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.

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