Thursday, October 27, 2011

Immersion and Creativity

Early yesterday morning as I was driving to a finish carpentry clinic, I started thinking about the relationship between creativity and immersion.  It occurred to me that intense devotion to or immersion in a subject can actually be counterproductive for creativity and work output.  Let me explain.

There is a frame of mind that is universally sought by conscientious professionals, both white-collar and blue-collar.   It is a rhythm, a clearheadedness, a zen.  It is a groove, or a zone.  Whatever your preferred terminology, once you've experienced it you know empirically that it directly impacts the speed, quality, and artistry of your work.

When you start out in a discipline, you know nothing about it, your output is shoddy, and your creativity is zero.  As you start learning more, your output improves both in quality and quantity and your creativity expands.   I expected this relationship was a continuous straight line as you head towards closer and closer identification with - or total immersion in - a discipline.

I'm not so sure now that this is true.

In my own experience as a tradesman and finish carpenter, I have traveled a portion of the immersive spectrum - at least enough to ask the question that this post is about.

What I noticed was that when I identified too completely with my work, my capacity for creativity plummeted.  I was no longer sufficiently detached to view the project or the task objectively - from the outside - and I was merely mimicking, or robotically implementing rote.  This is not only unproductive, it is unfulfiilling.

There is a big difference between being present in what you are doing and being lost in it.  (I don't mean lost in the positive sense in which it is sometimes used as a synonym for being in the groove, zone, etc.  I mean lost as in not knowing where you or anything else is.)  Consider the following diagram:
As immersion and familiarity increases, so does creativity and presence - to a point.  What I'm suggesting is that maximum immersion does not result in maximum creativity.  After a certain saturation point, creativity begins to fall off again.

Obviously it is useful to know as much as possible about something if you want to work productively and creatively in that space.  I am making a distinction between knowledge and immersion.  Let me give an example.

Suppose you have someone who is totally immersed in Twilight.  They believe Twilight is the best thing ever.  They think and read about it all the time.  It rather defines their life, and it acts upon their consciousness, instead of the other way around.

Now we ask whether this person will have anything objectively useful to say about Twilight.  At the risk of not showing my work, I think we can conclude that they won't.  Then we must ask: why?

Look at the diagram again and picture in your mind three stages along the immersion axis:

  1. Sitting on the beach: no immersion, minimum creativity.
  2. Swimming: partial, interactive immersion, maximum creativity.
  3. Drowning: total, passive immersion, minimal creativity.
Here's where it gets subtle, so we need to pay close attention.  We tend to think we're diving when we're really drowning.  Deeper is better, right?  Only if you have air.  If you don't, you're finished.  A sincere death, perhaps, but death nonetheless.

(There are those who can dive for several minutes, but they are rare.  Most of us are more or less confined to the surface.)

When you are swimming, you are interacting with the water (the discipline) and you are using it to get someplace.  The danger in drowning is that you may think you are going deeper into the water/discipline when you are just passively sinking into it and allowing it to act upon you and define you.    You are longer acting upon it, resisting, creating.

What we are looking for is this point where more raw information and deeper immersion starts to undermine your self-awareness.  You need to stay on top.  Interdisciplinary activities are essential in this connection - like muscle confusion for the intellect.  You have to keep crossing wires in your brain in order to stay aware.  James Krenov said, "Develop the habit of being aware almost without thinking."  He does not mean to lose yourself.  He means to find that elusive balance between discipline and dreaming, between focus and freedom, when you are there.   It's an intimate connection with the work that stops short of identification in order to preserve a detachment that keeps the door open for lateral problem-solving and self-expression.

It seems that historically people were naturally more diversified.  They had to have a basic working knowledge of a host of handcrafts and practical skills just to survive.  Our modern culture of intense specialization and supermarkets seems to result in this immersion and the accompanying blinders-effect we've been talking about.

I think this change has cost us something important in the way we work and live, and I think it's worth figuring out how to recapture it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Fencing with Feynman

It's not an ugly place to work.  There is dirt, pine trees, manzanita shards, the new steel building, and in the distance the air over town.  There is coiled steel wire, blue sky, poison oak, filtered sunshine. There is urine, mud, sweat, and blood.  There are even such things as determination and fatigue (and, on the part of the poison oak, malice).

I lift and ram the digging bar, jabbing jerkily at the unyielding earth.  It's a rod of steel with a rather dull edge, meant for breaking up ground.  It is heavy, and to dig a single hole one might lift it a couple hundred times.

I suppose the dirt is locked together in some atomic structure and it requires energy to break it apart.  Actually I don't suppose that second part.  It's a little easier when you can get a void opened up and break the dirt off into it, but this is a rare luxury with holes because you have to keep going deeper in a contained cylinder.  Hacking off the edge of a bank - or even digging out a trench - sounds like a vacation.

Once another layer of dirt is broken up, a post-hole digger lifts it out of the hole.  If you've ever used one (or seen one), you know how they operate: spreading the handles (squeak! crack!) brings the jaws together, and bringing the handles back together (screech! thunk!) opens the jaws and releases the bite.  As the hole gets deeper, it gets harder to spread the handles wide enough to grab the dirt at the bottom tightly, and that soil that was just moments ago stubbornly resisting separation now streams out of the jaws like so much sand out of a sawed-off hourglass.

I wish John McPhee were here; he might have something intelligent to say about this dirt - how it's the disintegrated crust of some ocean floor from deep time that was tectonically somersaulted two hundred and fifty miles inland one afternoon when the planet had indigestion.  To me it's just an enemy with no face and no anger, which is the worst kind of enemy there is.

The work is elemental, and not in a satisfying way.  There is satisfying elemental work - splitting wood, for instance - and there is maddening elemental work.   Thirty-four inches, and you hit hardpan clay at eighteen.  The two-cycle auger balks when it reaches the clay and just bounces around its rotation, not intending to do any more work and simply waiting for you to lift it out of the hole.  Sometimes technology dominates physics; sometimes physics dominates technology.

The formal definition of "work" has always bothered me, so I try not to think about it much. There must be some mathematical advantages afforded by defining it this way, because any day laborer working for cigarettes and a milkshake can tell you that it's a bunch of hooey.  If you carry a sack of concrete up a 100' hill and down the other side, you know for certain that you worked the whole time, no matter what your snobby physics professor says.  How would he know anyway?  He's certainly never done it.

Feynman is cut from another cloth.  He's one of those people who touches the world - tentatively at first and then in a full-on fight, a knock-down drag-out brawl with the cosmos.  (Fighting is an excellent way to get to know someone.)    Feynman inspires an almost military respect, a respect that he is oblivious to like a decorated general who keeps all the cute little buttons in a drawer so they don't weigh him down.  That is not what he cares about.  He cares about the mission, and the mission is finding things out, otherwise known as being alive.

For Feynman, knowing mattered.  It is an intellectual creed that becomes almost physical.  You can go out and try to understand how water flows through a pipe and die, or you can stay at home and lay on the couch and die.  Turbulence is so foreign and so hard to understand.  Are we going to remain cavemen?

Out here on the line, I think of Feynman to help me focus.  Breaking up this dirt is a physical process.  (clank, thud)  It's me and my puny steel bar vs. a few quadrillion muscular electrons.  (clank, clank)  I'm a pile of atoms, but I'm a pile of atoms to be reckoned with. (thud, clank)  I hope I don't get poison oak.  (clank, thud)  Why in blazes am I doing this?  (thud, thud, clank)