In 2010, I resolve to play.
For Christmas, I got Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. I’ve been reading it with diligence and enthusiasm. Aside from the practical implications it has for my teaching (which I’m sure I’ll discuss in more detail in another post), the book feels personally relevant to me. I’m reading it side-by-side with Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World by Lama Surya Das. Combining these two books has helped me reframe how I approach my own writing.
Kohn’s basic thesis is the “do this for that” mantra of behaviorism just doesn’t work. Oh sure, offering a reward for something (the classic example that Kohn frequently cites and that I, and no doubt others of my vintage, can relate to is Pizza Hut’s “Book It!” program: read a book, get a free pizza) can get a human being to do the behavior you want them to do in that moment (dangle a pizza in front of a fourth grader and, by god, they’ll read a book). But….rewards do little–in fact, absolutely nothing–to entice a human being to continue repeating the behavior. Quite the contrary: Kohn argues in Chapter 5 that rewards “smother people’s enthusiasm for activities they might otherwise enjoy” (74). So, not only do rewards fail to create lasting behavior changes in humans (diet, anyone?), they also diminish any interest or excitement one might have had for the rewarded/reinforced activity.
It’s here that I think about my journey with writing. When I was young(er), I hungered to be told I was “good” at writing. I wanted to be praised, I needed to be praised, and I wanted to be the “best” or somehow get rewarded for writing, an activity that I stumbled into as a 12 year old out of sheer zeal and curiosity. As an adult, I have found myself in a bind: I want to write–I need to write–but I am stymied by thoughts of “what’s the point if I don’t get published or praised or (fill in the Skinner blank)?” But the point isn’t what happens after I write, as the behaviorists would have use think; rather, the point is what happens in the moment of writing.
Enter the book on Buddhism. Like its kissing cousin, yoga, Buddhism contains a set of tools to help ground us mentally and physically in the present moment because that’s all life ever is–the here and now. Rather than focus on what kind of stroking my ego will receive at some future date as a result of my trenchant writing, I would be better served by simply sitting down, shutting up, and writing. To hell with what happens “next.”
In the chapter on “Right Effort” (step 6 on the 8-fold path), Surya Das highlights the apparent contradiction between effort and effortlessness, explaining that “right effort” is the perfect balance of “hard work” (effort) and “simple surrender” (effortlessness) (277). To do something means to do it with joy, enthusiasm, even fervor, but it also means to do it with dignity and to know when it’s time to let go and let it be. I want to be this way with my writing. I once was, as that 12 year old, dashing upstairs after supper to scribble in my notebook, not knowing (or caring) what any of it meant, just knowing, just trusting that I relished doing it. And then I got praised….
Lastly, I want to say that my students have been a continuous source of inspiration to me as I piece together the ideas from both Kohn and Das. Every quarter, my students read manifestos from various artists (Marinetti, Mina Loy, Langston Hughes, etc.) and then craft their own manifesto. And these manifestos–with all their spelling errors and dangling modifiers–amaze me. They write about their passion, be it painting, printmaking, cooking, design, or fashion, as something that brings them joy, as something that ignites their curiosity and enthusiasm, as something that’s fun and playful.
Thus, in honor of my students and in appreciation for Alfie Kohn and Lama Surya Das, I resolve to play when I write. Welcome home, 2010!
(And, no, Gentle Reader, the irony of having just set up a fancy-pants Web site and blog to explore my New Year’s Resolution to “be present” and “play” and “not focus on the outcome” has not been lost on me.)