This post is part of our Revealing Voices blog series. This month we are pleased to share a post from a dancer incorporating philosophy into her ballet career.
A year ago, at sixteen, I made the most significant decision of my relatively young life. Perhaps “decision” is a misnomer, or at least bears a different meaning than I had once thought. Looking back, I was probably always going to move to Florida from California to train with Miami City Ballet once they invited me to stay year-round in their Pre-Professional II division. Thrilled to be offered, I engaged in the requisite conversations (i.e. persuasions) with my concerned parents about relocating so far away as a teenager. I also participated in my own seemingly rigorous process. While these dialogues were thorough and ostensibly rational, my subsequent exposure to the work of philosophers L.A. Paul (b. 1966) and Maria Lugones (1944–2020) suggested that my approach had been incomplete. Although I am extraordinarily grateful for the fortunate outcome, it was largely determined by my deep passion for ballet rather than an effective, conscious choice-making framework or attitudinal approach.
Because I train full time during conventional school hours, I study at Stanford Online High School. There, I was first introduced to the ideas of L.A. Paul, a philosopher and cognitive scientist. Through her book Transformative Experience (2014), I began to understand my decision to move to Miami in the context of her groundbreaking work. Prior, I endeavored to make rational choices guided by certain metrics. I projected myself forward or self-simulated. I assessed and anticipated what the experience might be like by talking with other ballet students who had followed a similar path. I delved into appropriate podcasts and articles. Without a firsthand background or pertinent frame of reference, I pursued these various methods in service of better conceiving what a move to Miami would really be like. But these strategies were not entirely helpful as they presupposed an “expected value.” Instead, per Paul, living the experience is the only way to determine its subjective value. As conjecture is no substitute, it was only after moving to Miami that I acquired the applicable knowledge. The paradox is that the relevant, integral information is only practicable post-decision. Epistemically transformative experiences, therefore, can thwart and often preclude attempts at rational choice making.
Paul explains that the normative decision theory model falls short in other ways as well. In addition to changing one’s way of knowing, these dramatically new experiences, such as moving to Miami, can also be personally transformative. In other words, they can fundamentally reshape one’s thought and preferences (Paul 18). Changing “what it is like for you to be you” is a profound, authentic evolution of one’s core features (Paul 16). As a result, one cannot predict how it might feel to inhabit this revised self nor how one would arrive at judgements in this new “act state.” For example, before I moved, I tried to assess if there were others at MCB with whom I shared commonalities and would easily connect. My post transformation self, however, has changed such that I more deeply cherish the multiplicity of my peer group; through these friendships I have learned and grown in ways I never could have anticipated. As Paul points out, what is flawed is that our choice-making practices assume a cross-temporal consistency: one’s current self is consistent with the self that they become (Paul 19). Knowing precisely how one’s priorities and ideals will be changed after an experience is untenable, especially since post-transformation insight is unique to each person. Making a decision in a contemporary time frame can never be wholly informed nor rational, no matter how well thought-out and sound the reasoning is in advance.
So, what is one to do? How might an aspiring ballerina approach a potentially life-changing choice? In disrupting former decision-making orthodoxy, Paul offers alternate guidance in the pursuit of rationally mapping one’s subjective future. First, one must reconcile epistemic humility: accepting the limitations of predictions and knowledge. While one can utilize empirical data along with a moral framework to better inform determinations of action, some level of uncertainty will persist. Given the unpredictability of the future self, Paul emphasizes that one’s reactions are pivotal, and a flexible sensibility will lead to better, more satisfying outcomes. Finally, she emphasizes the value of experience for its own sake. My move to Miami has given rise to revelation which is “one of the most important games of life […] played for the sake of play itself” (Paul 178).
This notion of “play” resounded again as I happened upon the work of Maria Lugones, an Argentine philosopher, feminist, and activist. While Lugones and Paul focus on disparate philosophical inquiries, I contemplated an overlap in their respective discussions of openness to experience. In her essay “Playfulness, ‘World’-Travelling, and Loving Perception,” Lugones describes “world traveling” as metaphorically and/or literally inhabiting another’s space in order to discover and understand. For “outsiders,” this practice is often a necessity. For those more comfortable in the mainstream, she suggests willfully cultivating and exercising these skills. My journey provided the opportunity for such “travel.” Although I initially felt out of place and unmoored in Miami, the discomfort ultimately fostered a way of being that eschewed “arrogant perception” (Lugones 4), embraced difference, and facilitated cross-cultural connection.
Lugones’s emphasis on mindset dovetails with Paul’s methods of navigating unpredictability. She advocates for an attitude to new experiences characterized by playfulness and an “acquired flexibility in shifting” (Lugones 3). This nimbleness accounts for uncertainty and surprise. Hence, as a dancer in Miami, I have to be physically limber, but also dexterous of mind and spirit. For both philosophers, this sensibility precludes a fixed self or set of rigid, predetermined reactions. Instead, first-person experiences engender a construction (and often reconstruction) of self. For Lugones, this transformation is a creative and productive act that “affirms the plurality in each of us” (Lugones 3). Indeed, new aspects of myself were and continue to be brought about by my move. For exampl being physically separated from my mother has led to a deeper and more aware appreciation for her. As I am now solely responsible for my own domestic labor, I better recognize those contributions to our family. More importantly, I perceive her more wholly, as an intuitive, wise, and imaginative individual with an expansive identity beyond being my parent.
There is both the decision to “travel to other worlds” and upon arriving, the spirit one brings to the experience. Paul and Lugones explore the nuances and complexities of these approaches. I came to the work of these extraordinary thinkers after resolving to move to Miami. Nonetheless, the project of reflection, through these philosophical lenses, has been invaluable. I have more cogently framed my personal history, better understanding the dynamics that surrounded my decision and subsequent events. With some providence, there will be many transformative choices and experiences ahead. This inquiry will critically inform sound, conscious practices moving forward. Paul’s and Lugones’s work has encouraged my conviction to embrace mindful risks in pursuing a process of creativity and self-discovery, both fraught and wonderful, in Miami and beyond.