Saturday, December 22, 2012

Glenn Campbell on Marriage: The Turkish Interview

Here is a new interview with my Turkish publisher regarding marriage, coinciding with my new book being published in Istanbul this week.
The full transcript of the interview is available in this 5-page PDF File.
See info on the forthcoming English language edition: The Case Against Marriage.

Excerpt of interview:
The world even fifty years ago was a much different one. The main change is birth control. Throughout most human history, having sex meant having babies, and a society had to have a mechanism to assure that young people didn't have sex or babies randomly. You needed this institution of marriage to assure, for example, that a man didn't abandon the woman he impregnated and that stable conditions were in place to raise the child. Marriage was a perfectly logical process in, say, medieval Europe. If you wanted to have sex you had to be prepared for the babies that followed and this meant a stable, socially sanctioned relationship with the blessings of the community.
Today, marriage and childrearing are almost completely separate issues. . At least in America, if a mans father a child, his legal responsibilities for it are exactly the same regardless of whether the couple is married or not. Either you’re in the household helping to support the child or you are paying child support. Your marriage status has nothing to do with it. So the original purpose of marriage is now gone, yet people still get married. Why do they still do it? I think it’s delusion. People think that by joining this thousand-year-old tradition they are somehow improving their lives and improving the relationship, which simply isn't true.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Panhandler (story for a short film)

"The Panhandler" is a hypothetical short film of 5-10 minutes, written by Glenn Campbell. The treatment linked below describes the main dialog and general sequence of events, with details to be filled in later.

Synopsis: A homeless alcoholic experiments with marketing techniques.

The 11-page treatment is available here as a PDF file

The story was inspired in part by the photo above, which I took in Seattle. Here is the original version on Facebook.

This story was concieved on 12/19/12 and written on 12/20/12. This document was announced on the same day it was written with this tweet.

For more of my screen stories, see my Virtual Film Studio

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

I am now a published author—in Turkish!

By Glenn Campbell

After a lifetime of compulsive writing, I am finally a published author! The book is in TURKISH mind you, but it has actually been published (as of this week) and I am actually getting paid! Here is the publisher's catalog entry (and the English translation via Google). Of all the famous English-language authors, how many have had their first book published in Turkish? Not many. Not Stephen King, Charles Dickens or Oscar Wilde. In fact, pretty close to none of 'em I'll wager!

The new book, released this week, is EVLİLİĞE KARŞI: Bir İlişkinin Sosyal, Yasal, Ekonomik ve Psikolojik Sonuçları. That translates into "Against Marriage: Social, Legal, Economic and Psychological Effects of a Relationship". It is a translation of my online book "The Case Against Marriage", adding a few of my marriage-related essays from Kilroy Cafe and elsewhere. (Don't look for my online book on my own website. I have removed it so as to not taint the market.)

Here is a new interview with my publisher (12/22) which gives you an idea what the book is about. Also see information  on the forthcoming English edition: The Case Against Marriage.

Previously, my only "book" was the Area 51 Viewer's Guide from the 1990s, which is now available free online. It sold a respectable few thousand copies (perhaps as many as 10,000, but I lost track), but it doesn't really count as a published book because I did it myself. (It was a looseleaf document of 110 pages with no ISBN, so it never entered the stream of "real" books.)

The publisher of the new book is GeoActif in Istanbul. I met my publisher and translator on a visit to Istanbul a few weeks ago (photos). The publisher stumbled upon my work online about six months ago and felt it would be appropriate for a Turkish audience, where marriage is even more of a hot-button topic. In America, we can get married and unmarried relatively easily—and talk about it freely—but in Turkey even the idea of remaining single is quite radical. I can see this book could be quite subversive. (Hopefully not to the same extent as Salman Rushdie's work.) Even the cover (above) is bound to get attention!

(For the record, I know only two words of Turkish: "süt" for milk and "ayran" for liquid yogurt. I learned these words on a previous visit to Istanbul by pouring ayran on my cereal. photo)

An English-language version is in the works, presumably called The Case Against Marriage. I'll be much more active in this edition and will take part in the editing and possible rewrites over the next month or two. That edition will be published in Turkey but should be available in the USA via Amazon.

Publishing in Turkey may seem an odd start to ones publishing career, but I see great advantages in it. I'll have a lot more creative input into the English edition than I would with an American publisher. Sure, Americans have more resources, but there is also more competition and more layers of bureaucracy between me and the printed word. If the book is truly compelling and subversive, then seeding a few forbidden copies around the world could be just the right marketing strategy.

Until the English edition comes out, my only advice to you single non-Turkish speakers is DON'T GET MARRIED JUST YET! (Either that or learn Turkish fast!)

This is how the book looks in mass quantities...

Monday, December 17, 2012

11:59 from Prescott (screenplay for a short western)

Screenplay for a short film by Glenn Campbell (2009).

While organizing my new Virtual Film Studio, I came upon this short screenplay of mine from 2009. It could be my best, and it is one of my few screen stories formatted as a proper screenplay.

Read the full screenplay in this 11-page PDF file: "11:59 from Prescott"

Synopsis: A peaceful Arizona frontier town is menaced by three well-dressed strangers bearing unusual weapons. They offer the town "protection", but at a price.

The screenplay was originally announced in this blog entry.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Psychotherapy (treatment for a short film)

Treatment for a short film by Glenn Campbell

Synopsis: In the 1950s, a troubled young woman seeks help from a psychotherapist.

"Psychotherapy" is a hypothetical short film of 5-10 minutes. The treatment linked below describes the general sequence of events in the story, with details to be filled in later.

The film set is set sometime in the 1950s or early 1960s in two locations: (1) a medical waiting room/reception area, and (2) the ornate Victorian consulting room of a Freudian psychotherapist. There are three characters.

The 10-page treatment is available here as a PDF file.

The release of this document was announce with this tweet.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Inventacon: The Movie

By Glenn Campbell

Two days ago, I wrote the treatment for a short film, Inventacon. My exercise this morning is to imagine how it would be expanded into a full-length movie.

My short tells the story of how a naive amateur inventor, Jonathan Hopewell, gets cleverly fleeced by a con artist, Mr. Cloverfield. If this were expanded into a movie, we would have the choice of following the victim or the con artist. Definitely the con artist! He is far more interesting and complex. Cloverfield is the flamboyant head of an evil organization, like Dr. Evil, yet he is also a sympathetic character we are rooting for, like the heroes of Megamind and Thank You For Smoking. This movie is a black comedy where the hero is the bad guy!

My short would be the opening scene, with the movie continuing from there. Everyone on Cloverfield's team lines up for their pay (in cash), and we start to learn about the real dynamic behind their charade.

The most surprising thing we learn is that in spite of being a con artist, Cloverfield truly cares about the people who work for him! The Professor, the Receptionist, the sketch artist Emma, the financial clerk David and all the extras in the R+D room are not just Cloverfield's employees but his friends. They are loyal to him because he takes good care of them. He shares his profits generously and he never cheats them. He is a good manager who acknowledges the feelings and needs of everyone on his team while not shying away from the hard decisions about doing what is best for the whole organization. Cloverfield proves there can be honor among thieves!

("Honor Among Thieves" could be the working title of the movie, but it is NOT the final title. I have a MUCH BETTER TITLE in mind, but it is such a fantastic and culturally relevant one that I dare not reveal it here.)

The movie explores what I call the "inside-outside" phenomenon: how people can be completely loyal and honorable within their family or tribe but exploitative and immoral to anyone outside it. Cloverfield himself is the perfect illustration. If you aren't part of his team, then you're a "mark" and he is utterly ruthless and sociopathic in exploiting you. A funny thing about him is that the same sage motivational talk he uses to energize his team he also uses to fleece his marks. He talks a lot about personal responsibility and taking charge of your own life, which he uses on his victims to lure them into his web. When he uses similar motivating words on his team, he truly cares about them and wants the best for them.

Inventacon, the fake invention company, is only the first in an escalating series outrageous consumer scams we see Cloverfield pull off. He is smart enough to know that each operation has a limited shelf life before consumers and regulators catch on. Immediately after paying off his associates for the Hopewell scam, he announces that he is pulling the plug on Inventacon. Inventacon declares bankruptcy, as Cloverfield routinely does for all of his business ventures. Then he and his team skip town and start a new scam business elsewhere.

After Inventacon, Cloverfield moves into late-night infomercials and a series of ever-bolder consumer scams. He starts by creating a psychic hotline, then he opens a dubious for-profit university promising students lucrative careers in movies and the arts. He also invents and hawks dubious consumer products of all kinds. He invents these products himself with very little effort because they don't actually have to work, only seem to work on TV. He dabbles in virtually every telemarketing scam and even appears on some of the ads himself, as a fast-talking character reminiscent of the late Billy Mays. (The fast-talking part is not Cloverfield's normal personality and it only happens when the cameras are rolling.)

The greatest joy and humor of the movie is seeing all of our familiar TV ads being exposed as deliberately crafted frauds. The audience sees not only the final TV ad or infomercial but also the cynical deliberations that went into it. We see an American actress being auditioned and hired to play a Caribbean psychic. We see Cloverfield consulting with his main confident the Professor and a lawyer friend about how to pull this psychic scam off without running afoul of federal regulators. Although, Cloverfield has no empathy for his victims, he is assiduous about obeying the letter of the law wherever there is a chance of getting caught.

The actual psychic advice is written by Emma, the sketch artist, who also designs a computer program to feed it to the telephone workers who handle the calls. Emma turns out to be a multi-talented creative type who draws, writes, designs corporate logos, programs computers and manages websites and social media. She even becomes a TV director for Cloverfield's infomercials. Cloverfield calls her his "secret weapon" and although he invents each scam, he relies on her for the visual and operational design of it. Cloverfield and Emma have a warm father-daughter relationship that is completely honorable in itself. (Maybe she is even his daughter.) Emma is shy, doesn't like to draw attention to herself and would never directly lie to anyone. She just quietly facilitates the lies of others.

Unfortunately for Cloverfield, Emma also has a conscience. Although she likes Cloverfield, is loyal to him and is grateful for the creative opportunities he has given her, she becomes deeply distressed by what they are doing to their victims. Everyone else on the team accepts Cloverfield's rationalizations that they are "helping" the victim by conning him. ("We're teaching them responsibility," says Cloverfield. "If we didn't take their money, someone else would, and not as pleasantly.") Emma begins to see through this facade, is torn by her conflicting loyalties and will eventually be turned against him. This movie is really her story.

In one key scene. Emma returns to the gutted offices of Inventacon to retrieve a sketchbook. There she encounters the shattered inventor Hopewell and experiences his pain firsthand. For the first time, she is forced to directly lie to someone, and it is a wrenching experience for her. This is the turning point for her, bringing her back toward the path of good.

The overarching crisis of the story is that the SEC is on Cloverfield's trail. About a third of the way into the movie, after we have already bonded with Cloverfield and his team, our perspective shifts to the federal investigators trying to shut him down. We learn of the hundreds of victims he has left in his wake in dozens of carefully crafted rackets. To the Feds, Cloverfield is a supervillain. They know he's a scam artist and have the shattered victims to prove it, but he covers his legal tracks so well that he's nearly impossible to prosecute. One problem is the ironclad contract he has his victims sign, which essentially gives him permission to fleece them.

The lead investigator is a woman who makes it her personal crusade to bring Cloverfield down. As Clovefield's scams become more bold and open, she becomes more determined to trick him into making a mistake, even if she has to get personally involved and stretch the rules of investigation.

Meanwhile, buoyed by one telemarketing success after another, Cloverfield moves into the biggest scam of all: He starts his own religion! He is the head of the religion, of course, and he creates a TV show to spread the word. He becomes a sort of hybrid of Jimmy Swaggart, Tony Robbins and L. Ron Hubbard. He appeals to his audience with sermons about responsibility, emotional appeals for donations and a set of nonsense "procedures" you can only get by joining the religion. Of course, the whole process is focused on funneling donations to his bogus church.

The ultimate battle is between the crafty Cloverfield and the investigator. The sequence of events is yet to be worked out, but there will probably be some romantic involvement between the two. The investigator will also make contact with Emma and must convince her to switch sides. She must explain to Emma (and to us) why Cloverfield is evil and must be stopped. Emma reveals that Cloverfield is her father, which make the decision to turn against him all the more difficult.

At the same time, the audience is rooting for Cloverfield. He is so outrageous and flamboyant and his scams are so clever that we don't want to see him shut down!

All of these conflicts seem impossible to resolve. As they build to a head, we want the investigator to win, but we also want Cloverfield and Emma to win. In the final conflict, the investigator will somehow manage to out-scam Cloverfield, but then he out-scams her.

Cloverfield will be stopped, but only partially. Just as the investigators are about to close in on him, he confesses tearfully on his TV show, "I have sinned!" (a direct homage to Jimmy Swaggart). He announces that he will shut down his religion and give back all the donations he has received. He will also terminate all his telemarketing businesses, calling them "crass commercialism". Although he is contrite on the screen and we see tears streaming down his face, we all suspect this is just another scam. By making this bold move on national TV, he has evaded the investigators and avoided jail.

He simply shifts his energies to a new set of victims. He starts fleecing people the traditional and completely legal American way: by selling rich people things they don't need. When we last see him, he works as a high-paid consultant for luxury car makers and other high-end marketers, advising them on how to get more "yield" out of wealthy customers—like adding a 10-cent feature that allows them to double the price of the car. He has evolved from a pure con artist to a legitimate member of society, and because he is fleecing only wealthy people legally, we wish him well!

The investigator loses the final battle, in that Cloverfield doesn't go to jail, but she gets most of what she wanted because she stopped him from preying on the poor and weak. Once she achieves these aims, she resigns her position.

The only person who gets out cleanly is Emma, who cuts all ties with her father and becomes a legitimate artist. We learn, through her, what morality really is and how you can't make a decent life for yourself living in the shadow of someone else's scam.

© 2012, Glenn Campbell

Monday, December 10, 2012

Inventacon (treatment for a short film)

Inventacon is a short film of 5-10 minutes conceived and written by Glenn Campbell on Dec. 10, 2012. The treatment (linked below) describes the general sequence of events in the story, with details to be filled in later.

Synopsis: An amateur inventor submits his idea to a big corporation.

The 12-page treatment is available here as a PDF file.

I have also expanded this idea into a treatment for a full-length movie, see the next blog entry: Inventacon: The Movie.

This treatment was announced immediately after completion with this twitter tweet.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Depression vs. Cancer: An Investigation

By Glenn Campbell (in Fayetteville, NC)

I saw this sign (above) at the Newark airport yesterday, and it pissed me off.
"You'd never say, 'It's just cancer, get over it.' So why do some say that about depression?"
I say cancer and depression are completely different. Furthermore, equating the two may be doing a great disservice to depression sufferers.

Cancer has very little to do with your attitude—at least after you already have it. It is a physical disease that is likely to kill most people without aggressive medical intervention. The implication here is that depression is also a disease you have no control over that requires outside medical intervention.

Depression, in fact, is all about attitude! Unlike cancer, only you can cure your own depression. Modern medicine is limited to two options: drugs and counseling. Every addict knows that drugs can make you happy, but the problem with all kinds of drugs—legal or otherwise—is they don't solve the underlying problem, whatever it may be, so you'll probably revert back to depression after you go off them. The claim that antidepressants are non-addictive is nonsense. If something makes you feel good, who wouldn't want to keep doing it?

The aim of counseling, on the other hand, is to change your attitude, to get you to take responsibility for controlling your own mood. This is essentially the opposite of the "Depression is something you have no control over" message.

In either case, someone is making a lot of money. Either it's the drug companies selling you their drugs or the medical establishment making big hourly rates on counseling. No one makes any money if you take control and solve the problem yourself.

Ultimately, the only way to cure depression is for the sufferer himself find some way to manage and assimilate it. Far more than cancer, your personal attitude and willingness to change have a huge impact on your depression. Yes, you must "Get over it" one way or another!

So who is sponsoring this sign? I suspect it is the drug industry, which has a big financial stake in making you think you have no control so they can sell you their patented antidepressants. Or maybe it is the people who make money from counseling. Unfortunately, it is hard to read the fine print on the ad in my photo, so I don't know for sure.

To find out more, I went to the website given,, and it doesn't exist! Click for yourself. "Domain Name Not Found." Change the suffix, however, and we do better: does exist. This seems to be the correct site, offering not-for-profit tips on depression. The site is professionally produced but says remarkably little: Just four articles of bland and useless advice ("Be sure to discuss your depression with your partner.") and links to Wikipedia and HeathGuide. You'd get a more useful and relevant information by simply Googling "depression".

Nowhere on this website does it say who the sponsor is. There's no foundation name or anything else. I could try to track down who owns the domain name, but why should I have to? Why the big mystery?

An observation: .ORG is suppose to refer to an non-commercial organization while .COM is a commercial one. This may or may not mean anything, but it is funny that someone would put all the effort into these signs and not even bother to register the website the sign is directing people to. It seems to me the main reason for the sign is not to direct people to any website but to perpetuate the message: "Depression = Cancer". The website just seems like a pro-forma requirement for the one person out of a thousand who will actually look it up.

This ad is probably an unpaid public service message, provided free by the ad company when signs are unsold. That doesn't prove it is "good" however. A lot of legally "nonprofit" organizations have dubious pedigrees, set up by people who have a lot to gain by spreading a certain message.

Depression is a part of life. Anyone who hasn't suffered from it hasn't lived. You feel depressed when things go wrong, and sometimes you feel depressed for no good reason. All of us must learn to deal with it. The only people who don't deal with it are those who don't accept it that it is their own problem, who insist that somebody else must solve it for them. These people are happy to seek out medical help because it helps them avoid making any changes in their own life.

This ad plays right into their hands. Depression is like cancer, so you don't have to face it yourself. Take it to qualified medical practitioner who will bill your insurance company.

Everybody makes money, but is the patient really cured?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Serendipitology: The Art of Good Luck

By Glenn Campbell (in Istanbul and over the Atlantic)

"Serendipity" is the unexpected discovery of something beneficial at the time you happen to need it. When you plan on one course of events but something better falls across your path, that's serendipity. We have all experienced it from time to time: Some unexpected opportunity walks in the door when we happen to be ready for it, so we grab it and run with it.

The classic case of serendipity is the scientist working on a tough theoretical problem. He is stumped by it and is tempted to give up, but then he takes a long walk. Along the way he notices something random, like a child playing with a common toy, and it jogs his brain. The toy helps him see his technical problem in a simpler way, and suddenly everything falls in place. The serendipity was this seemingly random event which turned into the catalyst for solving the unrelated scientific problem.

You have probably experienced similar serendipity in your own life. You had a problem to solve, were trying to address it by your usual methods, then something unexpected came out of the blue to help you solve it in a more efficient way. Although it wasn't part of your original plan, when the better opportunity was offered to you, you were smart enough to see it and take advantage of it.

Some would call it "luck", but serendipity is more than that. It also includes the wisdom to recognize your luck, the practical freedom to change and personal initiative to exploit the opportunity when it happens. These things are not random chance but acquired skills. You can't know how, when or where unexpected opportunities will strike, but you can be ready for them in a general way and act wisely when they occur.

With experience, you can even learn to see opportunities and good luck where no one else can. Losing your job, being rejected in love, failing in some project that was important to you... all of these things are usually seen as "bad luck" when they first occur. But within every apparent disaster is a kernel of opportunity. If you are skilled at such things, you can quickly locate the potential windfall, shift gears and change lanes to accommodate it. In the end, you may look back on the "bad luck" and see it as the best thing that ever happened to you!

The idea that you have some control over your own good luck is the basis for a new field of study called "Serendipitology". (Don't look for it in your Funk & Wagnalls, because I just invented the word.) Serendipitology is the field of study concerned with understanding and exploiting unexpected fortuitous events. If you are a student of Serendipitology or are particularly adept and turning random events to your favor, you can call yourself a "serendipitologist". So far, there are no accredited PhD programs in this field, but the rest of this article should get you started with the basics.

Each of us plans our life as best we can. Into that plan, there are bound to come disruptions. There will be both bad disruptions ("bad luck") and good disruptions ("good luck"). By definition, we don't know what these unexpected events will be, where they will strike or when they will occur. The only thing we can be sure of is disruptions will occur. The world is a complex place, and no one can predict everything. No matter how finely tuned your plans may be, reality is bound to come along and throw monkey wrenches into them. Part of being human is learning how to deal with these disturbances and turn them to your advantage.

Preparation and Response

The art of Serendipitology involves two sets of life skills: preparation and response. Preparation means you design and manage your life in such a way that you are expecting disruptions, are ready for them and aren't thrown into turmoil when one occurs. You are ready to surf the big waves when they happen, even if you don't know exactly when and where they will come. Response means you act appropriately after a disruption actually occurs, moving quickly to take advantage of it or minimize its damage.

The most important act of preparation is leaving yourself as much future freedom as possible. If you are already locked into a fixed path far into the future, you don't have the option of taking unexpected paths, no matter how fortuitous. Disasters are doubly disastrous if you can't change course to adapt to them, and fantastic opportunities are useless if you can't stop what you are doing to explore them. Almost any meaningful project involves some commitment of your future time and attention, but many open-ended commitments are foolish and unnecessary, locking you into a long-term path with little benefit. There are always social and emotional pressures to sell off your future freedom, and sometimes it is unavoidable. Preparation means you are carefully navigating this minefield, committing your future resources as necessary but still leaving yourself open to unexpected change.

People whose lives are set in concrete are not open to serendipity. Very little good luck happens to them because they are not even in a position to even see it. They can accept the existence of new opportunities only when they appear within the narrow scope their existing investments allow. They may buy lottery tickets and would probably accept that sort of simplistic good fortune, but other forms of opportunity are frightening to them. People who are committed to a fixed path tend to be fatalistic naysayers. They will give you countless contrived reasons why an apparent opportunity doesn't exist or won't pan out, because they are not in a position to even try.

Response is the process of reacting to a disruption after it occurs. Smart people react promptly but thoughtfully, without  panic, assimilating the unexpected turn of events into their future behavior. Dumb people deny that the disruption occurred or overreact to it. They cling desperately to their old way of doing things until change is forced upon them. Opportunities pass and disasters get worse when you don't turn toward the disruption, acknowledge it and take control of your own response.

To accept a new opportunity, you almost always have to give up something from your past—some habit that doesn't really work but that you are accustomed to or invested in. Apart from your own fear of change, you have other people to worry about. To step out of straight line to explore a new opportunity, you may have to let some of them down. There can be all sorts of social pressures to not change, including substantial obligations to those who depend on you. No matter how you cut it, diverting from your current path into a new one takes courage and inner strength most people don't have. They would rather move straight ahead in a familiar path, even if it is a painful, self-destructive and unproductive one.

Courting Randomness

Apart from preparing for opportunities and responding to them when they happen, it may seem you have no control over the opportunities themselves. Who can change luck? By definition, if events are "unexpected", you can't plan on when and where they will occur, right? True, but you can still design your life to encourage more of these random events.

If you spend all day in your room, very few unexpected opportunities are going to come your way. If you get out and explore the world, deliberately pushing yourself into challenging areas, you give serendipity many more potential points of entry. True, the dangers also increase if you step out of your routine, but as long as you are reasonably prudent about your safety, the benefits usually far outweigh the risks.

You don't need a life of total chaos, just a healthy diet of new experiences outside your normal pattern of behavior. If nothing else, serendipity can introduce you to all sorts of new environments and lifestyle options. For example, you may sit next to someone on a plane, start talking to them and find yourself entering a whole new world you weren't previously aware of. A large portion of your serendipitous experience is meeting people at random who turn out to offer new keys to you own life. These chance encounters are only going to happen if you put yourself into situations where you can meet people and comfortably interact with them without preconditions.

By default, most people's lives are heavily preprogrammed, with little opportunity for any kind of randomness to intrude. Every day, they go to work at the same place, getting there by the same route, then they go home and do the same things. They think there life has depth because they watch different TV shows every night, but in reality it is a very restricted existence. Give people resources, and they seek out stability, building a bubble around them that is intended to protect them but also imprisons them. We may envy people in wealthy neighborhoods, but their imprisonment can be the worst. They are protected from every kind of threat but also most forms of serendipity, because security lies in eliminating all random occurrences.

It doesn't help serendipity to do the same sort of things repeatedly—like climbing one mountain after another—because the more you repeat something and know its angles, the more you close yourself off from random experience. You need to continually push yourself into new areas just beyond your comfort zone. You know you are probably expanding yourself if you feel a tinge of anxiety as you approach a new experience. You don't know exactly what will happen and are a little afraid, but this is good. You don't have to make huge and dangerous leaps into the unknown like Christopher Columbus. Small steps are usually better because they give you more time to adjust to the opportunities you encounter. (Poor Chris made a huge leap but never understood what he discovered.) Whatever you are already comfortable with, push it a little farther.

Serendipitous opportunities are more likely to come to people who deliberately seek new and unpredictable experiences, who continually push themselves beyond their own previous fears. Serendipity rarely presents itself to people who stay at home or repeat the same familiar activities over and over.


Letting go of your old ways is frightening, even if they don't work very well. We are all creatures of habit, and a promising opportunity can be as much an emotional disruption as an obvious disaster. Our fear of change is often expressed through the mechanism of paranoia. When our emotional system doesn't want change, it invents imaginary barriers and delusional dangers. If a good opportunity crosses our path and we interpret it as a threat, we don't have to deal with the emotional dilemmas it presents us with. This offer must be a trick, we figure—a wolf in sheep's clothing. There is no good thing that can't be seen as a bad thing under the influence of paranoia, and that's how we allow good opportunities to pass.

Paranoia can be obvious, like when someone believes the CIA is beaming mind control rays into their brain, or it can be very subtle, like a belief that an offer is "too good to be true" when in fact it is true. In one form or another, paranoia is seeing barriers where none exist, usually to reduce ones private emotional dilemmas. If you are already committed to one path and serendipity offers you a better one, your emotional system desperately wants to devalue the new path or construe it as a threat. Otherwise, you would be forced to make some hard emotional decisions. It's sort of like a romantic partner detecting a potential rival and wanting to rip the rival's heart out: The more talented the rival, the stronger the need to demonize that person and find flaws in them.

If you talk to an alcoholic living in the street—or indeed any kind of addict anywhere—and you offer them new options for resolving their problems, he is probably going to give you reasons why each of those options can't work. If you say, "The factory down the street is hiring," he will tell you there's no point in even applying. No matter how easy it is to get the job, his paranoia will always come up with reasons why it can't be done. As miserable as his current existence may be, he have made an emotional investment in it. He needs to believe he is powerless. If serendipity steps in to offer him a better opportunity, he will concoct some sort of barrier to get in the way. Then he can say, "You see, I have no choice. My problems are not my fault."

Serendipitology involves recognizing and neutralizing your own natural paranoia about new opportunities. We all say we want them, but when they actually come to us, part of us wants to shoot them down. Some of our fears are rational while others are merely attempts by our emotional system to neutralize perceived threats to our existing investments. Your job as a serendipitologist is to stand back and evaluate your options objectively. Just because you have invested huge resources in your existing path doesn't make it the best. You have to set aside the past and evaluate each road based on what it offers going forward.

Serendipity and Personality

Some people have all the luck—or at least seem to.  We are amazed by the good fortune and remarkable experiences that seems to befall them wherever they go. "They're just charmed," we say, asserting that the same things could never happen to us because of the bad hand life has dealt us. It is hard to comprehend that good fortune follows them for a reason. Maybe their gift is not luck but vision, the ability to detect the luck that other people don't notice and draw it out for their own benefit.

Other people seem to have consistent bad luck. Nothing they do goes right. One disaster after another befalls them, and no good news seems to come their way. While we shouldn't discount the fact that bad things like cancer and auto accidents can happen to anyone, the people who are walking disaster areas must have traits within them that encourage this to happen. Take two people and put them into identical situations; one will find great opportunities and take advantage of them, and the other will find only disaster and dead-ends.

The people with all the luck may have a set of personality traits that help them detect and exploit opportunities more effectively. This includes both positive skills of vision and initiative but also a lack of bad habits that get in the way. They are not stuck patterns of the past. They believe in their own ability, which encourages them to use it, which gives them more skills and experience, which leads to better success and makes their belief real.

Personality is an addiction, as powerful as cocaine. Once adults settle into a pattern of behavior and a set of philosophical attitudes, they prefer to repeat them indefinitely even if they don't work and cause them great pain. Whether you believe you have control or believe you have none, that believe is self-fulfilling  and guides your actions for the rest of your life.

One destructive attitude is fatalism, the idea that everything in life is predetermined and that any control you seem to have is an illusion. If you believe in fatalism, you can't be an active agent in your own life; you will only follow the pattern established by others. The fatalist can follow orders and respond to disasters after they happen, but he won't take preemptive action to improve his life. You will insist that no opportunities exist, but that’s because he refuses to see them when the happen.

Fatalism is probably the most important axis of personality. The majority of people, in every culture, are highly fatalistic. They respond to their environment and follow the patterns their society has set up for them, but they exert little force of their own. A special minority are low in fatalism—meaning they have high internal confidence in their ability to change their own habits. While humans can exhibit countless other personality traits, fatalism is the one that matters most to serendipitology.

Fatalism is an invitation to disaster. If you think this way, then you are not likely to take discretionary actions to improve your own life because you believe all such actions are ineffective. A fatalist is more likely to pick up addictions and less likely to quit because he believes he has no power to; therefore his risks are elevated. If he duplicates this powerless attitude for all the risks of life, the fatalist becomes highly disaster prone. At some point, one disaster after another is probably going to pummel him because he didn't take early steps to mitigate the risks.

The fatalist will tell you he has no choice and that no good opportunities ever befall him. He will tell you that every new thing he has tried in the past has failed, so he has just given up. Offer him an opportunity, and he'll probably turn it away, giving you a million reasons why it can't work. He can't change this attitude because he is invested in it. If he ever did acknowledge that he had control over his life, then he would also have to accept that his past failures are his own fault, not the work of fate. This regret would be too much to bear, so his fatalism continues.

The guy with all the luck usually believes otherwise. He thinks he does have control over his life, and this prophesy, too, is self-fulfilling. He frequently tries new approaches to solving his problems. Most of them fail, but some of them work. His own faith that something will succeed keeps him going beyond the low threshold of pain where the fatalist quits. Believing he can improve his life through his own actions, he is constantly watching for new opportunities. When "luck" happens, he jumps on it. When it happens to a fatalist, he dithers and lets it pass.

Serendipitology is a deliberate attempt to cultivate luck, to distill it and draw it out. You can't force luck or make it happen on demand, but you can learn to become more open to it, see it in more places and use more of it to your advantage.

The Profit of Failure

A common attitude of the fatalist is, “Everything I have tried has failed, so what’s the point in even trying?” The answer is: Because trying itself is valuable, regardless of whether you win or lose. Just by making an attempt, you are learning about the world and the field you are engaged in. You learn nothing by staying in your room and not trying.

The value of any journey is not just the destination but the things you learn along the way. You study a place or a process on the internet, read books about it, think deep thoughts about it, but you only way you can know how the pieces fit together is to actually go there and do it. If you at least make a stab at this activity you have theorized about, you can begin to gain real-world feedback about it, regardless of whether this attempt leads to success or failure.

Failure, in fact, can have its advantages. Success tends to lock you into a certain activity and a certain pattern of activity, whereas failure is more likely to leave you free to completely rethink the problem and try again from another angle. Not all failure is benign. Some of it can leave you crippled for life. But if you manage your failures wisely and prepare for they just like you would for success, they can be powerful resources. Success is often build upon a series of failures, each of which may be embarrassing but contributes to our understanding of the processes involved.

Early success is often more volatile, less satisfying and even dangerous. If you decide to become an actor, audition once and get a starring role on your first audition, it may not turn into the right kind of success because you never had a chance to understand, through a series of failures, what you really want. In any field, early successes are frequently mismanaged and often flame out because the seeker wasn't emotionally ready. You may have to "pay your dues" through a series of failures before success is even possible. It is not the pain that makes success more likely, but the direct hands-on experience you can only get by trying.

When opportunity knocks, the fatalist sees only the probability of final success, which indeed may be very low, while the non-fatalist may see a whole spectrum of potential benefits apart from the end result. The non-fatalist calculates the chance of winning but also the benefits gained by trying, so he's going to jump into more opportunities with a marginal end reward. Just taking the journey provides an opportunity for exploration and experimentation and a greater likelihood that some form of serendipity will step in.

Goals and Meta-Goals

It is reasonable to have goals, things you hope to do with your life, but serendipitology dictates that those goals not be too rigid or specific. If you expect to get to a certain place at a fixed time, serendipity probably won't help you. However, if you want only the move only in a general direction, you have much greater chance of finding random winds to carry you there.

The cliched advice for young people is "Never let go of your dreams." They usually take this to mean they should fixate on a goal—like football hero or movie star—and overpower every barrier that stands in their way. The trouble is, by focusing solely on that one goal they may miss more realistic and profitable opportunities that fall across their path.

When people set goals, they are usually envisioning some stereotypical accomplishment others have achieved in the past. If Steven Spielberg made it big following a certain path, they think they can achieve the same success by following the same route. What they don't realize is the world has changed in the interim and the path no longer exists as it once did. What successful people have usually done is taken advantage of the unique opportunities available to them at the time. If you are determine to reach a fixed goal regardless of your opportunities, then you will probably miss the unique opportunities you have right in front of you.

If you are focused on a specific goal and a different kind of opportunity presents itself, you are probably going to reject it because it doesn't match your fixated plan. If you can accept broader goals without specifics, you can acknowledge a wider range of opportunities. If your fixed goal is to become a world famous actor by the age of 30, there is only a narrow range of opportunities you can accept. If your goal is a general one of seeking greater creative expression, a lot more opportunities can get you there.

Broad, non-specific wishes could be called "meta-goals". Simply put, you want to be able to do more of the things that make you happy and fewer of the things that are a painful burden. You want to move in the direction of greater creativity, more freedom and more control over your own life. With those simple aims, there bound to be plenty of fortuitous events to help you out.

Specific goals are usually a little suspect anyway. Why exactly do you need to become a famous actor by the age of 30? Do you really love acting all that much, or are you seeking the unlimited glory you think fame will bring? When we seek a specific goal, we aren't really seeking accomplishment as much as the socially accepted symbols of accomplishment. We want to receive an Academy Award but don't have a clue what we should be doing to deserve it. Real accomplishment means doing something different than has ever done before, and impossible to tell in advance exactly what it will be. You can only head in a certain direction until you find it.

Rather than focusing on end goals, it is much more satisfying to look at the real world around you and see what needs to be done and can be done. Then you do what you can with the resources you have, looking for clever way to leverage those resources into something bigger. It is much better to be an Einstein—an original thinker in a whole new field—than an actor playing Einstein, which is essentially what you are doing when you see a specific goal.

It is not uncommon for someone to set a rigid goal, work hard, achieve it by some miracle, then realize, "Why am I here?" A rigid goal, once achieved, rarely brings us the happiness we think it will. That's usually because the goal was delusional, made for dubious philosophical reasons. We wanted to be loved and were seeking the symbols we thought would buy it.

Rigid goals mean fewer opportunities for good luck to help you out and a lowered probability of those goals actually being realized. A more promising approach is to know the general direction you want to go, move in that direction with the tools available and look for fortuitous opportunities along the way that might help you make better time. When an unplanned opportunity comes along, it doesn't matter exactly where it leads so long as it moves you in the general direction you intend.

Serendipitology is like sailing ship in unpredictable winds. Getting to a specific port on a fixed schedule could be very difficult, but going in a general direction, like East or West, should be a lot easier. If you don't care what port you land in as long as it is east of here, there are bound to be fortuitous winds to help you out. If you are flexible on your destination, then a lot more options are open to you, probably including one you weren't expecting that turns out to fulfill most of your personal needs.

What Really Makes You Happy?

If your goals are broad, you have a better chance of hitting them, and more serendipitous opportunities will probably come along to help. One tenet of Serendipitology is to widen your specific goals into broader meta-goals, but what should they be?

The broadest meta-goal is simply to be happy! Happiness consists of two things: reducing your frustrations and doing more of the creative things that seem to give you satisfaction. You don't have to have perfect vision of your destination to pursue greater happiness. You just need grab hold of passing opportunities that carry you in that general direction.

Happiness, in fact, is a moving target. There is no one thing that can permanently make you happy. Every joy is bound to become a prison if you lock yourself into it. Happiness is more a process than a destination. If you look back on your own periods of happiness, it was probably times when you were working toward meaningful goals with few frustrations standing in your way. The goals were important, but the happiness was in the mission. When the goal is finally reached, you don't usually experience any great euphoria. You just use that success as the basis for your next mission.

Whatever happiness may be, you are probably not feeling it when you are dealing with difficult people, cleaning house or struggling to make ends meet. There are always plenty of things causing you discomfort, and if no other goal appears to you, at least you can work to reduce them. Knowing what your frustrations are, you can look for serendipitous solutions. There are always more efficient ways to perform the routine functions of life; you just have to be open to them.

Greater experience in life—in the actual doing of things—is likely to give you greater knowledge of what truly makes you happy. In our early years, we tend to see the symbols of happiness, like awards, prestigious positions and material wealth. These are ways of telling others, "You see how happy I am!" but in terms of your current neurological happiness, they may not actually work. Awards make you happy only for a moment. Your happiness lasts longer when you are working toward something, and you probably feel the most serene when that something is both meaningful in itself and using the best of your skills.

The secret of happiness is active experimentation to find out what makes you happy. You can't depend on what people tell you. You have to work it out for yourself. Make unbiased observations of when you are happy and when you are not, and a course of action will probably form on its own.

Limits of Modeling

Serendipity is an important personal tool because the world is a big place and you can't hold all of it in your head. You make for yourself, but these plans can't possibly consider everything that might happen in the real world. Serendipity is usually the intrusion of some unexpected aspect of reality into your well laid plans, presenting an angle you hadn't considered before or had previously discounted.

All of our plans are based on models. We take all of the complexities of the world, reduce them to a few simple principles, then use these principles to guide our actions. We are making a model in our head, like a miniature model of a village, and using this model to work through what we plan to do in the real village. That's great! It is essential to model things in your head to make wise choices, but those models are always going to lack detail and access to information external to the model. Because a model is always a gross simplification, it is bound to miss other aspects of reality that you hadn't considered when creating it.

Take the law of gravity. If you are standing on the Earth, gravity seems pretty firm. What goes up must come down. Jump off a high ledge and you hurt'll yourself. After a lifetime of experience with gravity, it is easy to formulate some general principles, like "I cannot fly." These principles, then, guide our actions so we don't just off ledges. But our simple model of gravity doesn't explain everything. Birds and balloons seem to defy gravity, and some satellites go around the Earth without ever falling. Serendipitous events can clue us in to these seeming exceptions to our neat models. It is not that our theory of gravity is "wrong"; it just isn't telling us everything.

The history of manned flight is a story of serendipitous discoveries coupled with deliberate efforts to exploit them. Some elements of airplane technology were deliberately designed by engineers while others just happened. These were unexpected discoveries coming out of the blue that people then used engineering to explore. The gift of the inventors is to be able to use both forms of discovery.

In your own life, you have a personal plan for yourself based on your modeled notions of who you are and what reality is. By default, you plod along the path that the plan dictates, which is usually a straight line from "A" to "B". Your plan doesn't tell you about shortcuts, but serendipity might. Serendipity might deliver a clue that doesn't fit your model. If you are committed your path, then you're going to brush it aside. If you are open to change, then you will stop, follow this clue, and see where it leads.

Serendipity or Synchronicity?

Once you are open to serendipity, it can be spooky how things come together. Solutions come to us in ways we never dreamed, making us suspect a higher power is a work. When serendipity becomes almost cosmic, it is called "synchronicity"—the apparent synchronizing of events that have no known causal relationship. You are thinking about a friend you haven't seen in years, and ten seconds later the phone rings and it's them! Is it random, serendipitous chance or divine design?

The best answer is: It doesn't matter! Whether God or happenstance sent you this opportunity, you are still going to treat it the same. You can look at it with awe for few minutes, then you proceed to exploit it! God, if He exists, wouldn't expect anything less.

The one thing you shouldn't do, however, is expect divine intervention. If you have been blessed by a series of fortuitous events, don't make the mistake of planning on their continuation. It is when people thing they are charmed that they make their most dangerous blunders. These usually involve making commitments based on the assumption that the good fortune will continue. Once you do that, you become locked into a path and are unable to adapt when your fortunes shift.

Millions are suckered by such mistakes in every economic cycle. In boom times, serendipity delivers a steady stream of successes; the winners are lured into ever more grandiose investments then are brutally crushed when the bust finally comes. Every serendipitous success makes you feel more and more invulnerable, which leads to hubris and costly mistakes. Every great ride has to end sometime, and you have to be prepared for it just like you were prepared for opportunity.

Religious miracles and psychic phenomena may be real, but if so they are extremely fickle. Pray to God one day, and He seems to answer those prayers. Do it another day, and He seems indifferent, maybe even punishing. Instead of trying to read God's mind, which is a tricky and maybe even blastphemus, is best to proceed on your own concrete knowledge and wisdom. A just God wouldn't expect anything else.

If you succeed but don't fully understand the mechanism of that success, it is best to show restraint. If you invest in a stock and the stock price goes up, it may not be your prescience and skill but dumb chance, like a spin of the roulette wheel. This is exactly the mechanism that keeps gamblers gambling and assures they walk out of the casino penniless regardless of how much they won. Success leads to overconfidence leads to overcommitment leads to a bust.

The boom-and-bust cycle applies to every aspect of life, not just business and gambling. Experience a string of successes and you start making plans as though the trend will continue indefinitely. When the bust comes, you're trapped in those plans. Now, you're struggling to keep you're head above water, and among other disasters, you no longer have the freedom to pursue unexpected opportunities.

If you expect to enjoy the benefits of serendipity for the rest of your life, you have to treat it lightly, as a gift of chance that can be taken away at any time. As you get better at Serendipitology, more good fortune will probably come your way, but you must never take it for granted. If you marvel at the coincidences sometimes, never taken them as a trend.

The winds can shift at any time, and when they do you have to be ready to move with them.

[This essay could be edited or expanded over the next few days. Come back later to see. This message will go away when editing is done.]

Possible future topics in serendipitology:
  • The Sunk Cost Fallacy
  • Life Design
  • Serendipity and Art
  • Serendipity and Guilt
My earlier essays on serendipitology:

Sunday, December 2, 2012

How to Make Movies... In Your Mind!

By Glenn Campbell in Istanbul

Movie making is frightfully expensive. You have to create a whole artificial world, carefully controlled for both images and sound, and this can present huge practical challenges. You have to hire actors, gaffers, cameramen, carpenters, people to handle lighting, sound, sets and props. Then you have to feed them, so you need caterers, security people, drivers, accountants and... geesh! Soon your little movie is a big cash drain. Even if a movie is purely digital, it can be extremely labor intensive to create the environment and make it function before the characters even step into it.

It costs next to nothing, however, to make a movie in your mind. I don't mean screenwriting, which is labor intensive in itself. I mean just sitting alone, imagining a movie, constructing its plot and running the whole story through your head from beginning to end as though you were watching it on a screen. This shouldn't be much different than, say, imagining your journey from one part of your city to another. After all, every movie is journey, where one event leads to another over a period of an hour or two.

You have certainly seen plenty of movies, so you should know how they work. You remember the good ones that left you satisfied at the end and the bad ones that just made you feel you had wasted your time. It shouldn't be a huge leap to construct your own imaginary movie based on what you have learned over a lifetime of movie watching. If you can't generate a whole film in your head, working out what happens to the characters and why, than you can't expect to do much better with a $100 million budget.

In practice, though, virtual movie making isn't as easy it sounds. If people could make satisfying movies in their heads, they would have no need to see real movies and the whole industry would collapse. Only a few have the skills to produce compelling and complete stories in any medium. Many an aspiring screenwriter or novelist has sat down to write a great filmable story but found themselves blocked partway through. They may have created what they think are interesting characters in a tense situation but they don't know where to go with them. Their common complaint is, "I've got everything worked out except the ending."

And therein lies the problem. The novice writer usually tries to create a story sequentially, starting at the beginning and moving toward the end. He starts with a situation he thinks would be exciting—like "Gladiator challenges roman emperor for control of the ancient world," or "Fate of the universe hangs in the balance as star warrior battles evil warlord."—and he tries to build the story from there. It is only in the story-building phase that people get stuck. They don't know what a story is supposed to do, even though they have seen a thousand of them on the screen.

Everyone thinks they have a great idea for a movie, but they expect someone else to figure out the details. Isn't that what you hire screenwriters for? The screenwriter is supposed to go away with your movie idea and magically come back with the sequence of events the movie will follow. But how does the screenwriter do that? What magic is he using to determine the scenes and how they fit together? Even producers and directors often seem mystified by this process, and certainly the average viewer is. They just figure the screenwriter has "talent", which is supposed to explain everything.

What is this talent? Maybe it is just the ability to see the story backwards, from the end to the beginning. If you know what the ending should be, you can construct each scene as a mechanism to carry the viewer there. Great storytelling is an exercise in reverse engineering. You start with the final product—the big payoff—then infer all the steps you need to arrive at that product.

If you go back and look at any good movie you've seen before (like Skyfall), you'll probably begin to see all the back-engineering at work. No detail in the movie is random; each was deliberately chosen or constructed to serve some purpose later in the movie. If the hero finds himself in Istanbul, that's not a random event, even if it seems to be. The filmmakers have placed him there so he can engage in an exciting chase scene across the roofs of the Grand Bazaar. The whole process of getting him to Istanbul was contrived. In fact, most movie scenes can be seen as devices to move the hero into position for his final conflict.

Magicians use this sort of reverse engineering in just about every trick on stage. If a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat, it is not just any hat. It is a specially constructed hat that may have $10,000 worth of sophisticated engineering hidden inside it or beneath the table. But if it looks like an ordinary hat on the outside and the magician treats it like an ordinary hat, people accept it. When the rabbit pops out it seems like, well, magic! What the audience doesn't see is the huge amount of preparation and deliberate design that went into that seemingly innocent chapeau. Movie making is like that. No scene is random, even if it seems so in the movie. It's all a carefully engineered mechanism leading you to the big conflict near the end.

If you think about it, it is completely obvious that movie makers use reverse engineering. If you are going to spend $100 million on an entertainment product, you'll want to control every detail on the screen. You're not going to just choose a castle to film in; you are going to carefully construct the castle with all the dungeons and secret passageways you need to fulfill the needs of the story. Everything in the story is a magician's manipulation to push you toward the desired conclusion.

Yet the audience still falls for it. They are viewing the movie in sequential order, accepting each event at face value as it happens. They don't see the careful engineering that went into every seemingly random occurrence. If the hero ends up in Istanbul, the audience takes it as happenstance, which makes it all the more magical—even plausible—when a chase scene just happens to occur in the most scenic part of the city.

All forms of storytelling are supported by a powerful human delusion: the tendency to accept ordinary-seeming events at face value without considering the storyteller's motives. Swindlers, con artists and entertainers have exploited this weakness since the beginning of time. If a magician shows you a normal-looking hat and treats it as ordinary, people accept it as such, even though they know full well this guy's job is to deceive them. No matter how many movies you go to, you still fall for this ruse. You believe that the sequence of events presented in the screen is natural when it is really just a deliberate set-up for the magic that follows.

When a novice sits down to write a story, he is usually still in the grips of this delusion. He tries to write his story sequentially, naively assuming that's how it's done. He sets his story in Istanbul because he thinks it is a beautiful city with a lot of character, but he doesn't know what to do there. He chooses the setting before he has designed the trick he is going to pull, which is like a magician first going out to buy a hat and only then trying to figure out how to get a rabbit out of it.

Even a story's characters should be reverse engineered. You first decide how the story will be resolved, then you construct the sort of flawed hero who will be most affected by this resolution. You give the hero carefully designed defects so as to make his final triumph all the more powerful. You engineer a supporting cast to give him people to interact with and help illuminate his character. You create characters at the point where they are needed then kill them off as soon as they have served their purpose. Nothing is superfluous or random.

So what is the big payoff the movie is heading toward? It's really quite simple. The hero is going to find a power within him he didn't know he had. At the last moment, just before all is lost, he will have an epiphany which changes his perspective and lets him see his problem in a whole new light. Powering over his own weaknesses, the hero finally takes control of his situation and tries a new approach that's "a long shot but just might work". Everything builds to a final battle. The villain is superhumanly persistent and nearly wins, but the hero calls up his last bit of strength and a secret weapon he has been holding in reserve, which together turn out to be just enough to turn the tide. The villain is stabbed in the heart (or just in the liver if we plan a sequel), and victory is complete.

This standard plot may sound corny, but if it is competently executed, the audience falls for it every time. Even though they've seen this formula countless times, they are still viewing the new movie sequentially and don't perceive the predictable plot ahead. There is something primal in the story of the flawed hero. Overcoming our own flaws is something we all struggle with, and seeing another flawed character pull it off is empowering to us.

The whole rest of the story is concerned with building the environment for the big battle to take place. This involves first creating the battlefield, then creating a monster threat. The story also has to engineer the flaws of the main character so he is exquisitely vulnerable to that threat. If your character is Superman, you have to invent some Kryptonite for him and give his nemesis access to it, but the Kryptonite itself isn't the real issue. Turns out, the hero has major personal problems, and at some point we become disgusted with him. "Don't do that, you idiot!" we want yell at the screen. We don't walk out of the theater because we know he is just like us. By giving the hero flaws, the filmmakers make him one of us. If these are flaws we can imagine in ourselves, they help us bond with the hero and join him for the rest of the journey.

The task of filmmaking—virtual or otherwise—is to implement this formula in a new environment with a new hero and a new kind of threat. Once you decide on these things, you are going to back-engineer the rest of the movie to support the final predictable outcome.

Once you have a satisfying movie in your mind, filming it in real life it is almost trivial. All you need is a few million dollars! Well, at least it isn't a few billion dollars, which is what you might spend if you had to reproduce the whole environment the movie is supposedly set in. That's where special effects can be handy. No sense in building a whole space station, out in space, if you can just model it digitally.

But the most powerful special effect isn't digital. It's a very simple illusion, as old as filmmaking itself—in fact, as old as photography, painting or theatre. When looking at any photo, the viewer naturally assumes that the environment appearing on the edges of the frame extends infinitely in all directions. For example, if you take a picture of twenty people packed together, and some of those people are cut off at the edges of the frame, the viewer naturally assumes there are hundreds of people present, filling whatever space the group is occupying.

That's the core perceptual illusion of all movies, allowing filmmakers to create whole worlds on a limited budget. Show a character interacting with a realistic detail of a space station, and the viewer will assume there's a whole space station beyond the frame. Just cue the viewer in that he's on a space station (perhaps with a painted wide shot of one) and his imagination will fill in the rest.

That's an amazing budget saver! Instead of building a whole space station, you just build a few tiny sections of it. If you have a bigger budget, you can build bigger sections, but it isn't clear that this is more convincing to the audience. The main thing they are focused on is the characters' faces, and there's a natural cropping rectangle where you can see the faces comfortably. If the set is too big, you lose the characters.

The same concept applies to time. Show five-second clip of workers scurrying around the cargo bay of this alleged space station, cut off abruptly at each end, and the viewer will assume these activities have gone on forever and will continue forever after the shot. Likewise, if you show a character drunk just once, without any obvious reason for it, the audience assumes he's an ongoing alcoholic.

Once you have a compelling plot in your head, actual filmmaking is the process of selecting samples of the action to show to the viewer, who will infer the whole. Show bits of the space station, pieces of the character's dysfunction and hints of the impending disaster, and the audience will fill in the rest.

With a great story in your head, you might even be able to film it on a tiny budget. A space station is probably beyond your means, but your resources might support an imaginary world similar to the one you already occupy. The limitations of your resources are always part of the back-engineering process. Professional filmmakers do it all the time: You'd like to film in London, but the budget won't allow it, so you film in your own city and make it look like London, or you change the script to your own city.

Purists are always going to call you out, pointing out the million ways your movie is unrealistic. But it's a movie, for christsakes! It's all fake! All that really matters is that the characters seem real and the action is moving toward that epic battle. If the audience attaches themselves emotionally to your hero, they'll overlook most of the flaws in the rest of your movie.

The only problem with making a movie in your head is no one can see it but you. This may seem like a disadvantage until you realize you can make a LOT of virtual movies in the time it takes a real-world director to make just one. Even the most successful, well-connected directors only produce a few movies in a lifetime. Even if you have unlimited funding, the personal costs are huge. Because so many people are involved, the filmmaker inevitably becomes a social director, getting everyone to work together, and the social aspects of the project end up taking for far more time than actual creating.

Virtual filmmaking has no such social cost. It is 100% creativity! Once you have filmed a movie it your head, you can perhaps nail it down with a few written notes, then instantly move on. While virtual filmmaking does take time (time to think things through), it is nowhere near the time cost of a real movie.

Although no one is seeing the movie but you, you are gaining experience. It's not always as good as "real" experience, but virtual experience still counts for something. That's what "thinking" is all about: gaining personal experience in various possible scenarios without most of the real-world risks or costs. Thinking is a cheap and effective way to model the real world, as long as you test your models against the real world from time to time. Making just a few cheap videos on your own can often give you those data points.

Everyone seems to want a "big break" that will give them the outside resources they think they need to realize their dreams, but very few are really ready to handle it. They haven't fully exploited the resources they already have! $100 million from a major studio comes with some major strings attached, and it doesn't guarantee that you know what you are doing. If you are not ready for it, virtually, your big break can turn into just another form of Hell.

Thinking helps you get ready for high-stakes games you may be playing in the future at relatively low cost. Thinking is cheap, but it's not free. You have to make time for it, and you have to ruthlessly suppress all the spurious distractions that soak up your thinking time. If you've got an iPod in your ear, you're killing your movie. If you want, you can make a couple of movies in your head this weekend, but you have to take the initiative, quit the excuses and start your imaginary filming.

Get off your virtual ass and do it!

Also see my other related essays on creativity:
And these links by others:

Friday, November 30, 2012

Meta-Skills and How to Gain Them

By Glenn Campbell in Istanbul

When you visit a new city, you gain a lot of practical information about it. You learn the main streets, how to navigate the public transit system and what the most interesting areas are. Many of these raw facts may have been available to you on the internet before you left home, but only by going there do you learn how all they all fit together.

If you visit a lot of new cities, you begin to gain a different set of skills. You learn the patterns that most cities follow and the things you can expect from all of them. You also learn general rules for how to approach a new city, so you find the most important parts fast and avoid making costly mistakes. After having visited ten European cities, the eleventh is easy, because you already know how European cities work and have developed a set of cognitive tools for dealing with them.

These higher level rules could be called "meta-skills". A meta-skill is a kernel of pragmatic knowledge that applies to a wide variety of circumstances including ones you have never directly experienced before. Because meta-skills are portable across many environments, they are extremely valuable, much more so than any specific knowledge of a single place or problem.

Life is the process of accumulating meta-skills. Or at least it ought to be. As you gain specific experience in the real world you should be distilling it into universal rules that will help you in a wide variety of endeavors. With a rich toolbox of meta-skills, your passage through life becomes easier. You get more done in areas you know are important and spend less time on meaningless distractions. When new problems arise, even those you have never experienced before, you have a set of tools to deal with them

Meta-skills can help you to understand and deal with other people, even those you have never met before in cultures you have no experience with. One of the great benefits of foreign travel is learning not how people are different but how they are the same. In every culture there are uptight ones and relaxed ones, people you can trust and people you can't. They are all motivated by basically the same things, and you deal with them more effectively by learning how those motivations work everywhere on Earth.

But the most important meta-skills concern yourself. After testing yourself in a variety of circumstances and failing in many of them, you begin to understand your own weaknesses and how you can become your own worst enemy. When disaster befalls you in adulthood, in most cases you can trace it to a foolish mistake you made. Somebody robbed you, but you gave them an easy target. Someone broke your heart, but your own expectations of them were deluded. Understanding how things that happen to you arise from your own actions is a fundamental meta-skill but a remarkably difficult one to learn. All children believe in magic, where the rules of cause and effect are suspended. Maturity is learning to deduce the real underlying mechanisms behind the things that happen to you.

The most valuable meta-skills involve managing your own ego, so it does not distort your vision or lead you to self-sabotage. Ego arises from our personal emotional investments. When we become engaged in a certain path and spend a lot of our resources supporting it, we have made an ego investment. As our investment builds up, seeing things any other way damages our self-esteem and can be extremely painful. If we happen upon a new path better than the one we have already invested in, we are tempted to close our eyes to it, even actively suppress it, because the cost to our past investments is so great. We would rather shoot the messenger than accept the message. Of course, the message will usually come back to haunt us in a different form, but by the time it returns we may have already done great damage to ourselves. Instead of spending two years in a failed marriage we may spend seven years in it because our huge emotional investment in it has disrupted our ability to see what is obvious to everyone else.

The ego management meta-skill lies in correcting for our own inevitable distortions and self-deceptions. After making a number of stupid, disastrous, ego-based decisions, we may learn to recognize our own investment bias, subtract it from our perception and see our own actions as an outsider would. "That's a stupid idea," is something we should learn to tell ourselves without waiting for the world to tell us in a more painful way.

Learning how our own ego works can contribute to the further meta-skill of predicting it in others. Every individual around the world is driven by ego. Each has made his own emotional investments and is very sensitive about any challenges to them. Part of our meta-experience is learning how difficult it is to change these patterns in others. When you meet someone, they have already traveled substantially along their investment path, and it is not usually within your power to change them. Instead, your role is usually to navigate around their sensitivities so as to not trigger a defensive reaction. If you want to get along with humans, from Dakar to Detroit, you learn to tiptoe around their questionable investments and navigate instead to the things you have in common.

Meta-skills are not always easy to put into words. Much of this knowledge is non-verbal and non-shareable. Finding yourself in a new situation, it may remind you of old experiences, so you dredge up that data for relevant lessons. Having had a lot of past experiences gives you a lot of tools to work with. This tends to give a natural advantage to older people, who have had more time to assemble their toolbox, but age isn't the only factor. We know there are plenty of stupid old people and few young ones who learn quickly. As important as raw experience may be, you also have to use it well.

So how do you obtain these tools? What are the meta-skills of learning meta-skills?

First, you need a lot of real-world experiences, because these are the raw materials for all meta-skills. Books, websurfing and formal education can give you a useful body of background knowledge, but that's not the same as firsthand experience. Reading a hundred books about France is no substitute for actually going to France. When you do go, you'll probably find that most of those books were bullshit. They may have been factually accurate but not relevant to life on the ground. Only when you start to personally interact with the world do you have a chance to test your theories and make mistakes, and mistakes are the starting point of all meta-knowledge.

If you are young, you don't have a lot of experiences to draw on, so your logical action is: Go out and get them! Travel is a good source of experiences if you can afford it. If you can't, then try exploring a variety of jobs, people and places within the universe that is accessible to you. When you are young, it is important to have a lot of experiences in a lot of different environments and not get hung up on any one of them. It is fine to experiment with just about anything except fatal risks, addictive drugs and long-term commitments.

People's growth slows when they let themselves get trapped in a single environment and lifestyle. If you spend your whole life in Paris and never leave, you may develop an encyclopedic knowledge of its streets and attractions, but that is not meta-knowledge. It's not helping you with other places and circumstances beyond Paris. To develop meta-skills, at least geographical ones, you need to experiences other cities, and as soon as you do you'll start assembling rules with more universal utility. The funny thing about exploring beyond your home environment is that when you come back you'll start seeing it in a whole new light. If you gain experience in a few other cities and then come back to Paris, you will probably begin to see things there that you never would have noticed otherwise.

But raw experiences aren't everything. You also have to take the time to process those experiences and integrate them into a higher schema. It isn't enough to have things happen to you; you have to spend a lot of time thinking about what has happened to you. If you make a big mistake, as all of us do, you have to turn it over and over in your mind, analyzing it for potential future lessons. We don't learn a lot from our successes but our failures are a gold mine, provided we don't run away from them but distill them for their truth.

To assemble meta-skills, you have to allow yourself a substantial amount of unprogrammed thinking time. Sitting in your room staring at a wall is good. Watching TV or reading a book is not, at least in terms of helping you process past experiences. Learning doesn't come from the experience itself; it comes from analyzing the experience afterwards and distilling lessons from it. This takes time and uninterrupted brainpower. Great revelations about your own past and future can come to you on the train to work, but not if you have an iPod plugged into your ears.

A healthy ratio of processing time to experience time can be huge! It is okay to spend ten hours thinking about a ten second experience if that experience is one you never expected. From the unexpected often comes the most useful meta-knowledge. That's the kind of experience you should go out of your way for! There is little to be gained from going back to somewhere you went before or repeating the same activities you are already familiar with. The greatest learning comes from novel experiences that push you out of your comfort zone. You don't have to push yourself into danger, just out of the path you would normally take. If you have to travel ten times to a distant city, why not take ten different routes? Instead of vacationing in the same place as last year, why not a different place, one that stretches your limits?

Comfort is no friend of growth. You learn a lot more from a painful experience than from one where everything goes as planned, so you shouldn't enter into a new endeavor with the sole aim of "succeeding" at it. The education lies in making the attempt and seeing what happens. Sometimes success can even get in the way of growth, because it can lock you into whatever path you were following at the time it occurred.

If you intend to build meta-skills, you need to judiciously avoid permanent solutions and long-term commitments. If you are already locked into a fixed path, then personal growth can be almost impossible because you can't change course in response to what you learn. It is better to construct your life from a series of short-term, ad-hoc solutions whenever possible. Engaging in any almost any meaningful activity requires some sort of commitment of your future time and attention, but to assimilate whatever you learn along the way you must retain the freedom to change. This is part of what separates people who never learn life's lessons from those who learn them quickly and easily.

Meta-skills involve processing life's lessons on an ever-higher plane. Instead of just learning how one city works, you try to understand how all of them work. Take your experiences with a few people and expand them into universal observations about human behavior. Instead of just asking, "Why did this happen to me?" ask "Why does this happen at all?" and figure out ways to avoid this kind of disaster in the future.

Meta-skills at the highest level are called "wisdom". You gain it by stepping out into the real world, making mistakes and learning from them. There is no wisdom without experience, but the truly wise distill the greatest possible value from every experience, good or bad. The wise also engineer their future experiences to gain even more wisdom.

If you want facts, go to the internet. Wisdom isn't about that. Wisdom is a finely tuned method of processing the world based on past experience. You gain it through real-world engagement and a fair amount of detached meditation. You can live on a mountaintop if you want, but you must also to visit the village and haggle in the marketplace, because those are the places your wisdom comes from.