Try

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

It’s an amazing thing to stand before the world and admit you have no excuses to achieving what you want. It is embarrassing to stand before the world and admit the only reason you haven’t achieved what you want is that you refuse to try.

If you’re trying to be perfect, stop now. I can promise you will never get there. No one has. The only thing you will accomplish by trying to be perfect is paralysis or madness. One of the greatest writers to ever live, Kurt Vonnegut, said, “When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” As awkward as he feels, the results are still divine.

Just start something and see where it takes you. Give up perfection and give up feeling comfortable. Embrace vulnerability, instead.

Consider the example David Foster Wallace gives us in Infinite Jest. A person has 100 keys. 99 out of 100 of these keys will not work. One key, however, will open the door to your eternal happiness, or whatever it is you want. Will you fall in the camp that does nothing because you’re afraid of using the wrong key? Or will you try every damn one until the door opens?

To refuse to try every key is shameful, right? You’ve never given yourself a chance.

Your happiness depends on your willingness to try and fail.

Pick something to write about and make a habit of writing. Read above your head. Take on something you never thought you could understand.

You might find it gives you a new outlook on life.  At the very least, you will learn something about how failing isn’t as painful as you once thought.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Alaskan Dude

Message for a Young Reader, Message for an Old Reader

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

Inspired by True Grit by Charles Portis, Hatchet: 20th Anniversary Edition by Gary Paulsen, and The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal by Ben Mezrich.

When I was around eleven years old my cousins and I started the “Earth Club.” Our goal was to spread the word that recycling was good,easy, and it would save the world.  This was in the early 90s so our ideas were pretty well accepted even though Al Gore had not come around to trumpet the idea with such vigor. We kept this up for an afternoon. When the time came for our parents to take us home we vowed to carry on the idea with informal planning sessions.

We had ambitions to put a homemade pamphlet of our own design in every mail box in our small city (Population 13,000 and change).  Progress being what it was, I wanted to use my personal funds to speed things along and make color copies of our handouts.  Hand drafting each pamphlet was our bottleneck, I thought at the time. Being eleven, I had to ask for permission to spend that money. My request was denied which saved me at least $20. What would have been the result if permission had been granted? Chances are nothing would have changed about my life, but there can be a fine line between frivolous projects and “the next big thing.” Reading and re-reading three books got me thinking along these lines. Let’s look at them as three case studies in youthful potential.

Case Study #1: True Grit (Fiction)

A young girl faced with her father’s murder decides on a plan to hire someone to avenge her father’s death.  Through a great deal of luck and a lost limb she is able to accomplish this goal. Her strengths were persistence, self-awareness, and a reluctance to resign herself to her station in life, that of a teenage girl, even though she was confronted with that suggestion by a number of characters including her own mother.  She recognized when she was being taken advantage of and even wore a chip on her shoulder about this being a potential in her dealings with adults.

Case Study #2: Hatchet (Fiction)

Paulsen, Hatchet’s author, set out with the simple motivation of writing a good story and eventually motivated a generation, myself included, to a reading life. In Hatchet, Brian Robeson is faced with divorcing parents, initially.  As the book progresses this problem is engulfed by a survival tale when the pilot of his plane has a heart attack, and Brian is forced to survive alone for many days.

Brian survives as a result of a combination of luck, brilliance, and patience. He made mistakes along the way which could have killed him. Instead he lived and found a new confidence in the face of hardship because he could lose everything and use his learned skills to start over more easily than before.

Case Study #3: Accidental Billionaires (Non-Fiction)

Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook at age 19 while a sophomore at college. Six years later, in 2010 he was honored by Time magazine as “Person of the Year.” At age 12 he had created what he called “ZuckNet” for his family to use to network their computers.  He had to hire a professional to wire the network. Keep in mind this was on a system using Windows 3.1 and before home networking was as easy as a router purchase.  What if Zuckerberg’s parents had decided that “ZuckNet” was a horrible idea and discouraged it?  Would it have mattered?

I think the message is two fold. One for the younger crowd and one for the older crowd.

Young readers: Don’t be particularly dissuaded by old people when you have enthusiasm and energy. Realize that their pessimism may exist because they never accomplished what they wanted with their time. Whether your ambition is reading, writing, or stuffing hand drawn recycling literature in mailboxes, follow it as far as you can.

Old readers: Children know more of the world than you give them credit for. The language of a child is often hope and idealism, but when faced with a problem they may show an ability to connect that hope and idealism with reality. Give children a chance to be better than you were or are.

I’m not about to tell you which category you belong in, so don’t ask.

Photo by: Some rights reserved by Atreyu san

On Teaching and Self-Worth

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

A post inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright: An Autobiography

It is no surprise that Frank Lloyd Wright had teachers in his family. A great teacher impacts generations. My grandmother had that talent while she lived. I have had more than fifty grown adults approach me in my lifetime and describe how she profoundly affected their lives by being their teacher. Uniformly though, the impact came by not only what she taught, but how seriously she took her responsibility to the betterment of her students’ lives. Reading about Frank Lloyd Wright reminds me of her impact.

A true teacher leads one to knowledge more than anything, even if that is through inspiration. For Wright, nature often served as a teacher, and experience serves to carry out the education. For Wright work was education.

For an architect during the Great Depression there were often no paying clients looking to build. Wright tested his ideas by creating a school, which was really more akin to a modern-day apprenticeship program.

The students worked at building and planning and became a self-sufficient entity. They grew their own food and mended their own clothes. Wright’s idea was that to design a kitchen one had to know how to work in one. He took this to the extreme by having his students work in every area he could imagine. Under the motto “do something while resting,” the school grew to stand for the idea that there is no substitute for getting right into the mix and working.

Where did Wright get the idea that this type of education would work? During the summer he spent time at his uncle’s farm doing the labor necessary to keep animals and humans in good health. Wright developed as a child under the idea that “work is an adventure that makes strong men and finishes weak ones.” For Wright, work was truly educational. But, I think he got something out of his teaching, too. Something that helped get him through the Great Depression. Teaching others boosts our own self-worth.

Sometimes hard work forced upon us is life changing. Hard work can provide the capacity to endure and create as an immediate result.  The greatest value, however, may come in the realization that the process of learning to work provides self-worth. You can take the next step and multiply the effect if you teach someone else the same process. I think the same holds true with reading, which is why we have such a responsibility to share our reading experiences with others.

Photo: Some rights reserved by mach3

America’s Love Affair With Television

This essay was written by Brandon Monk.

Inspired by A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments by David Foster Wallace.

It was a coincidence that the first book I finished reading using an e-reader was A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.  I got a Nook for Christmas in 2010, and it lead me into a book reading binge. Recognizing how fast I was going through books with the device I made a resolution to write something down about each one so that I could take something from the reading experience. The ability to turn a page with a press of a thumb without adjusting or shifting your position made for a supremely convenient experience. Immediately, I declared that I would purchase all future books on the device. Later, I learned this statement was misguided because many publishers had not started releasing books in e-format.

Nevertheless, I did read David Foster Wallace (DFW) early on and found his discussion of TV ironic given my new “addiction” to the Nook.  From his work I thought out a few realities of television which is a technology he struggled with most of his adult life, even admitting to intentionally avoiding the set while doing his most serious writing. Here are the ideas that I took away through his inspiration to think about the subject:

1.  TV caters to the lowest common denominator and strips away your ability to be unique.

TV is designed to appeal as many people as it possibly can so that advertisements are worth more and the revenue stream will steadily increase. The dollar rules and the collective dollars of the collective assembly is the target.  I don’t think it is a new idea, but it is one worth recognizing in the context that everyone one should realize that you aren’t going to set yourself apart from the masses by consuming TV.

2.  TV does not encourage the treatment of a particular subject with breadth or depth.

The aim of TV is to fit entertainment bang between commercials.  The creators of TV programs have limitations imposed by the format. Attention spans being what they are, it is impossible to cover any subject with the same breadth or depth that a book can.  Complicated ideas are typically discarded in favor of a hook that will drag you through the next commercial break.

3.  TV destroys focus and mutates attention span to fit its format.

Watching TV transforms your patience and your brain to a focus on the program, but the experience is completely passive.  It asks nothing of you, and as a result there is no need to give full attention to the material.  When you need not give full attention, you don’t practice that.  Lack of practice leads to lack of skill in this department.

4.  TV has a clear focus, consumption as opposed to creation.

In conjunction with the passive nature of the experience there is typically no call to action with TV.  Rarely is the suggestion that you leave with inspiration to go into the world and create or give something back.  Instead the call is to tune back in for more consumption or, through advertisement, to express your consumptive self on a given product.  Missing is the call to contribute.

These realities are not necessarily an argument to avoid TV completely.  TV is not going anywhere.  In order to create something that is going to be appreciated by the masses these days you have to be familiar enough with the effects of TV to be able to communicate given the reality of its huge impact.  I am not advocating abandoning TV, but while trying to create something new and unique or while working to explore something with a new depth and focus you may find TV is a poison.

AMENDMENT:

After reading this post, someone suggested I follow-up this article by reading Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson.  I finished it and wanted to add these thoughts.

Johnson asserts the basic hypothesis that IQ has risen as a whole over the past 20 or so years, and that one possible explanation is the increasing popularity and complexity of social media, including television.   By way of summary, Johnson sets out by stating that twenty-five years of increasingly complex television has honed our analytical skills.  He then moves on to argue that increasing IQ across society, known as the Flynn effect, provide some empiric evidence that his theory is correct.

Johnson paid particular attention to reality TV in setting forth the argument that these shows shift our brain toward focusing on  the emotional lives of the people around us.  The part of the brain that tracks subtle shifts in intonation, gesture, and facial expression, Johnson thought, were sent into overdrive while we watched these shows so that we could make judgments about whose side we wanted to be on.

After reading Johnson’s book I would echo his sentiment that there is need for more study to determine whether a true connection exists between the increasing popularity and complexity of television and some skill that translates to other areas of life. The reason I put the question that way is because if we just get better at watching TV by watching TV and the skill increase does not translate to other areas, there is limited value.

I believe the only point that is called into question by Johnson’s hypothesis would be point 3. above, TV destroys focus and mutates attention span to fit its format. The other conclusions inspired by DFW are not contradicted by Johnson’s conclusions.  I would consider amending the idea in point 3. if there were a study along the lines above.  I may even consider adding an additional sentence which would clarify that TV may, in fact, increase emotional intelligence.  Emotional intelligence probably can be practiced by watching humans interact with humans in a real way.  In that way, TV may increase our ability to read social cues.  This ability readily translates into success in the “real world.” In that way, it would be unfair of me to call watching TV a “completely passive” activity. This area is certainly one where scientific study would be worthwhile.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Kansir