Happy as a verb

Happy yoda

We experience joy (n). We are joyous and joyful (adj). We act joyfully and joyously (adv). We enjoy and rejoice (v).

Our lives are marked by sadness (n). We sadly (adv) sadden (v) into sad (adj) feelings.

But to happily (adv) greet our happy (adj) world in the hopes of finding happiness (n), what do we do?

What is the action that instills happiness?

Self-help bookshelves and an internet of blogs and podcasts roll back and forth across the happy landscape, and yet for so many of us, happy is an elusive creature.

It is all well and good to say that the first step to happiness is choosing to be happy, but I have yet to see any evidence that this is the only step in the process. What comes next?

Happy

Even within our political and social doctrine, our language is vague.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

No one can rob you of your life! No one can rob you of your liberty! Good luck with the last one.

Happy is such an elusive concept that our language completely fails us by refusing to give us a verb explaining how to reach this state of Nirvana.

We grieve. We love. We anger. We frustrate.

We elate. We bore. We amuse. We abash.

We envy. We lust. We frighten.

In conferring with colleagues, it seems French and Spanish suffer the same fate.

Are humans so determined to be miserable that we are willing to idealize happiness but never expect it will happen? Talk about your negative feedback loop.

If you have yet to find happiness in your life, perhaps you can take solace in the idea that no one in human history truly expected you would.

For an end-state of such wondrous simplicity, the achievement of happiness seems monumentally difficult, which makes me wonder…

“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

—Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

What if the absence of a verb for happy is not a failing of language, but rather is a clue to a failing within ourselves? Perhaps Yoda was right.

What if happiness is not a state to be achieved, but rather is a ground state waiting to be rediscovered like some great monument buried by centuries of sand?

Perhaps happy is who we are, and for whatever reasons, we as individuals and as communities have simply buried our happiness under the detritus of our lives and society’s expectations.

Perhaps the first step to achieving happiness is not deciding to be happy. Rather, it is deciding not to be everything else.

mosaic floor

Excavations at Chedworth Roman Villa, Gloucestershire, UK. Property of National Trust, used without permission. (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/chedworth-roman-villa)

At the outset, this may seem like an insane challenge, but at the very least, everything else (the non-happiness stuff) is something we understand. It is something tangible in our lives. It is something we can tackle one step at a time to reveal the beautiful mosaic of happiness beneath.

I don’t know about you, but I find greater hope in

“Life, Liberty and the recovery of Happiness.”

Whither the losers

coyote

History, we are told, is written by the victors. So, it also seems, are books about writing; although it is perhaps more accurate to say that books about writing only talk about winners.

Whether we’re talking about Star Wars, Unforgiven, Casablanca or The Wizard of Oz, almost any model of screenplay structure or character development or dialogue construction can be retrofitted to suit the film in question.

It’s like one of those mysterious illustrations that test whether you see two faces or a goblet. Once the secret is pointed out to you, it is virtually impossible to unsee.

illusions

Faces or a vase? Old woman or young?

Now, I’m not suggesting that these films or scenes or characters within aren’t good examples of the methods and approaches being promoted. Rather, because they are good examples, I question how much you can learn from them.

If you know the film well, it can be virtually impossible to imagine it any other way. And that is what the lesson should be telling you.

What happens when you don’t follow the model?

What does bad writing look like and how can you fix it?

Without that last part, learning to write well becomes the typing equivalent of being given paint, brushes, canvas and the Mona Lisa. Now, go out there and launch the new Renaissance! (The Rerenaissance?)

A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune to take a comedy writing workshop given by Steve Kaplan. Aside from providing our small group with a series of tools to not only analyze but also develop comedy—nicely captured in his wonderful book The Hidden Tools of Comedy—Steve walked us through examples of where these tools were used to great effect AND examples where they weren’t.

Alongside excerpts of Groundhog Day, we watched scenes from Alex & Emma. After considering the classic sitcom about nothing Seinfeld, we were inflicted with the show’s original and quite terrible pilot.

groundhog-and-emma

Like with the positive examples, you see the failures when they are pointed out to you. But the nice thing about the failures is you can ask what could have been done differently to make the idea or scene work better.

(Note: Sometimes, the answer is nothing, because it was a weak idea or poorly written.)

You may not have committed the specific sin you’re studying, but it at least gives you the opportunity to use the tools you’ve just acquired and see if you can’t make that “Elvis on crushed velvet” look more like the Mona Lisa.

elvis-lisa

And particularly for the relatively novice or untested writers, examining failures helps to keep from establishing an impossible bar of success. Rather, it suggests that whereas we always strive for greatness, mediocrity can make it to the screen, and more importantly, we do not need to (and never will) achieve gold with every piece we write.

Which is good, because for every Pirates of the Caribbean and Shrek, there is a The Lone Ranger (all written in part by the wonderful and giving Terry Rossio).

rossio

See also:

The Hidden Tools of Comedy (Steve Kaplan)

Substance over volume

ddnews

When you meet someone who does not speak your language, there is a cliché response of talking louder to make yourself understood. There is something within many of us that says if we simply pump up the volume, we can overcome the disconnect.

A couple of months ago, Tufts University released their latest estimates for the average cost of developing a new drug: $2.6 billion (I’ve seen estimates up to $5 billion). Eleven years ago, the same group calculated the costs at $0.8 billion.

Now, every time these estimates arise, the hand-wringing begins over how the costs were calculated, which factors make sense and which are over-reaching. What no one seems to argue, however, is that drugs are less expensive to develop today than they were a decade ago.

So what has this to do with speaking louder?

The same period has seen amazing technological achievements designed to facilitate and accelerate drug discovery and development.

Combinatorial chemistry was heralded as a way to expand compound libraries from hundreds to hundreds of thousands. High-throughput and high-content screening, as well as miniaturization and automation, were lauded as ways to screen all of these compounds faster under the paradigm of “fail early, fail often”. And given the masses of data these technologies would churn out, the informatics revolution was supposed to convert data into knowledge and knowledge into healthcare.

And yet, for all of these improvements in throughput, I question whether we have seen much improvement in the number or quality of drugs being produced. We certainly haven’t made them less expensive.

Please understand, I don’t place any fault in the technologies. These are truly marvels of engineering. Rather, I question the applications and expectations of the technologies.

Almost two years ago, GSK CEO Andrew Witty told a London healthcare conference: “It’s entirely achievable that we can improve the efficiency of the industry and pass that forward in terms of reduced prices.”

The pivotal question here, I believe, is how one defines efficiency.

I wonder how many people simply felt economies-of-scale would improve discovery, much as mass production made Henry Ford a rich man. But drugs are not cars, and where throughput and scale make sense when you have a fully characterized end product, they have their limitations during exploration.

When I was a protein biochemist in an NMR structural biology lab, I spent some time trying to wrap my head around two concepts: precision and accuracy. A 3-Å protein structure is very precise but if the structure isn’t truly reflective of what happens in nature, it is meaningless. A 30-Å protein structure is much less precise, but if it is more accurate, more in tune with nature, then it is likely more useful.

By comparison, I wonder if our zeal to equate efficiency with throughput hasn’t improved our precision at the cost of our accuracy. If you ask the wrong question, all of the throughput in the world won’t get you closer to the right answer.

In researching the DDNews Special Reports over the last couple of years, I have spoken at length to several pharma and biotech specialists about this topic, and many feel that the industrialization of drug discovery and development has underwhelmed if not outright failed. Several have suggested it is time to step back and learn to ask better questions of our technologies.

But getting back to the costs issue.

I know many will rightly point out that the largest expense comes from clinical trials. To address this challenge, new technologies and methodologies are being developed to get the most useful information out of the smallest patient populations.

Here again, however, no one segment of the drug development process stands in isolation, and I think back to the compounds reaching the clinic and question the expense of incremental improvements.

Oncolytics CEO Brad Thompson discussed the challenge in Cancer in the Clinic (June 2014 DDNews).

“If you could double [overall survival], you could show that in a couple of hundred patients. If you want to do a 10-percent improvement, you’re talking thousands of patients to do it to the statistical level that everybody would prefer to see. How do you run a study like that?”

That is a huge difference in financial expenditure that begs the question is an efficacy improvement of just 10 percent of value.

From an individual patient perspective, assuredly. From a pharmacoeconomic perspective, maybe not, and particularly with the growing prevalence of high-cost targeted biologics. Maybe we need to aim for bigger improvements before moving candidates forward, which happens long before the clinic.

Again, I’m not placing blame. The history of any industry is filled with experimentation in different methodologies and technologies. Everyone involved had the best of intentions.

But after a couple of decades of middling results, perhaps it is time to question how and when many of these advancements are applied. Simply yelling at a higher volume doesn’t seem to be enough.

[This piece was originally published in the January 2015 issue of DDNews. A lot has happened in the year since, including some amazing results in the field of immuno-oncology that might just address the demand for high-performance treatments even if only for a select patient population. For more on that, see my June 2015 Special Report “Body, heal thyself”.]

On Second Thought

Do you think?

Why do we give our second thoughts so much more sway than our firsts? What is so magical about the second thought that makes it more believable, more honest, more sensible?

I had second thoughts about writing this simply because it was prompted by a conversation with a friend who is struggling with a dilemma. Would my friend be upset I was talking about him or her? Making light of his or her dilemma? Sharing secrets that weren’t mine?

I can deal with that.

Rare is the person who completely trusts his gut; who goes with the first thought that comes into his head. To the outside world, such a person is often considered rash or impulsive, perhaps even flighty. Rarely is he described as definitive or confident.

Second thought, in contrast, is seen as considered, rational, reasoned…well, thoughtful (or thought full).

The Senate of Canada’s Parliament has oft been described as the chamber of sober second thought, as though the House of Commons is populated by ADHD-riddled chickens, prone to explode at the slightest provocation.

(The realities of the Canadian Parliamentary system are fodder for a different blog post.)

The concept of sobriety does point to one of the benefits of second thought. The decision not to pursue flights of drunken fancy such as driving home after drinking too much rather than take a taxi. But while this points to the benefits of second thought, it also points to its source: Fear.

We have and listen to second thoughts because we are afraid. We are afraid that our first thought was ill-considered (rash) and might result in failure. And because we don’t want to take responsibility for that failure, we build a rationale for our alternative thoughts, thus making ourselves more confident in our decision.

The harsh truth, however, is that no matter what our final decision, there is always a risk of failure, perhaps catastrophic. The Titanic and Hindenburg were well-considered ventures based on sound and common practices. It was the unforeseen (if not unforeseeable) incidences that doomed the exercises.

To a greater or lesser extent, gut instincts and reactions are You unencumbered by rules and conventions. They represent the way you view the world and yourself without the censorship of social pressures. Thus, I believe, they more accurately represent your goals and desires, and ultimately what will make you happy.

Now, this is not a belief that was reasoned on the basis of careful study. If nothing else, that would defeat my argument. It does, however come from a lifetime of observing others and myself.

I have no reason to lie to myself when under my own control, in the absence of other influences—chemical or human. Thus, my gut instinct is my truth.

This doesn’t mean that I have to follow it—there may be extenuating circumstances to go another way—but I should never deny the instinct.

In denying it, I will never have the opportunity to build faith in it, and ultimately, second thought is a lack of faith in myself.

confident

Failure is not an option…it’s a skill

Fear-of-failure

I used to be terrified of failure. If I couldn’t know that I would succeed at something, I would put it off and potentially never do it.

And this was true in all aspects of life.

Driving. Dancing. Playing musical instruments. Talking to girls and later women. Athletics.

I became the best I could at one or two things—the things for which I seemed to have a natural aptitude—to avoid having to worry about being asked to do any of a thousand other things.

To me, failure was not an option. (I could spend months discussing why, but I won’t…at least, not here).

It has taken me a long time, but I have finally realized that I was only half right.

failure_success

Failure is not an option…it is an imperative.

It is a skill that I must practice time and time again in all aspects of life.

At its simplest, if I succeeded at everything to which I turned my hand, I would stop doing it.

I succeeded. I achieved my goal. What more could I hope to accomplish? Everything after that is pure redundancy and repetition.

When harnessed, however, failure and imperfection can be that thing that drives me forward, when purely creative urges do not.

ziglar

Failure is my teacher. Failure is my drill sergeant and mentor. And yes, failure can be my devil.

Perfection is an illusion and is therefore unattainable. This means that even at our zenith, we have failed. So what?

Even if we do not strive for perfection, but for an attainable, measurable goal, we are likely to fail if for no other reason than once we have achieved that goal, we instinctively move the goal posts. Our best is always a thing of the past and acts as a goad for us to do better.

Herein also lays the further challenge of failure in Art. There typically is no real metric other than external opinion. Rare is the individual who targets using 7.83% magenta in his next painting.

coyote

Wile E. Coyote is about the only artist I know who can actively test the realism of his Art. He has achieved his goal if the Roadrunner runs into the cliff wall painted to look like a tunnel. Ironically, his downfall was the hyperrealism he achieved such that the painting actually became a tunnel. In succeeding, he found failure.

Where I used to fear failure, I now embrace it. I use it to stretch myself and my skills. I use it as a lesson plan.

Failure-is-not-falling-down-but-refusing-to-get-up

But for this to work, I must envision failure as something internal and self-defined rather than something external and based on the opinions of others. There lies madness.

Yes, I rely on feedback garnered from others to determine my degree of success, but I do not allow others to define that success.

It is my Art. I define it and in doing so, define myself. And to do that, I must fail and fail again.

failure-and-success

(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission, which may be an epic failure on my part.)

Give up or surrender

Image

You’ve hit a wall. You’ve banged your head on your desk for an hour; two; ten. Staring out the window—your go-to maneuver for the last decade—has gotten you nowhere. Is it time to give up?

Might I recommend surrendering instead?

In case this sounds confusing, there is a difference between the two options.

Giving up is about accepting failure. It’s the belief that there is no solution to your problem or if there is a solution, you’re not the one who will come up with it.

Giving up is about telling yourself that you’re not good enough, strong enough, smart enough to solve your problem. It is defeat.

Surrender is different. Rather than giving up, you’re giving over; ceding control of the situation to whatever power you are most comfortable with—God, time, the elements, the universe.

Surrender is about believing that not only is there an answer to the problem, but also you are capable of delivering that answer—just not without help.

We all know what giving up looks like. It’s turning off the laptop with a frown, and maybe a sigh with drooping shoulders. And almost always, it comes with a fear or reluctance to turn the computer back on.

Surrender is calmly closing the laptop of letting it go idle while you take a walk, read a book or vegetate in a coffee shop. It can even including reviewing your work-to-date if you focus on what’s working, what you’re happy with.

The answer is there for you to pluck, but it’s waiting for you to drop your focus. Like that white spot on the inside of your eyelid that moves every time you try to look at it, the answer doesn’t like your stare, so it hangs in the periphery.

That may actually be source of some of your frustration: the knowledge or sense that the answer’s nearby, but you can’t see it.

Don’t give up. You can do it.

You just need to have faith in your universe and surrender the control you never really had.