3 Common Fallacies About Creativity

Why do organizations have so much trouble enabling employee creativity? The answer lies in subtle and deeply ingrained behaviors that prevent companies from creating a creative culture. The authors identify three misconceptions that managers must overcome to effectively build creative cultures.

Leaders often cite creativity and innovation as critical components of business success. But many businesses fail to create and encourage environments where creativity can flourish. Managers make three common mistakes that prohibit new ideas and suppress suggestions that don’t align with their own.

A 2017 PwC survey of 1,379 CEOs determined that “innovation” was the top priority for most businesses. The same survey revealed 77% of CEOs struggle to find employees with creativity and innovation skills. Last year, a LinkedIn analysis ranked “creativity” as the most in-demand soft skill.

Why do organizations have so much trouble enabling employee creativity? The answer lies in subtle and deeply ingrained behaviors that prevent companies from creating a creative culture. We identify three misconceptions that managers must overcome to effectively build creative cultures.

The Productivity Illusion

A few months ago, articles critical of Google CEO Sundar Pichai argued his slow decision-making process stifled innovation. The articles incorrectly equated decision-making speed with innovation. We don’t have insight into whether his “slow” decisions were innovative, but the misconception that slow decision-making stifles innovation often leads to the illusion that productivity requires speed.

Coupled with other measures that Pichai has taken, notably distributed decision making and cutting down on vanity projects, it is just as likely that he is taking a disciplined approach to innovation and productivity, which is reflected in Google’s increased innovation, and growing stock price.

No matter the size of your company, you have likely come across a persona like the fictional employee we’ll refer to hereafter as “Dave.” Dave is a well-liked leader. He is known for quick thinking and decisiveness, and most people regard him as someone who gets things done. On a typical day, he spends most of his time in group meetings. He listens carefully to the issues his team addresses. He weighs in and helps them resolve the challenges.

He prides himself on not leaving the office until he executes his to-do list. With every item that he ticks off his list, he feels good about his impact. As he leaves the office, he is happy to have had such a productive day. Given Dave’s ability to address issues and help teams make forward progress, most people would consider him to be a great leader. Not so fast (and we mean that literally).

Trying to resolve things too quickly, especially for complex problems, is detrimental to innovation because you fall prey to premature closure. Resistance to premature closure — a key aspect of creativity — is our ability to keep an open mind when we already have a potential solution. Some of the best solutions don’t come in the initial meeting or two, but after a longer incubation period.

While mantras like “move fast and break things” can help push people towards action, they can backfire when the underlying problem is complex. In such situations, resisting the temptation to find a solution quickly (and often less creatively), and instead urging the team (much to their frustration) to keep searching for more ideas can lead to more innovative and far-reaching solutions.

To avoid premature closure, teams should arrive at an “almost final” decision and then intentionally delay action in favor of additional incubation time. During this time, everyone should commit to thinking about the problem and sharing their ideas. If the team can’t find a better approach during the incubation period, they should proceed with their original solution.

The Intelligence Illusion

Creative thinking is more cognitively demanding than logical thinking. It engages more parts of the brain across the left and right hemisphere and places higher demands on working memory. In that sense, creative thinking is a higher-order skill. In practical terms, this means that analyzing an idea is easier than synthesizing a new one from multiple sources.

When presented with a potential solution, it is easier to drill down on one aspect and discover ways that the solution might not work. Narrowly focusing on one dimension of the idea also means that the working memory must keep track of only a few things.

On the other hand, when trying to combine different ideas or perspectives, the brain works in overdrive — engaging both the executive and imagination networks, trying multiple combinations in quick succession to find a solution that might work. Working memory gets taxed more as all elements need to be retained during processing.

In an ideal scenario, organizations would pay people in proportion to their cognitive work. In practice, however, we tend to reward “critics” more than “synthesizers” because critics sound more intelligent. In a study on book reviews, Teresa Amabile found that people who wrote negative book reviews were perceived by others to be less likeable but more intelligent, competent, and expert compared to those who wrote positive book reviews.

Pfeffer and Sutton call this the “smart-talk trap,” where people engage in negative criticisms and complexities to appear more competent and are subsequently rewarded by the organization.

The intelligence illusion might seem mild, but it has pernicious consequences for an organization. When Steve Jobs took over Pixar, it had been struggling to produce a blockbuster despite being home to some of the smartest people. After noticing that excessive criticisms were shooting down creative ideas, he instituted a policy of “plussing,” where one could only offer a criticism if it included a potential solution.

That simple strategy pushed people from being criticizers to creators, changed team dynamics completely and led to a string of successes starting with the development of the movie Toy Story.

Leaders can improve group creativity by paying close attention to how ideas are discussed in diverse group settings. They should encourage team members to build on each other’s ideas instead of pushing individual ideas. This doesn’t mean that ideas should be accepted blindly when they contain flaws; instead, they should approach ideas with an open mind to acknowledge useful aspects and improve weaknesses using plussing or the similar “yes, but, and” approach.

The Brainstorming Illusion

One of us recently chaired the search for a senior academic leader. The search committee consisted of a diverse set of faculty, staff, and students operating virtually. It soon became clear that following a traditional group brainstorming approach would not work well, because several disenfranchised participants tended to self-censor.

To overcome this challenge, the group created a cadence of process meetings preceding decision meetings. In process meetings, protocols of inclusion (e.g., specifically including student voices) and “rules of the game” for the decision meeting were established. Although this took more time, it led to a high-trust process that resulted in the hire that had the confidence of the community.

When you ask people to describe an ideal brainstorming session the most common elements you hear are: people getting together, an energetic and exciting mood, and lots of ideas flying across the room. Simply put, most teams associate successful ideation with group work. Surprisingly, that’s not true.

Group brainstorming feels more productive, not because of the number of ideas that are produced, but because of social effects. The social connection we experience with each other during brainstorming makes us happier and we confuse that with productivity.

In practice, nominal brainstorming (where individual team members think independently before sharing their ideas) consistently outperforms traditional group brainstorming, especially for diverse teams. A Yale study found that the number of ideas produced by individuals and then aggregated (nominal group) was twice that of ideas generated by the group working together.

Ideation can be limited in group settings because of production blocking (when people don’t get a chance to interject their idea), evaluation apprehension (a fear of being judged negatively), lack of psychological safety (entrenched power structures) and social loafing (hiding in the group and not contributing a fair share).

To promote more creative ideas, leaders should utilize simple tools to capture individual ideas before they are opened to the whole group. Group discussions should be conducted asynchronously, where team members look at each other’s ideas and use them to refine and create new ideas. If done remotely, leaders should find other ways to bring the team together to bond and build trust with each other.

Business leaders agree that creativity and innovation contribute fundamentally to competitive advantage. Companies with an innovation-focused culture are three times more profitable. Leaders who seek to initiate a new creativity practice must consciously avoid the three illusions.

This work requires supporting clear and consistent political commitment, inclusive leadership style, thoughtful organizational structure, and an explicitly earmarked budget. Creativity programs are an urgent imperative. In a conceptual economy, these programs are the path to growth and an engaged workforce.

By: Pronita Mehrotra,Anu Arora, Sandeep Krishnamurthy

Source: 3 Common Fallacies About Creativity

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There’s No ‘Supply-Chain Shortage,’ Or Inflation. There’s Just Central Planning

It’s great that so many have copies of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, but very unfortunate that so few have read it. The alleged “supply chain” problems we’re enduring right now were explained by Smith in the book’s opening pages.

Smith wrote about a pin factory, and the then remarkable truth that one man in the factory working alone could maybe – maybe – produce one pin each day. But several men working together could produce tens of thousands.

Work divided is what enables the very work specialization that drives enormous productivity. If this was true in an 18th century pin factory, imagine how vivid the truth is today. Figure that something as basic as the creation of a pencil is the consequence of global cooperation, so what kind of remarkable global symmetry leads to the creation of an airplane, car, or computer?  The kind that can’t be planned is the short answer, but more realistically the only answer.

Please keep this in mind as you read media coverage of the so-called “supply-chain disruptions” resulting in “shortages” that are said to be causing “inflation.” If you want a bigger laugh, read about what President Biden wants to do in order to get “supply” back on the market with an eye on replenishing U.S. retail shelves that are increasingly bare. He’s decreed 24-hour port operations! Yes, thanks to the 46th president we now know what held the Soviets back, and ultimately destroyed the Soviet Union: their ports weren’t open long enough; thus the shortages of everything

All of the above would be funny if it weren’t so sad. Media members, “experts,” economists, and politicians don’t even disappoint anymore. To say they do would be to flatter them.

Either they think we have inflation, shortages, or a combination of both. Wrong on all counts. Really, who was talking about supply-chain shortages or the impossibility that is demand-driven inflation in early 2020? Very few were, and that’s because the U.S. economy was largely free then. At which point politicians panicked. And in panicking, they imposed a rather draconian form of command-and-control on the U.S. economy.

Some were free to work, some weren’t, and more still were free to work and operate their businesses within strict political limits. From freedom to central planning in a very small amount of time. At which point it’s worth considering once again the simple pin factory that Smith witnessed in the 18th century versus the global cooperation that was the norm 19 months ago.

The supply lines of February 2020 were impossibly complicated structures that no politician could ever hope to design. Think billions of individuals around the world pursuing their narrow work specialization on the way to enormous global plenty. Put another way, the shelves in economically free countries were heaving with all manner of products based on economic cooperation that was staggering in scope. Brilliant as some experts claim to be, and brilliant as some politicians think they are as they look in the mirror, they could never construct the web of trillions of economic relationships that prevailed before the lockdowns. But they could destroy the web. And they did; that, or they severely impaired it.

In which case let’s please not insult reason by talking about “shortages” or “inflation” now. Let’s instead be realistic and talk about central planning. We know from the 20th century that when politicians, authoritarians or both substitute their intensely narrow knowledge for that of the marketplace that immense want for very little (and lousy) supply is the logical result. Yes it is. When we’re not economically free, bare shelves are the inevitable result.

Conversely, product and service abundance is a certain consequence yet again of the infinite actions and trillions of economic relationships entered into by billions of people. These commercial tie-ups were constructed by consenting individuals over many years and many decades only for them to be wrecked by a political class arrogantly seeking to protect us from ourselves. That’s what happens when command-and-control replaces voluntary order. The remunerative ties that bind us fray, or vanish altogether. Consenting, profitable economic activity was suddenly illegal. Yet politicians and other experts are only now wringing their hands about a lack of supply?

Really, what did they think was going to happen? While politicians couldn’t ever create or legislate billions working together around the world, they could and can surely break voluntary economic arrangements. When you have guns, handcuffs, the power to quite literally shut off power sources to the productive, not to mention the wealth produced by the productive, you have the power to impose command-and-control. And so they did, only for the “supply chains” painstakingly created in self-interested but spontaneous form over many decades to suddenly break apart. Just don’t call it inflation, or shortages.

Inflation is a devaluation of the unit of account. In our case it’s the devaluation of the dollar. And while Treasury hasn’t always done a great job as the dollar’s steward over the decades, that’s just the point. Devaluation was routine problem in the 1970s, it ceased to be in the 80s and 90s, but it reared its ugly head once again during the George W. Bush administration in the early 2000s. To say inflation is a “now” thing is to ignore that it’s more realistically been a 21st century-long thing.

We don’t suddenly have an inflation problem. To say we do is the equivalent of saying that the Soviets had inflation because all the goods worth getting were both difficult to find, and incredibly expensive if they could be found. In our case we’ve had a lockdown problem care of nail-biting politicians that suffocated commercial cooperation around the world. And with work divided less than it used to be care of government force, productivity is naturally lower than it used to be.

Please consider modern productivity in terms of Smith’s pin factory example yet again, and ask what it would do to supply. The only thing is supply shortfalls are not evidence of inflation. A rise in one price due to lack of supply implies a fall in other prices. Yes, we have a central planning problem. Were he around today, Adam Smith could diagnose this in seconds.

Follow me on Twitter.

I’m the editor of RealClearMarkets, and a senior economic adviser to Applied Finance Advisors. I’m also the author of five books. The most recent released in March is When Politicians Panicked: The New

Source: www.forbes.com

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How To Talk to Men About Menopause

“It’s remarkable how little men know about menopause,” says Dee Murray. “And that’s strange — because it’s likely to have a far-reaching effect on them, and not just for their romantic relationships, but their relationships with their daughters and colleagues. It’s crucial.”

That’s why Murray, the France-based founder of campaign organization Menopause Experts Group, has created the first training program designed specifically to make men more aware of a still somewhat mysterious and stigmatized  biological phenomena which almost every woman will go through. 

And, lo, it turns out menopause — put simply, the end of a 12-month-long spell during which a woman has had no period, and won’t have again, marking the end of her child-bearing years — is not all about hot flashes, that butt of many a poor joke. It’s not even the most relevant stage of the whole process: that would be what’s called peri-menopause, or the prior, symptomatic phase that may last up to a decade, typically starting around the age of 50 but which can start while a woman is still well within her forties. 

These often misdiagnosed symptoms — running the gamut from itchy skin to a reduction in night vision, from joint pain to tingling extremities, from brain fog and memory loss to depression, a loss of libido, vaginal atrophy and, yes, hot flashes — are all hormonal, connected to a loss of estrogen.

“For a long time women’s health has generally been spoken about only within women’s circles, and I think while women tend to be nurturers, and so know about men’s health, the reverse has not been the case. Men tend to be fixers and get frustrated when there’s no clear solution,” reckons Murray, who suggests that the same furtiveness that long surrounded the topic of menstruation, and before that even pregnancy, still blights open conversation about menopause. 

“We can’t blame men for not understanding menopause. It’s surprising how many women I speak to don’t either, how many younger women are unsympathetic towards those in middle age. It’s one of those messy bits of female biology that society prefers to hide away, and especially from men,” she adds.

Indeed, that menopause is still taboo is a product, she argues, not only of ageism, but in part also of vanity: women in a lookist society often refuse to admit they’re peri-menopausal, a particularly challenging thing to accept for some, it’s argued, when their daughters are often simultaneously at the most vital stage in a human lifespan. The impact of this on couples getting along day to day, on their parenting, on their sex life, can be huge. A shared understanding of what’s going on, and the options for response, could save a marriage.

“Men need to understand just how complex, physically but also psychologically, peri-menopause can be for women, and the more info there is about it, targeted at them, the easier it is for them to offer support, to help take away the pressure, to not misunderstand their partner’s mood or behavior,” says Murray, who has also provided menopause training to the diverse likes of the Finastra financial services giant and London’s Metropolitan Police force. “The situation is improving. I’ve been at board meetings with a table of men and when you tell them you’re a menopause educator you suddenly find you’re holding court — because they all know that they need to know.”

There’s a broader pressure to know, too. And it merits a response. Figures internationally are hard to find, but in the U.K. at least, employment tribunals citing menopause have quadrupled since 2018 — a catalogue of bosses having made light of the symptoms, of said symptoms effectively disabling employees. In most countries the law lags far behind a growing awareness of menopause’s potential impact. 

“The fact is that the understanding of menopause has an impact on society at large,” argues Dr. Helena McKeown, a menopause specialist and ex-chief officer of the British Medical Association. “It has a big impact on productivity and staff retention. It’s a massive reason for women to leave the workforce, for example. Women don’t often experience all of the symptoms of peri-menopause, but sometimes just enough to stop them working efficiently, which leads to self-doubt, Imposter Syndrome, and so on, and yet employers don’t typically talk about this or address it. That’s no surprise when there’s this unconscious bias against it, and that’s not just among the half of the population that won’t experience it.”

Certainly, McKeown adds, look at the big picture and the discourse around menopause is political, as well. It’s one of a number of women’s health issues not well researched because there are so many variables in different women’s experience of it. “When many of us now live well into our 80s, menopause is something that’s going to happen to a lot of women a little more than half way through their life,” she says. “In terms of its relevance then to our working and home lives, that makes the menopause a societal issue as well, not just a women’s issue.”

It’s only in recent years that men have been encouraged to become much more involved in pregnancy, through the likes of attending antenatal classes and, in some countries at least, winning a right to paid paternity leave. So there’s catch-up to do with men’s understanding of and regard for the effects of menopause. What may shift the balance is, perhaps, a more comprehensive visibility for the changes of middle age, beyond the cliché of the mid-life crisis. As McKeown notes, “talk to some men about menopause and their first reaction is still ‘Well, men experience this too…””

In other words, maybe men would be more appreciative of the impact of menopause if it was framed in the context of their own experience: the typically far less extreme, less commonplace, but even less well-understood andropause, when a drop in testosterone levels can bring similar adverse effects to the male mind and body. But lesson one of understanding menopause is, well, that it’s not all about you. 

By Josh Sims

Source: https://www.insidehook.com/

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Why Having Too Much Free Time Might Actually Be a Bad Thing

According to a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, having too much discretionary time is “linked to lower subjective well-being.” In other words: more free time won’t always make you happier.

It sounds pretty damn counterintuitive — who wouldn’t want to lie on the beach or couch all day long? — but the project’s researchers discovered that having an abundance of task-less time often leads to a “lacking sense of productivity,” which can only be reduced when people spend time on activities that give them a sense of purpose.

Marissa Sharif, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania and lead author of the study, told The Washington Post that a “moderate” amount of free time appears to be best: “[It] leads people to be better off or happier compared to having a large amount of free time.”

What does moderate mean? Somewhere between two to five hours a day. Push past five hours and human beings tend to feel aimless and idle. They rue their lazy choices (e.g., Netflix binges) and have trouble commencing whatever creative project they swore they’d start (e.g., the next great American novel).

In order to reach these conclusions, the authors analyzed data sets from both the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey and the Society for Human Resource Management’s National Study of the Changing Workforce to get a feel for how much free time Americans have, and how they generally respond to that free time.

Fascinatingly, the study also pointed out that having too little free time is a poor mental health play. That may not seem particularly revelatory, but it’s a reminder that the American worker — one of the most over-stressed employees in the world — gravely needs. In this case, spending less than two hours a day on time to oneself (whatever that may mean to you), will lead to a drop in well-being.

The key here is to find an amount of time between two to five hours that works on a consistent basis, and can be revisited after life-changing events. Consider: the period in between jobs, or immediately after your retirement. Having a plan (which you can keep reasonably loose, for spontaneity reasons) is your best friend.

And speaking of friends, about the only situation in which having too much free time actually helped subjective well-being was when it was spent with friends, family and colleagues. So pencil in leisure time with peers. Think dinners, tennis leagues, game nights. Alone time can be healthy too — a reading habit is dynamite for your mental health — but too much of it could put pressure on your psyche in the long run.

We long to get all our work done in order to have free time. But we should be very careful with leisure. Having nothing left to do work-wise can be a very dangerous challenge for our psyches: it can bring on despair and self-loathing. It may be that always having projects on the go can insulate us from mental unwellness. Sign up to our new newsletter and get 10% off your first online order of a book, product or class: https://bit.ly/2TMs0dT For books and more from The School of Life, visit our online shop: https://bit.ly/34vN4uL Our website has classes, articles and products to help you lead a more fulfilled life: https://bit.ly/2EzjKsp Join this channel to get access to exclusive members perks: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC7Ic…

Source: https://www.insidehook.com

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How To Cope With An Existential Crisis

Are you exhausted from rushing through life doing the same monotonous things over and over again? Perhaps those things that were once meaningful now seem vacuous, and the passion has burned out. Do you feel that pleasures are short-lived and ultimately disappointing, that your life is a series of fragments punctuated with occasional ecstasies that flare up and then, like a firework, fade into darkness and despair? Perhaps you are lonely or pine for past loves. Or you feel empty and lost in the world, or nauseous and sleep-deprived.

Maybe you are still looking for a reason to live, or you have too many confused reasons, or you have forgotten what your reasons are. Congratulations – you’re having an existential crisis. Sometimes, the questions ‘Why am I here?’ and ‘What’s it all for?’ haunt you gently like a soft wingbeat with barely a whisper, but sometimes they can feel as if they are asphyxiating your entire being.

Whatever form your existential crisis takes, the problem, as the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) saw it, was that living without passion amounts to not existing at all. And that’s bad for all of us because, without passion, rampant waves of negativity poison the world. Kierkegaard thought that one of the roots of this problem of a world without passion is that too many people – his contemporaries but, by extension, we too – are alienated from a society that overemphasises objectivity and ‘results’ (profits, productivity, outcomes, efficiency) at the expense of personal, passionate, subjective human experiences.

In his journal, Kierkegaard wrote: ‘What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not what I must know … the thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.’ Finding this truth, this passion, was what Kierkegaard thought could unite an existence, overcome melancholia, and help you to become more fulfilled. Kierkegaard had some ideas about how to harness the anguish of what we have come to think of as an existential crisis. Reading Kierkegaard won’t necessarily solve all problems, but it can help you understand some of the sources of your malaise and to see new possibilities for your life.

Sometimes, Kierkegaard is called the first existential philosopher because of his emphasis on the individual and subjective experience. Existential philosophers stress freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of your choices, and certainly one of the quintessential existentialist philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80), found this vein of thinking in Kierkegaard’s writing. For existentialists, it’s up to you to decide the kind of person you want to be and how to live your life meaningfully.

But these choices leaven despair because of the pressure that comes when you realise you’re free and responsible and have no one else to blame, no excuses for your behaviour. Anxiety, or despair, Kierkegaard wrote, is the ‘dizziness of freedom’. Despair is a kind of vertigo we get when overwhelmed with possibilities and choices. Kierkegaard described it as a similar feeling to standing on the edge of an abyss. You might be afraid of falling, but anxious when you realise that jumping is a possibility.

We are forced to make choices all the time, whether we like it or not. Consider toothpaste: there are so many types and it’s difficult to choose the one that’s best for your teeth. Whitening or stain-removal? Cavity protection, anti-plaque or enamel repair? What’s the difference? Why isn’t there one that does everything? It’s hard to know what the outcome of choosing one over the other will be. While choosing the wrong toothpaste probably won’t devastate your life, when you face more profound choices –

Such as what to study at college, whom to marry, whether to end a relationship, which career to pursue, whether to try to save someone who is drowning, if you should turn off a loved one’s life-support system – the closer you come to the edge of the abyss, the dizzier you will feel about your possibilities and responsibilities. Sometimes you live in ignorant bliss about your options but, once you become aware of them, wooziness is inevitable. As Kierkegaard wrote in The Concept of Anxiety (1844):

He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down.

Sometimes, the dizziness of your freedom is so overwhelming that you might feel compelled to step back, to shrink from making a choice. Making no choice, or letting someone else choose for you, can feel easier. The greater the stakes, the deeper the abyss, and the further you have to fall if you misstep. But your personal growth depends on your ability to handle big choices yourself and not to shirk them. For Kierkegaard, bravely facing up to our choices and learning to channel our anxiety in constructive ways is vital: ‘Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.’

During his lifetime, Kierkegaard made authorities nervous because he was an iconoclast who encouraged people to think for themselves. He challenged readers to break themselves free from the brainwashing of churches and community groups that preached what to do and what to believe, particularly the Lutheran Church of Denmark, with which he was at loggerheads for much of his later life. Kierkegaard also might have been deeply suspicious of today’s social media and advertising that tells us where to spend our money and time in the elusive pursuit of happiness. In a criticism that seems to have pre-empted online trolls, he proposed that ‘the crowd’ or the public is ‘untruth’ because it enables people to be anonymous, irresponsible, cowardly, and creates an impersonal atmosphere.

Kierkegaard was a Christian, ‘albeit a maverick Christian’, as the philosopher Gary Cox put it, because Kierkegaard emboldened people to develop a personal relationship with God instead of unreflectively assuming what the clergy sermonised. For Kierkegaard, living the truth is infinitely more important than objectively knowing it. At Kierkegaard’s funeral, the archdeacon who gave the eulogy told the huge crowd not to misunderstand or accept what Kierkegaard had written because he went too far and didn’t know it.

But you don’t need to be religious to glean practical wisdom from Kierkegaard’s work. He inspired many atheist philosophers. Sartre, as I’ve mentioned, deeply admired Kierkegaard. He called him an ‘anti-philosopher’ because Kierkegaard sought ‘a first beginning’ by pushing back against boring and abstract philosophies, such as G W F Hegel’s and Immanuel Kant’s, which were very popular during Kierkegaard’s time.

Kierkegaard wrote in unconventional ways. He was witty and came up with quirky pseudonyms such as ‘Hilarius Bookbinder’. Kierkegaard wrote pseudonymously not because he wanted to hide his authorship – pretty much everyone knew which books he’d authored – but to distance himself from his work; to challenge us to question the ideas he presents; to take responsibility for interpreting the text’s meaning; to inspire us to come to our own conclusions; and to create our own subjective truths. The strategy is called ‘indirect communication’. The effect of Kierkegaard’s work is that, instead of dictating and moralizing, he provokes – because you can’t tell if he’s being serious or not – and invites readers to dance with ideas.

Kierkegaard uses indirect communication in one of his most famous works, Either/Or (1843), a fictional collection of letters and essays written by different characters and presenting different points of view: aesthetic, ethical, and religious. These three views, or phases, provide a possible framework for how to endure and overcome an existential crisis. The phases are not rigid steps, but rather offer a scaffolding of possible experiences on an existential journey to reinvigorate our passion for life.

Think it through

Enjoy the aesthetic elements of your life

Kierkegaard suggested that the first mode of living is the aesthetic sphere. Aesthetic living is fun and impulsive, focused on sensual satisfaction, like a child who is discovering the world with awe and wonder. The aesthetic sphere is a beautiful phase of life, passionate and sparkling with possibilities. Consider the thrill of falling in love, the delight of seeing your all-time favourite musician live in concert, the elation of sharing a delicious bottle of wine or meal with a good friend, or the exhilaration of skinny-dipping on a whim. These experiences can be intoxicating, extraordinarily interesting, and make you feel like your life is transformed if you submit to them.

Don Giovanni – the protagonist of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni (1787), a legendary seducer who is also sometimes known as Don Juan – is, Kierkegaard suggested, the ultimate archetype of the aesthetic mode because he lives for immediate sexual gratification and sensuality. Don Giovanni is a player. He is handsome, seductive and exciting. Women find him irresistible: he has slept with more than 2,000 women whose names he records in his not-so-little black book. Don Giovanni seeks pleasure above all else, and dances through his hedonistic life.

How can you live aesthetically? Make your life as interesting and enjoyable as possible. Fall in love a lot. Rotate crops – meaning that, if you’re bored with your life, don’t be afraid to leave behind what doesn’t serve you and start planting seeds for fresh projects and new relationships that energize you. Be impulsive. Live for and in the moment. Cultivate arbitrariness for the sheer pleasure of it: go to the theatre but watch only the middle of the performance; pick up a book and read a random passage. Enjoy experiences in disruptive ways, different than what others are spoon-feeding you. Practise the art of remembering the joys of your past. Practise the art of forgetting unpleasantness by focusing on the silver linings of your misfortunes. Burn the candle of your life at both ends.

Make existential commitments to live ethically

However, an aesthete’s actions can be self-sabotaging, because, as Kierkegaard pseudonymously writes:

As when one skims a stone over the surface of the water, it skips lightly for a time, but as soon as it stops skipping, instantly sinks down into the depths, that is how Don Giovanni dances over the abyss, jubilant in his brief respite.

Don Giovanni gets his comeuppance in the end when a ghost in the form of a statue of the Commendatore, the father of one of his conquests and a man whom Don Giovanni has killed in a fight, drags him down to hell. You might not be dragged to hell by a ghost, but living purely in the aesthetic mode – though it might offer temporary respite – puts you on the fast track to a further existential crisis.

Why is this? The answer is that the aesthetic lifestyle demands a high price. Aesthetic living can be a source of existential despair when you become overly dependent on its distractions to fill the voids in your life. The aesthetic mode is dangerous when you live in a state of immediacy and instant gratification, constantly overindulging in such pleasures as social media scrolling, shopping, television, busyness, alcohol, drugs, serial romancing or casual sex. At a certain point, these activities cease to offer the enjoyment they promise, and the world turns grey.

Wallowing in such distractions only entrenches your alienation more deeply and pushes you more squarely into dungeons of unhappiness. As soon as you’ve satisfied one pleasure, you’re chasing the dragon of newness for the next high. Sometimes you’re so excited about taking risks on new possibilities, so in love with starting new projects and relationships, that you’re constantly flitting from one to the next, never finishing anything. Constantly on the move, you are like an ocean wave, surging powerfully, cyclically, with raw primal energy.

But waves froth and fizzle away indefinitely. If you’re constantly and busily churning through life, your existence amounts to a sum of moments without any real cohesion. Excitement fades and leaves in its wake disappointment and loneliness. The aesthete in Either/Or is envious of insects that die after copulation because they are able to indulge in the pinnacle of sexual ecstasy and then escape life’s greatest anticlimax – the ‘petite mort’ becomes a real one. An aesthetic life will inevitably leave you morbidly tired.

Kierkegaard’s aesthete is plagued with such soul-crushing tedium and torturous despair that he is numb. Because he isn’t truly engaged in life, he lives as if he were dead. Living void of passion makes him feel both chained by his anxieties and also cast adrift, like a spider plunging and flailing around, unable to grasp hold of anything:

What is to come? What does the future hold? I don’t know, I have no idea. When from a fixed point a spider plunges down as is its nature, it sees always before it an empty space in which it cannot find a footing however much it flounders. That is how it is with me: always an empty space before me, what drives me on is a result that lies behind me. This life is back-to-front and terrible, unendurable.

So if living aesthetically can only be a short-term solution to an existential crisis, how can you go beyond that and live ethically? Stop skimming over life like that stone. Slow down and do what you can to carve out pockets of time for reflection. Cultivate the space to become less robotic. And stop using aesthetic activities as a distraction from facing up to your existential despair.

‘Despair!’ Kierkegaard’s pseudonym writes. Despair is the entry price for transitioning from the aesthetic to the ethical sphere. Learning to love despair is an adventure in moving to a higher mode of self-development. Don’t hide from your existential crisis because choosing despair means choosing yourself. To cosy up to your despair is to choose against being beholden to your animalistic, aesthetic impulses, and towards becoming a definite and solidly grounded individual. Choosing yourself means making meaningful commitments, such as dedicating yourself to a vocation. It means setting goals and sticking to them. Dodging commitment means you’re simply hovering over life, not truly living, and as empty of substance as those waves.

To choose despair also means to choose humanity. In the ethical mode, you recognize that you live in a world with other people, that they matter, and that every choice you make must reflect a responsibility towards them. You act with honesty, open-heartedness, understanding and generosity. You focus more on what you can give to others and less on what you’re getting out of them. To cultivate your humanity, go people-watching for an hour and consider the beauty in each individual. Appreciate every person you meet in their particularity – their tasks, challenges and triumphs. Join a club and build a community of friends. Act more charitably. Help people. Commit to making the world better for others.

Choosing this kind of despair also prepares you for marriage in a way that a life of seeking sensual gratification is unlikely to. Getting married – ideally to your first love, in Kierkegaard’s analysis – reflects an ethical decision because marriage is a serious, definitive and life-changing choice. Marriage calls for a more sophisticated awareness of your existence than a life driven purely by sexual instincts. Sure, you can always get divorced, but Kierkegaard’s ethicist suggests getting married helps people take love more seriously than an aesthete would, by focusing on creating a relationship that’s stable and constant. In the ethical sphere, you actively rejuvenate the love with your partner, instead of skipping to the next relationship for thrills and a confidence boost as soon as your first one gets tough.

Face your existential abyss bravely because, Kierkegaard suggested: ‘Anxiety is the organ through which the subject appropriates sorrow and assimilates it,’ and ‘indeed I would say that it is only when the individual has the tragic that he becomes happy.’ The key to the ethical sphere is to use your despair to galvanise you to overcome your sorry dark states, refresh your enthusiasm for living, and arouse your appetite for something more meaningful in your life.

You develop yourself by being patient with existence, seeing the beauty in stability, and recognising that you are your own source of happiness and creativity. You don’t need to seek excitement constantly from new external stimuli as the aesthete does. You don’t need a dance floor to dance, to enjoy life; your dance floor is inside of you, wherever you are. You nurture the ethical attitude by living intentionally (not accidentally, like the aesthete), and living each day as if it were your Judgment Day.

Leap to faith

The ethical mode can help stabilise you, but it might not be enough to resolve your existential crisis. Living ethically might even be another source of existential calamity because fulfilling your social duties can be onerous. Kierkegaard’s ethicist says of the duty of marriage: ‘Its uniformity, its total uneventfulness, its incessant vacuity, which is death and worse than death.’ Marriage doesn’t make love stay. People change and break promises, making any commitment insecure. Given how many other people are unjust and immoral, being ethical might also throw you deeper into despair. And sinking too heavily into reflection can thwart your enjoyment of life. Philosophers tend to be guilty of overthinking, and Kierkegaard’s aesthete quips: ‘What seems so difficult to philosophy and the philosophers is to stop.’

The only way truly to conquer an existential crisis is with a leap. A leap is what Kierkegaard calls an ‘inward deepening’, which recognises that the world is uncertain, but you can make a bold choice about the kind of life you want to lead. A leap is beyond the realm of feelings (aesthetic sphere) and commitments (ethical sphere). A leap is an act of will to transform your life. It’s the decision to design an existence to which you can enthusiastically devote yourself and that will uplift and sustain your being.

Kierkegaard’s leap was guided by the commandment to ‘love thy neighbour’. In Works of Love (1847), written under Kierkegaard’s real name, he proposes that universal love, or agapē, is the secret to happiness because it overcomes the fleetingness and insecurity of aesthetic and ethical relationships. Love is Ariadne’s thread of life because, as long as you love, as long as you commit yourself to being a loving person, you’ll be safe from being hurt and alone. Kierkegaard thought that this sort of unwavering faith reflects a supremely developed human being.

Perhaps you live in the aesthetic or ethical modes of life, and you’re perfectly happy and see no need to leap. Or perhaps you inhabit these realms and find comfort in your melancholy. But the rub with existential despair is that, once you have caught a glimpse of it, intentionally or not, it’s extraordinarily difficult to unsee it. If that’s you, Kierkegaard’s ideas might be a way to help you find your footing. But the only thing that will alleviate an existential crisis is to find the truth that is true for you, the subjective truth, the propulsion to leap that lies in the innermost depths of your heart. If you’re not sure what your subjective truth is, Kierkegaard suggested: ‘Ask yourself and keep on asking until you find the answer.’

Ultimately, though, a passionately lived life isn’t about an either/or choice. You can’t be all frivolous or all serious all the time. A fulfilling life is about enjoyment and ethical commitment and leaping. Your life needs some of the sort of energy, pleasures and possibilities that Don Giovanni’s life exhibits (though not necessarily indulging these in the ways he does), otherwise the world would be very dull. And the world is boring without him. You also need something of the ethical: you need to acknowledge how your choices affect other people and to take responsibility for your actions, otherwise you’ll end up alone and sad.

You also need a leap to find that thing that you can devote yourself to that unites the splinters of your life, even if, for you, that isn’t a leap into religious faith. The point is to see these different dimensions of life, the ruts you might be falling into, the potential sources of ennui and malaise that stem from the way you live your life. But, ultimately, it’s up to you to choose how you juggle these spheres and how you spark your own fire to bind the fragments of your life together into a coherent synthesis. That’s the point. It’s for you to shape your life.

By: Skye C Cleary

Skye C Cleary is the author of Existentialism and Romantic Love (2015) and co-editor of How to Live a Good Life (2020). She teaches at Columbia University, Barnard College and the City University of New York. Her next book, How to Be Authentic: Simone de Beauvoir and the Quest for Fulfillment, is forthcoming in 2022.

Source: How to cope with an existential crisis | Psyche Guides

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