In defence of the liberal arts: Judah Pollack at TEDxWhitehorse

Translator: Lauren Hornsey
Reviewer: Tanya Cushman Thank you. When I was a little boy, I loved the stories
of Robert Louis Stevenson: “Kidnapped,” “Treasure Island.” I loved the idea of adventure; my little introverted self could live
vicariously through these stories, and the idea of these pirates
who would plunder treasure – they would steal gold – and then they’d go and bury it
on a tropical island. And what’s interesting about this
is if you think about piracy today, the biggest problem we have with piracy
is that they’re stealing movies, right? (Laughter) Pirates used to plunder gold,
and now pirates steal stories. And the reason for this is because stories
are actually more valuable than gold. And I bring this up because
I am a student of the liberal arts. And what this means is that I have no useful skills
and I am completely unemployable. (Laughter) (Applause) And this is generally believed. It is why liberal arts
programs are being cut; it is why liberal arts colleges
are having a hard time out there. As a liberal arts student, my bread and butter
is the reading of stories; it’s the understanding
of multiple narratives. What I can do, as a good
liberal arts student, is I can ask a really good question. And yet we live in the age of answers. Whether it’s finding an algorithm that’s going to find
patterns inside big data, or if it’s building an economic model
to predict the future of markets or a climate model to predict
the future of global warming. What we live in is an age that wants
and an age that expects answers. A philosopher once said, “Truth is a roving army of metaphor.” You can not get much further
from answers than that statement. And I would like to bring
that statement a little more modern and say that truth
is in our network of narratives. And so as we begin
this exploration of narrative, I would like to ask you a question. Who do you see before you? Who do you see up on the stage? You had an introduction;
you can look in your program; you can Google me
very quickly, if you’d like, but you won’t have that much to go on. So everyone, now that I’ve asked it,
will start to fill in the blanks; you’re going to use your memory files,
your ability to find patterns; you’re going to assume certain things,
and you’re going to fill it in. And the reason you’re going to fill it in
is because we like answers. And so I want to tell you
the story of two crosses. Now, I just have to say,
I’m a nice Jewish boy from New York, and yes, I just began
by making the sign of the cross. I really feel for my parents right now. These are the joys of assimilation. So, the first cross is in 410 AD,
and we have the fall of Rome. And Rome falls to the best-named
barbarians ever, the Visigoths. The Visigoths come in;
this is frightening. Rome has been Rome for 500 years. Families have been patrician
families for 25 generations. Just to give you an idea of it, just imagine the Taliban barreling down
5th Avenue in New York City in their Toyota pick-up trucks, 20 soldiers in the back
with their Kalashnikovs, and no one to stop them, and you get a feel
for what the fall of Rome was like. And a lot of people start
to point the finger at Christianity. They say Christianity became the religion
of the Empire about 100 years ago, and that’s why this has happened. And so a bishop – in modern-day Algeria, the city of Hippo – named Augustine, decides to counter this
with a grand rationalization. And what he says is this: “Do not mind the fall of Rome, for the fall of Rome is the city of man. It is material. It is full of sin. It is temporal. It is not why we are here. The goal of our being here
is to create the city of God. And the way we do that
is through the Church, but also through looking inside
ourselves to find our souls because our souls
are that which are nearest to God. It’s the search for
our own connection to divinity.” And this becomes the paradigm for the next 1,000 years
in Western Europe. If you’ve ever asked yourself, “Where are the Einsteins
and Newtons in the Middle Ages?” And if you’re not a liberal arts student,
you’ve probably never asked that question, but I have asked myself that, and the answer is they’re in the Church. They were looking inside themselves,
seeking their connection to God. And this happens for a thousand years, and it reaches its artistic zenith
with Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” And in that story, which is the story of one man’s search
for his connection to God, it begins, “Midway through my life,
I found myself in a dark wood, the right path lost.” And how many of us have experienced
that moment in our lives? And then at the end, Dante is literally
standing in the presence of God. And he talks about feeling oneness. And with this, the Middle Ages,
for all intents and purposes, is coming to a close. We get Petrarch, another Italian poet. He gives us the Humanists. The Humanists give us the Rationalists;
the Rationalists give us Descartes. We just ran through about 200 years,
but trust me, it’s all good. And Descartes brings us
to our second cross. How many of you remember
high school geometry? How many remember the Cartesian plane
with the x-axis and the y-axis? Now, I apologize if any of you
are getting nightmares right about now. And what he did was he
threw numbers all over this. And numbers were believed,
by the Pythagoreans, to be the language of divinity,
the language of the universe. So even though we’ve entered
the age of reason and science, there’s still a divine sense to it –
that we are seeking out God. In fact, what Descartes said was that God
gave us reason so that we may know him. And we took this Cartesian plane, and we began to map and measure
everything in the world. We mapped abstract objects on it; we mapped the speed of light; we figured out how big
and old the universe is. We are now taking that plane
and putting it onto our own brains and trying to find the seat of our souls. And yet something is missing;
something is missing for us as humans. Walk into any bookstore,
look at the self-help section, you’ll see how much is missing. And what is missing is the question
that liberal arts is engaged with, which is what does it mean to be human? Because on the one hand, these two crosses
appear to be very different. You’ve got Dante, at the end of his story, saying that he could feel himself
revolving with the universe, turning with the sun and the stars, and all of it was moved by God’s love. And 450 years later, you get Isaac Newton who says,
“Well, actually, it’s gravity.” That’s what’s moving the universe. And so they appear very different,
but what they share in common is both of these crosses represent
systems that are in search of certainty. They represent systems
that are in search of answers. And the liberal arts is not. Truth is a roving army of metaphor. And so how do you engage the question,
what does it mean to be human? How do we engage
the nuance of our humanity? And the tool is narrative. Narratives are so powerful
for us, and primal. 40,000 years ago, our ancestors
wandered deep into caves and painted their life’s experience
on the walls just to share it. And today, my three-year-old niece will not go to sleep
without hearing a story, preferably four or five,
which is when the negotiation begins. (Laughter) We need these. And what’s more amazing
is we have discovered that our brain architecture
has actually evolved to engage narrative. There’s a part of your brain
called the default mode network. It lights up, it turns on,
when you’re off-task, when you space out, when you think you’re doing nothing. If you’ve ever had
an aha moment in the shower or suddenly realized something when you were just taking a bike ride,
kayaking, whatever it may be, that’s your default mode network. And one part of it has
the highest metabolic rate of any part of your brain at rest. That means that this part of your brain
asks for more energy than any other part. It’s called the dorsal lateral
prefrontal cortex, and what it is doing
with all of that energy is it is building a narrative of your life
with a past, a present and a future, constantly integrating
the new information. Here’s another study, out of Princeton: They put a woman in an fMRI,
and they had her tell a story, and they mapped her brain function. They recorded her telling the story because then they took 12 other people, placed them into the fMRIs and had them listen to this woman’s story and mapped their brain functioning. And what they discovered
was the more people listened, the more they comprehended, the more neural coupling happened. Neural coupling is a really nice phrase
that means brain synchronization. The people listening to the story, their brains synchronized
with the storyteller. They lit up in unison. In fact, people who were really listening
to the story and really comprehending it would have parts of their brain light up in anticipation
of the storyteller’s brain. You would actually be ahead of it. And the part of the brain that lit up
was the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex. Another part of your brain lights up when
you’re really focusing on someone’s story, the part with huge numbers of receptors
for the neuropeptide oxytocin. Paul Zak out of
Claremont College is doing this. Oxytocin is the neuropeptide
that allows us to feel empathy. When we listen to somebody’s story,
we are able to feel empathy for them. Think about this in terms
of wanting more empathic leaders. Think about this in terms of wanting
something as grand as world peace. It is in the telling
and listening of our stories that we actually gain empathy
for one another. Stories, in fact, are so important they can determine
what we literally see in the world. So right now there are
10 billion bits of information hitting your retina every second. Of that, 6 million make it
onto your optic nerve; of that, 100,000 make it
into your visual cortex. And of that, a whopping 100 bits
make it into your conscious brain. To make matters worse, those 100,000 bits of information
that make it to your visual cortex, only 10% of the neurons there
actually process that outside information. The other 90% aren’t even looking at them. So the question comes,
how do we see anything? How do I not fall off this stage? How do you not fall down those stairs if we’re seeing so little
of the outside world? The theory is that we
are actually filling in the gaps. Those other 90%, those neurons
in our visual cortex, they’re keeping memory files,
keeping a pattern, a map of the world, that allows us to see. It is literally our narrative
of the world that allows us to see it. You may have seen this YouTube video,
called an awareness test. They have two teams – white and black –
that have to make basketball passes. They say, “Count
the passes of the white team.” So you watch for 20 seconds
and get very proud: “Eight passes.” “Yes, the team in white made eight passes, but did you see the person
in the bear suit dance by?” And you’re like “What?” So they replay it and all of a sudden,
right in the middle, someone in a bear suit [dances], waves at you and walks off the screen. I did not see it – 60% of people
who watch this video do not see it. And the reason is not that the visual
information doesn’t come into their eyes; it’s that they don’t process it
because it wasn’t in their narrative. Now expand this out for a second. How can you see somebody
if you don’t know their story? How can we see each other
if we don’t know their story? We literally will not process
the information. And this is the problem with crosses:
they have only two dimensions. And what makes us human
exists in that third dimension, it exists in depth. Too many organizations ask us
to leave our humanity at the door. Too many leaders create
some sort of facade of their humanity without truly telling us who they are. And it does not evoke empathy, and, therefore, we do not
understand each other. I want to give you an example
of how this works in storytelling. So I’m going to talk about myself,
using the first dimension to begin with. And so, my name is Judah. I was born in New York City.
I then moved to the Bay Area. And I’m a writer and a consultant. I know, thrilling.
You’re just feeling me, aren’t you? Okay, that’s the first dimension. We do that everyday, all the time. Okay, now here’s the second dimension. This you might find in a bio,
or you might find it on OkCupid. (Laughter) Not that anyone ever lies on OkCupid. So, after first saving the world,
Judah entered elementary school. He then graduated simultaneously
from Stanford, Harvard and Oxford with degrees in neuroscience, electrical
engineering and general awesomeness. (Laughter) He now has become a social entrepreneur, creating local, sustainable,
organic gardens of Eden that you can install on your roof deck. In his spare time, he invented money. (Laughter) Right? We all know these types of bios;
we do them all the time. I half-did one for my introduction here. We do them all the time
to make ourselves feel better. What happens with this type of story
is it actually serves to separate us. It actually serves to set me apart, sort of create a reason,
an answer to why I’m on this stage. And then the horrible shadow side of that is that it actually makes
the person listening feel lesser. We move through our heads going,
“Well, I haven’t done that.” Stories are not about separating us;
they’re about bringing us together. I do a lot of work with returning
soldiers from the U.S. Army, returning from combat. And one of the stories
I tell them is about Ulysses. And so Ulysses returns home,
and he’s been gone for 20 years. One of the things that happens
when he gets home is he’s not recognized. Think about that for returning soldiers: they return from war,
and nobody recognizes them. But one person does;
his old nursemaid recognizes Ulysses. She recognizes him because he has a scar
on his thigh that he got as a young boy. And the beauty of this is this concept
that we are known by our scars. So, I want to now give you my story
with that third dimension, with that depth. I was born in New York City,
and I was very well off. My father was a criminal defense attorney;
my siblings and I were young princelings. We were very entitled;
the world was coming to us. Why wouldn’t it? We were wonderful. We were going to grow up
and do wonderful things. And then one day, my father got indicted, and in this kind of
slow-motion family disaster, we began to lose everything. We were kicked out
of the castle, so to speak. So my siblings and I did
what any young, entitled kids would do. We made camp right
next to the castle walls. Every day we put on our best clothes, which day after day
got a little more tattered, and we banged on the door saying,
“There’s been a mistake, let us back in.” But that door was never opening again. And the reason we camped like that
was because there was nowhere to go except into a dark wood. Dante, at least, discovered
his dark wood in the middle of his life. I was 19. I was frustrated. I was angry. But underneath that, I was immensely sad
for everything that had been lost. I was also incredibly frightened because
I did not want to go into that dark wood. But one day, we realized
that there was no choice, and I put my parents on my back
and into the wood I went. And I tripped a lot; I hurt myself a lot. I wandered through deserts. I faced dragons. And through it all, I remember having this distinct sense that there was something
fundamentally broken with me now, that I would never quite be right, that I would never actually heal. And one day, I started to find
my way, just a little more. Things got a little bit better. And I set my parents up, set them down. My brother had moved to California
to start something new. In America, when you screw up
the first act of your life, you go to Northern California. If you screw up and stay
in the East Coast, you’re just a loser, but in Northern California, they’re very supportive:
“Good for you, keep going!” So that’s how I ended up
in Northern California. (Laughter) My brother had discovered
a dance community, and he took me
to this campout called Frolic, which is fascinating to me because frolic was not something
I had been able to do for 10 years. What you do is go out into the woods
in the foothills of the Sierras, and you dance. And you dance all night. You have to imagine me
dancing in the middle of this dark wood. And I’m dancing in spite of the darkness. I am dancing in the belief
that the sun will rise again. And I am dancing
with the rational knowledge that the sun is going to rise again. And I am dancing my heart out. Then I look up at the horizon,
at the ridgeline, and the sky is turning a pearl gray, and the sun is coming back up. I distinctly remember feeling this weight
lifting from my shoulders, literally a yoke
that I had worn for so long I didn’t realize it was there anymore. And I felt something so odd
rising in me, which was joy. I realized that this wasn’t just dawn; this was my dawn. This was the creation of myself anew. Stories are the swords we use
to slay our dragons. Narrative is the tool we use
to understand ourselves in the world. If you don’t share
your story with someone, you can never truly be seen. If you don’t share
your scars with someone, you can never truly be known. And so I ask you again, now who do you see? Thank you. (Applause)


  • Tomas Jankus

    Brilliant speech

  • Rhonda Abrons

    I am floored by this amazingly, thoughtful and authentic talk! Thank you.

  • Lisa Kimball

    Fabulous! what a wonderful and entertaining way to see the power of story!

  • Laura Wald

    Wow. Brilliant and evocative. Keep bringing that wise truth, Mr. Pollack.

  • Konstantin Gredeskoul

    Great talk Judah!

  • TheCareerPlanner

    Hi Judah,
    I've seen you present and speak before at APTi and BAAPT but I never knew you were such a great writer and story teller. I like the message, that until you let people see your scars and your failures, they don't really know you. So many people only want to present that one dimensional "successful self" that you speak of. So we can never really know them. To not be known is truly sad.

  • Donna Molettiere

    Dear Judah, a beautiful story shared with depth– the 3rd dimension as you say, the inclusion of life experience. It's not just a pretty story. I liked how you articulated the crossing of science and religion -both in search of answers/certainty. I also loved how you described your experience at Frolic – the all night dance party in the woods of Northern California – your dark wood til dawn! Yes, I've been to that place and time. Thank you!

  • Isabella Joan Wilk

    Courage to be multi-dimensional in a world that strives to make us one dimensional and all it takes is sharing our stories! Brilliant!

  • Ferdinando Buscema

    This is a WOW Talk!! Spread the consciousness of the power of narratives worldwide!!

  • Marlene Chism

    mmmm…So many good nuggets. "God gave us reason so we could know him. Something is missing for us as humans. The question: what does it mean to be human? Truth is a roving army of metaphor. The default mode network and the recorded story of the FMRI mapping brain function. Neuro coupling…We are filling in the gaps and a map of the world. It is our narrative of the world that allows us to see it. We don't process it if it isn't in our narrative. We need to know each other's stories. What makes us human exists in the third dimension. Stories are not about separating us but about bringing us together."  WOW! 

  • T Anon

    you lost me at "world peace"…now I think you're an idiot

  • Meruemo

    Liberal arts are indeed worthless

  • Darren Takeshita

    Well done. We do live in a world where individualization, self-promotion and concrete-thinking has become prioritized over self-actualization, the sharing of narratives and diversity of thought.

  • Mada Sarbu

    Great video! You should check out the The Art of Charm Podcast, episode where Judah Pollack was invited together with Olivia Fox Cabane, to speak about their new book: The Net and the Butterfly: The Art and Practice of Breakthrough Thinking. It is AWESOME!

  • Sining Tadhana

    He is engaging and his speech really made me listen to him and to love him as a speaker and as a person. He is really good in speeches and telling stories. His understanding of the world fascinates me, and when he talks about history, literature, neuroscience, and humanity, it just reminds me the connection and need of both the sciences and humanties or liberal arts in one's life. I love science, it really fascinates me. I love taxonomy, ideas about paleontology, and how our body works. Science is my favorite subject back then, but my mind changed in high school when I started to love drama, visual arts, culture, and history especially during those times when I am having troubles undergoing changes due to puberty and when I am becoming more aware of myself and of the world I live in. By studying the arts deeply into aesthetics and philosophy to psychology and perception, it ended in how our body works and how our brain and mind functions to see colors, to think about beauty, to perceive, to make sense. I am so glad that my country doesn't take the humanities and liberal arts out of our curriculum and it even expands these. Now, music and arts are not just taught as separate subjects in 4th Grade but starting at 1st Grade. Our education department also offers special program curricula in arts and sports as well as in journalism and writing. It also expanded in offering specializations for high school students in their senior high years to choose a career path preparation, and one of it is towards arts and design and the creative industries, one about general academic education or general liberal arts, one about sports science and athlete development, one about accounting and business, one about STEM, one about technical-vocation courses, and one about humanities and social sciences. Also, all degrees in college whether in arts, humanities, or sciences do all need to take general courses from varied fields like social science, philosophy, language arts, humanities/arts, mathematics, physical education, national service, and natural sciences. Our colleges and universities are also supportive to the liberal arts, fine arts, and humanities education, and ideas about society, culture, history, and politics are all seen as important in our daily lives. For me, all academic fields, professions, and technical skills are important to us, whether liberal arts or humanities or the sciences, as we gain more ideas, develop and make more technologies, as we increase our knowledge of our world and universe, as we interact each other in our societies and in our world as a whole, and as we stay and remain human beings who are social beings, have emotions, need of belonging, who think for one's own self and others, who belong to a culture, and who still have memories of past, awareness of present, and hope and desire for future.


    Liberal Arts Really do Help a person to Explore Alot and if we dont share our story with someone we will not truly be seen ( Well said by Judah )


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