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    • The murder of two NY policemen in retaliation—
      at least ostensibly for the police murders of Garner and Brown has ignited a frenzy.   The murderer, Brinsley, was a violent man who had committed other crimes. I will simply note that such tragic events are the inevitable result of systemic injustice.  Those who wish less murders, should work for justice. That includes police.   [...]
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Convergence: Negative Capability

How can a poor consumptive Romantic change the world?

What do John Keats, Roberto Unger, Steve Jobs, JRR Tolkien and Occupy Wall Street have in common?  Heck if I know but I’m going to guess it is something close to a concept that Keats came up with called “negative capability”.  Here is how he describes the concept with respect to the works of Shakespeare:

‘The concept of Negative Capability is the ability to contemplate the world without the desire to try and reconcile contradictory aspects or fit it into closed and rational systems.’
[…]
‘At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously- I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’

I don’t think he meant to throw away reason because that would make the world incomprehensible.  We have too many instances of the religious right in this country dispensing with any kind of rational thought to the point where they believe anything they’re told.

What I think Keats meant is that negative capability exists beyond the structures and institutions we live in.  Maybe Robert Kennedy had a good sense of it when he said:

“There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

Negative capability is linked to creativity.  It is an openness to experience without conventional limitations.  It has also been linked to conflict because it relies on uncertainty.  I wouldn’t call it conflict so much as a high energy state.  When we are confined by rules, convention, expectations, we are in a low energy state.  Our world is constructed for us and we merely live in it.  Don’t push the envelope, don’t rock the boat.

Roberto Unger made a glancing reference to negative capability in that short video I posted yesterday.  His idea is that by defeating Obama, we push ourselves into a high energy state and force ourselves into uncertainty where we must confront conflict and resolve it by looking for opportunities that exist beyond our current framework.  I think this is very exciting as well as scary as all hell.  It’s a bit like doing a hard reset on your computer when it goes all wonky on you.  You’re pretty sure it will work after it comes up again but you don’t know how much stuff will be erased in the meantime.

The others that I mentioned also show the power of negative capability.  Steve Jobs had a couple of outstanding quotes that demonstrate this:

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it” and “People who are serious about software should make their own hardware.”

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

Of course, Steve was all about execution as well.  Make sure the insides are as beautiful as the outsides.

I think JRR Tolkien was onto negative capability as well.  He gives his characters goals but he also gives them advice about being open to the people you might meet along the way and to not to allow others to shape your future but to be receptive to opportunities.  He invented the concept called the “eucatastrophe”.  That is the idea that germs of something good can be found in what initially looks like a fiasco.  Openness and receptivity are essential for making your way out of a catastrophe.

And then there is Occupy Wall Street which has a freer form.  It is coming into existence without much of a framework.  And while it is going to hit a lot more bumps in the road, it has already made a significant impact on our national dialogue by being able to shift, change, evolve and take advantage of opportunities.  A year ago, we didn’t even know what the 99% were and now we are one.

Anyway, I just thought I’d leave you all with that at the beginning of the week.  “Not all those who wander are lost.”  The world isn’t going to end no matter how bad things get.

And it is OK to not go along with the program in 2012.

*************************

Some scenes from the 2009 movie Bright Star about John Keats’ short life and relationship with Fanny Brawne. Highly recommended.

Who here thinks creativity is easy?

You’ve probably seen this ad in the past couple of days.  I really loved it, although I’m not sure who at Intel approved of it:

I know the guy who invented one of the most widely used anti-depressants in history.  The company that he worked for bought his patent for a buck and is reaping in billions every year- well, for the time being anyway.  And what did Morris get?  Well, other than a pretty nice bonus, he gets fan mail.  He get letters from people who thank him for saving them from the wreckage of their minds.  Now, some of you may scoff haughtily at the notion of an anti-depressant, assuming (wrongly) that most people who take them don’t need them.  I might agree that they are overprescribed but the thing is, if you are one of the people who can pull yourself together under their influence in a way you can’t do without them, you probably aren’t terribly interested in the superior minded folks who tell you that there’s nothing wrong with feeling that there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.  Ever.  For day after day, year after year.  Well, you get the picture.

Yeah, Morris gets fan mail.  I don’t know how these people tracked him down but they did.  He’s a rockstar.

Last week, Don Draper, the Creative Director of Mad Men’s Sterling-Cooper, told his protege that she wasn’t an artist, she solves problems.  Those of us who work in creative fields like processor design, drug design, even auto-mechanics, are problem solvers.

Those who work in the insurance industry and the finance industry are NOT problem solvers.  I think this point was lost on the folks at Planet Money recently.  Ya’know, back when the Financial Meltdown of 2008 was young, Planet Money was a great little podcast.  It explained how all of the moving pieces meshed together.  The few missteps in the beginning when Adam Davidson told us all not to get too mad at the bonus structure of the bailed out companies were naive but we could overlook them.  Then came that cringeworthy interview he had with Elizabeth Warren and it all started going rapidly downhill from there.  The latest stupidity has spread from Adam to Alex Blumberg.  God, I had such high hopes for him.  One of the recent podcasts extolling finance as the “geniuses” behind every new innovation that has made our lives better has really taken the shine off of him for me.

Oh, sure, the moneybags have financed a lot of good stuff but there have been plenty of things that never got off the ground or have been hopelessly stalled.  Take stem cell research for example.  I guess it depends on the religious mindset of who is actually holding the moneybags.  Or the fact that back in the 90’s, Apple nearly went out of business when all of the big corporations gave lifetime employment to the IT nazis when they bought PCs that ran nothing but Windows.  We are all going to be paying for that  non-diversification of the the desktop for a lifetime.  Or the fact that our financial wizards can not think beyond 3 months, which is forcing a lot of companies to merge, cut their workforces or get gobbled up by private equity.  Or the fact that so many small businesses can’t get loans because all of the bankers who Adam Davidson insists we just had to save are sitting on big piles of money because they refuse to divest themselves of their bad assets.  Yes! Let’s hear it for our financial braintrusts!

How frickin’ clueless can you get?  I’ll answer that: pretty clueless, especially if you’ve never seen real creation at work.  Some of our corporate overlords have this fantastic notion in their overblown egos that the companies they pilot would sink without their skills.  The R&D people make note of this all of the time.  Yes, we can be replaced by cheaper Ajay Bhatts in Hyderabad but real creativity doesn’t come by swapping out parts.  It takes a certain environment.  Malcolm Gladwell touched on this in his most recent book, Outliers, when he describes the characteristics of successful people.  Your native intelligence can only take you so far.  Other things have to come into play, like how effectively your family advocates for you at school, opportunity and location and something that most of us in America overlook- how hierarchically our society is structured.  It turns out that in highly hierarchical societies, creativity and problem solving is squelched, sometimes with disastrously fatal results.

The grumbling of the problem solvers is starting to make noise.  At least we, the R&D people are starting to hear it from each other.   A real resentment is starting to simmer about how the corporate people think their s%^& doesn’t smell because they don’t have to spend their days in the labs touching things with their hands.  Their salaries and bonuses match their egos.  The newest thing is a management development program where the trainer encourages the non-corporate types to use the same meaningless biz-speak jargon to communicate with the “people who have the money”.  See, if you use the latest trendy word combination, they are more likely to listen to what you have to say.  You put it in a context they can understand, even if the rest of your presentation is completely over their heads.  Someone tried to convince me the other day that this was a good idea.  It’s not.  There are studies that show that the more jargon a business uses, the more poorly run it is, a prediction made by Richard Mitchell, the Underground Grammarian in his book Less Than Words Can Say three decades ago.    I don’t think I have an obligation to contribute to my own demise.

I worry about a country that had a cornucopia of innovation in the past is now facing its biggest creative crisis.  This country is becoming more hierarchical all of the time while it is also becoming less able to cope with the demands of new technology and how to solve problems with it.  It doesn’t help that our nation’s teachers blame everyone but themselves for their poor preparation.  Yes, if we would only pay them better, they would learn this stuff like every other advanced industrialized nation’s teachers that use standardized testing.  Well, not to worry.  At the rate things are going, there will soon be a glut of highly educated future teachers on the market who will be fluent in advanced mathematics and science.  When the creative types finally lose their jobs because they can’t convince the “people who have the money” that solving problems is worth a damn, they can take a crack at the classroom for a little less money but summers off.

They might not have fan mail, but at least they’ll have a union.

Catch more on the battle of the creatives vs the hierarchy on Mad Men tonight at 10PM EST on AMC.

PS.  Thank someone who solves a problem for you tomorrow.  We need to start a movement.

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