May 21, 2020

Hate Your Voice? The Science of Self-Induced Cringe

It’s no secret that most people don’t like to hear themselves recorded (casually speaking at least), but why is that? Why do we cringe when we hear our voices played back, but don’t have the same reaction to say, looking in the mirror?

The Common Assumption

According to Philip Jaekl writing for The Guardian, the most common reason for why we tend to dislike the sounds of our voice is because, when we talk “we receive both sound transferred to our ears externally by air conduction and sound transferred internally through our bones. This bone conduction of sound delivers rich low frequencies that are not included in air-conducted vocal sound.”

You could liken this to when your neighbors turn up the music too loud (or you do this to your neighbors). You might barely hear the words or most of the track carried through some frequencies, but you most definitely feel other frequencies like the bass coming through the walls and floor. That’s your particular experience of the song, but not what it actually sounds like.

But depending on your recording device, it might not pick up the lower frequencies that make our voice sound “fuller” like those that come from our chest. So what you end up hearing are the higher parts that make you sound a lot different than what you’d expect.

We judge like we think we’ll be judged

That said, it seems there’s more to our revulsion than just the physical aspect. There’s an element of social perception that plays a part. Jaekl refers to psychologists Phil Holzemann and Clyde Rousey, who concluded in the ‘60s that we get disturbed by our voice because of the things we might have implied  even if we didn’t intend to say them:

“The disruption and defensive experience are a response to a sudden confrontation with expressive qualities in the voice which the subject had not intended to express and which, until that moment, [s]he was not aware [s]he had expressed.”

In short, we thought we were signaling certain traits we hoped we embodied, but when we hear ourselves again and all the little nuances we never noticed (you ever zoom in on a super high-def image of yourself?), we’re worried about how we’ll come off to others.

According to McGill Neuroscientist Marc Pell, also quoted in The Guardian article, “we may go through the automatic process of evaluating our own voice in the way we routinely do with other people’s voices […] I think we then compare our own impressions of the voice to how other people must evaluate us socially.”

Words unspoken: paralanguage

To simplify, the things we pick up on and nitpick in our recorded voices are all part of our paralanguage, which is concerned with how not what things are said. These paralingistic features include:

  • Accent
  • Pitch
  • Volume
  • Speech rate
  • Modulation (shaping your voice, such as with a loud whisper)
  • Fluency

If you’ve ever taken issue with your accent, nasality or a speech impediment, they likely are connected to how you worry those features are perceived against what’s considered normal.

Still don’t like the sound of your voice?

You might not always have to hear the sound of your recorded voice all the time (especially unenhanced), but with the increase in online voice chats, there’s a high chance people are going to be hearing your voice through technology that just doesn’t do you justice. What can you do?

  • Reread the above: after all, the version of your voice you don’t like is being distorted by a piece of tech that doesn’t reflect how you truly sound. What’s more is that the resulting discomfort likely is all in your head in that people probably aren’t as critical of your voice as you are (but they’re probably critical of their own).
  • Forgive yourself: your voice is distinct, much like how you physically look. You can certainly take steps to make changes, but the essence is something you should embrace. You can’t change your frame, so why try and change the basic quality of your voice?
  • Thoughtful choices: continuing with the physical vs. vocal analogy, you can make thoughtful choices in clothes that flatter your body type if you wanted to. If you think of the way you speak similar to the way you dress, then you can take more care of that too. Slow down, speak clearly, simplify your words, or experiment with “styling” your voice.

 

April 16, 2020

Redefining Productivity at Home

When it seems that so much of the world has slowed down and become less productive, some of us are using any extra time gained to pressure ourselves into doing more than we might have managed before the pandemic. We break down why this newfound time is important, but not necessarily for doing more.

What is productivity anyway?

We’re already well acquainted with the discussion of productivity and being productive blended in with more casually-worded aspirations of ‘hustle’ and ‘gettin’ it,’ but we can’t address productivity without pinning down what that entails.

  • The Cultural Mindset: always be working and bettering yourself, making the best of our time. In many cultural contexts, that also means demonstrating those values by constantly doing or saying (loudly, if possible).
  • The Output: the number of results produced, or depending on your work culture, your number of results produced per period of time. This output is what we try to increase when we try to apply hacks or productivity systems.

Why we’re still saturating our time

Before the COVID-19 pandemic ced us all to go out less, we were constantly trying to make every waking moment productive. Even now, for many creatives, freelancers and other workers that can have the flexibility to work from home, our obsession with saturating our time has bled over into our new routine.

  • Our work culture: we’ve only been working from home from anywhere between a few weeks, but even a few months of comparative down time can’t overwrite the decade of the “rise and grind” mindset that’s defined our relationship with our official and personal work.
  • The Internet: even when it seems most of society is dutifully staying inside, it doesn’t stop the Internet and social media from transmitting FOMO from there either. As all the newly graduated home-schooled bakers would have us believe, they’re acquiring new skills in their free time (which is great, but the issue is you think maybe you should too).
  • Lack of self-control: all of our productivity systems and hacks have the goal of at least saving time on individual tasks. But even when we were able to save ourselves time through these measures in the past, what did we end up doing with the time gained? We inevitably filled it with more tasks that might not all be essential.

In an article for The New Republic, Nick Martin contextualizes the issue within the new normal: “This mind-set is the natural endpoint of America’s hustle culture — the idea that every nanosecond of our lives must be commodified and pointed toward profit and self-improvement,” he writes. “And in a literal pandemic, as millions of us are trying to practice home isolation while also attending to the needs of our families and communities, the obscenity of pretending that work and ‘the self’ are the only things that matter—or even exist—becomes harder to ignore.”

We’re not retirees, but we can still get restless

Retirement is probably the last thing we’re thinking about right now and for those who’ve accepted we’ll be likely working forever, it may never cross our minds. But one common issue among retirees and those who experience sudden and dramatic increases in free time is that they’re not always happier with the sudden freedom. The problem is that many are experiencing related degrees of anxiety and even depression well before that far-off chapter arrives because we’re similarly worrying about this new free time with respects to:

  • Our Value: the uncertainty of this situation is understandably giving us stress over employment, especially when it comes to our value during and after things improve in a recovering economy. And aside from our utility in the economy, this situation may also alter our place in society’s future priorities (such as for those who organize live music events).
  • Our Mastery: as humans, we may get listless when we’re not putting our skills and capacities to work (not necessarily for someone else, just in general). While technology has allowed us to do a great number of things from home, it doesn’t cover everything and not being able to access those outlets can cause us to stress out as cabin fever gets worse.

Knowing where our stress is coming from and what’s causing it can help us at least turn it into something that’s comprehensible and (for lack of a better word) actionable, as opposed to letting it remain an amorphous mass of dread.

The Takeaway

For many, the current period has given us an unparalleled window of breathing room, both because we’ve saved time going places and there are fewer demands on that time. Not unlike the pace we’d be leaving cities to spend in nature or the countryside, this slow-down has given us a chance to reexamine and change our relationship with time, maybe for the first time in a decade.

So what do we do? Our recent episode of Making It Up, which covers productivity during this period concluded that it’s not about ‘A-or-B’ thinking: it’s evidently time we stopped frantically trying to optimize our extra few hours gained, but it’s not a call to stop being productive altogether either.

Instead, it’s a reminder to allow moments to just let time run without actively trying to capture, box, categorize, price and spend it. Those moments will let us reconnect with ourselves and insight into what we truly want. At the very least, consider the following suggestions:

  • Take Care of Who’s Important: You can’t be productive if you’re in subpar condition and you can’t focus when you’re worried about people you care about. Attending to your health and wellbeing by setting aside time for it means you will be able to focus during the time you set aside for productivity.
  • Productivity isn’t one size fits all: Productivity is still important, but maybe it’s time to shift our definition to the aforementioned output-per-period kind. Most importantly is being able to understand where some tasks are “hackable” and others, like creative ones, require a different approach where less is more.
  • Lean Into Your Needs: You might find yourself having to cook more, for instance, but that doesn’t mean you have to turn that new need into a whole new growing hobby (and a lot more dishes). You can lean into new needs and develop helpful new habits (like sanitation) without having to do it perfectly like you’d see on the ‘gram.
  • Side Projects: Of the side projects you’re thinking of tackling, which ones have some kind of side-hustle/future monetization push behind them and which are important to you even if you were never recognized for them? Which are good for you regardless, and which are responses to internal or external pressure to just do something?
  • Things Weren’t ‘Right’ Before: Although the new normal will take some getting used to, it’s important to realize the old normal with respect to how we viewed work and productivity wasn’t exactly ‘right’ either. When things improve, they likely won’t be the same as before, so instead of taking the extra time to do more of the same, embracing change as new beginnings may be more helpful.
April 2, 2020

Starting and Re-starting — Coping Through Creativity While in Isolation

As the current pandemic has suddenly forced us indoors for extended periods, we highlight the underlying value of being creative. Nobody has to see or watch, it’s for you, and you only.

Creativity as Outlet

Aside from the positive outcomes of people re-centering their focus on other important matters such as family, physical health and mental health, many people including creatives are dusting off personal projects or starting new ones to pass time. But even for those who didn’t always have an outlet they’re suddenly discovering out of necessity like cooking, creativity is something that can be nurtured from where you are with what you have:

  • Free: Since this is no time to go out and buy new gear or other supplies anyways, this is a great way to start a new creative endeavor. If you didn’t before, write or take pictures using just your phone, draw using whatever pens and paper you have handy, start singing in the shower — the ideas is that you create from a desire to express yourself and not let tools be the limiter.
  • Fundamentals: With fewer demands drawing you outside, the extra time gained and slower pace of life means this is a great period to start a creative talent on solid fundamentals and patience. Want to start recording and telling audio stories? Our MAEKAN Classroom Series gives you the tools you need to create everything
  • Explore: When you’re not practicing the fundamentals, similarly use this quieter alone time for unstructured exploration. Feel free to discover your craft, make mistakes and not judge what you produce, whether you’re just starting or restarting.
  • Share: People are already re-connecting with friends and loved ones or making new connections online. Make some work and put it out there. Or if you’re trying something new, why not share your work with a small trusted group that can give you feedback?
  • Collaborate: It goes without saying there’s a great number of others in the same situation as you and now’s never been a better occasion to come together (virtually!). Seeking out peers or other creatively-inclined individuals to work together on something means you’ll both be able to create something bigger than you could by yourself and get some much needed socialization. Be on the lookout.
  • Infrastructure: if try what you may and the jobs aren’t coming anyway, consider taking this time to work on the infrastructure of your creative business, whether that means working on your website or putting together your portfolio. This means you can consolidate all the work you’ve done so far and be in a better position to seek freelance work once the situation improves.

Caveat: Technology as Crutch

We joke about the increased alcohol and calorie intake social distancing will create, but we also have to be wary of how other mildly addicting vices like streaming, gaming and scrolling will increase screen time as a result of being stuck at home with not much to do (other than work).

With social media already being an inseparable part of our lives, usage has no doubt increased from both turning to it for information on what’s going on outside and as a consequence of getting sucked up in the cocktail of outrage, hope, anxiety and dank memes that’s now blended into the feed. Unless your experience proves inspirational over detrimental, perhaps now might be the time to consider imposing that one-Reddit-rabbit-hole daily limit.

The Takeaway

Despite the seriousness of this period, there’s a silver lining in that it’s shocked much of society into re-evaluating its priorities. These sudden acute changes have also meant an unavoidable break in the constant stream of deadlines and client demands for creatives, meaning we’ve been freed to look on our work through a new lens and to explore creating art for personal reasons instead. For those who haven’t created for a long time and the general public, it’s a rare chance to dig deep into what we’re feeling and how we can express that through the limited tools and materials available — nurturing our creativity at the source. Don’t get it twisted, don’t feel guilted into needing to maximize productivity given the circumstances.

The team’s been largely staying inside since the beginning of February and we’ve welcomed the freedom afforded by the “artificially” lowered pace of life as we start to regularly catch up with friends and family separated by time zones. For insights on how some members of our creative community are coping, check out our Save Point on working from home.

 

February 24, 2020

A Chicken and Egg on Drugs — The role of substances for creatives

The ideal for many of us is that we already have a robust process for teasing out the little bits of fleeting creativity to produce something, but sometimes (or often) that doesn’t happen so easily and we need a bit of “help” to get things going. But do drugs like cannabis and alcohol actually make us more creative?

Convergent vs Divergent thinking

While there are certainly a plethora of drugs that improve the mental capacity to support creative endeavors (such as stimulants like modafinil for focus and other nootropics), to narrow things down, we’re going to focus on the two drugs most popularly associated with the creative genius in authors and artists, alcohol and cannabis.

As for the creative side, two types of thinking are commonly tested in researching creativity: convergent and divergent thinking. The distinction between these two comes most famously thanks to the work of American psychologist Joy Paul Guilford. In a nutshell:

  • Convergent Thinking: The ability to arrive at a single or a few answers from many stimuli.
  • Divergent Thinking: The ability to arrive at multiple possible answers from a single stimulus.

While the human mind doesn’t strictly think (or create) this way, the dynamic of being able to think broadly for multiple solutions or hone in on a few targeted ones is one creatives frequently have to call upon.

The science

Anecdotal and personal experience suggests that ideas can flow a little more smoothly after a few hits (or bites) or drinks such as a Fernet Hunter and soda — or the improvised “pick-me-up” known as the Earl Simmons. But we also know all too well that we don’t produce the best ideas or even the most relevant ideas when we’re absolutely stoned or trashed.

The science lends some credence to this:

  • Cannabis does help if you’re not already creative: one 2012 study showed that people with low creativity benefited from being intoxicated through cannabis while the already creative group showed less change.
  • Too much = diminishing returns: in contrast, a study in 2014 concluded that “cannabis with low potency does not have any impact on creativity, while highly potent cannabis actually impairs divergent thinking.”

But here’s where we get to the chicken and egg problem: are people more creative because they take drugs or are they already creative in principle but happen to like drugs?

The answer is evidently a bit of both, but a recent study measuring the link between cannabis and creativity suggests there might be some weight to the latter. Here are the highlights of that study on cannabis:

  • ”Sober cannabis users showed enhanced self-reported creativity to non-users.”
  • ”Sober cannabis users demonstrated superior convergent thinking ability to non-users.”
  • ”Cannabis users were more extraverted, open to experience and less conscientious.”
  • ”Differences in openness to experience explained cannabis users’ enhanced creativity.”

For creatives, take our interpretation of the science with a grain of salt, but the research seems to somewhat reinforce what we know or can readily find out with any personal experiments at home: regardless of whether you need to think broadly or narrowly, your mind has to be open.

The culture factor

It goes without saying that subculture promotes the enjoyment of substances at a rate that exceeds clarity and education on its abuse while the mainstream consciousness misunderstands the whole dynamic. When fondly remembered in art, music, and literature, drugs have a disproportionate, almost mythical weight that ignores the truth: Hemmingway’s philosophy of “Write drunk. Edit sober?” Great marketing, terrible advice and simply not true according to his granddaughter.

In reality, people smoke and drink and they might happen to be creatives. But not only can they do so as a healthy habit in their lifestyle, but they can also do so whether it’s part of their creative process or not. They can also do other things to get them to a creative headspace that doesn’t involve drugs (though we’ll give the caffeine hit of morning coffee a pass in this case).

The Takeaway

Everybody’s personality and process are different, so there’s no hard or fast judgment on how much is enough to get the juices flowing when they’ve stopped — when we’re down to mentally “wringing the cloth dry” to come up with something. If you find yourself constantly moistening that cloth to have something to squeeze or rolling it up and smoking it to get every last bit out, that’s probably a sign something else needs to change.

But if the nature of our modern work means either a lot of stress to cope with or just a lot of creating on the daily, what’s wrong with using some of the oldest chemical technology to keep us going — even in combination through the delightfully-named crossfade (the pairing of cannabis and alcohol)?

Nothing, really. All that matters is when we can recognize for ourselves a difference between on-off quick fixes, reliable if only one of many tools in the creative toolkit, and chronically debilitating crutches. Otherwise, being able to create in any direction means a loose and open mind. However you get there is entirely up to you.

February 21, 2020

Managing procrastination is about managing many things, not just time.

We used to think that procrastination and the decreased productivity that accompanies it was a time issue, but we’ve since broadened our understanding to factor emotion into the equation. But does it end there?

Time: Why we thought people procrastinate

Until more recently, the pervading theory behind procrastination was that it was purely due to a problem with time management — the idea that people who procrastinate can’t do the following properly, among others:

  • Budget: judge how long a task will take.
  • Schedule: make time for the tasks they have to do.
  • Commit: control the number of tasks they take on.

While poor time management can certainly lead to procrastination, it’s not necessarily the root cause for everyone that does it.

Emotion: What also needs to be managed

Recently, the exclusive focus on time management has shifted instead to the management of emotion. A BBC article by Dr Christian Jarrett highlights the obvious fact that no, people don’t do things like watch cat videos or check IG because they failed to properly allocate time for these activities (they likely don’t even want to). Instead, they procrastinate simply because they want to:

  • Avoid discomfort: the task they’re supposed to be doing feels extremely unpleasant at that moment.
  • Lift moods: the task they’re going to do instead is going to life their mood and they know that.

More importantly, we have a mood that needs to be lifted because the task is boring, too unclear or too complex, or it makes us contemplate and fear failure. The solution? One proposed in the article is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which is an offshoot of the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy used to address mental health improvement. In a nutshell, ACT proposes that we :

  • Accept the discomfort we’re feeling.
  • Choose a direction that aligns with our values.
  • Take action.

But what can you do in the event and all likelihood that you don’t have the time or will to start a full mindfulness regiment of any kind to address the occasional bout of procrastination?

Christian points to Tim Pychyl of Carleton University, who studies the emotional angle of procrastination with collaborator Fuschia Sirois of the University of Sheffield. He proposes a familiar solution: “Our research and lived experience show very clearly that once we get started, we’re typically able to keep going. Getting started is everything.”

Energy: What often gets forgotten

Regardless of how much we wrangle our time and our emotions, the “2:30 Feeling” (the midday slump in energy) is still a thing. Of course, most work arrangements mean that you’ll have to find ways to fight through that slump, especially if you work in an office that hasn’t invested in nap pods or the nap culture that’s already normal in many companies.

The point is that our energy levels — or focus, wakefulness or engagement, depending on what you prefer — have tie-ins with our natural circadian rhythm and are finite regardless of our lifestyle choices.

What’s more, many will agree creative work, unless you’ve figured the much vaunted “process,” often isn’t something you can accomplish by throwing time directly at it: staring straight at a blank page for hours, doesn’t always result in a better product much less progress. Some solutions to avoid creating yourself into a corner?

  • Prioritize: prioritizing important, urgent and the most mentally taxing tasks means you’ll tackle them when you have the most energy in the tank.
  • Bob and Weave: if you hit a solid wall in one task, don’t force creativity by smashing into if it’s not due immediately, but rather, tackle other related sub-tasks or take a break from it by chipping away at another task with a similar priority. This way, you might be moving sideways, but you’re still heading forward.
  • Break it down: getting started can sometimes be daunting because we contemplate (and catastrophize) the entirety of a task — something that wastes our energy but doesn’t accomplish as much. The solution? Break the task down into smaller actionable pieces. As previously mentioned, getting started is often the hardest. Why not get started with the smallest thing you could do?
  • Actually take a break: this means actually getting up from your work area and moving around or doing something unrelated that doesn’t take any additional focus (like long reads or getting stuck on Reddit). Better yet, how about feeding the meter by taking a power nap?

By working on the hardest tasks when you’re the most mentally “on,” there isn’t just a chance you’ll finish them, you might also finish faster and at a higher level of quality (versus slapping together the work to get it done or slogging towards the finish line). This in turn, can give you satisfaction and a feeling of accomplishment that will fuel the next task.

The Takeaway

There’s nothing wrong with the occasional bout of distraction and it should be mentioned that distraction (and some degree of procrastination) can be “a feature, not a bug” in creative people.

But if it’s something that happens more often or suddenly, it helps to dig down towards the root causes.

Again, the short answer is that it takes two key factors to tango: people procrastinate because they are avoiding the discomfort of the task before them and because they believe the activity they’re choosing instead will make them feel better.

Addressing this dynamic means having a grasp of several things in combination — your time, emotions and your energy — to minimize how much you have to ‘fight’ yourself to stay on task throughout a given day. The more you work with yourself while keeping an eye on your priorities, you’ll be better positioned to win on the big things, even if you don’t win at everything that day.

 

January 27, 2020

Polymaths and the importance of diversity in expertise

In an era where we prize specialization over generalization, where are polymaths to be found in the mix? We look at what makes a polymath and where they fit in the bigger equation needs them along with specialists and other types of experts.

What’s a polymath?

We can generally agree that a polymath is someone who is highly knowledgeable about or is at least very good at several fields. In a BBC article by David Robson, he compares more precise definitions reached by Waqas Ahmed and Dr. Angela Meyers Cotellessa, who have both studied polymaths extensively.

For Ahmed, who wrote the book The Polymath: Unlocking the Power of Human Versatility, he ascribes the title to those who have made significant contributions to at least three fields, particularly those considered polymathic in the historical or classical understanding such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Hypatia, Al-Biruni, Florence Nightingale and Rabindranath Tagore.

For Meyers Cotellessa, who focuses on modern polymaths in her doctoral dissertation, In Pursuit of Polymaths: Understanding Renaissance Persons of the 21st Century, the participants in her research “had to have had successful careers in at least two separate domains – one arts and one science – and self-identify as a polymath.”

What makes a polymath?

According to Ahmed, the common traits he examined between the polymaths he researched included:

  • Above-average intelligence
  • Open-mindedness and curiosity
  • Independent and autodidactic (self-teaching)
  • Strong desire for personal fulfilment

These traits overlap with those in the abstract for Meyers Cotellessa’s work, where she found seven conclusions revolving around the traits of polymaths:

  1. Contradictory: being a polymath means embodying “apparent contradictions” and being “intrapersonally diverse.”
  2. Time Management: “polymaths are exposed broadly, think creatively and strategically, and juggle their many interests and obligations through effective time management”
  3. Double-edge sword: polymathy enriches life but also makes it harder.
  4. Creativity: polymaths excel at creative problem-solving.
  5. Nature & Nurture: polymaths develop as a result of their circumstances but their abilities are maintained in adulthood when they continue to teach themselves and focus on self-improvement.
  6. Not fitting in: “polymath identity is discovered from not fitting in; polymath identity can be difficult to fully own and to explain to others.”
  7. Actualizing: family and financial resources impact the realization of these traits as children grow.

When you consider all of these traits together, it becomes readily apparent that in a lot of ways, many people are polymathic by nature, but that there is something to be said about the external factors that can help to actualize or suppress these traits.

Over-emphasis on specialization

Unfortunately, society and culture have pushed us towards the latter. “Ahmed points out that many children are fascinated by many different areas – but our schools, universities and then employment tend to push us towards ever greater specialisation,” Robson says in his article. “So many more people may have the capacity to be polymaths, if only they are encouraged in the right way.”

“We have been living in a world sold on depth—the era of the ultra-specialist. In our globalizing, technology-driven, ever-more-complex world, we convinced ourselves that the route to excellence and progress lies in narrow specialization—in obsessive concentration and focus,” says Nick Lovegrove, author of The Mosaic Principle: The Six Dimensions of a Remarkable Life and Career.

Both he and Robson argue that today’s increasingly complex problems cannot be solved and actually are not always solved by specialist experts. In Lovegrove’s words, they might even cause some of them: “pretty much every major business crisis of recent years—from Enron to Lehman Brothers to Wells Fargo—stems from having experts on top, not on tap.”

And even if it doesn’t outright cause an issue, myopically focusing on specialization hampers creativity. “Increasing specialization has created a ‘system of parallel trenches’ in the quest for innovation,” says David Epsetin in Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. “Everyone is digging deeper into their own trench and rarely standing up to look in the next trench over, even though the solution to their problem happens to reside there.”

The title doesn’t matter: bringing us all together

Whether we realize it or not, everyone who becomes used to living and thinking in a certain way for a sustained period will find themselves in a bubble. When we think of narrow-mindedness today, we might strongly associate it with selective ignorance towards certain people, cultures or facts. But what flies under the radar is the sort of “positive” narrow-mindedness that comes with excluding other avenues of exploration and the danger of blindly prizing those who put all their intellectual eggs in one basket (to be fair, blatantly ignoring people who know what they’re talking about isn’t good either).

Make no mistake, none of this is to argue for the elimination of specialization or skilled unitasking, and for polymaths, flexperts, and multi-hyphens to be “at the top” instead; we’re not even saying that dabblers are the worst of all. For the sake of enriching one’s life, it doesn’t matter which one you are, only that can pursue your genuine curiosity (not necessarily advancement) without regard to its externally-appraised utility. After all, your career isn’t your identity any more than your work is your entire life.

That said, when it comes to the greater context of solving culture’s big problems in the present and future, these will inevitably span many fields and affect all of us. For these, we absolutely do need polymaths who can bridge those fields to be recognized and brought to the table to work with specialists because they need each other: where specialists will eventually reach the limits of their field, polymaths will eventually need more depth across the breadth of their fields. As such, there needs to be diversity in experts just as much as diversity in expertise.

January 16, 2020

So you're curious? Turns out there's just something "wrong" with you.

We’ve always thought of curiosity in a certain way that implies a rational process. But a recent study by a team at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research suggests that our curiosity comes from failures in that very rational process, what could be considered mental errors.

The Slot Machine

A study by a team at Inserm (French National Institute of Health and Medical Research) has shown that most of these choices are not motivated by curiosity but by errors caused by the brain mechanisms implicated in evaluating our options.

  • The Setup: around one hundred subjects played a slot machine-style game where they chose between two symbols representing uncertain rewards.
  • On the Left: The left-hand symbol won them money previously, so choosing this implies exploiting known options.
  • On the Right: The right-hand symbol hasn’t been tried recently and implies exploring uncertain options.

The researchers recorded the participants’ brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging. They found that the same brain regions that activated when the participants explored uncertain symbols were the same ones that activated when they committed errors of reasoning.

Why this is important

“This finding is important, because it implies that many choices in favor of the unknown are made unbeknownst to us, without our being aware of it—our participants have the impression of choosing the best symbol and not the most uncertain, but they do it on the basis of wrong information resulting from errors of reasoning,” team leader, Valentin Wyart said in a statement.

In other words, the results of this study lend at least some evidence against the more popular hypothesis that curiosity is a more rational process where we seek out stimuli that will help us weigh our options and make better choices. It potentially adds another theory as to why we’re curious which include:

  • Curiosity-drive theory: we desire coherence and when that’s disrupted, exploring and making sense of this undesirable certainty gives us back that coherence. For example, “I have to find out the truth about what happened.”
  • Optimal-arousal theory: this theory suggests that even without the presence of uncertainty, people are looking for the just the right amount of mental stimulation from simply exploring. For exampe, always trying new things.
  • Integration of the reward pathway into theory: this theory ties the desire and seeking of new information into our reward centers where we assign value to new information as reward. For example, “t his book could help me get ahead.”

The Takeaway

While the study does imply a lack of rational control over the curiosity that might lead us to some incredible discovery (history is replete with these kinds of accidents), it doesn’t explain the case for all of us.

After all, we’ve likely experienced curiosity due to some mechanism described by the other theories mentioned, and there is acknowledgment of different types of curiosity prevalent in different people and situations.

Regardless of how we decide to interpret the study, we could simply take it as a good thing: Even if it’s actually the result of a glitch in our brains, if we tend to willingly explore the unknown and that means there’s something “wrong with us” then it’s a fault we’ll embrace along with our many others.

January 9, 2020

The Darker Side: Malevolent Creativity

We commonly think of creativity as a purely positive, enabling quality, but can it be used in a way that’s explicitly harmful? We unpack the idea of malevolent creativity and how it manifests in today’s world.

What is Malevolent Creativity?

To understand what malevolent creativity is, it helps to set out a few terms:

  • Malevolence: the intent to harm people
  • Imagination: involves generating sensory experiences (though not strictly “seeing”) in varying degrees of vividness that aren’t real,
  • Creativity: the ability to produce original ideas out of other ones using that very imagination.

Taken together, malevolent creativity relies on the imagination to come up with new ideas that are explicitly meant to harm people when executed. In a paper on the subject, researchers David H Cropley, James C. Kaufman, and Arthur Cropley describe it as: “Such creativity is deemed necessary by some society, group, or individual to fulfill goals they regard as desirable, but has serious negative consequences for some other group, these negative consequences being fully intended by the first group.”

How it manifests today

While blatant examples would include the aforementioned cons or new, more efficient weapons for use in war, malevolent creativity is of particular concern when channeled through the power of online media, especially at a time when it’s never been easier for the average person with an internet connection to create and distribute media on their own.

To understand how bad this could get, it helps to look back to 2012’s Innocence of Muslims, a film by convicted fraudster Nakoula Basseley Nakoula (who is actually Mark Basseley Youssef, who also initially claimed to be an Israeli magnate named Sam Bacile). Over the course of the production and into its release and promotion (both on and offline), stakeholders were repeatedly misled as to the film’s content and intent, with actors having their lines dubbed over in post production to contain anti-Islamic messaging. Despite the abysmal production value, the notoriety behind the film and its deliberate positioning as a legitimate feature film retelling the life of the prophet Muhammad triggered violent reactions throughout the world, resulting in protests and deaths.

Unfortunately, the same sort of provocative and malevolent creativity is just as pervasive in 2020’s divided societies — it’s just that it rarely presents itself as blatantly as a definable “work” as the above film as we’d associate with an author or artist. Instead, it’s a mindset where imagination, intelligence and technical skill — all in differing amounts depending on the creator — to do something negative to someone.

In these cases, the products of that malevolent creativity, whether it be crappy memes, shoddily re-edited videos, fake news, or technically polished if defamatory Photoshop jobs. And if it’s none of these types of throwaway content, it’s bits and pieces of text or voice dropped off at different corners of the Internet — all of which have neither helpful intent of critique nor the finesse of satire, but are often disguised as such. To griefers, trolls and bigots, their invective is, despite how unrefined it is, still about finding innovative ways to cause damage to those they interact with and it’s sadly been working.

The Takeaway

Make no mistake, we aren’t saying that all creativity and its products should aim to inform, inspire or entertain others. It’s also perfectly fine to create with the simple aim of expressing yourself and even using it as the very solution to the negative creativity we apply to ourselves (such as catastrophizing or self-loathing). And to be sure, your work could also strive to draw attention to an issue, criticize ideas or people, or just not sit well with the sensibilities of a certain audience.

Those are all perfectly valid reasons to keep on creating and creating good work at that. But for those who create with the express aim of building bridges between people, now has never been a better time to double down on that goal. Malevolent creativity (and the malevolence that catalyzes it) is still not as widely understood or researched as benevolent or positive creativity, but at least one study, titled “Why Social Threat Motivates Malevolent Creativity,” gives some evidence to what we’ve believed for a while:

  • We all have imaginations we use to picture things good or bad.
  • Many people use their imagination to create new things.
  • We are motivated to find solutions to fulfill purposes or solve problems we perceive.
  • Motivation increases with a sense of urgency.
  • Urgency can be shaped by our perception of threats, which can also be shaped and misinformed.

In short, when we perceive there’s a fight to be won at this moment, that can get our brains working in ways that find solutions to benefit us at the expense of others; the harder we think we have to fight to beat someone, the more harmful our solutions can become.

December 19, 2019

How the new gig economy law impacts other freelancers

The future of work is in the process of being defined with a new series of developments in California. The flexibility of freelancing (naturally with all of its downsides) is now being rewritten and redefined, which may limit those who are somewhere between being free enough to contribute a substantial amount but aren’t considered valuable enough to some companies to go full time.

What happened?

Vox Media recently let go hundreds of California-based freelance writers and editors that used to cover sports for its SB Nation blog network. The reason? Compliance with California Assembly Bill 5 ( commonly known as AB 5). The law, which goes into effect on January 1, 2020 was originally meant to target ride-share giants such as Uber and Lyft, forcing them to treat their contracted drivers as employees with the appropriate benefits.

The bill does have larger ramifications beyond drivers, however: It would also apply to writers and potentially affects other knowledge and culture workers, according to Jori Finkel. “The law already carves out many exceptions for particular professions, including accountants, real estate agents, insurance brokers, doctors, dentists, lawyers, engineers, private investigators, salespeople and commercial fishermen,” she explains. “In the cultural sphere, architects, graphic designers, grant writers, and fine artists are identified as exempt, as are photojournalists and journalists who contribute fewer than 35 times a year to a particular company or publication.”

The gist of AB 5

AB5 is meant to give protections to contracted workers who don’t receive the same benefits for the amount of work they do relative to regular employees, such as minimum wage, worker compensation, insurance, paid vacation and sick leave.

In 2018, the Supreme Court of California ruled to impose stricter requirements for the classification employees, which gig workers were previously excluded from. The court made a 3-part test (known as the ABC test) where employers had to prove that their workers were properly classified as independent contractors under these conditions:

  • The worker is free from the control and direction of the hirer in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of such work and in fact
  • The worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business
  • The worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed for the hiring entity

This newer test doesn’t apply to jobs falling within a select number of categories. That said, even after passing ABC, the hiring party might have to demonstrate they’re classified properly under the Borello test, an older standard.

Flexible Freedom vs. Structured Protection

Some supporters say that aside from the protections offered above, the bill would prevent the state from losing billions from payroll taxes the contractors and companies hiring them do not pay. Comparatively, opponents say it would increase labor costs by 30%, which would be passed on to customers while reducing service and flexibility for workers.

Some believe that the bill signals “the death of the gig economy.” Brittany Hunter, for one, emphasizes the difference between employment and contracting, the backbone of the highly developed gig economy, which was never meant to be a traditionally structured sector.

Ultimately, it’s challenging to assess whether the bill is good or bad because it depends on how we think the parameters should lie with respects to work:

Protection versus Exploitation: Similar to how tax avoidance is legal and tax evasion is illegal, many companies will likewise try to legally limit how much they have to pay to benefit from the services of a worker. But of course, the sometimes ambiguous nature of contract work, especially how it unfolds in the relatively recent gig economy, means there’s room for exploitation, which is what drove some of the need for the legal protections offered by AB 5.

Structure versus Flexibility: Arguably one of the big draws to remaining a contractor is the flexibility that the over one-third of Americans have used to build or supplement their incomes. For some, the lack of commitment of a formal employment contract means a lack of the same benefits and protections, but also the lack of obligations like minimum working hours or for some, the need to even work at all.

Quality versus Quantity: By making it more expensive to employ people, in theory, fewer people will create output for the media industry, this means less content, and perhaps worse content if freelancers played a crucial role in driving certain facets of a business. Alternatively, this could increase a reliance on passionate but unpaid workers, which of course, isn’t a good look for any industry.

The Takeaway

Vox’s move to cut writers showcases how compliance with new laws largely meant for one segment of an industry (the ride-sharing and maybe food delivery aspect of the gig economy) spills over into creative work.

The law offers protections in the form of structures that both employer and contractor (or employee) have to abide by. But when companies that benefit from the gig economy “take it out” on contracted workers to adhere to laws, it can mean less freedom (and work) for those who don’t want or need the protections of those regulations. But more crucially, it puts yet another stressor on workers who can’t secure more permanent jobs and are in the gig economy out of necessity.

This is bound to raise questions as to how much or little intervention is needed in the free market that produced the colossal gig economy we see today, especially depending on whether we view gigs as a symptom of today’s widespread job insecurity and the need to work for life at all costs or the key to being our own bosses and shaping our own careers free from bureaucratic corporate jobs.

December 16, 2019

A Creative's Dilemma: To Declare Multi-Hyphenate or Not?

Now that our side-hustle(s) have gone full-time, what meaning does “multi-hyphenate” have for creative careers? We look at how several titles could indicate both an interest in building a career in a lot of things or the need to cling to several lifelines at once.

Moving away from specialization

In her article for The Outline, Nikki Shaner-Bradford summarizes the transition away from assembly line-style specialization (“Fordism,” in honor of Henry Ford) as aligning with our transition towards an economy based around knowledge, information and the production of content.

As to whether being a multi-hyphenate is a good or bad thing, let’s look at some possibilities as to what the term implies:

  • Specificity: By including fields that capture the scope of your capability and expertise, being a multi-hyphenate provides another branding differentiator that can help prospective clients immediately understand the breadth of your skills. In an era that emphasizes the personal brand, embracing being a multi-hyphenate communicates exactly what you’re good at and who you are — a three-word resume for the 280-character world.
  • Survival: The flipside is that, depending on who sees the title, being a multi-hyphenate could be seen as both an outcome and symptom of the gig economy, one where people need multiple side hustles to make ends meet. In this case, the forward-facing image of an assured multi-hyphenate rests on an undeclared base of useful and interconnected talents, but which are all rigidly aligned towards getting paid work.
  • Ownership: Where you’re able to make a living from your talents and assuming your strike that much sought-after work-life rhythm, the best case scenario for a multi-hyphenate creative is being able to make enough money from something you love without burning out.
  • Insecurity: Because there are just so many “full stack creatives” (remember that word?) the catchall multi-hyphenate identity may be a means of compensating for the fact that when we all do largely the same type of work, we might not have a particularly unique selling point.

As Shaner-Bradford puts it: “The rise of the “multi-hyphenate” has ironically eliminated the need for any specificity at all, instead implying a complex creative identity grounded in a jack-of-all trades ideal that conflates production potential with individual worth.”

Employability and passion entangled

The reality of the multi-hyphenate is complicated because the prevalence of the term alone is the product of a culture that both encourages multi-hyphenates to do what they love and penalizes them for doing it by under-recognizing and under-valuing their work.

Furthermore, not all multi-hyphenates get to benefit from the term, as Shaner-Bradford points out: “the term inherently privileges certain skills over others, particularly those of knowledge workers who often hold secondary degrees, and idealizes a form of labor that becomes absorbed into personal identity, diminishing work-life balance and generating further barriers to worker solidarity.”

This is true when you take a look at the litany of plausible multi-hyphenate titles you could see nowadays where the aforementioned “three-word resume” tells a story but doesn’t give a complete picture of a person. Compare terms like photographer-neuroscientist-writer, DJ-model-yoga instructor, and filmmaker-blogger-podcaster — the combination of titles, the order and the fields they stem from all give a different impression depending on who reads it.

The Takeaway

Financial insecurity and uncertain futures mean that many creatives are constantly evaluating and preparing for near eternal employability. Granted, upgrading skill-sets and constant training are a reality in any profession, even a specialized one, but it’s a question of whether monetizing certain skill-sets is out of desire or survival.

It’s up to the the multi-hyphenates themselves (which include a lot of creatives) to define what the term means to them and the rest of society. One way to see how much the multi-hyphenate title is weighted toward your personal identity, your career or both is to ask yourself: would I still call myself this even if weren’t working on a project at the moment or didn’t have a client lined up?

For those who don’t want to  declare themselves multi-hyphenate, what’s the alternative? MAEKAN’s Charis Poon finds usefulness in describing the nature of your work in actions as opposed to titles, which allows you to factually and specifically communicate what you do (regardless if you’re being paid to do it or not) without limiting yourself to the connotations of a given role.

 

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