following your classics (issue 11)
This is The Ordinary, a reminder to notice the joy, value, and rigor of ordinary things. New subscribers, welcome!
In a few weeks, I’ll have some fun stuff to start sharing with you. I’ve been interviewing creators from various disciplines, and I’ve been asking them: How do you work within chaos? How do you use your tools? How do your tools and your work change how you see? Should be interesting.
An Ordinary Quote:
"For I have a single definition of success: you look in the mirror every evening, and wonder if you disappoint the person you were at 18, right before the age when people start getting corrupted by life.
Let him or her be the only judge; not your reputation, not your wealth, not your standing in the community, not the decorations on your lapel.
If you do not feel ashamed, you are successful. All other definitions of success are modern constructions; fragile modern constructions."
Commencement Speech at the American University of Beirut, Nassim Taleb
Some Ordinary Reads:
“Listen to What’s Being Whispered” (essay): Taylor Pearson is a master at jumping into new territories and figuring out the lay of the land. In this piece, he writes about the subliminal design of everyday things.
“How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day” (1908 essay series): English novelist Arnold Bennett wrote this at a time when the idea of “white collar” knowledge work was just coming into vogue.
“A Big Little Idea Called Legibility” (essay): This is quintessential Venkatesh Rao. Pour yourself a coffee and buckle in. “Complex realities turn (high-modernist) logic on its head; it is easier to comprehend the whole by walking among the trees, absorbing the gestalt, and becoming a holographic/fractal part of the forest, than by hovering above it.”
An Ordinary Note:
I wrote an essay about two years ago about finding your classics. If you’re interested, give it a read. I’ll briefly summarize the idea I was exploring.
A Classic is something that grips your heart in a way that perhaps transcends reason or common sense. It’s typically a work of art, but it could also be an experience or a person or a memory.
The Classic whispers some truth. But not just any truth. It whispers a truth that has no name, and you find yourself drawn to its pursuit. You distract yourself from it, but it comes around again and again.
You tell your friends and family about The Classic. They watch it, or they read it, or they nod their head politely as you try to explain it. But they just don’t get it.
There’s a simplifying logic to Finding Your Classics. Your life doesn’t really begin until you figure out what your Classics are and what they’ve been whispering.
Maybe what they’ve been whispering is your “purpose” or your “calling”. I think it’s much simpler — your Classics remind you of who you are, what is uniquely you.
Your Classics straighten you out. They pull you out of the cloud of distraction that makes you more automaton than human. As Gurdjieff once wrote:
“One thing alone is certain, that man's slavery grows and increases. Man is becoming a willing slave. He no longer needs chains. He begins to grow fond of his slavery, to be proud of it. And this is the most terrible thing that can happen to a man.”
We are enslaved by the ways we distract ourselves. Classics wake us up, a flash of lightning on a dark night, before the darkness resumes.
A Personal History of Classics
The Classic itself is a Classic for me, an idea I keep coming back to, trying to understand it from various angles.
In most moments, I don’t know how I ended up saying or doing or being anything, except for when I’m reminded of my Classics. Slowly, lightning begins to flash more often in my days of darkness.
We rarely stop to notice the forces through which our lives unfold. We’re too busy finding significance in newspaper clippings, talking heads, Instagram feeds, and the associative flotsam in our minds.
My Classics tell the subliminal story as it unfolds in real-time. It all seems so obvious in hindsight. And it helps me continue to seek what seems to be seeking me all along.
Age 8: Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar. Insane characters in an insane universe, somehow occupying it quite sanely.
Age 10: The Matrix from the Wachowski Brothers. Nothing is at it appears. Also, Kung Fu.
Age 14: The Battle of Los Angeles from Rage Against the Machine. There is something powerful about speaking truth forcefully and with wit and humor.
Age 17: Guerrilla Warfare by Che Guevara. Remaining small and hard-to-find can create a freedom that status and fame will not.
Age 19: Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih. What do you do when you’re neither here nor there, when you feel you belong nowhere at all?
Age 23: Antifragile by Nassim Taleb. Things that seem logical at first may not be. Things that seem irrational at first may not be.
Age 25: Modern Vampires of the City from Vampire Weekend. There is hope even in bleakness and despair.
Age 27: Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. You can find home in the world. You need nothing else.
Age 29: Transcending Madness by Chogyam Trungpa. Nothing is at it appears, it’s much simpler than it appears. Compassion is freedom.
I’m always interested to hear what other people count as their Classics. Is there a subliminal story that threads them together? Would love to hear from you!
An Ordinary Visual:
We want shopping a while back at some trendy place on 5th Avenue. Of course, my eyes are on the lookout for Classics disguised as furnishings…