How Organizing Principles Guide Your Life
What movies, magicians, and a legendary writer taught me about finding a clear path to success
Movie season is like Christmas in the Brison household.
Every year, we line up the best picture nominees, grab a pile of snacks, and sit down for waves of spine-tingling inspiration and gut-wrenching despair.
The Sound of Metal took both of those emotions to a new level. The story of a musician going deaf coupled with exquisite sound design made the movie hard to watch in the best possible way.
The story behind the story is even more fascinating.
Riz Ahmed’s — the film’s lead — wore custom inserts that emitted a constant high-frequency pitch. When you see him in character shaking his head and pulling his ears, it wasn’t him faking deafness.
He could feel it.
“[The inserts] don’t even allow him to hear his own voice,” the film’s director reported in the New York Times. “He’s reacting to a very physical process…it’s what gives rise to a loss of balance and real loss of control.”
Secrets like this make movie magic seem like simple smoke and mirrors, and similar legends are littered throughout Hollywood. Hugh Jackman disobeys doctor’s orders and sings his guts out to earn a green light for The Greatest Showman. Makeup artists for Dallas Buyers Club turn Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto into haggard AIDS patients with only $250. Daniel Kaluuya turns a casual table read into a screaming session and convinces producers to add an extra million dollars to Judas and the Black Messiah’s budget an extra million dollars.
A bedrock for great art is poured long before cameras roll.
There’s a scene in Christopher Nolan’s film The Prestige where two young magicians are studying an older craftsman.
The elder enchanter hobbles around stage, wrinkled face and bent knees, humbly performing simple tricks. With each new stunt, the crowds politely applauds.
Then, there is the fishbowl trick.
Strong men set the big aquarium on a small table. One orange goldfish swirls around in the water. Silence fills the stadium. Carefully, the old man covers the bowl with a sheet, waves his hand around, and then — WHOOSH! — rips the fabric away to reveal an empty table.
While the audience squeals in delight, the observing magicians stare in disbelief. What’s the answer? How did he do it? Where is his secret hidden?
Later, they learn the answer isn’t found in the performance.
A closer look shows no trap doors, no hidden assistants, no fakes. The water and the fish were as real as the old man himself. How did the master sorcerer make the fishbowl vanish?
He tucked it between his legs.
And since he’d been plodding around slowly the whole show, it was not odd at all when he simply trudged off stage, glass gripped firmly between his thighs underneath the long cloak he wore as a costume.
Magicians, of course, never reveal their secrets. The old man continued his limp anytime he was seen in public. He wobbled offstage and got help into his carriage.
“He’s as strong as an ox,” comments one character. “It’s his life that’s the act.”
To assume your whole life must be an “act” to achieve success is a little dark. It’s better to say work is the “organizing principle.”
I stole the phrase from a shattering article in The Baffler about student debt. The author claims his massive balance sheet became the “organizing principle” of his family’s life. If he wanted to take a vacation to Tahiti, buy an expensive gift, or get fancy toothpaste, the loan had to be considered first.
The minimum payment reigned.
Organizing principles work like gravity, pulling choices into orbit. The bigger the principle, the stronger the gravity. Earth pulls the moon, but the sun pulls all the planets in our solar system. That’s why, when a director and actor were working on a project with a budget of around $25 million, the former didn’t mind suggesting forced hearing loss, and the latter was happy to oblige.
Organizing principles make other choices simpler. In the case of the debt-holder, those simple choices were bitter.
But what if you set up your own organizing principles? What if you selected a principle for yourself in order to define other parts of your life?
Example: If writing a book becomes the organizing principle in your life, the choices you make from day to day, (not just the ones about writing) should align to that goal. You set your alarm earlier so you can write. You teach Amazon to suggest books that can give you inspiration. You carry a notebook around. The book’s gravity drags your habits and routines into place.
I’m now remembering F. Scott Fitzgerald, who said immediately before his career rocketed into legend:
“The metamorphosis of amateur into professional … [means] stitching together your whole life into a pattern of work, so that the end of one job is automatically the beginning of another.”
We talk a lot about “work-life balance” these days, as if tipping one side of the scale means the other is holds less weight.
That isn’t the case.
The proper question isn’t “how can I fit my life around my work?” or “how can I fit my work around my life?” It’s “how can I organize both so that I can do what matters, as often as possible?”
Work and life are not opposing forces.
One feeds the other, and vice versa.
If you are going to read anyway, why not pick up titles that fit in with your passion? If you are going to watch Netflix, could you choose a show about your profession? If you are going to join Facebook groups, what’s the harm in joining ones with people you aspire to emulate?
You’re thinking there’s a dark side to organizing your life around work. You’d be right. One of the fictional magicians from The Prestige chopped off his own finger and ended up executed. The other murdered his clone night after night, living with the guilt. On this side of the movie screen, Heath Ledger lost himself when he played the role of the Joker.
Skewed values can be just as dangerous as having none.
An “organizing principle” is not a synonym for “obsession.” Sometimes a well-organized writer will have to tend to a child with the flu. And sometimes, the fastidious drawer-keeper will leave his socks on the floor.
The next day, though, the laundry will be lifted into its proper place, and words will be written once more.
That’s the true joy of organizing principles.
Not only do they make your choices easier, but they also drill home a far more important edict: