Phil Stutz on his string-of-pearls theory of work (and life)
Some motivational advice from Jonah Hill’s therapist
Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers, my fortnightly newsletter on wriggling through a creative life—and happy New Year! I hope you all had a restorative (or at least not terribly depleting) holiday break. If you’re not yet a subscriber, you can become one here:
Phil Stutz (b. 1947)
For this first newsletter of 2023, I thought I’d do something a little different. Rather than examine the creative process of a notable writer or artist or musician, I wanted to share a portion of Jonah Hill’s recent documentary about his therapist, Phil Stutz, which is now streaming on Netflix. If the idea of a Hollywood actor making a film about his therapist does not sound terribly appealing to you—well, it didn’t to me either. But someone I trust recommended it and I’m glad I listened.
The film focuses on the “tools” that Stutz has developed to help his clients better cope with adversity and uncertainty in their lives. Admittedly, some of these tools have sort of cheesy names and not all of Stutz’s ideas resonated with me. But one of them really did. He calls it the String of Pearls. Here’s his explanation:
We want to say, “I’m the one who puts the next pearl on the string.” That’s all, nothing else. That’s called the String of Pearls. And that’s probably the most important thing, motivationally, you could teach yourself.
I’ll turn to screengrabs for the next part:
Let’s pause for a moment to appreciate that last slide. Every action has the same value! This is something I needed to be reminded of recently, especially with my February 1st book deadline looming. The efforts that don’t really lead anywhere, that seem wasted—and this is a lot of my efforts in writing—they’re not just somewhat valuable, in their own way, I guess. They’re equally as valuable as the efforts that pay off in a more obvious or straightforward way.
This is a matter of identity. “Who am I? I’m not great, I’m not shit. . . . I look at myself just in terms of the habits with which I take action.” If there’s a failure—or a big success, by the way, either way—you’re gonna keep going. “I am the person that puts the next pearl on the string.” That’s it.
But there’s one more crucial component to the String of Pearls. Let’s switch back to screengrabs: