Last night my life changed, and I have a Hot Pocket to thank for it.
The experience itself was deceptively mundane. I was at the second of my two jobs; I paused for dinner. I should clarify that I do not often eat Hot Pockets, but this particular one was an unexpected dinnertime gift.
The first three bites were unremarkable: cheese, red sauce, warm bland crust. It was the fourth bite that caught me unawares. As my teeth separated the bite from the Pocket, I realized that in that bite – in my mouth – was something perfectly, inexplicably spherical.
For a moment my thoughts went no further than sheer surprise. The sphere had no apparent taste or texture – the only sensation was that of shape, a perfect roundness of a type alien to food. Then – was this a grape? Perhaps a very small tomato? My mind was left adrift. Those were the most obvious edibles I could recall with such a shape and size. But there was no sugared burst of a grape, no caramelized gush of a roasted cherry tomato. There was – nothing. Just a spheroid in my mouth, and a dawning sense that my understanding of reality was a touch more tenuous than previously realized.
Fortunately, I recently read an article in which this very experience was perfectly described.
Picture the scene: Moscow, Russia, the year 1896. A gallery hosts an exhibition. A man strolls through, a successful lawyer by profession. The man is named Wassily Kandinsky.
Mr. Kandinsky pauses in front of a painting. It appears to be one of Claude Monet’s Haystacks series. His expression undergoes several rapid changes. He reaches for the gallery catalog. He stares at the catalog; he stares at the painting. He stares back at the catalog. In his own words:
“That it was a haystack the catalogue informed me. I could not recognise it. This non-recognition was painful to me. I considered that the painter had no right to paint indistinctly. I dully felt that the object of the painting was missing….”
Let us consider Mr. Kandinsky’s “non-recognition.” This is the instant of tabula rasa – the instant right before a brain is changed. It is the familiar out of context, the unknown within reach; it’s meeting your double and losing your shadow. The discomfort hits as your brain starts to process some sort of meaning you can plausibly tell yourself and your neighbors. It is the classic snowball-to-the-face reaction. You are bemused, astonished, frustrated, outraged, caught off guard. In simple English: you are surprised.
This surprise is the mark of potential. This is a moment that can change your brain and reshape your life. Since it can hit you like a shot of adrenaline or a natural disaster, discomfort is only natural. Discomfort simply means change. Neuroplasticity is occurring.
What does Kandinsky think of neuroplasticity? He continues:
“…And I noticed with surprise and confusion that the picture not only gripped me, but impressed itself ineradicably on my memory. Painting took on a fairy-tale power and spendor.”
As Tank says in The Matrix: “Hey Mikey, I think he likes it!” 1
From shock to “give me more” – creation work2 requires this rapid recognition of the creative potential of surprise.
Creation work – such as Kandinsky’s – maps out how little we know. Kandinsky routinely questioned everything. He questioned his career as a lawyer, and became an artist. He questioned what an “artist” did, and pioneered abstract art. People who create things – whether paintings or stem cell research or perfectly fluffy pancakes – know it’s a balancing act. You have to have perfect confidence, and you have to have perfect doubt. You never know it will turn out, until it does.
This is a largely untold story. In its place, we have a social narrative about knowledge and creativity that is – allegedly, inexorably – linked to success. But that’s an artificial connection.
This artificial narrative tells us there is a predetermined arc from creation to success. If this arc includes mistakes or surprises or detours, it does so only to count these as further evidence of the inevitability of the creator’s success. It’s the myth of the “fail better” cult.
It’s hard to spin a motivational narrative about the shock and discomfort and horrendously gnawing doubt that is crucial to making anything of worth. So the narrative doesn’t try. In its place, we have The Myth of the Successful Fill-in-the-Blank. It goes like this:
This artist/scientist/writer/entrepreneur is a success, because they were destined for success.
Therefore, they are an artist/scientist/etc. because, and only because, they are a success.
Did you catch that? It’s a subtle flip. It’s easy to do. And it’s an easy story to tell and sell. The artists/scientists/etc. in question frequently tell it themselves. This may be because they understand a good story when they hear it, or it may be because it’s simpler to believe that once things achieve a comfortable status quo, they have always been destined to achieve that status quo3.
Here’s the damaging part. The corollary is: if you aren’t a success, you aren’t an artist/scientist/writer/what-have-you.
Why? Experimentation and mistakes aren’t worth money. They aren’t sexy, they aren’t inspirational. They’re just drudgery. But they are essential for anyone to make a glimpse of a different world – even if they’re the only person who ever sees it.
I speak only for myself: I crave honesty. I crave to know that my failures aren’t unique, and I don’t have to “fail better”. I just have to pick up the pieces, each and every time. I just have to keep wrestling with the ideas in my head – and understand I don’t always get to know if those ideas affect anyone else at all.
As I reject the “success” narrative, surprise becomes my ally in the struggle through disillusionment and failure. Surprise – and subsequent wonder at the unknown – gives me the courage to look for those moments that make me disoriented, uncomfortable; to look for those moments where gravity pulls me towards the ceiling instead of the floor. I observe them, remember them, pick them up and take them apart, spread them out on the table and imagine what makes them tick. For today, that’s success enough. Tomorrow, I’m looking for Kandinsy’s “fairy-tale power and splendor.”
Oh, and in case you were still wondering about the mysterious sphere – I checked the package. It was a meatball.
1 Matrix aside, this experience was powerful enough that Kandinsky subsequently quit law and took up art. He became widely known as a painter, art theorist, and pioneer of abstract art, though he would always insist his art was “still deeply ingrained in reality.”
2 Creation work? Yes, it sounds (pick one) either overly pretentious or a euphemism for something slightly more messy than sex work. It’s my pet term to describe anyone who knocks out the walls and floorboards of existing knowledge. I refuse to give in to the false dichotomy between The Arts and STEM – but that’s another post.
3 When the subject is geopolitics instead of creativity, this is also called the “end of history” argument: I like this government, therefore this is the government we were always destined to have.