Somebody asked me a great question recently: “What’s the single most important thing you have read or learned that profoundly shaped how you think and work?”
On the spot, I hesitated. There is probably no “single thing”, but a combination of influences, experiences and lessons resulting in the way I see the world today.
At a closer look, though, it is more like many small streams flowing into the same larger river. There is one big thread connecting these different sources. It has to do with the realisation that creative acts require the ability to fully abandon oneself to the process.
Action and attachment
Since my Indian studies at university, I have been attracted to the principle of “detachment from the fruits of action”. It is one of the main teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, which I first discovered through Gandhi’s interpretation:
“This is the unmistakable teaching of the Gita. He who gives up action falls. He who gives up only the reward rises. But renunciation of fruit in no way means indifference to the result. In regard to every action one must know the result that is expected to follow, the means thereto, and the capacity for it. He, who, being thus equipped, is without desire for the result and is yet wholly engrossed in the due fulfilment of the task before him is said to have renounced the fruits of his action.”
As clearly stated in this passage, action without attachment doesn’t mean indifference or apathy. It means a deliberate choice about where to put our focus. Today, we would say: “focus on the journey, not on the destination”. Another sage, Seneca, said:
“Artifici iucundius pingere est quam pinxisse” - painting brings more joy to the artist than to have painted.
To start is to create
Action over results, means over ends, are just one aspect of abandoning oneself to the process.
Even more important - at least for creative endeavours - is the belief in the power of getting started. Talking about this, Pablo Picasso once said:
“To know what you are going to draw, you have to begin drawing.”
From art to science, passing through the philosophy of science, we find an alternative way of saying the same. This one is from Paul Feyerabend in “Against Method”:
"Creation of a thing, and creation plus full understanding of a correct idea of the thing, are very often part of one and the same indivisible process and cannot be separated without bringing the process to a stop.”
Most ideas acquire their final shape while we are working on them. Nothing is created pure in our mind and then executed. Only through that process - the “creation of a thing” - we can discover what we are actually working on.
For Rem Koolhaas and the architects and designers at Office for Metropolitan Architecture, this is the difference between “projects” and “trajectories”:
“A project is an enterprise that is carefully planned to achieve a particular aim. A trajectory instead includes the explorations, discoveries, numerous detours and unexpected surprises that occur while creating something.”
Paul Graham means something similar when he says that “writing doesn’t just communicate ideas, it generates them.”
And yet somehow, starting keeps being difficult. The fear of moving in the wrong direction paralyses us. Tricking ourselves, and our brain, is the only way out.
Some tricks are unconscious: we see clarity where clarity is missing. We believe a project to be easier than it is. We trust assumptions that turn out to be wrong. Surprisingly - or not really - we often end up with results that are better than the ones we, erroneously, expected.
Albert Hirschmann called it “The Hiding Hand”:
”Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be. Or, put differently: since we necessarily underestimate our creativity it is desirable that we underestimate to a roughly similar extent the difficulties of the tasks we face, so as to be tricked by these two offsetting underestimates into undertaking tasks which we can, but otherwise would not dare, tackle.”
Another approach, when unable to unconsciously trick ourselves, is to do it on purpose. Improvisation techniques offer a good way of doing that. In “Impro”, Keith Johnstone writes:
“You have to trick students into believing that content isn’t important and that it looks after itself, or they never get anywhere.(…)You have to misdirect people to absolve them of responsibility. Then, much later, they become strong enough to resume the responsibility themselves.”
Believing that what we are doing is unimportant, that we have no “responsibility”, is also a great way to learn how to throw away things. Nothing of what I quoted here about starting makes sense if we are not able, at the right moment, to throw away whatever we have produced and start from scratch, now under a much better inspiration.
Trick yourself to get started and enjoy the ride.