Relentless Search for the Next Magical Something


100 Acres, June 16, 2012

Excerpt from The Tools: Transform Your Problems into Courage, Confidence, and Creativity by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels: 

Everyone one of us has a fantasy of a "magical something"—a relationship, job, achievement, or possession—that will remove us from the treadmill that is real life...Phil [Stutz] calls this fantasy of living an effort-free, undemanding life "exoneration." Most people think of exoneration in terms of being cleared of a crime, but it has another meaning: to be excused from a task or obligation. Here, it refers to the ultimate obligation—to make an effort for the rest of your life. 

Deep down, we all wish for a magical something that will exonerate us. It could be money, an award, a high-achieving child, looking cool in front of your friends, etc. Take a moment to identify what it is for you.

It doesn't matter what it is, it could be the smallest thing; just be honest with yourself. Then, try the following exercise:

Let yourself fantasize that you get the "magical something" and it does take the struggle out of your life. Let yourself feel that for a moment. Now, crush that fantasy: imagine it can never become reality. How does it feel knowing you can never escape life's endless struggles? 

...Exoneration is impossible—for an individual or for a society. When, inevitably, this false hope for "easy street" is shattered, we're left demoralized. This is an inescapable law: exoneration always ends in demoralization.

There's a path that can lead us out of this mess. But we have an enemy that's dead set against us taking it. It attacks us every waking moment: when we turn on the TV, go on the Internet, or read a magazine; it gets to us even while we're driving, and especially when we enter the dark, inner sanctum of its power, the shopping mall. 

The enemy is called "consumerism." It speaks to us through every advertisement, endorsement, logo, roadside billboard, etc. Its underlying message is always the same: there's something out there you must have. Helpless to resist, we feel compelled to acquire thing after thing. Yet we don't enjoy each new item for long; once we possess it, we shift our focus to the next thing. 

Inevitably, consumerism insinuates itself into all of our activities, not just shopping. We consume life experiences the same way we consume iPods, jeans, and European cars. A given song, idea, or friend is new and different until it's not. Then we discard it and go on to the next thing. Consumerism has become our model for living. This is the tail wagging the dog...

This "treasure hunt" is a quest for the impossible, but rather than admitting that, we relentlessly search for the next magical something. 

This misdirected search for magic surrounds you every day. Consumers might deny this, but it shows in their behavior. They pursue something—a new spouse, a new wardrobe, a new hobby—with tremendous expectation. The expectation is never met, and that just makes them search even harder...

But you're not really free until all hope for magic is crushed. 

See also:

Experiences that We Know are Not Real

Excerpt from How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like by Paul Bloom:

How Pleasure WorksHow do Americans spend their leisure time? The answer might surprise you. The most common voluntary activity is not eating, drinking alcohol, or taking drugs. It is not socializing with friends, participating in sports, or relaxing with the family. While people sometimes describe sex as their most pleasurable act, time-management studies find that the average American adult devotes just four minutes per day to sex.

Our main leisure activity is, by a long shot, participating in experiences that we know are not real. When we are free to do whatever we want, we retreat to the imagination—to worlds created by others, as with books, movies, video games, and television (over four hours a day for the average American), or to worlds we ourselves create, as when daydreaming and fantasizing. While citizens of other countries might watch less television, studies in England and the rest of Europe find a similar obsession with the unreal.

This is a strange way for an animal to spend its days. Surely we would be better off pursuing more adaptive activities—eating and drinking and fornicating, establishing relationships, building shelter, and teaching our children. Instead, 2-year-olds pretend to be lions, graduate students stay up all night playing video games, young parents hide from their offspring to read novels, and many men spend more time viewing Internet pornography than interacting with real women. One psychologist gets the puzzle exactly right when she states on her Web site: "I am interested in when and why individuals might choose to watch the television show Friends rather than spending time with actual friends."

One solution to this puzzle is that the pleasures of the imagination exist because they hijack mental systems that have evolved for real-world pleasure. We enjoy imaginative experiences because at some level we don't distinguish them from real ones. This is a powerful idea, one that I think is basically—though not entirely—right...

...Just as artificial sweeteners can be sweeter than sugar, unreal events can be more moving than real ones. There are three reasons for this.

First, fictional people tend to be wittier and more clever than friends and family, and their adventures are usually much more interesting. I have contact with the lives of people around me, but this is a small slice of humanity, and perhaps not the most interesting slice. My real world doesn't include an emotionally wounded cop tracking down a serial killer, a hooker with a heart of gold, or a wisecracking vampire. As best I know, none of my friends has killed his father and married his mother. But I can meet all of those people in imaginary worlds.

Second, life just creeps along, with long spans where nothing much happens. The O.J. Simpson trial lasted months, and much of it was deadly dull. Stories solve this problem—as the critic Clive James once put it, "Fiction is life with the dull bits left out." This is one reason why Friends is more interesting than your friends.

Finally, the technologies of the imagination provide stimulation of a sort that is impossible to get in the real world. A novel can span birth to death and can show you how the person behaves in situations that you could never otherwise observe. In reality you can never truly know what a person is thinking; in a story, the writer can tell you.

Hunger for Reality

“Every single one of these [successful games] has succeeded off a clever psychological angle. But there’s more than that. There’s something else these things have in common, not just these psychological tricks. What these all have in common is they are all busting through to reality. We’re used to, in the old days of gaming, it being all about fantasy. It’s all about fantasy and Ben Gordon used to say, ‘We don’t care about realism in games because people come to our games to escape from reality.’ And so we have this strong belief that fantasy is the thing. But every single one of these is breaking through into reality in some interesting way. And we don’t feel good about reality as game designers. We’re a little uncomfortable about reality…

…But it’s not just us that were kind of snuck up on by this reality thing. And it’s not just just happening to us. Go look at TV. The people in TV, their heads are spinning. Everything’s turned into reality TV. Go to the grocery store. It’s not just groceries anymore. It’s organic groceries. The more genuine, the more real groceries. You go to McDonald’s and to get a Big Mac and – you could get a Big Mac or you could get the real burger, the angus burger made with real this and that or whatever. Everything is suddenly about reality.

Now what’s going on? Is this just how it’s always been? Well, I found this really interesting book. It’s called Authenticity. It’s by the guys who wrote The Experience EconomyGilbert and Pine put forth this most interesting concept: the most valuable thing in products is are the real, are they authentic. Which is a bold hypothesis. And then they go further and they say, Why is it? Why now? It didn’t always used to be this way. Certainly that’s not what sold stuff in the eighties…They’re arguing that all this virtual stuff that’s been creeping up on us over the last twenty years has really cut us off from nature. We’re cut off from self-sufficiency. We couldn’t be self-sufficient if we wanted to. We don’t know how to do it. We live in a bubble of fake bullshit and we have this hunger for to get to anything that’s real. Even if the best we can do is a Starbucks mocha with real Swiss chocolate — we’ll take it. Oh, look how real that seems to me relative to what I’m used to. And so there’s this idea that maybe there’s this hunger for reality. ”

~ Jesse Schell, from his talk at DICE Summit 2010

To Map Out the World

Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly discussing The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s Bookworm (February 4, 2010).

Francoise Mouly: Kids aren’t necessarily — the way we imagine they might be — looking for escape and fantasy. Actually, the seven year old, the eight year old, is eager for a way to map out information — to map out the world. And that’s part of the reason why comics appeal to them. Because they are a very instinctive way to structure information…As Art has often referred to it, it’s a story made manifest spatially. You have a very instinctive way to understand narratives and to understand character’s emotion…It gives you cues. It is in and of itself a medium that kids can use to understand all other kinds of visual information – much more than watching television or playing video games…They can go back to the same story and read it over and over again. And also because it’s done by one person — it’s drawn by hand — it inspires them to want to make comics.

Art Spiegelman: What makes this a real treasury rather than just a bunch of product put together in four hundred pages of offering [is that] so much of this is written and drawn by the same person…And here when we’re looking at Walt Kelly and Sheldon Mayer and, to a degree, John Stanley and certainly Carl Barks, they were really able to enter and make a whole world themselves. Really act it out, draw it, and write it. So you’re really throbbing inside one person’s brain. And to have that many brains presenting fully realized worlds, you feel it when you’re looking through these stories. They have a kind of urgency in their own way…These characters are a lot more complex than Spider Man. Little Lulu is so much more richer than Peter Parker.