Archives for posts with tag: creative thinking

Have you ever wondered why creative people always seem to come with the label “crazy” attached?
Isn’t it a little weird how “sanity” seems to entail the bland sameness of conformity to social norms?
Is it possible to for a human mind to be both creative _and_ sane, preferably at the same time?

We can deal with practical considerations first: how to do more creative work in less time.

According to Pareto’s Law or the “80/20” rule, most people obtain eighty percent of their results from twenty percent of their time and effort. I like this idea and have probably mentioned it before. Pareto’s Law (or “Pareto Principle”) describes the amount of “wasted” time that an artist spends daydreaming. Daydreams are the invisible generative work of sketching out new ideas.

That eighty percent also includes time misspent following ineffective advice.

If twenty percent of creativity is visible, how can the other eighty percent be used more effectively?

The Inverse 80/20 Rule

Metacognition means “thinking about thinking”. Someone who designs a school curriculum is thinking _about_ the best way for students to think about a given subject, with the purpose of learning that subject. It may sound confusing because most people rarely question their own ways of doing things. Lack of metacognition may be the largest blind spot slowing your creative development and abilities. Most people blunder about taking advice from authority figures and popular icons rather than learning to evaluate the (possibly flawed) thinking that led to the advice.

Solution: spend eighty percent of your time on the metacognitive skill of learning how to reach better results in the other twenty percent of your time.

Example:
The average writer is often told that to be a better writer requires you to write a certain quota of words per day.

Using a metacognitive approach, you might ask, “instead of just writing more, how do I learn to write better stories?” The task would then be a deliberate, daily study and refinement of the question itself.

Further questions: Do I need to write better stories, or do I need to learn what stories are made of? Are there different types of stories? If so, which types to I want to learn to write? Are there any role models for me to learn from? How do they learn to write? How are those role models similar and different to me in my journey as a writer? How do the parts of their skillsets fit into my approach? If I alter my approach in one way, what effects will that have on my prior ways of doing things?

You will discover masters of the craft. You will find the first principles of your art, and every word you write will stand on that foundation. Look back in a few years and you may no longer recognize those old works as your own.

You may only spend twenty percent of your time writing. Instead of pouring the other eighty percent into the abyss of “consistent hard work”, you can rest assured that every finished piece will echo forward from the greatest sources that you have been able to find.

The real skill development is not the skill itself, but continual improvement of the learning process.

This is true in engineering as well as the arts, and especially in areas where there are no established best practices. Many artistic fields have no obvious blueprint for what’s “good” and how to create works of high quality. You will have to create and continually refine your own set of best practices, and hold yourself to them with each new effort.

Sanity for artists: what your therapist won’t tell you (and why artistry is not a direct route to psychotherapy at all)

In the world of psychotherapy, great emphasis is placed on psychological “abnormality”.

In the non-therapeutic world, the idea of “normal” is a social control tactic used to shame those who deviate from the majority’s consensus on how a “sane” person “should” (or really, _must_) act.

From the time of Sigmund Freud onward (actually, Aristotle), it has become fashionable to psychopathologize creativity as a form of madness. Hollywood further nurtures the “crazy artist” stereotype because it makes for a cheap dramatic thrill and easy comedic punchlines. This closely tracks the fallacy that successful artists and scientists are “geniuses”, and all geniuses are also crazy.

There is some truth to the idea — a disproportionate number of great artists have been manic-depressive (and perhaps some familial association with schizophrenia), for example.

The number of mentally ill artists is miniscule compared to those who simply love art and want to create it.

So how can you keep sane in a world where any hint of being “artsy” will prompt the manipulative idiots in your life to whisper, scream and howl about how “crazy” you must be?

Simple answer: realize that they are simply acting in a normal, socially manipulative way, and that’s how people are when there’s more than one human in a room.

Vital Contact

Artistry — and science, and engineering — often requires turning away from the world for extended periods of time. In order to acquire skill in a domain, this “introversion” must be enacted for hours every day, over a period of years. Some estimate that roughly a decade is required to rise from novice to attain practical mastery.

Psychojargon regards this intensive introversion as a “loss of vital contact will reality”. Expert armchair psychoanalysts (like your parents, perhaps) may mis-diagnose an artist’s mentality as a form of psychosis or dissociative disorder.

Many, perhaps most, creatively successful and prolific people have learned to turn inward. This is often due to some involuntary form of isolation from the outside world in their youth or young adulthood.

“Normal” people find other, more ordinary external stimuli: aimless socializing in desperate need of others’ love and approval; materialistic greed for status objects and money; and normal human obsession for sex and reproduction. Creative people somehow re-route that time and energy into artistic and/or scientific pursuits.

In other words, all successful artists, scientists and engineers are at heart, a bunch of hardcore geeks and nerds.

Social Butterflies and Inner Demons

Collaboration is often essential, yet a supremely well-socialized person will be inevitably be constrained by the collective opinions of those in his or her peer group. It’s harder to be creative when you’re balancing other people’s expectations against your own creative impulses. Creative isolation provides oxygen for the spark of an idea to ignite within a well-prepared mind.

The average person recoils at the prospect of being alone with their own thoughts, in no small part because their own minds are foreign resonance chambers of unfounded fears and imaginary enemies. A creative person, however, can choose not to be self-destructive — the abuse of drugs or other people, for example — in favor of accepting all of those “voices in my head” (although if the voices feel as though they are not yours, please seek professional help). Acceptance frees the mind from self-censorship and internal persecution regarding any strange or unexpected thought. This is a separate skillset that I may tell you more about later.

The Perfect Passion Project

The process of rising to a level of creativity where others care about your work may, paradoxically, require you to stop caring so much about what others think of your work.

Re-route the passion for approval, money and sex into the creation of a world that must first become more than real in your own mind.

A science fiction filmmaker doesn’t stare wishfully at the moon or sit on the couch getting high and drunk with friends while watching movies. The filmmaker spends years working on the skills (perhaps using the “Inverse 80/20 rule” above) to make real his or her own vision of Moon, Mars, Pluto and beyond.

A writer doesn’t fret about not having the “right” friends or sit on dating sites wishing for Prince or Princess Charming to magically appear. The writer learns to build fascinating character relationships and construct story worlds so compelling that the reader will never want to leave.

A visual artist or illustrator doesn’t fall into the typical consumer’s traps. Consumerist traps include trying to find mass-produced beauty in fashion magazines and engaging in the endless fool’s errand of shopping in boutique stores. The artist learns to take even simple objects and discover the perfection of what can be seen within them. This requires a re-wiring of the mind from demanding perfection outside, to creating perfection inside and learning to express it in visual form.

“Perfection” here can be the perfect tension of asymmetry or a marvel of the immaculately grotesque. The work itself does not attempt perfection. Perfectionism is perhaps the only truly debilitating illness to afflict creative people. Perfection here is the embodiment of the question: “how close is this work to the vision that compelled me to create it?” and that is the essence of a lifelong pursuit. Perfection is infinite, in that it always lies one step down the path; at the next step and then the next. This is a life in art. If that is madness, why would anyone settle for the consensual hallucination of creativity-deprived “sanity”?

Further Reading:

1. Bipolar Disorder and Creativity. Written by Neel Burton for Psychology Today.
2. Do Creativity And Schizophrenia Share A Small Genetic Link? Maybe. Written by Angus Chen for NPR.
3. Secrets of the Creative Brain. Written by Nancy C. Andreasen for The Atlantic.

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What if you wanted to become the best in the world?

0. Throw away the idea of “analysis paralysis” and face your fear of being wrong.

You’ve heard the expression before. Especially in the corporate world, many people who loathe unnecessary meetings and red-tape regulations will react to any sign of hesitation with well-practiced disdain. “What you’re doing smells like analysis paralysis. Do something! Move! Faster, faster!”

Many people confuse the concept of procrastination with the notion of “analysis paralysis”. If you’re using the idea of “weighing all the options” as an excuse to avoid taking action, the problem is not that you’re thinking too much.

Thinking is never a bad thing.
Thinking about the wrong ideas can be a very bad thing.
Charging into a topic without thinking is almost equally as bad.

Don’t Wait, Don’t Rush

The real question is, “are you afraid of making mistakes or being wrong?”

If you’re afraid, then charging in won’t help because you’ll tend to use cynical “positive thinking” to ignore mistakes rather than learn from them. This will become a stumbling block, and then a fatal flaw on the path to learning. There are a million ways to make mistakes, and an infinity of excuses to hide behind.

Sitting on the fence and “analyzing” forever (i.e. procrastinating) is also not useful because it prevents the experiences and inevitable mistakes that will ultimately lead to skill.

In essence, this article is about learning to think better in order to do better. The first, critical point is to accept the fact that you’re going to make mistakes and dedicate yourself to improving one step at a time. Your goals will draw near with accelerating speed when you see mistakes as lessons to learn, not shameful evidence of inherent incompetence. To put it plainly, you’ll get better faster after you get over yourself. More about this farther down.

Onward.

1. Name your skill.

Pick an area and be specific. Do you want to be the best jazz musician, the best 3D graffiti artist, or the best maker of boutique designs for stylish artificial limbs?

Your area of expertise can be anything. Even better if you have some sense of aptitude, or general inclination in that area — and can find a niche that may not be the first one that comes to mind. Give yourself time to think, explore and try new options until you’re comfortable enough to know whether or not a particular field or domain is the right one for you.

2. Define A Worthwhile Goal.

Your chances of reaching a worthwhile goal are higher if you make the goal specific.

Do you really want to be the best in the world?

The less ego-driven you are, the better — “the best in the world” is both meaningless and empty.

– How would you know that you were “the best”? More likely, you’ll merely join a club of hypercompetitive narcissists who thrive on the idea of oneupmanship and short-sighted triumph over others.

– What if you became the best? You’d drop dead out of ecstasy at being a “Winner”, or realize that your goal was just egotistical obsession over other peoples’ opinions of your work?

The deepest values lead to the most meaningful goals.

Instead, define your goal in terms of your deepest values. Do you care about other people, or only yourself? One important aspect of real creativity is that creative work is inherently an act of communication. The more you can take the perspective of your audience and care about them in the ways that they care about themselves, the more likely you are to connect to their desires and values. You’ll be able to see the commonalities between what the audience wants, and what you already love to do.

By contrast, a selfish egotist is trapped gazing at his or her own reflection and can only haphazardly assume that the world will think that his or her work is “the best”. Bluster and bluffing can sometimes win in the short-term. Attuning your creative impulses to the desires of your audience will ensure that you never fall too far out of touch.

3. Reduce all distractions.

The impetus for this entry was the question, “how am I better than I was last year around this time?”

Actually, I ask myself this question all the time.

The answer is that I’ve done the reverse of the typical approach. Instead of trying to shoehorn more time into my life, I’ve reduced the amount of time wasted on non-useful activities. One obvious point that everyone strenuously overlooks: use television, movies and other passive media (including aimless web browsing) as treats to be enjoyed only on special occasions. They are mental junk food unless they directly contribute to your creative work; all forms of “junk” (physical, mental, emotional, financial and time-wise) are perfect opportunities to troubleshoot and “take out the trash”, as it were.

Instead of being a good consumerist herd animal and trying to “have it all”, be a smart creative person and learn to do more with less. Life is already too short; train yourself to always strive to do more in less time. Paradoxically, this is the opposite of “multitasking”. This means you may need to get better at doing nothing at all.

4. When you’re “doing nothing”, actually do nothing.

This operationalizes the previous point at its most extreme level.

The essence of distraction is an attempt to get away from something. You might have watched TV and movies to escape from yourself for a while. Drink and drugs often — but not always — have similar purposes, especially in a social context (alcohol is called a “social lubricant” for a reason; it distracts from social anxiety by dampening the stress response).

Creativity: escape or immersion?

Creativity is, in some ways, the perfect escape, in that you’re building a world that doesn’t exist in realty. Creativity is also the opposite of escape, in that you have to focus one-hundred percent of yourself and your energy in order to do your best work. This means that it’s all too easy to almost reach the zone of creativity — and get distracted because your mind wants to escape the necessary intensity of attentional absorption.

Question: How can you reach that intense “flow” state more often?
Answer: Allow yourself to be bored.

Trust that you’re never “doing nothing”. Your so-called “unconscious” mind is always working, even when you consciously draw a blank. While you sleep, you dream. And when you’re bored, your mind is wandering in ways that will lead to your next creative idea.

If you distract yourself with television, movies or other passive media (like most of social media), those quiet whispers of new thoughts are easily drowned out, much like junk food may give you the feeling of being full while leaving you malnourished.

Focus on your creative fascinations when your mind is ready to operate intensely, and be bored while waiting for the next idea.

4. Get better by operationalizing your goals.

This is the most important part of this set of principles.

Do you remember when you just started out? You probably defaulted to the old “I wanna be the best ever” idea.

Then you learned a little more and realized that being the best will take years. There are a lot of fanatically creative people (more likely: desperately insecure people) out there. Contrary to stereotypes, many artists and creatives are willing to work really, really hard, practically all the time.

That’s the ego trap at work.

How do you escape from becoming a slave to the things you love?

One way is to think more about how to get better.

If you want to draw or paint better, you could just draw and paint all the time. Immersion definitely has its value. Jump into the water if you want to learn how to swim.

Or you could ask, “if I wanted to paint on the level of Leonardo da Vinci, what are the most basic skills that I could use to reduce the mistakes I make with every new piece?” The human body, for example, isn’t just a thing of beauty. It’s an object of scientific study. Did you know that you can learn exactly where every bone, muscle, joint, wrinkle and shadow is supposed to be? This is a subject called anatomy. Without in-depth anatomical study, all you have is hours spent guessing. In a fraction of the time, anatomical knowledge can bring precision to every human figure that you draw or paint for the rest of your life.

If you want to learn a language, the same principles are at work. Do you want to learn slowly and painfully as you’re forced to do at school? Or do you want to become a fluent communicator with real people in that language, which involves a completely different combination of structure, rote learning and cultural immersion?

Think of other areas of life where these ideas might apply.

Recap

Remember that creativity is, at its core, about continually getting better at making things that communicate to other people in a valuable way.

Here’s a more concise version that also elaborates on the previous points. Quiz yourself by seeing if you detect the differences:

1. Start from your values.

Why do you want to make these things?
In what ways do your creative impulses communicate something valuable to others?

2. Move beyond egotistical goals.

Instead of racing to be “the best” like a starving rat in pursuit of cheese, create goals that can continue to grow with your skills — always anchored by the intrinsic values that you discovered in step 1. Your skills and goals will self-sustain, getting better and better at an accelerating pace.

Learn to cultivate the “audience mind” without pandering to what’s hot right now or becoming trapped in pop-culture trends and soon-to-be discarded “cool” cliches.

3. Instead of chasing distractions, embrace boredom.

Boredom leads to frustration. Frustration leads to expression. Be ready for your best ideas to tumble out when you least expected them to arrive. Be prepared by keeping your mind open. Being bored will quickly become the most fascinating part of your day, when you realize how hard your mind is working all the time. Give yourself room to work inside the nascent imagined reality that your creativity will soon bring forth in full form for the world outside to enjoy.

4. Operationalze your goals.

Get better at getting better by always looking to learn more about “the skill of skill”. The more you refine your approach, the fewer mistakes you’ll repeat. As you deepen your comprehension and fluency in the fundamentals (which may in themselves be different from what you first assumed), the more possibilities you’ll open in the long term. Be meticulous in refining your grasp of the basics and be creative in giving yourself restrictions in order to force your mind into new ways of seeing, thinking and constructing the questions that you ask about your subject. The answers will soon begin to surprise you in delightfully unexpected ways — and may be your best hope for delighting your audience every time, whoever they may be.

If you consider yourself an artist of some kind — writer, actor, director, illustrator, painter, musician, &etc. — there are two major roadblocks that you’ll have to overcome every day.

Those roadblocks are the “Manyana Contingency” and the “Army of Nope.” Both of these blocks are facilitated in sometimes-unexpected ways by the Internet, and if the Web is part of your daily life, you’ll have to combat these issues every single day. The first step is to learn to recognize them.

– Read more about The Manyana Contingency (click here)

– Read more about The Army of Nope (click here)

Why not let everyone lie to themselves about why they never actually do anything creative? No harm in a little self-deception, right? Let the sheep be sheep!

Well, here’s the problem: many non-creative people are crabs in sheeps’ clothing; if they’re not haters or trolls, they’re well-meaning “worker bee” types who give deadly bad advice. Our own minds can pull us back down “into the crabs’ barrel” unless we remind ourselves to stay aware and renew our focus every single day.

Rather than make this journal entry longer with examples, I’ll leave it to you to think about who the crabs are in your life. Recognize that if you want to become successful as a creative person (or anywhere else in life, really), you’ll have to elude the crabs at every turn — even your Inner Crab who will make excuses like, “my favorite artists were just gifted geniuses. I could never do that.” That’s a lie, plain and simple.

If you have the basic aptitude to do something well, then do it. Even a tone-deaf person can learn to sing; people with thick fingers can learn the piano. You may have to create your own way of doing it, but that’s precisely what the world needs. This isn’t “positive thinking” nonsense, either — problem-solving is half of the creative puzzle. If you overcome hurdles at the start, you’ll have an edge over those who didn’t have those hurdles, because you started out doing things differently. And being different is what makes creativity matter. That difference is the only thing that distinguishes between a worker bee and a Queen (ugh, did I just write that?). Remove the egotism from the “Queen” idea and you’ll see what I mean.

It will be crucial to learn to spot the Manyana Contingency and elude the Army of Nope if you want to succeed as a creative person. Once you know how to see those creativity-killers — the excuse-makers, bad advice-givers, haters and trolls — you can design strategies to effectively deal with them. This will help prevent them from stealing time away from the things that you love to do.

Time is life and focus is key. Hopefully I’ll be able to make time to write down a few of my own strategies soon. Until then, spend a few minutes every day to create and refine your own “Creativity Defense System”. Second only to honing and demonstrating your artistic craft, the skill of defending yourself against distraction (sometimes by embracing and redirecting it rather than fighting head-on) may be the most important ability that you’ll ever learn. Get that right, and the rest will be as easy as finding four-leafed clovers in a field on a sunny summer day. Actually, it won’t. Art is hard work. And isn’t it better to love what you do?