Browsing Tag
Exploring Creativity

Reminder for those just joining us: We don’t underline links. Anything in bold italics is probably something you can click for more information. Usually.

My version of Adobe® Creative Cloud updated last week. Creative Cloud is the bundle of applications photographers and designers and directors and videographers and artists and everyone else use for everything from video editing to product design to the photographs you see here. Central to my interests, this means Photoshop updated. To say that Photoshop is a behemoth of an application is an understatement. One could take classes for years and still not be proficient in everything Photoshop does. Very few pieces of software dominate an industry to the extent Photoshop does the whole of creative arts.

Of course, when Photoshop updates the emphasis is typically on all the new features that have been added because for all the program can do, we want it to do more and we want it to do everything faster. The problem is that in order to achieve that goal, developers are at a point now where they have to leave some older functionality out. This aspect doesn’t get as much attention and unless one wants to go through all the fine print of the production notes one isn’t likely to discover what has been omitted until they need to use something that is no longer there. 

This time around, Photoshop seems to have dropped support for the older (free) version of a set of plugins I have used extensively [late note: a colleague says it’s still supported, but with extra work. I haven’t had time to explore that possibility yet.] From a development perspective, the omission is reasonable. The plugins are several years old and a newer standalone version is available that doesn’t leach off Photoshop’s resources. The problem from a practical perspective is that the new version is no longer free. The new version is $150, which is more than I had planned to spend on software upgrades this month. Or any month. 

Ah, the beauty is that the plugins didn’t do anything that wasn’t already available in the main application. The attraction is that they do it much more efficiently than one would do on their own. You’ll find the images that fueled this entire line of thought by clicking here.

All this turmoil has me thinking about what it means to be creative, how the reality is far more complicated than the end result would make it out to be, how being creative requires flirting with insanity, and the degree to which no one cares about the process, just the end result. Come take a walk with me through my world for a bit. This can get scary. Bring your own alcohol.

What Does It Mean To Be Creative?

What does it mean to be creative

We are constantly asking ourselves whether something is or is not art. That argument has gone to its furthest extreme of “if someone says its art, it is,” and puts any conversation about quality or talent on the defensive. I’m not sure we’re doing society nor artists any favors by being too accepting.

What we’re less likely to discuss is what it means to be creative. Being creative doesn’t just apply to what we might traditionally consider art. Creativity is involved in all manner of science and engineering as well. Where a new discovery comes as the result of a person trying something different or approaching a question from a unique direction, creativity was involved. That means that being creative does not make one artistic. Perhaps, just maybe, the inverse is true as well. Is being artistic always creative? Does writing an essay or taking a picture or finding a new algorithm for calculating the density of peanut butter mean that one is gifted or have we simply learned how to manipulate the elements from which new things are composed or composited?

In his article Being Special Isn’t So Special, Mark Manson attempts to make the argument that if you’re not setting the world on fire with awe-inspiring art or world-changing inventions, that one shouldn’t be too hard on themselves. After examining the progression and complications of contemporary Western society, Manson comes to the following conclusion:

As they say, wherever you go, there you are. Being special isn’t so special. You will still feel frustrated. You will still feel lonely. You will still feel like you could have done more.

Don’t sell yourself out for the sake of attention and false glory. Not that attention and glory are wrong, but they should not be prime motivators that drive your life.

Instead, focus on simplicity. On nuance. Slow down. Breathe. Smile. You don’t need to prove anything to anybody. Including yourself. Think about that for a minute and let it sink in:

You don’t have to prove anything to anybody, including yourself.

I’ll admit, there are days, weeks, months, even years where that “it’s okay, you don’t have to be Da Vinci” attitude has gotten me through some low points. However, as I get older, that attitude, especially over prolonged periods, risks being too defeatist to entertain. Okay, so not every picture I take has to be wonderful. Shouldn’t I at least try to make every photograph eye-popping? Trying and not succeeding is one thing. Not trying at all, however, is quite another. I’m hard-pressed to consider as creative the person for whom hum-drum and ordinary is the goal. 

There is an ad campaign that uses the tag, “for when being ‘okay’ isn’t okay.”  “Okay” meets only the most basic goals; it ticks the fewest boxes possible to be considered complete. “Okay” is life’s C-; sure it’s passing, but it’s a meaningless high school diploma that hangs alone on a wall where nothing else of note was ever accomplished.

I think part of what has to be separated is the act of creativity from the act of performance or presentation. For example, as I’m writing this paragraph (painfully struggling over everything except participles) I’m listening to a portion of Alfred Schnittke’s Faust Cantata (It Came To Pass if you’re really that interested). Where is the greater creativity: in the act of composing by Schnittke or the interpretation by Maestro James DePriest performed by the Malmö Symphony Chorus? There’s no question that there’s immense talent on the part of everyone involved, but where, exactly is the greater creativity demonstrated? Are the soloists as creative as the conductor? Is the maestro any less creative than the composer? Can degrees of creativity even be adequately measured?

Into this stream of steaming consciousness is a new study that suggests there are two types of creativity. Experimental creatives build off their experience, bringing years of trial and error to bear before delivering a seminal, perhaps final work that defines the whole of their career. Conceptual thinkers work from abstract principals, chasing raw thought and following it through to its creative outcome. What’s interesting about this study is that is generally age definitive. Conceptual creatives tend to be younger, primarily people in their 20s who don’t have the life experience that might hold them back from chasing new ideas. Experimental thinkers are more likely to be over 50, have experienced some disappointments in their careers, maybe even changed careers multiple times, before reaching an intricately formed and detailed result. 

There’s something to be said for both approaches and it is entirely possible for a person to fall into both categories at different points in their lives. I look at musicians, especially. LadyGaga raised a bit of a ruckus with her “little monsters” when she tweeted that she doesn’t remember her album ARTPOP. Looking at the quality of the music on that album, comparing it to what came before and what was created after, it’s reasonable that the album falls between the conceptual success of “Born This Way” and the more introspective and perhaps experimental sounds of “Joanne,” but the artist is still quite young and may yet develop a different sound as her voice matures.

Comparatively, not everyone who is successful at an early age tops that first big explosion. Consider T. S. Elliot and Pablo Picasso whose best works (arguably, of course) came when they were young. By contrast, Virginia Wolf and Charles Darwin had a whole lifetime of experience behind the works for which they are best known. One of my favorite examples is Matisse, whose early works are exceptional on their own but have absolutely no relation to the work from his later life that demands to be a topic in every art history course ever taught. 

That doesn’t define, though, what it means to be creative, so let’s toss something even more convoluted into the mix. Adobe, the massive software company whose products directly target creatives, teamed up with the creative agency Anyways and writer/researcher Carolyn Gregoire to create the eight distinctive creative personalities: ‘The Artist’; ‘The Thinker’; ‘The Adventurer’; ‘The Maker’; ‘The Producer’; ‘The Dreamer’; ‘The Innovator’; ‘The Visionary’. The test is based on the Miers-Briggs personality exam which almost everyone on the planet has taken. Using their relatively short testing process, I’m apparently the Dreamer, which lists its strengths as being connected to emotions and imagination, empathy and sensitivity. If you want to take the test for yourself, you can do so here. However, at the end of the exercise, I don’t see the test as definitive of creativity any more than I find the Miers-Briggs anything more than a personality snapshot, a definitive point on an extended timeline. One can fit any of the artistic personality types and still be perfectly satisfied with their life sitting on a couch doing nothing. Personality is a filter that colors our actions, not necessarily a motivator that leads one to act.

Perhaps the end result is that what it means to be creative is as undefinable as attempting to determine what is or is not art. If that is the case, how do we begin quantifying our creative lives? If there is no “this is, that isn’t” determination, then on what basis do we justify people investing in, paying attention to, or distantly regarding our work? Volume? Quality? External perception by peers or “critics?” If some people like the work of Sibelius or Gustav Klimt, why are they enthused by those works while others consider both trash? 

As hard as I look at the topic, I keep finding more questions than I do answers.

What Is The Source Of Creativity, Anyway?

Creative Sources

Ask a thousand people a question, get a thousand answers to fuel a thousand frustrations. I’m half-tempted to ask why we need to ask this question in the first place? Does it really matter what the source of creativity is as long as there is creativity? Creativity isn’t a shared resource where one has to worry about their idea being polluted by someone or something further upstream. Or is it? And there’s the answer to the question of why we need to ask the question. Understanding the source of creativity does not make the ideas come any faster or make them any better, but helps us understand the shared space that creatives occupy, that portion of the universe that plants seeds in our brains and waits for them to grow.

Right from the start, however, one runs into a problem determining the source of creativity in that there is no consensus. There are those who look at creativity as an abstract that “lies deep within the soul of man,” (really, someone wrote that). Then, there are those who look at creativity as a role of brain function or, at least, keep making that attempt. Each of those approaches carries with them a lot of evidence based on the observation of what happens when someone is in the act of being creative. What was someone doing/thinking/eating/experiencing when engaged in a creative activity? Based on one’s perspective, the answers can be rather diverse and, at times, even contradictory, leading one to the conclusion that, no, we really don’t understand the source of creativity.

First, let’s get out of the way the concept that creativity is linked to intelligence. Yeah, sure, you may have read that somewhere, and it may be that most the creatives you know are also intelligent people. However, one does not necessarily infer the other. Dr. Rex Jung, assistant professor of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico, said in an APA interview,

“ … some people have found correlations between creativity and intelligence. They’re usually pretty low, this association. And some people make a lot of that, this low association. But usually, because this association between creativity and intelligence is low, it means that you don’t necessarily have to be intelligent to be creative (source).”

Okay, that’s not the hard break some might have liked. Anecdotally, it often appears that intelligence and creativity are linked, especially if we are looking at scientific forms of creativity, where knowledge of a specific area of study precludes being creative in that field at all. Someone like me, who despite all my efforts still does not understand Algebra, is not likely to have a seminal moment where I solve some math problem that five minutes ago I didn’t realize existed. However, there remain plenty of areas where pre-existing expertise is not requisite to the creative process and, at times, an overabundance of knowledge in certain areas, or even the access to excessive information in an area, can stand in the way of creativity.

Point of fact: following the rabbit trails of research on a topic can cause me to spend a lot of time reading rather than actually writing the article. However, in that case, the intelligence getting in the way is not mine, is it? One can hardly blame the author of an article if they’ve done well enough that I find the words compelling. 

One of those rabbit trails, however, led me to a 1965 article in a now-defunct scholarly magazine called Social Science. In the article, (source registration required) Alfred W. Monk, who was at the time Professor of Philosophy and Chairman of the Department at Albion College, postures that there are three primary sources of creativity. He alleges that,

“Nature, by virtue of its vastness, its order, its beauty, and its challenges to man, constitutes a source of creativity. Man himself, however, in terms of his higher capacities, represents a higher source of creativity. Yet, if man is to develop and to become creative, he needs the kind of society which is most conducive to the development of his potentialities.”

American poet Walt Whitman would have underscored the influence of Nature. A decade after the Civil War had ended, Whitman mused in his diaries, later published as the collection Specimen Days, of the importance of communicating with trees.

One lesson from affiliating a tree — perhaps the greatest moral lesson anyhow from earth, rocks, animals, is that same lesson of inherency, of what is, without the least regard to what the looker on (the critic) supposes or says, or whether he likes or dislikes. What worse — what more general malady pervades each and all of us, our literature, education, attitude toward each other, (even toward ourselves,) than a morbid trouble about seems, (generally temporarily seems too,) and no trouble at all, or hardly any, about the sane, slow-growing, perennial, real parts of character, books, friendship, marriage — humanity’s invisible foundations and hold-together? (As the all-basis, the nerve, the great-sympathetic, the plenum within humanity, giving stamp to everything, is necessarily invisible.)

No, it’s not an easy read more than a century and a half out from its creation, but Whitman was channeling a communion with nature that was itself introduced by English author Ralph Austen all the way back in 1653 (source). In fact, the period between the late 19th century and early 20th, prior to World War I, saw a global movement in naturism and contemplating gardens and trees and lying about naked among them. This is the atmosphere that raised great photographers such as Horst P. Horst. 

Neither does the concept that humanity itself, one’s own existence and experience, breeds creativity within oneself. The entire rationale of Mindfulness and its related practices such as many forms of yoga underscores and supports the concept that the answers and creativity lie within the self and flow forth most freely as one becomes “in tune” with the self. This is part of ancient traditions going back at least as far as the 15th century.

Where Munk may be unique, and tragically unheard, however, is in the premise that society has an obligation and need to foster creativity. He repeats the philosophical question of whether Newton would have been equally as creative in the Stone Age, in a society where he might have been seen as a magician rather than a man of science. After fussing around the history of philosophical ponderings, Munk makes a final charge.

“Although it is impossible to predict clearly and precisely the basic characteristics of the kind of society most conducive to the production of geniuses, at least three things are possible. First, from a negative standpoint, it is clear that not less than four types tend to stifle creativity: primitive societies; modern totalitarian states; stagnant, traditionalistic and archaic cultures; and any society that is unstable to the point of chaos. The second is simply the fact that any society that aims at maximum creativity must find its way between totalitarianism and authoritarianism, on the one hand, and instability and chaos on the other. The third is the fact that the creative society must be engaged in creative interaction with other societies. There is no instance of any great nation or civilization in isolation.

Remember, Munk is speaking from the perspective of a society that is still attempting but not yet succeeded in landing a human on the moon when he writes, “… it is well to point to the hope that, while we are on the brink of chaos and disaster, we may also be on the verge of the greatest period of creativity that mankind has ever known.” Given all that has happened over the past 50-plus years, Munk seems to have nailed that prediction on the head. 

As I read and ponder all these things I’m still not satisfied that we, collectively, especially from a societal perspective, understand creativity in its purest form or even recognize it when it occurs either within ourselves or, most especially, within others. I worry that far too much of the creative element is only recognized in hindsight, which leads me to the next section of the discussion.

How Are We Defining Creativity?

Go ahead, define creativity

Over the course of this week, when not chasing down the infinite distractions of this topic, or preparing meals for children who are perpetually hungry, or trying to make a dent in the ever-growing mountain of laundry [seriously, how do we have so many clothes?], or troubleshooting an uncooperative computer program, I’ve been processing a set of erotic images with the intention of submitting at least one of them for inclusion in next year’s art shows. The work has been at times tedious and enjoyable and on some emotional level, both exhausting and exhilarating as the production of these ten images has dominated my focus for the week. 

What bothers me about investing so much creative capital into a set of pictures is the constant concern that, short of me standing right next to the observer explaining to them what they are seeing, they will neither understand nor appreciate what they are viewing. I know that I’m not alone in harboring that fear, either. We have all been pelted with stories of artists and scientists and creatives of various kinds whose work was completely ignored until after their deaths. At times during the educational process, there seemed to be a subliminal messaging that to be creative is to doom oneself to obscurity in this lifetime and fame after our name has been forgotten.

One prime example that has received a fair amount of attention only in the past few years is the fact that it was women, specifically black women such as Katherine Jackson, Dorothy Vaughn, Miriam Mann, Christine Darden, and Annie Easly whose work, largely unheralded before the release of a movie about their contributions, who are responsible for many of the creative advances in both science and art through the latter part of the 20th century and into the beginning of this one (source). What if the movie Hidden Figures had never been made? Would anyone outside their most immediate family have recognized their creativity before their deaths? 

I am thoroughly convinced that a lot of people sit on creative thoughts and ideas, never sharing them or pursuing them to any degree, for fear of being ridiculed, told their ideas are silly, or being told they’re wasting their time. The problem starts when we’re young. Parents and preschool teachers who have a lot on their minds find it too easy to push aside a child whose creative bantering is disruptive. As children enter school, they’re told to sit down, be quiet, let someone else do the talking. By the time they’re teenagers, even those with immense talent in specific public areas of art and entertainment are they shouldn’t hum while reading, or drum their fingers on the desk, or doodle on their test papers. It is the rare individual who survives this system into adulthood with their creativity fully intact. 

Yet, I am fully aware that there is a perfectly legitimate and authoritative argument that knowledge within a particular standardized framework is necessary to develop creativity in more rigid areas of study, such as math, economics, and physics. Economist Tim Leunig argues that creativity is born of skills that are developed in the classroom and sites the manner in which Thomas Newcomen invented the steam engine as evidence. As mentioned previously, there are certain forms of creativity that can only come with a specific amount of knowledge already in place. Leunig and others refer to it as a creative form of literacy that, when absent, creativity has difficulty establishing a foothold (source).

Part of the challenge is that creativity in a field such as mathematics is not the same as creativity in the arts. A painter might come up with an elegant manner of expressing a math problem, be completely and utterly wrong about the math problem, and it still is art. If a mathematician were to express the same incorrect problem within the language common to that field, they would be ridiculed, scorned, and possibly driven out of business. 

Julian Astle, the former director of Creative and Learning Development for the RSA, has written that “Creativity is not a single thing, but in fact a whole collection of similar, but different, processes.” Hence, we have difficulty recognizing creativity at different levels and in different fields because we’re looking in too narrow a zone. 

For example, if we’re looking at an Ansel Adams photograph of the American desert, the tendency is likely to appreciate it for its framing, for the way in which Adams captures light at just the right angle to make the image aesthetically astonishing. What we often miss, however, is Adams’ genius in calculating when that light was going to appear, the precise time at which it would appear, and the conditions that had to exist for the light to appear at all. What is often praised for its aesthetic creativity is perhaps more astonishing for its scientific creativity and use of knowledge to create something visually pleasing. While there is no question that the photographer had a creative vision, he also had a creative application of knowledge that facilitated that vision. To fully appreciate the photograph, then, we have to consider not only what was captured but how it was captured and even the manner in which the photograph was processed. 

Inversely, the presence of artistic skill does not predicate creative ability. The Suzuki Method of teaching music, for example, is often criticized for producing musical automatons. Yes, the four-year-old knows how to play Mozart with technical precision, but the aesthetic value is lacking. Music requires more than just an iteration of notes and sounds in a specific order. A digital machine can just as easily reproduce the pure sound as can the four-year-old. However, there is still a noticeable difference between the child’s performance and that of a master such as Yoyo Ma The child is reciting notes on an instrument much as they might recite “Mary had a little lamb.” Ma is creating something new, something different, every time he picks up his cello, even if the notes on the page are exactly the same.

At this point, I have to insert the existence of composer John Cage (1912-1992). Cage was to contemporary Western music what Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) was to contemporary art. The fact that the two avant-garde artists were friends set up one of the greatest events of public art in the 20th century [you’ll have to read more about that here.]. As a composer, however, Cage’s perspective on creativity and music and sound was unique, influenced not only by Dadaism and his fascination with music theory but by Zen Buddhism and the concept of silence. 

When in the 1940s the Muzak Corporation began piping music into offices everywhere as well as subway platforms and department store elevators, Cage led the revolt by composing the piece 4’33”. Asserting that silence was as important to music as sound, the premiere performance of that piece in 1952 went something like this:

  • Pianist David Tudor walked on to the stage at a chamber music hall in Woodstock, New York (yes, that Woodstock).
  • Tudor sat at the piano and propped up six black pieces of paper.
  • He shut the lid to the piano.
  • He clicked a stopwatch.
  • At the 30 second mark, Tudor opens the piano lid, pauses, then shuts it again.
  • Rain begins to fall (Cage had nothing to do with that … I think).
  • Tudor repeated his actions after two minutes and 23 seconds.
  • Audience members began to leave.
  • One minute and 40 seconds later, Tudor opened the piano lid, stood up, and bowed. The performance was over.

The audience was livid to the point that some wanted to run Tudor and Cage out of town. The response from every “respectable” music critic in the country ferociously declared that 4’33” was insulting to audiences and to the music community. Even Cage’s own mother told him the work was trash. 

Not everyone saw it as a waste, however. Musicians such as John Lennon and Frank Zappa would later hail it as one of the greatest pieces of music ever written (source). 

Abstract painter Willem de Keunig was once (perhaps apocryphally) debating art with Cage when he made a rectangle with his fingers and placed them around a scattering of bread crumbs on the table. “If I put a frame around these bread crumbs, that isn’t art,” De Kooning said. 

Cage disagreed. “The frame is everything,” he said. 

Out of context, everything is just noise. The sound of wind rustling through the leaves. The whir of a finely tuned car engine. A violin playing a lone melody. All nothing more than irritants until they are provided a frame, a context that reveals the genius of creativity. Suddenly, we see and hear and understand things in a different light, we appreciate their beauty, we place value on their existence.

With that understanding, or at least from that perspective, perhaps it makes sense to say that creativity on its own is just noise. If I write a song, something I did once upon a time, but no one ever hears it, or the people for whom it is played are unable to understand it, what was created holds little value. Sure, I might like it (I rarely do) but is it enough to create for our own understanding or our own pleasure? If we do not create to the benefit of someone or something outside ourselves, is there value to creativity at all? The answer seems to depend on whom one asks.

Who Owns Creative Property?

Who owns this mess

If there is value to creativity, and let’s assume for the moment that there is if for no other reason than the deepened depression that comes with the alternative is debilitating, then there is an inevitability to the question of who owns that value. Normally, I would reference some piece of law at this point, but when it comes to the overall survey of creativity, the law only serves to confuse and discourage us even more. This topic is a real-world nightmare that does nothing more than make millionaires of lawyers who spend years arguing without end. We have constructed a nightmare by attempting to hold the value of creativity to something that can be bought, sold, traded, franchised, and licensed. None of it makes a damn lick of sense and it only serves those whose understanding of creativity is completely self-serving.

A significant portion of the week has had the perils of Taylor Swift filling my Twitter feed. The country-turned-pop diva left the label, Big Machine, because of alleged improprieties on the part of Scooter Braun, one of the company’s big wigs. No, it’s not because it’s impossible to take seriously anyone named Scooter. This runs deep and has its own legal issues taking place somewhere else. This week’s particular challenge is that, in exchange for spending millions of dollars building Ms. Swift’s career, Big Machine owns the rights to all the songs she recorded during that period, even if she wrote them herself, which applies to a large portion of her back catalog. Scooter was not part of Big Machine while Ms. Swift was under contract there. He bought the label after Ms. Swift had left. Because of their previous legal difficulties, everyone knew it was just a matter of time before this became nasty.

This week, Ms. Swift claimed that Big Machine was refusing to allow her to perform any of her old songs at the upcoming American Music Awards. Their alleged justification was that doing so amounted to re-recoding the songs (because the show is taped) and Swift isn’t allowed to do that until next year. 

Scooter says, “Did not, she’s just trying to get me in trouble.” Okay, those weren’t the exact words, but reading the explanation issued on Friday, it reminded me far too much of the arguments between children when a parent was not present to witness the alleged grievance. The whole mess is missing any substantial evidence on the part of either party and, quite honestly, the best response might be to send all parties to their room without any dinner. 

What the on-going argument does, however, is to highlight the perils and, often, the futility creatives face when attempting to monetize their creations. Every form of copyright and patent law upholds the rights of the creator to claim ownership of the created—sort of. If one discovers something or creates something of value while in the employment of another entity who might benefit from that discovery or creation, then the employer may own the rights to what was created. Check the small print of your employment contract. This is just the tip of a very big iceberg where the matter of creative rights depends on the specific circumstances around the how, where, when and why of creation complicated by whether it was sold, how it was sold, and whether the person doing the selling had the rights to sell in the first place. Yes, the whole mess is muddy and discouraging.

There are basically three general areas of protection: patent, copyright, and license. The most simple breakdown goes something like this:

  • Patents apply to physical objects or processes involving physical objects or the plan/concept for physical objects.
  • Copyright applies to any item created through the general artistic process, regardless of medium nor the manner in which the item might be presented. 
  • License is the means through which a patent or copyright holder allows someone else to utilize, perform, display, or otherwise make use of that protected property.

Seems simple enough, doesn’t it? But, of course, nothing ever is as easy as we’d like and there are more crooks and crevices within intellectual property law than one could adequately cover in a dozen books. 

One of the most significant problems comes when one tries to sell something they’ve created. For centuries, especially within the field of the arts, once something was sold, whether a song or a photo or a sculpture, ownership moved from the creator to the buyer. The buyer was then free to do whatever they wish with the object, even to the point of destroying it. Creatives often felt left out when the buyer would then go on to make a fortune re-selling their creation. I cannot help but think of this every time I see a painting selling at auction for millions of dollars. Be sure, the artist isn’t making a freaking dime from that resale. 

Licensing was developed as a way for creatives to continue making money off their creation as the value of that creation grows. For example, if the Associated Press called me up and asked to use one of my photos of the Vice President, I would likely sell them a limited use license that allows for a specific manner of distribution while maintaining the copyright in my own possession. I could then enter into a similar agreement with another media entity if someone else asked to use the same photo. 

The problem with licensing is that it may work too well. When the concept was developed in the 1920s, it centered primarily on intangible assets. However, with the advent of computers, software companies such as Microsoft utilized the concept of selling licenses so that they could re-sell and simultaneously limit the use of their software, creating different rules, and pricing, to apply to differing circumstances. As more and more of the creative world has moved to the use of digital tools, we’re finding that many of those tools require individual licensing.

For example, not only do I have to license Photoshop in order to process my photographs, but I have to also license fonts for various type, brushes and patterns for various effects, and even some specific color palettes. This drives up the cost of every image I process. I have the choice, then, to either absorb the license fees as a cost of doing business, or I can attempt to reclaim those by adding them on to the price of images that are sold. 

I don’t especially like the licensing system, though. Imagine if the same philosophy was applied to building a house. I might license the lumber from Home Depot, my hammer from Stanley, my saws from Stihl, and my nails from someone else. Obviously, I would factor the cost of those licenses into the price of the house, but what happens if, in the middle of the project, Stanley decides that they are discontinuing the license for the hammer I’m using. I’m supposed to return the hammer and obtain a new model which, big surprise, costs twice as much. This impacts the cost of building the house, but the person buying the house is likely to be quite upset and may even cancel the contract if I go back mid-project and try to raise the price.

Another sore spot in the area of digital licensing is that many products are licensed based on a subscription. Maintain the subscription and the license is in force. Drop the subscription and one can no longer use the product. Never mind that the real value of the product is considerably less than the accumulated subscription cost, to continue using them is a copyright violation.

Yet, the people who created those tools deserve to be justly compensated, do they not? And being that digital product is intangible, it is subject to licensing where products such as lumber and hammers and saws are not. The situation exists because so many of the creatives involved are freelance, part of a gig economy that leaves fair payment for one’s creativity up to an ungrateful end user who thinks they should get everything for free, including end product. Instead of being supportive by buying products and services outright, the society that should be supportive of creativity in all forms instead starves it to death with inappropriate payment systems that keep us all on proverbial street corners looking for handouts.

And that leads us to the final thought.

Are Creatives Crazy Or Are Crazy People Creative?

who are you calling crazy

Honestly, I don’t know creative people in any field that haven’t had their bouts with mental illness of one form or another. I sit here almost every Saturday questioning my value, wondering if I’m the only one who thinks my work has value, and questioning my worth as a person. Plenty of others have it worse, fighting with suicidal thoughts on a regular basis and dealing with urges of self-harm. We may make jokes about van Gogh cutting off his ear, but the number of creatives across every field who hide scars with long sleeves or, more recently, heavily inked tattoos, is higher than anyone can accurately measure. Not only do we suffer, but most also suffer in complete silence.

I have found it interesting as I’ve looked at this subject in sometimes painful detail the number of psychopathological challenges that have been found common among creatives.

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Manic ideations
  • Suicide

Every study seems to have their favorite malady and plenty of famous anecdotal subjects who conveniently fit the diagnosis that particular psychopathology despite not being available to participate in an actual study, usually due to having been dead for a hundred years or so. 

On the surface, it’s easy enough to accept such studies because of our own need to explain the mood swings, the sudden outburst of anger followed by uncontrollable crying, hearing voices when no one else is in the room, and the persistent urge to drive one’s head into a wall, among other symptoms. 

The fly in this seemingly obvious ointment is Alan Rothenberg’s book Flight from Wonder: An Investigation of Scientific Creativity. In preparation for this book, Dr. Rothenberg interviewed 45 Nobel Laureates and failed to find a single instance of a psychiatric disorder. None. Zero. Some of the most creative people in the world and they don’t exhibit any of the plagues that seem to haunt the minds of others. That kind of puts a pin in all the other studies who looked at more “average” creatives.

Maybe part of the problem is that we’re not reaching our creative potential and that is making us crazy? There’s certainly an argument for that, but there is no hard scientific evidence in support of the theory. 

What does seem almost certain is that Cognitive Disinhibition plays a roll in what is at the very least considered artistic eccentricity. Cognitive Disinhibition is the inability to ignore the things we would be better off ignoring. You know, like constantly chasing rabbit trails instead of sticking to the research one needs to do. For anyone who has Cognitive Disinhibition, the Internet and especially social media are like death traps. The overabundance of information constantly changing and being updated feeds that inability to filter out information we don’t really need to know (source).

Where does that leave us? A 2013 study says this:

Reduced cognitive filtering could explain the tendency of highly creative people to focus intensely on the content of their inner world at the expense of social or even self-care needs. (Beethoven, for example, had difficulty tending to his own cleanliness.) When conscious awareness is overpopulated with unusual and unfiltered stimuli, it is difficult not to focus attention on that inner universe.”

That might explain how many creative people end up seeming antisocial or having difficulty participating in social events. The same researcher says in a similar study:

In all of our studies and analyses, high IQ, when combined with low LI, was associated with increased creative achievement. These results are particularly stunning in the analysis of eminent achievers and high-functioning controls. High IQ clearly appeared to augment the tendency toward high creative achievement characteristic of low-LI individuals.

These results lend support to the theory that there may be qualitative (e.g., failure to filter out irrelevant stimuli) as well as quantitative (e.g., high IQ) differences in the processes underlying creative versus normal cognition.”

Just for clarity, LI in this instance stands for latent inhibition, “the varying capacity of the brain to screen from current attentional focus stimuli previously experienced as irrelevant.” So, to summarize, intelligent people who are easily distracted are also more likely to be more creative. That’s nice to know, I suppose, but it doesn’t explain why so many creatives are happy taking a handful of sleeping pills and never waking up.

Hold on, Dr. Carson isn’t done. In yet another article she and her colleagues write:

“…These results also support the theory that highly creative individuals and psychotic-prone individuals may possess neurobiological similarities, perhaps genetically determined, that present either as psychotic predisposition on the one hand or as unusual creative potential on the other on the basis of the presence of moderating cognitive factors such as high IQ (e.g., Berenbaum & Fujita, 1994; Dykes & McGhie, 1976; Eysenck, 1995). These moderating factors may allow an individual to override a “deficit” in early selective attentional processing with a high-functioning mechanism at a later, more controlled level of selective processing. The highly creative individual may be privileged to access a greater inventory of unfiltered stimuli during early processing, thereby increasing the odds of original recombinant ideation. Thus, a deficit that is generally associated with pathology may well impart a creative advantage in the presence of other cognitive strengths such as high IQ.”

Translation: The whole matter may be one of genetics. The same genes that result in mental incapacities in some people may create “unusual creative potential” in others, with the possibility that a person and shift back and forth between the two. In short: we’re born this way, baby.

Oh, but this gets way crazier. If we recognize that there’s a problem we have to try and solve it, right? Famously, Timothy Leary and others tried using LSD and other drugs and while it might have made them more creative for a period it also made any mental issues worse. So, we’ve all been told to stay away from psychedelic drugs.

Until a couple of years ago. Microdosing. Are you familiar with the term? It’s when a drug is administered at levels significantly lower than the norm. One of its most common uses is in hormone therapy where it’s shown significant promise. Now, apply that to psychedelic drugs, specifically LSD.

A 2018 study showed that people who microdose LSD and mushrooms score higher on wisdom, creativity, and open-mindedness while scoring lower on dysfunctional attitudes and negative emotionality. While this is far from being any kind of a cure, it is some sign that there are at least options that might momentarily mute some of the more negative symptoms that creatives regularly endure.

Pardon Me While I Soak My Head

I'm done

Seriously, my head is throbbing. It’s now late Saturday night, stress has created a pain at the base of my skull, and I’m trying to find a way to wrap up this bitch of an article so I can take a hit of scotch and go to bed. I’m not convinced that all this research this week has actually solved anything except that I have a lot more information in my head now to contribute to all the Cognitive Disinhibition. 

Here’s where my brain is at for the moment.

  1. Those of us who are genuinely creative are damn lucky. There are a lot of people who work in creative-related areas that can’t actually produce a damn thing but have been led to believe that they are creatives. Their frustration is significantly higher than the rest of us and many end up in mental institutions … doing art therapy.
  2. Creativity has a mind of its own and shows up whenever, wherever, and for whatever reason it wants. There are a thousand ways to stimulate the creative mind and no, not all of them are healthy, but when every molecule in your brain is telling you that you have to create something then consequences be damned, we’re going to create. Something.
  3. Creativity can be the answer to a math problem no one else can figure out or a smattering of bread crumbs on a table or the cacophony of a dozen ring tones smashed together and punctuated with rhythmic silence. What matters is the frame, the context, how one allows others to experience their work. If you think you’ve made a freaking masterpiece then show it off like a freaking masterpiece, not in your mother’s garage.
  4. What you create is always a part of you even if it is no longer with you. Possession is an illusion. If you create something, it is yours. If someone else can rif off what you created, let them because in doing so you celebrate the creativity you both share. Nothing worthwhile deserves to be locked away by any means physical, contractual, or digital. Sing your songs. Make your art. Discover new worlds. Let no one tell you no.
  5. It’s not being creative that presents mental illness, it’s the pressure, whether internal or external, to create that drives us right smack over the edge. Creatives are under constant pressure to produce more and as we do it is supposed to be different and better and more astonishing than what we did last time. Feel free to call bullshit on that whole scenario. 
  6. Someone needs to be taking care of creatives because, for the most part, we do a lousy job taking care of ourselves. We’re a mess, ya’ll. And while we should embrace the mess that we are, let’s get real and appreciate that there are probably days/weeks/months that we shouldn’t be left alone in a room where there are sharp objects. We need people to check on us and not believe us when we say that we’re fine. We’re creatives. We’re not “fine.”
  7. We all need more sleep.

There is a long-haired orange tabby kitten peering over the edge of my laptop most likely wondering if I’m going to get anything to eat and if I do whether he can mooch some if it. He gets his balls lopped off on Monday. We are removing an element of creativity from him. 

Too many days I feel as though I’ve had my creative balls lopped off.  I go back over the questions I’ve asked here and despite all the research, I can’t answer any of them. Then, a poem comes to mind from the pen of Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose depression and exhaustion drove him into a manner of solitude. He wrote, in part,

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
   Someone had blundered.
   Theirs not to make reply,   
Theirs not to reason why,
   Theirs but to do and die.
   Into the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
   Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell.
They that had fought so well
Came through the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell,
All that was left of them,
   Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

My creative friends, we are the six hundred. Charge on.

Enduring the Crucible of Self-Creation

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“If you had offered me a pill to make me straight, I would have swallowed it before I could get a sip of water.”

– Mayor Pete Buttigieg

Life is full of troubling questions. What is life? When does life start and does it ever truly end? What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be?

Philosophers have batted these questions around for centuries and just about the time there seems to be something resembling a consensus someone comes up with another question or another situation that doesn’t fit the previous answer and off we go again, asking the same questions and coming up with different answers. There are times when it can feel as though life is simply nothing more than the endless search for answers to questions that only generate more questions.

Members of the United States Marine Corp go through something called The Crucible. While artists and metal workers think of a crucible as a porcelain vessel used to melt metals, the Marines go with something closer to what Merriam-Webster defines as a place or situation in which concentrated forces interact to cause or influence change or development. The Crucible occurs at the end of boot camp, a 72-hour test of one’s endurance and training, the culmination of everything they’ve done up to that point, that defines who they are. Those who finish are awarded the Marine Corp’s Eagle, Globe, and Anchor. They are now officially Marines.

The Crucible is a Marine recruit’s most defining moment. Rarely, throughout their term of service, does a Marine encounter conditions more harsh, more demanding, more trying, than those 72 hours. In the end, though, they know who they are. They are United States Marines.

Rarely does life give us such a high-intensity period of time to define who we are, though. We’re sent through at least twelve years of school where we are expected to learn a lot of things but at the end of that education, most of us still don’t have a clue as to who we truly are. Even college fails to provide specific instruction to help one with this quest. We learn about society and sociology and psychology and the history of civilization but any work done to learn specifically about ourselves must be done on our own. There is no classroom instruction, no tutor, and no guidance counselor assigned to help us complete what may be the most critical task of our lives.

For the greater part of human existence, the question of who we are was left to philosophers, most of whom also happened to be theologians. This left us with an ingrained notion that we are, first and foremost, “children of god” and that our primary purpose is to serve him, or her, or it, depending on the specifics of the deity’s identity. Since no one wanted to incur the wrath of an angry god, they went along with what they were told and did their best to adapt to that definition. Men were protective and war-like while women stayed home, raised children, and did all the menial labor. While far from what we would consider fair in a modern environment, few ever questioned their role and their place because to do so meant challenging the deity and that was not likely to end with a positive and uplifting experience.

Yet, even within that religiously-induced definition, we have struggled to find who we are as individuals. This search has arguably been the inspiration for libraries full of poetry, every conceivable form of a midlife crisis, numerous divorces and other relationship issues, changing careers, changing political alignments, and changing our gender identities. As we struggle through this self-examination that ultimately influences change and development, we not only disrupt our own lives but those of everyone close to us as well. When an entire generation goes through such a period of definition, all of society is disrupted and change is inevitable.

Destroying The Threat Of Stereotypes

Destroying the Threat of Stereotypes - old man talking

From the very outset of life, the path toward self-identification is thwarted by the imposition of stereotypes. Just to make sure that we’re all on the same page, I’m defining stereotypes as a set of a largely agreed-upon set of characteristics regarding a specific group or set of people. Some people might prefer to use the term “generalizations” and I’ve occasionally seen the phrase “unifying character traits” but neither of those conveys the negative aspects of exclusion and ignorance that are inferred in the word stereotype.

At birth, the delivering attendant, whether it’s a doctor or a midwife or a doula, gives us our first stereotype when they declare, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” From that moment forward, we are saddled with a set of expectations not only regarding our general behavior but expectations for how we will proceed through life. For the first several years of our lives, most of us acquiesce to those expectations. We dress like other little boys and little girls dress. We play with the same toys and other little boys and little girls. We watch our peers and mimic their activities and language. We learn how to fit in with the group.

Psychologists and other researchers have argued whether it is possible to avoid stereotypes. Our brain does this thing where it groups like things together and just as it might group various shades of the magenta pigment together and call them all “red,” it does the same thing with people, looking for similarities and then grouping people together under assigned levels so as to make processing easier.

Fighting our brains to keep them from creating these groupings is difficult at best and, some argue, impossible. Even if we can’t stop our brains from creating stereotypes, though, we are not obligated to follow them. Every time we become aware of an unfair or biased categorization, we can challenge that and eventually train our brains to make more accurate judgments. Be aware, though, that the mind is so overworked that it’s going to take any shortcut it can to ease processing.

Once we give into a stereotype as basic as gender, breaking away from those assumptions proves difficult because every other system we encounter is designed to reinforce the stereotypes. For example, for many years there was no baby changing stations in most public men’s restrooms. As a dad who enjoyed taking my eldest son everywhere with me, that proved to be extremely frustrating. While women could take their children and change their inevitably messy diapers on presumptively clean-ish surfaces, I was left attempting to change my constantly wiggling bundle of joy on whatever surface I could prep with wet wipes. Protecting my child’s modesty wasn’t an option because the stereotype deemed that men don’t change baby’s diapers. Only when both men and women began challenging that portion of the male stereotype did the situation begin to change.

The threat of stereotypes occurs when we begin to think that they might actually be credible and change our actions accordingly. Perhaps the most well-known study of the stereotype threat was done in 1995 by Psychologists Claude Steele, Ph.D., Joshua Aronson, Ph.D., and Steven Spencer, Ph.D. What they discovered is that “ … even passing reminders that someone belongs to one group or another, such as a group stereotyped as inferior in academics, can wreak havoc ….”

In their study, researchers gave basic GRE verbal questions to two groups of people. Those in the null group were given no indications regarding stereotypes. Those in the test group, however, were told that the test determined intellectual capability. Within the null group, black students performed equally well as white students. Within the test group, however, black students performed worse, subconsciously giving into the stereotype that black students are somehow slower or less intelligent. Note, the students taking the test didn’t have to believe the stereotype or even be actively aware of it to respond negatively.

Similar findings were the result when researchers told women that a math test showed gender differences. Women who were told that gender difference was a factor of the test performed more poorly than did women who were not told about the inferred judgment. Such subtle inferences, the kind often made by teachers who meant no direct ill will toward their students, likely indicates why women and people of color so often struggle with standardized tests. Stereotypes, even when we reject them, can completely destroy our lives!

Breaking stereotypes, especially gender and racial stereotypes, can be extremely difficult but it can be done and the earlier in life we begin attacking them the better. While most scholarly exercises I’ve found focus on helping children break stereotypes, there are some aspects that can work for us even as adults struggling to pull free of all we’ve been told throughout our lives.

  1. Mentally challenge any stereotype one hears, regardless of its source. Okay, maybe you don’t directly challenge the pastor in the middle of their sermon or a politician giving a speech (though, arguably, that may be the only way to get them to listen), one can still recognize hurtful phrases like, “They’re all murderers and thieves,” or “Smart people don’t do that.” The more we become aware of bias stereotypes in our speech and the language of others the more quickly and efficiently we can counter them.
  2. Talk about stereotypes with friends. By making stereotypes a frequent topic of conversation among friends, one spreads the awareness of the damage they do and we all have the opportunity to grow from the exercise. Hearing the perspective of other people also helps us to recognize stereotype threats we might not have caught before.
  3. Avoid labeling activities/actions by gender or culture. While this particular step is extremely important when working with children, it is also important that we do the same thing with ourselves. Even phrases that are seemingly as innocent as “wearing the pants in the family” reinforce a stereotype that men are the ones in charge. A hairstyle is simply a hairstyle regardless of who is wearing it. A song is merely a song no matter who is singing it. Such stereotypes are deeply ingrained in our society but when we don’t use their labels they lose their power.
  4. Use inclusive language wherever possible. This one can be tough. Using non-gender-specific language is one thing but stripping our vocabularies of racial references requires some serious examination of the etymology of our vocabulary. For example, several years ago, I developed this bad habit of calling any male person younger than me “son.” That was offensive on two fronts. Not only was it gender-presumptive but it was also racially insensitive, a lesson I learned quickly once I was in a more metropolitan environment. Much of our language is designed to reinforce stereotypes of one kind or another. We need to think before we speak.
  5. Value difference. Step outside your comfort zone not only in terms of language but in terms of the people with whom one associates. Get to know non-cisgendered people. Make an effort to know and understand people from different cultures. Put some work into dismantling both the subtle and blatant stereotypes that permeate our culture.

We may not be able to stop biased stereotypes from occurring, but we don’t have to accept them and we don’t have to let them become part of our self-definition. One has every right to be exactly who they want to be, without any presumptions as to how that definition might affect our behavior, habits, or public presentation.

Understanding The Dynamic Nature of Identity

Understanding the Dynamic Nature of Identity - old man talking

Even as late as the mid-1980s, many psychological studies looked at identity as a fixed and stable factor. Having a consistent and steady identity was not only presumed to be the norm, but any deviation from that stability was also largely considered a symptom of psychosis. The basis for this perspective came from how “identity” is used in non-human definitions. A flower identified as a rose is always and consistently a rose; it does not wake up one morning to the realization that it is actually a daisy.

However, a litany of studies building upon research from the 1950s shows that our identity is inherently fluid, starting with the fact that one does not identify as a five-year-old for any longer than twelve months. The list of things that affect our identity is lengthy and not only includes our age but also our education, our careers, our hobbies, and aspects of all our relationships. Our identity is wholly fluid, always changing, and in reality, anything but stable.

Such a fundamental difference in the way we think about identity is, of course, upsetting to some and confusing to others. For many people, the concept that an identity change demands that there be an event causing that change. One example would be the strong, athletic young person who joins the military and returns from war missing a limb. That event would, naturally enough, be sufficient to change how a veteran identifies. Short of a trauma-inducing event, however, these people would expect an identity to remain static.

What we’re increasingly learning, however, is that there are many factors involved in our identity that we don’t immediately recognize. One study done in 1991 looked at married graduate students who, over a period of time, tended to identify with decisions their spouse had made as to their own, merging the two separate identities into one. The couples did not realize what was happening until the change was mentioned to them. Most couples in a long-term relationship likely never realize the degree to which they adopt portions of the other’s identity.

Awareness of identity is not necessary, however, for the identity to be present. Actions and activities can often be demonstrative of identity even when one is actively denying that explicit identity. We see this most often, perhaps, in those who serially abuse young children. Few ever view their identity as that of a child molester, yet their patterned behavior defines them as such.

What this means is that one’s identity is like the contents of a river, composed of the basic ingredients that label us as human but with various elements coming and going throughout our journey, influencing our identity for a portion of the journey but not always staying for the entirety of the trip.

No longer do we believe that changes to our identity are necessarily symptomatic of psychosis or the result of great trauma. Changes to our identity can occur simply because we finally become aware of and embrace aspects and characteristic we had previously attempted to ignore. This also gives us room to admit that we may not have correctly labeled a portion of our identity, giving us space to adjust our self-creation.

If such instability feels troubling, know that you’re not alone. Shifting sands makes walking difficult. Much of our society is built upon the concept of stable identities that never change. We find this especially true in our criminal justice system where once a person is branded as a felon, few states ever return to those persons specific rights such as the ability to vote regardless of any level of reform they might demonstrate. Capitalistic economic policies assume that identities stay consistent and predictable based on previous performance. Allowing change on any level, whether small or drastic, provides room for outcomes not previously considered and consequences for which society is not prepared.

There is more to this process once we understand that one isn’t “stuck” with an identity that fails to hold true. With commercial DNA tests letting people know more about their ancestry than ever before, people are discovering they have cultural roots they had not previously anticipated. Some inevitably choose to pursue those ancestral cultures, leaving behind that with which they are raised. This has led to events like people raised in Brooklyn deciding to learn and speak only Mandarin Chinese, women in the Midwest having their hair braided to “embrace the 3% North African heritage” the test said was present (note: everyone has 3-4% North African heritage because that is the region from which homo sapiens originally migrated), and a few people of color deciding to embrace the Viking lifestyle of some unknown ancestor.

Constraints still remain, however. One cannot simply decide that they want to be something they are not capable of being. I would dearly love to be an astrophysicist. I enjoy reading about all the different theories and quantum explanations. Yet, despite all my enthusiasm, when it comes to learning the math necessary to actually explain astrophysics my brain refuses to cooperate. All the desire in the world is not enough to make me an astrophysicist; that will never be part of my identity. Other people are unable to learn a musical instrument; even basic drumming eludes them. A severe lack of eye-hand coordination might prevent one from becoming a carpenter or sculptor. Wanting to do something and having the ability to do it is not always in line and there are times when all the effort one can muster is insufficient to change that.

Where this leaves us is with the knowledge that while one’s identity is fluid and capable of change, that change is not and cannot be arbitrary—it must come from somewhere within us, utilizing elements that are already present though perhaps dormant. We are born with transitory powers to be more than a collection of stereotypes but not everyone is born Chinese, not everyone is born a musical genius, not everyone is born gay, and not everyone is born coordinated. One has wiggle room in creating their identity but we cannot be something we were not born to be.

Knowing Who We Are

Knowing Who We Are

Not everyone on the planet has an identity crisis. There are plenty of people in the world who know and accept who they are, what their identity is, without having any reason or desire to question that. I have found, anecdotally, that musicians often fall into this category. Many know at a very early age, pretty much from the first conscious awareness of self, that their purpose in life is to create music and they have an inherent ability to do so. They could never imagine themselves doing anything else. Similar situations occur across a variety of identities. Mathematicians, farmers, inventors, artists, and many others know who they are from the earliest moments of their lives.

Sometimes, tragically, one knows who they are and also knows that being who they are is not acceptable to the environment in which they currently reside. I am saddened and often frustrated that there are still far too many places in the world where women know they have these incredible skills and talents but to even ask for education to develop those abilities might result in them being abused, beaten, or even killed. Plenty of others know early on that they are not the gender which they were assigned at birth but the very act of exploring a different identity results in ridicule, separation, and too often, death. Their society and their religion establish their identities for them and they are not allowed to question or challenge what those authorities tell them without fearing for their lives.

Still, for millions if not billions of people, there are more than seven billion of us after all, identity is something that eludes us. What we sense we are battles with many external influences and even our own desires, leaving one with uncertainty as to which way to go, what to do, who to be. Our educational system in the United States and across much of Europe is designed to push us toward a specific identity by the time we graduate from high school or turn 18 years old, but do we truly know enough about ourselves and our options to cobble together an identity that works for us Some people struggle their entire lives, never feeling comfortable with any combination of labels, never finding an identity that truly fits. Knowing who we are is not always a given nor is it always something that reveals itself to us.

Psychologists refer to the process of learning who we are as self-awareness. I bring that term up with some trepidation and a careful warning: not all self-awareness methods are based on actual scientific research and there are plenty of feel-good scams that happily take one’s money while producing nothing of value. I’m also not a proponent of anything program that offers to help one “find” themselves. You are not lost. Your identity is not lost. We don’t search for an identity, we create our identity based upon the following factors:

  1. The culmination of our experiences
  2. The development of our skills and talents
  3. The awareness of our own realities

Of those, it is the last one that tends to trip us up the most because it is at that point we often have to face truths about ourselves that might either make us uncomfortable or make everyone around us uncomfortable. Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, though. Let’s look first at the culmination of our experiences.

Experience lies at the very foundation of human identity. Many psychologists and researchers are fond of saying that we are the sum of our parts, with “our parts” being comprised of the various experiences we have. From our earliest moments of existence, the experiences we have shaped our identity. Were we raised by our birth parents or adopted? Were we bottle fed or breastfed? Were we an only child or in the middle of a large family with multiple siblings both older and younger? All of those factors along with many others form our basic identity and to a large extent, we get no say in those earliest experiences. We don’t have any control over where we were born, the social and political climates in which we first live, No one asks us into what culture we wish to be born, the pigmentation of our skin, or in what language we first learn to communicate. Yet, all these factors influence our identity.

Other experiences we do choose and those factor into our identity as well. For example, if one chooses to ask a person out on a date and everything about it goes horribly wrong, that experience does not determine our identity but it certainly influences it. Failure and our response to it has a tremendous impact on the creation of who we are. A trip that immerses us in a different culture, an education course that challenges our thinking, and even breaking down on the side of a road in the middle of the night while it is raining and having to change a flat tire on our own are all experiences that help form our identity.

Now, listen carefully: because we never stop having experiences, our identity is never done developing. One may go through the majority of their life thinking their identity is one thing and a single experience at age 59 changes everything. Seniors who are inherently trusting, giving souls may completely reverse course after becoming the victim of a targeted scam that deprives them of their savings. Tragically losing a child is an experience I would wish on no one but unquestionably changes one’s identity. There are experiences throughout our lives that dramatically alter the course of who we are.

At the same time as we are gathering all those experiences, we are developing the skills and talents inherent to our nature and perhaps adding some that are not especially native to our being. Language is one of our first experiences in communication but the addition of multiple languages changes our ability to communicate more broadly and thereby becomes influential in our identity. People who are naturally gifted in the understanding of numbers and their place in the world see their identities taking a firmer shape as they develop the ability to apply their skills to solving real-world and theoretical problems.

Even here, though, as natural as this process might be for some, there are others who struggle. Skills and talents don’t always manifest themselves early in childhood. Many people reach the age of adulthood still asking the question: what am I good at doing? Frequently, adults asking that question have tried all sorts of things across a broad spectrum and are frustrated at coming up empty. Parents and teachers and therapists have all tried to reassure us that everyone is good at something but there is no empirical evidence to back up that claim. For some, the best they can hope for is to be mediocre at something they find somewhat interesting. Still, even in those less-than-desirable conditions, one’s identity is formed. Every attempt at trying something new and different shapes one in some fashion.

Where this ultimately leads us, however, is toward a kind of identity work that helps us to assemble the information necessary for self-creation. Exactly how this happens is up for some debate. There is a set of psychologists who believe identity is spoken into existence. They believe that the music we prefer and play repeatedly, the fashion choices we make, and the keywords and phrases used most often are what establishes our identity. At the same time, there are others who believe that our identity is wrapped up in biological markers such as race, biological heritage, DNA peculiarities, and our ability to adapt to various environments. Still, others attempt to make a case that community identity, the group(s) of which we are a part, come first and that our personal identity is an amalgamation of one’s communal identity.

Regardless of the path one takes to get there, we have to be ready to do some serious reflection and deep examination of who we really are, not just who we prefer to be. We have to consider not only the positive aspects but the negatives as well and allow ourselves to accept what’s there and what isn’t. Here are a few steps that might help one get to that point.

  1. Journalize. This doesn’t have to be anything especially formal, nor public, but writing down what we experience and how we respond to different experiences, what we think and how we feel about those experiences, all work together to help paint a picture of who we are or were in any given moment. Even as events and circumstances change who we are, a journal gives us the ability to track those changes so we understand and appreciate how we got to where we are.
  2. Pay attention. It is easy for us to go through life as though we’re on autopilot. Start paying attention to what exactly it is you do, to whom you speak, and what you say. How many times in the past week have you eaten the same lunch, for example? If the answer is three or more, ask yourself why. We establish routines for a reason but quickly forget what that reason was. Do you find yourself speaking to the same people during your day, and saying exactly the same things? Consider why that happens and why you don’t speak to others or change up the conversation. Often, we have difficulty creating our identities simply because we don’t pay attention to who we are.
  3. Get input from others. You may think you’re not good at anything, or you might perceive that your strengths and weaknesses follow a given path, but those closest to you, and even those not all that close, might be aware of different characteristics and traits that had not made themselves clear to you. They may also reaffirm matters on which one was not certain. Listen carefully to what other people tell you and don’t be afraid to read between the lines a little bit. Friends have already made up their mind who you are from their own data and like you anyway. That makes for a pretty good place to start.
  4. Focus on yourself. We spend so much time thinking of who we are in relation to other people and other things that we lose sight of who we are. Stop, separate yourself from everything and everyone, at least mentally, and engage in serious introspection. Consider what it is you give to the universe as well as what you take. Pay attention to what you need and compare that to things you no longer use. Take stock of what feels right, what your body tells you is correct, where your emotions are most stable. Consider who you would be if all you had was yourself.

DO NOT expect this process to be something that happens in the course of a day, a week or even a month. Neither should one expect that once they’ve gone through this exercise and determined who they are that they never need to repeat the process again. Remember, identity is fluid, changing, evolving. Anytime one begins to feel that their out of place or disconnected it would probably be beneficial to go through this rigor again.

Don’t Look For Yourself, Create Yourself

Create yourself - old man talking

British philosopher Julian Baggini gave an interesting talk at [email protected] in which he asks the question: Is there a real you? If time allows, I strongly recommend watching it. Not to give away any spoilers or anything of the sort, but where he ends up is with the interesting idea that we cannot find ourselves, we must create ourselves.

What Dr. Baggini is suggesting is the polar opposite of what popular culture has embraced the past 50 or so years. Young people especially have been told to go out and find themselves. Those with the means for doing so have embarked upon year-long adventures in an effort to make those decisions about who they are and who they want to be. An entire industry has been built around guiding people who are searching for their lost identity.

The problem with that approach, and the reason it has largely been unsuccessful and the object of scorn and ridicule is that it doesn’t work. We can’t find ourselves because we don’t exist somewhere apart from where and what we already are. We can shape our identities, we can influence our identities, but we don’t find our identities. We alone decide who and what we are and no one else is remotely qualified to make that determination for us.

Here, too, however, one has to watch for differences of opinion and a certain level of bullshit that ends up misdirecting us. Adam Cash wrote a “dummies” book called Psychology: How to Build Your Personal Identity. He differentiates between one’s public self and one’s private self and there is some merit to that approach in general. Others might use the term corporate self or communal self compared to the individual self. There’s a reasonably sized community within the field of psychology that makes this separation.

However, what we must realize is that our identity is more than establishing self-confidence or deciding that we want to take on a given personality. Our identity stems from the biological components with which our bodies are constructed and expands through our experiences and our education and our mental, intellection, emotional, and physical development. We are not just one thing, we are the sum of many things.

Dr. Baggini uses the example of a wrist watch. His was digital but I prefer to reference my analog timepiece because it’s perhaps more true to the analogy. If I were to disassemble my watch, I would have a table full of pieces, some of which would be quite small and, to the untrained observer, of questionable value. Put together correctly, though, they become a precision timepiece and that is exactly how we refer to them: as a watch. We don’t say, “I have a cool collection of gears and springs and itsy bitsy screws on my arm,” do we? No, that thing on my wrist getting caught on the cuffs of my shirt sleeves is a watch—that is its identity.

You are exactly the same. There are all these myriad pieces and parts from experience and biology and personality and emotions and preferences and dislikes and inheritance that come together with incredible and amazing precision to form you. There is no external you and internal you because the face of the watch is just as much a part of the watch as the timing mechanism that no one ever sees. We may choose to not reveal our full identity to everyone we meet (probably a good idea in the majority of cases) but the portion we keep to ourselves still holds influence over the parts we allow to be seen publicly.

What’s more, if we continue the watch analogy, we have the ability to change the face, adjust the timing mechanism, swap from gold to stainless steel parts, blend digital with analog components, and create our watch in any form we wish. Okay, so there are some memories in one’s past that are overwhelmingly dominating our identity and we don’t like that. While it’s possibly not the smartest idea to completely remove that memory (totally different book on that subject) its influence on your identity can be minimized. Perhaps the biology with which you were born doesn’t match the rest of your identity. Maybe your sexual identity doesn’t fit within the analog confines of social or religious expectations. None of those things keep one from assembling a top-of-the-line identity.

What’s critical is that we commit to the assembly and since most of us don’t come into life with an expertise in identity making we have to expect the process to be every bit as grueling and a thorough test of our fortitude as is the Marine Corp crucible. Fortunately, one is not limited to 72 hours to complete their identity, but like that event it takes a level of mastery and understanding of every piece and where it fits to complete this task.

The whole concept of “finding yourself” has lured us into thinking that identity work is easy, something we can treat as a vacation. While some identities come rather naturally and never need much of a tune up, for many people the process is extremely involved and can involve a tremendous amount of therapy to grapple with the intensity of some of our experiences while attempting to resolve a host of conflicting emotions and desires. When one reaches the point of realizing that they need to create their own identity, the answer is seldom found in taking a year-long backpacking trip across Europe.

Instead, creating our identity takes time, study, and consideration. We may find that to be the person we want to be that we must first remove some things and possibly even some people from our lives. One might also find that we need to understand more about certain aspects of ourselves before deciding whether we embrace or discard those qualities. To be happy with our identity, we have to work with precision and not be afraid to discard what doesn’t work.

Continue to part two ->

Enduring the Crucible of Self-Creation

This is the second part of a two-part article. If you’ve not read the first section, you’ll want to do that before proceeding. Return to part 1 <-

Putting Your Identity Together

Here is where things start getting complicated and intense. Talking about creating our own identity is one thing. The general concept that we control who and what we are makes us feel good. Sure, who doesn’t want to feel as though they’re in control of themselves? Beyond all the talk comes action, however, and there’s a lot of action to consider. For ease of organization, I’m dividing the process into three areas: The Biologicals, The Externals, and The Internals. Please note that these are not solid containers of mutually exclusive pieces of one’s self. They blend, they mix and can work with or against each other. What follows is not a rigid, set-in-stone recipe for self-creation. Rather, it is a guide to help you decide what should be a part of who you are.

Putting Your Identity Together

The Biologicals

The biology of who we are is largely determined by our DNA and the physical components of our physical construction. While there may be biological aspects that we can and possibly should change if given the opportunity, we’ve no control over the basic parts with which we start life and no, not everyone starts off equally. There are many people who start life with serious physical and mental challenges. Some of those challenges affect not only the quality but the quantity of one’s life. Others are born with skin pigmentation that does not directly affect their physical identity but influences their external identity. Here are some of the biological components that one needs to consider when constructing their identity:

  • Gender. There are two distinct aspects here: that with which one is assigned at birth and that which is true to one’s self. Sometimes these are the same, sometimes they are not. Discovering one’s true gender identity is a journey unto itself that can be fluid and require frequent recalibration of one’s identity. While gender can be changed surgically the mental and emotional components can be more challenging to balance as hormonal influences are sometimes difficult to control.
  • Physical composition. More than merely an inventory of the pieces and parts included in one’s body, this includes how well those pieces and parts actually work. When one starts life, everything may work quite well but a broken arm at age ten may lead to arthritis pain when one is 30. Perhaps not everything in one’s body works correctly and fails to produce sufficient insulin, causing one to spend their life avoiding sugar. While medical science establishes a standard for what should be present and how things should work, not all bodies cooperate with that standard.
  • Mental composition. The presence of a brain falls under physical composition and we’re going to assume that if you’re reading this the brain is at least present in some form. How well that particular portion of our body works falls under mental composition, though, because it is its own complicated world of synapses and connections and chemical balances. When things don’t work as designed here, we often need professional assistance to overcome the challenge. Sometimes that assistance is in the form of pharmaceuticals while other conditions might require surgery. Either way, this is part of one’s identity.
  • Emotional composition. Emotions may be the most fluid piece of our biological identity and as such is the portion that can be the most difficult to control. While there is still a lot about emotions that science doesn’t understand, we know the general tendencies for emotions are biologically driven, often influenced by both genetics and one’s physical and mental condition at any given moment. Professional assistance is often necessary here as well.
  • Genetics. Not only are we the sum of all our various parts, but we are also the sum of the parts of others, the ancestors of both our parents who contribute to the unique construction of our DNA. Here is where we find some answers, such as sexuality, hair and eye color, weight, hormones, enzyme production, reproduction capabilities, and possibly even dietary limitations (jury’s still out on that one). Everyone in our family tree going back for centuries contributes in some way to our DNA but how that DNA is assembled is uniquely you. For the moment, there’s no changing our genetic identity but that could eventually change. Gene editing is a controversial science but its ability to “fix” challenges such as gene-based disease has the potential to change millions of lives.

What’s important to realize about our biological identity is that some changes are predictable and some are out of our control. How one’s body responds to aging is largely determined by genetics but can also be influenced by external aspects such as injury, diet, and exercise. We grow tall then we grow wide and despite our best efforts, there is much over which we have little say.

The Externals

In short, the external influences on our identities are anything outside of ourselves that shape us. There are two important aspects of the externals that require important consideration. One is that they can and do change, which can result in an adjustment to our identity. The second is that as much as something might influence us, we have the ability to influence it and affect its identity as well. Let’s consider some of the broad categories.

  • Culture. For our purposes, we’re defining culture as the customs, social institutions, arts, and humanities of a particular group of people. From the aspect of defining one’s identity, the culture into which one is born is the default but as one re-locates and/or becomes aware of and interested in a particular culture, certain aspects of that culture are adopted, sometimes intentionally, sometimes subconsciously. Many people, especially those who travel a great deal, have a multi-cultural identity. However, one has to beware of cultural appropriation, which is is the adoption of a culture to which one has no relationship.
  • Belief systems. Religion plays a strong role in the identity of many people as it shapes one’s fundamental belief systems. However, as one develops independently, one may find that the precepts of the belief system to which they are introduced as a child no longer matches with their reasoning and critical thinking as an adult. Even apart from religion, one still has a belief system of some sort that influences who they are. Science and mathematics can become a belief system as can aspects of literature and media. If one is unsure of their belief system, this is a good point at which to take it under serious consideration.
  • Political systems. Superficially, governments and the political systems that control them seem to be the most external of influences upon one’s identity. Once a government establishes rules for living within their jurisdiction, one’s political identity takes the shape of either agreeing or disagreeing with those rules. However, within the influence of these political systems is the inherent ability to shape those systems either through voting or through revolution. Many prefer to not participate and let the system control their identity. Others, however, find resistance a core part of who they are.
  • Education. Many of us take for granted the basic ability to read and write even on a modest basis. We don’t immediately realize that the most fundamental education creates for us an identity separate from many in under-developed countries. The extent, proficiency, effectiveness, and direction of one’s education influences their identity as well, even down to the titles one may hold. Terms like Doctor and Professor are specific identifiers or academic achievement. However, one possesses the ability to determine for themselves the degree to which that education shapes their language and interaction with others.
  • Language.  How one communicates with others is perhaps the most fundamental external factor of one’s identity. We learn first the language of those who care for us. As we develop, we might add additional forms of communication-based on our social settings and geographic environment. The broader one expands their language capabilities the more effectively and efficiently one might understand and communicate with a larger group of people. As much as language influences us, we also contribute back to it by spreading words and terms not widely known and creating new words and phrases that might become associated with our identity. The classic example would be from the 1970s television comedy, “Happy Days,” when the character of The Fonz coins the word, “Ayyyyyyy.” His use of that phrase becomes part of his identity.
  • Geography.  Yes, where one exists affects one’s identity. First, where we are born gives us a national identity whether we like that or not. Sure, we have the ability to change that aspect as we grow older but on some level, we retain at least a minor influence from the origin point. Beyond that, the place where we exist provides all manner of influences from weather to the availability of food. For most people born in an industrialized country, we have the ability or option of changing our geography, finding a place that best suits who we want to be.
  • Family. Oh, is this a tremendous factor in shaping our identity, sometimes in the ways in which we choose to escape their influence rather than embracing it. The family gives us our name and biological contributions to our DNA. The ways in which we are raised and nurtured, whether positive or negative, influences who we are and continues to influence us throughout adulthood. Naturally, we influence the whole family dynamic as well through the manner of our participation or lack thereof. While one might argue that the nuclear family is inherently dysfunctional, we have the ability to address that dysfunction and replace it as we create ourselves.
  • Employment. Given the tremendous amount of time one spends engaged in work it would be impossible for that experience to not become part of our identity. At its best, our employment is in a career field we’ve chosen and enjoy. At its worst, employment is simply a means of economic sustenance at the hands of a cruel overlord. While yes, one might change an employment situation they don’t like, even negative influences sometimes become comfortable to the point we fear engaging an alternative. However, in a positive situation, we have the ability to make the work environment better not only for ourselves but for everyone around us. We hold more control over this aspect of our identity than we might realize.
  • Social engagement. Whether one’s best friend is a cat that shows up at the back door every other Thursday or a troupe of comrades who regularly invade one’s fridge, the amount and quality of our social engagements becomes part of our identity. Every social interaction, from the barista who hands us our morning coffee to the ticket taker at the cinema, has the ability to influence us in some way. However, social engagement is where we hold the greatest influence as well. We determine with whom we associate and the basis of that association. We have the ability to control the when and the where as well as adding and removing engagements as they suit us. While not everyone is a social creature, everyone has a social aspect to their identity.

Several other external influences can exist and these can be broken down into endless subsections if needed. What’s important in creating one’s identity is that we carefully consider the role each of these plays in who we are rather than letting them passively shape us. If one is to be in full control of our identity, we have to also be in control of all our externals to the extent that doing so is reasonable and appropriate.

Putting together our identity - old man talking

The Internals

If the work toward self-creation hasn’t been grueling enough at this point, it’s about to get intense.  The Biologicals and The Externals are factors over which we have limited control. While we can change many of those aspects, some of those changes are difficult, take considerable amounts of time, and may have unintended consequences. The Internals? That’s all you, baby. The good news is that there are only four categories here to consider. The challenge is that each one is a separate journey into ourselves. This is like the five-mile, full-pack run at the end of the Marine’s crucible. Don’t stop now.

How we see ourselves

If you’ve ever taken the Myers-Briggs personality test, this is largely what is being measured. This portion of our identity is often referred to as our personality and that is not wholly incorrect, but how we see ourselves, our self-identification is more than just a collection of traits. Included here are the things that encourage us and allow us to encourage ourselves. How we define hope and how we measure our personal levels of success are included here are well. Our interpretive context, how we translate things we do as well as things that happen to us, is a critical part of this aspect.

At the same time, our fears, things that threaten us, the way in which we handle emotional pain, and disappointment fall here as well. Not every aspect of our self-identity is positive, nor should it be. Things we choose to hold in secret, memories we refuse to let slip away, and our historic responses to critical life events are part of this influence.

There is a forward-looking aspect of how we see ourselves, also. Who we hope to become, what we want to do in the future, what we are afraid of becoming, what we fear might happen, also affect our identity. The person who stockpiles dried food against a coming holocaust, for example, or the individual who saves their entire life to return to college after retirement are both examples of this futuristic aspect of how we see ourselves.

So very much goes into this self-awareness that listing all the possible influences would be impossible. Instances of restraint, any form of repression, the manner in which we respond to threats on our character, our defense against society’s labels, all factor into how we see ourselves. Do we push back against stereotypes or give in to them? Do you conceive of yourself as not disadvantaged by your race, gender or anything else? When considering your life, do you see opportunities or a series of roadblocks?

For all the other aspects and influences on our identity, how we see ourselves may be the most critical because it is wholly of our own construct. No one can tell us we’re doing it wrong. We see in ourselves things no one else knows exists and elements we would never reveal publicly inevitably play into who we are. Without the ability to act upon and re-shape this self-conception, we are little more than slaves to the world around us.

The boundaries we create

I am always amused when someone tells me they live life without any rules. That statement alone is, in fact, a rule. For every “I am … “ statement we create for ourselves, there is an implied boundary, “I am not …” For example, if one states they are an ally for LGBTQ+ people they are by default creating a boundary against bigotry and all forms of homophobia and creating an internal alert to guard against such.

Boundaries are necessary to protect us against attacks on our identity and our character, things that would attempt to dismantle our perception of ourselves and what we allow others to see. The manner of behavior we are willing to accept from both ourselves and from others is a boundary. The decision of whether to accept or reject an external influence is a boundary. We may not always be aware of these walls that we’ve created around ourselves, but they are absolutely necessary and we should at no point allow someone to shame us for having created them.

For example, if one has a family member that constantly and persistently berates and belittles them regardless of facts and achievements, one may establish a boundary that either limits or completely eliminates any time spent around that person. Such boundaries are healthy and an important part of protecting our identity.

What becomes difficult, however, is maintaining those boundaries and making sure they are sufficient to protect us. Many people have huge gaps in their personal boundaries that leave their identity open to attacks. One of the most frequent and basic boundary-breakers is the inability to say or hear the word “no.” Without that boundary firmly in place, external influences become overwhelming and take over large portions of our identity.

There are also times when our boundaries are too soft or porous. Let’s say, for example, that one claims to be an ally for LGBTQ+ people but yet they are constantly seen in the company of, and agreement to a well-known homophobe who routinely makes fun of and belittles gay and lesbian people or refers to trans people as “unnatural.” Such an action calls into question one’s commitment to their identity as an ally. For a boundary to be firm, one has to maintain consistency between public and private actions.

Having clear, solid boundaries prevents other people and external influences from manipulating who you are and what you do. No one can guilt you into doing things that violate your principles or causes you unnecessary discomfort. People may “press your buttons” in a variety of ways but it is the strength of one’s boundaries that allows them to not become stressed or give into someone out of frustration. What good does it do to carefully construct one’s identity if we subsequently allow external influences to dismantle our work?

Of course, setting and stating boundaries is one thing. Keeping our personal rules and maintaining those boundaries is quite another. The maxim that “rules were made to be broken” might be a convenient excuse for breaching someone else’s rules but when we do that to ourselves we undermine who we are and water down our identity. When someone repeatedly makes sexually aggressive comments toward you, do you always shut them down, or do you let it slide if the aggressor is cute? If someone asks you for money because they’re “desperate and have no one else to turn to,” do you give in or do you apply the same scrutiny and requirements that you would for any other requests?

When one is inconsistent with their boundaries, the public perception of one’s identity becomes inconsistent as well. Are you someone who appears wishy-washy on issues or are you firm and reliable? Being inconsistent with our boundaries opens one up to ways in which others might take advantage of us, allowing us to be harmed in various ways. When we fill in any gaps and eliminate any inconsistencies, our identity remains strong.

How we see the world

Each of us processes trillions of pieces of information over the course of our lifetime but each of us processes that information differently based on our perspective of how the world works and operates, especially in relation to the things that directly affect our own lives. Like other parts of our identity, this global perspective is constantly changing, morphing our identity sometimes suddenly in response to a specific event and other times gradually as a perception develops.

What shapes our perspective is a mix of education, experience, one’s personal morality, and our valuation of what is important. Every piece of information is run through this extremely individualized filter and we then respond accordingly. If something happens somewhere we have never been and about which our knowledge is limited we are more likely to respond apathetically than if the same thing were to happen someplace we enjoy being.

One’s global perspective, also known as one’s world view, shapes critical pieces of our personal identity. Whether one is conservative or liberal, religious in any manner or not, accepting of others different from one’s self or not. To some degree, our biases are heavily influenced by one’s global perspective as are our acceptance or rejection of stereotypes.

Not surprisingly, the more we know, the broader our global perspective tends to be and we tend to be more compassionate and accepting of people and events outside our immediate geography. People who have traveled extensively have a demonstrably different way of filtering events than do those who are born, live and die within a 50-mile radius. Please note that one is not better than the other but as one is based on a greater amount of first-hand information it is more likely to be more accurate in its assessment.

One also needs to realize that this perspective of the world can be wrong and misguided. When we accept as fact information that is false, we skew our perspective away from reality. This may result in an identity that appears ignorant or foolish. When one repeatedly responds according to misinformation, all other valuations of one’s identity are called into question. Even more disconcerting is that one may not realize they are the victim of misinformation. When one’s belief system leads them to trust sources that are ultimately untrustworthy, one is less likely to scrutinize the value of the information coming from that source.

On the plus side, however, we always have the ability to radically change one’s global perspective. For many people, the events of and immediately following September 11, 2001, dramatically shifted their global perspective and every piece of information they have received since then has been disseminated through that filter in one way or another. For some within that group, however, they have moved away from their initial assessment following that event. Where the shock of the attacks caused many to be more withdrawn and protective in their view, as a greater understanding of what happened and the long-term effects of the political consequences has come to bear, many people have shifted their view in yet different directions from that initial response. Again, the more we know, the greater one’s depth of understanding, the more accurate our perspective becomes.

A valuation of ourselves

Separate from how we see ourselves, our valuation, our self-esteem if you will, is a strong and fundamental aspect of our identity. Here is where we answer one of the basic questions: Am I a good person? How we answer that question colors all other aspects of our identity no matter how positive or negative they might be.

For some people, self-esteem is pretty much a constant. Some people are sure of their worth and their place in the world. They are confident they are doing good, that they’re achieving sufficient success according to their personal expectations, and that they’re reasonably happy with the path their life is taking. Other people are consistently the opposite of that, never satisfied with the quality of who they are, lacking any confidence to do better, and perpetually disappointed with every aspect of their lives.

Most people, however, are on a self-esteem roller coaster that is frequently, sometimes daily or perhaps hourly buffeted by a mix of blows and encouragement that sway one’s emotions one direction or the other. If one falls into this category, life is frequently more stressful as one’s emotions likely dominate their self-esteem valuation. A snide remark from an employer might send some spiraling downward while a compliment or word of encouragement from a complete stranger can elevate one’s self-esteem skyward and the effect lasts for days.

Also impactful here is the presence of diseases such as depression, anxiety, and addiction. When any one of those is present, one’s self-esteem is inherently colored by that condition and can make positive-leaning self-esteem difficult if not impossible to maintain. Such a distortion of our self-esteem is critical and not only affects one’s identity but how one views their entire life. Professional help is strongly encouraged for anyone who might be experiencing any such life-altering disease.

Ultimately, one’s self-esteem takes everything we’ve placed into our identity and gives it the equivalent of stock valuation. One’s initial valuation might be low, but can be improved. At other times, one’s valuation might be inflated and require a level of correction in order to be tolerable to society. What’s most important, though, is that one can control their own self-esteem. One does not have to be at the mercy of external influences. We get to decide our own worth and no one has the right to argue when we set that valuation sky high.

Communicating Your Identity

Communicating Your Identity - old man talking

When a Marine finishes the Crucible, they are awarded a special pin they wear on the collar of their uniform for the remainder of their service: the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor (EGA). That symbol alone identifies them as Marines and is recognized around the world. Not everyone achieves the honor of being a United States Marine. This identity is special and holds tremendous value.

Life doesn’t always give us a special pin when we complete the crucible of self-creation, however. As we go through this process, making adjustments, doing the difficult work of determining exactly who and what we are, there is rarely a specific symbol one can use that tells this world, “This is who I am.” That means it is up to us to find ways to effectively communicate our identity.

Why is this communication so important? Because other people are going to make assumptions about us that are often incorrect. Those assumptions can impact everything from one’s self-esteem to the type of opportunities one receives. When we communicate our identity proudly and up front, others are better able to respond appropriately to who we are. This is YOUR identity, your self-creation, and no one has any right to challenge or diminish that in any way. However, there are some challenges.

Before one can sufficiently communicate their identity to others, one has to embrace it for themselves. If, after going through this crucible of self-creation, one determines they are a gay, politically moderate, exceptionally educated elf-breeder, then one has to first accept all the aspects of that identity without feeling the need to backpedal on anything. If one looks at the identity they’ve created and feels that there might be a need to apologize for any aspect of it, then the whole thing needs to be reconsidered. One isn’t ready. We must first believe in ourselves before anyone else can believe in us.

Second, we can’t allow ourselves to be distracted by naysayers, and there will be naysayers no matter how one defines themselves. Some will say you’re overreaching. Some will say you’re not reaching far enough. Others will completely deny that you are who you say you are. This is where one’s boundaries come strongly into play. Don’t take the bait and argue with them because trolls only feed on the acknowledgment that comes with your response. Stand firm, block them or remove them, limit their access to you. Don’t let anyone or anything else diminish your identity.

While I’ve been writing this (it’s taken a minute or two longer than I expected) I received the story of a Marine recruit who had just received his EGA this week after completing the Crucible at Parris Island, North Carolina. This particular recruit was different in that when he first enlisted in 2016, his physical discovered that he had undiagnosed Stage 3 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Obviously, his boot camp training stopped as he underwent treatment that can at times be brutal, leaving a body weak and a spirit worn. He beat cancer, though, then came back, persevered, did what some told him was impossible, and finished his training. The epitome of a Marine, he had made a commitment and nothing, not even cancer, was going to prevent him from fulfilling that.

Similarly, we have to be as equally determined in our commitment to our own identity. Yes, it can and will change, but as it changes we remain committed to who we are right now in this moment. Just as a Marine would never apologize for the qualities that make them Marines, neither should you apologize for the qualities that are part of your identity. Never apologize for your gender. Never apologize for your race and culture history no matter how blended it might be. Never apologize for your sexuality. Never apologize for your belief system. Never apologize for your education. Never apologize for your global perspective. Never apologize for any of the things that make you the unique individual you have become. You suffered and fought and struggled to create this identity. There’s no apologizing necessary.

None of us is the same person we were two or three years ago. Self-assessment is a constant need and as we evolve one should as strongly commit to who they are now as they did to who they were in the past. I’m no longer the pianist and conductor I once was, for example. I still have those skills but I identify more strongly as a photographer and writer. Where once my relationship with my parents was central to my identity, I have moved further away from that since their passing. I’m now more likely to identify as the father of my children or Kat’s significantly-older partner. I am as firm in my assessment now as I was 20 years ago.

In Act 1, Scene III of Hamlet, William Shakespeare’s Polonius famously states:

This above all: to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night the day. Thou canst not then be false to any man/Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!

For all the myriad analysis of this phrase and its potential meanings, in the context of the period what Polonius is telling his son is to do what benefits himself the most. We must acknowledge ourselves first and foremost or else what we present to others is a lie.

Centuries have not changed the wisdom of this instruction. Our greatest freedom lies in our ability to define for ourselves who we are and our greatest strength is found in being that person, without apology, without exception. Be who you are. Embrace who you are. Enjoy who you are. Love who you are. Any other existence is compromised.

Limited Bibliography

I’ve pulled from a horde of different sources, not all of which are available for reference. For the sake of maintaining a minimal level of academic integrity, here are some of the sources we consulted or considered in the writing of this article.

Sally Davies, Resist And Be Free
Who Am I? Self Identity—How to Build Personal Character
Literary Devices: Origins of To Thine Own Self Be True
World Bank Group: World Literacy Totals
Berkeley University: DNA and Mutations
SoundVision: DNA & Behavior
BasicGrowth: How to Create Your Own Identity
Adam Cash: Psychology, How To Build Your Personal Identity
Science Direct: Identity Work
Science Direct: Gender Differences In The Self-Defining Activities
Simply Psychology: Stereotypes
Ian Goddard: Identity DefinedDominic Packer and Jay J. VanBavel: The Dynamic Nature of Identity
Aron, A., Aron, E. N., Tudor, M., & Nelson, G. (1991). Close relationships as including other in the self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(2), 241-253.
Jessie Zhu: What Is Self-Awareness and Why Is It Important


Good morning, dudes! If this were a traditional church, we would probably begin by singing some hymns or maybe having a live band guide us through some of our favorite songs. This is not a traditional church, though. I mean, you can hum something if you want, we won’t fault you for that. For those so not inclined, though, we’ve created a playlist specifically for this morning’s homily. We encourage you to listen to a few songs before beginning to read.

So much of our social philosophy is summed up in the songs we play the most. That’s not especially unusual, mind you. Popular music has always been reflective of society, whether intentional or not.

One such song comes from the 1996 movie Space Jam and was, at the time, a hit for the now-disgraced artist, R. Kelly. A couple of lines from that song particularly stand out:

If I can see it, then I can do it
If I just believe it, there’s nothing to it

The song is meant to be inspirational and encouraging, but anyone who follows that advice is almost certain to be disappointed. Just because one believes in something, even with all their heart, doesn’t mean it is going to happen. Having faith doesn’t actually move mountains.

Do you know what does move mountains? Dynamite and dump trucks, baby! Actions trump beliefs every time.

Unfortunately, since the early part of the 20th century, that’s not what we’ve been taught, and that’s holding us back. In 1936, Dale Carnegie wrote How To Win Friends And Influence People. The book became an instant bestseller and only the Bible has sold more copies. There are Dale Carnegie courses all over the world, teaching people to succeed by simply believing that they can succeed. Carnegie wrote:

If you believe in what you are doing, then let nothing hold you up in your work.

We hear that and we think, “Hey, that sounds pretty good.” So, we practice believing in what we are doing and we try as hard as we can, putting all our faith into our effort, and … we fail.

Downer, man.

Then, in 1952, a New York City pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, published the book The Power of Positive Thinking. Again, the book was an instant bestseller and has been touted by hundreds of business people. Our current president (#45) even attended Peale’s church when growing up. All these people were listening when Peale said:

Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers, you cannot be successful or happy.

Once again, people all over the world latched onto these words of encouragement, making Peale and his church very, very rich in the process. The system worked … for Norman Vincent Peale. Others, though, had a little more difficulty.

Over and over throughout the twentieth century, this philosophy of believing things into reality has been preached by both business leaders and clergymen looking to make a quick buck. Within religious circles, the practice is known as “Prosperity Theology.” Some of its best-known proponents are the late Oral Roberts, Robert Tilton, Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland, and Kenneth Hagin. They all preach that all one has to do is believe. Have a positive attitude (buy their books)! Live a healthy life (buy their supplements)! Give generously (to their ministry)! Do that, and you cannot help but succeed!

Their congregants number in the tens of millions, every last one of them thinking that the only reason they too aren’t on Forbes’ list of millionaires is just because they’re lacking faith, they don’t believe quite enough, they need to be a little more positive.

So, why aren’t those ministries millionaire factories?

One of the most well-known preachers of the 19th century saw this trouble coming and tried to head it off at the pass. Charles H. Spurgeon, a British preacher whose works continue to be studied in seminaries and was a particular favorite of my late father, put it this way:

“I believe that it is anti-Christian and unholy for any Christian to live with the object of accumulating wealth. You will say, ‘Are we not to strive all we can to get all the money we can?’ You may do so. I cannot doubt but what, in so doing, you may do service to the cause of God. But what I said was that to live with the object of accumulating wealth is anti-Christian.”

Now, let’s take his words out of the capsule of Christianity and apply it to just normal folks like you and me, and what he’s saying is that if money is your only goal, you’re just not chill, man.

Even more important, though, is that we realize we cannot simply “believe” ourselves into being happy. Happiness, that state some refer to as Nirvana, requires some actual effort that goes beyond positive thinking.

The number one issue with the whole positivity thinking philosophy is that it is severely flawed psychologically. To maintain a constant state of positivity, one must repress the negative emotions and feelings that naturally occur. Repressing emotions, positive or negative, is a very dangerous practice.

There are two ways to look at this problem. The first is through science, which should always be where we look first. Scientific research shows over and over again the unhealthy effects of repressed emotion. This gets serious, dudes. I mean, you could die from holding stuff in.

A study from the University of Rochester and Harvard School of Public Health shows that people who repress anger, specifically, have a 70 percent higher risk of dying from cancer. Ouch, dude. That right there seems to be a pretty good argument for not putting a cork in what we feel.

The  Journal of Psychosomatic Research published a study from Kings College that compared 69 patients with breast cancer to a control group of 91 patients with benign breast disease. What did they find?

“There was a significant association between the diagnosis of breast cancer and a behavior pattern, persisting throughout adult life, of an abnormal release of emotions. The abnormality was, in most cases, extreme suppression of anger and, in patients over 40, extreme suppression of other feelings.”

The level of scientific research on the topic is rather considerable and it all demonstrates that repressing emotion is bad for us.

Anecdotally, we have the bad example of the stoic fathers of previous generations who never showed any emotion. Their children grew up starved for love, attention, and any sense of affirmation. As they became more detached, their wives divorced them. They were misunderstood, accused of not caring, and died premature deaths from stress and heart disease. Theirs was not a pleasant existence and it is good that we have, for the most part, put those bad habits behind us.

We are also warned on a more spiritual level against repressing our emotions. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, a Buddhist teacher well-known in some circles, wrote in his book, Penetrating Wisdom:

“When we recognize an emotion, such as strong passion accompanied by jealousy, we are actually breaking down the speed of that emotion. The total sense of recognition is important in both Sutra and Tantra. In Sutra, it is mindfulness. In Tantra, if we see that nature and look at it nakedly, we will see the nature of that wisdom. You don’t need to logically apply any reasoning. You don’t need to conceptually meditate on anything. Just simply recognize and observe it….We will have the experience of that wisdom by simply being with it without conception. Therefore, recognition is quite important.

“The first step is just simply to observe it. Simply recognize the emotion and then watch it as it grows or as it continues. Just simply watch it. In the beginning, just to have an idea that [the emotion] is coming is very important and effective. In the Vajrayana [Tantric] sense, the way to watch these emotions is without stopping them. If we recognize the emotion and say, “Yes, it is passion,” and then try to stop it, that’s a problem. Rejection our emotions is a problem in Vajrayana.


photo credit: charles i. letbetter

The whole concept that we can just will ourselves into happiness, that we can shut everything negative out of our lives and be successful, is misguided at best. We are approaching the concept of happiness from the wrong direction, with a mindset that prevents us from being able to abide peacefully.

Happiness and contentment, that condition known within the Church of the Latter-Day Dude as being a dude, comes not from shutting out the negative and clinging desperately to the positive. Rather, it comes from finding the balance between the positive and negative in our lives.

Kahlil Gibran, a Lebanese-American philosopher dude, wrote of joy and sorrow and gets it right for dealing with all our emotions:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits, alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.

Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.
When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.

When we go hunting for happiness, we look for something that immediately becomes invisible to our eyes. Happiness is not something we can capture in a net, quantify with statistics, or place in a container and dole out as we desire. Rather, happiness is a state of balance between all aspects of our lives, not merely emotions, but the physical and spiritual as well.

A truth of our existence is that if we let any one aspect of our lives get out of balance, we feel troubled, out of sorts, and perhaps even disgruntled. The imbalance doesn’t have to be large or significant. Following Gibran’s metaphor, even the smallest sliver of weight tips the scale. Spilling a bit of coffee on a clean shirt. Missing the turn signal at an intersection. A child disrupting a moment of meditation. In the grander scheme of things, none of those events truly matter. Yet, each one has the ability to tip the scale, putting us out of balance, sometimes for an entire day.

We must realize that we can no more will ourselves into happiness than we can cause a flower to bloom on command. Happiness does not come and go at our beckoned call. Rather, happiness is a condition of our condition; a state of contentment that finds acceptance in whatever life chooses to throw at us.

I find it deeply disturbing that we expect someone to lay out a path to happiness for us when genuine happiness is a journey we must travel for ourselves. My experience cannot be duplicated even if you attempt to follow immediately in my footsteps for once I have stepped upon the sand, the sand has changed and responds differently to each step that comes afterward.

Lao Tzu said:

A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.

There is no 7, 10, or 12-step plan toward finding happiness. One cannot create a list and check off each element as it has been achieved. Sure, the Internet is full of so-and-so’s “steps to happiness” but what we must realize that we only find happiness when the steps are our own. We cannot find happiness at the end of someone else’s path.

Why do we search for that which is impossible to find? Google does not have the answer. Joel Osteen does not have the answer. All the books on all the shelves in all the libraries do not have the answer. We do not find nor control happiness. Happiness finds us and then lets us be.

How does happiness find us?

For happiness to find us, we must first be open to being found. We must know who we are and what we want. Lao Tzu wrote:

At the center of your being, you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.

We put up roadblocks against happiness when we deny who and what we are. Start with the fact we are human–at least, most of us are. Work outward from there and meditate on what it is that defines you, your passions, your being. What controls your attitudes and your actions?

The answer is there at the core of your being. Accept it. Don’t mask it, excuse it, or blame your reality on anything or anyone else. Run with it. Embrace it. Only when we are first open and honest about who and what we are can we be open to happiness coming into our lives.

We must also make ourselves open to the influence of others in our lives. The Dude had Walter, Donny, Maude, and even the Stranger, all of whom influenced his state of being. When Donny died, The Dude felt sadness in part because he had lost one of the sources through which some portion of happiness and completeness funneled into his life.

Likewise, we need those friends, those relationships, who accompany us on our journey as they travel their own. Not that we need anyone else to make us happy, but that in the camaraderie of others we open wider the doors of our life so that happiness might find us. Through those shared pieces of life, the conversations, the experiences, the travels, the frames bowled, we dismantle some of the walls that keep us from achieving balance and allowing happiness into our lives.

Happiness finds us as we are doing the things that we love–the things we are good at doing. The character of Donny in The Big Lebowski is an apt metaphor for this truth. Happiness finds Donny when he’s bowling. While he has plenty of shortcomings in other areas, the one thing Donny does well is throwing one strike right after another. Putting that bowling ball onto the polished wood is Donny’s moment of zen.


photo credit: charles i. letbetter

Each of us has something that is our thing, our particular ability, the one thing we do better than anything else we might be asked to do. Perhaps it’s a talent with which you were born, or a skill carefully honed through hours of learning and practice, but it’s there. Doing that thing at which we’re good opens the door to happiness, making it possible to be content with our work.

What saddens me is the frequency with which people are denied doing that thing they do best. They’re told, “you can’t make a living at that,” or “you’ll never get rich doing that thing.” Don’t let anyone push you away from what you do well. Embrace your abilities and happiness is more likely to embrace you.

We also make our lives more open to happiness when we reject the complexity and confusion that life tries to force upon us. Remember what Lao Tzu taught us:

Simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.

We know well the metaphor used in Tao te Ching about water being murky when it is stirred and clear when we are still. We are admonished to be patient and allow the water around us to be calm.

Being still when it seems like everything around us is going to shit is one of the most difficult things we might try to do. I am far from having this mastered. Mediation works for some. Yoga works for others. For me, it’s the peace and quiet contemplation that comes with being alone with a cup of coffee early in the morning. Finding that place of simplicity is important for each of us for many reasons, not just happiness.

Simplicity, though, sometimes takes some serious work on our part. Many of us grew up in a society that places undue value on materialism, the accumulation of things that we allow to surround us. Those possessions complicate our lives. We feel we have to protect them and that somehow our value as a person is lost if we don’t have them.

Happiness finds us most easily, however, when we have nothing. Consider the many peoples of third world countries who struggle even to find food to eat. Yet, they dance and sing and experience happiness at a much higher level than we do because there is nothing blocking happiness from reaching them.

Compassion opens yet another door to happiness and it is here that I fear we are mostly unfamiliar. Greed and selfishness drive so much of our society that fully embracing a life of compassion puts us at odds with much of what those around us consider normal. We shy away from being overly compassionate because we fear people might see us as weird and even question our motivation.

The Tao te Ching teaches us to act without expectation, however. This is a universal truth we find in all the world’s major religions, to demonstrate compassion and not expect rewarded just because we did something good.

Remember the Big Lebowski, how he had all the trappings of riches and even manipulated The Dude and stole from the foundation in an effort to make himself richer. Yet, in the end he’s left helpless on the floor, crying.

Compassion changes our course, away from complexity and down a path where we look to help those around us rather than trying to benefit from them. This does not mean that we shouldn’t be paid fair wages for legitimate work that we do, mind you. But neither should we expect or demand tips for doing the decent thing, such as helping change a flat tire or attending the landlord’s interpretive dance performance. Being compassionate removes significant barriers between us and happiness.

You know what else smooths the path to happiness? Music. There’s a reason that music is such an integral part of many religious rites and services. Music both calms our spirits and frees our minds from troubling thoughts, allowing us to focus on the things that truly matter, like not burning the nachos.

This is why I include a playlist with our Sunday postings. When you come here, burdened as you may be with whatever is going on in your life, I want to give you music that allows you to set those worries and concerns aside for a while. My hope is that in doing so you are better able to focus on the abiding truths we hope to present.

What music works in this regard? That, dear dudes, is totally up to you. Today’s playlist runs a wide gamut of old and new, instrumental and vocal, calm and excited. Not everything will speak to everyone, but chances are everyone finds something there that works for them.

If happiness rides a horse, then surely the name of that horse is music.

Finally, my dear dudes, I encourage you to lay aside the pursuit of happiness and strive to abide in the joy of the moment. Be present now and let the happiness of the moment wash over you. We can do nothing to alter the past and the future is best left to fend for itself. We gain nothing from guilt or worry. We gain everything from embracing the present.

The Buddha taught us:

The Secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.

Here is where I feel some more “traditional” religions fail us. They would have us looking toward some future event of deific significance. As a result, their followers spend entire lives so consumed with worry and anxiety over being prepared for what they believe is coming that they are incapable of participating in the joys that are here for them now.

Happiness cannot be sitting out somewhere in some static place in the future waiting for us to arrive for our paths may never take us to where it is seated. Rather, we must give happiness the opportunity to embrace us now, where we are, doing what we do, being who we would be.

The final song in today’s playlist was chosen because I think it might embody the state of mind in which happiness is most likely to find us: Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay. We’ve traveled far. Trouble won’t leave us alone. Yet, there is a sense of peace, of being at home, just sitting there watching the tide.

Feel free to jump ahead in the playlist and listen along:

Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun
I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ comes
Watchin’ the ships roll in
Then I watch ’em roll away again, yeah

I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooo
I’m just sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time

I left my home in Georgia
Headed for the Frisco Bay
‘Cause I had nothin’ to live for
It look like nothin’s gonna come my way

So I’m just goin’ sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooo
I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay, wastin’ time

Look like nothin’s gonna change
Everything, still remains the same
I can’t do what ten people tell me to do
So I guess I’ll remain the same, yes

Sittin’ here restin’ my bones
And this loneliness won’t leave me alone, yes
Two thousand miles, I roam
Just to make this dock my home

Now I’m just gonna sit, at the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooo yea
Sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time (whistle)


© Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., Universal Music Publishing Group

My dear dudes, as we go about our lives this week, may we not pursue happiness, but rather open the many doors that allow happiness to come to us. May we not fall victim to those telling us we can find happiness in thinking positive and repressing other emotions. Instead, may we embrace the balance that our emotions bring to our lives, be still when the waters around us become agitated, and dance to the music of the air.

Abide in peace,

-the Old Man

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photo credit: charles i. letbetter