The Mental Diet

“Your diet isn’t only what you eat; it’s what you watch, what you read, what you listen to. And so I’m mindful of what I ingest.”

Saul Williams is a poet.

In hip-hop, nobody sounds like him. And there’s a reason for this.

The biggest difference between him and most artists is that he is melding all sorts of diffuse influences together. In that single track, I can find influences from hip-hop, beat poetry, classical music, and electronica. Keep going through his work, and you’ll find rock, classical poetry, jazz, all sorts of interesting connections between disparate arts. That’s not to mention the ideas he’s playing with within his lyrics, which are just as complex. His hip-hop is not a closed loop, as it is for most other artists. It shows in their work. It shows in the risks they take.

This isn’t new, or unique among arts. It’s hard to ingest a variety of material when you want to become an expert at anything. To do so requires a high level of training, to the tune of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. That’s four hours every day for fourteen years. Even if this particular number rings true, in order to become an expert, huge amounts of time and effort is necessary. The only place that a person can have multiple PhD’s and speak a dozen languages is in the mind of a television writer. We simply don’t have the time to become high-level experts in multiple arts. We must specialize.

However, this makes Mr. William’s call to be conscious of our mental diet all the more valid. We only have so much time, so our inputs need to be varied consciously, for such inputs can give insights otherwise missed. Drawing was one of those inputs for me, specifically How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. It was a simple drawing course for would-be comic book artists. I never had any particular talent for drawing, but the book never dealt with talent. It dealt in a few specific lessons, that a skill is built, not inherited, that problems that seem insurmountable simply must be broken down into parts and built up, and that a great work of art is a thousand small actions leading to something much larger.

These are some of the most important lessons one could ever learn. They’ve stuck with me all these years, and I’d like to think I’ve internalized them well. They were seminal in my education. And I rarely found myself in a classroom studying art.

Education, of course, is not about a classroom; it is about challenge, whether you’re wrestling with Shakespeare or Orwell or mathematics. Frank Zappa, one of the weirdest musicians America ever produced, said: “Forget about the senior prom and go to the library and educate yourself, if you’ve got any guts.” Notice that Zappa didn’t say ‘go to the library and read.’ He said ‘go to the library and educate yourself. There’s a difference. If you only consume art that’s candy, things that taste good but never challenge, you miss the chance to build yourself into something better. That’s what Mr. Williams is calling on you to do as well.

But here is where I would add something else to what Williams and Zappa are saying: more important than your art input is the people in your life. They have the ability to add their own perspectives to a problem.

One case illustrates this perfectly: a boiler engineer, Tal Golesworthy, has a condition called Marfan’s Syndrome. It’s a genetic disease wherein connective tissue of the body is weakened, and can cause the heart’s valves, the aorta in this case, to collapse. In the normal therapy, the aorta is cut out, and a re-graft is done. Thanks to the drugs the patient must take, and the compromises in immunity necessitated by the therapy, it has a severe negative impact on the patient’s quality of life.

Mr. Golesworthy was able to develop a new solution because in his line of work, when there’s a pipe with weakened walls, you simply wrap a support around it to keep it stable. He applied this tactic to his heart. His idea was to wrap the aorta in a custom 3-D printed mesh that supports the valve. It’s superior to the old fix in every way, especially in terms of the quality of life the fix affords. A doctor, even an advanced researcher or surgeon, would miss that kind of solution. They are both trained to look at the world in certain ways. So is someone trained in the humanities. So is a craftsman. So is everyone.

It goes beyond profession and education to things like gender, race, class, and experience. All these things culminate in our own unique perspectives, perspectives that can help all of us grow as people.

Each person, and the art they create, is an expression of a unique way of looking at the world. The more varied these inputs, the more you work with them, the more you challenge yourself with them, the more you will find unique solutions to all sorts of puzzles.

That’s true whether you’re a jazz musician or a world-famous physicist.

Or for that matter, a poet.

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