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How to Live Artfully

How to Live Artfully

Live Artfully

    I met someone recently who knows how to live.

    You know the type: self-possessed, confident, the kind of person who energizes a room. The kind of person who is alive to everything around them, who makes everyone they focus their attention on feel they could do more, they could be more. A natural-born leader who brings out the best in everyone without any apparent effort. Apparently fearless, they inspire by example, making our deepest concerns seem petty in the face of sheer living.

    There is, I believe, an art to living. An art of living. Like a great painter, some people approach life as their canvas, pulling together deliberate action and tight attention to detail here with a carefree sloppiness over there, creating a balanced and, in the end, entirely pleasing composition. Like the sculptor, they are always looking for potential form hidden under the seemingly shapeless mass of lived experience. And like a musician, they find ways of merging perfectly their own self-expression with forms that have been handed down to them and to others might seem formulaic and routine.

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    I don’t know if the sheer talent for living can be learned; it takes more than a few painting classes to develop the kind of spark we find in the work of Picasso, Vermeer, or Chagall. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything from them, just as the beginning artist learns from studying the work of the great masters.

    Here’s what I learned from this recent encounter with a true artiste of life, and what might help us all bring a touch of artfulness to our own living.

    1. Pay attention.

    Curiosity kills cats, they say, but in people, it is what makes us truly alive. Look deeply at the world of everyday things around you, and wonder. When you face the world with open eyes, you discover mysteries everywhere.

    Most importantly, pay attention to people. This is my hardest lesson, actually – as a college instructor, I meet so many new people every semester, and I have such a hard time keeping them all straight in my head. The outward manifestation of this is that I struggle to learn names, even after 15 weeks of classes; the deeper concern is that I don’t learn all I could from my students, and in the end that’s the first job of a teacher.

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    When we pay attention to people, really pay attention, it brings forth something in them that’s amazing. This is something I learned as an anthropologist – people love to tell their stories. All they need is someone to really listen to them. And when people give you their stories, it enriches your own story.

    2. Surround yourself with inspiring people and inspiring things.

    An artful life is a life that embraces creativity, and creativity doesn’t emanate pure and whole from within but emerges from our engagement with the world around us. The poet Ezra Pound said “the artist is the antenna of the race”, meaning that the “stuff” of art is not what is inborn in the artist but what they pick up from the society around them, the “waves” that emanate from their culture in going about its business.

    There is a common saying that if you want to be the best at anything, surround yourself with people who are better than you. It is the constant challenge of striving to reach their heights that drives us to innovate, to create, and ultimately to master our field, whether that be art, invention, business, love, or anything else.

    I know ‘tis the season to decry all things materialistic, but just as we’re inspired by people we are also inspired by things. For some, it’s fine art; for others, folk or indigenous art; for still others, the simple lines of modern design or of a Zen garden. In my case, it’s books – the sheer physical presence of them. I respond in an almost physical way to books, feeling in their tight bindings and crisp pages a kind of calmness that is, I suppose, the clean channel the artist gets his orher ideas on.

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    3. Capture your dreams.

    I wonder how many of us go through life without ever reaching any of our dreams solely because we’ve never made an effort to figure out exactly what they are.  That is, we avoid the kind of self-examination and purposeful imagining needed to pinpoint the things we want most out of life – and so we can never really chase after them.

    I was chatting with a writer recently who, among other things, helps clients write profiles for personals sites. (That’s a niche I’d never even imagined existing, but apparently there’s quite a demand for it!) Writing profiles is, for most part, the most significant barrier to finding a good match, and if you think about it, that’s true all over the web, not just on dating sites. Take a look at the “People I’d Like to Meet” section of most people’s MySpace profiles – people just don’t know. “Cool, interesting people.” Well, of course, but what makes someone cool and interesting to you?

    When this kind of ignorance of self infects even a person’s dating profile, you have to wonder. I mean, the choice of a mate is arguably one of the most important choices you’ll ever make in your life – can it really be true that the average person has absolutely no idea of what they’d like that person to be like?

    Knowing what you want to attain is the first step to attaining it. That’s not to say you can’t be flexible, but if you can’t tie your goals to deep-rooted dreams and desires, you’ll never have the energy to attain them or, if you do manage to accomplish them, for them to have much meaning. And meaning is the fuel of the artful life.

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    4. Be appreciative.

    In his later years, Kurt Vonnegut was fond of describing  his Uncle Alex who, after a particularly fine meal or while watching an especially lovely sunset, would sit back and exclaim, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

    That kind of conscious recognition of the comforting, pleasing, or otherwise satisfying moments in life goes a long way. It is, I think, what gives prayer its power for those who thank the powers that be, whatever they happen to believe in, for the little bounties that make up their day-to-day lives. (I say this as an entirely non-religious person – you don’t have to be religious to recognize the positivity that prayer brings to the lives of its adherents.)

    Appreciating the world around you is the key to dwelling comfortably within it, even as you strive to attain your wildest dreams. Recognizing the value around you now is, in a way, the engine that drives our dream-chasing – for what is a dream except a desire to have more of the goodness we recognize around us? Which is perhaps why those who are driven by dissatisfaction with their everyday lives rarely find happiness no matter how outwardly successful they manage to become – they’re always running away from something worse instead of towards something better.

    Towards artful living

    I haven’t lived my life as artfully as I might have wished. But I want to. The lessons above are thoughts I’ve pulled from observing the people around me who seem to live their lives with a flair I’ve only experienced in snatches.

    Who have you known who has lived their lives with the panache of an artist attacking his or her canvas or a musician calling forth a melody from a chaotic flurry of noises? What lessons have you learned from them? Let’s talk about the art of living in the comments!

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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