Part 1 Part 2 Part 3
“All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic.”
So here it is, the last part. After discussing fear we turn to the final obstacle that is on the way of reaching our full creative potential. You are not going to like it. It is:
Satisfaction with the Obvious
Or in short: laziness! People are plain lazy! I believe laziness in creativity comes in three stages and we'll deal with each separately:
- Satisfaction with the Obvious (this sounds so good I took it as a general title, sry
- Lack of Homework
- Lack of PersistencySatisfaction with the Obvious1
Huh, how to begin with this? Well, in a nutshell: everything that has a value in life doesn't come easy, does it? I mean, it takes some time and work! It takes some time and work to understand Coltrane
, but after that, you are more than well rewarded. Many people go for Lady Gaga
(or equivalent, don't pick up on me) whose tunes are so obvious that one can easily remember them after the first listening. There is nothing sublime in it, something that would wait for you on your second, third or 100th listening. Nothing. Most people are satisfied with that kind of obvious!
And once you'll start being aware of this phenomena you'll see it everywhere. People, as consumers and creators of the culture, quickly quit. They don't dig in for the solutions that are not so obvious. But it is precisely those that are often the most valuable. You just have to go the extra mile!
I see this in my classes. When I try to inspire some creative work, most students quit searching for solutions the minute they get their first or second idea. And it is often that I am no better myself. It is only at my most motivated point that I dig deeper to find the most valuable ones. For one thing, the first ideas, the obvious ones, are usually the ones that are already done somewhere so they are not novel at all (hence, they are not really creative, are they?) and beside that they are most likely be the ones that I am most comfortable executing. Usually they pose the least amount of risk (precisely because they are already executed somewhere with known outcome). The deep ideas are usually counterintuitive and highly risky. But those are the revolutionary ones! Practically every invention, from a lightbulb to an iPhone was at its creation very counterintuitive. So is the best music, like Beethoven's Grosse fuge
which went against everything people recognized as music at its time. Yet it is more musical than almost anything else created in the history, but you realize that only after a couple dozen times you listen it. At first it is very demanding, but then it is very rewarding piece.
The reasons for this are of course complex (like everything we discuss here). On one side it is perhaps a natural disposition of the brain to spare energy once an acceptable solution is found. Secondly; our brain uses memories of past events to envision future so it is quite natural that most people can't envision any other future than a mashup
of what has already happened. This is a huge handicap for creativity and another evolutionary advantage that backfires (envisioning the future on the basis of past events helps survive, no doubt). See Jeff Hawkins for more on that.
The other reason was already mentioned before; the incredible passivity of the 20th century. Trough out the history of man kind people had to entertain themselves. In order to have some fun they had to tell stories, sing, act, dance or draw for them selves. Of course some were better than the others, but I believe all of them did at least something. This was amateur culture at its best. In the 20th century technological inventions allowed mass distribution of sounds and pictures. Unfortunately those inventions were not developed enough to allow interactive participation of the audience. The audience became evermore passive, while on other side professional entertainers got the largest stage in the world: the whole planet! Why would I listen my father while Sinatra sings so much better! Why don't we all just sit down on our couch and laugh at Letterman's jokes? 20th century is a century of cultural passivity which has no precedence in human history. So in hunger for bigger and bigger audience (=ratings), any reasonable TV station has to adopt measures that fit the largest crowds, which means doing productions that are easy to grasp. People are educated into the obvious and quickly gain notion that everything in this world should be this way. So when they go to a modern gallery or when they see some art photography, they are lead to believe, that this kind of culture is obvious too. They couldn't be more mistaken. The best creative works are anything but obvious. They are fruits of the deepest creative thoughts and in order to understand them one should take time and dive into those depths.
Of course, sometimes even renowned art is shallow and sometimes what appears to be deep on the surface is actually empty on the inside. It happens. Even people who are trained in arts or sciences are often mislead by the appearance. One such example could IMHO be the famous Drake's equation
which on surface looks like hardcore science (it is math, right), but when one inspects it closely, one can find out that it is actually bullshit. Almost all of the factors in the equation are arbitrary and unknown. So the 'equation' can easily yield a huge number of different results (from 0 to gazillion) which are almost equally probable. Is that equation solving anything? Of course not. It just mimics science by appearance in a form of an equation. At best is just an other way of saying: we don't have a clue! But we are off the track now. I am sure there are similar examples of phoniness in art too: things that just look like real art on the outside but hold nothing valuable inside. It happens. My point is that you can't really tell if you don't dig into it. You can't just glance at a painting in the gallery and say "This is nothing
." You can't!
In this context an other thing should be mentioned: critical thought! People often fall in love with their ideas and their work, but only those who can maintain a safe distance can produce really good stuff. "You have to be routhless!
" William Allard
told me in an interview. Not everything you produce is good, in fact, most of it isn't. Scrutiny is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of creativity, but it is critical for any kind of creative work. The most obvious example would be photography; photographers return from assignments with thousands of photographs, but only 10 can make it into print. Which 10? A movie director might have a dozen different dialogue versions for each scene, but how to pick ones that really play well? I spoke on taste
already, and I also noted how to recognize really a mature performance
, so I will not repeat that here. It suffices to say that critical judgement and developed taste is an important aspect of every creative process. One should be in a constant zig-zag between non-judgemental playfulness and harsh self-criticism. When one is in the zone
(i.e. having an almost spiritual creative experience of totally focused mind) those two modes either merge or totally disappear - it is hard to tell since this is such a delirium that it has rules of its own. Needles to say, being in the zone is the best creative state of mind and we should do everything we can to make it happen. More about that in a minute.Lack of homework
I don't know whether this should be before or after the previous argument about being satisfied with the obvious, but in a way it doesn't even matter. I believe every creative act needs some sort of theoretical (or practical) background. The only way to invent something (without a huge amount of luck) is to study all of the available knowledge that existed before you on that subject. You can't push the whole field of physics forward without studying all of the physics that is already known. You can't invent a new way of storing liquids without studying all of the ways we store liquids today. You can't! It is absolutely necessary to study every detail of every thing you can find in order to find flaws and imperfections which are opportunities for improvement or in the best possible case; the reinvention. In a case when there is simply no solution available, you must study the problem so much more. Only then you may count on being lucky. The discovery of Penicillin
is often regarded as an accidental discovery, but in my eyes is anything but that. It didn't happen to just anyone. It happened to Alexander Fleming
, a man who invested so much into science! Discovery of comets, stars or fossils are most often described as the same kind of "lucky accidents", but just think if that could happen to you rather than to a person who studies the sky or the bedrock 24/7. I believe not. They know exactly what they are looking for! Similar kinds of accidents can happen in art too (see this blog post
about it). Again it is not what happens, it is about you recognizing a true value in it. You can recognize that only if you are ready, only if you did your homework! Many people don't!Lack of Persistency
Creativity is often confused with rich imagination. Sometimes you find these weirdly looking self-proclaimed artists who wouldn't stop telling you how creative they are. They go on about their 'ideas' and how nobody understands them. Those people may have rich imagination, but creativity involves an act of creating something tangible; an invention, a painting, a dance, a piece of music, an article, a new economic theory... something! And that takes work!
The amount of time you actually feel inspired and illuminated is very short in comparison to the amount of time you spend crafting this thing into its final form. Just to give you a trivial example; I had an idea for this series of articles written down in 5 minutes during a breakfast one morning (I must have had too much tea, I was quite hyper that time) and I think I had more or less everything written down in my head at the time. But it took me more than three weeks to actually execute it, no matter how good or bad the actual result really is. Most of the time went for trivial typing, spell-checking, double checking the facts and stuff like that. Nothing typically creative at all - just dull and boring work. But that is nothing compared to Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel
. You think that ceiling painted itself? I am not sure we can even begin to imagine the impossible conditions under which the great genius spent 4 (four!) years of his life simply executing his idea. Even though the whole idea is brilliant, the majority of the work lies in trivial craft of painting. The first part of creativity (getting an idea) might be about letting it go and be as unconditioned as possible, but creativity is also about holding on to it. It is about not quiting when the work becomes dull and borring. It is about not quitting when the time of crisis and self-doubt erodes your will. Self doubt will almost always come if you are working with novel and untested ideas. We discussed that in the previous part of this series (I really like the way how everything is coming together).
The reason why people don't do their homework and why they lack the will to carry on is in my opinion in lack of passion. When people are blindly passionate about some problem or activity, they don't care about "what if they're wrong
" or "what will people think.
" That fear is gone like the laziness is gone too. They simply push forward like a bulldozer. They don't care much if it is possible or not, they don't care if people are telling them how stupid they are, they don't care if they haven't eaten for hours or haven't slept for days... they just don't care!
How to bring people to that passionate inspired state of mind? How to fall in the zone? It helps a lot to be in your element
. You must do what you love to do! Being in an element is fun! You are playful which, again, doesn't mean you are careless, it simply means you take enjoyable risks! And secondly; you must have an inspired figure to look up to. It could be an idol from television (not everything about television is bad, ok) or even better, a person from your own place - a really good teacher, mentor, athlete, somebody who also loves his work and shares this positive energy with others. An inspirational person can become only someone who is inspired him-herself.
Does the school play a vital role here? Mostly no, but sometimes yes. Speaking abstractly - in most schools only three kinds of mental capacities are fully exercised; math (logic), languages and memory. Even these are far to abstract and are not practised on the applied level. Studying languages in (most) school is like learning to swim by performing swimming moves on dry ground. What about jumping into the water, dammit!? Schools offer far too narrow curriculum for kids to test their talents. The hierarchical structure reveals that applied arts or dance are undervalued. This is a legacy of the 19th century in which schools were popularized to educate the working class. A good factory worker should know some basic algebra and have some writing/reading skills. Hence math and languages are still at the top of importance list of every school. Math is something that is forced upon as common knowledge, something that we all have capacity to learn, while at the same time, art or music is denied on the basis of the required talent. Just how stupid is that? You need a talent for music, but you don't need it for math?! This curriculum is totally out of balance, it has nothing to do with our real mental capacities and worst of all, it denies people their talents... Many very bright people who don't happen to be interested or gifted with those few skills that school rewards, can live their whole life thinking they are stupid and untalented. I believe this is simply unacceptable for the 21st century. True, in 19h century you couldn't have make a living being a dancer, but that is no longer the case now, at least not in developed countries (forget Slovenia... see part 3 for that). Of course, we all need some math, we all need some language skills, but we also need some music, some art, some dance, some photography or movies... The thing is in proper balance which should also be individually based, and proper execution which should be based on practical application. And this is just the beginning... Again, this is not an article about education.
Luckily we at least have a few inspired teachers, mentors and public heroes who can overcome these obstacles and fire up new generations of students. When Appollo program
was running MIT
didn't have any problems with not having enough students. At the same time we unfortunatelly have bored and frustrated teachers who do so much damage that it would be better if they hadn't thought at all. Perhaps I am exaggerating, but maybe you are better off having no math at all than hating math for the rest of your life just because the person who was teaching you, hated math (and his life) more than anything in the world. Don't you think?
But let us rather finish with good news. We DO have inspired teachers, mentors and public figures, we DO have people who are aware of how broken our education system is and we DO have people who work hard to make it better. And with the advent of the internet and Web 2.0 there is an overabundance of creativity everywhere. People stood up from their 20th century couches, picked up cameras, pens, guitars, brushes (etc) and the results are here. The new generation cares less about mass media (politics, entertainment...) and cares more about their own creativity. There would be no Flickr
without them. Of course, not all of what is uploaded is creative in the most meaningful sense, but some of it is! Give me one good reason why not be optimistic about it!
First of all - if you came to this point - thank you for reading. To be completely honest, I didn't write it for you. I wrote it (as almost everything on this blog lately) for myself. I write these things as preparation for articles, lectures or debates. You can see it as a kind of public notebook if you will. But anyways, thank you.
This series can be viewed in two ways. The way it is written is a list of things that can go wrong when we try to reach our creative potential. But it can also be understood in an other way in which it can help you understand just how many small things have to go right in order to get productive geniuses on the level of Tesla, Picasso, Bill Gates... Of course, not everything can be controlled. There are so many arbitrary and random factors that shape our life and work together that it is impossible, despite all that was written, to predict where one will end up in life. Life is full of randomness which we don't understand. We know a little bit about certain trends that happen, but that is all. Just as we know what happens to a certain amount of gas when we raise temperature for 10K, we have a small clue about social and economic trends, but just as we can't predict the movement of a single molecule in that gas so we can't predict a life of a person or stock market.
So please, try to read and understand this with a grain of salt. Try to understand life and creativity on the basis that you don't understand it fully or even at all. I believe this is a mature place to start. Basic references:Hawkins, J., (2004), On Intelligence, New York, Holt Paperbacks
Robinson, K. et all, (1982), The Arts in Schools, London, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
Robinson, K., (2001), Out of Our Minds - Learning to be creative, London, Capstone
Robinson, K., (2009), The Element - How finding your passion changes everything, New York, Viking Penguin
Lessig, L., (2004), Free culture - How big media uses technology and the law to lock down culture and control creativity, New York, Penguin (Free PDF)
Lessig, L. (2007): TED Talk
Robinson, K. (2006): TED talk 1
Robinson, K. (2010): TED talk 2
Drori, J., (2007): TED talkFootnotes1
Many smart people often say that the most difficult things to grasp are usually the most obvious ones. Things that are the most difficult to see are usually the ones that are before your eyes. There is some truth to that. But that is a different kind of 'obvious,' it is a 'higher level of obvious
'... I hope it is clear I am not talking about that, but I have to put this note here in order to avoid any misinterpretations.