Today is February 21 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you think for yourself?” Thinking for yourself remains one of the most difficult tasks to conduct as you navigate the chaos and practice the art of living well. This is particularly true for young adults who are trying to think differently than their parents, friends who see the world in a way that is unique to them, and for partners who try to maintain a sense of self separate from their wife/husband/partner. For the sake of family, friendship, and love, people often forgo thinking for themselves and allow others to do their thinking for them. But is this how you want to live your life? Fashion designer Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel said, “In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different. People laughed at the way I dressed, but that was the secret of my success: I didn’t look like anyone…The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.” She neither looked nor thought, like anyone else.
Chanel was born on August 20, 1883 as one of five children to an unmarried couple. Her mother died when she was twelve years old and a week later her father placed her in an orphanage where nuns raised her and taught her how to sew. She adopted the name Coco during a brief career as a cafe and concert singer between 1905 and 1908. “First a mistress of a wealthy military officer then of an English industrialist, Coco Chanel drew on the resources of these patrons in setting up a millinery shop in Paris in 1910, expanding to Deauville and Biarritz.” The two men also helped market her clothing and hats to women of society.
While women were used to wearing corset fashions, Chanel created a look that was casual and relaxed. Chanel herself dressed in men’s clothing and adapted these more comfortable fashions which other women also found liberating. In 1922 Chanel introduced Chanel No. 5, which became one of the most popular perfumes. In 1925, she introduced the now legendary Chanel suit with collarless jacket and well-fitted skirt. She helped women say goodbye to the days of corsets and other confining garments. Her independent way of thinking allowed her to revolutionize the fashion industry with her little black dress. She took a color once associated with mourning and showed just how chic it could be for evening wear. As Kristina Shumadieva wrote in The Fashion Globe Magazine “Most of her fashions had a staying power and didn't change much from year to year -- or even generation to generation.”
Writer Theodor Seuss Geisel is another example of someone who thought for himself. In May 1954, Life magazine published a report on illiteracy that concluded children were not learning to read because their books were boring. William Ellsworth Spaulding was the director of the education division at Houghton Mifflin and compiled a list of 348 words that he felt were important for first graders to recognize. He asked Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss) to cut the list to 250 words and to write a book using only those words. Spaulding challenged Geisel to "bring back a book, children can't put down.” Nine months later, Geisel completed The Cat in the Hat, using 236 of the words given to him. It retained the drawing style, verse rhythms, and all the imaginative power of Geisel's earlier works but, because of its simplified vocabulary, it could be read by beginning readers.
By 2009 some of Seuss’s other books had remarkable sales including Green Eggs and Ham 540,366 copies, The Cat in the Hat 452,258 copies, and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish 409,068 copies—outselling newly published children's books. Such a tremendous achievement was far from obvious for someone who struggled to think for himself during his younger days.
For example, in high school, Geisel’s art course ended abruptly after one lesson because, as he recalled in an interview, “the teacher wanted me to draw the world as it is, and I wanted to draw things as I saw them.” This setback didn’t keep Geisel from caricaturing his friends and fellow students as funny animals. He noted “none of my animals are really animals. They’re all people, sort of.” This unique style of drawing was honed during years as a cartoonist that was championed by Helen Palmer, a young woman he would meet during his studies of Shakespeare in Oxford. Reflecting on this time in his life Palmer said: “When I saw the funny-looking rabbits Ted was drawing in his notebooks I said it was silly to bury himself under Shakespeare’s semicolons.” Geisel agreed “Helen brought me to the realization that I wasn’t soundly grounded in any subject, that I had merely been playing writer and scholar.” She helped him understand how to think for himself and in so doing they coupled launched a partnership that would turn into marriage.
During the 1920s the newly married couple moved to New York’s Park Avenue, where for the next few years he turned out stacks of cartoons for Vanity Fair, Liberty, the Post, College Humor, and the old Life Magazine. It was during this time that magazine editors started to talk about sending Geisel to art school. Luckily, Helen resisted such attempts and said “The wonderful thing about his drawing is that it’s not at all self-conscious. I was afraid that if Ted went to school, he’d find out that he was drawing the kangaroos all wrong.” Once again, as she did years earlier, Helen made sure Geisel stayed true to his own thinking. As you reflect upon today’s question, recall the ability of both Chanel and Geisel to think for themselves. Did they each have help? Yes, of course. No one navigates the chaos or practices the art of living well alone.
How often are you thinking for yourself?