On being a sponge and a duck

The great Chip Scalan wrote a post nearly 10 years ago that’s stuck with me, “Be a Sponge, Be a Duck” in which he gave some advice to reporters dealing with criticism.

The takeaway: If the criticism is valid, accept it, if it isn’t, let it go. It’s never quite that easy, of course, but it’s a great idea, and I’ve found myself repeating that like a mantra over the years.

It applies to more than just criticism. Which of your own thoughts are useful, and which are harmful? What ideas will make a difference in your life, and which will slow you down?

In his great graduation speech at Kenyon College David Foster Wallace put it this way:

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

Those who follow me on Tumblr and Twitter well know by now that I’ve quit smoking. And while that’s the genesis of this post, it’s also got me thinking about how we think and the thoughts we allow into the front of our conscious mind. I make no claim to be a philosopher, but one of the most intriguing (and maddening) things about the human brain is the ability to think two contradictory thoughts at the same time. For example: “I never want to smoke another cigarette.” and “I should take off this patch and go buy a cigarette.”

But the trick to being well-adjusted (as Wallace puts it), or indeed, even functional in society, is that ability to hold on to some ideas and let others go. And as simple as it sounds, it’s a hard skill to learn.


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