Archive | January, 2013

Life Doesn’t Get a Montage (You Don’t Get to Skip the Boring Parts)

31 Jan
Already sees in 3D

This guy already sees in 3D

We all love movies. We learn about a hero. His challenges and his desires. He sets off on a path only to be met with failure. Again and again he fails. Resistance come from all sides. Finally and inevitably, he realizes that he must change himself. He turns the corner by letting go of who he thought he was. He must become someone new. His desire has changed. He no longer wants we he did at the beginning. He wants something deeper. More noble. In the end he rises up and achieves his new goal. He wins. And we are all uplifted.

This is the typical narrative progression. One that screen-writer Robert McKee  coaches and one in which Stanford University has dedicated significant resources to teach (i.e. The Stanford Storytelling Project). This structure has stood the test of time because it so accurately represents the human development process that we experience ourselves. The theater needn’t be filled with cognitive-developmental psychologists for it to appreciate how natural and beautifully dynamic this process is. We’ve all had our own moments. Ambitions thwarted. Insights gained. New life received. We’ve all tasted it (on some level). And we keep buying tickets for more.

However, the way  the hero stories are told in the movies is not a perfect one-to-one translation. Within only 120-minutes at their disposal, screen writers and directors must make hard decisions about what to include and how to show it. This is where we have a problem. Far from being light-hearted entertainment, movies have come to define how we learn and think about ourselves and our world. Students learn more about  Greek mythology from watching Harry Potter than from reading Edith Hamilton (She was required reading in school for decades, so if you don’t get that reference, then you prove my point). The narrative structure as presented in movies is the gestalt of our times. It informs how we make sense of our lives. How we think about our relationships. How we think about our own stories. And I think there is one movie convention that sends all the wrong messages – the montage.

As you know, the montage is a series of short clips meant to speed up time/space for the audience. It allows a writer to show lots of action in a short amount of time. This is great for popcorn sales. However, the montage subtly misrepresents how change actually happens. One that, without some attention, may suggest that achieving your dreams is going to be easy. It isn’t an overt promise, but a slight suggestion. The hero’s brutal 6-month recovery.  The community comes together to save the hospital. The painter locks herself away in her studio. All of them only last about 60 seconds. Here’s how the movie Team America handled this phenomena (in case you weren’t already thinking about this):

Obviously, in real life these things take time and courage, but more than that they take resolve and persistence. The problem with the montage is that it skips over the most important part of achieving our goals. The work. The boring and gritty work that it takes to get from point A to B. The montage suggests, by the real estate afforded it, that hard work isn’t really all that  important. By sheer ratio alone, the main characters moment of transformation (the moment the entire narrative is based upon) is usually only a few seconds. The entire movie has built up to this transformation, which it then quickly glances over. Some action happens and then we are then hurriedly ushered into the movies closing scenes. The white wedding. The reluctant apology. The blood-stained trophy raised to a cheering crowd.

The point is that we’re usually pretty good at accepting things that are easy. We’re also pretty good at accepting things that are hard. But we usually really suck at accepting things that are boring. The parts where the hero toils in silence. Working day after day. Grinding out the work that she so desperately needs to finish. She cooks the family dinner then she studies. She cooks dinner then she studies. She cooks dinner then she studies. Day after day. She cooks dinner then she studies. She cooks dinner then she studies. Night after night. Slowing working on her degree. It’s repetitive. It’s boring. But she puts one foot in front of the other and carries on. She is too focused. She cooks dinner then she studies. It would be a horrible movie.

* clang…..clang…..clang…..

The reason is because real work is boring. It is repetitive and bland. Sure there are moments when you might let a smile slip out (or a tear), but real work…the kind that the movies dramatize in the montage…is deep work. It is about becoming more than you were. About becoming someone new and that isn’t going to be obvious to other people. You can’t point to it. It is deeper than your emotions. It isn’t always going to be showy or fun or glamorous. When you’re on the path you’re on it alone. Personal transformation cannot be outsourced. No one can do it for you.

And yet we’ve become conditioned to “achieve” that if we’re told that something is “difficult” or “hard” then we immediately pound our chest and roar, “Bring it on motherfucker!!” But this is a conditioned response. We’ve watched too many movies. Our culture programs us to turn hardship into meaning. Difficultly into challenge. “Me against the World” should probably be on the dollar bill. But this is only one side of the coin. Many people can handle HARD, CHALLENGE, FEAR, COURAGE, ROAR!!!, but far fewer can handle BORING, COLD, GRITTY, GRIMY, MEH. We haven’t learned how to handle boring. It doesn’t come through the front door. It doesn’t announce itself. It isn’t dramatic. It sleeps and waits. The action movie hero doesn’t even want to face it. He gets a montage.

I think Julius Erving might have said it best, “Being a professional is doing the things you love on the days you don’t feel like doing them.” So, it’s important that you’re doing what you love. To me, that is a prerequisite. But finding your passion isn’t enough.  If you really want to understand what it takes to succeed (however you might define that for yourself), then remember that you shouldn’t become too enamored with your own story. Your life isn’t a movie and you don’t get a montage. You don’t get to skip the boring parts. The truth is, our lives are infinitely more mundane and messy than the movies we watch (another reason why I suspect we enjoy watching them). And while that escapism isn’t inherently problematic, it does run the risk of making us feel guilty when our paths don’t match those of our heroes. Stories are make believe. In order to make sense they have to edited and embellished. Our lives are not so neatly structured.

Finally, it only seems appropriate that I end this post by contradicting everything I just said. For all the weaknesses of movies, blog articles by no-name writers are far worse. So, I understand that the montage isn’t an overt statement about how human beings change. They are just a convention of a particular story-telling medium. And more than that, as unrealistic as they are, they are great for getting a little energy boost. So, for all of my pedantic belly-aching over the montage, I love them as much as anyone. Below is one of my personal favorites, which comes to us from Rocky IV (the training sequences of Rocky and Ivan Drago). Watch it, but when you do, focus on the images of Rocky running through the snow. Ignore the music for a moment and imagine that he is doing this for 2 hours everyday… for 6 months. Imagine how difficult and boring that must be. Running. Imagine that he does it first thing in the morning. Running. Even when he is tired. Running. When his angle hurts. Running. When he’d rather be lifting weights. Running. Even when there is no music. Even when there are no cameras. Running.

It is Not the Critic Who Counts

30 Jan

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

– Theodore Roosevelt

The Organic Model of Change by Ken Robinson

28 Jan

discipleship - plant growing

“For more than three hundred years Western thought has been dominated by the images of industrialism and the scientific method. It’s time to change metaphors. We have to move beyond linear, mechanistic metaphors to more organic metaphors of human growth and development.

A living organism, like a plant, is complex and dynamic. Each of its internal processes affects and depends on the others in sustaining the vitality of the whole organism. This is also true of the habits in which we live. Most living things can only flourish in certain types of environment, and the relationships between them are often highly specialized. Healthy, successful plants take the nutrients they need from their environment. At the same time, though, their presence helps to sustain the environment on which they depend. There are exceptions, like the Leyland cypresses that just seem to take over everything in their path, but you get the idea. The same is true of all creatures and animals, including us.

Farmers based their livelihoods on raising crops. But farmers do not make plants grow. They don’t attach the roots, glue on the petals, or color the fruit. The plant grows itself. Farmers and gardeners provide the conditions for growth. Good farmers know what the conditions are, and the bad ones don’t. Understanding the dynamic elements of human growth is as essential to sustaining human cultures into the future as the need to understand the ecosystems of the natural world on which we ultimately depend.”

Ken Robinson (The Element, 2009, pg. 257-258)

Video

Some Fascinatingly Disturbing Thoughts about the Universe

23 Jan

Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson speaks to students about his book Death by Black Hole and other Cosmic Quandaries (2007).

Cookies by Douglas Adams

22 Jan

“This actually did happen to a real person, and the real person was me. I had gone to catch a train. This was April 1976, in Cambridge, U.K. I was a bit early for the train. I’d gotten the time of the train wrong. I went to get myself a newspaper to do the crossword, and a cup of coffee and a packet of cookies. I went and sat at a table. I want you to picture the scene. It’s very important that you get this very clear in your mind.

Image

Here’s the table, newspaper, cup of coffee, packet of cookies. There’s a guy sitting opposite me, perfectly ordinary-looking guy wearing a business suit, carrying a briefcase. It didn’t look like he was going to do anything weird. What he did was this: he suddenly leaned across, picked up the packet of cookies, tore it open, took one out, and ate it.

Now this, I have to say, is the sort of thing the British are very bad at dealing with. There’s nothing in our background, upbringing, or education that teaches you how to deal with someone who in broad daylight has just stolen your cookies. You know what would happen if this had been South Central Los Angeles. There would have very quickly been gunfire, helicopters coming in, CNN, you know…but in the end, I did what any red-blooded Englishman would do: I ignored it. And I stared at the newspaper, took a sip of coffee, tried to do a clue in the newspaper, couldn’t do anything, and thought, what am I going to do?

In the end I thought, nothing for it, I’ll just have to go for it, and I tried very hard not to notice the fact that the packet was already mysteriously opened. I took out a cookie for myself. I thought, that settled him. But it hadn’t because a moment or two later he did it again. He took another cookie.

Having not mentioned it the first time, it was somehow even harder to raise the subject the second time around. “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but notice…” I mean, it doesn’t really work.

We went through the whole packet like this. When I say the whole packet, I mean there were only about eight cookies, but it felt like a lifetime. He took one, I took one, he took one, I took one. Finally, when we got to the end, he stood up and walked away.

Well, we exchanged meaningful looks, then he walked away, and I breathed a sigh of relief and sat back. A moment or two later the train was coming in, so I tossed back the rest of my coffee, stood up, picked up the newspaper, and underneath the newspaper were my cookies.

The thing I like particularly about this story is the sensation that somewhere in England there has been wandering around for the last quarter-century a perfectly ordinary guy who’s had the same exact story, only he doesn’t have the punch line.” – Douglas Adams

 

Why Artists Go Crazy

21 Jan

tom_cruise-600

We know the stories. The alcoholic musician. The chair-jumping actor. Of course there are many reasons why these characters take a weird turn. Sure genetics and personality are risk factors, but I think there is one particular and under-appreciated reason. Artists go crazy because our education system teaches them to be crazy.

The world teaches everyone to be responsible. Get a good job. Find a husband. Buy an Audi. However, artists take a different path. They ignore this advice. They grow up on a curriculum of creation, risk, and rejection. Their teachers are the audience. They are graded by applause (or lack thereof).

Educator reformer Ken Robinson said, “…this is exactly why some of the most successful people you’ll ever meet didn’t do well at school. Education is the system that’s supposed to develop our natural abilities and enable us to make our own way in the world. Instead, it is stifling the individual talents and abilities of too many students and killing their motivation to learn.”

So, if the artist is going to be successful she must learn to ignore advice. She must learn to trust in her own intuition above that of the expert, because the expert’s allegiance is to the status quo.  Teachers. Friends. Family. They may even have good intentions, but the system itself does not encourage impractical pursuits. So what happens to the artist?

He learns that common sense doesn’t make a lot of sense. Advice doesn’t have a lot of value and that sanity is oppression. Is it any wonder that artists go crazy? Is it any wonder that we want to be like them?

Hooke’s Law of Personal Transformation

17 Jan
Robert-Hooke-9343172-1-402

“I’d like to stab you.” – R. Hooke

Robert Hooke’s death in 1703 probably made a lot of people happy (including his contemporary Isaac Newton). Historical accounts reveal a scientific genius who was also “evil,” “cantankerous, envious, [and] vengeful.” The type of bully academic who inspire student caricatures and ignite red-faced fervor in their intellectual counterparts. Now, you’ve probably never heard of Robert Hooke and undoubtedly his sour reputation bears some responsibility. Yet, among all of his achievements there is one in particular that bears some resonance with me; Hooke’s Law of elasticity. It states…

“Hooke’s law of elasticity is an approximation that states that the extension of a spring is in direct proportion with the load applied to it. The elastic limit is the maximum stress or force within a material that can arise before the onset of permanent deformation.”

Imagine taking a spring from a bed. That spring can be stretched and it will return to its original size. Stretch too far though and you surpass its “elastic limit” and the spring will never return to its original shape. The spring is designed to absorb stress  – pulling and pushing – within a limited range and it can do it over and over and over and over again. Give it too much stress though and the entire system is transformed.

This is exactly what happens to us. Our perceptions, beliefs, attitudes have been designed to ensure that we can absorb stress. They operate within a limited range, but within that limited range can handle the day-to-day pressures and challenges with extreme efficiency. Always rebounding to the shape that we were before. However, when we experience something, a thought, an idea, that does not fit our within our capability? We are stretched beyond our elastic limit. We do not rebound. We are changed forever.

Everything we think, feel, believe serves a purpose. Like springs, our minds are designed to absorb stress. But then we get our ass kicked. We get stretched too far and we cannot return to the same shape that we were. This is the moment of transformation.