Quotes for Your Contemplation

E.O. Wilson, often referred to as one of today’s greatest living scientists, has a wonderful TED talk, Advice to Young Scientists, which is a taste of his forthcoming book, Letters to a Young Scientist.

I love listening to smart people across many different disciplines sharing their wisdom! While this short (14-minute) piece is specifically science-related, it’s incredibly inspiring and can be applied across many aspects of life (as is the case with so many TED talks).

I’m going to take these three quotes out of context so that you can ponder them through your own filters and apply them to your own life… and of course, respond in the comments!

Ideas emerge when a part of the real or imagined world is studied for its own sake.”

“Observe from a distance, but do not join the fray. Make a fray of your own.”

 “The search is not for the solution of a problem, but for problems themselves worth solving.”

Do any of these resonate with you? How do they apply to the writing life?

Have a great weekend!



  1. “Ideas emerge when a part of the real or imagined world is studied for its own sake.”

    Not only does this remind me of how I was told true literary dissection and analysis should be done, it is also the most fun way to approach a book or movie or life. Sometimes, I don’t want to connect the plot or event or emotion in a story to anything other than the story. I want to explain why something is amazing and beautiful without needing to reference four theorists or directors or similar works. This theme, this idea, this character is poignant because it is, not because of something someone else said or did. Only when we realize that will we truly get anything out of the original work. Otherwise we forget its importance under all the other junk.

  2. Lori Benton says:

    ”The search is not for the solution of a problem, but for problems themselves worth solving.”

    I liked his take on that (another great TED talk, thanks!). I do both as a historical fiction researcher. Sometimes I’m looking for the answer to a specific question of time or setting, other times I’m casting a broad net in my research, ready to pounce on the next intriguing tidbit that turns up and might be composted with a bunch of other intriguing tidbits and turned into a story idea that spawns a hunt for specific questions of time or setting….

  3. Bonnee says:

    That first quote is really speaking to me. It’s so true! 🙂

  4. Brianna says:

    I love TED talks. I’m saving this one to watch later.

  5. Ohmygosh, great quotes! I can definitely apply them to writing. In particular, the middle quote makes me think about how it’s better to not chase a trend but try to tell your own story in the best way possible.

  6. Summer says:

    I think so much about writing and creativity comes from making connections. So when we study what is, we make connections and branch out and betweeen things, making small steps and sometimes big jumps that take us to new lands.

  7. It was strange to come to your blog today and find you were quoting the same scientist I quoted in my blog 2 days ago. Mine was in a different context (environmental) as he won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, The Ants along with his co-author and this related to a book of mine.

    Interesting to see how wise he is in other domains.

  8. Tessa says:

    I really like the one about “create your own fray.” That’s really great.

  9. K.L. Parry says:

    Thanks Rachelle. I shared the YouTube link with my sons, one of which studies at UC Davis and is having a real hard time trying to decide on whether to remain in his major, Biological Science, or change it. The other, as a hobby, is working on an invention for sustainable clean energy. Perhaps this they’ll find Professor Wilson as interesting and inspiring as we have. 🙂

  10. Voni Harris says:

    Making your own fray and looking for problems to solve speak to the same thing, really. Finding your passion. And that speaks to well and truly finding your characters’ motivations.

  11. “Observe from a distance, but do not join the fray. Make a fray of your own.” As a cage-rattler, I’m confident this is my calling in life. There are too many people doing the same things they’ve always done. Maybe it’s time for someone to innovate, challenge the status quo, and dare to say, “If what we’ve been doing all these years hasn’t worked by now, it’s probably not going to work!” It’s funny how many “leaders” reject thoughts like that! http://wp.me/p2fSH9-8L

  12. I like that the ability to succeed comes from confidence of having a broad base of cultural and natural knowledge and being able to apply it – not just from higher level math. Onward to the fray!

  13. “Observe from a distance, but do not join the fray. Make a fray of your own.”

    This is powerful. I am currently re-learning how to press on in face of obstacles.

    Great reminder!

  14. “Observe from a distance, but do not join the fray. Make a fray of your own.”

    I love this. There’s so much group think that emerges from the insular loops of blogs that each blog begins to look and feel like the rest.

    I wonder if this isn’t true of any writing.

  15. “Observe from a distance, but do not join the fray. Make a fray of your own.”

    In this digital age, where agents/publishers are pushing authors to build platforms like never before, this is a quote that very strongly resonates in me. There are times when I want to remove myself from the fray altogether, delete social media from my life, and build a tribe from the stuff of real life: meals, conversation, fence-side chats.

    I don’t know if it’s realistic, but I long for it.

    Thanks for posting these provoking quotes.

    • Tessa says:

      I agree…it can be hard to maintain your artistic integrity if you get wrapped up in building a tribe/platform.

      • I’m not saying it’s not necessary. Just that it’s difficult—especially for writers who tend toward being introverted people anyway. And I’m also not saying that because it’s difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have to do it (these times they are a’changin’), just that perhaps there’s a better way of inviting people into your fray than just being the loudest one in the crowd.

  16. Regarding frays (or should the plural be frayim?)…

    The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug – Chris Hedges

    Finding, or beginning a fray or your own is fine…but it’s best to understand you motivation for conflict very, very well.

    (The quote was used in the opening of “The Hurt Locker”, which is an excellent film for writers to see. Very economical plot and dialogue, yet it creates strong characters and keeps one’s interest for all 131 minutes. Wildly inaccurate as regards EOD, so please don’t use it as a manual for dealing with the gifts your local Taliban may bring.)

    • A friend of mine hung out in Kandahar for a while. In the summer. Yup. If Canadians aren’t freezing solid, we like to melt standing up. In 60 lb packs.

  17. Typically I do not practice the last two as often as I should. Due to the nature of my job I tend to get called in to solve problems or settle disputes on a daily basis. I’m good at it, and I enjoy it, so it carries over into my personal life – perhaps I should consider making an effort to change that. Wading into someone else’s “fray” to solve their problems is not always received well.
    The first line however is something I experience regularly. If I try to manufacture ideas for a novel by studying a specific field, subject, etc… It never quite develops into something I’d want to read. When I am exploring (devouring) something new because I have a genuine interest in it, plotlines form, characters develop, and the story seems to come to life with very little effort.
    Mr. Wilson sounds not only brilliant, but incredibly eloquent as well. They type of person that could tell you how to build a watch and make it fascinating.
    Thank you for this blog – not only today’s. You have something very speacial here. It is refreshing to come to a place with such stimulating conversations. Every day I reflect on what I read in here and try to make my life a little different. That’s pretty rare.

  18. Heather says:

    Making my own fray resonates today. Last night I solved a problem that’s been bugging me in my story for a while, I had to up the ante, and make more of a Fray. Thanks for the quotes.

  19. Joe Pote says:

    “Observe from a distance, but do not join the fray. Make a fray of your own.”

    This quote stood out to me. Although I had not thought to articulate it in this manner, this is a good description of my general approach to blogging.

    I love reading other people’s blogs and participating in discussion. However, when the discussion starts leaning toward controversial, I tend to back off and let others debate it out.

    I’m not looking to jump on someone else’s bandwagon, or to try to convince anyone to change their mind by sheer force of argument.

    However, on my one blog, it’s a whole nother matter. I’m more than willing to bring up controversial issues and express my viewpoint…especially on topics I feel strongly about.

    On my own blog, it’s not jumping into an argument…just expressing my own viewpoint! 🙂

  20. Anna says:

    All three of those quotes are (or can be) strategies for forming your next big storyline. Works for me

  21. ”The search is not for the solution of a problem, but for problems themselves worth solving.”

    This one spooky-resonates with me today. Ashamed to admit I spent an hour searching for the “right” dialoge for a simple scene last night instead of putting it on the back burner and plowing ahead on a first draft. Obsess much?

  22. Do not join the fray. Liking that a lot. In my experience, joining is unnecessary. The fray I am supposed to enter finds me.

  23. “March away from the sound of the guns”


    That reminds me of a scene in a WW1 film about the Australian cavalry in the Middle East.
    I know. Obscure reference #23.

    They had a mission to take a wadi, or a village, I forget. The job of the Light Horsemen was to get from beyond the reach of the heavy artillary into the zone that the big guns couldn’t fire. Once they soldiers were “under the guns”, they were safe, until they came into rifle range.
    They had to ride hard THROUGH the cannon fire and then into the bullets.
    How brave was that???

    Ever since I saw that movie, I remind myself that as long as I follow my Master, I’m under the guns.

    • Joe Pote says:

      “Into the valley of death rode the 600!”

      Charge of the Light Brigade, by Alfred Lord Tennyson…

      I love your discussion of “under the guns” and explanation of the zone they were riding toward.

      Your explanation actually helps me better understand that their courage was more than sheer stupidity. There actually was a hope of success, albeit a slim one.

      • I actually have ‘charged down the guns’. For real.

        It does feel like stupidity. There is the “I can’t believe I’m doing this!” mantra.

        But when the goal is important enough, you simply keep going. No slogans. Just go.

        • Joe Pote says:

          Wow! I get chill bumps just reading your comment, Andrew.

          I don’t know what to say…other than THANK YOU!

          It’s one of those things I hope I would have the courage to do, if I ever had to…but hope I never have to find out…

          I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the courageous men and women who defend our country!

          THANK YOU!

        • Oh my WORD!!! You, Andrew, are amazing!! Thank you!!

        • I’ve faced a gun from an irate boyfriend who objected to my presence and told me to leave. There was no courage there, because I didn’t know he’d point that .44 in my face and cock the trigger.
          Hearing the bullets and charging in takes real courage, but more impressive is your evaluation that the goal was worth giving your life for. Incredible.

  24. I got a lot out of that, thanks!

    Here are some of his words that struck me:

    “It’s important in choosing the direction you take in sciences to find the subject at your level of competence, that interests you deeply and focus on that.”

    “Judge opportunity by how few other students and researchers are on hand.”

    “It’s important to acquire older mentors…but through it all look for a way to break out…”

    “March away from the sound of the guns…(you quoted the rest).”

    I also liked the analogy of the hunter.

    Thanks again for the brain food!
    ~ Wendy

  25. “Make a fray of your own.”

    Yep. That pretty much describes my last few days.

  26. Mindy says:

    Wow–I love all three of these quotes. The first one connects so well both to the idea of being specific in your writing and to paying attention to the details in your life and memories and stories (“writing small” as Ralph Fletcher says). The second one has to do with gaining and keeping perspective and then focusing on what matters to you–good for writing and for life. And the third one makes me think of education. I’m a teacher of future teachers and one of the textbooks (by Stephanie Harvey) I’ve used talks about how it’s no longer enough just to teach students to be problem solvers; the world needs problem finders. Thanks so much for posting these quotes, Rachelle.

  27. The “fray” comment is particularly important to writing as well as to business. In writing, there’s a lot of good to be said for “creating” a genre rather than merely joining one. I mean, I know “there’s nothing new under the sun” and all, but there are always fresh takes on the old tried and true. But do you want to be known as a person who wrote yet another mystery novel, or the person who created the great YA zombie detective series “To Find Some Brains”? I’m a frayed the answer is obvious.

    Happy Friday the 13th, by the way.

    • “I’m a frayed” .


      Good one.

      Was it you or Casselamn who wanted me to beta read your novel “Sparkly Zombies Eat Neon Brains With Werewolves In Vegas”.


    • Oddly enough, it would seem the publishers are looking for what’s “hot,” which forces authors into the fray. Only those with several creds in writing from within the fray can get the opportunity to cause their own. Perhaps this is the reality of business whacking art on the head. Then again, Picasso had to prove he could paint replicas before anyone bought the idea that his paintings weren’t done by a five year old.

      • As much as I want to agree with you, there’s the little problem of a sparkly vampire with a vapid expressionless human girlfriend. That was completely out of left field yet somebody made a decision to buy it and publish it.

        *I* think some editors make decisions like some Deans I’ve known over the years. For the really important decisions, there’s a special bottle wrapped in a special brown paper bag in the desk drawer, and when you open it the words “Yeah, what the hell…” come out.

        • I think we’re on the same page. The public wants the fresh fray, but the Meyer’s and Rowling’s often get beat back because they’re not writing what’s hot. “Let’s face it, witches and vampires are passe, ladies. Do you have anything with a crime lab in it?”
          Although I’m not a fan of “Twilight,” I’m glad she got through. It gives hope to the rest of the mavericks.

        • It’s sad how many people hide their Hershey’s chocolate syrup in a bag.
          That’s what you meant right?
          Cuz I might know someone who does that.

  28. Stephanie M. says:

    “Ideas emerge when a part of the real or imagined world is studied for its own sake.”

    And sooner or later, after you’ve looked at it frontwards and backwards and sideways, you’ll start asking

    “What if…?”

    Ahhh, the most interesting question in the English language.

  29. I’m coming back later when the brain has woken up enough to join the fray.
    Then again, I just set myself up for the miscreants to go at it.
    No names.
    PJC and AB-S

  30. How about Churchill?

    Never give up.
    Never, never give up.
    Never, never, never give up.

  31. Beth K. Vogt says:

    “Observe from a distance, but do not join the fray. Make a fray of your own.”

    No real time to pause and unpack this quote.
    I’m off to make a fray!

  32. Iola says:

    I’m about to start working with a group of scientists, so I like the first quote:

    “Ideas emerge when a part of the real or imagined world is studied for its own sake.”

    It epitomises the difference between scientists and businesspeople. Scientists study to find the idea, but businesspeople want to know that they idea is going to make money.

    Both are important.

  33. I’ll also vote for finding the problem worth solving.

    Rephrased, it’s saying, “learn to ask the right question”, and the way you ask a question is going to influence, and perhaps define, the answer you receive.

    I’d like to quote Richard Bach, from “Illusions – The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah”. I don’t have the book handy but I can get pretty close.

    Richard asks his ‘messiah, Don Shimoda, “How do you walk through walls?”

    “I can’t”

    Richard: “If you answer no to a question I know is yes, something’s wrong.”

    “My, we are observant, aren’t we?”

    “Is the problem with ‘walk’ or with ‘walls’?”

    “Yes, and worse. You’re presuming I live in one space-time continuum. I’m not in a mood to accept your presumptions right now.”

    “Okay, then. How is it you can move this material illusion, called a ‘body’, through an illusion of material restriction called a ‘wall’?”

    “See?” Don said happily. “When you ask the right question, it answers itself, doesn’t it?”

    “No it doesn’t answer itself. How do you walk through walls?”

    “Richard! You had it almost right and then you blew it to pieces! If you put it that way, accepting the definition of a wall as a restriction, I can’t.”

    And with that, Shimoda turned right, as if he was going around a corner, and disappeared through a solid red-brick wall.

    “Some day, Don…some day…”

    (BTW – for all of you who sent prayers for my nephew – Ross is stable tonight, and last heard, still responsive.)

    • Andrew:

      It’s quite a pleasant surprise to have someone refer to “Illusions”, which is one of my favorite books of all time. The fictional account of Richard Bach meetint a Messiah was superb and the proverbs from “Messiah’s Handbook” were exceptional. Just a note that about 20 years after “Illusions” was published, there was an actual book “Messiah’s Handbook” published. The great thing about it is that it has around three times as many proverbs in it as appeared in “Illusions”. Here are three of my favorites:

      “There aren’t just a few of you scattered out through the land who are creatures of light and everyone
      else is a lump of clay. You’re all light beings.”
      – from “Messiah’s Handbook: Reminders for the Advanced Soul”

      “Everybody came here with a Design-O-Life Personal Construction Kit. Not everyone remembers where they put it.”
      — from “Messiah’s Handbook: Reminders for the Advanced Soul”

      “Shop for security over happiness and you buy it, at that price.”
      — from “Messiah’s Handbook: Reminders for the Advanced Soul” by Richard Bach

      Incidentally, “Messiah’s Handbook” is just being re-released by a new publisher after the first publisher let it go out of print.

      • Those are great!

        Richard Bach’s literary career is an interesting study for writers and aspiring writers, as well.

        He began as a writer for aviation magazines, and wrote three nonfiction flying books – some of the most lovely, lyrical prose about flying ever penned. These are “Stranger to the Ground”, Nothing by Chance”, and “Biplane”. There was also an article anthology, “A Gift of Wings”. read them, and you won’t be sorry.

        Then came his breakout success with “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”; sent to just about every publisher on the planet, gleefully rejected, launched with no fanfare, and ended up “covering the world two feet deep”.

        That was followed by “Illusions”…which in turn was followed by personal disaster, after the West Coast Stock Exchange collapsed. That was chronicled in “The Bridge Across Forever”.

        Bach’s career recovered after that, with a cadre of hardcore fans. His writing changed to a very metaphysical style which I confess I found baffling. He wrote a series about anthropomorphic ferrets which was supposed to be great; he also published “Messiah’s Handbook”, which IS great.

        A lot of my current life can be blamed on RB. I read “Biplane” when i was 15, and from then on flying was the most important thing in the world to me. It was what I ended up sacrificing to run a dog sanctuary (I build and restore airplanes to help make it pay, no flying). I guess God does ask you to cut out your own heart to do His work sometimes, but it’s worth it.

        Anyway, RB’s life lessons for writers can be quickly summed up:

        1 – write from your heart
        2 – never give up
        3 – hire a good financial advisor
        4 – never give up
        5 – write from your heart

    • I’m glad to hear your nephew’s stable!

      “When you ask the right question it answers itself doesn’t it?” <–excellent quote in context.

  34. I didn’t know there’d be a test today! 🙂

    “Ideas emerge when a part of the real or imagined world is studied for its own sake.”

    I like this quote because it separates the desire to know from the lust for knowledge. When I lust for knowledge, I want to be the one with the answers. A desire to know, however, takes me on an adventure of discovery.
    Perhaps the words “show don’t tell” apply here? Are we filling our readers heads with knowledge or taking them on a quest?

    “Observe from a distance, but do not join the fray. Make a fray of your own.”

    I made some frayed jeans once, but I don’t think he means that. A fray is an intense struggle or fight. As a writer, I take this to mean that I shouldn’t jump on another’s bandwagon and get lost in the crowd. Instead, I should create conflict and struggle that causes others to come and investigate.
    Either that or I should insult my mother-in-law’s cooking.

    ”The search is not for the solution of a problem, but for problems themselves worth solving.”

    Successful people are not necessarily better at problem solving. They are more keenly aware of what is worth spending precious time solving.
    That’s an important part of writing. If the conflict leaves us saying, “Who cares?” then we won’t want to read on to find the resolution.
    This is quite applicable to queries. If my first line is, “Will Jack ever find a can opener?” does anyone care? Well, maybe Jack does, but I obviously don’t know Jack.

  35. I particularly like:

    “The search is not for the solution of a problem, but for problems themselves worth solving.”

    The thing is that a lot of people spend a lot of time solving problems that are not worth solving.

    Another quote in the same vein is by one of my favorite writers of motivational books (two of his books have been listed by “The New York Times” among the 15 bestselling motivational books of all time).

    “It’s better to do a sub-par job working on the right project than a great job working on the wrong project.”
    — Robert J. Ringer

    • carol brill says:

      Ditto and for me your new quote applies to writing. Sometime when I edit, I labor over a single word, and have to ask myself, “Is this one word the best use of my writing time or is there an aspect of the story that needs more attention?”

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