Individually Together

 If you haven't seen "The Lego Movie" yet, drop everything you are doing and go see it. I'm serious. It's the best movie I have ever seen in my entire life, and all of mankind should watch it, internalize its many messages, and make the world a better place by application. Ignore that Lego is kind of a shitty corporation, and that the movie has a stupid name. Just ignore those things. Everything else about this film is extraordinary. 

The thing I love the most about "The Lego Movie" is that it masterfully champions two seemingly disparate messages. Without giving too much away, they are: 1) Work together as a team; and 2) Be the unique, weird, out-of-whack individual you are without apology. Do you feel like I spoiled the movie for you? Well, too bad: you should've dropped everything to go see it back in paragraph one when I told you to. ALSO THERE'S A TWIST ENDING. BECAUSE OF COURSE THERE IS.

These ideas -- individuality and community -- are in constant tension in everything we do. We are told that we need to go into the office so that we can "work together" to come up with better ideas. This is the famous water cooler idea that Google subscribes to: people who feel at home where they work will come up with creative solutions to problems while chatting at the water cooler, thus making them better overall. We are also told that hunkering down and working alone can lead to the most productivity. Wired did a study a few years ago that found definitively that most workers get way more done remotely, in an untethered work environment. Around the same time, The New Yorker ran a story that conceded that groupthink and brainstorming were largely a myth, but that creating space for people to work together to intuit creative solutions was absolutely critical to positive change. A brief excerpt:

Like it or not, human creativity has increasingly become a group process. “Many of us can work much better creatively when teamed up,” [Alex Osborn] wrote, noting that the trend was particularly apparent in science labs. “In the new B. F. Goodrich Research Center”—Goodrich was an important B.B.D.O. client—“250 workers . . . are hard on the hunt for ideas every hour, every day,” he noted. “They are divided into 12 specialized groups—one for each major phase of chemistry, one for each major phase of physics, and so on.” Osborn was quick to see that science had ceased to be solitary.


So which is better? Working independently or as a group? Is art more groundbreaking when we compose it in solitude or in solidarity? The answer is obvious, and "The Lego Movie" has it figured out: people need both.

Yesterday I taught an art lesson that I was terrified would be a disaster. The fourth graders I've been working with have been learning about sculpture all year, and have experimented individually with lots of sculptural techniques. One of the class objectives for the year is to be able to work as "an ensemble," which my students have come to know as meaning, "together, and as a team." So far, ensemble work has manifested itself in lighthearted improv games we play before getting into our individual art projects. But yesterday, I wanted them to work as table groups to make a monster body part.

We are building "emotion monsters" out of papier mache. It's the final project of the year, and let me be upfront about it: I have been terrified for weeks about executing this lesson. I have actually never made a gigantic papier mache monster, and I wasn't 100 percent sure what I thought it was supposed to look like -- which is a major no-no in teaching. You should always know what you want something to look like; if you don't, everything is destined to be a disaster, and you will fail as an educator. I learned that during Week 1 of Teach for America teacher training, and I never forgot it. 

But I put a big pile of corrugated cardboard, chicken wire, parchment paper, scissors, and masking tape in front of my students, gave them a body part to create, and said, "Figure it out." And then this amazing thing happened: they figured it out.

I do not think this would have worked had my students not spent eight months developing their own crafts as sculptors. I do not think you could throw industrial materials in front of any group of nine-year-olds on earth and say, "Make a monster torso" with any sort of success. In every group, each student had enough self-awareness to know what she brought to the table, and so working together with the individual tools each person had not only came easily, but resulted in a whole that was far greater than the sum of its parts.

 Working together...

Working together...

 A finished monster

A finished monster

Conceptually, I had difficulty understanding what had happened in my class yesterday until I went to see this contemporary orchestral outfit from New York at the University of New Orleans last night. An intelligent friend invited me -- he knew the band, and said, "Trust me about this."

The group -- thirteen super-hot twenty-somethings who all looked like they belonged in The Arcade Fire -- led the evening with a song written by The National's Bryce Dessner called "O Shut Your Eyes Against the Wind," which they described as "a dreamscape morphing textures and sonorities that takes its title and inspiration from an evocative poem by Black Mountain poet Larry Eigner." Within four bars, my jaw was on the floor. 

Here's the thing about this group: every song they played required them to all make a huge leap of faith in everyone they were playing with. Unlike most orchestral tunes, these featured parts that were so different from the other parts that each player had to keep almost perfect time. Which was crazy-difficult, because all the pieces were in time signatures that didn't seem to be time signatures at all. Everything was gauzy and ethereal. Nothing seemed to be stretched across the familiar structure that music ordinarily affords.

Ultimately, there was this deep, holy thing going on with this group: each player believed strongly enough in herself to assert her own voice; but believed strongly enough in the other players to trust that their unique voices would add to the overall integrity of the sound. Each person had to be boldly and completely an individual -- not a cog. Each person had to be absolutely and utterly in sync with each other person, as well -- not a hero. They were outsiders who had all invited each other to stand on the inside. They were individuals together. A whole greater than the sum of its parts.

In this life, we need ourselves just as we need each other. We cannot have one without the other. As you move inside the larger structures of your daily reality, I urge you to be simultaneously grateful to the people who bring things to the table that you cannot bring. I also urge you to stretch your own voice to its outer limits, in a deep-seeded trust that the people you love will hold everything that is bright and special about you to the light.

This was what "The Lego Movie" was trying to say. Seriously: GO WATCH IT RIGHT NOW. It even has a semi-intelligent joke about farts.