On Nate Ruess and Being a Cynical Romantic

Yesterday, I listened to a radio interview featuring former fun. frontman Nate Ruess. He’s in the Philippines to perform some of his past hits, along with some songs from his current solo effort, “Grand Romantic.” In line with that, the DJ mentioned that he’s characterized himself as a “cynical romantic,” then asked what that is. Nate responded by basically saying it’s someone who knows he will get hurt, but has a good time anyway.

That’s something I totally get.

The Tension is Clear

I’ve always been kind of pessimistic in my thinking. I never expect the best because I only expect disappointment; I believe in managing expectations more than dreaming big. But at the same time, I enjoy the idea of romance, of having a good time, of being a good person in spite of every crappy thing that can happen.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still maintain the ability to function.” Well, that may be true in the case of cynical romantics. Or maybe to them, that duality is essential: love isn’t true unless it’s tested, and you can’t say someone is good unless that person can be good even at the worst times.

#NoFilter: There’s Beauty in Rawness

Curious about his new album “Grand Romantic,” I listened to a few songs online. The ones that made an impression on me were “Nothing without Love” and “Great Big Storm,” both of which depict a great, beautiful vulnerability. Did a little more research and checked out the Wikipedia entry for the album; apparently critics said that it was overly theatrical in terms of production, lyricism, and vocal delivery.

I could see where they were coming from, but I have to say I don’t totally agree. Sure, a lot of it tends to be really sappy and cheesy. Maybe the lyrics lacked subtlety, and maybe the music was just too inelegant in its presentation of emotions and themes. Still, I find it refreshing. On the radio and online, we hear a lot of music about people owning the club, twerking the night away, grinding, getting wasted, and so on. That’s inelegant, that’s devoid of subtlety, and that’s what a lot of people listen to. So for me, the album is still a worthy contribution to the world of music. It’s a naked, take-me-as-I-am peek into the mind of a true romantic, who I’m sure is not alone in the world. And it fills a niche for an emotion that many people feel but few people have the courage or opportunity to express.

My girlfriend and I will have the chance to see him perform live tonight. I’m really excited to sing along to his familiar hits, and listen to his new ones that will surely uncover a new side for many fans. His new music might alienate some of them. It might be a hit with others.

But when you’re an artist putting your whole self out there, for all the world to see and hear, that’s beside the point.

The Price of Excellence

I’m currently reading a book written by Ryan Holiday called The Obstacle is the Way. It’s basically a treatise on stoicism, and how meeting obstacles with the right perspective, energy, and will can let you convert them into opportunities. If you’re a subscriber to the stoic philosophy, or if you want to read stories about people from history who exemplified this way of living, then I recommend that you read this book.

Saying that, this is one of those self-help books that lends itself to occasional oversimplification; hard not to do that when you’re making strong, prescriptive statements.

One part of the book I take issue with is its call for people to pursue excellence, regardless of the circumstances. Basically, the author’s thesis for that chapter is that if someone has to motivate you to do something well, then something’s wrong with your attitude. What you have to cultivate is to attack any task in front of you to the best of your ability. You need to bring to bear an excellence ethic, a perspective that says “this is something I made with my hands, a product of my mind, a service from my effort; it must be great no matter what.”

Excellence is a Premium Product…

The thing is, if you’re going to bring heroic effort to everything you produce, then you’re going to run yourself into the ground eventually. Even machines wear out or burn out; human beings need to eat, sleep, play, and fulfill themselves in far more aspects beyond their work in order to be satisfied and productive. So while I do appreciate the romance behind single-focused, eye-on-the-object workmanship, I also appreciate that the worker is a person.

Also, one has to recognize the value of the workmanship in terms of the time value of mastery. No one is born a master, or even becomes a master overnight. It takes a lot of failures to get to mastery, and those failures have a cost that the master happily paid.

…That Clients Don’t Often Appreciate

The tragedy of it is that in a lot of industries, there’s no consideration made for this. Editors, proofreaders, and copy editors (yes, those are different things) are often not compensated well because their expertise isn’t appreciated: experts, the ones who know what they’re doing, should charge more because of their attention to detail, meticulousness, appreciation of nuances in style, syntax, punctuation, and what-have-you. But because clients don’t appreciate the difference between someone claiming to be an expert editor/proofreader/copy editor and someone who actually is one, the truly skilled are forced to compete in a lopsided wage war against those who provide a defective product.

Similar arguments can be made for many creative industries. Musicians have to scrape by for their gigs. There are video editors who are forced to churn out hundreds of videos a month. Many graphic artists, writers, and designers are approached by clients and publishers who have no idea what they want, and want to pay them little to produce it (Internet personality Wil Wheaton has actually spoken out, slamming the use of “exposure on a unique platform” as a substitute for monetary incentives).

In a Perfect World, There’s No Settling for Dirt

There’s a popular story about Pablo Picasso: supposedly, he was once approached by a woman who asked him to draw her portrait, which he did with a single stroke. The woman was delighted at the result, but dismayed when Picasso asked her for five thousand dollars for it. She asked “Why so expensive? It took you only a moment to do it!”

Picasso replied, “Madam, it took me my entire life.”

While not all of us are Picassos, many of us are engaged in some sort of creative work, which clients often take for granted. In the mad dash towards “gaining the edge in customer service,” many companies and freelancers are pressured to sell themselves short. A video recently released on YouTube also calls out the unfairness in the common advertising industry practice of asking for RFS. Check out the video below to learn more about it (in a tongue-in-cheek) way:

In the Philippines, many Filipino workers are concerned about the impending competition that would be introduced by the APEC integration next year. They’re afraid that skilled workers from other countries could easily take jobs away from us because they are more qualified. That may be true, but consider this: how many of them would want to? With our country’s high income tax rate, slow Internet connection, and poor transportation infrastructure, there are many things that would turn off foreign businessmen and workers from entering our job market. I’m sure at least some of them would walk away from invitations from our employers. That’s the kind of leverage being skilled should get you.

Basically, there’s just one point that I think should be made about excellence: No one is asking anybody to be all about the money. No one is saying that your excellence should only be pursued when there’s an incentive to pursue it. However, you also have to respect yourself enough to know when someone isn’t recognizing the worth of your work.

Lies Are Powerful… Especially from You to Yourself

If you happen to leaf through a copy of Seth Godin’s classic “All Marketers Are Liars” (that’s the original title; the updated edition has “Are Liars” struck out, and replaces it with “Tell Stories”), you may make it to the first chapter. If you do, you may come across the part where he discusses why people lie to themselves:

Everyone is a liar… The stories we tell ourselves are lies that make it far easier to live in a complicated world… We tell ourselves stories that can’t possibly be true, but believing those stories allows us to function. We know we’re not telling ourselves the whole truth, but it works, so we embrace it.

It makes sense. You can’t go through the world knowing everything about everything, continually updating your data silos, plugging that stuff into your decision-making algorithms, and always expecting your decisions and outcomes to be corrected right away. You’re not a supercomputer, and you’re definitely not a god, so you’ve got to accept your limited capacity for knowing and correctness, and just get by cutting corners and drawing simple trendlines.

Telling ourselves lies, however, doesn’t always work out so well.

Lies that Undermine

Take the case of addicts. These individuals (through some fault of their own, or perhaps due to unfortunate and uncontrollable circumstances) basically let their obsession and craving for one thing control their entire lives. Whether it’s pornography, drugs, alcohol, or gambling, it’s not inconceivable that someone can get unhealthily addicted to something that brings pleasure or satisfaction.

The thing is addiction is not always physical; it doesn’t always involve a substance that acts as a chemical hook, or some other factor that is in and of itself irresistible. Many times, it’s a matter of mindset that drives the habit. It starts innocently, a way to escape, then little by little the person lets the cycle spin faster and faster, gathering momentum, tightening into one focus until it becomes like a drill that pulls them down into the deep underground. (It can be argued that an addict’s circumstances can affect his or her mindset or behavior, making him or her more prone to addiction; journalist Johann Hari delivers a great TED talk that touches on this idea).

Somewhere in the middle of that process, the individual builds a system of lies that justify the addiction. They know that what they’re doing is self-destructive; hardly anybody lives in an information vacuum anymore, at least as far as addiction is concerned. But because of their need to continue the habit, they have to concoct something to convince themselves that they’re still on a good trajectory (calling it a story is generous as it doesn’t have to have any consistency; more often, it’s a patchwork of lies). If you watch and listen long enough, you can more or less get the gist of the internal dialogue: “I may be going underground, but I bet there’s oil or gold down there somewhere.”

So here’s the question: How do you distinguish a useful lie from a self-destructive one?

Ditch the Deceit

I’m not a big fan of religion, but I am a big fan of gaining perspective. Whether it’s through prayer, meditation, travel, or advice from friends who know you well, there is always value in examining your life. If every day feels okay, but your life overall feels somewhat of a mess, it’s best to find a way to step back, go outside yourself, and try to find out what the truth is.

Metaphorically speaking, make it a point to face a mirror. Take a selfie. Ask someone how you look. Do something.

The truth may be inconvenient; it may sting; it may necessitate drastic, painful, amputation-level change. However, disposing of an ugly lie is better than letting it fester and rot you from the inside. Or, if you prefer the words of a famous writer, we can go with Fyodor Dostoyevsky:

Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.

Of course, keep in mind Seth Godin’s input. After all, a marketing guru probably does a better job describing people’s behavior than a titan of literature does prescribing it, right?

This Wasn’t on the Program

“I haven’t heard anyone say anything bad about him. He’s never caused any trouble.”

That’s essentially the comment I remember reading from one of my classmates in the closing days of high school. Graduation was looming, and people were going around saying their I’ll-miss-yous and this-isn’t-goodbyes (and, in some cases and in hushed tones, good-riddances). In our class, one of our closing exercises was to write whatever you could say about your classmates and give it to them on a strip of paper. I forgot how exactly, but we did it in a way where the person will not know who wrote the comments about him. Lots were involved.

I struggled to think of things to say. I was never one to mingle or mix, electing instead to stick to my primary role of studying;  looking back, I’d probably describe myself as a ghost, following rules and staying out of people’s way just so they’d stay out of mine. It was the courtesy of giving space, the practicality of avoiding friction.

I don’t remember what I wrote about others (though I know I didn’t think or say anything bad about anyone). I don’t even remember what people said about me, exactly. But that one sticks out.

At the time, I was proud of that.

***

“You can’t live your life in the baby seat,” the Barenaked Ladies sang from the radio as I drove around campus (slowly, because I was a newbie driver), collecting the various signatures that I need to get cleared. It was time to graduate again–this time, from college. Earning my degree had been a challenge, sure, but it had not felt like an ordeal, exactly. It was just another item to check off on my what-you’re-supposed-to-do-in-life list.

Was I happy about it? It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that I was staying with the program. Keep your head low; nose to the grindstone, eyes on the books; keep your GPA up; don’t let others down; don’t rock the boat; don’t push other people; don’t invade others’ space; keep your elbows in, and don’t shove as you walk through the crowd.

I drove back to Albert Hall, where I got the last set of signatures I needed. All the blanks were filled.

Mission accomplished.

***

While complying can be an effective strategy for physical survival, it’s a lousy one for personal fulfillment. Living a satisfying life requires more than simply meeting the demands of those in control. Yet in our offices and in our classrooms we have way too much compliance and way too little engagement. The former might get you through the day, but only the latter will get you through the night.

I read that passage from Dan Pink’s book Drive, and it hits me like a liver blow. Three decades in, and I still haven’t found what I’m looking for–mainly because I haven’t thought about what it should be yet.

Around me, I see people getting married, building careers, making names for themselves, nurturing connections.

“I noticed tonight that the world has been turning while I’ve been stuck here dithering around,” the frontman of Keane croons through the speaker of my smartphone.

Dreams, it turns out, are not distractions. They are not beside the point. They are, in fact, the point.

***

So to you, whoever you think you are–brother, sister, friend, lover–I say: learn the lesson I did not. Don’t build your life around the convenience of compliance and avoiding offense. Wander a bit, determine your passion, and don’t waste your opportunity to pursue it…

…because “I haven’t heard anyone say anything bad about him” makes for a poor eulogy.

Principles vs. Politics

So a lot of people may not be familiar with Philippine politics; Lord knows I’m not either, in spite of my being a born Filipino. But one hot topic right now is “who is going to run for president next year?”

If I’m right (I get my news mainly from passive diffusion, from hearing televisions and radios blaring in the background, or seeing comments on my Facebook feed and clicking on the occasional shared article), there are already three candidates: VP Jejomar Binay, Sen. Grace Poe, and DILG Secretary Mar Roxas. I list them in no particular order of merit, though from what I gather, VP Binay is getting the most flak at the moment, mainly because of charges of corruption that have been levied against him that continue to blacken his reputation.

And there is one political figure, very controversial, whom many wish were also running: Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. He has already won the hearts of many, on social media and off, because of his iron-fist style of law enforcement. He does not compromise when levying punishment against violators, the most recent example (of which I am aware) being his forcing a man to swallow a cigarette at gunpoint after said man refused to comply with his city’s ordinance against smoking in public places. It seems he doesn’t care about rattling cages or puncturing stuffed shirts; he acts like a man who has no time or energy to spare for politicking, a man who puts the task of “pleasing everybody” in the “not urgent, not important” quadrant of his personal Eisenhower matrix. Perhaps it’s this same “no time for this shit” thinking that led him to decide not to go after the presidency… at least, not next year.

Of course, many balked at the suggestion that he run for the highest office in the land. A hard-line style of rule comes at a price, and that price is a dubious reputation for disregarding human rights issues. Even international journalists have called him out, dubbing him the “Death Squad Mayor”. The Martial Law years during the Marcos regime are almost thirty years past, and yet they linger in our collective consciousness, bringing haunting images of extrajudicial killings authorized, covered up, and/or ignored by a decidedly anti-people administration. Like scar tissue, it still shows and draws out ugly thoughts whenever we as a nation have to look at ourselves naked in the political mirror.

Still, some of us rub our chins, seriously considering the merits of a leader who leans towards the law. The PNoy administration was ushered in on a platform of “Tuwid na Daan”, one that promised action against corruption. For many, I suppose, the next logical step is an administration that enforces the law without prejudice (whether that can be done in a country where wealth, and therefore access to competent criminal defense, is lacking is the red-hot, I’m-not-gonna-touch-that question).

Why is it easy to get behind a platform of anti-corruption, but not so easy to get behind one of law enforcement? To the cynical, it’s because the former is about the government being accountable, while the latter is about everybody being accountable. To the practical, it’s because the you can’t have effective law enforcement unless you can trust those who enforce the law (anyone who’s been on the wrong side of a traffic violation several times knows that what goes on after you’re pulled over isn’t always by the book. It’s like talking over a tapped phone line; both parties are careful about what is said in case it turns out to be what is heard).

*****

I just watched the film Heneral Luna, a contemporary masterpiece that, in bold, fearless strokes, shows how politics and principle often collide. Set around the turn of the 20th century, the movie depicts how the titular character, Antonio Luna, crusaded against the American troops’ incursion into our country.

In one of the very first scenes, he loudly decries the Philippine government’s action, or lack thereof, when the Americans enter the nation’s capital. Some leaders rationalize and justify the decision behind arguments for economic progress and other political considerations; other minor characters just exhibit ignorance and apathy, acting in their smaller interests such as family, ego, or (in one case) sex. Throughout the film, General Luna’s behavior shows that he will not hesitate to eviscerate (either verbally or literally) those who stand in his way and, by extension, in the way of his ideal of a free and united nation.

Though built on a framework of historical fact, it takes creative liberties in depicting the fight for liberty (as freely admitted in the opening credits), and it’s for the best. It’s a refreshing escape for many of us to see such a character in action. How does one speak his mind so openly? How can one so relentlessly defend his principles by attacking those whose actions and words go against them, without fear of giving offense?

It takes heart.

It takes guts.

It takes balls.

We commend those who can think matter-of-factly, those who can call it as they see it. It’s easy to do that when it’s just a matter of one principle versus another, your ideals against others’. Much harder is the exercise of calling a snake a snake, calling a weakling a weakling, and calling a hypocrite a hypocrite, for that potentially opens you up to attack as well. To be credible in that approach, all you do, all you are, must be in consonance with what you profess to be about, all the time.

Simple to say. But really, in a world of people, pride, and power, not easy to do.

The Four Faces of “What If” as Shown in Films

For the past few weeks, I’ve taken to listening to motivational speech montages. It’s easy to find them; just go to YouTube and type “motivation”, and you’ll find any number of content creators who took audio clips from motivational speakers (usually angry black men), set them to epic music (probably by Hans Zimmer, or whoever the composer for the music in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies is), spliced them onto montages of inspiring images (mostly of people working out), and posted them for people to see. A couple of my favorite creators are MotivationGrid and Younes Marxieu, though I’m sure there are others that are as good, if not better.

Anyway, one of the speakers featured is Greg Plitt, who was apparently a fitness model, actor, former army ranger, and reality show contestant on top of being a motivational speaker (he unfortunately died earlier this year trying to outrun a train, a fact that a friend of mine finds deliciously funny). The quote of his that stuck to me was this:

“I failed” is ten times more of a man than “what if”, because “what if” never went to the arena.

The first time I heard it, it sounded so powerful, as real and rousing as a bucket of ice water in the face. But when I shared it with my friend, he dismissed it outright. “Just because you say ‘what if’ doesn’t mean you’re afraid”, he said.

Thinking about it, I realize he’s right. “What if” is a phrase that is purely speculative by itself. Depending on how you fill the blanks after that, it can mean different things.

Picture3
“What if” can show a forward-facing or an over-the-shoulder perspective, and it can be a buoying or burdensome question.

You may not believe me, that friend of mine, or the awesome table above that I took the trouble to create. Fine, don’t take my word for it… but you might consider listening to Hollywood.

Some people say “what if” in the context of fear of failure, rejection, or pessimism.

“What if” can be a preface to bleak possibilities. This is the perspective that sees the future as a minefield, a constant stream of threats to be avoided and risks to be minimized. When I think about this aspect, I think about George McFly from Back to the Future:

Some people say “what if” in the context of innovation, brainstorming, and a spirit of adventure.

This one tumbles out of the lips of inventors, scientists, artists, explorers, and imaginative children. This is basically the “what if” that pushes the envelope, a conviction with such substance and weight behind it that it has the potential to change others’ perceptions–and possibly reality itself. This is the bravest incarnation of “what if”, and it reminds me of Ellie from Up:

Some people say “what if” in the context of regret or agonizing over a missed chance.

There is a Filipino word, sayang, that doesn’t have a perfect English counterpart. People have dreams, desires that they want to fulfill, and sometimes they do not act on them because of fear. When they decide not to act, and after the time to act passes, regret sets in. Sayang.

(Note: Sayang can be used in other contexts, like a near-miss or something that didn’t work out in the end.)

This face of “what if” is reminiscent of a character from Heart and Souls, a film from the 90’s starring Robert Downey Jr. I couldn’t find a clip of it online, but basically, it’s about a man, Thomas Reilly (played by RDJ), who helps four souls correct mistakes that they made in life. One of them, Harrison, regrets not having sung onstage, and the group decides to make this right by having him sing the US National Anthem in front of a crowd. When Harrison tries to back out out of fear, RDJ confronts him:

Harrison Winslow: Who came up with this ridiculous concept anyway? Resolve your entire life in one bold stroke? What if I fail? And I will. I’ll fail. I’m telling you. I always fail. Then my whole life will be a complete failure.

Thomas Reilly: No offense, Harrison. But you died a failure because you never tried.

If you get the chance, watch this movie. If it doesn’t make you smile or cry at any point, I have to conclude that you are a robot or some kind of soulless yet animated husk.

Some people say “what if” in the context of relief, of realizing how lucky they are. 

Every decision has a cost and a benefit. For everything you gain from every choice you make, you also stand to lose something because you gave up doing something else. That’s called opportunity cost, and while Mr. Plitt saw the backward-facing “what if” as an expression of regret, it could actually be a way to appreciate your good fortune because for all you know, you might have gotten off lucky. A wonderful example can be found in 500 Days of Summer:

Depending on how you look at your life, whether you look at the past or the future, whether you lean towards hope or despair, you’ll have a different take. But remember, all those perspectives are just based on speculation. If you want to avoid all the heartache and headache associated with “what if”, perhaps the best thing to do is to just act on things, not necessarily without fear, but certainly with the acceptance that while things might go wrong, they just might go right.

For the Love of Language

I must have been twenty-one years old when my thesis adviser wrote this in a draft of my research paper: “Too literary”.

Two words, written in in red, placed at the root of an arrow targeting a specific phrase in my draft (I don’t remember the phrase, specifically), delivering a brief yet powerful accusation.

At the time, I was about to get my degree in a science course. Science, of course, is very rooted in objectivity, and one of the ways to preserve that objectivity was to make facts speak for themselves. Don’t use overly strong words; don’t use leaning language; just deliver the information. Anyone who’s read an article in a scientific journal will know that many of the published works are dry, intimidating blocks of text, filled with multi-syllabic jargon and language written in the passive voice, which removes the actors from the story (e.g. “The polymerase chain reaction was then initiated and allowed to proceed for six hours”, as opposed to “Mr. Reyes then initiated the polymerase chain reaction and allowed it to proceed for six hours”).

Of course I felt my phrasing didn’t influence the information I was trying to deliver; otherwise I wouldn’t have written it that way. Just so there’d be no trouble, however, I changed it to something drier and more acceptable.

****

Fast forward about four years. I was working for an online English school that teaches Korean students. We were conducting a grammar refresher workshop, something that we do every three months to keep tutors’ minds sharp. I was one of the supervisors facilitating the workshop.

I’d just explained how clauses and participial phrases can function as nouns, adjectives, and adverbs in sentences. The basic parts of speech (eight types of words classically, though now it seems there are twelve) are the basic ingredients for English sentences, but one can make his or her writing more interesting by using alternative ways to say the same thing… using different and more complex grammatical tools to achieve the same effect.

Of course, there’s a pitfall to having different grammatical tools: you have to remember different grammar rules to employ them. This was a problem for many of the tutors, who’d often get confused about the rules. “If you know how to use clauses and make them take the place of adjectives, adverbs, and nouns in sentences, your writing will be much richer,” I said. “Can’t we just make our writing less rich?”, joked one participant.

****

I understand that writing, as with all speech, is meant to achieve certain objectives. The way we’re taught to write in our early and formal education is to tweak our writing style according to these objectives. Scientific writing is sterile, clinical, hermetically sealed to prevent contamination, formulated and engineered to communicate information and nothing more. Literary writing is flighty, whimsical, and musical, free to go this way or that, composed and consumed purely for pleasure.

But why do we have to aim for just one target at a time? What’s to keep us from informing people while entertaining them, or persuading them of something while (or by) making observations?

Some people may want to just go with purely functional, basic language, just specializing in one mode. That’s all good; as long as they can express themselves clearly, it’s fine and dandy. For me, however, having a wider vocabulary and knowledge of language is better in general because like it or not, you will have to write in different ways. A thief needs different tools to crack open a vault; a medical practitioner has different methods and media to deliver drugs. I find it very unpleasant to communicate or express something clumsily, having to sheepishly defend myself with the phrase “for lack of a better word”. And I think a lot of people feel the same.

Love language: learn it, build it, invent it, enjoy it. Even if you have just one thing to say, you’ll find that having different ways to say it will help your idea roll off the tongue easily, slither into listeners’ ears efficiently, permeate their brains deeply, and move their hearts wholly.