Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

22 MAY, 2013

How to Hone Your Creative Routine and Master the Pace of Productivity

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“When you work regularly, inspiration strikes regularly.”

We seem to have a strange but all too human cultural fixation on the daily routines and daily rituals of famous creators, from Vonnegut to Burroughs to Darwin — as if a glimpse of their day-to-day would somehow magically infuse ours with equal potency, or replicating it would allow us to replicate their genius in turn. And though much of this is mere cultural voyeurism, there is something to be said for the value of a well-engineered daily routine to anchor the creative process. Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind (public library), edited by Behance’s 99U editor-in-chief Jocelyn Glei and featuring contributions from a twenty of today’s most celebrated thinkers and doers, delves into the secrets of this holy grail of creativity.

Reflecting Thomas Edison’s oft-cited proclamation that “genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration,” after which 99U is named, the crucial importance of consistent application is a running theme. (Though I prefer to paraphrase Edison to “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent aspiration” — since true aspiration produces effort that feels gratifying rather than merely grueling, enhancing the grit of perspiration with the gift of gratification.)

In the foreword to the book, Behance founder Scott Belsky, author of the indispensable Making Ideas Happen, points to “reactionary workflow” — our tendency to respond to requests and other stimuli rather than create meaningful work — as today’s biggest problem and propounds a call to arms:

It’s time to stop blaming our surroundings and start taking responsibility. While no workplace is perfect, it turns out that our gravest challenges are a lot more primal and personal. Our individual practices ultimately determine what we do and how well we do it. Specifically, it’s our routine (or lack thereof), our capacity to work proactively rather than reactively, and our ability to systematically optimize our work habits over time that determine our ability to make ideas happen.

[…]

Only by taking charge of your day-to-day can you truly make an impact in what matters most to you. I urge you to build a better routine by stepping outside of it, find your focus by rising above the constant cacophony, and sharpen your creative prowess by analyzing what really matters most when it comes to making your ideas happen.

One of the book’s strongest insights comes from Gretchen Rubin — author of The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun, one of these 7 essential books on the art and science of happiness, titled after her fantastic blog of the same name — who points to frequency as the key to creative accomplishment:

We tend to overestimate what we can do in a short period, and underestimate what we can do over a long period, provided we work slowly and consistently. Anthony Trollope, the nineteenth-century writer who managed to be a prolific novelist while also revolutionizing the British postal system, observed, “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.” Over the long run, the unglamorous habit of frequency fosters both productivity and creativity.

Frequency, she argues, helps facilitate what Arthur Koestler has famously termed “bisociation” — the crucial ability to link the seemingly unlinkable, which is the defining characteristic of the creative mind. Rubin writes:

You’re much more likely to spot surprising relationships and to see fresh connections among ideas, if your mind is constantly humming with issues related to your work. When I’m deep in a project, everything I experience seems to relate to it in a way that’s absolutely exhilarating. The entire world becomes more interesting. That’s critical, because I have a voracious need for material, and as I become hyperaware of potential fodder, ideas pour in. By contrast, working sporadically makes it hard to keep your focus. It’s easy to become blocked, confused, or distracted, or to forget what you were aiming to accomplish.

[…]

Creativity arises from a constant churn of ideas, and one of the easiest ways to encourage that fertile froth is to keep your mind engaged with your project. When you work regularly, inspiration strikes regularly.

Echoing Alexander Graham Bell, who memorably wrote that “it is the man who carefully advances step by step … who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree,” and Virginia Woolf, who extolled the creative benefits of keeping a diary, Rubin writes:

Step by step, you make your way forward. That’s why practices such as daily writing exercises or keeping a daily blog can be so helpful. You see yourself do the work, which shows you that you can do the work. Progress is reassuring and inspiring; panic and then despair set in when you find yourself getting nothing done day after day. One of the painful ironies of work life is that the anxiety of procrastination often makes people even less likely to buckle down in the future.

Riffing on wisdom from her latest book, Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life, Rubin offers:

I have a long list of “Secrets of Adulthood,” the lessons I’ve learned as I’ve grown up, such as: “It’s the task that’s never started that’s more tiresome,” “The days are long, but the years are short,” and “Always leave plenty of room in the suitcase.” One of my most helpful Secrets is, “What I do every day matters more than what I do once in a while.”

With a sentiment reminiscent of William James’s timeless words on habit, she concludes:

Day by day, we build our lives, and day by day, we can take steps toward making real the magnificent creations of our imaginations.

Entrepreneurship guru and culture-sage Seth Godin seconds Rubin and admonishes against confusing vacant ritualization with creative rituals that actually spur productivity:

Everybody who does creative work has figured out how to deal with their own demons to get their work done. There is no evidence that setting up your easel like Van Gogh makes you paint better. Tactics are idiosyncratic. But strategies are universal, and there are a lot of talented folks who are not succeeding the way they want to because their strategies are broken.

The strategy is simple, I think. The strategy is to have a practice, and what it means to have a practice is to regularly and reliably do the work in a habitual way.

There are many ways you can signify to yourself that you are doing your practice. For example, some people wear a white lab coat or a particular pair of glasses, or always work in a specific place — in doing these things, they are professionalizing their art.

He echoes Chuck Close (“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), Tchaikovsky (“a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”) E. B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”), and Isabel Allende (“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”), observing:

The notion that I do my work here, now, like this, even when I do not feel like it, and especially when I do not feel like it, is very important. Because lots and lots of people are creative when they feel like it, but you are only going to become a professional if you do it when you don’t feel like it. And that emotional waiver is why this is your work and not your hobby.

Manage Your Day-to-Day goes on to explore such facets of the creative life as optimizing your idea-generation, defying the demons of perfectionism, managing procrastination, and breaking through your creative blocks, with insights from magnificent minds ranging from behavioral economist Dan Ariely to beloved graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister.

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22 MAY, 2013

Arianna Huffington on Redefining Success: 2013 Smith College Commencement Address

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“Money and power by themselves are a two-legged stool — you can balance on them for a while, but eventually you’re going to topple over.”

At the zenith of commencement season and its treasure trove of timeless advice — including Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, Greil Marcus on “high” and “low” culture, Neil Gaiman on making good art, and Bill Watterson on creative integrityArianna Huffington shares her wisdom with the young women of the 2013 Smith College graduating class, expounding on the message of her 2007 semi-memoir, On Becoming Fearless…in Love, Work, and Life (public library). Like some of history’s most memorable commencement addresses, the import at the heart of hers calls for redefining our notion of success by doing away with the treacherous idols of money and power, and instead focusing on the three W’s — well-being, wonder, and wisdom — with an eye toward the next wave of feminism. Transcript highlights and discussion below.

At the center of her argument is a call to challenge our fetishism of money and instead focus on meaning:

Commencement speakers are traditionally expected to tell graduates how to go out there and climb the ladder of success, but I want to ask you, instead, to redefine success.

[…]

At the moment, our society’s notion of success is largely composed of two parts: money and power. In fact, success, money and power have practically become synonymous.

But it’s time for a third metric, beyond money and power — one founded on well-being, wisdom, our ability to wonder, and to give back. Money and power by themselves are a two-legged stool — you can balance on them for a while, but eventually you’re going to topple over. And more and more people, very successful people, are toppling over. Basically, success the way we’ve defined it is no longer sustainable. It’s no longer sustainable for human beings or for societies. To live the lives we want, and not just the ones we settle for, the ones society defines as successful, we need to include the third metric.

Irreverently riffing off 1954 Smith graduation speaker Alistair Cooke’s notorious counsel that women’s way to the top would be determined by whom they marry, Huffington advises graduates to “sleep their way to the top” — in the literal sense. Like another wise woman, who knows that sleep is “the greatest creative aphrodisiac,” Huffington emphasizes how profoundly sleep impacts your every waking moment, from your creativity to your mood to your risk of obesity, smoking, and heart disease:

In 2007, sleep deprived and exhausted, I fainted, hit my head on my desk, broke my cheekbone and got four stitches on my right eye. And even as it’s affecting our health, sleep deprivation will also profoundly affect your creativity, your productivity, and your decision-making. The Exxon Valdez wreck, the explosion of the Challenger Space Shuttle, and the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island — all were at least partially the result of decisions made on too little sleep.

[…]

We have to change workplace culture so that it’s walking around drained and exhausted that’s stigmatized. … What adding well-being to our definition of success means is that, in addition to looking after our financial capital, we need to do everything we can to protect and nurture our human capital.

Huffington goes on to note that the Huffington Post newsroom, like in Thomas Edison’s lab and library, is equipped with nap rooms to boost productivity. Echoing Bertrand Russell’s timeless meditation on education and the good life, in which he rhetorically asked, “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?,” she points to the essential gift of which the money-mill robs us:

The problem is that as long as success is defined by just money and power, climbing and burnout, we are never going to be able to enjoy that other aspect of the third metric: wonder.

I was blessed with a mother who was in a constant state of wonder. Whether she was washing dishes or feeding seagulls at the beach or reprimanding overworking businessmen, she maintained her sense of wonder, delighted at both the mysteries of the universe and the everyday little things that fill our lives.

Huffington adds to other cultural icons’ collected wisdom on the meaning of life:

I’m convinced about two fundamental truths about human beings. The first truth is that we all have within us a centered place of wisdom, harmony, and strength. This is a truth that all the world’s religions — whether Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or Buddhism — and many of its philosophies, hold true in one form or another. . . . The second truth is that we’re all going to veer away from that place again and again and again. That’s the nature of life. In fact, we may be off-course more often than we are on-course. . . . When we’re in that centered place of wisdom, harmony and strength, life is transformed from struggle to grace and we are suddenly filled with trust — no matter the obstacles, challenges and disappointments. Because there is a purpose to our lives, even if it is sometimes hidden from us, and even if the biggest turning points and heartbreaks only make sense as we look back, not as we are experiencing them. So we might as well live life as if, as the poet Rumi put it, “Everything is rigged in our favor.”

She concludes by asking this next generation of reconstructionists to conceive of a new way to think about success, particularly in the context of the question of how to be a woman in the world today, by seeking greater access to ourselves first and foremost, rather than greater access to power and its proxies:

So please don’t settle for just breaking through glass ceilings in a broken corporate system or in a broken political system, where so many leaders are so disconnected from their own wisdom that we are careening from one self-inflicted crisis to another. Change much more than the M to a W at the top of the corporate flowchart. Change it by going to the root of what’s wrong and redefining what we value and what we consider success.

And remember that while there will be plenty of signposts along your path directing you to make money and climb up the ladder, there will be almost no signposts reminding you to stay connected to the essence of who you are, to take care of yourself along the way, to reach out to others, to pause to wonder, and to connect to that place from which everything is possible. “Give me a place to stand,” my Greek compatriot Archimedes said, “and I will move the world.”

So find your place to stand — your place of wisdom and peace and strength. And from that place, lead the third women’s revolution and remake the world in your own image, according to your own definition of success, so that all of us — women and men — can live our lives with more grace, more joy, more empathy, more gratitude and, yes, more love.

Pair with Huffington’s On Becoming Fearless…in Love, Work, and Life, then complement with other fantastic commencement addresses by Bill Watterson, Debbie Millman, Neil Gaiman, Greil Marcus, David Foster Wallace, Jacqueline Novogratz, Ellen DeGeneres, Aaron Sorkin, Barack Obama, Ray Bradbury, J. K. Rowling, Steve Jobs, Robert Krulwich, Meryl Streep, and Jeff Bezos.

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20 MAY, 2013

How Creativity in Humor, Art, and Science Works: Arthur Koestler’s Theory of Bisociation

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“The discoveries of yesterday are the truisms of tomorrow, because we can add to our knowledge but cannot subtract from it.”

At a recent TED salon, New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff presented his theory of humor as “a conflict of synergies,” which reminded me of a wonderful concept from Arthur Koestler’s seminal 1964 anatomy of creativity, The Act Of Creation (public library). Koestler coins the term bisociation to illustrate the combinatorial nature of creativity — the reason it operates like a slot machine, relies on the mind’s pattern-recognition machinery, and requires the synthesis of raw material into “new” ideas.

Koestler diagrams his theory and explains:

The pattern underlying [the creative act] is the perceiving of a situation or idea, L, in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference, M1 and M2. The event L, in which the two intersect, is made to vibrate simultaneously on two different wavelengths, as it were. While this unusual situation lasts, L is not merely linked to one associative context, but bisociated with two.

I have coined the term ‘bisociation’ in order to make a distinction between the routine skills of thinking on a single ‘plane,’ as it were, and the creative act, which … always operates on more than one plane. The former can be called single-minded, the latter double-minded, transitory state of unstable equilibrium where the balance of both emotion and thought is disturbed.

Koestler goes on to discuss the forms this creative instability takes in humor, art, science. In a chapter on the varieties of humor, he explores how the bisociation theory of creativity can be applied to analyzing “any specimen of humor”:

The procedure to be followed is this: first, determine the nature of M1 and M2 . . . by discovering the type of logic, the rules of the game, which govern each matrix. Often these rules are implied, as hidden axioms, and taken for granted — the code must be de-coded. The rest is easy: find the ‘link’ — the focal concept, word, or situation which is bisociated with both mental planes; lastly, define the character of the emotive charge and make a guess regarding the unconscious elements that it may contain.

He then applies this technique to various types of humor. The pun is one example of bisociation in action:

The pun is the bisociation of a single phonetic form with two meanings — two strings of thought tied together by an acoustic knot. Its immense popularity with children, its prevalence in certain forms of mental disorder (‘punning mania’), and its frequent occurrence in the dream, indicate the profound unconscious appeal of association based on pure sound.

He then examines how bisociation manifests in science vs. art:

In the discoveries of science, the bisociated matrices merge in a new synthesis, which in turn merges with others on a higher level of the hierarchy; it is a process of successive confluences towards unitary, universal laws. . . . The progress of art does not display this overall ‘river-delta’ pattern. The matrices with which the artist operates are chosen for their sensory qualities and emotive potential; his bisociative act is a juxtaposition of these planes or aspects of experience, not their fusion in an intellectual synthesis — to which, by their very nature, they do not lend themselves. This difference is reflected in the quasi-linear progression of science, compared with the quasi-timeless character of art, its continual re-statement of basic patterns of experience in changing idioms. If the explanations of science are like streams joining rivers, rivers moving towards the unifying ocean, the explanations of art may be compared to the tracing back of a ripple in the stream to its source in a distant mountain-spring.

A pillar of Koestler’s theory is the difference between bisociation and mere association, and the criteria for true creativity inhabit that very difference:

The term ‘bisociation’ is meant to point to the independent, autonomous character of the matrices which are brought into contact in the creative act, whereas associative thought operates among members of a single pre-existing matrix.

In examining “the criteria which distinguish bisociative originality from associative routine,” Koestler singles out the most important litmus test:

The previous independence of the components that went into a ‘good combination’ [is] a measure of achievement. Historically speaking, the frames of reference of magnetism and electricity, of physics and chemistry, of corpuscles and waves, developed separately and independently, both in the individual and the collective mind, until the frontiers broke down. And this breakdown was not caused by establishing gradual, tentative connections between individual members of the separate matrices, but by the amalgamation of two realms as wholes, and the integration of the laws of both realms into a unified code of greater universality. Multiple discoveries and priority disputes do not diminish the objective, historical novelty produced by these bisociative events — they merely prove that the time was ripe for that particular synthesis.

Koestler, as we know, was an enormous advocate of the importance of ripeness in the creative process. He then maps bisociation onto the infrastructure and hierarchies of knowledge:

Minor, subjective bisociative processes do occur on all levels, and are the main vehicle of untutored learning. But objective novelty comes into being only when subjective originality operates on the highest level of the hierarchies of existing knowledge.

He then turns to the psychology underpinning phenomena like “generational amnesia” — our tendency to take for granted ideas once they are in place, and to forget what the world was like before they existed:

The discoveries of yesterday are the truisms of tomorrow, because we can add to our knowledge but cannot subtract from it. When two frames of reference have both become integrated into one it becomes difficult to imagine that previously they existed separately. The synthesis looks deceptively self-evident, and does not betray the imaginative effort needed to put its component parts together.

But this, he argues, is where art and science once again diverge:

In this respect the artist gets a better deal than the scientist. The changes of style in the representative arts, the discoveries which altered our frames of perception, stand out as great landmarks for all to see. The true creativity of the innovator in the arts is more dramatically evident and more easily distinguished from the routine of the mere practitioner than in the sciences, because art (and humor) operate primarily through the transitory juxtaposition of matrices, whereas science achieves their permanent integration into a a cumulative and hierarchic order.

There is, however, another important criterion that distinguishes true creativity, a sort of unconscious processing similar to what T. S. Eliot famously observed. Koestler writes:

[The creative act] involves several levels of consciousness. In problem-solving pre- and extra-conscious guidance makes itself increasingly felt as the difficulty increases; but in the truly creative act both in science and art, underground levels of the hierarchy which are normally inhibited in the waking state play a decisive part.

One of the inevitable byproducts of bisociation, he argues, is the demolition of existing dogma:

The re-structuring of mental organization effected by the new discovery implies that the creative act has a revolutionary or destructive side. The path of history is strewn with its victims: the discarded isms of art, the epicycles and phlogistons of science.

Koestler admonishes against over-reliance on habit, which, even though William James may have framed it as the key to happiness, is the tool of association rather than bisociation and thus the enemy of the creative act:

The skills of reasoning rely on habit, governed by well-established rules of the game; the ‘reasonable person’ — used as a standard norm in English common law — is level-headed instead of multi-level-headed; adaptive and not destructive; an enlightened conservative, not a revolutionary; willing to learn under proper guidance, but unable to be guided by his dreams.

He concludes the chapter by summing up the distinguishing features of associative and bisociative thought, or habit and originality, “somewhat brutally” in a tally of contrasts:

The Act Of Creation is absolutely fantastic — necessary, even — in its entirety. It will change the way you think about everything, including thinking itself.

River delta image: “The Lagoon” by Jamie Meunier

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