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February 22nd, 2023
The Fallen Dancer is a series here on Tinkered Thinking exploring a recent shift in perspective. The resulting framework appears to tie together many topics explored on Tinkered Thinking over the years such as resilience, struggle, patience, curiosity, emotional regulation, artistry, entrepreneurship, winning, honesty, and communication. This series will be an attempt to unify them in a cohesive treatment.
Part VII: The Art of Life
If you were to pick an art that most resembles the act of living, which art would you pick?
This is a worthy exercise because it may reveal something interesting about the way you look at life and the perspective you bring to the efforts you make on a day to day basis.
Do your efforts resemble that of the impressionist painter? Blurry in detail but magnificent from a distance? Or perhaps your efforts are even more chaotic, like a Jackson Pollock painting.
Perhaps life is something you build, like a sculpture. Something that required a lot of heavy hitting in the beginning and is now a matter of fine tuning the details.
Perhaps it’s like a mechanical structure that has a grand vision but doesn’t work until all the pieces are bolted and screwed together?
Maybe dancing makes the most sense. We all know what it feels like to be on a roll, when everything is firing on all cylinders and it seems like we’ve picked up on a secret rhythm that braids the luck of the universe in with our own efforts.
It’s worth taking a break from these words to actually give it some thought. The answer may characterize in large part your perspective and reflects the foundation from which all your efforts spring.
Up till this point, the focus of The Fallen Dancer has been about the nature of perspective, how it is a tool, and how much our opportunity, luck, and well-being are dictated by how swiftly we can augment and aim our focus in beneficial ways. Words like focus, perspective, and outlook, are all related but not in definitive ways that we’re all going to agree on. Are changes in focus a result of one’s perspective? One’s outlook on life? Can perspective change by focusing on different things? This kind of nit-picking devolves into a kind of pedantic roundabout. This is why a big question like: what art form is life most like? Is so useful. It zooms out and subsumes little details of focus, perspective, philosophy and outlook into a framework that anyone can understand. This the power of metaphor and analogy, and why these concepts are part of the practice of language. It’s the very reason why we tell stories. In fact, the underlying premise of any book, the writing and reading of that book is based on this idea: change the stories, change the world. Our patterns of thought are representative and derivative of the story we tell ourselves about what life is and what our roll is in that story. And yet, few people zoom out this far to ask something as large as: how do I characterize the story of the life I’m living?
Likening it to the practice of a type of art is useful because it turns such an enormous open-ended question into one that feels more like a multiple choice answer. Are my days like sketches in a sketchbook? Am I writing my life like a novel? Are difficult days - when it’s hard to even get out of bed like the blocked writer staring at the blank sheet of paper, wondering what to write… Or do you look at each day as a chance to dance with reality?
For many people, this simple question might be disturbingly hard. Artists typically really enjoy their work (at least we imagine that work is fulfilling and invigorating), but not all people enjoy their life - for many life is a grind that lacks all zest. Many and maybe even most people are stuck in a rut of some sort or another - miserable and complaining about everything, always dreaming of that fantastical and lucky break that never comes. The aperture of focus for such people is rusted in one position, and the art of these people’s lives might be like that of that writer tortured by writer’s block - an artist who can’t create any art. The visions of Kafka and Aldous Huxley and George Orwell can feel painfully close to home for many droning livelihoods, and perhaps it feels like there is no art to life. Living is just a kind of drudgery, like acting in an infinitely long scene drawn from a nightmare of Samuel Beckett.
Just about everyone has experienced something close to this kind of depressed living, at least for some stretch of time. We can all easily relate. But getting back up on your feet can be hard to relate to. Everyone whose managed it can seem impossibly far away when it feels like you’ve been knocked on your ass. Words of comfort and encouragement from people who seem to be better off can ring hollow and it can be very easy to wave off such efforts as the products of people who just don’t understand or those who are more fortunate due to differences in circumstance. That disparity is really a difference in perspective and the fact that such a radical difference can exist has been at the heart of the discussion so far.
Our behavior is in large part determined by what we notice about our environment - our circumstance. And perspective determines what we notice since perspective controls our aperture of focus. So what happens if we edit the story about life that we have spun up for ourselves? Could this change in perspective impact which things in our environment we focus on? Where one story influences one person to see only storm clouds, would another person equipped with a different story see silver linings?
What does your story calibrate you to see? Are you calibrated to see hidden leverage or does the story behind your perspective tint the world in perpetual shadow?
A single quote, reread after many years precipitated this volume of writing, and it had exactly this effect - perspective suddenly underwent a subtle but profound shift. The story changed and a slew of details about life that had either seemed innocuous or nonsensical or downright infuriating suddenly aligned, as if lighting up with glowing connections that had previously been invisible. Instances of bad luck suddenly snapped into stark relief as something else entirely.
Imagine for a moment someone who answers the above question about life as art with dancing. Life is a matter of rhythm and flow, of reading the movements of evolving circumstance and reacting to it in a way that is harmonious and smooth.
But also imagine that bad luck plagues this person who sees life as dancing and again and again the dancer gets knocked down. Every time, just when the dancer seems to be picking up the rhythm of life and getting into the groove, a gut punch lands - some bad news, some unexpected setback, and the dancer falls again, and is again faced with the task of getting back up on their feet.
How would an actual dancer feel if they kept falling in the middle of a routine, over and over. Getting unexpectedly knocked down is not a feature of any type of dance, but it is a feature of life. So for an individual who has likened the art of life to dancing, how would they feel when they get knocked down? It’s not hard to imagine such a person would feel like an actual dancer falling in the middle of a performance: like a failure, like they aren’t good enough. How many people actually feel like this when it comes to their real life?
Getting knocked down isn’t really part of the story of dancing, so someone who sees life as a dance can be left fairly confused and frustrated again and again when things don’t effortlessly fall into place on time, and on beat like they are supposed to. We’ve all encountered people who get bent out of shape when things veer even a little from their plans and expectations. We’ve also all likely been guilty of this mistake in one domain or another. Is it because the dancer isn’t good at dancing, or perhaps it’s just a matter of resilience? The dancer just needs to push through and keep going?
Or, perhaps, is it because the dancer is simply in the wrong arena?
More importantly, what happens to someone who is convinced that life should be a kind of dance?
Are they likely to feel lucky? Or does that kind of perspective create a greater surface area for the concept of bad luck to dominate?
What if dancing is simply a horrible way to look at life? Is it possible that this kind of story actually prevents a person from making progress, despite all their hard work and all their good intentions?
Think about the way you answered the question: what art is most like the act of living? The answer to that question hints at the story behind your perspective on life, controlling which details of circumstance you pick up on, and which details remain invisible to you - details that might have been opportunities - hidden leverage that passes you by, never seized.
Now, regardless of what your actual answer, consider this: which answer would be the most useful?
If there is an art to life, which art creates the most powerful story and allows you to be resourceful and see hidden leverage where others only see bad luck?