Playlist of the Week

Cesaria Evora – Sodade
Youssou N’Dour ft. Neneh Cherry – 7 seconds
Salif Keita – Africa
Ladysmith Black Mambazo – Homeless
I.K. Dairo – Mo Sorire
King Sunny Ade – Ja Funmi
Angelique Kidjo – Agolo
Sonny Okosun – African Soldier
Rim Kwaku Obeng  – Sunkwa
William Onyeabor – When the Going is Smooth & Good

This week’s playlist is available on iTunes and Spotify. I hope you enjoy it. 

Angela Chen on Personality Tests

To know a label is not to know a person, according to Northwestern University psychologist Daniel McAdams. No understanding of a person is adequate without these traits, but alone they yield little beyond a “psychology of the stranger.” To truly know a person, argues McAdams, is to understand their goals, defense mechanisms, coping strategies, and skills—none of which are easily compressed into a questionnaire. There’s a final level needed to understand others: how they see themselves, the events of their lives, their personal narrative.

Understanding that narrative is difficult. It takes time. “Life is complex and hard—you know that,” Roberts says to me. “How many people do you have to deal with on a daily basis? Of course we look for simplicity in everything we do, but that comes at a cost.” His team is constantly surprised by people’s desire for self-knowledge. They slap an in-progress test on a website, and six months later twenty thousand people have visited in hopes of gaining just a little more insight.

We have always tried to boil people down any way we can: by gender, by race, by income, by personality. Though personality tests began as top-down tools for institutions, they are now firmly entrenched in popular culture. They beckon from magazines and websites, promising a new opportunity for self-knowledge, one that is just about us—even though the academic field is still focused on trends and groups and doesn’t necessarily translate into better understanding of individuals. That’s the funny paradox about personality tests. They are a means to feel understood and, at the same time, the exact opposite: a way to be stripped to our most bare, obvious parts, with most of you not seen at all. The push for personality typing will continue, but our job is to remember that people are messy, strangers even to ourselves. We can be categorized but never perfectly, given a type but never wholly reduced.

Read full length here

Angela Chen is a science journalist and writer. Her first book, ACE, is forthcoming from Beacon Press

Daniel Dennet Echoing Sturgeon’s Law

…A good moral to draw from this observation is that when you want to criticize a field, a genre, a discipline, an art form,… don’t waste your time and ours hooting at the crap! Go after the good stuff, or leave it alone. This advice is often ignored by ideologues intent on destroying the reputation of analytic philosophy, evolutionary psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology, macroeconomics, plastic surgery, improvisational theater, television sitcoms, philosophical theology, massage therapy, you name it. Let’s stipulate at the outset that there is a great deal of deplorable, stupid, second-rate stuff out there, of all sorts. Now, in order not to waste your time and try our patience, make sure you concentrate on the best stuff you can find, the flagship examples extolled by the leaders in the field, the prize-winning entries, not the dregs. – Daniel Dennet

Daniel Clement Dennett III is an American philosopher, writer, and cognitive scientist.

Nadia Eghbal on the Independent Researcher

Adarsh Pandit recently introduced me to the concept of the “gentleman scientist”: a researcher who funds their work independently. After digging around a bit, I was fascinated to learn that independent researchers were fairly common in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Many researchers were personally wealthy or had access to deep pockets. Charles Darwin pursued scientific collection as a hobby, and his first voyage on HMS Beagle was funded by his family. James Prescott Joule, after whom the joule is named, was “scientifically self-taught”, doing research in his off-hours at the family brewery. And in the 1930s, Alfred Lee Loomis used his Wall Street wealth to start a laboratory in his mansion, nicknamed “The Palace of Science”, where physicists like Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Enrico Fermi collaborated.

These days, if you say you work in research, most people assume you work in academia. But it’s sort of odd that we assume you need someone’s permission to do research. There’s no reason that universities need to be the gatekeepers of exploring and developing new ideas.

Read full length here

Nadia Eghbal is a researcher at Protocol Labs where she explores the production and economic models behind open source software.

Frank Zappa on Parenting

What have you said to your kids about drugs?

All I told them was, “You see examples of drug-crazed people on television and all you have to do is look at those assholes.” They get the point. The biggest thing you can do for kids is to give them the ability to figure things out. I use a risk-reward program. One of my kids comes to me and tells me he or she wants to do something. I say no if I don’t think it’s a good idea. If they can convince me, logically, that I’m wrong, they get to do it.

You’re creating your worst nightmare: a house full of lawyers.

I don’t think we have to worry about any of them becoming lawyers. But it does help to develop reasoning and communication skills–you might even call it sales skills–to manage to get your way in a fast and efficient manner. I don’t think it hurts. Look at the alternative: They could go “Wah-wah-wah” or break things, or sneak. We don’t have very much in the way of tantrums or sneakage problems.

I look at kids as little people. The little people have certain assets and liabilities. They’re born with an unbound imagination. They’re born without fear and prejudice. On the other hand, they don’t have the mechanical skills to do big-person stuff. But if you treat them like people, they’ll learn. If you think of them as your precious little commodities and you want to mold them and shape them into something that you imagine for them, it breeds problems.

You obviously don’t buy the argument that you have to give your kids something to rebel against.

Well, my children certainly have decided not to grow up like me. They don’t smoke. They don’t eat hamburgers or bacon. They find their own way. I just want to keep them out of trouble and make sure that they can get to adulthood with some sort of marketable skill and a chance for a happy life on their own terms. I don’t want them to be like me or like Gail. They should be like them. And they should be as well equipped to be themselves as possible. As parents, we have to do everything to give them the equipment to be themselves so that when they go out into the world they can maintain their identity and still survive.

Read the full interview here

Frank Vincent Zappa was an American musician, composer, activist, and filmmaker.

Josh Waitzkin on Intuition and Open-mindedness In your book, “The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance,” you shared your life experiences and lessons learned. Do you find that you are learning new methods and philosophies as you acquired knowledge in the martial arts (Tai Chi and Jiu-Jitsu) and writing — or do you simply see a common link in those endeavors to chess?

Waitzkin: Both. I am learning new ideas and refining my methods every day. Early in my martial arts life, I had this exciting experience of transferring my chess ideas over into a physical discipline. The two arts became one in my mind and it felt like I was taking my level of Quality from one discipline and just transferring it over to another.

There was one moment in particular when I was giving a 40 board simultaneous chess exhibition in Memphis, and I realized about halfway in that I wasn’t thinking in chess language. I was feeling flow, filling space left behind, riding the energetic wave of the game like I had been doing in Tai Chi Push Hands practice for the past two years. I was winning chess games without playing chess. It was this experience that first inspired me to write my book.

To be honest, I don’t think the link is between any two or three pursuits. It is not something specific to chess, Tai Chi, and Jiu-Jitsu. There is a thematic interconnectedness of all disciplines, and if we get good at sensing and working with those connections, the learning process can become incredibly exciting. Of course, that is very abstract and much of what I tried to do in The Art of Learning is to break down my experience into a systematic methodology—but not a cookie cutter mold. A key first step is to develop a working relationship with your intuition, so your learning process is led by your uniquely nuanced creative leaps. Our minds are all different and I believe cultivating a keen introspective sensitivity is absolutely essential in discovering our potential. You mentioned having a beginner’s mind. Would you elaborate on this wonderfully intriguing idea?

Waitzkin: Of course. This is an old Buddhist idea with tremendous potency. We must maintain a malleable mindset that allows up to embrace new ideas and admit our mistakes as a way of life. All growth is born out of struggle and error, and closing our minds to our imperfections is paralyzing.

It is easy to have a beginner’s mind when we are a beginner—the real challenge comes when we have become successful, people stroke our egos, we have a reputation to defend. Time and again people get locked up in the learning process by the need to look like they have all the answers. The martial arts world is riddled with this problem. People train with great intensity for many years. Then they open up a school. Their students call them “Master” and put them up on a pedestal. Suddenly this teacher stops training because he does not want to expose his weakness to his students. He puts on a robe, puffs out his chest, and walks around the school telling people what to do. Years pass and this man is living in direct opposition to what made him great in the first place. The societal tragedy of this phenomenon is that our highly trained minds could make such valuable contributions if they didn’t get locked up by ego. Think about how many academics spend all their time defending their little patch of intellectual territory instead of welcoming in and creating new ideas. The scientific world has been frozen for decades time and again by those who frantically try to defend the old manner of thinking because they have based their careers on it. The movement from Newtonian to Quantum Physics is a good example of this. A more current one is the decades of resistance to transitioning from a localized vision of the brain towards the thrilling new work on neural plasticity.

On both an individual and cultural level, I believe an open-mindedness to our fallibility can be incredibly liberating and a rich source of suppressed creativity.

Read the full interview here

Joshua Waitzkin is an American chess player, martial arts competitor, and author.

Playlist of the Week

Kanye West   –   Diamonds from Sierra Leone
MARINA   –   Savages
Michael Jackson –  They Don’t Care About Us
MILCK   –   Quiet
Vic Mensa, Ty Dolla $ign   –   We Could be Free
Moddi   –   A Matter of Habit
Melody Gardot   –   Preacherman
Bob Marley & The Wailers  –   Natural Mystic
Nina Simone   –   Strange Fruits
Fela   –   Zombie

This week’s playlist is available on iTunes and Spotify. I hope you enjoy it. 

Quentin Crisp on Lifestyle

Quentin Crisp is precise in his thinking and expresses it elegantly.

The search for a life-style involves a journey to the interior. This is not altogether a pleasant experience, because you not only have to take stock of what you consider your assets but you also have to take a long look at what your friends call “the trouble with you.” Nevertheless, the journey is worth making.

Meghan Daum’s Advice to Writers

What does your process look like? How do you know when you have material for an essay? Do you start with a theme? Or do they evolve on their own?

Usually, I start from the place of something that’s obsessing me, something I can’t stop chewing on or thinking about. Like I said, it’s usually an idea, since I’m an idea person more than a story person. I’ll think this is something that might be interesting to write about and then I’ll just keep it rolling around in my mind for a few weeks or months (or sometimes years!) until I figure out how I might work with it in an essay. Unless I’m on a tight deadline or doing something very assignment-based, I generally don’t sit down to write something until I have at least a vague sense of how I can express a certain idea or set of ideas in a way that hasn’t been done before. I want to offer the reader something new. Even if I don’t necessarily know where I’m going to land, I want to be able to invite the reader to think alongside me as I ruminate about the topic at hand. The important thing, though (and this goes back to the question of how to avoid solipsism) is to have those ideas pretty well baked before you declare yourself finished. You want to present the reader with something that’s been carefully considered, that shows craftsmanship, that’s polished, that offers a coherent assemblage of thoughts. This is especially true when you’re writing personal essays. You want your reader to trust that you know what you’re doing, that you’re under control and not just spewing all over the page. Otherwise, you’re just confessing to the reader and leaving the reader holding the bag of all your messy emotions and half-formed theories of life. To me, that’s simply not fair to the reader. That’s an imposition. In some cases, it feels almost like what you might call a literary emotional hijacking. Don’t do it!

What advice would you give to aspiring writers or essayist?

My advice to writers, especially in this moment, is to write from a place of intellectual honesty. Dig deep into your mind for what you think and feel and offer that up in as precise and rich a way as possible. If what you think and feel is slightly controversial, all the better! We’re in a bizarre and often really depressing moment right now where social media is largely dictating a certain set of narratives and, in extreme cases, ganging up on people who diverge from them. I’ve written about the demise of nuance in the public discourse, about this strange resistance to gray areas or granting people and issues their complications. That to me is deadly. Denying people their complications is denying them their humanity. Denying yourself the right to explore complicated and controversial issues on the page is, frankly, shirking your responsibility as a writer. So my advice is this: take responsibility. Notice I did not say, “be brave.” Yes, we should be brave as writers and be fearless in sharing our stories and ideas. But the “brave” trope strikes me as a little redundant. If you’re a writer, it’s your job to take on this responsibility. So, don’t be brave. Do your job!

Read full length here

Meghan Daum is an American author, essayist, and journalist