Why It’s Good To Be Bad

As a young actress in New York, my mother studied at the Herbert Berghof Studio under the tutelage of the famed Uta Hagen, a German-American acting teacher whose legacy remains among the most respected in her field.

Hagen won three Tony Awards, was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame and received the National Medal of Arts at the White House in 2002 .

She passed away on my mother’s birthday, six years ago.

Mom occasionally quoted this teacher because her acting advice often applied to life in general. My favorite Hagen-ism was delivered in a very mild German accent:

DARE TO BE BAD!” she’d bellow.

What she meant was we nearly always have to do something badly before we can do it well. Further, if we won’t do something unless we’re certain of its result…well, we won’t do much of anything, will we?

This is good because I’ve never had a problem doing things badly.

Plus, I recently learned that doing things badly can also be very good for one’s brain. The idea, of course, is not to do something badly on purpose, but to perform an unfamiliar task that challenges the brain’s neurons to take a detour from their customary pathways.

Without this kind of challenge, we fall into patterns of behavior and problem-solving which are more habitual than necessarily effective. It’s called the Einstellung effect.

You can read all about it here. In a nutshell,

“Einstellung is the creation of a mechanized state of mind. Often called a problem solving set, Einstellung refers to a person’s predisposition to solve a given problem in a specific manner even though there are “better” or more appropriate methods of solving the problem.”

How does it work? Well, over time, neurons within the brain learn to fire more efficiently coupled with another particular neuron. Together they traverse a familiar route without considering alternate, often superior, pathways.

I think this is similar to what we call a rut.

Not surprisingly, the Einstellung effect is seen most often in persons with some degree of expertise in a subject, but not in beginners. Interestingly, though, it seems to disappear as one becomes very advanced in the same subject. All the pathways open up again.

Weird, huh?

This may be why yoga adepts encourage us to cultivate a beginner’s mind, regardless of our level of experience. Another reason is surely because such a mindset supports the development of humility, which is the fertile soil from which self-realization grows.

It may also be why Uta Hagen encouraged her students to abandon the fear of being terrible. By following her own advice, she set aside her self-described mask and developed into a “profoundly truthful actress,” according to playwright Edward Albee and others.

So choose something you’re not altogether confident doing –something that makes you feel awkward, like brushing your teeth with your opposite hand. Take an alternate route home, or better still, learn a musical instrument and/or take up the practice of Shiva Nata.

Said the neuron fearlessly, with apologies to Robert Frost,

Two pathways diverged in the brain, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………

Tuesday, September 21st, is International Peace Day. http://peaceoneday.org/

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2 Responses to Why It’s Good To Be Bad

  1. Wow, this is really interesting. It reminds me of a study that Pepler and Ross did on pre-school students measuring convergent and divergent problem solving (convergent=only one solution and divergent is like Shiva Nata where you walk across the lake instead of around it :).

    They gave preschoolers two things to play with – some were giving puzzles (convergent) and others were given open-ended materials with no one solution, blocks (divergent).

    The kids were then tested on problem solving and the ones with blocks performed better and were more creative in the ways they found their solutions.

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