You Don’t Have Much Time Left
Just a few years from now, someone will put me in a shoe box and bury me in the back yard. In know, I know… tears will flow and all that. No matter, I accept this (the relatively short-term inevitability of my demise). It’s approximately the way singularity-free nature intended things.
You should be brightened to know, however, that the spirit of the various things that I represent will live on. People at war with themselves who fight and focus and learn and eventually break free from the shit that attempts to bind them: these are my people. They are the ones who, after I am gone, will continue — with me, in spirit — to walk the path of existential immediacy.
As noted by Tillich, interest, passion and indirect communication are qualities of the Existential thinker. Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture, ed. Robert C. Kimball (Oxford University Press US, 1964), 91.
The thinking of the existential thinker *** aims to cut under the “subject-object distinction” and to reach the stratum of Being which Jaspers, for instance, calls the “Ursprung” or “Source.” But in order to penetrate to this stratum we must leave the sphere of “objective” things and pass through the corresponding “subject” inner experience, until we arrive at the immediate creative experience or “Source.” “ ‘Existence’ is something that can never become a mere object; it is the ‘Source’ whence springs my thinking and acting.” [quoting, Jaspers, Philosophie, I, 15.]
(Tillich 1964, 92) (Emphasis added.)
A person’s ability to get to or access the Source may or may not result in success as it is typically judged by the gage of industrial civilization (e.g., the mirthfully badged “money power respect” barometer), and it may or may not even provide entertainment value (“What is entertaining?” “That which does not bore, perhaps?”)
On the other hand, the ability to conjure the “immediate creative experience” at will, or at least with reasonable regularity, would probably not be an entirely bad thing. To some observers, such ability might even make a person appear to possess magical or preternatural powers. (Devilishly talented people are often admired, envied, feared, and hated, in turn, by less creative folks, but that’s another topic for another time.)
I sometimes think of the immediate creative experience as a form of attention generally cognizant of objects, but stripped of boundaries, including the objects, and free to go where it will.
Are some people compulsively driven to existential thinking and prone to experiencing anxiety if ordinary reality unduly impinges upon their seeking of immediate creative experiences? Yes, most certainly.
Perhaps this sort of compulsivity, if not already in place, could to some extent be learned with enough guidance and practice, although I’m not sure that I would wish such a condition upon anyone who wasn’t already at least partially fucked up. It’s hard enough to make a dollar in this world… even when you’re ostensibly normal.
There’s a component of instinct at play here as well. Great amounts of scholarly discussion regarding instinct and consciousness precede these humble musings. Nevertheless, and by way of providing a working definition, let’s say anything that strikes a person, as in a “gut feeling”, for example, is potentially from the realm of instinct. Sensations born of instinct are highly charismatic examples of things that unexpectedly flash into the consciousness, to either be paid attention to or be ignored (the latter, usually at one’s peril).
Viewed against a mosaic backdrop of existential thinking and instinct, as to certain endeavors, a relevant nexus is attention, whether the endeavor is, for example: sport, combat, negotiation, discussion, design, musical or theatrical performance, painting, writing, or even philosophizing or theorizing.
I may be compulsive, but I’m not going to get hung up on drawing distinctions between the objective and the subjective. (I’ll leave that to philosophy academics.) To where I’m going, I’m passing through that stuff anyway — with the intent of primarily paying attention to something else.
I’ve suggested that there seems to be a certain compulsivity (susceptibility?) that characterizes those inclined toward existential thought and curious to discover what they are capable of doing/accomplishing/experiencing in this existence. Thusly driven (for better or worse), existential thinkers tend to ask questions such as, “How long am I going to be able to do this before nature robs me of who I am?” I’ll tell you this much, dear readers, it’s not very much time at all, particularly if “doing this” means operating at an objectively (or relatively) high level of performance. The nature of your game also has a lot to do with how this question gets answered.
In the NBA, for example, most guards lose a half-step (in terms of speed) by the age of 32 or thereabouts. For most professional basketball players, the effective window of opportunity to achieve personal greatness usually spans less than a decade. This takes into account the several years typically required (after first entering the league) to increase the quality of one’s play to a world class competitive level and, on the other end of the career trajectory, the often several years prior to retirement when the player is no longer able to play as he could during his prime.
An excellent recent example of a guard playing — at a truly competitive level — years beyond the norm is John Stockton, 10-time NBA All-Star, who retired in 2003 at the age of 41. Michael Jordan, who won his final NBA Championship at the age of 35, once said, “The game is my wife. It demands loyalty and responsibility, and it gives me back fulfillment and peace.” Sure, Your Airness, but the game of basketball (with its extreme and essentially inescapable physical requirements) has little need for those over 40.
As an aside and/or central point, existential strivers may wish to consider the following MJ quote, which I think tidily encapsulates aspects of focus, dedication, and the trajectory of greatness and how one might extend its duration: “To be successful you have to be selfish, or else you never achieve. And once you get to your highest level, then you have to be unselfish. Stay reachable. Stay in touch. Don’t isolate.”
Jordan also said, perhaps more profoundly, “You have to expect things of yourself before you can do them.”
In the field of mathematics, Hadamard proposed that the roots of creativity “lie not in consciousness, but in the long unconscious work of incubation, and in the unconscious aesthetic selection of ideas that thereby pass into consciousness.” Jacques Hadamard, preface to The Mathematician’s Mind: The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field (Princeton University Press, 1996), xiii.
The popular image of mathematical insights striking young males with lightening bolt-like suddenness is iconic to be sure. Henri Poincaré, in his 1908 lecture at the Société de Psychologie in Paris, described such a “flash of genius” circumstance:
Just at this time I left Caen, where I was then living, to go on a geological excursion under the auspices of the school of mines. The changes of travel made me forget my mathematical work. Having reached Countances, we entered an omnibus to go some place or other. At the moment when I put my foot on the step the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformations I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidean geometry. I did not verify the idea; I should not have had time, as, upon taking my seat in the omnibus, I went on with a conversation already commenced, but I felt a perfect certainty. On my return to Caen, for conscience’s sake I verified the result at my leisure.
Yet it is clear that he had been thinking about the problem, and presumably attempting to solve it, before the epiphonous event. At some level, he expected to find a solution. And it found him.
Modernly, mathematicians who are making important discoveries are trending toward making such discoveries at older ages, even into their 40’s. It has been proposed, and this makes perfect sense to me, that today’s mathematicians need to learn more math than their predecessors had to and, therefore, it is not until a later in their lives that they become sufficiently learned to advance the state of their art over the ever-growing body or prior knowledge.
Preparation and laborious efforts at deduction, in the world of mathematics, arguably constitute a form of practice in preparation for a moment of illumination (when creativity is provided with an opportunity to deliver a solution). Few prima donnas, regardless of how “gifted” they are, can succeed without a proper environment initially nurturing their talent and then later dedicated practice.
The nature vs. nurture debate, as it relates to the virtues of practice, can be summarized in a few brief comments. There IS such a thing as congenital, innate or natural talent, whether precocious or otherwise. Some people will never be great at a particular endeavor no matter how much they practice at it (or attempt to). People with talent get better with practice. Although there can be a point of diminishing returns, generally the more ones practices the better he or she gets. People who suck at something or who lack drive are more likely to get discouraged and not practice in comparison with people whose efforts more rapidly yield performance gains or other dividends.
According to Ericsson et al., it has been observed that top musicians consistently underwent about ten years and 10,000 hours of practice in reaching the height of their virtuoso skill level. K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” Psychological Review 100, no. 3 (1993): 363-406. And according to an oft-repeated Hollywood bromide, writers must first write a million words before they should expect to be ready for prime time.
Expert musicians and writers are not experts simply because they practice a lot; rather, it is because they possess particular and sufficient synergistically-acting abilities and traits that they are able to put in the hard work that it takes for a person even with their “god given” talents to perform at a superior level.
Practice is clearly a factor, ensuring that the tools of a particular craft can be deployed with sufficient skill or virtuosity, but the most creative (and therefore the most compelling) musicians and writers are also the best thinkers. Guys who can play guitar like Joe Satriani are effectively dime a dozen. It takes something extra to be a great songwriter or composer.
Similarly, with writing, there are armies of people who can churn out volumes of decently organized and grammatically correct text. The process of rendering prose that transports — gripping and carrying the reader to an impassioned or inspired state — is a kind of magic that most typists simply cannot deliver.
Whether the novel remains the standard by which literary achievement is judged, as 21st Century Schizoid Monkeys text-message their way bravely into a new and seemingly dumber world, is an open question. No less a literary luminary than Aldous Huxley once shirked most eloquently: “I remain sadly aware that I am not a born novelist, but some other kind of man of letters, possessing enough ingenuity to be able to simulate a novelist’s behaviour not too unconvincingly.” I believe (although I can’t find the quote) that Christopher Hitchens similarly commented that he is an essayist because the talents required to competently write novels are beyond him and analogous to those possessed by composers of music. Rarified air indeed.
Until what time in life might writers and composers reasonably expect to be able to vitally and relevantly practice their respective crafts? Ludwig van Beethoven was around 54-years old when he completed Symphony No. 9, one of his greatest masterpieces. William Faulkner remained a literary force at least into his mid-50’s. These are merely two examples, but I believe that they are representative of the typical human experience in these fields and of potential predictive value (taken with the understanding that your mileage may vary) as to when a writer or composer may expect to see a marked personal diminishment in creative power.
The linchpin of many endeavors in life, including existential thinking and immediate creative experience, is attention. Immediacy is manifest! (On these points, I only hope that I have been sufficiently direct.)
Some say that pursuing immediate creative experiences to validate oneself or for any other purpose is pointless. Of course it is! And it’s as beautiful as catching a final glance at the shot clock, while breaking through a double team, and rearing up for a potentially game winning shot, released with all the purity of motion a lifetime of playing has taught you… just before time expires.