What if when you enter a room, instead of looking about with your eyes and listening with your ears, you first employed your feelings to get a sense of the place? If you did this every time you entered a new space, how would it change your perception of place? How would it transform the way you relate to the world, to people, to your experience of self as a conscious being?
There is a man who teaches people how to do exactly this, and his name is Peter L Nelson. A clinical psychologist with a PhD, Peter is no ordinary scientist. He is also a “seer,” a person who has been trained to sense what lies within the spaces that we normally do not look upon.
Peter’s recent book Way of a Seer makes bold claims. The volume is founded upon the conviction that the human mind is connected to “second-stream of consciousness,” and that the information that this provides for the individual can be practically applied in our daily lives. This spiritual intelligence is innate, but our society and education system has forgotten it, instead conditioning us to tightly focus our attention on a very narrow range of perceptual experience. We are taught to push, to compete, to win. We are not taught to relax and look. We are not taught to listen. Instead, we impose ourselves upon the world, and in doing so miss its subtle essence and much of the information contained within places, experiences and people.
Peter’s induction to the world of seers is as remarkable as the teaching itself, as he told me recently on my podcast The Consciousness Files. In his early twenties Peter was a disgruntled postgraduate student spending his time cutting open rats’ brains in the university lab. He found the entire programme distasteful. Despite his inquisitive scientific intelligence, Peter never felt quite at home in society and modern education. He had long had disconcerting psychic experiences, which he tended to push aside.
One night he had a dream of flying over green hills, and had the profound sense that he knew the place he was seeing. The following night at the cinema he saw the exact same scene again, which was in Devonshire, England. He had a profound sense of longing to travel to the country.
In a series of coincidences, he soon met a wealthy woman who offered to take him there. He made the decision to quit his studies and soon found himself in London. To try to make sense of the experiences he was having, Peter visited the British Society Psychical Research (15:45 mins). It was there that the librarian began to act a little strange. She insisted that he read a letter, which she stated was very important. Peter declined, but he struck up a friendship with the woman. Eventually she convinced him to read the letter. It turned out that it had been written ten years before. It was apparently addressed to Peter himself, even though Peter had never met the writer. It described details of Peter’s life that appeared to be too accurate to dismiss as coincidence.
At first Peter thought it was some kind of scam, but the disorienting effect of the experience stayed with him. Despite his fear and the unsettling effect on his life, he maintained his relationship with the woman. She would, over a period of years, teach him how to become a seer.
According to Peter Nelson, perhaps the most important aspect of “seeing” is that it transforms our way of relating to people, the world and the cosmos. It is vital to helping us rediscover the connectivity that we have lost in our modern, economically-developed cultures.
What I particularly like about Peter is his honesty and the “scientific” approach to what I prefer to call “integrated intelligence.” He does not profess to know all the answers to life, the universe and everything. Indeed “not knowing” is central to his personal philosophy. We humans are very limited in what we can understand about the universe, he says. Yet even the simple act of noticing what we don’t pay attention to can be transformative.
Take a look around you now. What did you first pay attention to when you entered the room? What do you never pay attention to in this space? A minute of quiet meditation on these two questions can reveal much about what you have become – and what you have not become.
Perhaps Peter L Nelson’s way is not for everyone who works with the extended mind, but I think all “seers” can gain a great deal from his “critical” approach. Peter is not so much interested in laying down dogmas and certainties, as in problematising the way of the seer. He is sometimes critical of false or naive approaches to seeing, but I think this is a good thing.
The world needs people with the courage to speak and write openly about this often-maligned area of human perception. Seeing deeply is not merely an interesting aside to the human story, like attending a psychic reading or playing with a ouija board when you have had a few too many drinks. I am in full agreement with Peter L Nelson that non-ordinary perception is central to rebalancing the greater story of our civilisation and our species. Peter L Nelson makes an invaluable, fascinating and very accessible contribution to human knowledge.
Charles Darwin, as we all know, was a great scientist who meticulously laid bare the myth of a purposeful hand in evolution, instead revealing that blind chance and survival of the fittest are what lie behind the evolution of species. He was vehemently opposed to religious and spiritual thought, instead insisting upon the empirical investigation of nature as the only means to truly identify the way our world works. In short, the selfish gene hypothesis famously posited by Richard Dawkins has much to thank Darwin for, in establishing the ground rules upon which nature produces new variations in plant and animal life.
Yet according to research put forward by veteran psychologist David Loye, this representation of Darwin is only partially correct. Indeed it is dangerously misleading. It fails to mention the shocking truth that Darwin was no advocate of blind chance as the key factor underpinning natural selection. Although the beginnings of genetic theory were still half a century away in 1858 when The Origin of Species was published, Loye’s research suggests that Darwin would not have been particularly inclined towards Dawkin’s selfish gene hypothesis and neo-Darwinism in general. Conversely, Loye writes in his latest book The Integral Darwin: The Revolutionary Rest of the Story and the Theory of Evolution that Darwin’s work and thinking actually presaged the mid-twentieth century arrival of systems theory, self-organising process theory, and a more progressive, spiritually-inclined psychology.
The case for a softer Darwin
Some years ago Loye’s investigative mind took to purusing Dawin’s The Descent of Man, which was published over a decade after The Origin of Species. To his astonishment, the Princeton psychologist discovered that Darwin had only used the term “survival of the fittest” twice in the entire huge volume, and wrote only six times of “selfishness.” Conversely he wrote about “moral sensitivity” no less than ninety-two times and “love” ninety-five times.
Loye’s case for depicting Darwin as a far more eclectic and even spiritually-inclined individual is strong. The quotes he takes from Darwin’s own works and diaries cannot be simply dismissed as aberrations. For this we should certainly thank the author.
Consider the following, from the conclusion of The Descent of Man.
Important as the struggle for existence has been and even still is, yet as far as the highest part of man’s nature is concerned there are other agencies more important… For the moral qualities are advanced, either directly or indirectly, much more through the effects of habit, he reasoning powers, instruction, religion, &c, than through natural selection.
It is difficult to argue that Darwin here is talking about cultural evolution. Yes, that despised word amongst empiricists, “culture.”
Or reflect upon this gem which Loye quotes.
Admitting for a moment that virtuous tendencies are inherited, it appears probable, at least in such cases as chastity, temperance, humanity to animals, &c., that they become first impressed on the mental organisation through habit, instruction and example, continued during several generations in the same family, and in a quite subordinate degree, or not at all, by the individuals possessing such virtues having succeeded best in the struggle for life.
This quote appears to suggest that mental characteristics can be passed down from generation to generation. This is not much like the selfish gene at all. Indeed, here is a Darwin who believed that “love sympathy and self-command (can) become strengthened by habit.”
Further, Loye finds evidence in The Descent of Man that Darwin was favourably predisposed to spiritual reflection.
… A belief in all-pervading, spiritual agencies seems to be universal; and apparently follows from a considerable advance in man’s reason, and from a still greater advance in his faculties of imagination, curiosity and wonder.
Again, we see a Darwin at great odds with the dominant culture of modern science, one who saw the spiritual as an “advance” in consciousness. Loye’s research suggests that the mental realm was just as important to Darwin’s evolutionary model as was the physical. Later in the March of scientific “progress” all trace the mental was to be largely excluded from the modernist worldview. Darwin’s story suffered a similar fate, with reference to such ideas excluded from the popular narrative, a link that Loye highlights often.
How it came to pass
What intrigues Loye is how Darwin has come to be so badly misrepresented in modern science. Why is it that we have only been told of half the story? How for example, did we get from Darwin’s initial theory – which was moderated by deeper philosophical and arguably spiritual ideals – to the far end of today’s neoDarwinism. The latter is epitomised by philosopher and neo-Darwinist Daniel Dennet’s claiming that ALL things in the universe operate according to processes which strongly mirror the mechanistic laws of a rigid natural selection? The reason for this perversion, according to Loye, lies in the mindboggling power of paradigm blindness.
Today, Neo-Darwinism has come to dominate biology, and in turn neuroscience and psychology have become handmaidens to its reductionism – a development that Freud foresaw and feared in the first half of the twentieth century. Yet there is evidence that the hold of the mechanistic paradigm is loosening. Such developments as the missing heritability problem in genetics, neurplasticity, and the evidence for the non-local properties of consciousness pose a genuine challenge to the machine cosmos worldview.
Darwin was no Darwinist, and why it matters
Yet what of Loye’s case for Darwin’s thinking being a precursor to more recent systems and chaos theory? The correlations are also clear, though some may find the link overstated.
Loye sees a far more accurate, humane, sustainable and ultimately accurate depiction of life and cosmos in the systems theories epitomised by the work of such thinkers as thermodynamicist Ilya Prigogine, brain scientist Karl Probram, integral philosopher Ken Wilber, feminist writer Rianne Eisler, systems theorist Ervin Laszlo and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Indeed, the first part of the book details how David Loye was invited to join Ervin Laslo’s General Evolution research group in Budapest. Ultmately Loye would develop the Darwin Project Group, with the express goal of bringing Darwin’s Lost Theory to the world.
It is not Loye’s intention to deny the role of natural selection on nature. Nor does he deny many of the aspects of Dawin’s theory which are consistent with Neo-Darwinism. Yet Loye is adamant that Darwin himself was no “Darwinist” in the popular conception of the term.
But does all this really matter? Is it really that important that Darwin’s conception of natural selection and of nature in general was far more eclectic than mainstream genetic theory today and that we have underplayed the diffrences?
Yes, it is important, says Loye. Very important. The selfish gene theory and mechanistic biology in general have created a very selective and deeply distorted view of the cosmos in which we live. Such delimited thinking simply ignores the data which does not fit its map of reality. It therefore does not represent the full human story. At a social and cultural level it has contributed to the the often disconnected and morally vapid culture of modern developed economies. This distorted map and culture, argues Loye, are what lie behind many of the great problems of the world, including disconnection from nature, environmental recklessness, rabid consumerism and much human conflict. He also sees power-hungry conservative interests as having taken the neo-Darwinnian discourse to justify their own selfish social agendas.Therefore, the reinstatement of the full story of Darwin would represent an important step in acknowledging where we have gone wrong. From that point we could begin the long task of finding a more accurate and empowering narrative to drive the human species into the future.
In the end, Loye’s research shows us that the stories we tell about our heroes – including those from science, philosophy and education – can be heavily distorted by the prevailing thinking of those gazing upon the past. Examples from the history of science abound. Socrates was no mere critical thinker, believing in the spiritually transformative power of knowledge. Newton started out as a theologian and remained mired in theology all his life (Darwin, too, excelled at university in Divinity Studies). Freud was sympathetic to research into ESP, but afraid to go public about it. These men were not the severe rationalists that are often depicted in modern tomes, each possessing ideas and ideals that were either mystical, religious, spiritual or Romantic in some sense.
If David Loye is right, Charles Darwin may one day be remembered as one of the men who healed the split in the modern mind between the scientific/rational, and the spiritual/intuitive. That would be some irony.
Recently I read Peter L Nelson’s semi-autobiographical book The Way of a Seer. it is a wonderful addition to the literature on Integrated Intelligence. Here’s a review that I write on Amazon.com:
This is a very fine book. I enjoyed it immensely, and learned a great deal from it. My own journey has been quite similar to Peter’s, and I found The Way of a Seer to be of great value in confirming, clarifying and extending my own knowledge of non-ordinary perception. I think those wishing to explore this subject a little more from a more “intellectual” perspective will also get a great deal out of the book.
What I particularly liked about the book is the “scientific” approach to the subject matter, and the honesty of the author. Perhaps this way is not for everyone who works with the extended mind, but I think all “seers” will gain a great deal from such a “critical” approach. Peter is not so much interested in laying down dogmas and certainties, as problematising the way of the seer. He is sometimes critical of false or naive approaches to seeing, but I think this is a good thing.
This is not to say that the author doesn’t make direct and bold claims. The book is founded upon the conviction that the human mind is connected to a deeper stream of consciousness, and that the information that this provides for the individual can be practically applied. Further, as the author states, such a way of relating to people, the world and the cosmos is vital to helping us rediscover the connectivity that we have lost in our modern, economically-developed cultures.
The book begins by tracing the author’s early life, when he came to acknowledge that he was indeed a seer. There then follows a broad coverage of the tapestry of Peter’s life in relation to his seeing abilities. There are plenty of fascinating anecdotes of Peter’s spiritual intelligence, and these make the text fascinating at a personal level.
Towards the end of the book, Nelson begins to discuss the relationship between non-ordinary perception, science and modern society. I found this to be both interesting and valuable. There are some great references to more academic work, too, for those who wish to explore the subject in a more formal way.
The way of the seer is an important book. The world needs people with the courage to speak and write openly about this often-maligned area of human perception. Seeing deeply is not merely an interesting aside to the human story, like attending a psychic reading or playing with a ouija board when you have had a few too many drinks. I am in full agreement with the author that non-ordinary perception is central to rebalancing the greater story of our civilisation and our species. Well done to Peter L Nelson for an invaluable, fascinating and very readable contribution to human knowledge.
In a recent post I reviewed Cal Newport’s excellent book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Newport adopts a well-researched, “rational” approach to the issue. His main findings are that:
• It is foolish to dash headlong into a new career without first establishing career capital (skills, knowledge and connections).
• Innate passions which can be transferred into paid work are rare and it is better to experiment with life to find work you can become passionate about.
• If you cannot see any pre-existing people being paid for your “passion”, don’t try to turn it into work.
• By developing rare and valuable skills, a person’s work will be in demand.
• It is necessary to use deliberate practice to develop such high-level skills in your area of work. This may not be fun at all, and mastery typically takes some 10 000 hours of practice.
• A person needs to develop a mission which helps them focus their work into a precise area, and to avoid scattering one’s energy.
• Patience is required. It takes time and a great deal of work to become great at something.
• Newport heavily criticises the popular self-help-book suggestion that the most important step in developing blissful work is having the courage to quit your job and begin your new, passionate career. This is foolish and likely to lead to failure and rejection if it is done before a person has established career capital in his new field.
These are all common sense, and very useful insights.
However, having mentioned so many positives in that previous post, let me now move onto several reservations I have about Newport’s approach to finding passionate, meaningful work.
Spinning the cherries
Newport cherry picks his case studies. The fact that he does not offer a single exceptional case – one that contradicts his thesis – suggests that his conclusions may be exaggerated. He also appears to “spin” these cases to ensure that they support his argument, highlighting those aspects which are affirmative, but explaining away those things which might potentially contravene his line of argumentation.
For example, he dismisses the case of Steve Jobs – whose Stanford graduation speech on following one’s passion has twenty million hits on YouTube – as evidence for the passion hypothesis. Newport points out that in his youth Jobs studied literature, physics and history at Reed College, a liberal Arts school, and not business or electronics. Jobs was also passionate about spirituality, consciousness expansion and Eastern mysticism. If he’d followed his own advice, writes Newport, Jobs would have become a zen teacher. Newport says that all the Jobs’ biography proves is that it’s good to be passionate about what you do.
But is this really a fair assessment of Jobs’ innate passions?
Newport appears to be playing a semantic game here. Can Newport’s term “electronics” really encapsulate the passion of Steve Jobs? And is not “business” what most self-starters do to turn anything into a successful career? Perhaps terms like “creative inspiration” or “design” are more appropriate descriptions for the innate passions of Steve Jobs. His work at Apple would then seem like an apt fit. And clearly Jobs felt he was living his passion. This is not something that can be so easily dismissed.
In my own life I have found that my passion centres around my work as a writer and explorer of consciousness and spirituality. I certainly didn’t know this when I was twenty. In fact, I never had any genuine spiritual understanding till I was about twenty-six – I was actually a sceptic before that time. I studied English and History at University and loved sport as a kid. Thus it may appear to an outsider that my life affirms Newport’s thesis.
But the truth is that I was always deeply introspective. I just needed life experience to bring that out. So in a sense Newport is both right and wrong. It did require the travails of life for me to discover my calling. But I do not feel that this passion was created by my life experience: that passion was always extant. It was a mere potential.
Therefore I am not in full agreement with Newport that we may as well stick a list of ten appealing pastimes on a wall and throw a dart at them to choose which one to explore as a great career (as he states on a Youtube video). I believe that we must also develop an inner wisdom, and use that intuitive intelligence to help us develop our calling in cooperation with life.
Another problematic case study brought forward by Newport involves the story of Ryan and Sarah’s highly successful organic farm at Red Fire, Grandby. Ryan is a former banker who quit his job to set up the farm. According to Newport, Ryan stumbled into his new profession – he literally “grew into it.” However, this is not a logical assessment. From Newport’s description of Ryan, it appears the man always had an innate enthusiasm for working in nature. The fact that he followed a path consistent with his inner world is therefore indication enough that he had a passion for it.
Such problematic interpretations are one of the key limitations of Newport’s thesis, as he regularly twists passion-positive case studies to ensure that the passion hypothesis is nullified.
To be more specific, Newport dismisses the idea of “passion” in relation to Ryan’s work because there were a series of steps over many years as Ryan discovered his “calling.” Such passion only ever develops over time, insists the author. Yet my sense is that Newport is playing word games again when he implies that any unfolding process that is not instantaneous cannot be called “passionate” in the same way that an innate enthusiasm can be.
Obviously it is true that a person’s life process can help reveal his deep passions, as has been true in my own life. Yet it is not simply the case that such passions are conditioned by the life process, which is what Newport suggests. Newport’s thesis is thus sometimes too black and white, adopting an unnecessarily strict dichotomy between careers sustained by passion versus those developed via craftsmanship.
Nonetheless, Newport’s statement that an individual has to acquire significant skills and career capital to succeed in new career directions remains very valid – and Ryan did just this over many years.
Out with introspection
Another significant shortcoming of Newport’s book is that he appears to have little practical understanding of introspection or human intuition. He is a successful university professor, and so his education has clearly valorised “rational” and scientific ways of knowing. He tends to dismiss personal insight and human intuition, often with subtle contempt or even ridicule.
A good example occurs very early in the book, when Newport begins with story of Thomas, a zen practitioner with a master’s degree in comparative religion.
In interview, Newport relates that Thomas, is reluctant to communicate the meaning of a specific zen koan. Newport gets around this by googling the koan. He then essentially treats it with contempt, apparently failing to consider the possibility that the Zen masters might be correct in suggesting that most people would have trouble truly understanding it with a standard analytical approach.
It is here that Newport is at his weakest. Sometimes he mirrors the arrogance of modern scientific “skepticism”, apparently believing that he does not need to undergo any introspective education or training in order to develop greater depth of intuitive perception. This attitude is epitomised when he announces that he has “debunked” the passion hypothesis. He contemptuously denounces the idea as an “occupational fairy tale.”
Newport appears to be on a kind of semi-religious quest to ensure that the passion hypothesis is killed off. Personally, I do not believe that things need to be taken that far.
Further, Newport does not entertain the possibility that science may be limited when it comes to understanding passion and innate human drive. A common criticism of modern brain science is that it is delimited. Empiricism and third-person approaches to dealing with human intention or consciousness cannot really get inside a person’s head. They can only map the correlates of consciousness. In short, science is incapable of truly understanding the spiritual dimensions of life.
To find the answers to the questions he asks, Newport consults academic journals and avoids introspective domains. Is it any surprise then that he completely dismisses and sometimes ridicules passion and introspection? Newport’s argument ultimately becomes circular. Introspection is inadequate, therefore introspection will be avoided as a means of insight into the problem of insight.
Is this shortcoming simply a lack of introspective intelligence on Newport’s behalf?
Newport’s analysis does not distinguish between passion and intuitive intelligence – what some might call spiritual guidance. Likewise, the Canadian college students who were surveyed about their “passions” were likely not introspective types in general, being mainstream-educated. The survey, and Newport, fails to discern the difference between the excitement of personal interests and the “excitement” which emerges from an inner sense of guidance.
There is no evidence in the book, nor in the public presentations that I have seen, that Newport has a well-developed inner world. Newport’s world is apparently random and the individual is soul agent of his life. Yet there are inner and mystical journeys where inner voice is crucial. The failure to address this is a prime shortcoming of Newport’s book. He seems to deny all inner guidance, seemingly completely ignorant of its existence. Founding his work only on science, it remains delimited by its boundaries. Modern science has actively denied intuition and introspection for centuries, and Newport unquestioningly follows in its footsteps.
My sense is that both the strengths and limitations of Newport’s book stem from his being an academic. He does a wonderful job in drawing attention to the pitfalls of blindly following your bliss. But he is singularly incapable of comprehending the subtleties of the inner intelligence of the wisdom traditions. By limiting his approach to academic analysis of research papers and personal case studies, Newport effectively silences many of the wisest men and women of history. Thus So Good They Can’t Ignore You remains very good, but limited; just as Newtonian physics was a wonderful approximation of an observable universe, but woefully inadequate once finer cosmic truths had been gleaned.
Excellent but flawed So Good They Can’t Ignore You is an excellent book. I will be recommending this book to my own clients (I advise people on how to activate a broader range of human intelligence in developing an ideal life – especially intuitive intelligence). The book systematically addresses many of the common pitfalls that “life of passion” advocates experience (including my own). Given that these are very rarely addressed in self-help and new age philosophies, Newport’s book is an invaluable addition to those wishing to develop such a lifestyle. It’s conclusions remain strong, based as they are on science and relevant case studies. However, I would encourage readers to be mindful of Newport’s personal biases and limited understanding of introspection and human intuition.
Newport’s “complete rejection” of the passion hypothesis is understandable given his worldview, but nonetheless premature. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
A fascinating conversation between Mastery author Robert Greene and programmer and writer Paul Graham. According to his official biography, Graham is “a programmer, writer, and investor”. In 1995, he and Robert Morris started Viaweb, which was acquired by Yahoo, soon becoming “Yahoo Store”. Graham has started or funded about 450 startups, wrote Lisp (one of the world’s most influential computer languages). He’s also one of the richest men on the planet.
This short extract conversation with Robert Greene is taken from an interview the pair did for Greene’s book Mastery – a book I cannot recommend highly enough for those of you who wish to understand what has made the great minds of history tick.
In this part of the interview Greene is honing in upon whether Graham has an intrinsic passion – a calling, no less. His answer is fascinating. Just as fascinating is the fact that there is the suggestion that “programming” was somehow a part of the collective consciousness of the Graham family, even though the idea was not openly discussed.
* * *
ROBERT: Did you feel like, when you discovered computers, that that was it? That this was what you were going to be doing for your life?
PAUL: No, actually. There weren’t a lot of programmers around back then. So it didn’t seem like, it wasn’t clear that you could have a career as a software developer. I didn’t know anybody growing up that I would have called a software developer. I mean, they used computers a lot to do calculations in the design of nuclear reactors. In fact, my father was one of the first programmers. But he didn’t think of himself as a programmer. He thought of himself as a guy who designed reactors and he had to write programs. Just like now he would use a calculator to actually do the same things probably. But he didn’t think of himself as a software developer.
ROBERT: Did you learn from, was it in the air, in the family, in the house?
PAUL: He surely didn’t teach me anything about programming.
PAUL: I don’t remember him ever saying anything about this. But how can I not?
ROBERT: You absorbed it somehow.
PAUL: How can I not have heard him talking about computers? It was just in the air.
ROBERT: What were you thinking you would end up doing in life? Did you have any idea?
PAUL: No. I had no idea. You would take these surveys that would tell you something random, like, you are supposed to be a photographer when you grow up. You are supposed to be an insurance salesman.
ROBERT: What were you supposed to be?
PAUL: I don’t even remember. I don’t even remember. It seemed like the choices were all so boring like an actuary or something like that.
ROBERT: So where did you go to college, undergraduate?
PAUL: Cornell. I went to Cornell.
ROBERT: Very cool.
PAUL: Yeah. And it had a particularly good computer science department.
ROBERT: Oh. So that’s when, as an undergrad you started getting deeper into this.
PAUL: Yeah. I was pretty deep into it already. By the standards of the day in high school.
Live your passion and the money will follow. It’s a popular notion in many self-help and new age tomes. The idea has been around a long time. Thoreau famously put it this way:
“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
This conception, increasingly popular since the 1990s, often implies that the most important factors in living your “dream” are to identify what you are passionate about and then have the courage to take the leap of faith and turn it into a career.
I’ve written about this idea in some of my own books, so I was very interested to hear what Newport has to say about the matter. Newport approaches the issue somewhat differently from me. He openly rejects introspection and implores readers to experiment with life and discover what really moves them via trial and error. Let your passion follow you, rather than the other way around.
Perhaps I should mention that I am not opposed to Newport’s approach. I believe all those embarking on the adventure of creating career with passion should do all the things Newport suggests. As I will explain below, the main way I differ from Newport is that I do not consider introspection to be incompatible with “rational” approaches to the problem. Human beings possess both rational and intuitive faculties, and I believe both should be employed when “living your bliss”. But this is a review of Newport’s book, so I shall not labour long on my personal philosophy.
I will first list what I consider to be the most important insights that Newport brings forward. These understandings are powerful and highly relevant for people building passionate careers.
In the final part of this review I will list a small number of significant shortcomings of Newport’s approach.
Career passions are rare
The first insight that Newport relates is that career passions are uncommon. Newport says that people are not born with an innate passion that easily translates into a fulfilling working life. He cites a survey of Canadian university students who were asked to list their life passions. Some ninety six percent of their responses involved hobby-style interests such as ice hockey, dancing, singing, reading and swimming. Only four percent were career or education-related. Quite rightly, Newport finds that such passions don’t readily convert into career options. Newport thus rejects the idea that we all have pre-existing passions waiting to be discovered. “How can we follow our passions when we don’t have any relevant passions to follow?”, he asks.
A related point that Newport makes is that we should not try to avoid the anxiety of uncertainty which often underpins the search for a great career. He argues that the anxiety felt by many successful people like Steve Martin suggests that early in their lives they were not sure they had found their passion.
Newport seems to imply that if a person has really found their true calling that they would not feel such anxiety. Yet is this a sound conclusion? Surely all people experience doubt and anxiety, even if they believe they have found their passion. The creative process tends to create inner tension for even the most successful people.
Newport’s claim that we may not have innate passions is something all of us should heed when building a career. Nnonetheless, there are clearly some exceptions. Certain people have a very pronounced passion for at least a general skill or activity. Gandhi had an genuine enthusiasm for politics, spirituality and social transformation. Jim Carey was always the attention-seeking class “clown”. And despite Newport’s angle that Mozart was a product of his environment (having a highly ambitious musician-father), it is clear that he had an exceptional genius for music at a very young age.
Thus Newport often fails to develop the subtleties within the points that he brings forward. And some of these subtleties are incredibly important when embarking on career paths.
Passion takes time
A second key point that Newport develops is that it typically takes time and a certain degree of life experience to identify what you are truly passionate about. This finding is probably Newport’s most important, and is very strongly supported with relevant case studies.
Citing academic surveys, Newport finds that the greatest single factor which determines passion on the job is not innate skill or ability, but the number of years spent on the job. When people feel competent, have independence and have good relationships with colleagues, they feel much happier with what they are doing. When you develop skills and great relationships your work feels more passionate.
We should all keep this in mind when thinking about our work options.
This leads Newport onto his third conclusion: that passion is a side-effect of mastery. Citing author Daniel Pink and self-determination theory, Newport argues that autonomy, competence and relatedness are what creates motivation in people. Clearly this contradicts “the passion hypothesis”, as Newport calls it.
Newport is also particularly savage on what he calls “the courage culture”, the naive idea that it’s just getting started that’s the hard part of creating successful work you love, and that the rest will just fall into place.
Passion is dangerous
In his third chapter Newport states – in something of an hyperbole – that “passion is dangerous”.
In fact, Newport blames increasing job dissatisfaction in the past two decades on the corresponding rise in popularity of the passion hypothesis. Naively following your passion can lead to chronic job shifting and career confusion. Fully sixty four per cent of young people now say they don’t like their jobs, Newport reports. He thus concludes that the more we seek what we love, the less we tend to love what we do. Therefore the passion hypothesis can create a career path riddled with confusion and angst. Although the term “dangerous” might be an overstatement, it is hard to argue that many workers today are afflicted by this restlessness.
Patience is mother factor that Newport identifies as being important. Simply rushing headlong into your new career by quitting your job is most likely a foolish move.
Be so good they can’t ignore you
A workable alternative to the passion mindset is the “craftsman mindset “, says Newport. He states that this should be the foundation for creating work you love. In a nutshell, this means working at becoming great at what you do. A person must adopt the craftsman mindset first, and then the passion – and money – will follow.
It is developing rare and valuable skills, Newport believes, which makes a person an invaluable member of a community or organisation. Such talents are what create a demand for his or her expertise.
Again, Newport is relating common sense, and again he is surely correct. Yet many naive individuals quit their jobs with little or no career capital in their desired new field and expect immediate success simply because they are passionate about it. As many of Newport’s case studies show, such enthusiasm is often short-lived and turns to anger and despair when the individual experiences immediate failure and ongoing rejection. The person is then left with nothing, not even the passion that they initially had for their “calling”. Newport cites the case of a woman named Lisa who quit her job in advertising and marketing to set up a business as a yoga instructor. Lisa had no experience and had spent a mere 200 hours completing a yoga training course. She soon found herself on food stamps, unable to even earn enough money to support herself.
The need for deliberate practice
The strategy of building “career capital” is but common sense. Newport is right to criticise certain self-help philosophies, many of which seem to profess that hard work and thousands of hours of “deliberate practice” are not required to be successful in most fields. While many naive new agers insist on the delusion that all you need is the right “energy”, Newport implores people to work hard and develop great skills.
Deliberate practice requires developing a smart, systematic regime for rehearsing the exceptional skills that you want to develop. Newport refers to the common adage that many great artists and human-change agents put in at least 10 000 hours of practice in their chosen fields before they become outstanding practitioners. Newport suggests that such practice must be carefully designed so that the individual pushes themselves ever-further beyond their comfort zone.
A central part of this approach lies is in identifying what skills you need to build, and what goals you wish to attain. Such deliberate practice is often not enjoyable, something that those who advocate the passion hypothesis may refuse to entertain. Yet again, Newport is correct. It’s not all fun and games on the way to the top. It is naive to believe that one can become exceptionally good at anything without placing great emphasis on deliberate and mundane practice.
An important critique that Newport makes is that the craftsman mindset encourages an attitude which asks “What can I offer the world?”; whereas the passion mindset can promote the narcissistic question, “What can the world do for me?”
Newport convincingly argues that “control requires capital”. Again, this is common sense, but something that many passionate individuals fail to fully heed. Control that is acquired without career capital is not sustainable. This is Newport’s “first control trap”.
Perhaps the most common delusion widely seen in this domain belongs to those who believe that they can set up a money-making blog to sustain their transition away from the grind of nine-to-five work. In particular, bloggers who write about lifestyle design without having established any career capital are the most foolish. As Newport points out, having enthusiasm alone isn’t of much value. Any financially successful blog must provide readers something they are willing to pay for.
The second control trap occurs when employers realise an employee’s value and seeks to reduce your autonomy. In other words, control generates resistance. The key for the employee seeking greater autonomy is therefore to establish enough value for the employer that she has the power to negotiate greater freedom and control.
It is thus true, Newport argues, that you should only seek more control (freedom) when you think you have something people will pay for.
This is where Newport brings in another valuable distinction: “the law of financial viability”. This maxim dictates that you should focus your creative energies upon offering services that people will remunerate you for. Notably, this is not the same thing as doing something just for the sake of money. The author writes that if you can’t make money from something, then it is clearly not of value. Therefore – if after scanning the world around you – you can find no evidence that people are willing to pay for a particular skill or service, it is probably unwise to seek a career in it.
The power of mission
Mission statements have been popular for some time, and Newport identifies a few important distinctions here. His advice is of particular value to those wishing to express their genuine passion as a “calling”. But unlike some enthusiasts, Newport states that we must first develop mastery, then develop our mission statement.
Newport suggests that we should not start out with grandiose designs on changing the world. We need to think small, but act big. We have to postpone our paradigm-smashing visions and first develop experience and career capital.
A mission is necessary, mostly to focus. Too much diversity – not having a clear vision – is not good because we cannot channel our efforts in a sustainable way.
The law of remarkability
Another piece of useful advice that Cal Newport offers is that we should pursue projects that are remarkable. He makes the analogy with purple cows. Nobody notices a brown cow. But a purple one…?
Your projects should be remarkable in two ways. Firstly, they should be remarkable in the literal sense – unusual. Choose something that people will talk about. Secondly, you should be able to spread the word yourself, via social media, blogging or other low-cost means of promotion. Crucial also is that you must launch your project in a venue which supports such articulation. Projects don’t speak about themselves. You must adopt the mindset of a marketer.
In my next blog post I will continue this review of So Good They Cant Ignore You, putting forward several key weaknesses of the book and its approach to living your bliss… Feel free to add your own insights, below. Do you agree with Newport?
Will Storr’s Heretics: Adventures With the Enemies of Science is an exceptional book which I cannot recommend highly enough.
As the title suggests, most of the book comprises Storr’s adventures in rounding up some of the planet’s best known sçientific pariahs and interviewing them. Typically, Storr spends several hours or days with his interviewees, and sometimes even travels around with them. We get to see Holocaust denier David Irving, Rupert Sheldrake, Richard Wiseman, James Randi and several other slightly less notable figures up close and personal.,
Will Storr shows himself to be a very talented writer and journalist. What I particularly liked about this book was Storr’s personal courage in having the vulnerability to be completely honest about the questions and uncertainties which filled his own mind in the writing of the volume. This is a rare beast indeed: skepticism with self-reflection! What I also love is that Storr is a very, very fair in his appraisal of the people he meets and interviews. He shows himself willing to question his own preset assumptions. This is an attitude that many so-called professional skeptics could do well to mimic.
As Storr’s encounters with several skeptics in the book reveal, many are just as dogmatic and irrational as the “woo” masters they despise. This becomes particularly clear in a chapter where he digs into the dispute between radical biologist Rupert Sheldrake and professional skeptic Richard Wiseman – over their testing of a dog who allegedly knew when its master was coming home despite having no warning about the return times. Although Storr comes to no firm conclusions about Sheldrake’s work, Storr is willing to present the cases of both men, including allegations that Wise,man misrepresented his own study to make a positive outcome look negative. Most skeptics would not even bother to give Sheldrake the benefit of the doubt, instantly siding with the skeptic. Storr does not fall into that trap.
Nor does James Randi – when interviewed – come out looking like the irrepressible, hyper-rational genius his fans often portray him to be. But Storr is willing to point out the good he has done as well. And this is something many in “alternative” circles typically fail to do. As I said, Storr is very fair.
Storr does not fall short of criticicising – or even ridiculing – various “believers” who seem willing to believe almost anything, irregardless of the evidence to the contrary. Some of his stream-of-consciousness judgments of their deep irrationality make for amusing reading.
Storr concludes that the human mind is a story maker and that it is impossible for us to avoid this – regardless of how “rational” we think we are. We all suffer from cognitive dissonance to some degree. And he is right. Given this the only truly “rational” way to gaze upon the thinking of others is with a gentle appreciation that their distortions are just part of the madness of being human. I suppose the most obvious caveat is in deciding when such thinking is harmful to others – as is the case with David Irving.
If I am pressed to identify any shortcoming of the book, it might be the writer’s failure to adequately address the limits of scientific enquiry and rational analysis. I feel that any genuine attempt to sceptically question the world has to acknowledge the limits of different kinds of perception. There are mindful traditions which have come to the same insights as has Storr, but through introspective means. Some do offer a step beyond the kind of postmodern impasse at which Storr finds himself imobilised at the end of the book. This is, I believe, a civilisational roadblock that we now face. Storr is clearly prepared to explore such possibilities (he relates an agonising Vipisana meditation retreat he attended), but it seems he is yet to resolve this cognitive tension in his own mind.
But then again, it is not Storr’s stated aim to look so far ahead, and it does not make this book any less readable. It’s a great read.
This is one of the best books I have read this year. Buy it and read it. But don’t expect a comfortable ride. You might even finish it feeling a little disturbed.
“Supernormal” begins with the premise that so-called psychic and supernatural abilities are actually quite normal. They are perhaps not normal in the sense that everybody has them on tap, but in that over half of the population claim to have experienced them or at least believe they exist. Radin then sets out to explore the topic and discuss the relevant scientific evidence.
The author frames his arguments with reference to yoga, and in particular the yoga siddhis, seemingly paranormal abilities that ancient yoga texts claim human beings can attain with mastery of the mind and body. As Radin points out, the practice of yoga has exploded in the West in recent decades, so it is a perfectly good way to frame the discussion. One of the problems with talking about psi phenomena is that there is an effective taboo against it in Western science and academic discourse. Using yoga as a launching pad is therefore a suitable means to initiate the discussion and get it into the open. perhaps the only real problem with this is that many Western religions view yoga and Eastern philosophy as “evil”, and this may prevent the discussion breaching these ancient walls. Hard-core sceptics won’t appreciate the approach either – but then again, nothing short of waking the dead is going to shift their attitude to this issue.
You will find that Supernormal is written in reader-friendly style. Those who are not particularly interested in the science/physics of consciousness will find the book a little less technical than Radin’s other books. While he does deal with some technical aspects of psi phenomena – such as statistical analysis and the scientific evidence for things like telekinesis, telepathy and clairvoyance – Radin manages to discuss the subject matter in laymen-friendly terms, and with a very accessible narrative voice.
While Radin does represent the most common arguments of sceptics and critics, the book very clearly sides with the pro-psi camp, arguing strongly that ESP and psi phenomena are genuine, and that our maps of reality need to be upgraded to accommodate them. Radin is thus not attempting to deliver an exhaustive scholarly examination of all aspects of the discourse. He is essentially making the strongest case possible for the existence of the “paranormal”.
So this is not a purely objective treatise, and I suspect Radin would make no claim to a purely detached perspective, given that his entire career is built upon the very arguments found in this book (nor would I ever claim such detachment, given my personal exploration of these subject matters in my own career as a writer and speaker, and my own personal life which has long been permeated with many “supernormal” experiences).
As a futurist with a focus upon the futures of consciousness and intelligence, I enjoyed Radin’s final chapter on “The Future Human”. One of his essential conclusions is that our science and our society will eventually have to shift their understandings about the nature of time, space and consciousness. It’s been more than 100 years since relativity theory showed that time and space are not absolutes, while quantum physics has futher muddied the waters. This has severely undermined materialism, causality and many of the founding presuppositions of contemporary education and science. Yet many of our institutions and media outlets remain deeply attached to a mechanistic model of reality. Often they are hostile to the harbingers of change, regardless of what evidence they bring to the table.
It’s time to move on. Why resist when the unexplored territory is so exciting? All adventure entails an element of uncertainty and perhaps danger. Perhaps even confusion and a sense of loss. But the price for choosing to remain in the past is great. This is the fork in the road at which we now stand.
I give “Supernormal” five-stars. It succeeds perfectly in what it sets out to do: to present the case for the existence of an expanded array of human cognitive abilities in accessible and entertaining fashion.
Here’s a fascinating story with great implications for human intelligence. Derrick Amato was a man in early middle age when he had an accident which literally changed his life. He dove into the shallow end of a swimming pool, and the resulting concussion completely rewired his brain. He always had an interest in music and could play guitar and drums, but after the accident he found that he could play the piano, a completely new skill for him. Now he is a professional musician who plays eight different instruments. Doctors have explained the oddity by suggesting that different parts of his brain have reconfigured themselves and are now able to communicate more efficiently, granting Derrick access to previously unknown abilities. There are other cases of people developing special abilities after accidents, and they are considered a special case of savant syndrome. Some abilities may be lost even as others are acquired. There are several videos of Derrick on Youtube, including of him playing the piano. I might point out that some people don’t think he’s very good, and others think he’s a fake. You can decide whether you think he is a “musical genius” or not.
The entire concept of neuroplasticity has expanded greatly in the last decade, and many scientists now believe that intelligence and mental ability are far more malleable than once assumed. I am in firm agreement with this idea, as I have outlined in many of my articles and books, including Extraordinary Mind. There are a range of scientific opinions on this, from those quite hostile to the entire field, through to proponents like Norman Doidge (The Brain That Changes Itself) and David Shenk (The Genius in all of Us – You can see a link to my video review of the book at the bottom of this page).
The idea of having a changeable brain is well worth thinking about. Are you holding yourself back from trying new things because you believe the old saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”?
Here’s a video interview with Derrick which features some of his piano playing.
BOOK REVIEWS (ACRHIVES): The Science Delusion is Rupert Sheldrake’s latest book. I found this book to be an excellent and very readable presentation of some of the problems facing frontier science. All in all it is a great read. It’s a definite five stars in my book.
Let me begin with the only major criticism I have with the book: the title. The name “The Science Delusion” is obviously a response to Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion. I think it is the title more than anything which has offended many in mainstream science, or those members of the public who have a strong atheistic or skeptical mindset – i.e. those who like to read Dawkins’ books. (Edit: I note with delight that the American edition, which has just come out several months after I wrote this review of the British edition, has been entitled: Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery. Maybe they read my review on Amazon 😉 .
An article about Sheldrake’s book in The Guardian online attracted some savage criticism, bordering on hatred. It was clear from many of the comments that many of the critics have never read The Science Delusion or any of Sheldrake’s other books, simply because their criticisms were so far off the mark. One poster simply wrote “What the fuck is this shit, and what is it doing in The Guardian?” Another comment lambasted Sheldrake for being a non-scientist writing about science, and having never conducted experiments. In fact Sheldrake has a PhD in biology from Cambridge, and has designed and conducted some of the most ingenious experiments imaginable. His telephone telepathy experiments are simply ingenious in their simplicity.
My point here is that the title appears to have set up Sheldrake and The Science Delusion as being anti-science. In fact, as Sheldrake himself argues, he is neither. The book simply addresses key issues in the philosophy of science. Its key target is the philosophy of materialism, and the rigid scientism which so often emerges from it. There is nothing that says that science has to conduct itself within a worldview where materialism is a founding ideology, and where the machine universe is its founding presupposition.
So there are better titles that could have been chosen.
Instead of being anti-science The Science Delusion pries open ten founding presuppositions of scientific materialism – each with a chapter of its own – and identifies key problems within all of them.
1. Is Nature Mechanical? 2. Is the Total Amount of Matter and Energy Always the Same? 3. Are the Laws of Nature Fixed? 4. Is Matter Unconscious? 5. Is Nature Purposeless? 6. Is All Biological Inheritance Material? 7. Are Memories Stored as Material Traces? 8. Are Minds Confined to Brains? 9. Are Psychic Phenomena Illusory? 10. Is Mechanistic Medicine the Only Kind that Really Works?
At the end of each chapter Sheldrake asks several open questions to materialists. Each question is designed to gnaw away at the delusion that these founding principles of scientism are part of an immovable bedrock; instead Sheldrake attempts to loosen their iron grip on unthinking practitioners and advocates of science by implying that each of them is more uncertain than is often taken for granted.
Rupert Sheldrake makes reference to his hypothesis of morphic resonance periodically throughout the book. This hypothesis states that nature/life operates within fields of intention which operate ‘above’ the simplistic reductionism/genetic fixation which dominates so much of mainstream and popular science. Whether morphic resonance will pass the test of time remains to be seen. But the success of the book does not rest on the validity of the idea of morphic fields. This is not a book seeking certainty. Instead it seeks to acknowledge the ambiguity which lies behind business-as-usual science and education.
I agree with Sheldrake that morphic resonance fits the evidence better in certain fields of enquiry, especially in terms of the nature of consciousness. There is simply too much data and evidence that is currently dismissed or explained away as “paranormal” in mainstream cognitive science (it doesn’t fit our worldview, so we can ignore it). The extended mind – mind which is not merely contained in localized skulls, but is entangled with others minds and the environment – simply must be accounted for. It is too important a part of life, nature and the human condition to be dismissed any longer.
I find The Science Delusion to be very thought-provoking and entertaining. It is, I believe, a book that should be read by all science students – and in fact anybody with a high school education. Readers may not agree with all of it, but the questions it asks are too important to be ignored.
Sheldrake, Rupert (2012-01-05). The Science Delusion . Hachette Littlehampton.