DMIN 547 Distilling a Dream for Leadership: The Nature and Art of Global Leadership / Jason Clark
What’s Love Got to Do With It?
A Review of The Social Animal
by David Brooks
#dminlgp #socialanimal #brooks
What’s love got to do, got to do with it?
What’s love but a second-hand emotion?
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I love her dearly, but let’s put Tina Turner on the shelf for just a moment….
Let’s talk instead about Don McLean. McLean is best-known for his song, American Pie. This odd and mysterious ballad, that clocked in at more than eight minutes in length, rocketed to the top of the US charts in late 1971 and early 1972. It remains the opus of a generation, with opaque references to the “day the music died” and “good old boys (who) were drinkin’ whiskey and rye.” But my favorite McLean song was his second number one hit (at least in the UK), Vincent, so-named for its subject, Vincent van Gogh. The melody and the lyrics are, like van Gogh himself, dark and beautiful all at the same time:
And when no hope was left in sight on that starry, starry night
You took your life as lovers often do;
But I could have told you, Vincent,
This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.
David Brooks’ most recent book, The Social Animal, purports to tell the tale of “the hidden sources of love, character and achievement,” and—maybe—somewhere between the lines of this book the sad story of Vincent van Gogh is re-told.
There actually is a different story very much in the foreground of The Social Animal. Brooks describes two fictional characters who soon become a fictional couple and then a fictional family as a “plot device” to work out the research he’s uncovered in a “real world” way. With this writing convention, he somehow manages to be compelling and annoying all at the same time. In fact, if you want to benefit from the best of Brooks’ book (and there really are some interesting insights here) without the parallel narrative and its accompanying fluff, you might catch the author’s TED Talk.
In Brook’s own summary of his book, he mentions three key insights:
- The first insight is that while the conscious mind writes the autobiography of our species, the unconscious mind does most of the work.
This is an important idea, but I felt it was developed in a much fuller, more helpful and more personal way by Daniel Forrester in his book, Consider. Still, there is much fodder for thought here, particularly for those interested at a systems-level. Exhibit A:
Poverty … is an emergent system, too. The people who live in deep poverty are enmeshed in complex ecosystems no one can fully see and understand.
- The second insight is that emotions are at the center of our thinking.
Some of Brooks’ most interesting talking points stem from this insight. Speaking, for example, of love, he notes:
… love is not an emotion like happiness or sadness. Love is a motivational state, which leads to various emotions ranging from euphoria to misery. A person in love has the keenest possible ambition to achieve a goal. A person in love is in a state of need.
- And the third insight is that we’re not primarily self-contained individuals. We’re social animals, not rational animals. We emerge out of relationships, and we are deeply interpenetrated, one with another.
On this point, I am reminded of a recent podcast featuring Krista Tippet on her program, On Being, titled “Creativity and the Everyday Brain.” Her guest, Rex Jung, is a researcher at the leading edge of creativity research:
… the definition of creativity is something both novel and useful. And I like that dynamic interplay of novelty and usefulness. If something is just novel, it could be useless…. It has to be something new. It has to be useful. It has to be also within a social context so that novelty and usefulness might be in play, but within a given social context, it might not be recognized at that time. van Gogh is a good example, where his novel and useful paintings were … not within the social context within which he was at that time.
We may be brilliant at a cognitive level. We may have “emotional intelligence.” But that social aspect of our lives is ultimately a game-changer. We need the support of others, particularly those close to us, but sometimes the “public,” too.
“Starry, starry night … “ is the opening phrase in McLean’s song, and it is likewise the title of one of van Gogh’s most famous works. Skye Jethani describes the complex relationship van Gogh had with the Church that provided the most significant social framework of his time:
Over a century ago another struggling Christian fled the church to find God in the stars. Vincent van Gogh is remembered for his volatile mental health, severing his ear, and later taking his life. But the tortured artist also had a volatile relationship with Christianity, oscillating between devotion and rejection…. But his struggle was primarily with the institutional church, not Christ. In his final years, as his mental illness became more severe, van Gogh reveals a profound devotion to Jesus while remaining disillusioned with the church. His most celebrated painting from this period, Starry Night, captures this sentiment….
The deep indigo of the sky was used by Vincent to represent the infinite presence of God, and the heavenly bodies are yellow — van Gogh’s color for sacred love. The divine light of the stars is repeated in the village below, every home illuminated with the same yellow warmth. For Vincent, God’s loving presence in the heavens was no less real on the earth.
But there is one building in van Gogh’s imaginary village with no light, no divine presence — the church.
I think it’s time to answer Tina Turner’s question: What’s love got to do with it?
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 Don McLean, “Vincent,” in American Pie (Los Angeles: United Artists, 1971).
 Daniel Forrester, Consider : harnessing the power of reflective thinking in your organization (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).
 David Brooks, The social animal : the hidden sources of love, character, and achievement, 1st ed. (New York: Random House, 2011), 110.
 Rex Jung, “Creativity and the Everyday Brain,” in On Being, ed. Krista Tippett (Minneapolis, MN: American Public Media, 2012)..
 Skye Jethani, The divine commodity : discovering a faith beyond consumer Christianity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2009), loc 130ff.