The Ability To Take The Bullshit
Before his writing career took off, Steven Pressfield lived in a halfway house because the rent was cheap. Besides Pressfield, everyone in the halfway house had previously lived in mental hospitals. “They were among the smartest people that I ever met,” Pressfield said. “They weren’t crazy at all. They were actually the smart people who had seen through the bullshit and because of that, they couldn’t function in the world. They couldn’t hold a job because they just couldn’t take the bullshit, and that was how they wound up in institutions.” This wasn’t Pressfield’s point, but as Morgan Housel writes, it highlights a skill required to function in the world: being able to accept hassle when reality demands it, being able to deal with petty annoyances outside our control. Artists are good at this. They take the bullshit and turn it into something. They spin a terrible experience into a defining moment. They live with an it’s-all-material mentality. To everything that happens, they find a way to say, I can use that. Here’s some examples…
Turn The Experience Into A Story
In 1998, after getting fired, Nick Thompson took a trip to Africa. Playing his guitar at a subway platform in Tangiers, Thompson was kidnapped by some drug lords. They threw him in the back of their van then locked him in a room and explained elaborate plans to distribute drugs across America. When Thompson somehow made it clear that he wouldn’t make a good drug mule, they took all sixty of his dollars and dumped him at a train station. “And then the great thing is,” Thompson said, “that I then had a story. And so, I turned that experience into an essay for the Washington Post.” Up to that point, Thompson had no journalistic aspirations. Since, he’s navigated an impressive career in journalism. He was a senior editor at Wired then at The New Yorker, he co-founded the multi-media publishing company the Atavist, and he is currently the CEO of The Atlantic. The kidnapping, he said, “turned out to be a really interesting experience for a mere $60.”
Just Keep The Show Going
At a Hamilton performance just for college students in Puerto Rico, Lin-Manuel Miranda came down the steps in the opening number and saw that a young lady in the fourth row was filming. Usually in these situations, as soon as he gets the chance, Lin-Manuel goes offstage and tells the stage manager that someone in the fourth row is filming. But his character doesn’t leave the stage. He was annoyed, struggling to function, distracted and irritated by the awareness of someone breaking the rules as they were clearly defined before the show. “But I don’t want to stop the show,” he said, “so I think up, ‘I got a scholarship to King’s College / I probably shouldn’t brag but, dang I amaze and astonish / Hey, lady filming in the fourth row, please stop it / I got a holler just to be heard / Every word I drop knowledge…’ and I just kept going.”
What Time Does The Next Swan Leave?
Orson Welles calls this the best theater joke of all time. The actor and tenor Leo Slezak was performing Lohengrin, a Romantic opera composed and written by Richard Wagner. Slezak enters the stage standing on a swan boat. He gets off, sings a while, then is supposed to get back on the swan boat and float off. But when Slezak went to get back on the swan, it was gone. A stage hand pulled the it off the stage too early. “Without missing a beat,” Welles says in My Lunches With Orson, “he turned to the audience and ad libbed, ‘What time does the next swan leave?’” The crowd erupted in laughter.
Make The Opposite Of What You Hate
In sports, great head coaches are measured by their coaching tree—do their assistant coaches go on to be great head coaches? René Redzepi—chef and co-owner of the three-Michelin star restaurant Noma in Copenhagen—is famous for his coaching tree. Rosio sanchez, Christian Puglisi, Matt Orlando, Søren Ledet, Daniel Burns, Sam Miller, Dan Giusti, Damian Wawrzyniak, Thomas Frebel, Jose Luis Hinostroza, and David Zilber, to name a few—they all worked in Redzepi’s kitchen before going off and starting their own successful restaurants. Redzepi was asked why he does this, why he helps his most talented employees go off and do their own thing. Isn’t it a hassle to find replacements? Wouldn’t it better for his restaurant if he hoarded the talent? It all stems from a terrible experience, Redzepi said. “I had a moment where I left a restaurant I was working at, and it was a terrible experience. I left and people treated me as if I was a stranger to them. That’s not that uncommon—’leave, just stay away, now we’re competitors.’ It was just a terrible experience and I promised myself never to be that. And honestly, that’s what happened—a terrible experience that led me to say, ‘No way. If people leave my restaurant and they do it in a fantastic way, in a sound way…I will do everything I can to help them.’”
Articulate An Alternative Vision
Austin Kleon wrote about how he gets asked all the time: how do you deal with the feelings and emotions around creative work? You use them, of course. “Feelings and emotions are a form of information,” he writes. “The question is what you do with information.” The answer is you channel it into creating something—a career in journalism, an ad libbed line, a reputation of helping former employees succeed. Or in Kleon’s case, books. All of his books, he says, have come from feeling annoyed. “I see something I feel negatively about,” he writes, “something that aggravates me, something that pisses me off, something that infuriates me, and then I spend some time trying to articulate an alternative vision.” It’s an infinitely repeatable process, Kleon writes, one you can use everyday. Because hassle and bullshit and nonsense and frustrations and petty annoyances and the lady filming when she was told not to and the swan leaving before it was supposed to—these things happen every day. They can almost always be turned into something positive. It’s all material.