David Brooks argues that over time, people (especially men) have become more emotionally intelligent and that this shift might be responsible for a significant portion of our cultural progress.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the researchers didn't pay much attention to the men's relationships. Instead, following the intellectual fashions of the day, they paid a lot of attention to the men's physiognomy. Did they have a "masculine" body type? Did they show signs of vigorous genetic endowments?
But as this study -- the Grant Study -- progressed, the power of relationships became clear. The men who grew up in homes with warm parents were much more likely to become first lieutenants and majors in World War II. The men who grew up in cold, barren homes were much more likely to finish the war as privates.
Body type was useless as a predictor of how the men would fare in life. So was birth order or political affiliation. Even social class had a limited effect. But having a warm childhood was powerful. As George Vaillant, the study director, sums it up in "Triumphs of Experience," his most recent summary of the research, "It was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men's lives."
I attended the XOXO Festival in Portland, OR this past weekend. I don't have a great deal to say about it because -- and I'm not trying to be a dick here -- you had to be there. As in, physically in the room with the speakers and the attendees. But I did want to mention a few things.
- XOXO was put on by Andy Baio and Andy McMillan. They killed it. And they killed it because they really really (really!) cared about what they were doing, so much so that they were (at times unsuccessfully) holding back tears as they did their outro. Do Chris Anderson or Walt Mossberg cry at the end of TED and D? I don't think so.
- At no point during the weekend did anyone on the stage make a cynical or ironic remark. Everyone was so positive. It would be easy to mistake it for wide-eyed and naive idealism but that optimism is hard-won and tempered by experience. You can do it -- we can do it -- because we've done it before.
- XOXO attendees were generally not on their computers or phones. They listened to the talks and chatted with their nearby seatmates. It was amazingly refreshing. More conferences like this please.
- Though not specifically referenced, one of the themes of the weekend was what David Brooks referred to as "the power of the particular". From his piece in the NY Times a few months ago:
It makes you appreciate the tremendous power of particularity. If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place, if you embody a distinct musical tradition, if your concerns are expressed through a specific paracosm, you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up in the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next, your identity formed by soft boundaries, or none at all.
The whole experience makes me want to pull aside politicians and business leaders and maybe everyone else and offer some pious advice: Don't try to be everyman. Don't pretend you're a member of every community you visit. Don't try to be citizens of some artificial globalized community. Go deeper into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past. Be distinct and credible. People will come.
Examples of this power abounded at XOXO. The indie gaming scene is insanely niche but, as documented in Indie Game: The Movie, some of the best and more unique games make millions of dollars. Emily Winfield Martin felt like a misfit in art school but gained a huge following for her illustrations on Etsy and is now living her dream of creating children's books. Julia Nunes started out playing cover songs on her ukelele in YouTube videos and now has albums and has played with Weezer and Ben Folds and appeared on Conan. Adam Savage told the story of The Adventurebilt Hat Company, which started making replicas of Indiana Jones' hat from Raiders of the Lost Ark because they were fans of the film and ended up supplying the actual hats for the fourth Indy movie. The PDX671 food cart that took home the judges' award in the 2012 Eat Mobile awards was parked outside of the festival both days serving cuisine from Guam. Another cart from the XOXO pod, Nong's Khao Man Gai, serves only a single Thai dish and boasts long lunch lines. Even the numerous craft beers available all over Portland are valued by aficionados for each beer's particular characteristics.
David Brooks has some advice for artists, musicians, politicians, and the like: appreciate the tremendous power of your particularity.
We carry this need for paracosms into adulthood. It's a paradox that the artists who have the widest global purchase are also the ones who have created the most local and distinctive story landscapes. Millions of people around the world are ferociously attached to Tupac Shakur's version of Compton or J.K. Rowling's version of a British boarding school or Downton Abbey's or Brideshead Revisited's version of an Edwardian estate.
Millions of people know the contours of these remote landscapes, their typical characters, story lines, corruptions and challenges. If you build a passionate and highly localized moral landscape, people will come.
Brooks roots these story landscapes to place but it's easily expanded to any individual differentiator. Take tech companies. Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft...they all embody the particularity of their founders and have found success because of it.