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Neophilia and Its Discontents
TAoN No. 119: Why nuance beats novelty. Plus: LOST OBJECTS in New York City; don't miss the orc; and more.
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THANK YOU FOR YOUR PATIENCE
Hello all. I am back! Thank you for understanding that a break was in order. Note to those of you who have a paid sub: As you know, I paused billing on paid subs, so I am now reactivating that. And note to those who have been waiting to get a paid sub (you’ll have access to more posts and discussions, and most important you support this entire enterprise), you can now go for it!
Also, welcome to all you newcomers. I found it surprising that hundreds of people signed up (for the free edition) during the weeks I was publishing nothing at all. I hope you aren’t too disappointed now that I’m actually in your inbox :/
Anyway, I’m truly excited to be back, so here goes.
NUANCE > NOVELTY
Longtime readers know I’m a fan of the podcast No Stupid Questions, in which academic and author Angela Duckworth and journalist and Freakonomics co-creator Stephen Dubner talk over various behavioral psychology topics. One recent episode, mostly about the idea of the mid-life crisis, included a passage that struck me as really insightful — and useful.
Dubner reminds Duckworth about a prior conversation in which she’d underscored the importance of prizing nuance over novelty. He continues:
That resonated so much with me because I feel like so many of us are in search of novelty all the time, and when we are not getting it, we can feel like we’re in a rut.
Dubner ties this to the episode’s main theme: someone in a stereotypical midlife crisis might deal with that “rut” by pursuing some big, nutty change or adventure (a tattoo! etc.). So Dubner asks if Duckworth can say more about nuance vs. novelty. She replies in part:
It is part and parcel of human D.N.A., the human condition, to be interested in things that are new — things that we haven’t seen before, things that we haven’t experienced before. This drive for novelty, neophilia, is with us at all stages of life.
Somehow I did not know the term “neophilia,” but you can intuit how so much of the modern world is designed to exploit our innate “drive for novelty.” Back to Duckworth:
I think the way to steer that in a way that’s beneficial — it doesn’t require piercing, tattoos, or [similar extreme maneuvers] — is to discover the pleasure of nuance.
She zeroes in on her own work as a psychologist: This is what she’s done for decades, but she doesn’t feel a rut, because she savors nuance.
Once you are an expert, you can discern these subtle differences. And I think that makes life full of novelty. … It’s not that you run out of these subtleties. In fact, the more you know, the more you notice. And so, you can, essentially, enjoy a life of never being bored.
In other words, being super-familiar with a job, a place, a topic, can be a good thing. Dubner replies:
I love the use of “discernment,” which is also a religious or spiritual phrase — a way of taking stock of your soul. But basically, what you’re saying — I mean, it goes back to Socrates, right? “The unexamined life is not worth living.” You’re saying, “Examine the life. You will find nuance in gradation there.”
Arguing for nuance over novelty is that it’s an example of itself: a subtle idea that you have to make an effort to appreciate. This is a reminder I needed — and need often. You could, after all, argue that the entire TAoN project is about an obsession with novelty! But I’m hoping it’s also about an obsession with nuance.
Spend a week or two making an effort to attend to nuance — things you perceive or notice that most people miss. Make a nuance list. Appreciate it.
In forthcoming Thursday paid-subscriber-only editions: I’m kicking off a new series about “other people.” That is: I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about how we relate to friends and colleagues etc., and how the pandemic years affected those relationships. I’m planning to write about a new book from a psychologist who has studied making (and keeping) friendships, and I’ll be seeking your feedback and experiences — and, to be honest, your advice!
For access to past and future subscriber-only posts, discussion threads, and more, support TAoN with a paid subscription.
THE NEXT FREE MONDAY EDITION IN TWO WEEKS! (WILL INCLUDE A NEW ICEBREAKER, I PROMISE!)
IN OTHER NEWS
^^ If you’re in New York City, stop by a fun and free event promoting the book I co-edited with Joshua Glenn, Lost Objects: 50 Stories About the Things We Miss and Why They Matter. I’m planning to be there, and so is Josh, and we have scheduled readings from an all-star selection of our contributors. Come say hi! More info on the event and the book here.
—> If you buy the book directly from the publisher, you can get a 20% discount off the retail price, through 12/25, by using the code LOSTOBJECTS. Here.
An excellent episode of Latino USA focuses on how “the little black dress” has functioned as a sort of uniform for certain workers in luxury retail.
The case for paying attention to your server’s name.
“I have a friend who’s [always] on his phone. We were sitting out in a parking lot, and there was a guy who came out who was in this full orc costume with a shield. I thought, I’m not going to say anything. … The guy passed right by [us] and — it was outside a hotel — tried to get through a revolving door. There’s all this bump ba bump ba bump, … But [my friend] never looked up! Then later I told him, and he’s like, “That didn’t happen!” … I mean, I could be on TikTok all night long… . But something that takes you out of your environment, you pay a high price. You miss the orc.” — Lynda Barry.
OKAY THAT’S IT!
As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, things we need a word for, and of course your icebreakers: email@example.com. Or use the comments. —> Or just click the heart symbol. That always makes my day.
And thanks for reading …
All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032
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