Sunday, 27 May 2012

What we can learn from Brian Eno

Brian Eno is renowned as being one of the most innovative and prolific musicians in the world. Having started in the band Roxy Music, Eno has branched out to be a hugely original solo artist and has also produced some of the biggest albums of recent years for the likes of Coldplay and U2. Eno takes creativity extremely seriously, so in this post I will look at some of Eno’s ideas. I have taken the quotes from an article on the excellent creativity website the 99%, which can be found here.

Brian Eno says that creativity is “...a practice of some kind ... It quite frequently happens that you’re just treading water for quite a long time. Nothing really dramatic seems to be happening. … And then suddenly everything seems to lock together in a different way. It’s like a crystallization point where you can’t detect any single element having changed. There’s a proverb that says that the fruit takes a long time to ripen, but it falls suddenly ... And that seems to be the process.”

What we can take from this is two keys to creativity: perseverance and the incubation phase. You work hard through creative tasks, even when a breakthrough seems far away, and then when you least expect it, having held the problem in your subconscious mind for a while, the breakthrough comes when you’re on the toilet, or in the shower (say).

Eno goes on: “The point about working is not to produce great stuff all the time, but to remain ready for when you can.” He continues:  “There’s no point in saying, ‘I don’t have an idea today, so I’ll just smoke some drugs.’ You should stay alert for the moment when a number of things are just ready to collide with one another... The reason to keep working is almost to build a certain mental tone, like people talk about body tone. You have to move quickly when the time comes, and the time might come very infrequently – once or twice a year, or even less.” He seems to be talking about something akin to creative “fitness”, and it is a similar idea to what I talked about in my last post “the sausage machine”. Your creative capacity is like a muscle, the more you exercise it the bigger it gets. The stronger your creative muscles the more you can capitalize on moments of inspiration, those bolt from the blue ideas that we all crave, and process them quickly and with flare. Further, by having strong creative muscles you will find your subconscious can use them as a tool to give you more of those bolt-from-the-blue gems. It’s like giving it a tool box to play with whilst you are concentrating on other things.

How can we make the muscle strong? Well, just like you would make a bicep strong: exercising it a lot. Try doing something creative every day, and this way you will gain momentum. A useful idea to keep this difficult challenge up is an idea called “Don’t break the chain”. This is what Jerry Seinfeld uses when he’s writing. The aim is to make doing creative work a default setting in your daily routine. Seinfeld has a calendar and he tries to write for an hour a day, he literally sits down with a comedic problem he wants to solve and he plays with it for an hour. And then he puts a cross under that day in the calendar. The aim is to get to the end of the month with a cross in every box: don’t break the chain! The desire not to break the chain helps you to push through moments of procrastination.

Do you have a specific creative task that you need to do to deliver ideas in a key results area in your job? Well then focus on that every day: for me it’s writing jokes, or coming up with characters and plots for scripts. If your creative tasks are more vague and varied than that, then try another task: maybe a blog. The aim is to light up the switch board of neurons in your brain which fire when you are creative. That is an ineffable but definite feeling creative people have. And by doing tasks that give you this feeling every day, you will experience joy and also make that creative muscle stronger allowing you to deliver more and better ideas consistently. And that means training your creative capacity even when you don’t have a specific project you are working on: your aim is to get more and more creative everyday so you can be match fit when the time comes, and improve your performance over time.

There needs to be a paradigm shift in thinking to fully grasp this concept. We must stop thinking of creativity as a gift bestowed on a few, out of reach for the rest. It is not. It is a natural capacity that everybody has to some extent, and one that can be developed through deliberate practice. To think otherwise is both de-motivating (“What’s the point? I’m just not creative.”) and also a cop out. How a lot of organisations and individuals currently work is that they only do creative work when the project requires it. They don’t have a holistic, long term view. So they might try to tackle creative tasks once every two months, say. And it’s like starting the creative muscle from scratch: you build it up in one project, only to let it rot for the next two months, and then they use it again on the next project. Think about how you would perform in a bench press competition if you hadn’t been in the gym for two months. Rubbish is the answer.

Eno says that craft “enables you to be successful when you’re not inspired.” When you have creativity fitness, you are able to act creatively on any project at any time, even when you don’t experience some bolt from the blue insight. This is an immensely valuable capacity, because inspiration is rare even for the best: if you rely on inspiration you will be unproductive and your output will be poor. You will also probably respond badly to a brief and a deadline. Sometimes we just need to get the job done, create something out of nothing, and this is when your highly trained creative mind comes into play. For example, in the comedy world, if you have to write 40 topical jokes in one day for a deadline you just have to pick up the newspapers and work on it. You can’t wait 2 weeks for a brilliant joke about Barack Obama to smack you in the face whilst you’re on the cross trainer at the gym.

Part of creative craft is not just creative fitness however; it is also to do with “games” and techniques you can learn and use to process information in order to generate ideas: mind mapping and such like. I will look at these at another time. Here are some of the tools Eno uses to assist the creative process, as he say “There are lots of ways that you can interfere with it and make it more efficient”:
1. Freeform capture. Note everything down in a voice recorder or in a notebook. This gives you premises to develop at a later stage when you sit down and try and tackle the idea using your own analytic creativity, looking for connections with other ideas you have, or as a starting point for some project. Don’t rely on your memory, it will let you down. It is always easier to start from something rather than a blank sheet of paper, so get filling up your notebooks!
2. Blank state. Start with new tools, from nothing, and toy around. For example, Eno approaches this by entering the recording studio with no preconceived ideas, only a set of instruments or a few musicians and “just dabble with sounds until something starts to happen that suggests a texture.” When the sound texture evokes a memory or emotion that impression then takes over in guiding the process.
In my own life I sat down with a blank piece of paper, wrote the word “GYM” in the middle of it and tried to write down everything amusing I could about gyms. I ended up with 2 minutes of good material out of it. I have also developed sitcoms out of nothing with collaborators, just by sitting down over a coffee and throwing ideas around.
3. Deliberate limitations. Before a project begins, develop specific limitations. Eno’s example: “this piece is going to be three minutes and nineteen seconds long and it’s going to have changes here, here and here, and there’s going to be a convolution of events here, and there’s going to be a very fast rhythm here with a very slow moving part over the top of it.”
Starting at nothing is daunting because all the possibilities make the choice impossible to make, it is suffocating. Limitations give you a starting point.
4. Opposing forces. Sometimes it’s best to generate a forced collision of ideas. Eno would “gather together a group of musicians who wouldn’t normally work together.” Work with someone from a totally different discipline, talk to someone you would never normally talk to. Mix it up.
5. Creative prompts. In the 70s Eno developed his Oblique Strategies cards, a series of prompts to disrupt the creative process and encourage a new way of encountering a creative problem. On the cards are statements and questions like: “Would anybody want it?” “Try faking it!” “Only a part, not the whole.” “Work at a different speed.” “Disconnect from desire.” “Turn it upside down.” “Use an old idea.” These prompts are a method of generating specifics, which most creatives respond favourably to.

Furthermore, Eno, despite his emphasis on creative fitness, also emphasizes the importance of building breaks into your creative work day:

“The difficulty of always feeling that you ought to be doing something is that you tend to undervalue the times when you’re apparently doing nothing, and those are very important times. It’s the equivalent of the dream time, in your daily life, times when things get sorted out and reshuffled. If you’re constantly awake work-wise you don’t allow that to happen. One of the reasons I have to take distinct breaks when I work is to allow the momentum of a particular direction to run down, so that another one can establish itself.”

 Finally, Eno says “Nearly all the things I do that are of any merit at all start off as just being good fun.” If you are enjoying yourself you will be more creative. Happiness, positive mood, and optimism have all been empirically linked to greater creative output. Anecdotal evidence is thus supported by scientific evidence, and this principle is an important one. I will blog soon about the link between well-being and  creativity.

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