Howard Zinn wrote a letter to James Harmon for him to publish in his book Take My Advice, and in his letter he wrote about the incredible connections between people and the power that unified people can generate. He encourages the reader to find their own truths in life, and to seek an independence built through mindfulness. Zinn writes, “Understand that money and weapons are fragile forms of power.” He is criticizing institutions and their leaders in this statement. To me, this sentence builds the idea that the most powerful people are the people who are connected with others through real and meaningful relationships. These people are not powerful in the way that the winner of Shark Tank or high profile attorney’s are powerful. Their power is not built by influence, but rather empathy and a true concern for the people around them. While money can dwindle and is not a true representation of the value of an individual, and weapons can be used by government to coerce and intimidate people, Zinn writes that people, when united, become more powerful through relationships than weapons and money (the use of both weapons and money against a united people will only strengthen the bond which empowers those people).
A book I plan to read is called, Generation Me, and it focuses on the psychological differences between generations. The author was recently on a political podcast that I listen to frequently, and she stated that as our society becomes more individualistic our attitudes towards institutions, government, and other people begin to become more negative. We loose trust in each other and in institutions, adopting an every man for himself attitude where we focus on obtaining our own wealth regardless of the state of others. This is interesting to me because it seems to slightly contrast Zinn’s message while at the same time supporting it. Zinn is advocating that we try to connect with more people to build powerful and lasting relationships, yet he is decidedly anti-institutional. The author of Generation Me would certainly advocate for greater social connections and interactions which would strengthen our sense of community through relationships, yet she would not implore people to hold such a rebellious attitude towards government and other institutions.
In a letter of advice written to James Harmon for his book Take My Advice, Valerie Martin writes about the noise that we fill out days with and how we use that noise to fill our minds so that we do not have to think. Through constant television and radio broadcasts everywhere we go, in the car, at home, waiting rooms, and even at the grocery store, we are fed small and often times unnoticeable advice on what our lives should be like, how we should live, and what happiness looks like. According to Martin, we need to turn off the noise and learn how to be happy when the atmosphere around us is empty, and our mind is overcome with only our thoughts.
To conclude her letter Martin writes, “My advice is simple. When possible, turn off the sound. Don’t be overly concerned about being happy. Try to need less, to find work that doesn’t demean you. Read more, talk less. Try to raise your own children without television. When despair sets in, as it will, sit quietly and wait it out in silence.”
I think that what Martin is saying is that there are plenty of opportunities for us to reflect on our lives and to really consider what it is that we desire or expect. Instead of using those moments to dive deeper into ourselves, we float along the surface of who we are while we let television or radio distract us. She is critical of the message presented in those broadcasts because they give us a false sense of reality and show us someone else’s expectations and desires for life.
Learning to be comfortable without noise and with only my thoughts has been a difficult challenge for me. However, thanks to my running I understand what Martin is trying to explain. Having a time where you are unplugged and left with only your thoughts can be a meditative moment. I do a lot of long distance running, and I have never enjoyed running with music. I love to be unplugged because it allows my mind to churn through the thoughts that build up in a day, and it gives me time to reflect on what I think, what I say, and how my actions align with who I want to be.
James Harmon’s book Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation From People Who Know a Thing or Two is a collection of letters that Harmon received when he asked creative people for advice. The advice came from writers, poets, independent film actors, and artists. Poet Robert Creeley was one of the writers who gave Harmon advice and he started his letter with, “What seems most significant is the way in which one takes the world as existing.” What I believe that the poet is saying is that our individual ways of thinking about the world, our place in it, and how things work, is the most important difference between us.
The poet continues his quote adding that our interpretation of the world is impacted most heavily by the time, place, and people around us at birth. In my mind this means that our economic, social, and political status at birth and as we grow to young adults will impact how we view the world. What is powerful about this quote is that it opens up the idea that we can all have different perceptions of the world, and that our perceptions are built by factors that we do not control.
This is why having a broad view of the world and a strong sense of awareness is important. Being able to understand that we have individual biases that shape our outlook on life allows us to look at the world from new perspectives. When you have only a narrow view of the world it becomes easy to criticize people for not living a certain way, or not thinking in a specific manner. Opening up your awareness and seeing the world from a wider lens that captures the viewpoints and understands the backgrounds of others will help one have more empathy for others, and more appreciation for the life they live.
In the book Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People who Know a Thing or Two, James Harmon organized a collection of letters from creative people he admired, even though most of the world would not call them celebrities. Richard Meltzer is one of the many writers who sent Harmon a letter to be published in his book, and one of the themes in Meltzer’s letter is accepting that success and becoming good at something takes longer than what we would like. Meltzer writes, “it will in all likelihood take you much longer than you expect— an unfair percentage of the time you’ve got left — to get much of anything right.” This is an important quote for young people today to understand since so often we want success to happen immediately. “You have to factor in the LONG HAUL,” Meltzer continued as he explained that in order to achieve the goals and desires, we must plan for the unavoidable periods of mundane and hard work.
I know that I have felt a lot of pressure to succeed and to reach certain milestones very quickly. The pressure comes from the outside as well as the inside as I criticize myself for not having achieved goals, whether they relate to exercise, finances, or personal hobbies. From the outside we are all driven to achieve a level of success that other people expect from us. We see the lives that our parents have and strive to reach or exceed their lifestyle, and we compete against our peers and high school classmates to be impressive. All of these pressures can be damaging, especially if we expect to achieve success overnight.
Factoring in the long haul means that you are aware of the hard work that it will take to build the experience necessary to grow. It involves showing up, being self aware, and re-organizing your desires so that you can have alignment in your life. The amount of time it takes to reach the level we all desire takes longer than what seems fair as we spend our younger lives preparing ourselves to become the person we want to be. Constant self awareness and accepting the fact that the hard work is not sexy will help us continue to grow and reach for new opportunities, no matter how slowly we seem to progress towards our dreams.
Bob Schacochis continues in his letter to James Harmon published in Harmon’s book Take My Advice to explain a lesson he learned about making and correcting mistakes. As a young college student working as a carpenter Schacochis learned a lesson in excellence when his work was corrected by a carpenter he was shadowing. Schacochis had put something together and not taken the care and time to go back over his work to fix his errors, which led to a brief lecture that stuck with him his whole life. The carpenter explained that the worst carpenters and the best carpenters all make mistakes, but that the best carpenters find their mistakes and know how to correct them. Years later when Schacochis was standing on scaffolding inches away from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the carpenter’s words came back to him. He gazed in awe at Michelangelo’s work, and was amazed by the fact that up close, you could see the spots where the artist had repainted and corrected his mistakes in an attempt to perfect his art.
What Schacochis learned is summed up in the following quote, “In fact, I don’t even think learning from mistakes is the right focus to begin with, since it infers there is such a thing as a path to infallibility, which is both a simple-minded and dangerous notion.” This quote helps me see that it is ok for me to make mistakes as long as I can correct those mistakes. Learning from the mistakes is an important thing, but I should not approach life as though I can learn from one mistake and forever avoid making similar mistakes and lead a perfect life. For Schacochis mistakes are to be expected if one is constantly pursuing excellence and trying to be the best that they can be. When you try to do more, and push yourself to new levels you will make mistakes as part of the growing process. There is definitely learning involved, but mastery of anything means that you know how to correct mistakes, as apposed to knowing how to avoid all mistakes. A world without mistakes according to Schacochis is a world of complacency and mediocrity where one settles into a routine that does not change nor challenge the individual. The mistakes are not admitted or even noticed, so there is nothing for the individual to correct.
Schacochis’ quote shows that it is ok for one to make mistakes, and that it is even expected that one will make mistakes as they pursue excellence in everything they do. If one sets high expectations and pushes themselves to constantly improve and be better, then they will learn how to correct mistakes, not how to live a life that is free from mistakes. When we stop striving for excellence we stop making mistakes because we stop trying to achieve more. A life of no mistakes is one where we let mistakes slip by, even though we know how to make something better or improve what and who we are. In this way Schacochis is encouraging us to push ourselves and accept our mistakes since life will never be perfect. Along the way as we continue to grow we will learn not how to live a perfect life free from mistakes, but how to correct our mistakes as we demand excellence.
A lesson I have learned from the podcast Smart People Podcast is that successful people are always learning and always taking away something positive away from whatever situation they are in. In a letter to James Harmon for his book Take my Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People who Know a Thing or Two, Bob Schacochis writes about one of his first jobs as a carpenter. Schacochis explains a lesson he learned when working with a carpenter. The carpenter who was guiding him and helping him learn how to be great at the craft said, “How many times I have to tell you college boys, when it comes to making mistakes a bad carpenter and a good is the same. The only difference is, the good carpenter figures out how to correct his.”
This quote speaks to me on multiple levels; about the difference between being good and great, about bringing lessons form one area of life into other areas of life, and about the importance of recognizing and avoiding your own sense of entitlement. As a young college student Schacochis did not have the patience necessary to be a great carpenter. He focused on his work and took the time to put a full effort into his work, but the problem was that he did not have the patience to double check his work and correct his errors. As the carpenter explained, good carpenters and bad carpenters both make mistakes, however the good carpenters make an effort to repair their mistakes. Schacochis was a poor carpenter not because he made mistakes, but because he tried to hide his mistakes without correcting the original problem. As I write this, I am thinking about all of the times recently where I have slacked at work, made small mistakes, or rushed through my work. By keeping this quote in mind at work I can re-focus on what will make me great, and what will make me average. I believe that keeping this quote in mind will help me avoid allowing my work to slack, which in turn will make me more confident while avoiding the anxiety that comes from hoping that supervisors don’t notice my mistakes.
When the carpenter working with Schacochis says, “How many times I have to tell you college boys,” it show how entitlement affects young people in the workplace. For college students the work they do to get through college is often times not meaningful work, or at least it does not appear to be meaningful work. Physical labor and difficult tasks are easy to slack on for students who are studying to reach higher places. The carpenter is calling out Schacochis for his entitled attitude, and how that attitude impacts his approach to physical work. Entitlement for younger generations is not just an expectation to have material things, but it also manifests as an expectation to not do difficult work.
With the lesson from the carpenter Schacochis was able to overcome his entitlement and begin focusing on being great. He took the lesson he learned from working with his hands and double checking his work, and applied it to other areas of his work. Successful people as I have learned from Smart People Podcast, are self aware enough to see where they need to grow and apply lessons from other areas of their life to those areas.
Published in James Harmon’s collection of letter from creative writers, actors, designers, and musicians, a letter from writer Bob Schacochis offers insight into the process of creating meaningful work. Schacochis writes, “Hey, it took a long time; as often as not I felt I was wrong, deluded, crazy to have dreams and cursed to have ambition.” This quote resonates with me because I have often looked at what I want to do and create in life and been intimidated by how challenging and intricate things become. Whether it is a career, a hobby, or even a family, once I start to evaluate everything that I desire, I begin to feel overwhelmed by the difficulties that hide beneath the surface of all my desires. A great job always looks great until you really look at what the people working that job actually do. Hobbies and passion projects are exciting until you see how much work takes place behind the scenes to get the desired results. And having a family is what we all strive for, but being a parent is so time consuming and requires so many sacrifices. With all of these difficulties in mind, it seems to me as though life would be so much easier if I simply decided to sit on the couch, and strive for nothing.
Schacochis’ quote reminds me that these difficulties are OK. It speaks to me on an internal level to remind me that it is good for me to struggle and face difficulties in doing something meaningful. This reminds me of the quote from Allison Vesterfelt’s book where she said that there is a perception that if we are doing life right it should be easy, but that that perception is false. I think that doing the easy thing leads us to a life without meaning, but by striving to do the difficult thing we grow and reach places we did not even know to dream about.
The quote above shows the inner challenges that one faces on a creative journey, and it helps me to see that those challenges are normal to have. For me it helps me see that I am on the right path, even if I am doubting myself. I want to do more than watch movies each night, even though it is difficult and I feel like my ambition is a burden that spreads me too thin. Knowing that other creatives have faced these same challenges is reassuring, and helps me to persevere.