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Watch this 1 scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off & you’ll instantly “get” art

“I don’t get art.”

As Internet culture seeps into every aspect of our lives, it’s becoming more acceptable to admit our shortcomings in the quest to connect to similar souls. A search for “I don’t get art” turns up post after post of shrugged sentiment and unrepentant prejudice. A few decades ago, a person would only whisper it to a friend while trying to hide his confusion. Now the phrase will find you a whole community of confused compadres.

“I don’t get art” is kind of a valid position. If art is what the art industry tells you art is, then yes, none of us really get art. The art industry (yes, it’s an industry, and quite a dirty one at that) has a vested interest in keeping art esoteric and elite. Very few museums curate for real humans. Curators curate for rich patrons and mostly — other curators. It’s like they’re secretly competing for the most obscure and unrelated piece groupings to see who can confound, shock and awe the best of the best.

Most people make the logical choice to keep away from the whole endeavor. I don’t visit museums often myself. Instead, I turn to more accessible media for those days when I’m on a hunt for deep meaning: the library; photography; movies. One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from the 1991 movie Grand Canyon:

“That’s your problem: you haven’t seen enough movies. All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies.”

So true. Ironically yet fittingly, this riddle about how to “get” art is answered in a minute-and-a-half scene in the great John Hughes film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. What, you may ask, does this iconic ‘80s senioritis skip session have to do with anything, let alone the lofty world of art? Lots. Let’s take a look.

In The Museum

When we come upon this scene, Ferris, his girlfriend Sloane, and his uber-worrywart, super-hypochondriac best friend Cameron Frye, are halfway through their romp through Chicago’s mean very clean streets. Lots has happened already, including Ferris’s reckless absconding of the prized vintage Ferrari of Mr. Frye, Cameron’s dad. The trio stop by the famous Art Institute of Chicago to check out some paintings and sculpture.

Take a watch first of the clip and then we’ll discuss:

Don’t get art yet? It’s OK. I have some things to tell you about this scene. Stay with me.

All the Feels

The Director and writer of the film John Hughes is amazing here. Hughes employs everything at his disposal, the shot angles, the art, the juxtaposition of the pieces and people, the soundtrack, the lighting, etc. to reflect what is happening inside the characters themselves, especially Cameron’s internal struggle to break free of his father and find his own path in life. (Some might say the entire film is really Cameron’s story, and Cameron is a reflection of John Hughes himself, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

The music is The Dream Academy’s instrumental version of The Smith’s “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want.” Here are the very simple lyrics of the song:

“Good times for a change /see, the luck I’ve had /can make a good man /turn bad //So please please please /let me, let me, let me /let me get what I want /this time

Haven’t had a dream in a long time /see, the life I’ve had /can make a good man bad /So for once in my life /let me get what I want

Lord knows it would be the first time

Lord knows it would be the first time”

Any kid growing up in a horribly dysfunctional home like Cameron’s could relate to those words. But the lyrics and their relevance are there to find only for the keen investigator. Hughes’s decision to do an instrumental version of the song was definitely the right one for the scene’s tone, but we can also interpret it as the director telling us Cameron was so deep under the thumb of his terrorizing father that he had no ability to even think about it, let alone express it in words. Indeed later in the movie, Cameron lapses into a catatonic state of abject fear when he realizes a nasty confrontation with his dad is imminent.

Let’s take a quick look at the scenes, without getting all wrapped up in the deeper relevance of each art piece (you’re welcome to look up each piece’s name and history. Knowing John Hughes, there are more nuggets of wisdom awaiting anyone willing to dig deeper. Consider sharing in the comments if you do).

After we see the “big kids” entering the museum with a bunch of little kids, with a smattering of adults standing around, ignoring the children, we see Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting Nighthawks.


Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

Notice in the painting there is also a trio, a man and a woman together, and another man sitting alone and perhaps stealing glances of the couple from across the bar. This same set-up is repeated throughout the movie, with Cameron being a third wheel to Ferris’s and Sloane’s intimacy:

Ferris2 Ferris3 Ferris4

Continuing through the museum:

The next few pieces further convey the concept of “contrast,” to reflect Cameron’s internal struggle: Smooth and soothing versus excited and sharp; warm and comforting vs. cold and concrete; round vs. angular; young vs. old; intimate vs. distant.

The camera moves to icons of The Mother, pieces symbolizing motherly devotion and feminine love. Cameron is a very defensive person; He has a dad who hates his mother, he has no girlfriend, he isn’t even close to know how transformative the love of a partner can be, and he hasn’t cared to know bout any of it. Cameron could be the represented by the stubborn-man sculpture (which all three characters reflect in their crossed-arm poses).

In a confusing mess of spite and desperate attempts to garner any type of care from anyone — especially from his cruelly negligent parents — Cameron resorts to affecting constant physical ailments. Throughout the course of the film, Cameron starts to use Sloane as a kind of fill-in girlfriend, and Sloane does deliver some of that feminine caring that Cameron so painfully lacks. The feminine art pieces hint at how Sloane somewhat fills this role for Cameron, but they also lead up to the transformative effect the art has on Cameron’s life.

While Ferris and Sloane are having a mock-kiss-your-bride scene, Cameron (with his pertinent double-entendre “Howe” jersey on — “How will I live? What kind of person will I be?”) takes in a detail in the 1884 pointillism painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by George Seurat. Cameron looks closer and closer at the baby holding its mother’s hand. What at first glance appears to be a face turns into a mere smattering of tiny dots. No distinguishable identity exists for the baby. In this moment, Cameron realizes no real Cameron exists either. He is merely a collection of tiny colored dots, like the endless prescription pills he’s been given as a substitute for love.

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. 1884. Seurat.

The walls of Jerico come tumbling down

This realization breaks a pillar of Cameron’s defense system. When the next blow comes (the Ferrari’s odometer has doubled), Cameron’s defenses are gone. When the final blow comes (Cameron accidentally kills the Ferrari), the old Cameron dies. A new Cameron rises from the ashes, standing with the help of Ferris’s and Sloane’s love and compassion. He gives a monologue of epic proportions. “I gotta take a stand,” Cameron says, and the transformation is complete.

Here’s the scene (not the greatest quality, sorry):

So, back to the art.

Hughes used film, paintings, sculpture and sound to show us that all of life’s riddles are answered in art. Advanced art degrees aren’t necessary to appreciate artwork. We don’t need to know “the artist’s intent” for a piece to speak to us. Art is there to answer the specific questions that haunt us at the time when we are viewing it. People throw so much money at fortune tellers and Magic 8 balls when they could just offer up their question to an art museum. Ask yourself the biggie metaphorical Q “what do I want?” before you enter a collection and see what pieces catch your eye. The big A to your big Q is hiding in there somewhere.

Art is a medium through which you discover yourself. Museums aren’t about the artists or the collections or even the exclusive curators. They are about you. Think of it: A whole building, filled with stuff all about you. Some things may not make sense to you right now. In fact, most art in life will not grab you. So what if you don’t feel anything from that particular piece? Leave it for another time in your life. Leave it for another human. Or, maybe the fact that you are turned off by it is insight in itself? Take a second to ask why it turns you off or confuses you. But other pieces may just be the thing that takes that part of you buried deep inside and pulls it out, asking — and maybe answering — exactly what you needed to know.

The best, most beautiful aspect of art? THERE. ARE. NO. WRONG. ANSWERS. There is no “getting it” or “not getting it.” There’s nothing to get. There’s no one right way to interpret it. Art is all about you, and only you can know what it means for you.

Get it?

So go discover some parts of yourself you’ve lost. Go invent parts of yourself you’ve been missing. Go answer your life’s riddles with some art.




Cutting away all that is unnecessary in life is hard. The hard part comes when one must decide what is necessary. Sometimes activities you love to do fall into the “unnecessary” category, and that makes life difficult.

Right now I’m culling activities, obligations and possessions so as to maintain a singular professional focus: to finish a novel. This means I have to give up my “online presence” for a while. Doing so makes me nervous, because I feel like it’s my only professional avenue. In other words, it’s keeping my foot in the door in case I ever do need to get an outside full-time job. (Probably I should question the premise that my only lifeline should tragedy strike is to have a solid online reputation. For some reason, though, I’m steeped in the Internet myth and can’t let go of that belief.)

So I have to put faith in … in … what? Put faith in the belief that “things will work out”? Put faith in myself? Sure I can finish a novel but all evidence shows that novel will go nowhere. It won’t make a career for me. Plus, the thought of being known as a fiction writer kind of skeeves me. Every artist I’ve known well has been inept at life. I don’t want to join their ranks. (Again, I should question the “artists are losers” premise, but that prejudice is so deeply-seated in me and our culture that I’ll just have to work with the delusion).

I wish more stories were told about how life sucks for The Great, like how olympic gold medalists are lonely most of the time or how many horrible hours Richard Branson spent questioning his failures and himself. I want to hear stories about how going for a major life goal actually SUCKS ASS most times, and that there are damn good reasons why people don’t pursue them. the sacrifice stories would do more to help me sacrifice than the success stories.

Anyway. The long and short of this is, I need to stop allowing Facebook, Twitter and other binge-snack sites to splinter my concentration. I want to be of singular purpose, at least for a little while. I don’t know how to live the life of an strategy consultant and a fiction writer at the same time. I’ve failed at one or the other at any given time. And if a Destiny Gun was held to my head right now, against all logic, all my best judgment and all things sacred, I’d still choose the noveling. Idiotic. Stupid. Useless. I know.

But a gal can dream…




Beware the barrenness of a busy life.


A “bucket list” is an inventory of places to see/ things to do/people to meet before you die? Usually this list is written down and posted somewhere. People are supposed to check off experiences as they go. Search Flickr or Twitter for “bucket list” and you’ll get an idea of the overwhelming popularity of the trend.

Today an entrepreneur I follow tweeted out “help me with my bucket list” and a link to his blog post. In blue, he highlighted his accomplished tasks, in black were the tasks yet to be done. His list was typical of a socially-conscious innovator, e.g., donate a million dollars to charity (he said he was 1/3rd of the way there), launch successful kids, golf at the Masters, etc. I perused it, curious to see if I could help him with anything. It was a typical “see this, do that” list, so really, the tasks are up to him. So why did he ask other tweeters for help? Was it an exercise in the modern skill of humble bragging? Sure, he listed his charity goals but essentially, his entire agenda was about him and how admirable his goals are.

Why do we construct these things? If we’re honest, wouldn’t we classify a bucket list as another (albeit fancier) “TO DO” list? Or do we publish our dream vacations and lofty goals to put forth an image of ourselves as International Adventurers of Mystery? Surely, we Bucket Listers don’t collect “spread peace, love, and happiness” posters on our Pinterest boards.

It’s as if we need certain notches on our belt in order to feel complete. Bucket lists are exercises in that esteem-building task of “complete-ness,” but this task isn’t risk-free. There’s a secret danger to the bucket list: Inspiration boards and daydreams take their toll. In one of Life’s great ironies, every bit of inspiration you collect on your Bucket List is a bit you take away from your energetic movement toward that goal.

Brain research shows that “mirror” neurons can simulate an observed experience so well that we ourselves feel like we had the experience. These neurons can fool us into thinking we’re great golfers like Tiger Woods or we’ve been shot down in helicopters in a battle in the Middle East. Bucket lists fool us into thinking we’ve already traveled miles when in reality we have yet to take our first step. Some experts warn against too much “visualization” for this reason: The very act of picturing ourselves at the finish may mean we never start the race.

I realize this is the opposite of the Supreme Motivational Canon that the happiness movement has been feeding us since the ’60s. But think about it: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Trade-offs hide under every surface, and this mirror neuron phenomenon, embedded in a feverish “Get it done” culture, is why we go to and from work in the same routine day after day, on the path of least resistance through the barrenness of a busy life.

The fact is, a hoarding of experiences is not much better than a hoarding of material goods. Feeling “complete” or worthy doesn’t come from base jumping the Eiffel Tower or roaring through Grand Canyon rapids. If only it were that easy! So much money spent on self-help books, therapy, illegal drugs even, could be saved up for one all-healing Himalayan climb.

Don’t believe the hype. Plastering your cubicle of photos of Fiji will only get you farther away from that paradise. Instead, do what Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps did every day of his life: picture the process. Phelps didn’t picture himself on the winner’s stand. In fact, he didn’t even picture the end of the race. Michael had a mental “videotape” of swimming his best race, down to the tiniest detail like how he held his fingers or flexed his toes, and he played that tape in his head like a movie, every day over and over. Before every race, his coach would tell him to “roll the tape” to get his whole body ready to go through the motions. These motions eventually broke world records and led to 8 gold medals.

Forget the Bucket List. If you want to get to Fiji, picture yourself at the bank, making deposits in your “Escape” fund. If you want successful children, imagine yourself being calm and collected during their next major mess-up. Focus on the journey, and its end will surprise and delight you.


Photo credit: Flickr user torbakhopper. Edited by me, Christine Cavalier

Also posted on LinkedIn.


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Lie to Yourself Like a Boss

pinocchio with a cigar

“Perhaps the strangest thing about [an] illusion of control is not that it happens but that it seems to confer many of the psychological benefits of genuine control. In fact, the one group of people who seem generally immune to this illusion are the clinically depressed, who tend to estimate accurately the degree to which they can control events in most situations.”
Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

In Lars Van Trier’s disturbing movie Melancholia, Justine is a bride with a history of mental illness. As the planet Melancholia threatens to crash into and destroy Earth, Justine is the steady force for her young nephew as pure panic takes over the others, including her usually happy and fortunate sister Claire.

Psychology researchers have noticed this phenomenon. A depressed person’s ability to absorb bad news is stronger than healthier people’s, e.g., Justine’s depression primed her to expect catastrophe which allowed her to function in spite of it, where the others broke down as they struggled and raged against the shock.

Which sister would you rather be? Justine or Claire? I used to think like Justine, the unflinching realist: Better to be prepared as much as possible for oncoming doom than suffer the devastating shock that comes with it. Now I think I’d side with Claire: Why worry? Sure, doom may be coming but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Let’s have tea.

This choice comes down to more than the typical optimist/pessimist argument many motivational mavens churn out. The formation of your world view is a much more complex and changeable process. But the most influential factor on that world view is your ability to “lie” to yourself.

Self-deception, illusion, delusion, etc., whatever you want to call it, how well you can reposition a situation to fit within comfortable parameters is the most unrecognized skill in highly effective leaders. Being able to take emphasis from internal and put it onto external factors is what separates the middle guys from the big guns. If Claire the CEO didn’t make her third quarter targets? “The bad weather really hampered sales. We still did better than last year’s 3rd quarter. And maybe the targets are too high!” Claire would then kick back and have a beer, energized for the 4th quarter sales. “Realistic” middle manager Justine would speak to – or perhaps scream at – the sales team, pore over the books to see what went wrong, and squeeze out more hours from already overused resources. She’d go home deflated and worried.

Here’s the thing: Justine may be able to eke out a tiny increase in profit for the next quarter, but Claire will be the one who continues to get promoted. Let’s look at two powerful techniques Claire has in her arsenal to keep a rosy outlook (barring another planet colliding with ours, of course).

  • Reframing: If the scene you have seems overwhelming, increase the setting.Don’t just look at the third quarter numbers, look at the last 5, 10, 15 years’ 3rd quarter and year-end totals. Look at how you did compared to competitors’ 3rd quarters. Keep looking for more data until this quarter’s abysmal performance doesn’t seem so bad.
  • Shifting Locus of Control: No man is an island, except when he is. External factors, not personal ones, are more responsible for downturns than you are. Personal talents are more responsible for upturns than luck. The bad weather may have impacted sales but it was the great motivational speech you gave to the sales managers that brought those numbers back up at year-end.

When applied appropriately and positively, these techniques can help anyone cope with stress at work. They can ease your worries and save your self-esteem. A Machiavellian application of denial (reframing) and blame (shifting locus of control) will have us fantasizing about a bulk order of nooses for the c-suite.

These coping styles, especially when peppered with humor, can help get you through your kid’s teen years or your neighbor’s noisy divorce. This isn’t a happy-joy, Up-with-People mind trick. We don’t have to pop pep pills and plaster cheerleader grins on our faces to deal with reality. Remember: reality has multiple aspects. Choose to concentrate on the ones that will lessen your load, and let the Earth shatter another day.


Photo Credit: Know Your Meme, Like A Boss

Also on LinkedIn


So you want to be a thought leader?

You probably want to win the lottery, too.

sticking out

But what if I told you that you’ve already won a lottery, yet the prize wasn’t money? Instead, you’ve won a trust fund of experience and insight. Let’s call this secret wealth The Fund. Its wealth in expertise is unsurpassed and you can dispense it at any time while its coffers will only increase.

Look inside yourself for a minute. Deep inside you, an armory of information exists about a certain subject. Where is this hidden cache? You probably know where it is. You probably know the subject. The problem is, you probably don’t want to share it.

The Fund is tricky. Despite our desperate hopes, The Fund isn’t filled with Buffet bits or Branson blessings. It isn’t overflowing with four-hour financial fireworks or roaring ROI regalia. What The Fund has is your core self, the culmination of years of not only work experience but of life experience. It is everything that makes you, YOU. This essential self isn’t so easy to share. Putting yourself out there isn’t for everyone. It takes a special kind of “strong” that most people simply aren’t.

When I work with business pros who seek my help with their thought leadership content, many of them are surprised by my questions. You see, I’m a Psychologist by training, a systems administrator by profession, and a writer by soul. I know how to dig down deep in a person and how to morph that knowledge into shareable content. I also know the same old motivational drivel these managers want to share online is not from their Funds.

Leaders contact me to help them to become Internet (or just LinkedIn!) famous for a typical surface area like quality assurance, supply chain, or hiring. The problem: this kind of crap is already piled up high. It’s amazing these savvy biz mavens would try to enter a market that is already so saturated. Some of these requests I have to turn away because the wannabe thought leader isn’t willing to break open their Fund to share something truly unique yet universal to all humans. To become a true thought leader, one must accept the responsibility and more gravely, the vulnerability that comes with it. It sounds crass, but I’m doing these people a favor when I turn them down. They aren’t ready. Maybe they never will be, and that’s OK.

The people who assume leadership is about money and fame tend to make poor leaders. Leadership is service. Being a CEO is a paying job, but being a leader is a volunteer position. Money and fame might be a by-product of thought leadership, but it can never be the motivation for tapping into The Fund. A sincere desire to help must be the base of thought leadership. My best clients are the ones I have to convince to break open their Funds. These pillars of success know the gravity of what I’m proposing. They feel the responsibility to others that all great leaders feel.

So you want to be a thought leader? Are you ready? Here is a sample of questions I may ask you when we meet:

-What was the biggest lesson you took away from your youth? College?

-List some of your volunteer positions

-Tell me a story of when one of your little kid assumptions was shockingly crushed by real world facts (SPOILER WARNING: e.g., Santa Claus or income tax on your first paycheck.)

-If you could do your last job over again, what mistake would you avoid? What would have been the bad and good outcomes?

-You’re hosting a party. Someone starts up a conversation about a subject that makes your jaw clench in anger or annoyance. What is that subject and why? What do you do at the party?

After we get through some of the personality profile questions, we’d dive down deep and knock on the door of your Fund. Will you open it? Are you ready to recognize what is stored up in there? Are you ready to share the – at times embarrassing – parts of yourself that could help a person become a better employer, a better parent, a better friend or a better anything? Only you can answer these questions. It’s your trust Fund. No-one can spend it but you.


This post was also published on LinkedIn

Photo Credit: “New Guy” by Pascal on Flickr.

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