What stops us from being creative? Ken Robinson tells the story of a room full of five year olds being asked if they can draw. They all put their hands up. 10 years later you ask the same group of (now) fifteen year olds and perhaps one or two will put their hands up. Slowly we grow out of our creativity as we become more aware of the outside world. More aware of judgement.
My inner five year old still loves painting
A more positive interpretation would be that we start focusing on the things that we are good at. Education becomes a filtering process to find where our skills lie. Where our merits lie. We do more of the stuff where we are better than others, and less of the stuff we aren’t so good at. The idea of competitive advantage is a powerful economic one. If I do what I am good at, and you do what you are good at, then we are both better off.
On top of that, we get to feed into the positive emotion associated with being good at something. Recognition. Admiration. Progress. We get to find ‘our place in the world’. The key thing we need to do this filtering is a benchmark, and our benchmark is those surrounding us. Are we better or worse? In investing this is called ‘alpha’. If I own a business that only falls 10% when a comparable bundle has fallen 20%, I am a hero. That is considered 10% outperformance.
In a way this is fair. We think in comparison. How are we supposed to work our way through the world if we don’t see things in the light of what is next to them. It is fine to suggest we look at something for its own sake, but doesn’t that put us in a bubble?
I do think comparison has value. What worries me is seeing just how attractive measurements become. The world is vast and there is too much going on to understand. It is fuzzy, contradictory, infuriating, bewildering and strange. Measurements simplify things. They give certainty. They give something to focus. That is very attractive. Like sugar, salt, fat and all those yummy things we now get in distilled packages, I don’t believe comparison is bad. It just becomes a default that can distract from other good things.
I am a very competitive guy. I like being good at things. I don’t particularly like myself when I get very competitive though. I am sure my brothers, cousins, parents and friends have plenty of stories from growing up where I erred on the side of down-right unpleasant. I can remember fights on the tennis court with my friend Richie over whether the ball was in or out. Fights that ended up with us storming off the court. To be clear, I was so bad at tennis that I preferred receiving to serving. I hadn’t ever learnt to serve properly. After one attempt to burn a hole through Richie’s racquet, I would gently try pop the ball over the net to avoid a double fault. At which point his eyes would light up for the return. Richie was the same, and this is how our games would progress.
I vowed I would never take up Golf after I saw my brothers coming home bitter and twisted. It seemed like a game designed to make people angry. No matter how good people get, they are angry. They have a new comparison. Tiger Woods is one of the angriest people I have seen on a golf course. I only attempted some golf lessons after believing I had had a course in emotional control. That course came through Poker.
Losing a month’s pocket money playing darts at the Westville Fair (an annual event where I grew up), put me off the idea of gambling. It took a friend convincing me Poker was a game of skill to get me to like it. His evidence was winning all our one cent and two cent pieces about twenty times in a row. I started to love the game, and played it regularly. The lesson came when I invested too much emotion in a hand. When I knew the odds and the cards came against me. When the chance of me losing was 4%. One card. And that card came. When sometimes I would lose again and again and again, and it felt like the Poker gods were against me. Eventually you realise chance doesn’t hate you. Chance doesn’t care about you at all. If you play often enough, 4% chances will happen fairly regularly. Sometimes in bunches. Some things don’t happen for a reason, they happen because they can.
Once I was able to stand up from a Poker table after a bad beat, I decided I was capable of taking on Golf lessons. I had only ever played one round before that and had scored an 8 on the Stapleford method. I don’t really remember how that works, but I know that 8 is very bad. After my ten or so lessons, I was backing myself. I could hit the ball nicely, and thought I now knew a thing or two. In my second round of Golf I scored a 5. Unlike the normal scoring method, a lower Stapleford score is a bad thing. Worse than that, I scored almost all my points on one hole. Three nice hits left the ball with an iPhone length tap in for my first birdie. The rest of the day I was worse than before the lessons.
I later played my second round of Golf with a friend Matthew, and some random stranger who happened to be at the course. By the end of the round, this guy and Matthew were like new best friends. I on the other hand had hardly seen them. While they hit the ball and walked along the grass, I spent so much time looking for balls in the bushes, I started to get a deeper understanding of why my first impression of Golf had been the raging return of my brothers. I haven’t made it back to a course yet, but when I do I have decided to approach Golf with my own scoring system. All I want to do is walk straight. I don’t care how many times I have to hit the ball. I don’t care if my Golf resembles hockey.
The point of the Golf was to spend time with Matt. The point of the Tennis was to spend time with Richie. The point of the Poker was a regular get together with friends. I made one of my best friends through the couple of years I had a home game. I had known him before, but the weekly games let us see the side of someone you only see with the gift of time. We don’t do everything in order to gain expertise. There are other reasons for things besides the measurements. Jack Johnson sings that ‘Fact and Fiction work as a team’. Some of the fuzzy stuff is not quantifiable or comparable and you only access it by letting go.
One of the reasons I think we struggle with creativity as we get older is because it feels deeply personal. I always took feedback on my Art much more personally than feedback on my Mathematics. A fact is either right or wrong. No one cares if you disagree with Gravity or think the Earth is flat. You are wrong. Fiction or stories feel like they connect to your soul. Yes, there are technical sides to art that can be judged. If that is the point. If the point of Art is creativity, then any judgement feels like it is criticism of your soul. It feels like is challenging who you are. Your value.
When people stand up in front of others to speak, they clam up because the emotional response is that you are baring your soul. You, not what you are saying, are being judged. The best public speaking is when the speaker is not the centre of attention. When after a talk, the thing that is being discussed is the ideas. This happens when the speaker is so enthusiastic about what they are speaking about, that that passion transfers to the audience. They become a group of people looking at an idea together. Instead of being judged, the speaker is sharing something exciting. Something the audience will discover.
Somehow, if we are able to let go of the idea of being judged, we are able to tap back into our inner five year old who can still draw. Who still loves drawing. Although comparison can help us motivate ourselves, it can also tear down things we are passionate about. It can be too much. Somehow there needs to be a balance. One reason for this is that often you are learn by doing things, and the skills you need at different stages of learning are different.
I like the example of piano playing. In the beginning there are lots of technical skills required. There are motor skills required. There is fitness required. You need to learn scales. You need to train your ears. It is very academic. It is hard work. At some point (and I haven’t reached that point), it becomes second nature much like a language that you speak fluently. At that point, what matters is the emotion. The story telling. The connection with those who you are playing for. If you haven’t been able to get through the difficult part at the beginning, which can be got through, you won’t get to the joyous finale.
There are a lot of things you learn by doing. How do you become a writer? Write. Often. How do you improve your reading speed? Read. Often. At some stage it becomes a learning habit. But you have to do it. Picasso was famously prolific, and he often pushed himself into areas outside of his natural competence. He was always learning. He got into the habit of being creative. Some things work, some things don’t. If they are small enough that you are not investing all your hopes and dreams in them, it doesn’t really matter. The irony being that by mattering less, in the end they can matter more. Because the learning stacks up and takes you to a place that you didn’t know was possible. That seemed too much for you in the beginning.
Tim Minchin did a wonderful graduation speech in which he talked about being ‘micro-ambitious’. Narrowing goals down to small things that add up. I love this idea and am trying to put it in effect in my life. It is tempting to have very big goals. These goals can seem too much. Like most of us, I get down when I think of some of the huge challenges facing the world. When I see the clip of the drone flying through Homs. When we hear of terrorist attacks. When we see Donald Trump leading the nomination race for the Republican party by appealing to prejudice. When I see racial tensions boiling over all. Big goals like a world where people treat each other decently and we all have the ability to pursue the things that matter. To create meaning.
Following the ‘micro-ambition’, the way to these goals may be tiny. Instead, I focus on learning to cook a few new meals. Keeping my home tidy. Getting a little fitter each week by running slightly further. Having a conversation with a friend. Writing a short blog post each day. Reading a little. Getting to know the different countries and cultures in the world. What the what is doesn’t matter that much. What matters to me at the moment is enjoying each day, and building into that day little micro-ambitious goals. Something new. Like the little kids at school who get home and get asked ‘what did you learn today’. Then they go play. Once you have achieved a little thing. The rest of the day comes free. Free to enjoy. Free to explore.
Today’s ‘Micro-ambitious’ goal is to sit and write for three hours in response to Brett’s tandem blogging challenge. There are 6 other bloggers and we are in our third week of a four week joint effort. The title today is ‘Too much for you’. I normally just write 500ish word blog posts. The idea being that people don’t really have time to read much more than that. If I keep it simple, and short, someone is likely to have five minutes to spare to read the post while they have a cup of tea. If something is long, even if it is interesting, what I tend to do is put it away for later. Sometimes I get to it, but normally I don’t. Too much.
There is generally too much information at the moment. When I was at school and we did a project, the super keen kids would get three books on the topic. Most would try and get away with a couple. Now with the internet, there is so much information out there, the challenge is to filter. Even when I discover someone I think is super smart, I don’t get to reading all their stuff. I love Tim Urban’s waitbutwhy.com blog and Stuart Alexander on slatestarcodex.com. I will go through long patches between checking them. There are heaps of authors and books on my ‘to-read list’. Any of the books have the potential to dramatically affect my life. Realistically I am not going to get to most of them.
Because there is so much, we also tend to read things superficially and once. Some people (me included) do go back and re-watch movies. We certainly re-listen to music. When it comes to friends, we spend more time with people we like. Books and ideas should be the same. In ‘Moonwalking with Einstein’, Joshua Foer talks about how memory techniques were developed pre-printing because the literate people treated books with reverence. There were only a few copies. By studying the books, they could re-read them by memory. Repeating phrases, paragraphs, pages, chapters and entire books with their eyes closed and their internal voice as the narrator. The ideas could grow with them.
There has to be some sort of balance. I don’t believe in closing ourselves off from new ideas because we have too much already. Fresh ideas build resilience and prevent stasis. I do however think that the conservative idea of returning to tried and tested ideas is valuable. Chewing on them. A degree of trust in them.
Jonathan Haidt has written two wonderful books. The first is called ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ and goes through significant ancient texts in the light of modern research. His second book is called ‘The Righteous Mind’ and looks at why religion and politics is so divisive. He tries to understand why people who we consider good can have such contrasting views. At the heart of this is this clash between the idea of inherited wisdom or conservatism and liberal ideas about a willingness to change.
There is too much for all of us. We know a lot that we don’t know we know. The collective wisdom of our ancestors, and our community, is passed on through culture. There is value in this. We can tinker with new ideas, but that takes some deep thinking and reflection. Attempting to understand the centuries that have created the dance those around us perform. Why. What are the knock on consequences if we change? What will we lose?
A challenge we face now is there are often multiple different solutions. Many different dramas. Many different plays. Infinite paintings. The constraints they place on themselves are what creates the beauty. How do we face the challenge of mixing and mingling?
Someone in Uganda may look at America and think that it is a mess. How can people possibly want so many guns around that they kill more of each other than do any of the other threats they fight so passionately about. That Ugandan might try head to America to try and teach them. They may think this will be easy. A friend shared an article about who we tend to see other people’s issues as easy to solve, but our own as very difficult. That Ugandan would need to deep soak in an American culture that has a fundamental distrust of government. An America built on the idea of personal freedom.
There are different solutions. Libertarians have a movement where they are trying to get sufficient enough group of them to move to New Hampshire, so that they can affect the politics. Someone wrote an essay saying this was possible if 20,000 people would commit to moving there within five years if the target of pledges was met. Libertarians believe in Liberty. That Liberty can include repealing gun laws and allowing the carrying of switch-blade knives. These knives are apparently very useful in certain situations, but are often outlawed because they can be used as weapons. A lot of what people believe depends on where they place the trade-offs. How useful should a knife be to risk a murder?
One problem I think we have is that we want politicians to represent us. Our views. Our ideologies. I like pragmatism. What I believe doesn’t actually matter that much. It certainly matters much less than what WE believe. We spend so much time trying to argue that our ideology is right, and not enough time figuring out how to accommodate various ways of looking at the problems.
I wasn’t trained to be a consensus builder. Quite the opposite. I was trained to be a Contrarian. A Contrarian doesn’t have a lot of faith in ‘the wisdom of crowds’. A Contrarian believes in independent thinking. Not outsourcing your opinions to others. A Contrarian is not the same thing as someone who is always contrary. If you always disagree, you are outsourcing your thinking. You are being difficult. You are disagreeing for the sake of it, and so don’t actually have anything to add. The point is to be different AND correct.
Therein lies the rub. What does it mean to be correct? Back to Jack Johnson’s ‘Fact and Fiction work as a team’. I think the subset of things that are worth fighting over is very small. In picking battles, I think we need to be overly cautious. Most of the time we don’t change other people’s minds. Particularly if we are not on their side. It is incredibly difficult to get agreement with someone you don’t like, as you stop giving them the benefit of the doubt. You interpret every action as having malicious intent.
In David Graeber’s ‘The Democracy Project’, he looks at the history of people living in and working in groups. He is a ‘small a anarchist’ and was involved in the Occupy movement. I certainly don’t agree with all (or most) of his views, but I found the book fascinating. I hate the idea of archy. I don’t like that we divide society into groups that have power over other groups. Into bosses and subordinates. I am a much bigger fan of teams. People working together. Letting go of the idea of superiority and inferiority.
He looks at the practicalities behind the building of consensus. Interestingly, many of the techniques come from the Quaker movements fight against slavery and were inherited by many Feminist Activists. The thing with consensus is it doesn’t mean everyone agrees. It doesn’t even necessarily mean compromise. Consensus means scaling back on where we impose our thoughts on others. It means listening more. It means that when decisions are taken, they attempt to take into account the issues facing everybody.
Majority rules on the other hand is war. Graeber traces it back to days were you got a vote if you were armed and able to fight. So majority rules was a way of comparing to roughly equally capable armies without bloodshed. Naturally losing a vote doesn’t mean your view is taken into account. Giving minorities the vote in America didn’t lead to their interests being taken into account in decision making. Partisan politics in America means governments take turns undoing their predecessors work, and shifting things in their direction. Hardly a recipe for peaceful co-existence.
The answer for me lies in breaking down identities. Expanding identities. Taking the best bits from various solutions, but not putting them in one huge pot. Allowing the ability for people to find places to go to where they can be at their most fulfilled. Where they can be at their most creative. Whatever that means for them. It means we need to narrow down our areas of disagreement to the battles worth fighting. It means we should only fight those battles once we have identified core common causes we believe in. Once we are on the same side.
And that comes back to the barriers to creativity. I believe what stops us is partly emotional. Not rational. We don’t know if we can’t do something until we try it. The initial stages of trying something are difficult. Not just because we haven’t learnt to do the thing, but because not being able to do it sucks. There is a mist of uncertainty that descends. We don’t know how long it will take to conquer. We don’t know if it will be conquered. We lack comfort.
That may also be why kids are so great at learning. They get fantastic support. So much so that often we subordinate the interests of adults to children. We tease the Chinese of ‘Little Emperors’ because of the one child policy, but I know lots of people where the adults become very much second priority in the house. I think we need to be better parents to ourselves too. Kids excel when they have a place of safety to which they can return. An anchor of peace to drop when need be.
I have found part of that anchor in Yoga. Tim Minchin’s micro-ambition applied to simple things like breathing a little better. Learning to relax a little more. Eating a little healthier. Getting a little fitter. These things provide a solid base for the other bits of creativity. For thinking about how I can contribute to the lives of those who matter for me. For wading into understanding some of the waves of challenges that buffet us. For finding avenues to channel my passions. It all starts simply. With a little.
Then a little more. Then a little more. Slowly but surely it adds up. But it isn’t the adding up that really matters. The little is wonderful in and of itself. When goals are huge, they become the point of focus, the smaller the goals get they melt into a single line. A line to savour. And there is so much worth savouring.
I love conversations with friends most of all. Talking about the things that matter to us. Getting excited about something. Kuiering. The trick is building more of these moments into our busy lives. I often wonder why it is that work is the one habit that most of us have in common. I mentioned the friendship I built through weekly poker games. The weekly nature turned it into a habit. Something I did. Something I always did. Five days a week, most of us get us and go to work. There is always more to do and we just put the hours in. There is never ‘too much’.
We can easily fall out of the habit of contacting those who matter to us. Of putting as much energy into our relationships as we put into our work. I hear lots of people talk about friends who they haven’t seen for years. When they meet up, it is ‘like no time has passed, we just click’. I really don’t like this. If they are such awesome friends, we really should make more of an effort to see each other more regularly. Yes, there are some friends who are great in small doses, but some of my happiest times were in the dining halls of my university, surrounded by friends. It has been a long time since I had lots of my friends and family around.
I am lucky now. I now get to spend time going to visit people. I have time for people who have time for me. I know this puts me in a very privileged position. I know most people can’t separate their income stream from how they spend their time as I have done. I am an optimist. I believe we aren’t actually that far off living in a world where work is optional. Where we have a universal income that provides the basics. This doesn’t mean we don’t do anything with our time, it just means we are able to redirect it to things that matter to us.
One of the purest forms of comparison is money. It is capable of comparing any two things that have a price no matter how different they are. Visiting a doctor. Having a pint at pub. A flight to Paris. A glass of hot water with a slice of lemon. The lesson to learn is that the price comes from everyone else. Price comes from supply and demand. Value is internal. Value is yours.
That is the key to letting go of comparison. If you are able to staring exploring that internal value that is yours. If you are able to expand your idea of what is you and yours to a group. If you are able to care about more than an identity that is connected to your soul that can be judged. If your soul is expanded to be connected that of a wider and wider group. Then comparison makes no sense. Then you are not separate from the things you are comparing yourself to.