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Black Olives Matter

7 May 2016

In a recent excerpt from Maria Popova’s “Brainpickings,” she cleverly urges the reader to discover one of novelist John Steinbeck’s most intimate explorations, which were originally written as letters addressed to his two young sons. The culmination of these letters was eventually published as Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden.

Popova, always quick to draw definitive passages from important writings, highlights a specific section of Steinbeck’s book, which got me thinking about all sorts of things. Mostly, though, about our human shortsightedness which often manifests as a tendency to assume that a thing best exists without its opposite, or other.

Steinbeck writes, as a reflection on what he will tell his sons:

They have no background in the world of literature, they don’t know the great stories of the world as we do. And so I will tell them one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest story of all — the story of good and evil, of strength and weakness, of love and hate, of beauty and ugliness. I shall try to demonstrate to them how these doubles are inseparable — how neither can exist without the other and how out of their groupings creativeness is born.

Take black olives for example.

They are a rather polarizing fruit. In fact, did you even know they were a fruit? And most people either really like them or really don’t – the reasons of which often have no bearing on anything definitive or logical. A matter of taste buds really.

If we only ever invited apples to our dining table, we could easily make the assumption that fruit was always juicy and mostly sweet – and that would be that.

“Ok, great,” we would think. “Another day another apple. Ho-hum.” It would be neither here nor there.

But imagine, one day, your neighbor comes over for dinner and plops a pile of black olives on the table and shouts: “Try these! They are excellent with a little cheese. You can throw them on your pizza, or in your martini glass if you prefer. It’s really the most amazing fruit. You can’t do any of those things with an apple!”

So you take the plunge and gobble down a black olive or two.

“Hmm,” you think. “Wasn’t expecting that.”

You eat a couple more. They may be a fruit, but they are so distinct and different from an apple you can hardly believe it. Suddenly your affinity for that daily apple diminishes. It’s not that you don’t like apples anymore, but having the comparison gives you a well-rounded perspective about your tastes in fruit.

So what is it about human nature that presumes “doubles,” as Steinbeck refers to them, are a negative? Why, when we watch a breathtakingly beautiful sunset, do we respond with: “sunsets should be just like this every single day.” This way of thinking is a vital human flaw.

And if, as Steinbeck suggests, the very genesis of creativity is derived from these opposites we should not only embrace them, but we should seek them out; because as an evolved species with the ability to reason we should be able understand the benefits of co-existing on a spectrum.

The moral of this story?

Black olives matter.


Rebekah Iliff is the Chief Strategy Officer for AirPR, a PR technology company that enables data-driven brands and organizations to measure the impact of their PR efforts. She is currently a columnist for Mashable, Inc., Forbes, Huffington Post, and Entrepreneur. Additionally, Rebekah frequently moderates and participates on panels at leading technology and business conferences, and she has presented at countless conferences on the future of PR and big data. She holds a B.A. in Philosophy from Loyola University Chicago, and an M.A. in Organizational Management and Applied Community Psychology from Antioch University at Los Angeles (AULA).