perspective

What we give up by being creative

There’s a high cost to being a maker or creative.

Of course I’m talking about the cost of diving into the unknown, of taking something comfortable or familiar and throwing it away.

To create is to destroy: the empty canvas, the blank page, the solid stone, or perception or even beliefs. The pursuit of new and different requires us to abandon—at least temporarily—the old and familiar.

What happens when the new isn’t as good or reliable as the old? What do we do when what we create doesn’t feel worthy of the destruction? How do we know when we’ve succeeded or fulfilled our purpose as a creative? How do we know when more (or better) ideas and projects on the horizon, or if we’ve reached our peak?

I don’t know the answers. What I do know is that the adventure into figuring out the answers for yourself is almost always worthwhile.

The reality is that the journey of a creative—of someone who imagines an alternate way forward or who asks what might happen when something gets made—is one fraught with uncertainty, dead ends, and many nights of discouraged restlessness.

When you begin to embrace curiosity and creation, when you open yourself to newness, you will never be the same. It’s like walking through a door you can’t go back through. Once you’re through, you’ll see things or feel things or have things you didn’t before.

But what we trade-off for all this is something we can’t get any other way: a different tomorrow. Something tangible that wasn’t there yesterday. A new book or blog post. A sculpture. A photograph or video, or conference, or document that proves “I was here, I made this.” A different perspective, or a more clarified one. A more vivid idea of what’s possible or why things are the way they are.

Even when the work isn’t up to snuff—when what we make doesn’t match what was in our head, of compared to what someone else made before us—we still learn, we still will have made something that wasn’t there yesterday.

And the result of any creative endeavor is this: a guiding light or inspiration to others, and a reminder for ourselves. A difference big or small in the way you think or feel or see. And that difference is what creativity is all about. Not accepting the status quo for what it is. Not looking around you and believing it doesn’t get better. We must appreciate everything around us that is beautiful and unique and valuable, but we must also remember that what often makes those things so is that they are impermanent.

There’s always the great unknown just around the corner. And when we go out to face it we give up a lot, but gain a lot too.



Impossible as a perspective we keep

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We say “when pigs fly” whenever we’re describing something impossible. It’s a way of saying something will never happen, to scoff at over ambition, “yeah right, when pigs fly.”

Pigs may not have wings but these days it’s not out of the realm of possibilities for them to fly. All you have to do is put one on an airplane, or in a hot air balloon.

A thousand years ago the only way to understand the idea of someone or something flying was to think of it within the contexts of magic or godliness.

People didn’t fly, it just wasn’t something that was capable of happening. Whenever people imagined flying back then they did so from the perspective of magic or otherworldliness. Gods flew, birds too, but people or pigs? Never going to happen, impossible.

Today more than 2.5 million people fly every day within the United States alone. 45,000 ft in the air, 250 meters a second, millions and millions of miles traveled a day. But if you were to travel back in time and repeat those numbers to someone they’d have a hard time comprehending what you were saying. To those who lived a thousand years ago flying was impossible, not only for pigs but for people too.

Yet here we are: millions of people doing the impossible every day.

It turns out impossible isn’t as precise as its description implies: “something unable to occur or exist.” Something that’s impossible from one perspective or frame of understanding is normal in another. As humans we may be incapable of flying without the gravity-defying support of an airplane, but we are flying nonetheless every time we travel in one. Flying therefore is no longer impossible. Pigs can fly every day now.

”It always seems impossible until it’s done.” — Nelson Mandela

In order to provoke creative thinking we often need to change the lens we use when looking at a problem or statement. What’s impossible here and now, with our current understanding or perspective, may be entirely possible if all we do is change the way we’re looking at it: if we flip it around, change the context, introduce a new technology or facet, remove a piece, or put the thing into something else—like a pig into an airplane.

"The ability to see an idea, or a thing, from many different perspectives is among the greatest assets a thinking person can have." — Scott Berkun in his book The Dance of the Possible

Another way to invoke that unique lens or perspective is to talk to someone else, or read a book. What’s impossible or far-fetched to you may be an everyday occurrence for someone else. The person who lived a thousand years ago spent every day talking about how pigs or people could never fly, but today we know that’s not only possible, but a regular thing.

What else might we think is limited, only to find it’s not when we change the contexts? Who might know? You won’t get answers just thinking about these things: you have to imagine alternatives, go out and try to create things, and talk to those who may have a different perspective.



How big is your world?

We grow up and immediately our minds try to make sense of the chaotic and busy world around us.

We learn to speak, walk, eat, clean, and carry ourselves from those around us. If our environment promotes joy and curiosity, we learn through those means. Or if we’re constantly surrounded by fear and anger, we learn that those are the primary drivers of the world. Our world; the world we wake up to every day and fall asleep from every night.

Then when we enter school we are placed into an environment where that process of learning is pushed to an extreme. We are told that history teaches us most of everything we’ll ever need to know. Taught that there is a right answer for every question, and that if we want to succeed we must simply learn the answers. This plus this equals that. That is a fact and this is not. Fiction is versus non-fiction. Entertainment is a waste of time, study hard and whatever you do: don’t throw away your limited life on painting useless pictures or writing meaningless words.

The emphasis on how to live well—happily and healthy—becomes efficiency. Don’t waste any of your time, don’t rattle too many cages, don’t ask too many questions.

A result of this approach to education, when each of us are at our most vital stage of growth in life, is a lack of confidence; in our ability to approach new or strange situations with the certainty that we can survive. Or a lack of confidence that we can solve any problem, or change the future, or invent a different life for ourselves no matter the odds. We are led to believe that we must use the hand we’ve been given and to try and reshuffle the deck is futile. We are taught that life is as it’s always been, and that’s just the way the world works.

One of the biggest blocks to creative thinking many face today is the force-fed belief that the best life is an efficient and safe one. Or that the life you must life is the one you’ve always known.

Too afraid of failure, of the unknown, of stumbling, keeps so many of us from being able to see the world from a perspective even slightly outside of what we’ve always known. Is it any surprise the majority of people—at least here in the United States—never move away from their home town? Or really all that far from mommy?

Here’s the thing: the world is as big or as small as you want it to be.

You can keep your eyes narrowly focused on everything in front of you, believing that things cannot or will not change. Or you can look up once in a while, see that the world is vast, wildly exiting, full of possibilities, and that you—like so many who have come before you—can shape it, can change it. Steve Jobs was absolutely right when he said that the world was made up by people no smarter than you. How else do you think things got this way?

To enlarge our lives we must unlearn what we’ve been mislead into believing about the world around us and the way it works. We must bump up against our edges by traveling, conversing with strangers, taking things apart for the sake of putting them back together again, taking calculated risks, learning to build things, and constantly asking questions. We need to believe that we can do these things. We need to merely look out and see the countless others who have already done wondrous things simply by trying to do them.

We’d be well to remember that before the Earth was round it was widely believed to be flat. If you dared to go too close to the horizon, you’d fall right off the edge. If you had lived thousands of years ago you’d likely believed that! Just because we know the world isn’t flat today doesn’t mean we aren’t as blind to other false beliefs. But the only way to know what we are blindly believing is to go to the edge, to be an explorer within whatever boundaries—big or small—we want to exist in.

Your world is as big or as small as you want it to be.



Change how you chunk information to spur ideas

How much of creative thinking do you think takes place in working memory? Working memory is, of course, the place in your mind where information – both new and recalled information – is temporarily placed for processing.

This working system where data (in the form of input from your senses or previous experiences) is brought into the brain, interpreted, and sorted accordingly, is immensely powerful for helping us to solve problems and give context to our circumstance.

Without a healthy system of working memory we would constantly experience that struggle of trying to remember why we walked into a room. With an overpowered working memory we might find ourselves overwhelmed by the constant bombardment of new stimulus in our every day lives.

Thankfully, according to psychological research, our working memory behaves in a way that causes it to only store a small number of information at a time.

In 1956, the psychologist George Miller concluded that the average working memory in a healthy human brain was capable of holding onto approximately “seven plus or minus two” bits of information.

This number seven is fairly ambiguous, because what can be determined as a “bit of information” varies. In his research paper titled The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information, Miller explains that the information we process is typically presented in chunks. One of the most easy-to-identify chunking patterns, Miller writes, is language:

“Our language is tremendously useful for repackaging material into a few chunks rich in information,“Miller writes. Here’s how the Wikipedia entry for The Magical Number Seven explains this chunking:

“A chunk is the largest meaningful unit in the presented material that the person recognizes – thus, what counts as a chunk depends on the knowledge of the person being tested. For instance, a word is a single chunk for a speaker of the language but is many chunks for someone who is totally unfamiliar with the language and sees the word as a collection of phonetic segments.”

In other words: we can only understand the world around is in relation to what we already know. If you know a language, you can view words not as individual letters in seemingly random pattern, but as definitive words with meaning.

Take a look at a language you don’t understand and suddenly the words become something more vague and chaotic.

In his book, Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer writes: “When it comes to chunking–and our memory in general–what we already know determines what we’re able to learn.”

We can only understand the world around us in the context of what we already know. Creativity is a system built on existing knowledge and the ways in which we understand how to process that information. Yet how often do we lose sight of this vital perspective?

If our ability to work with stimulus and memory is limited, we can utilize the process of chunking information to adjust our understanding of a concept, or even the way we view and utilize it.

In Five habits of creative masters Andreas von der Heydt explains how chunking processes are used by some of the most brilliant minds throughout history:

“Chunk up (generalize the problem at hand by making it more abstract) and also chunk down (go deeper and deeper to the root of the issue by making it more specific).”

To chunk information up is to view it from a more holistic perspective: looking at letters not as individual characters, but as parts of a more complex system of words, sentences, paragraphs, or messages. As you move more broadly from a concept, you discover more of what can be done with it.

To chunk down is to look at the individual contributors of a particular thing: to see a series of words not as lines of meaning on a page, but to see purpose behind each individual word and letters, or even the ink or electronic pixels that make them up as well. The deeper you go, the more radical your insights can be.

What happens when we purposefully re-chunk (that is: try to view information or stimulus in a chunked-up format other than our natural one) is we are able to see the world around us in new ways.

This shift in perspective provides us with a means for connecting ideas, for finding new uses for pre-existing bits of information.

If our working memory only has the capability to process information in roughly seven (plus or minus two) bits, we can allow ourselves to process more or less information by chunking information in different ways. By doing this, we allow our mind to either dive deeper into a thing and its various parts, or we allow ourselves to connect more concepts through working memory.

If you find yourself creatively stuck, consider the way you’re chunking up information. Then either attempt to look closer at what it is you’re working around, or step as far back as possible and see a wider view of it. Doing so will help allow you to connect new bits of information together, spurring creativity.

Puzzle photo by Mike Kniec.



Five words, one tip for creative thinking

Clear your mind. Change perspective.

Two things with a tremendous impact on your ability to think creatively. In most cases, there is no better order of operation.

Clearing your mind – through meditation, exercise, sleep, or taking a break – allows you to break your usual thinking cycles that lead you to the same ideas and solutions. If you’re feeling creatively stuck or unmotivated, clearing your mind will help.

Changing perspective – by experiencing something new, physically changing perspective, introducing constraints, or conversing with a friend (or stranger) – helps to overcome your biases that lead you back into your routine thinking cycles. What good is clearing your mind if you’re simply going to fall back into your regular mode of thinking?

If I had to give advice on how to be more creative using only five words, these would be it.

Clear your mind. Change perspective.

Photo by Nickolai Kashirin.