Criticism, Language, Society

Evidence of effort

Why do we pay attention when someone shouts?

It’s not only because the sound is loud – it blocks other sounds and hurts our ears.

It’s not only because there’s a social norm that shouting indicates urgency.

It’s also because shouting takes effort. A person can’t shout for very long before getting tired and hoarse. So someone who shouts is making an investment, and we sense that.

If our physiology allowed us to shout with the same ease as we speak, then shouting would lose significance as a gesture. We might still notice it, in the way we notice an emoji, but we wouldn’t take it as seriously.

This example reveals that when we communicate, we do more than exchange information with each other. We model each other. We imagine what it might take for the other person to make the gestures they’re making. Our empathetic model of the other person affects how we experience their words and actions. 

It’s always been possible to game the system of empathetic modelling, so to speak. For example, some people just naturally have loud voices. They’re not putting in extra effort to speak so loud, but we respond to them as if they were more passionate than the quieter ones. Those who speak softly are at a disadvantage when it comes to garnering attention, even though they might be the ones trying harder.

Until recently, writing was hard. The only way someone could produce a large body of text that exhibited good prose style and good logic was through time and effort. Some people were much more fluent at writing than others, but we could assume that any person who wrote a tight essay or a well-organized book must have cared about what they were writing, or at least, they must have had a motivation significant enough to compel them to invest the time and energy required.

Now it turns out that computers can write for us, and they can write better than many of us. So how will this affect our empathetic modelling of the written word? How will it affect our ability to be moved by what we read?

Surely we will still find meaning in text, but there will be a cloud of uncertainty about the purported author’s investment in the act of creating that text. Did they spend hours laboring over a from-scratch essay or did they just lightly revise the near-instantaneous product of a machine?

Already some writers are saying “AI is my partner. It helps me express myself.” If the writing is good, informative, entertaining, why should it matter how it was produced? It should matter because communication is more than an exchange of information. Communication is an experience, and that experience can’t be detached from the context – from our understanding of the properties of the medium, including its difficulty. 

If we want a glimpse of how this is going to go, we can look to photography. The internet is awash in photographs and we can still enjoy them and learn from them and sometimes be moved by them. But we can never be sure how they’re made. And that devalues them. A digital photographer might have labored for months to get a certain shot – their dedicated practice finally combining with luck to achieve a miraculous result – or they might have taken a lackluster image and enhanced it by clicking a few buttons in photo-editing software to achieve that marvelous color and detail. Or maybe they just typed a description of what they wanted and had the software generate the photo for them?

If it’s a good photo, who cares? We care because we want to be moved, and our ability to be moved depends on our ability to connect with the artist by imagining their process of creation. Empathetic modelling.

The prerequisite to being moved is having our attention captured. And our attention is captured when we see evidence of effort. Proof of work. Demonstration of commitment.

With technology, we’re making things easier and easier so that no creative product can any more be seen as proof of work. Awe at an artist’s labor is replaced with a question mark. How did they do it and how much help did they have from machines?

Is there something morally wrong with getting help from a machine? That is not the question at hand. The question is what happens to aesthetic experience when the process of creation becomes increasingly machine-driven? The question is what happens to our response to a communication act when empathetic modelling is infused with doubt, when we can no longer discern what an author wrote and what they merely took? What happens to aesthetic experience when machine-brokered magic is inserted into our image of the process of human creativity?

Our obsession with authenticity should tell us something about this. Why would we gaze for hours at an old masterwork hanging in a museum but not at a forgery that looks identical to it? That’s because when we see the authentic work, knowing that it is such, we imagine the great artist laboring to make it, but when we see the forgery, we image a thief working to deceive us. Same image, different empathetic modelling, different experiential outcome.

If we look back to the time before machines could write, a time when photographs could only be made with light hitting physical film, it wasn’t a time of unbridled bliss. Glorious words could still be ignored or misunderstood, and photographs themselves may have seemed too easy to make in comparison to paintings, too easy to be worth a viewer’s deepest respect. But anyone who tried to take a photograph would have come to know the difficulty of it and been able to appreciate the accomplishments attained in the best photographs.

Imagine a world where we’re all shouting, all the time, and we can’t be moved by any of it. That is the world we would get if, through technology, we made it effortless to shout.

Personal Development

Practicing Finding Meaning

If a person is too weak to lift a certain desired amount of weight, no friend or coach would implore them to “Possess more muscle mass!” Instead the advice would be to “Spend more time at the gym!” Do the exercises that would build strength over time.

And yet, when a person struggles to see a situation constructively, when a person fails to overcome a gloomy outlook and imagine a promising path forward, their friends and acquaintances will often tell them to “Think more positively!” As if that could be achieved with the snap of a finger. As if it could be done without time and practice, without “going to the gym.”

Building muscle is something we know we have to work at, but thinking positively is something we expect ourselves – and others – to be able to accomplish just by making one simple decision.

Experience shows it’s not so easy. If you’ve ever been depressed and a friend told you to look on the bright side, you might have responded with anger or annoyance. That’s because you’d already tried to look on the bright side and if it had worked, you wouldn’t still be depressed. Now, the friend is placing the guilt on you for not achieving sudden success in the endeavor of positivity.

We don’t simply “possess” an outlook on life; rather, we create and recreate our outlook through the thousands of thoughts that flow through our minds each day, and the thousands of decisions we make about which thoughts to emphasize and which to ignore. To change our outlook, it’s not sufficient to change one thought, we need to practice navigating the continuous flow of thought in a different way, and we need to apply that new approach over an extended time.

An outlook is actually not like a painting, hanging on a wall, where with a few strokes of a brush, we can alter what it depicts forever after. It’s more like improvised music – where each note fades away soon after it comes into being – and the whole thing simply disappears if we stop playing. To make it sound different, we need to play in a different way, and to keep playing in that new way over time.

A while ago, I heard someone lament that they’d been “ghosted” by more than one attractive date they’d met online. After promising beginnings, these dates had suddenly stopped communicating. So this person had invented a little story to explain their romantic misfortune. Every date who had ghosted them must have been a professional assassin, who had been hired to kill them, but who had fallen in love with them and just couldn’t finish the job.

Great story, right? It’s an example of the way we can use our imagination to change how a situation feels. Being ghosted, no more an insult, becomes the highest possible compliment in this view. Of course it’s a humorous fantasy, but it’s not so far from a possible truth – some of these disappearing prospects might have sensed a romance blossoming and might have run away because they weren’t ready for it.

Is it right to see this story as a product of work? Well, it’s creative, it’s funny, and it didn’t come from nowhere: the person who thought of it might have taken some time to put it together. So yes, it can be seen as a work product that required an investment of time and creativity and returned a value: a laugh, a better mood. This story alone is not guaranteed to cure loneliness or frustration but it might help a tiny bit, and these tiny bits add up.

Creating stories like this – little fictions that help us get through life – is a skill that can be practiced. What’s another story for the ghosting situation? Maybe all of those vanishing dates were “put there” to help our hero develop the strength and resilience he or she will need to go out and find true love? This is a common narrative where we see a hardship as an opportunity that’s been created for us so we can learn something we need to learn. It’s a way of finding meaning in randomness and pain. The phrase “finding meaning” deserves emphasis here. The idea of “thinking positively” can sound superficial or forced, but any time we say “thinking positively” we might as well say “searching for meaning.”

Just like a health-conscious person might wake up every morning and do a 30-minute physical workout to build strength and stamina, a perspective-conscious person could wake up every morning and do a 30-minute viewpoint workout, practicing optimism, or positive thinking, or finding meaning. This could involve meditation. It could also involve storytelling – devising narratives that cast a positive light on uncomfortable situations, stories that help reveal lessons in adversities. A version of this has been called gratitude journaling. Another version is known as prayer. If we really practiced at our outlook like this every day, with the same dedication some people have for working out at the gym, how much better might we feel? And if we aren’t putting in this daily practice, why should we expect our outlook to improve?

I used to think that I’d rather know the truth than feel good. But I came to believe that we can’t know the truth directly, we can only gaze at it from one perspective or another. And the perspective we adopt affects the decisions we make, which shape the reality we come to inhabit. So we might as well adopt — through practice — the perspective that shapes our future for the better.


What could be more important than this?

When we bring our attention to our breath, we might find that other points of focus seem more compelling or important. It’s our stubborn sense of “what’s important” that makes meditation difficult. The exam we have to take tomorrow, the trip we’re going to go on, the bill we have to pay – all of these might seem more pressing, more urgent than our current breath.

We’ve been breathing all our life, and we know that our cycle of breathing will continue whether or not we pay it our attention. So how urgent could it be to concentrate on our breathing? But if we stop thinking about that upcoming exam, maybe we’ll regret our lack of foresight? If we don’t image how poorly it could go tomorrow, if we don’t consider what more we could do to prepare, perhaps we’ll fail?

Threat awareness always seems more important than breath awareness. So meditation challenges our very concept of importance. It surfaces a conflict between 1) our intention to focus only on our current breath and 2), our idea of what’s critical and threatening in our life right now that demands our attention.

We already know how breathing works – inhale, exhale – there’s nothing new to learn here. But we don’t know how that upcoming trip is going to go – there might be something new to learn in imagining it. If we take the time to consider what we’re going to pack and what we’re going to do when we arrive, maybe it’ll all go better? Why would we instead give our attention to familiar old breathing?

Indeed, meditation can seem like a waste. Rather than preparing for future dangers, we’re sitting in a chair doing nothing. Yes, we know that idleness, in the form of sleep, is necessary for health, but if we’re getting enough sleep why would we need to meditate – again being idle – on top of that? If we can use our waking awareness to get ready for the novel challenges that lie ahead, why would we squander that awareness on the most familiar, repetitive thing there could be?

Reframing the situation helps. If it’s hard to maintain your focus on your breathing because other things seem more important and pressing, try this: think about your ability to breathe. 

There’s your current breath – the inhale or exhale that’s happening right now – and there’s the ability it represents. 

Now ask, what is more important, the exam I have to take, the trip I’m going to go on, the bill I have to pay, or my ability to breathe?

Of course, if you couldn’t breathe you wouldn’t be taking that exam or planning that trip or getting ready to pay that bill. It should be clear that your ability to breathe is more “important” than pretty much anything else that might be on your mind. And quite likely, any threat you’re facing in everyday life is not a threat to your ability to breathe.

If you fail the exam, or the trip goes poorly, or the bill is paid late, guess what? You’ll still have your ability to breathe. You’ll still have the thing that’s most important.

And when you take the exam, go on the trip, pay the bill, if you can maintain some awareness of your breathing throughout, you’ll probably feel calmer — you’ll perform better and make better decisions. So if those things — the exam, the trip, the bill — are really important, then cultivating a skill that will help you navigate them – the skill of breath awareness – must be important too.

There are some situations, it should be said, where breath awareness is not a path to calm. When our breathing is uncomfortable, labored, or hyper, we might find it triggering to think about the importance of the ability to breathe.

But when we do feel secure in that ability — an ability so basic we take it for granted throughout much of our lives — we can use that security as the foundation of our practice. Confident that our breathing will continue, we can perceive any other thing that might clamor for “importance” in our mind as secondary to that life-giving ability. And when we as meditators recover from a distraction, we can be sure that whatever distracts us is not more important than our next breath, because our next breath is a prerequisite to the one after that, and every other one that follows.

Criticism, Music, Personal Development

The Critic vs. The Advocate

If we treat our opinions like prized possessions, like gems that must be protected from theft and insult, perhaps that is because we see them as expressions of our true self. In defending our opinions we are defending our identity.

But if we trace an opinion to its roots we may find those roots embedded not in the deepest core of our being, but in a more superficial place – in the assumptions of a persona we inhabit – the invisible assumptions that we aren’t aware we’re making as we play one role or another in life.

The COVID lockdown kept me from attending any live classical concerts in 2020 and 2021, so when I finally stepped back into a concert hall in early 2022 I felt I was reinhabiting a persona that had been dormant – the persona of a classical music aficionado, a particular kind of classical music aficionado.

Twenty minutes into my first live concert after so long away from the scene, I wasn’t loving it. My dissatisfaction soon blossomed into a critique – a whole story I could tell about the conductor’s choices and how I believed they misinterpreted the music. The friend sitting beside me would surely ask my opinion at the end, and now I had something to say.

I might have suffered through the rest of the concert and then given my negative “review,” but this time I understood that my reaction could not exist in a vacuum. My time away from the concert hall had helped me see, from a fresh perspective, how tightly my reactions to the music depended on the foundational assumptions of my adopted persona. I’ll call this persona “The Critic.” Here’s what makes him tick:

  1. He has heard the best of the best. He is proud of all the listening he’s done and he’s constantly measuring new performances in a competitive framework. When a performance is less than stellar, he feels he has been denied something he deserves.
  2. He believes in the value of criticism. He believes a listener should always have an opinion. Criticizing a performance is helpful – it separates the good from the mediocre, which creates more space for the good to shine.
  3. He has high expectations of his own responses to music. He remembers the heights of rapture he has experienced when listening to great performances. He is hoping for that rapture to happen again. When it doesn’t happen, he takes this as evidence that the performance lacked the power to move.

With these assumptions now flooding back into mind, I realized I could just as easily embrace their opposites, situating my perceptions atop different foundations instead. In fact, there’s a separate version of my identity as a classical music aficionado that I’ve embraced just as often as The Critic. I’ll call this alternate persona “The Advocate.” Here’s what makes him tick:

  1. As a listener, he believes his greatest skill is the ability to find something to appreciate in any performance. The more joy that can be found in music – no matter its imperfections – the better it is for him, for listeners at large, and for the cause of music itself. He believes that by expecting only “the best,” a listener makes it impossible to enjoy what a performance is actually offering, so listening should begin without expectations. 
  2. As a listener, he doesn’t feel he needs to have an opinion. He doesn’t need to know “what he thinks” about a performance. He doesn’t need say anything. All he needs to do is to listen. And to thank the musicians for doing the work.
  3. If rapture is not happening for him, that might be because his mood isn’t receptive to the music, or because he’s not the right listener for what this piece has to say. Though he trusts in the power of music to move him, he can’t conclude that the music must be lacking something if he’s not moved. There could be many other reasons.

For the rest of the concert, I decided to listen optimistically rather than pessimistically – channeling “The Advocate” rather than “The Critic,” looking for elements I could appreciate in the performance, wherever I could find them. The result was that I started to have a better time. When my mind wasn’t crowded with complaints and objections, I could hear the details better, and many of them were beautiful.

At the end, I thanked my friend for inviting me and let him know I had enjoyed it. What about my planned critique about the conducting? I saved it for… never.

As I think back to the concert a year later, I remember it as a good experience. When we choose to see things from a positive perspective – we’re not only improving our experience in the moment, we’re actually planting the seeds of better memories.  Do this enough and as you look back, more and more, it will seem as though the past is full of bright spots.

Should we ignore our authentic reactions, and silence ourselves when we believe the music isn’t being served by a performer’s choices? No, we should be honest. But honesty is more than complaining about what we don’t like. Honesty is being aware of what we’re looking for. Are we looking to be disappointed, so that we can signal our high standards, so that we can feel useful as critics, so that our superior perceptive capacity might be confirmed? Or are we looking for pleasure in music? Are we seeking joy, and if so, are we doing the hard work to find it, to embrace it? How much risk are we willing to take to create the possibility of being delighted?

Meditation, Personal Development

Meditation and Stimulation

When we meditate, we’re learning to be comfortable with a lower level of stimulation than we typically crave. We’re detoxing from stimulation.

The quest for stimulation fills our waking moments. We seek it in food, sex, work, movement, art, media, narrative, and the general business of living.

If you observe someone reclining in a chair, doing nothing, it might seem as if that person is not seeking stimulation. That’s where mind-wandering, brooding, daydreaming, and rumination enter the scene. When we sit still, the quest for stimulation is internalized. 

To think is stimulating. Worrying is a kind of thinking, and a highly stimulating kind. We hate worrying, but on some level, it excites us. Our craving for excitement is a reason we might keep worrying even after we notice that our worries are hurting us. People pay to see horror movies but when they realize they can catastrophize in their own minds for free, it can be hard to stop doing that.

Lessening our need for stimulation has several benefits. If it’s the need for stimulation that keeps us addicted to worry, then reducing that need might break the cycle of addiction.

Detoxing from stimulation might also provide some relief in the struggle with procrastination. Because what is procrastination? If we discard the element of guilt that fuels avoidance, what we’re left with is a craving for stimulation. We procrastinate because the thing we’re supposed to do is not stimulating, so we find ourselves constantly drawn to things that are more so. But when we engage in a distraction that’s highly stimulating, we’re feeding our addiction, we’re reinforcing our dependence on stimulation, making it even more painful to return to the unstimulating task. 

Meditation can help us reverse this trend. Through meditation, we can become comfortable with an even lower level of stimulation than the task we’re avoiding. After meditation, when we then engage in that same task, the task might seem stimulating enough. It’s relative. That’s not to say meditation is a quick fix to procrastination – but it can help.

To operationalize this insight, we might try an experiment. Let’s work on a difficult task, and when we feel the fidgety impulse to stop, let’s not resist it. We’ll embrace the compulsion to procrastinate. But instead of checking email or eating chips, we’ll take a meditation break. Let’s allow ourselves to procrastinate as much as we want as long as the avenue of procrastination is limited to a three-minute meditation break any time we want, no questions asked.

Is that really going to help? Like a lot of things, it all depends on how you do it – the details of execution are important – but it might.


Baubles: The Journey of a Tune

Some tunes travel quite a long way from their inception to the popular form we know. If we follow the remarkable journey of the tune Baubles, Bangles, and Beads, we find that it begins in a classical string quartet by Alexander Borodin (1833-1887), then it experiences a rebirth in the 1953 Broadway musical Kismet, then it starts to swing in a 1953 hit by Peggy Lee, and it keeps swinging in renditions by The Kirby Stone Four, Frank Sinatra, Sara Vaughan, and too many more artists to mention here.

Here is the place in the second movement of Alexander Borodin’s String Quartet No 2. where the journey begins:

Fast forward to 1953, when Robert Wright and George Forrest created the music for Kismet by adapting material from Borodin’s works. In Kismet’s Act 1 there is a scene where the beautiful Marsinah, lead female role, has been given money by her father. Now surrounded by merchants, she marvels at the “baubles, bangles, and beads” they are hawking, and imagines how these sparkling jewels could help her find a suitor. Marsinah’s role is sung here by Dorretta Morrow:

In the same year, 1953, we can hear Baubles removed from its theater context, now in a hit recording by Peggy Lee. One aspect you’ll observe about Lee’s recording is how it doesn’t swing for the first half — nothing we’ve heard yet has swung — but in a gentle, seamless transition around the 1:42 mark, we can hear Baubles acquire a groove. It’s a magical moment:

Now stopping for a visit in 1958 with the Kirby Stone Four, we hear a bright, boisterous, up-tempo rendition that is much the opposite of Peggy Lee’s intimate, slow, and beguiling version. Stone’s perky mix of jazz, pop, and instrumentally-inflected unison vocals has been known as the “Go” sound:

Continuing with the theme of brightness and vibrancy, Sinatra’s 1959 big-band performance is just as brilliant as we’d expect from Frank:

And while 1964 is not the end of this tune’s journey, not by far, it’s a good place for us to stop, with a remarkable performance by Sara Vaughan, perhaps the most spontaneous and free of anything we’ve heard yet in this tour:

Here’s the Borodin, where it all began, one more time: