Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

24 JANUARY, 2012

Lewis Hyde on Work vs. Labor and the Pace of Creativity

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On the osmosis of willful intention and flow.

After last year’s omnibus of 5 timeless books on fear and the creative process, a number of readers rightfully suggested an addition: Lewis Hyde’s 1979 classic, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, of which David Foster Wallace famously said, “No one who is invested in any kind of art can read The Gift and remain unchanged.”

One particular quote seems to resonate deeply with those of us who work in the loosely defined creative field.

Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus–these are work. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify… Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms — these are labors.

Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will. A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor. Beyond that, labor has its own schedule.

There is no technology, no time-saving device that can alter the rhythms of creative labor. When the worth of labor is expressed in terms of exchange value, therefore, creativity is automatically devalued every time there is an advance in the technology of work.”

What seems to be the defining characteristic of labor, the differentiator that sets it apart from work, is that it involves, or can induce, a state of what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow — a kind of intense focus and crisp sense of clarity where you forget yourself, lose track of time, and feel like you’re part of something larger. If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter for a pet project, or even spent 20 consecutive hours composing a love letter, you’ve experienced flow and you know labor.

Now, the question becomes, how do we bring this to work.

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18 JANUARY, 2012

Woz on Creativity: Work Alone

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Groupthink, the origin of originality, and why most inventors are like artists.

Last week, we took a look at what a 1962 Candid Camera elevator experiment reveals about the psychology of groupthink. More than vintage comic relief, however, groupthink can be the archnemesis of creativity, because creativity by committee is no creativity at all — just ask Stephen King, who famously advised aspiring authors to “write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” In his modestly titled memoir, iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It, computer legend Steve Wozniak, better-known as Woz, makes a bold case for the importance of intellectual independence in the creative process:

Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me — they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone — best outside of corporate environments, best where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has ever been invented by committee… I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

This, of course, should be ingested with caution — when taken out of context, it could easily become a distorted extreme. As Steven Johnson argues in Where Good Ideas Come From, innovation happens when ideas collide with one another, which can’t happen in isolation — an environment conducive to such collisions is essential for combinatorial creativity. But at the heart of Woz’s insight seems to be a prompt to silence groupthink and bake just enough quiet time into the creative process for the ideas that we’ve acquired through our interactions with the world and other people to collide and fuse together into something new, something “really revolutionary.” At least that’s how I’d like to interpret it.

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17 JANUARY, 2012

The Solar System Set to Music: A Near-Perpetual Homage to Bach

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532.25 septendecillion years of fugue, or what Pluto has to do with the longest palindrome in existence.

I have a soft spot for music made with unusual means or from unusual raw materials, and have long been fascinated by unusual notation. Naturally, I’m head-over-heels with Daniel Starr-Tambor’s Mandala — a remarkably dimensional musical composition created by assigning each planet in the Solar System a particular note along the natural harmonic series, starting with Mercury’s B and going all the way up by two octaves and a ninth to Pluto’s C#. The composition is a palindrome, which means it can be played the same way in either direction, and, with more than 62 vigintillion individual notes, it’s the longest palindrome in existence — by far. At the accelerated tempos of the Solar System, it would continue without repetition for over 532.25 septendecillion years — a sort of soundtrack for near-infinity.

An homage to Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Art of the Fugue, embedded in the piece is the iconic composer’s “musical signature” — the arrangement of the stereo imaging reflects the precise position of the Solar System at the moment of Bach’s birth, viewed from the perspective of the Sun as it faces the constellation Libra, “so that each note chronicles his birthday on every planet.”

If Bach is calling to us from the outer planets, I hope he would accept this music as a fitting response.” ~ Daniel Starr-Tambor

It hardly gets more faceted and cross-disciplinarily creative than this — bravo.

via It’s Okay To Be Smart

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