Aphorisms for remembering how to see

John Berger

When I was a buying records like a maniac, I would go through the entire eBay soul 45s listings posted on that day, most days of the week. Although it was a ridiculous and time consuming habit, I never found it at all tedious because discovery was always, possibly, at hand.

I would tell myself that I had to follow the tangents, to see where they lead, and that was all I needed to do to keep discovering wonders. "Don't buy what the others are buying", I'd tell myself, referring to the record collector scenius I'd eventually share my finds with, "because that's boring and it'll cost too much. I'll only get one new record instead of seven."

As I seem to do here, I'm extending my thoughts on the previous post, Rules for Record Collecting, which can be summarised as simply optimise for interesting. This little aphorism seems to subsume most of what I'm naturally drawn to do. But why? And how come it appears to be an update of follow the tangents?

To think through the second question, I thought I'd list a few similar "wunderkammer engine" aphorisms, those in the long line of similar substitutes for the optimise for interesting maxim.

Other ways of phrasing optimise for interesting

Follow the tangents

As discussed above, I think this one's mine. Sounds like a Stereolab song title. I can attest that it's a very high pay-off method for finding curious records.

Stay hungry, stay foolish

Big old favourite. This one's from the back cover of Stewart Brand's final Whole Earth Catalogue (check out that awesome use of the Windsor typeface). Steve Jobs quoted it. It's good.

Do what you love

Halt! Let's quickly talk about context. Meaning can't happen when an idea, like this maxim, becomes too diluted across a culture. This phrase can still work for you, but only if you can make your way through the entanglement of popular misinterpretation that it sufffers from. And if you get through that thicket, don't expect to get paid for it for 10,000 hours (the creative process has to start from an urge well before it turns into something society will pay for, so that's just not what we're talking about here). This is a flakey aphorism. Stand clear.

Escape competition through authenticity

A reborn version of do what you love, but as Silicon Valley Venture Capitalists like Peter Thiel or Naval Ravikant would phrase it. This also means it can be a potentially overwrought and misunderstood maxim—and it's dismally banal wording helps—but for now the word "competition" cloaks it, unless you're familiar with Thiel's primary idea in Zero To One. So at this time, I'd say it hides in plain sight. The addendum clarifying phrase would be something like "nobody is as good as you at being you".

Note well: this is what all product brands aspire to. Most fall short because they mistake this aphorism as a just a message to convey inspiration with to their customers, yet the real power would be in the brand company itself becoming authentic. That is, to live as it speaks, to have skin in the game. To see this in action, visit an Aesop store.

Follow your bliss

This is pretty much Joseph Campbell's philosophy on life, which rose from his criticism that our passivity can be “the sin of inadvertence, of not being alert, not quite awake.” It's very similar to do what you love, but here's where words and context matter: the idea of the sacred is somehow omnipresent in this phrasing because it's a Campbell quote.

To each his own zeal

I swear this was a phrase in my Mum's edition of a Rumi book. But I can't googlefoo it. It's basically a revision of Campbell's great line. I've remembered it for a long time, probably because it's quite poetic.

Chance favors the prepared mind

"In the fields of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind" was Louis Pasteur's originally translated quote. This one hints at the fuller dimensions of "obliquity" — rather than rushing towards what you think are perfect opportunities, instead practise your ability to see by travelling at a tempo that allows one to look, look, look and fully digest observation. And thus prepared, the opportunities will present themselves to you, because you learned how to see.

Wander, wonder, wunder

This one roughly maps to boredom begets curiosity begets discovery, but as memorable onomatopoeia. Wunder is my shorthand for wunderkammer, which translates from German as a “cabinet of curiosities”. See a post I wrote last month for a full description.

I'll leave it there for now. Maybe I'll add more later if they come to mind. Please email me if have another.

Remembering how to see

Just like the ridiculous human eBay crawler I was, following every tangential hyperlink I could find, these aphorisms are bound by a practice of seeing. That is, of developing one's unique abilities by first paying attention to the fact that one was inordinate attention to a particular thing, and then, if it's feeding you beyond what you can express in words, spend "flow state" time cultivating your "finger tip feelings" for that which you are attending to.