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.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

How to Become a Great Artist

By Glenn Campbell in Istanbul

How do you become a great artist? This is a frequent preoccupation of young people who feel they are destined for great things but don't know how to go about it. Almost everything you hope to accomplish is an "art". Whether you hope to become a great filmmaker, writer or painter or you just want to make a lot of money in business, there are certain finely tuned skills you need to acquire. How do you go about obtaining them?

To become skilled in his chosen art, the budding artist usually attempts some logical seeming actions:
  1. They buy all the proper supplies and equipment for the art. For example, if you hope to become a great photographer, you first invest in a lot of expensive camera equipment.
  2. They enroll in a course. To become a great photographer, you sign up for a photography class at the local community college.
  3. They seek a patron. You try to find someone with money or connections who will recognize your raw talent and either support you while you are learning or give you the "big break" you need to get attention.
  4. They try to find an environment of like minded people who are also seeking the same skills, who will critique each other and give emotional support to each other on their path to greatness.
These steps seem like they will turn you into a great artist, but in practice they don't work! Why not? Because they tend to distract you from the core requirement of becoming an artist, which is PRACTICING YOUR ART! You have to go out and DO IT, regardless of your equipment or social environment. This is the only way to refine your skills. If you aren't willing to "do" your art—on your own, with the equipment you have, without anyone directing you or giving you praise or guidance—then you aren't going to become a great artist.

To become a great photographer, you need to get out into the real world and start taking photos, right now, with whatever camera you have. You cannot wait for better equipment. You cannot wait for a course to teach you what to do, or a patron or a support group. You have to do it NOW with whatever resources you have or you aren't seriously committed to your art. This is true no matter what your chosen medium may be: You have to do it to get better at it.

There is nothing wrong with having good equipment, but if you find yourself waiting for better equipment before you start your career, then you have fallen into a trap. People like to say, "I'll start taking better photos when I have a better camera," which usually turns into a big fat excuse for never doing it at all. Almost everyone in the modern world has a cellphone camera or equivalent—use that! If your pictures look like crap, it's not the camera's fault; it's your fault for not recognizing the constraints of your medium and tailoring you compositions accordingly. If your cellphone photos are crap, it is pretty much guaranteed your pictures from a $1000 camera will be crap too, because you haven't learned the meta-skill of constantly improving yourself within the resources you currently have.

Every medium and piece of equipment has its constraints and limitations. That is the nature of art: Art is the distillation of the complexities of the world onto a restricted medium. Every great artwork is essentially a cartoon, taking complex ideas and expressing them in a few strokes on a constrained canvas. It is the artist's responsibility to understand the parameters and characteristics of his canvas and adjusting his output accordingly.

It is also tempting to wait for a teacher to tell you what to do. Education will take you through a programmed series of steps over an extended period of time, progressively teaching you the technical skills of your chosen art. The only question is whether this is a better learning method than just taking pictures, looking at the results, adjusting your composition and experimenting with all dials and settings on your camera. In the huge amount of time you spend sitting in class, mostly going through material you are already know, you can usually make a lot more progress on your own. Anything in a textbook is something you can probably pick up on the internet when you are ready to absorb it. The main trouble with classes is they go at the instructor's pace, not yours.

An essential meta-skill of the great artist is to be able to look at his own work, judge it dispassionately, then use that knowledge to improve his own work in the future. No class can teach you this skill, and practice alone won't get you very far unless you have it. "Practice makes perfect," is a false assumption if you don't stop occasionally, look dispassionately at your product and adjust your methods accordingly. Many people practice all their lives at their chosen art and never get better, because they never stop to observe their own work. Once you have the meta-skill of dispassionate self-observation, then all you really need to gain practical skills is to do your art—a lot! New techniques will come to your through experimentation and observation, and over time you will build up an ever growing toolbox of them.

Finding a patron sounds nice, but there aren't many of them around and the competition for access to them is usually intense. If you hope to be a great filmmaker, it would be nice to have a major studio fund your movie idea, but that is about as likely as winning the lottery. In the meantime, if your art really matters to you, you forge ahead. If nothing else, your can make movies with your own video camera, which is far better than anything the earliest filmmakers had. If you can't make one compelling YouTube video after another, without a budget, then frankly you're not a great filmmaker and don't deserve patrons.

The trouble with looking for patrons is the sales effort can end up soaking up all your time and standing in the way of actually practicing your art. There is usually a waiting game involved, and while you are waiting, you are not creating. You also face the frustration of dealing with patrons who are usually clueless about your art. They are businessmen, not artists, and they are usually looking backwards not forward. They are always looking back at the last big thing and trying to reproduce it. They don't have the courage or vision to see the next big thing. Only you can grasp where your art is headed, so you will probably have to prove it without them.

An alternative to trying to find sponsors willing support you on faith is to become damn good at what you do, in fact, and prove it with every artwork. If you paint fantastic pictures, ones that  blow the socks off anyone who looks at them, then sponsorship is less and less important, because the work sells itself. You may have to accept that you have to get to this point on your own, without any outside support. To support yourself while you gain blow-your-socks-off skills, you may have to paint signs or houses for a living. You'll have to be creative about finding things that make money in the real world while allowing you to pursue your chosen art.

Look at that quintessential creative dude, Leonardo da Vinci. Now there's a guy who had a passion for his work regardless of his economic opportunities. He had a few paying gigs—painting Madonnas and portraits of rich people—but you sense that those were just the things he did to pay the rent. Underneath was a real passion to understand and fully exploit every medium he was working in regardless of whether there was a patron willing to support that project. Today, he is known for a multitude of ideas and skills, only a few of which he was ever paid for. That's the way you operate if you truly care about your art. You plow ahead, doing what you need to do to stay alive but not limiting yourself to the narrow needs of your sponsors.

Finally, the young artist is often tempted to join some form of support group. Some aspiring writers in the same city might form a creative writing group where each reads his work aloud and the others critique it. That's another nice-sounding idea that doesn't work in the real world. Soon you are spending most of your time maintaining the organization and less time on actual creation. The quality of the feedback you are getting is also suspect. Each of your critics has his own work to promote, and this bias is going to color his view of yours. Is this useful feedback, or are people just patting each other on the back, telling each other what they want to hear?

People join creative groups because they are lonely, because they want someone to hold their hand on the journey. Unfortunately, creativity is an inherently lonely undertaking. You have to be self-contained and self-motivated if you expect to become great in what you do. It is safe to say that history's greatest writers did not become great by joining writers' groups. Quite the opposite: They tended to lock themselves off from society so they could get things done according to their own muse.

Feedback is certainly helpful when it happens and you can't afford to ignore it, but it has to be honest and unbiased feedback, not a pat on the back from a friend. The fact is, good feedback is very rare in the real world until your final work is released and it is too late. Instead, you have to rely primarily on your meta-skill of self-feedback, looking calmly at your own work and seeing it as it really is.

Becoming great in any art form is a matter of building up a toolbox of both meta- and practical skills. This can only happen by intense, direct, personal experience, coupled with the willingness to look objectively at your own work and modify your techniques accordingly. To modify your techniques, you can't get too invested in the old ones. If you have been painting pictures a certain way for ten years and unexpectedly discover a new technique that is better, you have to be willing to turn on a dime and pick up that new technique, even if it devalues the stuff you have already done.

A committed artist usually looks back on his own past not with reverence but embarrassment. He says, "My god, I can't believe how primitive my work was back then!" Others may not share this sentiment, but it is essential for the artist to continually move on. As he builds his toolbox, old techniques become archaic. Meanwhile, his work gets easier and easier as he spits out more great work with fewer and fewer strokes.

If you are a great artist spewing out great work, day after day, year after year, sooner or later someone will notice. If you are a Leonardo, the market may never fully understand you until you are long dead, but at least you'll sell a few stunning Madonnas here and there.

The old-fashioned way of becoming a great artist is to consistently produce great work. There is no shortcut to getting there. You have to take the time to practice your art and build your toolbox.

For related essays on creativity, see my Virtual Film Studio.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Why They Built The Pyramids... And What It Means For You!

By Glenn Campbell in Istanbul

When looking at the great monuments of prehistory, like the Stonehenge, the Pyramids of Egypt or the monoliths of Easter Island, the first question people ask is, "How were they built?" How did such a technologically primitive people, who hadn't even discovered the wheel, manage to cut and haul those huge stones? Apart from the techniques used, how did a society of farmers find the manpower for the job?

The second question people ask is, "Why were they built?" For this answer, we usually look to religion. Perhaps these monuments honor the society's gods or were vessels to carry the king to the Afterlife. We feel a little smug about it because we obviously don't believe the same things, but we still look to the society's religious beliefs for the motivation behind the monuments.

If a society left no written record, those two questions may be impossible to answer, but they may be the wrong questions anyway. The how and why of Egyptian pyramids don't explain why similar massive monuments turn up everywhere, in every era, whenever a society or individual has excess resources at their disposal. The Aztecs and Mayans, separated from the Egyptians by an ocean, also built pyramids, while Polynesians and Druids seemed to have similar inclinations, just not the same building materials.

Even in the modern world, you see monuments everywhere you go, from the Eiffel Tower to the hopelessly non-utilitarian mansions of the rich. It seems like every old town in Europe has its massive cathedral, sometimes dwarfing the town itself. In these cases, we don't ask, "How were they built?" because we have the written records to show us exactly how it was done. When we ask "Why were they built?" we usually cite some combination of spirituality, patriotism and art appreciate, all of which are well documented by the builders at the time. But the sentiments expressed at the unveiling ceremony may not tell the whole story.  Why does every successful society or individual eventually turn its attention to massive building projects of limited practicality?

This question applies not just to the ancients but to you and me. Admit it: You've got the monument building urge within you, just below the surface. If you win millions of dollars in the lottery tomorrow, you could give it all to charity, but more likely you'd soon be building your own version of a pyramid. At the least, you'd buy yourself a big house far in excess of your needs, and if you had boatloads of cash you'd probably employ architects and contractors to build a specially designed home to your own specifications, a project that could take years. That's not much different than a Pharaoh building a pyramid. But why? Why do we all have the urge to build?

The simple answer: People build monuments to use up their excess resources. In both societies and individuals, resources in excess of ones needs create instabilities and anxieties that seem to be relieved by neutralizing or fully committing the resources. In a nutshell, the main purpose of the Pyramids, Stonehenge and the Easter Island monoliths was to burn off the resource surplus that might otherwise cause instability in the society and anxiety in its leaders.

This idea could be called "Resource Absorption Theory". People engage in big long-term projects to absorb excess resources that might otherwise destabilize their internal economy. The builders always have nobler sounding explanations for what they do, expressed eloquently at the unveiling ceremony, but when you look at all the monuments of human history, you see a more basic motivation that the builders themselves may not acknowledge: Excess resources generate tensions that are most easily relieved by massive long-term resource-zapping projects.

Let's go back to ancient Egypt. The Nile Valley was uncommonly fertile, producing more food than its people needed to survive. This is a good thing, right? Wrong! An excess of resources must have been a great crisis for Egypt's rulers—a source of social instability that was eventually resolved by building ever-bigger pyramids to absorb and neutralize the surplus.

Throughout history, human societies have faced two great problems: a lack of resources and an excess of them. It is easy to understand how a lack of resources can be distressing. People starve, and their desperate struggle for food could make a society unmanageable. But an excess of resources can be even more disruptive. It gives people free time and the opportunity to ask questions, which every ancient ruler knows is bad news. People with too much time on their hands inevitably start challenging the power structure and scheming against their leaders. Excess resources also present a natural temptation to whoever controls them. Money "burning a hole in ones pocket" is a universal human weakness. When you have resources, you are under psychological pressure to spend them, even if you have to make up a meaningless project to do it.

In ancient cultures, excess resources naturally lead to another very simple source of instability: a population explosion. Without any outside controls, an excess of resources naturally results in an increase in population and the classic Malthusian Dilemma: Population expands to absorb all the resources available and the benefits of the surplus are lost. Before birth control technology, the only answer to Malthus was to quickly drain away any excess resources that would lead to a higher population. Starvation is the original form of birth control. In the ancient world, a society couldn't afford to make life too easy for its lower classes or they would procreate wildly. There had to be physical hardship or the population would explode, wiping out all the advantages of prosperity to the upper classes.

If the Nile Valley is producing too much grain, you can't just let the people keep it. You have to take the excess away from the producers and keep them semi-starving so they don't over-procreate. This was accomplished in ancient Egypt with a system of taxation, a technology we all understand. If a farmer is producing twice as much grain as he needs, Pharaoh arranges to take half of it away. This keeps the farmer poor and reduced his family size. It also enriches the Pharaoh and makes him stronger, which is something every leader seems to want.

An ancient king worth his salt is going to want to transfer the excess wealth of the countryside into his own coffers. Pharaoh's only problem, then, is that his granaries are soon overflowing. Grain doesn't keep forever. If it isn't used for something it eventually goes bad or gets eaten by vermin. How is Pharaoh going to use it up before the expiration date?

Many ancient leaders solved this problem by using the grain to raise armies and go to war. War is a handy sink for excess resources that mankind has been using since the dawn of time. But the Egyptians may not have had this option. Perhaps, during Egypt's heyday, there was no nearby culture worth conquering, or maybe they just didn't have the technology for distant campaigns. If war wasn't an option for burning off resources, then the Pharaoh had to turn inward for a solution to his ever-growing surplus.

Huge pyramids did not appear instantly on the Egyptian landscape. They evolved over several millennia, starting no doubt with a pile of stones marking a leaders grave. There are plenty of smaller and older pyramids in Egypt that show us how the artform evolved. Pyramids were like the giant neon signs of Las Vegas. Each new leader tried to outdo his predecessor in gaudy excess. It was an ultimately meaningless competition, but humans have a long history of getting caught up in that sort of nonsense. (See our modern spectator sports for examples.) Give people a race to run, and they'll run it, without asking why.

It may be wrong to assume the Pyramids were built in response to a preexisting religious belief. Instead, the religious beliefs may have evolved alongside each project, helping to justify its existence. Remember that the Pharaoh was the worldly head of his religion. The beliefs were whatever he said they were. Without much written record to refer back to, the convenience of the ruler could easily mold religious teachings.

How were the largest Pyramids built? What were the secret stone moving techniques? We may never know the specifics, but it is safe to assume the greatest engineering minds of Egypt were focused on the problem for thousands of years. Egypt probably had its Einsteins and da Vincis; we just have no record of them. Ancient Egyptians were genetically identical to us, so they probably had a few smart ones among them, along with countless sheep willing to follow the herd.

Why didn't those smart Egyptians also invent the wheel? Maybe they did, but the society as a whole was not open to innovation. In a strictly top-down hierarchy like this, each bureaucrat was probably suspicious of change, which would have been a threat to his own fiefdom. No one had an interest in making life easier for the general population by lightening their load, so the wheel could have been invented many times by many clever people and just never caught on (except, perhaps, in certain aspects of pyramid construction).

Whatever the financial and technological resources were, there was a limit to them. The Egyptian Pyramids grew to a certain height and no further. At that point, all of the excess resources of the society were used up and no bigger pyramids could be constructed. Perhaps we can judge the resources of the whole society by the size of their monuments, just like rings on a tree. They don't seem quite so impressive if we figure Egyptian society was completely focused on this project and nothing else. We can ask "how" about individual projects and might be amazed by their ingenious technology, but the bottom line is that people build gaudy monuments when they have excess resources and stop building when those resources run out. When the system is set in motion, the gaudiness is going expand until all the surplus is absorbed.

Fast-forward to today. Aren't we all afflicted with the Egyptian disease? Don't we all feel the urge to engage in big, open-ended projects whenever we have excess resources? Even a garden is a pyramid of sorts: You commit yourself to tending it every day, and soon all of your free time is gone. You may have a beautiful garden by the end of the season, but think of all the better things you could have done with the time.

It is interesting to watch what modern people do when the come into relative wealth. If you don't have much money, you fantasize about all the amazing things you would do if you had it, but in practice most wealthy people just build gaudy monuments not unlike those of the pharaohs. To see them, drive through the upper class suburbs of any big city. Once you have wealth, the market gives you plenty of ways to squander it. Instead of spending $20 on clothing, you can spend $2000 on a supposedly finer grade of clothing. Instead of living in a 500-square-foot area, you can live in 5000 square feet with an ocean view. People always have a rational-sounding explanation for the additional expenditure, but a more primitive motivation comes first: the urge to neutralize ones excess resources.

Wealthy people do not have a population they are trying to control like the pharaohs, but excess resources still cause internal tensions. If you win the lottery and suddenly find yourself with a million dollars in the bank, those dollars are crying out to you every day, "Spend me!" This sounds like a happy problem, but it isn't. Once you pay off all your debts, having extra money in the bank is a real emotional crisis. If people know you won the lottery, they're going to hit you up for money, offering you countless "investment opportunities". You know there are noble charities you could give to, but which one? You know you could go anywhere, do anything, but where and what? These are stresses you face only when you have excess resources.

Once you have plenty of resources, you discover a dilemma of the wealthy since the beginning of time: Wealth doesn't give your life meaning. In fact, when you are relieved of survival burdens, sudden access to wealth just emphasizes how meaningless your life really is. If you don't have to go work anymore and now have the resources to do anything you want, what are you supposed to do with yourself? You can do all the hedonistic things money is know for—buying luxury goods and traveling First Class to expensive resorts—but these things feel empty and don't last long.

Unless you are uncommonly self-contained and self-directed, excess resources usually lead you to Pharaoh's solution: engaging yourself in some long-term monumental project that seems to offer a spiritual payout far in the future. Your immediate tensions would be resolved if you, say, committed the remaining years of your life and all your available resources to building a massive vessel for your journey into the Afterlife. Barring that, how about building a dream home or having children? Suddenly, all your resources are committed, so you no longer have to worry about how to spend them. You seem to be engaged in a meaningful project and all of your nagging surplus is absorbed.

The only sticking point is whether this vessel you are constructing will actually work as advertised, transporting you to a higher place. That's where faith comes in. The main role of religion throughout the ages is to justify the emotional investments people have already made. We can try to decode the hieroglyphics to figure out how the Egyptian faith worked, but basically it was a set of expedient beliefs evolved over time to reduce the leaders' private anxiety and justify their massive personal projects.

If you don't happen to have faith, maybe a monumental project isn't such a good idea. Maybe you should invest yourself in smaller projects that can be modified more easily. That way, when new information comes to you—about the Afterlife or your role on Earth—you aren't already committed to a big project leading you in a different direction.

No one really knows if the pharaohs ever got to that special Afterlife they were seeking or if their pyramid helped them get there. None have reported back so far. But if we look at these projects on purely earthly terms, they were a tragic waste. You can't say that the Egyptians made any huge contributions to world civilization along the lines of, say, the Romans. If all of their resources were focused on these simplistic projects, nothing else could get done and no real internal growth could take place.

The same can be said about modern humans and their self-imposed monumental projects. Building a dream home with your lottery winnings may seem like a happy undertaking until you realize all the better things you could have done with the resources. Money isn't the most valuable resource, especially when you have enough of it. Time is. Time is non-renewable, and there is no lottery to give you more. If you devote three years to building your dream home, is the dream really worth the three years you have lost?

You're already three years closer to the Afterlife. Shouldn't you be worrying about that instead?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Skyfall: Embracing the Flawed Hero

By Glenn Campbell in Rock Springs, Wyoming

I saw Skyfall last night. Instead of giving it stars or telling you whether you should see it, I want to describe how this movie is different from the other Bond films and what it means in the evolution of movie making.

First, here is what has NOT changed: the preposterous plot, the physically impossible chase scenes, the impossibly beautiful Bond girls, the explosions, the exotic (and clearly photoshopped) locations around the globe, the world-threatening evil genius villain in his secret island lair, the high body count, the endless henchmen with no fear whatsoever (No matter how many of them you kill, the others never lose their nerve.), the thousands of bullets fired, all of which happen to miss Bond and the primary characters except when critical to the story. And, of course, the villain captures Bond, shows him his lair, reveals his diabolical plan BUT DOESN'T KILL BOND WHEN HE HAS THE CHANCE.

The really amazing thing is that none of this matters. It's still a riveting movie that held me for nearly two and a half hours—and I want to see it again!

Skyfall works because the filmmakers have finally discovered the magic formula that resonates with the audience. It's not the special effects that make the movie but the human story at the center of it. Frankly, it's a story repeated in hundreds of other movies in recent years; yet I and the rest of the audience never seem to get enough of it. It is the story of the flawed hero and how he overcomes his own weaknesses.

The formula works because it is the story of all of us. We are all flawed characters and we know it. We are trapped in our own weaknesses, and seeing another character overcome his gives us power. It is the struggle we all must go through if we hope to overcome our own demons. Seeing a movie character do it makes us thinks we have hope ourselves.

The critical difference between this Bond film and the 22 that went before—even the Daniel Craig ones—is the filmmakers of this big budget franchise have finally learned to give their hero flaws. This bond is an alcoholic and drug abuser. He fails every qualification test the Ministry of Defense throws at him. Bond and the audience are repeatedly reminded that he's a washed up has-been. This is SO critical to the story, because now the hero's main opponent is himself. Sure there's a villain, but he is mainly a device to give the hero a chance to prove himself. The hero will defeat the villain only by rethinking the problem and taking control of his own situation.

Commercial movie making has been around for a century now, but the notion of a flawed hero is a relatively recent technological innovation. In the beginning, the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black, and there was no real attempt to explain either one. It took the better part of a century for the business to come around to the notion that the flaws make the character. It's not enough for the hero to be good; he has to be battling with the dark side. It's not enough for the villain to be bad; we have to have some sympathy for him and some understanding for how he went bad.

Novelists, screenwriters and directors may have always known this. Flawed movie heroes have been around for decades, but you usually had the sense that the moneymaking side of the business was never quite on board. The bigger the budget got, the blander the hero, as if the money side of the business didn't want to take the risk of letting the hero show his weakness.

This was certainly true of the Bond films, where the hero was always larger than life. He took his martini shaken not stirred yet never had to struggle with alcoholism. We look back on these movies and see them as cartoons, which was apparently what the audience wanted at the time. Part of what has changed now is the audience. It, too, has evolved. It is more willing now to pay money to explore the darker nature of life, so long as the hero still wins in the end. Skyfall released in the 1960s would have probably been just too dark. You mean Bond isn't the perfect Cold War hero? It would have left audiences scratching their heads.

Now everyone seems to be on board with character dysfunction: the filmmakers, the audience, the money. The hero has to have flaws. He has to be battling himself. We still expect a semi-saccharine ending where the good guys win at least the major battle, but getting there can be a lot more messy, like life itself.

Even the villain now has flaws—defects in his evilness. Part of the joy of Skyfall is watching the sympathetic quirks of Javiar Bardem. He's not a cartoon villain with an eye patch stroking a kitty. He's got depth and a healthy dose of comic irony. His evilness is so much more intriguing when we know why he went bad and can almost sympathize with him. For sure, he is capable of superhuman things when pursuing the hero, but at the core he is just another tortured Bond who took a different path.

The fact that Bond now has flaws does not turn us away from him. On the contrary, it makes us care! Once we become attached to the hero, then we are willing to accept all the absurdities of the rest of the story. We know we're on an amusement park ride and have a pretty good sense of how the story is going to unfold, but the formula doesn't matter. We still enjoy the ride. Once we care about Bond and see him as a reflection of our own flawed selves, then we are willing to sit still for the rest of the manipulation.

The filmmakers also deserve credit for turning every Bond cliche on its head. Everyone knows the Bond formula, so it's a pleasure to see it twisted around at every turn. Yes, the villain has his own private island, but its not the one you would expect. I want to see the movie again just to drink in all the subtleties and inside jokes.

It's not much of a spoiler to tell you what is going to happen. After a series of expanding disasters, it is going to seem like the villain holds all the cards. Catastrophe and bad luck pile up against the hero until it seems there is no way out. The villain has nearly won, and the good guy is doomed. Then the good guy finds some inner strength he didn't know he had. He chooses to take control of the situation, power over his own flaws and move the playing field to his own turf. Then there's an epic final battle. Henchmen are killed off until there's just the good guy and the bad guy. The good guy uses his last ounce of hidden strength to personally put a dagger in the bad guy's heart. Loose ends are wrapped up. The End.

That's the plot. It's always the plot. It doesn't matter how many times it is repeated; as long as we care about the hero and see him as a flawed stand-in for ourselves, we'll make the journey with him. The secret for the filmmakers is they have to take the time to establish this relationship. The explosions and final battle wouldn't be as exciting if we hadn't seen Bond fail all his tests at MoD.

It's all absurd, of course. An amusement park thrill ride. I usually don't go in for these things if they are just going to twist me around on a predictable path. But give me a character I care about, loaded with realistic flaws I can identify with, and I'll gladly shell out 9 bucks for the ride. Maybe even take it again.

Also see my related essays on creativity: