I was thrilled to discover Milton Glaser‘s essay, 10 Things I Have Learnt, which he adapted from a talk that he gave at a conference for the American professional association for design in 2011. While the lessons Glaser learned over the course of his long and immensely successful career are aimed primarily at other designers, many of his insights (which I’ve previously featured here and here), speak to all individuals compelled by the desire to live full and meaningful lives. I have selected some highlights from three of the lessons that Glaser shares, which I found particularly relevant to rethinkers …* but be sure to head over to Design Indaba for the full essay, which is well worth a read in its entirety.
DOUBT IS BETTER THAN CONFIDENCE
Everyone always talks about confidence in believing what you do. I remember once going to a yoga class where the teacher said that, spirituality speaking, if you believe you have achieved enlightenment you have merely arrived at your limitation. I think that is also true in a practical sense. Deeply held beliefs of any kind prevent you from being open to experience, which is why I find all firmly held ideological positions questionable. It makes me nervous when someone believes too deeply or too much. I think that being sceptical and questioning all deeply held beliefs is essential. Of course, we must know the difference between skepticism and cynicism because cynicism is as much a restriction of one’s openness to the world as passionate belief is. They are sort of twins.
HOW YOU LIVE CHANGES YOUR BRAIN
The brain is the most responsive organ of the body. Actually it is the organ that is most susceptible to change and regeneration of all the organs in the body. I have a friend named Gerald Edelman who was a great scholar of brain studies and he says that the analogy of the brain to a computer is pathetic. The brain is actually more like an overgrown garden that is constantly growing and throwing off seeds, regenerating and so on. He believes that the brain is susceptible, in a way that we are not fully conscious of, to almost every experience of our life and every encounter we have.
I was fascinated by a story in a newspaper a few years ago about the search for perfect pitch. A group of scientists decided that they were going to find out why certain people have perfect pitch. You know certain people hear a note precisely and are able to replicate it at exactly the right pitch. Some people have relevant pitch; perfect pitch is rare even among musicians. The scientists discovered – I don’t know how – that among people with perfect pitch the brain was different. Certain lobes of the brain had undergone some change or deformation that was always present with those who had perfect pitch. This was interesting enough in itself. But then they discovered something even more fascinating. If you took a bunch of kids and taught them to play the violin at the age of four or five, after a couple of years some of them developed perfect pitch, and in all of those cases their brain structure had changed.
Well, what could that mean for the rest of us? We tend to believe that the mind affects the body and the body affects the mind, although we do not generally believe that everything we do affects the brain. I am convinced that if someone was to yell at me from across the street, my brain could be affected and my life might change. That is why your mother always said, “Don’t hang out with those bad kids.” Mama was right.
I also believe that drawing works in the same way. I am a great advocate of drawing, not in order to become an illustrator, but because I believe drawing changes the brain in the same way as the search to create the right note changes the brain of a violinist. Drawing also makes you attentive. It makes you pay attention to what you are looking at, which is not so easy.
SOME PEOPLE ARE TOXIC. AVOID THEM.
In the 1960s there was a man named Fritz Perls who was a Gestalt therapist. Gestalt therapy derives from art history; it proposes you must understand the ‘whole’ before you can understand the details. What you have to look at is the entire culture, the entire family and community and so on. Perls proposed that in all relationships people could be either toxic or nourishing towards one another. It is not necessarily true that the same person will be toxic or nourishing in every relationship, but the combination of any two people in a relationship produces toxic or nourishing consequences. And the important thing that I can tell you is that there is a test to determine whether someone is toxic or nourishing in your relationship with them. Here is the test: You have spent some time with this person, either you have a drink or go for dinner or you go to a ball game. It doesn’t matter very much, but at the end of that time you observe whether you are more energised or less energised. Whether you are tired or whether you are exhilarated. If you are more tired, then you have been poisoned. If you have more energy, you have been nourished. The test is almost infallible and I suggest that you use it for the rest of your life.