldn’t stop thinking about Mickelson’s final round in the 2004 Masters. Her bestselling book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain—gets its title from the discovery that emotions are constructed by the brain. Again and again in that book, she writes that, because your brain is trapped in a dark box called your skull where it is constantly receiving information from your sensory organs, your brain relies heavily, and sometimes entirely, on your past experiences. It sifts through it’s archives of experiences, looking for one that matches or nearly matches your present circumstances. Each experience of emotion, therefore, is a prediction, not a reaction. It is a blooming of seeds planted in your past. The Nobel laureate and neuroscientist Gerald M. Edelman referred to it as “the remembered past.” As I write about The Origins of Calmness (And Panic), I’ve come to think of panicking in this way: panicking is your brain calling you out—you didn’t put in the work, the practice, the preparation. You didn’t form the experience for your brain to later use as a reference point. Without that reference point, as Dr. Barrett puts it in her other book, Seven And A Half Lessons About The Brain, it’s like “swimming in a sea of uncertainty.”
Prior Preparation Prevents Panic
Here’s an example from a restaurant kitchen, one of the more consistently chaotic environments I’ve been in. One of the things that struck me and has stayed with me about working in kitchens is that the ratio of time spent preparing to cook to time spent cooking is at least 1 to 1. If, for instance, the dinner menu starts at 6 and the kitchen’s last call is at 9, line cooks start preparing mise-en-place around 3, latest. “Mise-en-place is the religion of all good line cooks,” as Anthony Bourdain writes in Kitchen Confidential. Literally, “put in place,” mise-en-place connotes a cook’s state of readiness. Bourdain tells the story of a cook who didn’t give himself enough time to prepare his mise-en-place. The cook was panicking and making mistakes when the head chef, at the height of the rush, walked over to the cook’s station and pressed his palm down on the cook’s cutting board. “You see this?” chef asked, raising his crumbs-and-filth covered palm. “That’s what the inside of your head looks like.” The good cook, Bourdain says, comes to live by what they say in the military: prior preparation prevents poor performance. And, poor preparation predicts poor performance. And panic.
Prepare, Prepare, Prepare, Show Up, See What Happens
A friend pointed out to me that it does still happen that one puts in the preparation yet performs poorly. “I don’t want to call it choking,” he said. “I prefer to see it as an inability to trust that their best is enough.” I was reminded of the director Mike Nichols. After four straight box office hits, which included two Academy Awards nominations and an Oscar for Best Director, Nichols had a movie flop. For the next seven years, he didn’t make a movie. Only in hindsight did he realize, “those seven years of not making movies taught me more about making movies than the years I spent making movies.” What did it teach him? “Relax,” he said. “Prepare the hell out of it. Prepare as much as you can. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Then show up and throw it all away. Just show up and see what happens.”
Become Aware Of The Miraculousness Of The Pencil
Did you know that no single person knows how to make a pencil? In 1958, the Foundation for Economic Education and its founder, Leonard Read, published an essay titled, “I, Pencil.” It’s an autobiography, written from the perspective of the Mongol 482, a pencil made by the Eberhard Faber Pencil Company (who, I learned, also makes my favorite pencil, The Blackwing). Read had the idea for the essay after visiting the Eberhard Faber factory, where he was struck by how the supply chain wrapped around the globe. The wood—from a cedar grown in Northern California and Oregon, chopped down by who knows who mined the ore and made the steel and refined it into saws and axes. The logs—shipped to a mill in San Leandro, California, cut into pencil-shaped slats. The pencil-shaped slats—kiln dried, tinted, and waxed at the Pacific Gas & Electric Company hydroplant then carted to pencil factories across the nation. Once in the pencil factory, the graphite—mined in Sri Lanka by many miners and their many tools, mixed with clay from Mississippi, strengthened by a candelilla wax from Mexico, inserted in the cedar, and sent to receive six coats of lacquer. The lacquer—even the paint that gives the Mongol 482 its yellow “involve the skills of more persons than one can enumerate.” And if you thought it was rubber, the eraser—made by rapeseed oil from Indonesia, mixed with sulfur chloride, vulcanized by pumice from Italy, and colored with cadmium sulfide. “I am seemingly so simple,” the Mongol 482 writes. “Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.” As G.K. Chesterton said, the Mongol 482 says, “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.” “I, Pencil, merit your wonder and awe…become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize.”
Make An Effort To Read Your Writing As A Stranger
Last week, I talked about how I make note cards with the assumption that a stranger were going to read it. This week, I read an essay, “Putting Ideas Into Words,” by the great essayist Paul Graham. It’s primarily about how, if you want to have any fully formed ideas, you have to write, you have to try to put ideas into words. But my favorite part of the piece is the brief discussion of the test Graham puts his writing through before he publishes anything. “You have to pretend to be a neutral reader who knows nothing of what’s in your head,” he writes. “If you make an effort, you can read your writing as if you were a complete stranger, and when you do the news is usually bad. It takes me many cycles before I can get an essay past the stranger.”
The Dance Between Ability & Interest
Speaking of Graham, here’s one to file next to or below his Bus Ticket Theory of Genius. The mother of grit, Angela Duckworth, talks about “the complex dance between having intelligence and having interest.” The more she studies intelligence, she said, “the more I’m like, ‘I don’t even know what it is.’” People who have interest in a topic or subject learn better and remember more than those who have more natural ability but no interest. “This is why I said,” Angela said, “I can be very dumb about things I don’t care about and I can be extremely smart about the things I do care about.”