We come to love some songs by accident. The first 98 times we hear it on the radio, the synth sounds cheap and grating, the lyrics idiotic. Then that 99th time, we happen to be sitting with the right set of people, driving at the right speed, and the music blossoms before us. Forever after, we hear a completely different song.

The most effective aphrodisiacs are repetition and context.

Of course, it works the same way with books, movies, and foods. Reality TV shows and poetry and long-distance running. New cities, new jobs, new challenges.

People too.

“What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

We communicate more about ourselves in play than in conversation. Every preschooler understands this.

Which is why I mourn the state of adult socialization, so centered around talking, endless talking. Talking over potato bisque. Talking over New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Talking over Rihanna. Pairs or small groups, asking questions they won’t remember the answers to, making jokes they heard somebody else tell. How else will we make friends in the big city, if we don’t talk to our coworkers about our favorite bands and strong opinions about Uber?

So we talk and talk (and drink) and talk, even while we suspect it is the least efficient, most misleading form of expression.

The common exception is dance. We dance together.

To dance together is to create together; after hours of taking shots and yelling into each others’ ears, we stop talking and express ourselves in an honest and direct way. Acts of creativity need no explanation; watch a person dance and you instantly understand something about them that is beyond words.

Even then, many people (especially Americans) miss the point altogether by confusing social dance with a sales pitch for their genitals. As charming as a guy on Tinder trying to sell you life insurance.

Should you want to turn strangers into friends, friends into family, or family into friends, plan your next gathering over watercolor and paper. Fill your dinner party with bongos and guitars and Casio keyboards. There is, in fact, a great reason to play golf with your boss.

You’ll learn more about your date making dinner with them than eating dinner with them.

You can’t describe your best friend’s face to a stranger, even if your life depended on it.

No matter how much detail you provide – the tone of their skin, the shape of their nose, the birthmark near their eye – that stranger would never see what you see.

The more visual detail you give to the stranger, the less accurately they will see your friend.

That is because the role of language is to convey emotional fidelity, not sensory.

Consider the difference between:

“He had pallid skin and long, drooping cheeks. His temples and eyebrows were flecked with gray. Wrinkles carved the space around his eyes. His chin was round and had a slight scar on the left side. There was a mole near his right eye. His ears were rather long, perhaps four inches from top to bottom, and hugged the side of his head. His hair was still dark brown, though it thinned considerably at the top. Wet gel held the remaining strands in place.”

And:

“He had the face of a long marriage, and a longer divorce. He looked down at his shoes all night.”

Or consider:

“She had brown hair, brown eyes, a small nose, and low bangs. Her lips were thin and pale, save for a bright red mark in the corner of her bottom lip. Her chin was sharp and dimpled forward. She had a flurry of freckles around her nose. Her cheeks were bony and flushed pink with the slightest bit of exertion, so she caked them in mauve makeup.”

And:

“She bit her lip, same blood-red corner as always. What was she doing at a night club? Her face didn’t even stand out at the dentist’s office.”

Emotion, emotion, emotion. Whether writing a novel or chatting with your friends, presenting to your coworkers or addressing a national television audience, remember that language is not about the facts, its about how the facts make us feel.

My allergies in Granada woke me up in the middle of every night, for a month.

My apartment in Tokyo was the size of a freshman dorm room, complete with lofted bed.

Frozen rain pelted my face nearly every dark winter day in Berlin.

And yet, after a year of living outside the U.S., my favorite cities were Granada, Tokyo, Berlin. These annoyances live on only in the journal I kept. In my memories, I hear flamenco at midnight, I taste ostrich sashimi with Joe at an izakaya, I dodge the brilliant blasts of New Years Eve fireworks detonated by children in Mauerpark, I celebrate in a supernova.

When planning for the future, we spend time and worry searching for ‘ideal’ conditions, as if the slightest wind will knock us from our perch.

It turns out, the anticipation of hassle is far more painful than the hassle itself.

Aim toward thrill, toward beauty, toward passion, toward peace; do not aim toward the absence of wind.

I recommend that every artist listens to Louis CK’s recent conversation with Marc Maron four to five times, at minimum. Louis’ process of creating the show Horace and Pete brims with lessons in creative risk, authenticity, and honesty.

I want to highlight a few concepts that demonstrate how to take bold leaps of action.  After all, the only actions worth taking, the only ideas worth risking your time and energy and genius for are the ones that also scare you into inaction.

Create painful stakes: we work harder to avoid losses than to receive rewards. You must create situations where failure is materially painful.

(11:58) Maron [to Louis]: “My first reaction, when I heard you got into debt and it was millions of dollars…I thought, this behavior is not unusual for Louis, the amount is different. This is how he creates. He needs to wipe the slate clean, be in complete finanical fear, and then he’ll do something amazing.”

Set deadlines before you start: the amount of time it takes to complete a project expands to fit the amount of time we give ourselves to complete it. Set a deadline before you know the details.

(23:16) Louis: “I called my producer and said find out if the Penn hotel is available [for shooting] in January. She called back and said it is, but you’re gonna have to put a deposit down, it was $200,000. I was like, “do it”. I didn’t have anything written, I didn’t know who was in the show, nothing. I said, grab the studio.”

Put your own skin in the game: any time you risk other people’s time/money/reputation, you must also risk your own. Not doing so is not only unethical, but usually results in subpar results or catastrophic failure.

(12:15) Louis: “I wanted to play with my own money here. I didn’t want to mess around with other people’s money, because the things I was going to be doing were very extreme. Not only the way the story was going to be told but the was I was going to release it.”

Be honest: when you feel the call of inspiration, do not wait for permission, and do not deceive or surprise people who might be affected.

(45:44) Louis: “I have to make the fuckin’ show. And I have to make it this way. I have to make it and I’m not telling anybody. This is all the only way to do it. So I call [head of FX] John Landgraf and I said listen man, I’m about to sign this deal with you [to create more shows for FX] and make it final, but I need you to know about [Horace and Pete] before I sign the deal. I didn’t ask ‘can I make this,’ I said ‘I’m making this show.’ And I realize it’s really disruptive, but its creatively what I believe in. So I don’t have a choice. And I want it. I want to do this… I hope you decide to sign the deal. But I can’t have you sign it without knowing about this.”

The sum of these four lessons encompass what I consider ethical creativity.

Clever designers understand that Snapchat’s “shitty user experience” is an asset to its devoted teenage fanbase. By being unintuitive, the app filters out any users who don’t have the time and motivation to untangle its quirks. Namely, parents, teachers, and anyone uncool enough to ask how to use it.

Teenagers are wonderfully, cruelly straightforward in their use of slang and obscurity to exclude non-teenagers.

Academics and experts, less so.

Amy receives a notification on Facebook: a new person just liked a video of a dance routine she choreographed in college ten years ago.

Justin receives an email from a current student, thanking him for writing the first op-ed in the college newspaper calling for trans-friendly restrooms on campus, eight years ago.

Nisha receives an endorsement on LinkedIn from the CTO of a popular messaging app, praising the code she wrote as a summer intern five years ago.

The clearest signal of what matters is what endures.

Fascinating that the work we did that mattered most was rarely done inside a classroom.

An odd result of the explosion in communication technology, from the printing press to the typewriter to Facebook, has been the simultaneous depersonalization of the written word.

There’s a reason why receiving a postcard from a friend feels more intimate than an email: there is a physical piece of that person conveyed through their handwriting. The imperfections and smudges, the even spacing or chaotic scrawl, the sum of which is as singular as the smell of their coat.

Mass-produced writing has been standardized via typeface, and communication is deadened by the loss.

Should there be a future where we communicate with artificial intelligences that have physical bodies – be they synthetic or virtual – I dread a similar phenomenon: a standardization (and thus a loss) of body language.

Just as with today’s typefaces, body languages will be designed and encapsulated into discrete sets. We will call them body fonts. Eye contact, stroking of the chin, fumbling with hands. A cheeky smile, a gentle smile, a sly smile, a flirtatious smile.

They’ll be given names like Draper and Marge. You’ll cycle through a list and select one for each of your assistants.

The first versions will occupy the uncanny valley, and we’ll all feel revulsion. But as the years go on, we’ll acclimate to the unnerving consistency of their gestures. Their simulated emotions will be easier to read than our human companions’ messy, ambiguous tics.

Soon, our natural body language will appear erratic and unprofessional. We will send robot surrogates to our jobs, to sit at our desks on our behalf. Your manager will tell you, via her surrogate, that the directors have moved your two engineers to a different project. Don’t worry, she says, your project is still a priority this year. Her surrogate smiles gently. Your surrogate smiles gently.

You watch on your headset, twitching from your couch. Your eyebrows want to do.. something. Your fists feel hot for some reason. What is it that you are trying to do?

In his legendary commencement address, Steve Jobs told us:

Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.

To be honest, there are days I feel that our finest artists make their exits too quickly. The scale feels imbalanced, the new doesn’t yet equal the old.

Today, and every day, please be fearlessly creative. The world needs you.

We give humans too much credit to suggest that we are rational thinkers. We think deductively much the same way that we sprint: for a little while, with great effort. Many prefer to do it as infrequently as possible. It is more accurate to say that we are storytellers. We interpret information narratively, rather than rationally. We infer cause. We aren’t satisfied with ‘what’, we demand ‘why’.

One consequence of this tendency is that we cannot defeat ideology with reason. Our political, ethical, and religious beliefs are guided by intuition, not evidence. Therefore, should we wish to change the behavior of an ideological faction, we must provide them with a narrative that better satisfies their emotional needs. Throughout history, populist narratives place groups of people as underdogs against an external threat: immigrants, capitalists, non-believers. These narratives wane only when they are replaced by more compelling narratives: innovation, opportunity, creative expression.

It works the same way internally. We attach narratives to our physiological senses. In doing so, we often miss the point.

Just as with groups, the most effective way to conquer a toxic narrative isn’t to repress it, but to replace it.

In a 2014 study, cognitive scientists asked participants to perform anxiety-inducing tasks like singing in front of a group.

The participants were then told to either say “I am anxious,” “I am excited,” or nothing before they broke into song. The “excited” participants not only felt more excited, and they also sang better, according to a computerized measurement of volume and pitch. Their on-and-on-and-ons were just more, well, on—perhaps because the participants themselves were.

The critical factor in reinterpreting the anxiety narrative was that excitement is “arousal congruent.” In other words, our heart races, our palms sweat, and we perform differently depending on the cause we attribute to that state. We cannot tell ourselves that we are calm in that moment, because it doesn’t fit with our biological state. The story doesn’t match the feeling.

If you are looking to understand your own behavior, don’t start with the facts. Your brain has not been using them. First, listen to how your body feels.

If you want to understand the behavior of a group, don’t look for a rationale. Find the person who is telling the best story.

And if you seek to change either, you must tell a better story.