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General Knowledge—The Seven Deadly Realities
Throughout recorded history we can detect patterns of human behavior that transcend culture and time, indicating certain universal features that belong to us as a species. Some of these traits are quite positive—for instance, our ability to cooperate with one another in a group—while some of them are negative and can prove destructive. Most of us have these negative qualities—Envy, Conformism, Rigidity, Self-obsessiveness, Laziness, Flightiness, and Passive Aggression—in relatively mild doses. But in a group setting, there will inevitably be people who have one or more of these qualities to a high enough degree that they can become very destructive. We shall call these negative qualities the Seven Deadly Realities.
The problem for us is that people do not like to display these traits publicly because they are seen as ugly and undesirable. They tend to disguise them from view, finally revealing their reality through some action that blindsides and harms us. In our surprise, we tend to react emotionally, increasing the damage, the effects of which we can carry with us the rest of our lives. Through study and observation, we must understand the nature of these Seven Deadly Realities so that we can detect their presence and avoid triggering them in the first place. Consider the following as essential knowledge in acquiring social intelligence.
Envy: It is our nature to constantly compare ourselves to others—in terms of money, looks, coolness, intelligence, popularity, or any number of categories. If we are upset that someone we know is more successful than we are, we will naturally experience some envy, but often we will find a way to minimize it because it is an unpleasant emotion. We tell ourselves that the success of another person is a matter of luck or came through their connections, or that it won’t last. But for some people it goes much deeper than this, usually because of the level of their insecurities. Seething with envy, the only way to discharge it is to find a way to obstruct or sabotage the person who elicited the emotion. If they take such action they will never say it is because of envy, but will find some other, more socially acceptable excuse. They often won’t even admit their envy to themselves. This makes it a quality very hard to recognize in people. There are, however, a few indications you can look for. People who praise you too much or who become overly friendly in the first stages of knowing you are often envious and are getting closer in order to hurt you. You should be wary of such behavior. Also, if you detect unusual levels of insecurity in a person, he or she will certainly be more prone to envy.
In general, however, envy is very difficult to discern, and the most prudent course of action is to make sure your own behavior does not inadvertently trigger it. If you have a gift for a certain skill, you should make a point of occasionally displaying some weakness in another area, avoiding the great danger of appearing too perfect, too talented. If you are dealing with insecure types, you can display great interest in their work and even turn to them for advice. You must be careful not to boast of any success, and if necessary, to ascribe it to just good luck on your part. It is always wise to occasionally reveal your own insecurities, which will humanize you in other people’s eyes. Self-deprecating humor will work wonders as well. You must be particularly careful to never make people feel stupid in your presence. Intelligence is the most sensitive trigger point for envy. In general, it is by standing out too much that you will spark this ugly emotion, and so it is best to maintain a nonthreatening exterior and to blend in well with the group, at least until you are so successful it no longer matters.
Conformism: When people form groups of any type, a kind of organizational mind-set inevitably sets in. Although members of the group might trumpet their tolerance and celebration of people’s differences, the reality is that those who are markedly different make them feel uncomfortable and insecure, calling the values of the dominant culture into question. This culture will have unwritten standards of correctness that shift with the times we live in. In some environments, physical appearance is important. But generally, the spirit of correctness runs deeper than that. Often unconsciously conforming to the spirit of the man or woman on top, members will share the same values about morals or politics. You can become aware of this group spirit by observing how much people feel the need to display certain opinions or ideas that conform to the standards. There will always be a few within the group who are the overseers of correctness and who can be quite dangerous.
If you have a rebellious or naturally eccentric streak, as is often the case with those who are aiming for mastery, you must be careful in displaying your difference too overtly, particularly in the Apprenticeship Phase. Let your work subtly demonstrate your individual spirit, but when it comes to matters of politics, morals, and values, make a show of adhering to the accepted standards of your environment. Think of the workplace as a kind of theater in which you are always wearing a mask. (Reserve your most interesting and colorful thoughts for your friends, and for those whom you can trust outside work.) Be careful in what you say—it is not worth the bother of freely expressing your opinions. If you sin against this Deadly Reality, people will not acknowledge the cause of their disaffection, because they do not want to think of themselves as conformists. They will find some other reason to ostracize or sabotage you. Do not give them material for this kind of attack. Later, as you gain mastery, you will have ample opportunity to let your individuality shine through and to reveal your contempt for people’s correctness.
Rigidity: The world has become increasingly complex in many ways, and whenever we humans face a situation that seems complicated our response is to resort to a kind of artificial simplicity, to create habits and routines that give us a sense of control. We prefer what is familiar—ideas, faces, procedures—because they are comforting. This extends to the group at large. People follow procedures without really knowing why, simply because these procedures may have worked in the past, and they become highly defensive if their ways are brought into question. They become hooked on a certain idea and they hold on to it, even if that idea has been proven repeatedly to be wrong. Look at the history of science: whenever a new idea or way of looking at the world is introduced, despite all of the proofs behind it, those who are entrenched in the old ways will fight to the death to preserve them. It is often against human nature, particularly as we get older, to consider alternative ways of thinking or doing things.
People do not advertise their rigidity. You will only trip up against it if you try to introduce a new idea or procedure. Some in the group—the hyper-rigid—will become irritable, even panicky at the thought of any kind of change. If you press your case with logic and reason, you will tend to make them even more defensive and resistant. If you are an adventurous, open-minded type, your very spirit will prove disruptive and upsetting. If you are not aware of the dangers of butting up against this fear of the new, you will create all sorts of hidden enemies, who will resort to anything to conserve the old order. It is useless to fight against people’s rigid ways, or to argue against their irrational concepts. You will only waste time and make yourself rigid in the process. The best strategy is to simply accept rigidity in others, outwardly displaying deference to their need for order. On your own, however, you must work to maintain your open spirit, letting go of bad habits and deliberately cultivating new ideas.
Self-obsessiveness: In the work environment, we almost inevitably think first and foremost of ourselves. The world is a harsh and competitive place, and we must look after our own interests. Even when we act for the greater good, we are often unconsciously motivated by the desire to be liked by others and to have our image enhanced in the process. There is no shame in this. But because being self-interested does not make us feel or appear noble, many people go out of their way to disguise their self-interest. Often those who are the most self-absorbed will surround their actions with a moral or saintly aura, or will make a show of supporting all of the right causes. Confused by these appearances, when it is time to ask such people for assistance, you will often appeal to their sense of gratitude, their seemingly charitable nature, or their friendly feelings. You are then frustrated and disappointed when they politely decline to help you, or put you off long enough that you give up. Of course, they never reveal the real reason for this behavior—that there is nothing in it for themselves.
Instead of putting yourself in this position, you must understand and accept this Deadly Reality. When it is time to ask for a favor or help, you must think first of appealing to people’s self-interest in some way. (You should apply this to everyone, no matter their level of self-obsessiveness.) You must look at the world through their eyes, getting a sense of their needs. You must give them something valuable in exchange for helping you—a return favor that will save them time, a contact they need, and so on. Sometimes the chance to look good in doing you a favor or supporting a cause will suffice, but it is generally better to find something stronger than that—some concrete benefit they can foresee coming from you in the future. In general, in your interactions with people, find a way to make the conversations revolve around them and their interests, all of which will go far to winning them to your side.
Laziness: We all have the tendency to want to take the quickest, easiest path to our goals, but we generally manage to control our impatience; we understand the superior value of getting what we want through hard work. For some people, however, this inveterate lazy streak is far too powerful. Discouraged by the thought that it might take months or years to get somewhere, they are constantly on the lookout for shortcuts. Their laziness will assume many insidious forms. For example, if you are not careful and talk too much, they will steal your best ideas and make them their own, saving themselves all of the mental effort that went into conceiving them. They will swoop in during the middle of your project and put their name on it, gaining partial credit for your work. They will engage you in a “collaboration” in which you do the bulk of the hard work but they share equally in the rewards.
Your best defense is your prudence. Keep your ideas to yourself, or conceal enough of the details so that it is not possible to steal them. If you are doing work for a superior, be prepared for them to take full credit and leave your name out (this is a part of everyone’s apprenticeship and must be accepted as such), but do not let this happen with colleagues. Secure your credit in advance as part of the terms of working together. If people want you to do work for them, then pass it off as a “collaborative” effort, always gauge whether such work will add to your skill base, and examine their past record to measure the intensity of their work ethic. In general, be wary of people who want to collaborate—they are often trying to find someone who will do the heavier lifting for them.
Flightiness: We like to make a show of how much our decisions are based on rational considerations, but the truth is that we are largely governed by our emotions, which continually color our perceptions. What this means is that the people around you, constantly under the pull of their emotions, change their ideas by the day or by the hour, depending on their mood. You must never assume that what people say or do in a particular moment is a statement of their permanent desires. Yesterday they were in love with your idea; today they seem lukewarm. This will confuse you and if you are not careful, you will waste valuable mental space trying to figure out their real feelings, their mood of the moment, their fleeting motivations.
It is best to cultivate both distance and a degree of detachment from other people’s shifting emotions so that you are not caught up in the process. Focus on their actions, which are generally more consistent, and not on their words. Do not take so seriously people’s promises or their ardor in wanting to help you. If they come through, so much the better, but be prepared for the more frequent change of heart. Rely upon yourself to get things done and you will not be disappointed.
Passive Aggression: The root cause of all passive aggression is the human fear of direct confrontation—the emotions that a conflict can churn up and the loss of control that ensues. And so because of this fear some people look for indirect means for getting their way, making their attacks subtle enough so that it is hard to figure out what is going on, while giving them control of the dynamic. We are all passive-aggressive to some extent. Procrastinating on a project, showing up late, or making offhand comments designed to upset people are common forms of low-level passive aggression. When dealing with this low-level variety in others, you can call them on their behavior and make them aware of it, which can often work. Or, if it is truly harmless, simply ignore it. But there are people out there seething with insecurities who are veritable passive-aggressive warriors and can literally ruin your life.
Your best defense is to recognize such types before you become embroiled in a battle, and avoid them like the plague. The most obvious clues come from their track record—they have a reputation, you hear stories of past skirmishes, and so on. Take a look at the people around them, such as assistants—do they act with unusual caution and terror in their presence? Sometimes you are confused because you suspect sabotage or obstruction, but they present such a friendly or benign exterior. Discard the exterior and focus only on their actions and you will have a clearer picture. If they evade you and delay necessary action on something important to you, or make you feel guilty and leave you unsure why, or if they act harmfully but make it seem like an accident, you are most likely under a passive-aggressive attack. You have one of two options: either get out of their way and leave their presence, or return the attack with something equally indirect, signaling in some subtle way that messing with you will come with a price. This will often discourage them and make them find another victim. At all cost, avoid entangling yourself emotionally in their dramas and battles. They are masters at controlling the dynamic, and you will almost always lose in the end.
Developing social intelligence will not simply help you manage your relations with other people—acquiring it will also have an immensely beneficial effect on your ways of thinking and on your creativity in general. Look at the example of Benjamin Franklin. With people, he cultivated the ability to home in on the details that made them unique and to connect to their experience and motivations. He built up a high degree of sensitivity to the subtleties of human nature, avoiding the common tendency to lump people together. He made himself uncommonly patient and open-minded in his dealings with people from many different cultures and backgrounds. And this social intelligence of his became completely integrated into his intellectual labors—his sharp eye for detail in scientific work, his fluid manner of thinking and patient approach to tackling problems, and his uncanny way of getting into the minds and voices of the various characters he created in his writing.
Understand: the human brain is an interconnected organ, which is in turn interconnected with our bodies. Our brains developed in tandem with our expanding powers as social primates. The refinement of mirror neurons for the purpose of better communication with people became equally applied to other forms of reasoning. The ability to think inside objects and phenomena is an integral part of scientific creativity—from Faraday’s feeling for electricity to the thought experiments of Einstein.
In general, the greatest Masters in history—Leonardo, Mozart, Darwin, and others—displayed a fluid, sensitive way of thinking that developed along with their expanding social intelligence. Those who are more rigidly intellectual and inward can go far in their fields, but their work often ends up lacking a creativity, an openness, and a sensitivity to detail that becomes more pronounced with time. In the end, the ability to think inside other people is no different from the intuitive feel Masters gain in relation to their field of study. To develop your intellectual powers at the expense of the social is to retard your own progress to mastery, and limit the full range of your creative powers.
STRATEGIES FOR ACQUIRING SOCIAL
We must, however, acknowledge…that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system—with all these exalted powers—Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin .
In dealing with people, you will often encounter particular problems that will tend to make you emotional and lock you into the Naïve Perspective. Such problems include unexpected political battles, superficial judgments of your character based on appearances, or petty-minded criticisms of your work. The following four essential strategies, developed by Masters past and present, will help you to meet these inevitable challenges and maintain the rational mind-set necessary for social intelligence.
- Speak through your work
A. In 1846, a twenty-eight-year-old Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis began work as an assistant in the obstetrics department of the University of Vienna, and almost from the beginning he was a man obsessed. The great disease that plagued the maternity wards in Europe at the time was that of childbed fever. At the hospital where young Semmelweis worked, one in six mothers died of the disease shortly after giving birth. When their bodies were dissected, doctors would discover the same whitish pus that smelled horrifically, and an unusual amount of putrid flesh. Seeing the effects of the disease on almost a daily basis, Semmelweis could think of nothing else. He would devote his time to solving the riddle of its origins.
At the time, the most common explanation for the cause of the disease revolved around the idea that airborne particles, ingested through the lungs, brought on the fever. But to Semmelweis, this made no sense. The epidemics of childbed fever did not seem to depend on weather, atmospheric conditions, or anything in the air. He noted, as did a few others, that the incidence was much higher among women who had had their babies delivered by a doctor as opposed to a midwife. Nobody could explain the reason for such a difference, and few seemed perturbed by this.
After much thinking and studying of the literature on the subject, Semmelweis came to the startling conclusion that it was the direct, hand-to-hand contact between doctor and patient that caused the disease—a revolutionary concept at the time. As he was formulating this theory, an event occurred that seemed to prove it conclusively: A leading doctor in the department had been accidently pricked in the finger by a knife while conducting an autopsy on a woman who had had childbed fever, and the doctor died within a few days of a massive infection. When they dissected his body, he had the same white pus and putrid flesh as the woman.
It now seemed clear to Semmelweis that in the autopsy room the physicians’ hands became infected, and in examining the women and delivering the babies, they passed the disease into the women’s blood through various open wounds. The physicians were literally poisoning their patients with childbed fever. If this was the cause, it would be simple to solve—doctors would have to wash and disinfect their hands before handling any patients, a practice no one followed in any hospital at the time. He instituted this practice in his ward, and the number of mortalities was instantly halved.
On the brink of perhaps a major discovery in science—the connection between germs and contagious disease—Semmelweis seemed to be on his way to an illustrious career. But there was one problem. The head of the department, Johann Klein, was a most conservative gentleman who wanted his doctors to adhere to strict medical orthodoxies established by previous practice. He believed that Semmelweis was an inexperienced doctor turned radical, who wanted to overturn the establishment and make a name for himself in the process.
Semmelweis argued with him incessantly over the subject of childbed fever, and when the young man finally promulgated his theory, Klein became furious. The implication was that doctors, including Klein himself, had been murdering their patients, and this was too much to take. (Klein himself ascribed the lower number of mortalities in Semmelweis’s ward to a new ventilation system he had installed.) When in 1849 Semmelweis’s assistantship was nearing its end, Klein refused to renew it, essentially leaving the young man without a job.
By now, however, Semmelweis had gained several key allies within the medical department, particularly among the younger set. They urged him to conduct some controlled experiments to strengthen his case, and then to write up his findings in a book that would spread his theory throughout Europe. Semmelweis, however, could not turn his attention away from the battle with Klein. Day by day his anger rose. Klein’s adherence to a ridiculous and disproven theory about the fever was criminal. Such blindness to the truth made his blood boil. How could one man have such power in his field? Why should Semmelweis have to take so much of his time to do experiments and write books, when the truth was already so apparent? He decided instead to give a series of lectures on the subject, in which he could also express his scorn toward the closed-mindedness of so many in the profession.
Doctors from all over Europe attended Semmelweis’s lectures. Although some remained skeptical, he won over more converts to his cause. His allies at the university pressed him to continue the momentum by doing more research and by writing a book on his theory. But within a few months of the lectures, and for reasons no one could understand, Semmelweis suddenly left town and returned to his native Budapest, where he found the university and medical position that had eluded him in Vienna. It seemed he could not endure another moment in the same city as Klein, and required complete freedom to operate on his own—even though Budapest was somewhat of a medical backwater at the time. His friends felt completely betrayed. They had staked their reputations on supporting him, and now he had left them in the lurch.
In the Budapest hospitals where he now worked, Semmelweis instituted his disinfection policies with such a rigor and tyrannical intensity that he cut the mortality rates but alienated almost all of the doctors and nurses he worked with. More and more people were turning against him. He had forced upon everyone his novel ideas on disinfection, but without books or the proper experiments to back them up it seemed that he was merely promoting himself, or obsessed with some fanciful idea of his own creation. The vehemence with which he insisted on its truth only called more attention to the lack of scholarly rigor to back it up. Doctors speculated about other possible causes for his success in cutting the incidence of childbed fever.
Finally in 1860, under pressure from colleagues yet again, he decided to write the book that would explain his theory in full. When he was finished with it, what should have been a relatively small volume had ballooned into a 600-page diatribe that was nearly impossible to read. It was hopelessly repetitive and convoluted. His arguments would turn into polemics as he enumerated the doctors who had opposed him and who were therefore murderers. During such passages his writing became almost apocalyptic.
Now his opponents came out of the woodwork. He had committed himself to writing but had done such a bad job that they could poke holes through his arguments, or merely call attention to his violent tone, which was self-damning enough. His former allies did not rally to his cause. They had come to hate him. His behavior became increasingly grandiose and erratic, until his employers at the hospital had to dismiss him. Virtually penniless and abandoned by almost everyone, he fell ill and died in 1865 at the age of forty-seven.
B. As a medical student at the University of Padua in Italy in 1602, the Englishman William Harvey (1578–1657) began to entertain doubts about the whole conception of the heart and its function as an organ. What he had been taught in school was based on the theories of the second-century Greek physician Galen, which stated that some blood was manufactured in the liver and some in the heart, and was transported by veins and absorbed by the body, supplying it with nutrition. According to the theory, this blood flowed ever so slowly from the liver and heart to the various parts of the body that needed it, but did not flow back—it was merely consumed. What troubled Harvey was how much blood the body contained. How could it possibly produce and consume so much liquid?
Over the ensuing years his career prospered, culminating in his appointment as Royal Physician to King James I. During these years, he continued to ponder the same questions about blood and the role of the heart. And by the year 1618 he had come up with a theory: blood flows through the body not slowly but rapidly, the heart acting as a pump. Blood is not produced and consumed; instead it circulates continually.
The problem with this theory was that he had no direct means of verifying it. At the time, to open the heart of a human to study it would spell instant death. The only means available for research was vivisection of animals and the dissection of human corpses. Once the heart was opened in animals, however, it would behave erratically and pump far too rapidly. The mechanics of the heart were complex, and for Harvey they could only be deduced through controlled experiments—such as using elaborate tourniquets on human veins—and could never be observed directly with the eyes.
After many such controlled experiments Harvey felt certain he was correct, but he knew he would have to carefully strategize his next step. His theory was radical. It would overturn many concepts about anatomy that had been accepted as fact for centuries. He knew that to publish his results so far would only stir up enmity and create many enemies for himself. And so, thinking deeply about people’s natural reluctance to accept new ideas, he decided to do the following: he delayed publishing the results of his findings, waiting until he had firmed up his theory and amassed more evidence. In the meantime, he involved his colleagues in further experiments and dissections, always eliciting their opinions. Increasing numbers of them were impressed and supported his new theory. Slowly winning most of them to his side, in 1627 he was appointed to the highest position within the College of Physicians, virtually ensuring him of employment for the rest of his life and freeing him from the worry that his theory would jeopardize his livelihood.
As the court physician, first to James I and then to Charles I who ascended the throne in 1625, Harvey worked diligently to gain royal favor. He played the court diplomat, and avoided aligning himself with any faction or becoming involved in any intrigues. He behaved humbly and with self-deprecation. He confided his discoveries to the king early on to gain his trust and support. In the country, there was a young man who had severely broken ribs on the left side of his chest, leaving a cavity through which one could see and touch the heart. He brought the young man to the king’s court and used him to demonstrate to Charles the nature of the heart’s contractions and expansions, and how the heart worked as a pump for the blood.
Finally, in 1628 he published the results of his years of work, opening the book with a very clever dedication to Charles I: “Most serene King! The animal’s heart is the basis of its life, its chief member, the sun of its microcosm; on the heart all its activity depends, from the heart all its liveliness and strength arise. Equally is the King the basis of his kingdom, the sun of his microcosm, the heart of the state; from him all power arises and all grace stems.”
The book naturally created a stir, particularly on the Continent, where Harvey was less known. Opposition primarily came from older physicians who could not reconcile themselves with a theory that so completely overturned their idea of anatomy. To the numerous publications that came out to discredit his ideas, Harvey remained mostly silent. An occasional attack from eminent physicians would cause him to write personal letters in which he very politely and yet thoroughly refuted their ideas.
As he had foreseen, with the strength of his position within the medical profession and the court, and with the great amount of evidence he had accumulated over the years, which was clearly outlined in his book, his theory slowly gained acceptance. By the time of Harvey’s death in 1657, his work had become an accepted part of medical doctrine and practice. As his friend Thomas Hobbes would write: “[Harvey was] the only man I know, who, conquering envy, hath established a new doctrine in his life-time.”
The common historical accounts of Semmelweis and Harvey reveal our tendency to ignore the critical role of social intelligence in all fields, including the sciences. For instance, most versions of the Semmelweis story emphasize the tragic shortsightedness of men like Klein who pushed the noble-minded young Hungarian over the edge. With Harvey, they emphasize his theoretical brilliance as the singular cause of his success. But in both cases, social intelligence played a key role. Semmelweis completely ignored its necessity; such considerations annoyed him; all that mattered was the truth. But in his zeal, he unnecessarily alienated Klein, who had faced other disagreements with students before but never to such a degree. Through constant arguing, Semmelweis had pushed Klein to the point of having to fire him, and thus lost an important position within the university from which he could spread his ideas. Consumed with his battle with Klein, he failed to express his theory in a clear and reasonable form, displaying a monumental disregard for the importance of persuading others. If he had merely devoted his time to making his case in writing, he would have saved far more lives in the long run.
Harvey’s success, on the other hand, was greatly due to his social agility. He understood that even a scientist must play the courtier. He involved others in his work, making them emotionally attached to his theory. He published his results in a thoughtful, well-reasoned, and easy-to-read book. And then he quietly allowed his book to speak for itself, knowing that by asserting himself after its publication, he would merely call attention to the person and not the work. He did not give fuel to the foolishness of others by engaging in petty battles, and any opposition to his theories withered away on its own.
Understand: your work is the single greatest means at your disposal for expressing your social intelligence. By being efficient and detail oriented in what you do, you demonstrate that you are thinking of the group at large and advancing its cause. By making what you write or present clear and easy to follow, you show your care for the audience or public at large. By involving other people in your projects and gracefully accepting their feedback, you reveal your comfort with the group dynamic. Work that is solid also protects you from the political conniving and malevolence of others—it is hard to argue with the results you produce. If you are experiencing the pressures of political maneuvering within the group, do not lose your head and become consumed with all of the pettiness. By remaining focused and speaking socially through your work, you will both continue to raise your skill level and stand out among all the others who make a lot of noise but produce nothing.
- Craft the appropriate persona
From early on in life, Teresita Fernández (b. 1968) had the feeling that she was watching the world around her from a distance, like a voyeur. As a young girl growing up in Miami, Florida, she would observe the adults around her, eavesdropping on their conversations, trying to decode the secrets of their strange world. As she got older, she applied her observational skills to her classmates. In high school, people were expected to fit into one of the various cliques. She could see clearly the rules and conventions that went into being a part of these groups, and the kinds of behavior that were considered correct. She felt alienated from all of these different cliques, and so she remained on the outside.
She had a similar experience in relation to Miami itself. Although she had an affinity with the Cuban culture that was part of her own background as a first generation Cuban-American, she could not identify with the happy beach lifestyle that prevailed there. There was something more somber and edgier to her spirit. All of this accentuated her sense of being an outsider, a floater that did not fit in anywhere. There were other floaters in school, and they tended to drift into theater or the art scene—places where it was safer to be unconventional. Teresita had always liked making things with her hands, and so she began to take art classes. But the art she produced in high school did not seem to connect to that grittier side of her character. It came too easily; her work was too glib and superficial; something was lacking.
In 1986, still uncertain of her direction in life, she entered Florida International University, in Miami. Following her high school inclinations, she took a sculpture class. But working in clay, with its softness and ease of manipulation, gave her the same feeling she’d had in high school of making things that were merely artificial and pretty. Then one day, spending time in the sculpture building, she noticed some artists working in metal, crafting large-scale pieces. These sheets of steel had a visceral effect upon her unlike any other artwork she had seen, and she felt in some way that this was the material that had been meant for her all along. It was gray and heavy and resistant, requiring great effort to shape it. The properties of steel corresponded to the sense of resiliency and power that she had always felt inside herself, despite her petite size, and that she had always wanted to express.
And so she began to apply herself feverishly to her newfound medium. To work in metal required firing up the foundry and using acetylene torches. The tropical heat of Miami could make such labor intensely uncomfortable during the daytime hours, so she began to work on her sculptures exclusively at night. This led to an unusual schedule—starting at nine, working until two or three in the morning, then sleeping through a good part of the next day. Besides the cooler air, working at night had other advantages—with few people around, the studio was quite peaceful and conducive to serious work. She could focus deeply. She could experiment with her pieces, make mistakes that no one would see. She could be fearless and take chances.
Slowly Fernández began to take command of the medium, and in making her sculptures, she felt like she was forging and transforming herself. She was interested in creating pieces that were large and impressive, but to make such work she had to devise her own method. She would design the pieces on paper, but would work on them in smaller sections that she could manage by herself. Then, in the quiet of her studio, she would assemble the sculptures. Soon her pieces began to be displayed within the department and on campus.
Almost everyone was quite impressed by her work. Standing in the bright Miami sunshine, her enormous steel sculptures conveyed that sense of power she had always felt within her. But there was another response to her pieces that surprised her. Because few people had seen her at work, it appeared that these sculptures flowed out of her effortlessly—as if she had some unusual gift. This drew attention to her personality. Sculpture was a largely male domain that tended to attract the most macho male artists. As she was one of the few female artists working in heavy steel, people naturally projected onto her all kinds of preconceptions and fantasies. The discrepancy between her slight, feminine appearance and her large-scale, imposing works was quite glaring, and people would wonder how she managed to make such work, and who she really was. Intrigued by her character, and also by the way her beautifully crafted sculptures seemed to appear out of nowhere, they saw her as alluringly mysterious, a mix of hard and soft qualities, an anomaly, a magician with metal.
With all of this scrutiny, Fernández suddenly became aware that she was no longer a voyeur, watching others from a distance, but was at the center of attention. The art world felt right to her. For the first time in her life she had the sensation of fitting in, and she wanted to hold on to this interest that others had in her work. Now that she was thrust into a more public position, it would be natural for her to want to talk about herself and her experiences, but she intuited that it would be a mistake to deflate the powerful effect her work had on others by suddenly revealing to everyone how many hours she had applied herself to these sculptures, and how they were really the product of intense labor and discipline. Sometimes, she reasoned, what you do not reveal to people is all the more eloquent and powerful. She decided to go along with the image that others had of her and her work. She would create an air of mystery around her, making sure not to talk about her process, keeping details of her life hidden, and allowing people to project onto her their own fantasies.
As she progressed in her career, however, something about the persona she had created in her university years no longer felt appropriate. She noted an element in her public personality that could play against her—if she were not careful, people would judge her based on her physical appearance as an attractive young woman. They would not see her as a serious artist. Her elusiveness might seem like a cover for a lack of intelligence, as if she were merely feeling her way through things, and not on a par with the heavy-hitting intellectuals in the field. It was a prejudice female artists had to deal with. Any hint of being wishy-washy or inarticulate when it came to talking about her work carried the danger of feeding the preconception that she was frivolous, merely dabbling in the arts. And so she slowly developed a new style that suited her well—she would be assertive and speak with authority about the content of her work, while still enveloping her work process in mystery. She was not weak or vulnerable, but in clear command of the subject. If male artists needed to seem serious and articulate, as a woman she would have to appear even more so. Her assertive tone was always dignified and respectful, but she made it clear she was no lightweight.
Over the years, as Teresita Fernández became a world-renowned conceptual artist working in all types of materials, she continued to play with her appearance and make it fit her changing circumstances. The stereotype for artists is that they are disorganized and only interested in what is happening in the art world. She would play against these expectations. She transformed herself into an eloquent lecturer, exposing her work and ideas to the public at large. Audiences would ponder and be intrigued by the discrepancy between her pleasant, composed surface and the complex, challenging content of her discourse. She became versed in many fields outside art, combining these interests in her work, and in the process exposed herself to a wide range of people outside the art world. She taught herself to mingle equally well with the workers mining the graphite for her pieces as with gallery dealers—a kind of courtier flexibility that made her life as an artist much easier and made it impossible for her to be typecast. In essence, her public persona became another form of art—a material she could cast and transform according to her needs and desires.
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