Thing Finding Thursday with Matthew Stillman of Stillman Says



“Where creativity and wisdom make out on top of your problem.”

Okay. That is some good, good copy. It’s not mine, it’s Matthew Stillman’s. You’ve heard of him…he’s the guy that hangs out in NYC’s Union Square and offers creative approaches to what people have been thinking about. You know…their PROBLEMS (so what if the word “problem” is taboo in the magical world of self-discovery).

“Stirring what is stagnant within you”


“The art of the reframe with the science of the wise”

Seriously. I can’t stop. It’s all just too good.

You should also know this from his site:

Matt conceived of, wrote the treatment for and co-produced a feature length documentary film about the origins of poverty and why it persists in a world with so much wealth. His film, called “The End of Poverty?” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and was featured in over 40 festivals around the world. Matt has spoken at the United Nations about the film and poverty four times as well as many other educational and socio-political forums.

Currently Matt is developing a study to radically transform the property tax system in New York City.

Not just another guy “de-problemizing through high weirdness” in Union Square and a really green wall in his apartment. Nope, he's an original, to be sure. And a truly generous person.

So there was NO WAY I could continue talking to people about their things without talking to Matthew about his. And, of course, yours.

Interview with Matthew Stillman for Thing Finding Thursday

Look for the gaps, note the aversions, stay in some uncomfortable places, and play with the purpose of play.

Oh yes.

Tweetworthy StillmanSays-isms (for your sharing pleasure

  • You need to be willing to stay in some sort of uncomfortable spots and see what opens up there. @StillmanSays http://ow.ly/8PjhN  #TFThurs
  • (When we’re young) our radiance goes out in 360 degrees. @StillmanSays to @TanyaGeisler http://ow.ly/8PjhN  #TFThurs
  • (As we age, we feel loss b/c) we've lost access to three quarters of our being. @StillmanSays to @TanyaGeisler http://ow.ly/8PjhN #TFThurs
  • The game being infinite is more important than winning a particular game. @StillmanSays to @TanyaGeisler http://ow.ly/8PjhN  #TFThurs
  • Be kind to yourself. You've done so much work already. @StillmanSays to @TanyaGeisler http://ow.ly/8PjhN  #TFThurs

Transcript of edited interview (for your reading pleasure)

Matthew:  Well, one of my things–the thing that people who are online probably know about me most–is my website, stillmansays.com. And that is an experiment that I've started which I've turned into a business, which is a report of my time spent sitting out in Union Square in New York City, where I live.

At Union Square, I sit with two folding chairs and a table, with a sign that says "Creative approaches to what you've been thinking about" and a smaller sign that says, "Pay what you like or take what you need." I sit out there for 10 hours a day or so, a couple of days a week, when the weather is appropriate, and just talk with strangers about anything at all that they need a creative approach to.

And it's been everything from as simple as "I need a name for my novel," or "I have a relationship problem," or "something going on with my business," to "I need help finding my spirit animal," or "I have a dispute with a neighbour," or "I need to find a new religion," or "I need help avoiding getting murdered." It could be anything at all, and I hopefully help people look at the situation they're in in a very creative way.

Matthew: And then, seeing it differently, it may be figured out. It might not be figured out. Or it might just be seen in its proper or different perspective, which allows you to have a different relationship with it. You know, so often we think that the only way to get into a house is through the front door; but sometimes it's the back door. Sometimes it's through a window. Sometimes you need to dig a hole underneath the house and crawl up through the floorboards.

Tanya: "De-problemizing through high weirdness," this is from your site, this is what you do–I was totally gob-smacked by the genius of that.

How do you go from the time, the opportunity, people say you're really good at de-problemizing through high weirdness, and then you just sort of say, "Yeah, you know what? Union Square: What it's really missing is a desk, and two chairs, and these two signs. And me!

Matthew:  Well, I guess that's part of my charm, that I was willing to say, "This is the thing that's missing." I didn't know that it was going to turn into a blog or a years-long experiment. I thought I was going to just do it! But on the first day I went out there, it just worked. And it was very clear I could keep doing this.

Tanya:  Right, right, okay. Your last post, or the most recent one that I read, is–I've forgotten the title now.

Matthew:  The baby feet one and St. Anthony?

Tanya:  The baby feet! Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

Matthew:  It's a good one.

Tanya:  I'm really in love with this idea of lost or forgotten voices, and in the realm of thing-finding, I really think that there's something magical and beautiful about listening for those lost or forgotten voices.

Matthew: When we are children, and when we're born, we are treasured by and large for all our qualities. People love us for our selfishness, they love us for our screaming. So all our voices, for a time, are available to us. And for lack of a better analogy, they go out in 360 degrees. Our radiance goes out in 360 degrees.

And after a certain amount of time, we're told by our parents, and our caretakers, and society, "You know, we love you, but it really would be helpful if you were a little less selfish, you shared more, you were quieter, you were–" and it's not done out of malice, it's done out of sort of getting you into a system which can really be useful. But we start to close down and put into a bag the other voices that we have, because they're not appreciated or heard. They're too different.

And so, I'm making up a number, but let's say you're 10, 12, 14, 16, 20–you have practice putting three quarters of yourself into a bag behind you, and we don't listen to those voices any more, because it makes our life too complex to listen to these other voices. And similarly, because we have to make so many choices every day, we streamline ourselves to say, "You know what? It's easiest if I just listen to these particular voices. I've got to get to particular outcomes faster." And because the world that we live in requires speed and efficiency, we move along with that, and say, "You know what? I'm just going to listen to the voices that are easiest, and get me to the place that I want to be and feel comfortable and safe in."

And then, we have cut ourselves off from three quarters of our being, because there is 90 degrees which is presentable and useful, and the rest of it is not appreciated. So that leaves us feeling, later in our lives, "Why do I feel vacant? Why do I feel closed off? Why do I feel like the same things are happening?" Because we've lost access to three quarters of our being.

Tanya:  I've got a seven year old daughter, and she was super proud of an award she came home with, she was awarded in front of the whole school; it was an empathy award. And about a week later, I was talking with her teacher and he said, "It was great to see her so proud of that award. You know, she's a bit too sensitive, though."

Matthew:  Ugh!

Matthew:  Yeah. I mean, for me, the fact that he said that to a girl in particular. You know, more broadly speaking, so many women are essentially forced to harden themselves and to cast aside some of the core elements of their femininity early. And I've seen too many girls sacrificed on the altar of progress and forward movement and they lose all their softness, or enough of it that they just become something different.

 Matthew:  You just want to be able to open the door, to say, "Here's A voice." And see if—if you've been carrying around a bag with three quarters of your identity for thirty-plus years, it might be terrifying to look it there, because if you were dragged in a bag for thirty years, you'd be furious! So it is, often, scary to look at those voices. I might say, it's worth looking at the things that you have a very strong aversion to, and just see what your philosophies are about that, and see if that's a part that you have a need to tap into.

Tanya:  Love love love that you've said that. I'm big on aversions in the work that I do, too, so thank you for highlighting that

Tanya: Do people ever show up and say, "Dude, what's my thing? Like, what's my thing?"

Matthew:  Yeah. I think the most direct question I ever got for that, that I can recall at this moment, is someone who came to me and said, "I've just quit my religion and I need to find a new religion." So that's sort of, "What's my thing?"

But I think the thing of "finding your thing" is to not be afraid to lift every stone and to stay there. Because finding your thing is good, and important, but you're not just one thing. You are—it's more important for you to be whole than to find your thing. Because your thing might be really big.

As an infant, you take absolute delight in playing with your toes, and absolute delight with throwing food, and absolute delight with falling asleep, and hugging your parent's leg and hugging a fire hydrant are the same thing. So I wouldn't close the door to finding your thing, you just need to be willing to stay in some sort of uncomfortable spots and see what opens up there.

Tanya:  There's a way in which we have this be very serious, where does curiosity and play factor in?

Matthew:  In terms of play, there are two types of games that one can play. There's a finite game, and there's an infinite game.

Finite games are played to be won. They're played within fixed boundaries, and they're played for a title, they're bounded by time and location.

But if you've ever seen people who just love to play basketball, or if you see kids play basketball—they'll run off the court, the score ends up being 117 to 4, no one cares. They're playing for the sake of playing. It's more important to keep the game moving than anyone winning.

So in terms of play, I think it's very important to not be playing for title, or for winning, or for status, but to be playing for the sake of play. And there is where there is freedom. And in order to do that, you need curiosity. And it's important to people to know what the rules are, too. That's perfectly reasonable! But, ultimately, the game being infinite is more important than winning a particular game.

Tanya:  And, through that, that's where we find our toes.

Tanya:  For the people who are trying to find their things: What do you want for them?

Matthew:  To forgive themselves for not having found it. To criticize themselves less for struggling. And to be kind, because they've done so much work already. I think those are probably the most important things to start with.

_______________

Compassion, wisdom, quirkiness, and a truly delightful human being.

Go find him and his incredible stories at StillmanSays.com and on Twitter

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