Clash of cultures
What motivates us to work? We know from an early age that we have to work as adults, and we find our way into jobs one way or another, some through years of education and some not. How much time do we really spend thinking about it?
Many of us don’t get to know ourselves, or have the opportunity to try out numerous jobs, before we really need to “make a living.” We choose a job, or a field, and we enter an enculturation process either in school or in the workplace. The culture we absorb becomes a motivation itself: We learn a vocabulary, way of thinking, norms, even habits of thinking, often without realizing it or taking time to reflect. Some may relish the process and enjoy having a niche, others may experience a bit of unease, a sense of something missing depending on the fit with the culture.
Some professions, such as medicine or social services, possess a strong culture, one the employee has to embrace to some extent to excel in the field. My father said medical school was like boot camp, a challenging experience in which his own ego and perspective were subordinated to the process of becoming a doctor. He worked so hard for so long, was sometimes belittled, and he became one with his role, demonstrating decisiveness and as much clarity as possible to treat illness and perform surgery in a capable way.
Many of us are unknowingly brainwashed by a worldview, unaware of the underpinnings and influences forming that perspective, not possessing the tools with which to question or examine. For some darn reason, not completely known to me, I have stood on the outside and asked questions. While I had an interest in psychology in college, studying it raised more questions than it answered, so I asked my favorite professor to recommend books on the history of the field, because studying it made me uncomfortable, and I wondered why.
I think we need to stay alert, to ask questions as we learn a field and after we are in it. To develop our own perceptions and to participate in ongoing inquiry with peers and supervisors. But generally we are not encouraged to follow our hunches, to turn inside, to question, or even to dialogue with others in our fields. We instead become absorbed into the work, the money, starting a family, building security for that family and ourselves. But I believe there is a place for curiosity.
I have long conversations with a friend who teaches a contemplative education course at a university and is a sometime psychotherapist herself. She teaches in a scholars’ program populated by pre-med students, future scientists and engineers, future writers. She encourages the students to examine their assumptions, to consider their personal relationship to the subjects they study, to explore the underpinnings and influences on the professions they are considering entering. Some of the students are resistant to her proddings in this class, at least at first. The pre-med student is a bright, busy, focused fellow, or gal, who usually embraces a belief in the medical model, says my friend. She does not ask them to let go of that belief, only to be circumspect, and many find themselves immensely grateful for the process of internal and philosophical inquiry she guides them through. While some see no use for the process, others tell my friend they will go to med school as more sensitive, well-rounded humans.
My friend herself is examining the mental health field, from psychoanalysis to psychopharmacology, as a consumer, professional, and researcher. She has experienced ill effects from medications and explored alternatives from re-attachment to ayurvedic herbs and diets to yoga and dance. You could say she is a renegade academic and psychotherapist.
A person awake to her own emotions, adventurous in her intellectual pursuits, and brave enough to ask questions, is a different kind of professional. Rather than immersing herself in a culture and system of thought, she remains a sensitive individual with an ability to respond to situations from within her self.
The book, The Spirit Catches you and You Fall Down, is about the clash of the Hmong people’s needs and beliefs with that of the Western medical system. It is about the damage that can occur when two strong belief systems meet. I was struck by a story in the book about a young Western enthnographer and fan of improvisational theater who is able to appreciate and understand the Hmong peoples’ perspective on illness and their resistance to the imposition of Western ways upon them. He learns about them and their beliefs and is able to encourage them to get immunizations for their pets through staging a theatrical parade.
What made him sensitive to these people, capable of understanding their perspective? Was he less enamored of the Western view he was born into? Was he secure enough in himself to open his mind?
I have been immersed in this very process throughout my life: I studied psychology but wanted to know where it came from, I was interested in medicine but had the mind and heart of an anthropologist. I’m not sure why I am like this. I think it may be feeling close to nature most of my life, through listening to old-time music as a young child and driving through inner-city DC with my dad on his way to work, through reading black authors from off my parents’ bookshelves. I knew there were other ways of thinking about things than mine, other cultures and races, varied spiritual paths.
My role is that of an amateur ethnographer, a student of work cultures. I make my living as a yoga teacher and writer, and I work various part-time jobs along the way. It is a grand adventure, and I am grateful to share it with friends like my university teacher buddy. This is my enduring question: Can we not work from our authentic selves in ways that make sense to us and are healing to the world? We must let the world change us, but sometimes we need to change it.
Why little black books instead of phones and computers
“Despite being a denizen of the digital world, or maybe because he knew too well its isolating potential, Jobs was a strong believer in face-to-face meetings.” That’s from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. It’s a strange way to begin a post about notebooks, but Jobs’ views on the power of a potentially anachronistic practice applies to other seemingly anachronistic practices. I’m a believer in notebooks, though I’m hardly a luddite and use a computer too much.
The notebook has an immediate tactile advantage over phones: they aren’t connected to the Internet. It’s intimate in a way computers aren’t. A notebook has never interrupted me with a screen that says, “Wuz up?” Notebooks are easy to use without thinking. I know where I have everything I’ve written on-the-go over the last eight years: in the same stack. It’s easy to draw on paper. I don’t have to manage files and have yet to delete something important. The only way to “accidentally delete” something is to leave the notebook submerged in water.
A notebook is the written equivalent of a face-to-face meeting. It has no distractions, no pop-up icons, and no software upgrades. For a notebook, fewer features are better and fewer options are more. If you take a notebook out of your pocket to record an idea, you won’t see nude photos of your significant other. You’re going to see the page where you left off. Maybe you’ll see another idea that reminds you of the one you’re working on, and you’ll combine the two in a novel way. If you want to flip back to an earlier page, it’s easy.
The lack of editability is a feature, not a bug, and the notebook is an enigma of stopped time. Similar writing in a computer can function this way but doesn’t for me: the text is too open and too malleable. Which is wonderful in its own way, and that way opens many new possibilities. But those possibilities are different from the notebook’s. It’s become a cliche to argue that the technologies we use affect the thoughts we have and the way we express those thoughts, but despite being cliche the basic power of that observation remains. I have complete confidence that, unless I misplace them, I’ll still be able to read my notebooks in 20 years, regardless of changes in technology.
In Distrust That Particular Flavor, William Gibson says, “Once perfected, communication technologies rarely die out entirely; rather, they shrink to fit particular niches in the global info-structure.” The notebook’s niche is perfect. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Moleskine racks have proliferated in stores at the same time everyone has acquired cell phones, laptops, and now tablets.
In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr says: “The intellectual ethic is the message that a medium or other tool transmits into the minds and culture of its users.” Cell phones subtly change our relationship with time. Notebooks subtly change our relationship with words and drawings. I’m not entirely sure how, and if I were struggling for tenure in industrial design or psychology I might start examining the relationship. For now, it’s enough to feel the relationship. Farhad Manjoo even cites someone who studies these things:
“The research shows that the type of content you produce is different whether you handwrite or type,” says Ken Hinckley, an interface expert at Microsoft Research who’s long studied pen-based electronic devices. “Typing tends to be for complete sentences and thoughts—you go deeper into each line of thought. Handwriting is for short phrases, for jotting ideas. It’s a different mode of thought for most people.” This makes intuitive sense: It’s why people like to brainstorm using whiteboards rather than Word documents.
I like to write in notebooks despite carrying around a smartphone. Some of this might be indicative of the technology I grew up with—would someone familiar with smartphone touchscreens from age seven have sufficiently dexterous fingers to be faster than they would be with paper?—but I think the obvious answer to “handwriting or computer?” is “both, depending.” As I write this sentence, I have a printout of a novel called ASKING ANNA in front of me, covered with blue pen, because editing on the printed page feels different to me than editing on the screen. I write long-form on computers, though. The plural of anecdote is not data. Still, I have to notice that using different mediums appears to improve the final work product (insert joke about low quality here).
There’s also a shallow and yet compelling reason to like notebooks: a disproportionate number of writers, artists, scientists, and thinkers like using them too, and I suspect that even contemporary writers, artists, scientists, and thinkers realize that sometimes silence and not being connected is useful, like quiet and solitude.
In “With the decline of the wristwatch, will time become just another app?”, Matthew Battles says:
Westerners have long been keenly interested in horology, as David Landes, an economic historian, points out in Revolution in Time, his landmark study of the development of timekeeping technology. It wasn’t the advent of clocks that forced us to fret over the hours; our obsession with time was fully in force when monks first began to say their matins, keeping track of the hours out of strict religious obligation. By the 18th century, secular time had acquired the pressure of routine that would rule its modern mode. Tristram Shandy’s father, waiting interminably for the birth of his son, bemoans the “computations of time” that segment life into “minutes, hours, weeks, and months” and despairs “of clocks (I wish there were not a clock in the kingdom).” Shandy’s father fretted that, by their constant tolling of the hours, clocks would overshadow the personal, innate sense of time—ever flexible, ever dependent upon mood and sociability.
The revolution in electronic technology is wonderful in many ways, but its downsides—distraction, most obviously—are present too. The notebook combats them. Notebooks are an organizing or disorganizing principle: organizing because one keeps one’s thoughts, but disorganizing because one cannot rearrange, tag, and structure thoughts in a notebook as one can on a screen (Devonthink Pro is impossible in the real world, and Scrivener can be done but only with a great deal of friction).
Once you try a notebook, you may realize that you’re a notebook person. You might realize it without trying. If you’re obsessed with this sort of thing, see Michael Loper / Rands’ Sweet Decay, which is better on validating why a notebook is important than evaluating the notebooks at hand. It was also written in 2008, before Rhodia updated its Webbie.
Like Rands, I’ve never had a sewn binding catastrophically fail. As a result, notebooks without sewn bindings are invisible to me. I find it telling that so many people are willing to write at length about their notebooks and use a nominally obsolete technology.
EDIT: See also Kevin Devlin’s The Death of Mathematics, which is about the allure of math by hand, rather than by computer; though I don’t endorse what he says, in part because it reminds me so much of Socrates decrying the advent of written over oral culture, I find it stimulating.
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Weekend::to think about::
is a collection of words and images that made me look twice this past week
and I want to think about for awhile.
Feel free to share yours. Leave a comment to let us know.