Pigeonholing vs. Cubism in Life

Canadian lightweight men's double
My university rowing coach had a saying: “True winners don’t give themselves a chance to win. They eliminate every chance to fail.”

Over the years I’ve found this quote applicable in many situations. Today I was thinking about how often someone pigeonholes themselves in their role. “I’m an experimental physicist.” “I’m an actor.” “I’m a communication studies major.” In looking at my own career path, sometimes I think it’s a bit absurd that I’ve gone into engineering and psychology, went to grad school then switched to the corporate world in user experience. I still try to keep involved and abreast of all those fields, which (I’ve learned recently) is really, really time-consuming. Sometimes I think it would have made a lot more sense to focus in on one area and not swash about.

Then I come back to my coach’s statement. Yes, it’s true that narrowly focusing on one topic or field of study has its advantages. But in a world that is so interconnected and multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary and all that, who can afford to do this anymore? It no longer guarantees success. Like humanity as a whole, the growth of individuals relies on learning about many different aspects of life.

Hence, the idea of “Cubism” in Life.

**Postscript (4/8/2011): It also reminds me of something Vincent Lam, author of Bloodletting and Other Miraculous Cures, said at a talk in Toronto (it might have been a convocation address actually). The advice he gave the young adults in the room was this: if you really love doing something, find a way to do it. Don’t give it up. Don’t settle. If you like medicine but have a great passion for writing, find a way to do both. Sometimes in life you have to choose, but sometimes you don’t – you can break the rules and do both.

He was of course referring to the point that everyone mentions when interviewing him, which is that he is a both an emergency medicine physician (already a time-consuming profession) and an award-winning author (also time-consuming), so how does he find time to wear both hats? (He’s a new father as well.)

It’s atypical – sure. But what Lam was warning against was pigeonholing. Just because other people don’t do it, doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Moreover, pursuing seemingly unrelated things may reveal new perspectives that haven’t been thought of before. My perspective on social robotics, for instance, lends well to Marshall McLuhan’s ideas on communication and new media – but I would have never realized this had I not pursued my interest in writing an article about the Canadian author.

The Rise of Literary Cubism

Cubism, as defined by E. H. Gombrich in Art and Illusion, is “the most radical attempt to stamp out ambiguity and to enforce one reading of the picture – that of a man-made construction, a colored canvas.” (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1960, p 281) One single reading does not refer to a single perspective (which is ambiguous) but to an understanding of all possible perspectives. In the case of painting, this means a multi-perspective view of, say, a woman in a blue hat:

woman in a blue hat - pablo picasso

Woman in a Blue Hat (Picasso, 1939). Front view + side view + permutations in between.

In the case of writing, this means shifting the literary perspective – that is, the points of view. It involves writing about events and people as they appear to one character, then repeating through the eyes of another, and then moving to yet another. It involves using different narrators for different chapters or even different paragraphs, so as to describe how each character views the others, put in the words, thoughts and feelings of the characters themselves.

This is “Literary Cubism.”

(A Google search reveals that I’m not the first to think of this phrase.) Recent commentary I’ve read on some fascinating books I’m hoping to read soon has brought up this trend. The first book is “A Song of Ice and Fire” by R.R. Martin. I’ve heard a lot about it through various channels (as diverse as a boardgaming group in LA and my old gym-mate in university).

A Game of Thrones (R.R. Martin, 1996)

A Game of Thrones (R.R. Martin, 1996) - Book One of A Song of Fire and Ice

From Mike Lesiuk’s blog:

Every one of the books in the series has a small cast of “POV characters,” and it is through these characters’ perspectives that we see the story unfold… This also means that villains who seem very one-dimensional can begin to be much more sympathetic once we get their point of view.

The second is the Imperfectionists, which I read about in a great UofT Magazine article:

The Imperfectionists

The Imperfectionists (Tom Rachman, 2011)

From the accompanying video (linked to at the end of their interview), Rachman’s comments:

“I tried to have a full story in each chapter of that character so you really come to understand them… but you wanted it to be consistent when they appear in the other [chapters]… it wouldn’t just be some blank extra…[the reader] would know exactly who it was.” Hence, another perspective.

He further explains some implications of his technique:

  1. The characters become different people in other people’s lives (this makes sense, as people have different roles in different situations);
  2. Their own self-perception is compared/contrasted with other people’s perceptions of them (the permutations of this seem endless, e.g., their perception of another person’s perception of them, and so forth);
  3. The writer in one moment is completely immersed in the character’s intimate details and thoughts, and in the next must switch perspectives and strip all of that away.

This style of writing has dramatic effects. While some events initially seem trivial, through the effects of those events and interactions through multiple points of view, underlying impacts are revealed. Likewise, cubist art draws focus on the object portrayed through a rearrangement of how it is viewed in different ways, aiming to provide greater context about what it is. However, one of the curious aspects of cubism (and perhaps why these paintings are among the most sought after) is that after the artist has tried to present every angle, every aspect of a thing’s being to the viewer, it is an irony that the the reverse becomes true: in fact, as Gombrich mentions in his book, the object resists definition. It almost generates its own being, mysterious to us after all our efforts. With meticulous inspection completed, what the woman in the blue hat is left with is what cannot be put on canvas. In the end, what we have is simply “a man-made construction, a colored canvas.” We are left with only the medium. It does not seem like we can capture the total essence of her at all. Similarly in literature, perhaps what is most interesting is not the questions that are answered through multiple points of view from multiple characters: it is what questions remain.

Even in real life, this is the same. Remember the Friends’ episode where the group is discussing who knows that Chandler Bing and Monica are dating? Chandler and Monica first realize the other friends know. Then the other friends realize that Chandler and Monica know that they know. Then Chandler and Monica realize that the other friends know that they know they know. And so forth. The point is that as each side tries to view more and more perspectives on the situation, it eventually becomes confusing and in fact not understandable at all. In the end, all that is left are man-made words, a colored conversation. This is the heart of Cubism.

In my line of work, the next question is naturally: what of Design Cubism?

Alas, a term the Googlites have not thought up.


In Southern California, where driving 1 hr+ to work is the norm, audiobooks are my saviour. They are useful, usable (pop the CD in, done; pause it, rewind, fast-forward whenever and however you want with simple controls of the CD player that can be operated with minimal attention while driving) and so very enjoyable (shout out to Richard Buchanan’s “UX Triangle of Doom” that he mentioned in his keynote at #ixd11: “is the product useful, usable and desirable?”). #ixd11 – my first ixda conference – was an absolutely amazing experience, by the way.

Outstanding books I’ve listened to recently:

Drive (Daniel Pink – read by author, 2009): “pop research” book on motivation and the workplace in the style of The Tipping Point, etc. Excellent, excellent book!
Drive by Daniel Pink

American Theocracy (Kevin Phillips – read by Scott Brick, 2006): US oil, religion and politics in the 21st century. Got to CD 6 of 15.

The Odyssey (Homer – read by Ian McKellen, 2005): The great myth of the times. Just starting.

(Thanks Amazon for the photos.) In unrelated news, I have a few projects on the go that I’m excited about and will talk about later, as well as some other ideas I’d love to explore but don’t have the time… this graph is a roughly accurate description of my life:
graph of free time versus age

Graph of free time versus age