Carl Atiya Swanson: Damn Good Advice for Being At Home in the World

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Nov 13, 2019
by Carl Atiya Swanson
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Carl Atiya Swanson: Damn Good Advice for Being At Home in the World

Salzburg Global Fellow reflects on his experience at the sixth program of the YCI Forum Photo: Carl Atiya Swanson

Carl Atiya Swanson is a Salzburg Global Fellow. He recently attended the sixth program of the Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators. This blog was originally published on Swanson's LinkedIn profile

I brought two books with me to read on the plane to Austria to participate in the Salzburg Global Seminar's Young Cultural Innovators Forum, and they couldn’t have seemed more different. One was Damn Good Advice (for people with talent), the collected wisdom of maverick ad man George Lois. Even the title tells you what you need to know about Lois – brash confidence, a sense of some disdain for mere mortals, and a laser focus on talent and creativity. This is, after all, the man who created iconic covers for Esquire magazine in the 60s, drowning Andy Warhol in a can of tomato soup, and setting up Muhammad Ali as the martyred St. Sebastian.

The other book was Thich Nhat Hanh's collection of remembrances, At Home in the World. Hanh, the exiled Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian efforts, who was a confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was a champion for mindfulness, humility, collaboration, and calm, Hahn could not seem to be more temperamentally distant from Lois.

And yet, in the context of this global gathering of young artists, creators, and leaders from around the world, these two books and minds convened in a surprising and powerful way. And it started with Muhammad Ali.

Ali is credited with one of the shortest poems in the English language, delivered as part of his commencement remarks at Harvard University. Cultural organizers and lead session facilitators (a.k.a. cool mom & dad) Shelagh Wright and Peter Jenkinson introduced the poem as an organizing principle for the gathering. Two words, with power: "ME, WE."

The "me" speaks directly to Lois' ethos of driven creativity – a creativity that can be used for good. As he put it in Damn Good Advice, "No matter what stage you are in your career, use your creativity to stand up for our heroes, and protect your culture against the villains." That phrasing, that framing, that opening of understanding held a space for connection, immediacy, and urgency – start something was a theme of the gathering. Fifty creatives from around the world put into a space together to spark each other’s creativity and networks carry that energy forward.

In this context, with these people there was also the opportunity for global connection and understanding, making possible what Hanh writes about his peace activism, which is rooted in the "we." He writes, "Taking action against injustice is not enough. We believed action must embody mindfulness. If there is no awareness, action will only cause more harm." It is incredibly easy to get caught up in our own context as the only way of being. This is especially true because powerful and changemaking organizing happens at a local level. But a global understanding and awareness, a shared perspective of our "we" is what we need for transformation – as Hanh's title says, we must be at home in the world, not just at home in our home.

As the Forum progressed, breakout groups brought deeper conversation and sharing. Every single person there, whether from Manila or Cape Town or New Orleans, was deep in the process of making creative work and making meaning. The processes pushed us to make the intuitive apparent. The process of self-discovery is asking why you do the things you do, why you feel the way you do. The act of organizational discovery is asking why we have the systems we have, what have we created because of the biases and heuristics of the people, and what can we pull out. Things that go unsaid go unexamined, and the work is to say the thing first, so it can be understood. "Creativity is not created, it is there for us to find – it is an act of discovery," writes Lois.

In our personal lives, like in strategic planning and facilitation, the process of discovery is about uncovering deeper resources for resiliency. "Each of us needs a reserve of memories and experiences that are beautiful, healthy and strong enough to help us during difficult moments," writes Hanh. "Sometimes, when the pain in us is so big, we cannot truly touch life's wonders. We need help. But if we have a strong storehouse of memories and experiences, we can bring them to the mind to help us embrace the block of pain inside." The process of being together, of being facilitated through questions and exploration grounded us in the help we all need to build for the future.

That work around surfacing connections and building relationships also underscored how the "me" and the "we" can be flipped. Even the individualist Lois writes, "No matter what field you’re in, identify the revolutionary leaders, and create for those who have the capacity to thrill to your Big Ideas." In Salzburg, those leaders were and are all of us. The sharing of ideas was a reminder that it is not enough to do the work, you have to let people know what you are doing, so that they can support and shape your work.

To be in nourishing conversation and community, however physically temporary, was also refreshing because of some of the lack of expectations. In our home environments, in our regular practices, it is easy to feel burdened by responsibilities, by an accumulated sense of being who you are because of the things you do and the people you know. It is important to be in those relationships, but it was enormously refreshing to be reminded that you are valuable because of who you are, not what you are connected to or might have access to. That the value we bring to our organizations and work is not just knowledge and network, but personality, internal creativity. Hanh reminds us that the “we” does not exist without the “me,” when he writes, “If we only rely on external conditions, we will get lost. We need a refuge we can always rely on, and that is the island of self. Firmly established on our inner island, we’re very safe. We can take time to recover and restore ourselves, and become stronger, until we’re ready to go out and engage.”

On the transatlantic flight home, trying to process the experience and be ready to engage, giddy on a few hours of sleep, I had a synthesizing moment. "Write things down, and say them aloud to make meaning," came to me in between getting weepy at Avengers: Endgame and turbulent naps. If someone were to grab me on the street and yell, "Why are you here?" that is my answer right now. It's why this essay exists, it's why every time I talk about the experience, I feel like a new facet or memory shines through.

Like any addict in recovery, I’m suspicious of high highs and low lows. But the passion and energy of the Salzburg cohort carries on, aided by Instagram, WhatsApp, and emails. In Damn Good Advice, Lois quotes Abraham Lincoln, saying "When I hear a man preach, I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees." That’s the kind of energy we left the Schloss Leopoldskron with. In the two weeks since the end of the Forum, I count two announcements of quitting jobs, a restaurant concept opened, and a Masters' program accepted into. Hell, I made a zine, as a shared reminder of the experience. There is more to come, because there is more to do, and more we can do together.

I'm left with this passage from At Home in the World, as an extended offering of gratitude for the Fellows, facilitators, and the experience:

"One day when I was a child, I looked in a large clay water jar in the front yard that we used for collecting water and I saw a very beautiful leaf at the bottom. It had so many colors. I wanted to take it out and play with it, but my arm was too short to reach the bottom. So I used a stick to try and get it out. It was so difficult I became impatient. I stirred twenty times, thirty times, and yet the leaf didn’t come up to the surface. So I gave up and threw the stick away.

"When I came back a few minutes later, I was surprised to see the leaf floating on the surface of the water, and I picked it up. While I was away the water had continued to turn, and had brought the leaf up to the surface. This is how our unconscious mind works. When we have a problem to solve, or when we want more insight into a solution, we need to entrust the task of finding a solution to a deeper level of our consciousness."

Thank you to the "we" who stirred up each other’s waters. Now let’s look to the future to we want to build, to start acting how we want once we are all free.


The Salzburg Global Seminar Program, Cultural Innovation, Leadership and Collaboration: A Global Platform, is part of the Young Cultural Innovators Forum annual program. The program is held in partnership with Adena and David Testa, Arts Council Korea, Arts Council Malta, the Bush Foundation, Canada Council for the Arts, Japan Foundation, the Korea Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, Lloyd A. Fry Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, the Nippon Foundation, Salama Bint Hamdan al Nahyan Foundation, Shalini Passi Art Foundation, and World Culture Open.