the tom cruise in all of us

tom cruise II.bmp

It’s like watching a high wire act. Sometimes, you just want to shut your eyes.

When I read a [movie script], I’m not analytical about it. I just go, “Ah, I’m interested in this.” (Tom Cruise on how he chose his new movie, Collateral)

No doubt, Cruise consults his agents and managers. He pauses and ponders. He looks before he leaps. But finally, his guide is not analysis but intuition. Finally, he leaps more than he looks.

Isn’t this a risky way to do business? Of course, it is. Tom is one of Hollywood’s most “bankable stars.” His pictures have made $4 billion. But the history of Hollywood tells us that fame is perishable. Every film is potentially a tipping point, and it’s a long way down. Ask Kevin Costner or Vin Deisel.

Tom’s problem is clear. He needs to change horses in the middle of the stream. He can’t play “grinning and boyish” forever. Where to go next is not clear. “T.J. Mackay” in Magnolia was an interesting, ambitious, choice, but the film made only $37 million. Vanilla Sky and Eyes Wide Shut did badly too. Tom is taking risks. (You might say that with hundreds of millions in his bank account, there is no such thing as a risk for Tom Cruise. On the other hand, maybe he likes being the most famous man in the solar system.) On balance, you might think Tom would be more “analytical” about it.

But there is a defense for Tom’s “decision” making process, one argument that’s says his reliance on intuition is the rational thing to do.

For certain purposes, our intuitive makes better decisions. This is because, according to Bateson and others, it has deeper processing powers than the conscious mind. When we rely on intuition, we push everything back into the unconscious problem solving set. It gives us access to new powers of search and pattern recognition. For certain problems, the unconscious mind, and its emissary intuition, is our best guide.

And these problems are now the order of the day. The world is becoming more complex, changeable, and inscrutable. In the face of this new complexity, the minor but once reliable powers of the conscious mind are sometimes overwhelmed.

There is a group of professionals who were “first in” to the world of complexity. The people who make their living in the world of design and fashion have always had to contend with an extraordinarily dynamic set.

Where is fashion going? Where must Karl Lagerfeld position Chanel to keep it current? These are not questions that can be answered with a surface analysis that takes calculates the behavior of every other designer and the movement of all the salient aesthetic, cultural and economic trends. No, a decision like this has to be turned over to the deep processing power of the unconscious mind.

Eventually, intuition will come. Designers famously defend their bets on the grounds that they “just know.” “It came to me in a flash.” “I was looking at a seashell and I could see the future of fashion.” “Don’t ask me to explain it, I just know that green is the new black.” (I am grateful to Joan Kron to alerting me to this aspect of the fashion mind.)

Tom’s world, once largely manipulated by Hollywood’s tastemakers, is now a little like the world of fashion. It has tipped into the swirling mass of popular culture. It is now ruled not by studio heads but the caprice of changing taste. Indeed, one of the deep trends of contemporary culture is precisely that more of what we do and who we are is ruled by the sudden discontinuity and ceaseless change. Everything from politics to the colors of paint in a hardware store is now ruled by this dynamism. In Virginia Postrel’s phrase, style is our new substance.

It should not surprise us then that Tom is thinking like a designer. His world is ruled by a new complexity. The rational way to contend with this complexity is to diminish rationality as the locus of choice. We have long followed our Hollywood heroes not just on the screen but in the life. And this may be the real burden of Tom’s career relocation. Once an action hero, he is now an exemplar of the new life of the mind.


Bateson, Gregory. 1972. Steps to an ecology of mind; collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. San Francisco: Chandler Pub. Co.

Freydkin, Donna. 2004. Crusie takes a walk on the dark side. USA Today. August 5, 2004, pp. 1D-2D

Movie stats from

Postrel, Virginia I. 2003. The substance of style: how the rise of aesthetic value is remaking commerce, culture, and consciousness. New York: HarperCollins.

2 thoughts on “the tom cruise in all of us

  1. Tom

    The expert’s intuition is the subject of an impressive body of work done by Hubert Dreyfus (building on Martin Heidegger’s thought). Dreyfus chronicles the journey from Novice to Expert, a function of experience, as, essentially, the movement from being “rule driven” to becoming “intuitively involved” in a domain. More recently, Gary Klein has furthered this work in his outstanding book, Kinds of Power).

    As your post indicates, Grant, the key to the expert’s expertise is her perception, that is, her ability to see possiblities that are (literally) not present for the rest of us. And so, when Cruise says that he is “interested” in a script, he’s likely reporting an emotional (read: intuitively, rather than calculatively, “rational”) “perception” of the role (or, perhaps more accurately “projection”) of himself into the character. We experience things like this all the time, as in, “I can’t see myself living there.”

    And, as Alain de Botton points out in his newest work, Status Anxiety the real threat is not so much to Cruise’s bank account, as it is to his sense of self-worth in choosing roles that potentially diminsh his position as, “one of America’s most bankable stars.”

    Risky Business, indeed.

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