I read an interview with Roman Krznaric onWriting Our Way Home home (which contains lots of good interviews of writers where the focus is on HOW they create their stuff. Worth Checking out). Roman is one of the founders (with the philosopher Alain De Botton) of The School Of Life, a great organisation which offers essentially self-help seminars by intelligent people for intelligent people (i.e. no vapid American new-age bull-shit). I went to a great evening on “How To Have Better Conversations” which my then girlfriend bought for me (not really), and it was great. ANYWAY Roman is a prolific author (he has just published a new book on the art of fulfilling work) and so what he says about the creative process is worth thinking about.
Krznaric says that creativity is not necessarily about originality, but about self-expression. This is an important distinction to make in your creative life I think: you don’t have to re-invent the wheel to be creative, just create something that is new to you, or simply valuable. This is essentially what I am doing in this blog post: I am taking the insights of Krznaric and adding value to them by using my own creative experiences to flesh them out and illustrate them.
This distinction takes a lot of pressure off you as a creative person, and allows you to enjoy creating as something good in itself rather than simply a goal orientated action. It’s important to remember that whilst people appreciate novelty, a product/idea being original doesn’t mean necessarily it is any good. Old things done well are often better than entirely new things.
By its nature, creative acts will lead to largely derivative products in some respect. Creativity is about re-constituting what has been done before into something new, it is an assembly of old parts, or an improvement/expansion on an existing thing. Phillip Larkin is good on this: he felt under no pressure to reveal something totally new of the human condition in his poetry. He felt that an impossible task so far into cultural history. Instead he aimed to “make it new”. Can you take an idea you have read about or seen and make it new? Better? Apply it in new areas? Make it personal to you or your company? That is a creative act, but not an original one. But potentially hugely valuable and knowledgeable none-the-less.
Being derivative is a necessary stop on the journey towards novelty. You must become a master of your domain before you can go beyond it. Novelty, originality, genius will become apparent much later in your creative career if you stick at it. And by taking the pressure off, and enjoying the process, you are much more likely to stick at it. I will blog about the studies showing creative genius takes about 10/15 years or 10,000 hours of practice to achieve at a later date. But first, lets look at another of Krznaric’s gems...
He warns about being stuck within disciplinary boundaries (for him it was as a lecturer in politics and sociology). He only read academic books on narrow topics, and socialised with lecturers. He did not expose himself to a plethora of other ideas: variety is essential in a creative life. To create new things, you need to recombine existing ideas/products etc into new combinations or apply them in new areas. To do this you must be in contact with them!
How do you expand your horizons? Your exposure to the creative uranium of ideas? Krznaric travelled. What are you going to do? I read lots, about lots of things. I love talking to people and I make a point of asking them deep questions about their jobs, lives, relationships: what can you harvest from the rich minds of the incredible of variety of people you encounter everyday?
Krznaric says “If I went back in time, I'd advise myself to escape those disciplinary boundaries sooner rather than later, and to nurture my curiosity about strangers, delving into new social realms. In other words, wake up! Don't stay trapped in your social and intellectual cocoon! Follow Leonardo da Vinci's adventurous credo, 'Experience is my mistress'. That's the best way to learn about ourselves, and the world.”
This is a very important principle in being creative and one individuals and organisations over-look. We have a pornographic obsession with “hard work” in our economy and culture. We work huge hours. But we are not productive. We are not creative. That is not a linear link between hard work and output, only a relationship. We must make sure we allow ourselves the lifestyle to generate new ideas first, time to think and plan reflectively with a long term vision, as well as the time to sit down and concentrate o on application and working through the plan. Hard work + ideas leads to productivity. We focus too much on one side of that equation. Too much work makes Jack a dull boy, and dull people aren’t creative: their range of social interactions and experiences are too narrow. Here’s the great news: being in the pub or on holiday is an important part of the process.
I went through my stand-up material today and worked out how I had generated each joke. Some I had come up with analytically, by sitting down with some blank paper and banging it out (I will blog about how to do this well soon). But a large volume of gags had come from my social life: adding my own punchlines to the stories/feedlines of others, ideas that had come up in conversation that led to premises I could exploit analytically at a later date using my comic skill-set, or things that happened to me when I was living life. Here’s the rub: live a life that allows you to be inspired.
Let’s get back to Roman’s ideas again. Here’s what he said in response to the question: “how do you keep creating when things get difficult?”
“When I find my ideas are not flowing, my prose is turgid, my inspiration has gone walkabout, I do what I think many other people do, which is to shake myself up. That sometimes involves getting out of my mind and more into my body, by disappearing into my workshop and making a chair, playing with my kids, or stepping on to the real tennis court ...It's amazing how often fresh thoughts come when I'm sprinting around the court....Occasionally I'll turn to well-known creative aids like Brian Eno's Oblique Strategy cards, which contain thought prompts like 'disconnect from desire', 'turn it upside down' and 'water'. But my most common method, especially when wrestling with tough intellectual problems, is to ask anybody and everybody I meet what they think about the subject.”
Tonnes of stuff to talk about here. Lots of studies have shown that doing something that relaxes the part of your mind that has been focussing on the problem and doing something else, like walking, or even something as simple as having a bath will often lead to a breakthrough. Baths always work for me! To the extent that I build them into my creative day. The main point here is: don’t get too puritan or narrow minded about how you/your employees work. Sure they need to sit down and wrestle with problems. But they also need time to play table-tennis in the staff room, or walk in the park. Brian Eno’s cards are interesting, again I am going to write about them soon. What he says about asking everyone they meet about the subject is a fascinating idea: simple, effective, but most people wouldn’t think to do it. People can offer you new perspectives, offer the final piece of a jigsaw, or offer you a bit of information you hadn’t come across. They can provide the meat for your sausage machine.
This sausage machine analogy is an useful one to illustrate the balance of hard work and relaxation in the creative process. Sitting down and analytically tackling a problem, going through the motions of being creative, builds your machine: but you need to put some raw products into the machine for it to produce a new product. You can get these raw products from social situations, from experiences in the world, books etc. So you need a balance: "capital investment" in your machine through hard work, and also strategic lifestyle planning to get the raw ingredients.