Studies of Life

Learning by doing.

Would an old Indian marvel at the sight of an elephant?

19 January 2017 by Jim

Photo by Toshihiro Gamo.

Rob Siltanen, the creative director of an ad agency famous for working with Apple in its early days, wrote in an ad campaign:

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things.”

This is if course supposed to present creative geniuses in an attractive light, but I would like to talk about the concept of a different kind of ‘misfit’. Before I dive in, let me be clear about this: if you need to be a misfit in your professional or creative life to do well, there is nothing wrong with being such a ’round peg in a square hole’.

But not everybody battles with the problems of being a misfit creative genius. Arguably, most people struggle with a different kind of not fitting: the inadequacy of their life as they perceive it, the feeling that something is not right. There are many ways in which we can feel that our life is inadequate. Maybe we feel that we deserve more than we currently have, or that, on the contrary, we are not worthy of the things or people we get to be with. Sometimes we feel that life has taken a wrong turn and that we ended up in a situation we did not look for: a different job than expected, or difficulty succeeding in school, or general disillusionment with what life is. Everybody has such moments, myself included, and that is what I want to address today.

In such a situation, the world grows dark. Nothing is much fun anymore, everyday life sucks, and even people we like can be annoying.

Fight that.

The mindset of inadequacy is not helpful for anything. If your current situation sucks and you want to get a different life, a new job or new friends, by all means go for it. But make that decision once and then get over it, don’t dwell on what doesn’t work by complaining and feeling bad. Change it, step by step, but get rid of the negative emotions that are trigger because you are not where you want to be – yet.

Why is that so important?

It is part of human nature to yearn for something else, to focus on the negative aspects and disadvantages sometimes. If we give in to these bad feelings, we will be feeling bad rather often.

If it’s not possible, not practical to change the situation, then we should recognise that our misgivings are just part of our human tendency to never be fully content with what we have. This tendency can fought, however, and fighting it is maybe one of the biggest and most valuable struggles that you can engage in.

Do you think an old Indian will marvel at the sight of an elephant? Of course he will not, because he has seen so many of them that they have become part of everyday life. He looks at them with the same bored look in his eyes as you do at a check-in counter at the airport. Similarly, most 25-year-old affluent Luxembourgers/Europeans like myself will not marvel at the wonder that is a 340 ton Boeing 747 taking off to whisk its passengers away to London, even though that would be quite extraordinary for the average Indian to see and experience.

The point is this: everything can be boring and trivial if looked at with indifference. But getting into a different mindset, into the ‘beginner’s mind1‘ so to speak, without preconceptions and the usual baseline of grumpiness and ingratitude that seems so widespread in the morose West2, we can marvel at everything around us.

And suddenly, the world is full of magic.

If you need some inspiration, start marvelling at a pencil on your desk. Or at the cup of Earl Grey tea you have in the morning, its luxuriant deep red colour, its fresh and lively citrus perfume rising up into your nostrils, and the slow and comforting warmth it spreads in your entrails as you drink it while tasting each and every gulp.

Do not live your life in a head constantly adding a negative and grumpy voiceover to everything that happens to you. As Jay Brannan puts it in his song Myth of Happiness (which is a bit downbeat), ‘Effort combined with indifference is the formula for success‘. According to my personal interpretation, it means: do your best and then don’t do anything, i.e. don’t obsess over the result. Your responsibility is only what you do, not what happens that’s outside of your control. Live life fully, but do not engage with the dark parts of life too much. It’s not worthwhile. Concentrate on the beauty.

Realise that the difference between the picturesque movement of a herd of dolphins in a National Geographic documentary on TV and the swarm of snow geese flying over your head as you go to work in the cold morning is not an actual difference in the level of beauty or exotism that is present in that picture, but rather a simple matter of your mindset as you look at them.

It’s a cold winter in Europe right now. When you next feel tempted to curse at the chaotic traffic and glacial weather, try to be the Indian man, the one who’s never seen soft and at the same time crispy water crystals covering asphalt streets in the purest white colour that nature can produce, because it is made of pure light.

  1. Wikipedia: “Shoshin (初心) is a concept in Zen Buddhism meaning “beginner’s mind”. It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would. The term is especially used in the study of Zen Buddhism and Japanese martial arts. The phrase is also used in the title of the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, who says the following about the correct approach to Zen practice: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” “
  2. I mean, everybody’s complaining all the time. “The government is shit, the economy is shit, capitalism is shit, eating meat is shit, people are shit, everything is shit.” I don’t agree. When I look at all I that humanity can do, I am grateful for the present and excited for what is to come.

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