Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Crossroads

It's a potent word, isn't it? "Crossroads." Brings to mind an image of a lone man (or woman) paused at the intersection of Robert Frost's infamous two roads, trying to decide which one to follow. When I was nine years old, I had to make a decision whether to enroll in dance or synchronized swimming. As you've probably figured out, I went with dance. Sometimes I wonder how drastically different my life would have turned out if I made a different choice. Not that I regret my decision, but... it's interesting to wonder.

If you can believe it, I think that Choose Your Own Adventure books conditioned me early on to believe that decisions come in one particular flavor. Remember those books? You'd read one chapter, then, at the end of the chapter, you'd have to decide whether to a) explore the scary house in the woods or b) go home and read. Sometimes the choices were clear and obvious, with the wrong answer ending in a gruesome death scene. Other times it wasn't so easy and the only way to avoid getting disemboweled was to cheat.

These days I face many of my decisions with the same intensity that I used when reading those books. Clearly, there can only be one right answer and one wrong answer. I must follow the correct thread of fate, otherwise I'll find myself dangling from the neck above a curious crowd of onlookers. Sure, this intensity can be helpful when making big life decisions but, when making smaller decisions, such as where to eat lunch, it can be overkill.

See, that's the thing. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that there's always a clear right choice and a clear wrong choice. If one choice is true, than the other is false. Good and bad. As if life is a mathematical equation that we're all trying to get right.

The most effective thinkers, the ones who are able to build truly exciting lives for themselves, are the ones who are able to see beyond a) and b). Because there isn't always a choice that will kill you and a choice that will let you live. Sometimes there are eight million different choices and it isn't as much a matter of choosing between them as it is of molding a new answer for yourself.

This is why arts education is so vitally important to our society. Creating art isn't about finding one correct answer, it's about learning to build new answers in order to create a completely unique conclusion. How often do kids get to do this in a traditional school setting, as opposed to searching out, identifying and remembering one answer? The arts introduce a completely different way of learning, one that is going to be much more valuable to employers in the long run. Do you want the employee who is going to memorize and quote procedures back to you? Or, do you want the one who will build new solutions to old problems? People who can think creatively, who can make eight million tiny choices at the same time, are the ones who will push the world forward.

If you're reading this blog, you're probably an artist of some sort and the creative process is familiar to you. While writing a novel, you make hundreds of tiny decisions every moment in service of originality. If you choreograph, you probably have the ability to look at a dancer and choose between the hundreds of different movements you could give them to perform at any given time. Photographers, animators, musicians, and designers practice this style of thinking on a daily basis.

But, it isn't always easy. Sometimes it can be crippling (especially if you let yourself think too hard about all the options you're continually discarding). It doesn't come without practice. And yes, sometimes it can go horribly wrong. I don't mean to say that there aren't situations where there is definitely a wrong answer. Running with scissors is a wrong answer. Killing your spouse is a wrong answer. But it's also remarkably freeing to exit the pages of those silly Choose Your Own Adventure books and enter a world of limitless possibility.

I do an exercise with my modern dance students from time to time. One at a time, they each pick a random place in the room to stand, creating a constantly evolving formation with the other dancers in the class. There's always at least one student who freaks out.

"How do I know what to do?" they ask.

"You can do whatever you like."

"But how do I know what is right?"

Today, whatever you choose is right.

7 comments:

  1. " Creating art isn't about finding one correct answer, it's about learning to build new answers in order to create a completely unique conclusion."

    Yes. :-)

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    1. It's simultaneously harder and easier, isn't it? :p

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  2. I always liked reading the chose your own adventure books and then going back and making different choices to see where the different paths led.
    I agree arts education is so important. I think that playing and asking questions and working together to put on a performance teaches so many valuable skills.

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    1. I was totally a cheater with those books! Accidentally die? Rewind a few pages.... ah, if only life offered such options. :)

      Totally agree with you regarding arts education! Now if only our politicians would recognize its value. :/

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  3. I can't say it better than how you did, just....YES. I agree!

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  4. I love this post. You spell out what's wrong with education today. We lose imagination, and as writers, dreamers, creators of our own destiny--this is stagnating.

    But I must confess, I hated choose your own adventure books. I wanted the author to make a decision. I didn't write the book! It was like the author didn't have an opinion.

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  5. I like your point about finding a choice that isn't a. or b.--and that choices aren't always a clear matter of good and bad.

    Interesting post!

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