Category Archives: Creativity and Imagination

You can be creative, or productive, but not both

We love the idea of productivity, but most productivity systems are killing our creativity.

Here’s a familiar event many artists will have encountered. You hit some creative milestone. Your new book is finished maybe, and a well meaning friend responds, “I wish I had time to write / paint / sing / INSERT CREATIVE DREAM.”

Yes, there’s something more than a little passive aggressive in the statement. It seems to assume a) you somehow have access to time in a way other humans do not and b) you didn’t fight tooth and nail for that time.

To succeed at adult life, we learn to manage our time. For most of us that means “productivity” — the development of skills and systems that focus the hour glass sands of time on the most productive activities.

So it’s perhaps logical that we often equate productivity with creativity. The two most popular terms in the realm of “self help” and personal development are often used interchangeably. But the truth is that being productive can come at the cost of being creative.

Productivity is not a waste of time.
The author William Gibson once said that the difference between him and most wannabe writers is that he had spent as much time writing as most people spend watching tv.

“If you’ve ever tried to transition from being productive, to being creative, you find that the habits of productivity start to get in the way.”

It’s something of a tragedy that while we all have creative dreams, the modern world has a tendency to wrap our attention up in time wasting activities. Tv, video games, screaming about politics on Twitter. We can easily waste a whole life by wasting time.

The idea of productivity is a useful step-up from wasting time. Set goals, make a list of tasks, and Get Things Done. Maybe read The 7 Habits of Highly Successful Succeeders. Start networking, win friends, become an influencer of people.

Productivity systems of all kinds are a really great way to do essential things, from managing projects to running businesses. If you’re going to be an entrepreneur, you better be productive.

But if you’ve ever tried to transition from being productive, to being creative, you find that the habits of productivity start to get in the way.

Business is about filling your time, art is about emptying your time.
For most of my 20s I was The World’s Busiest Man. I ran the shit our of projects, fundraised, networked, did meetings, taught classes, hit an endless schedule of project milestones and writing deadlines. My todo lists had their own todo lists.

To make a much longer story short, I lost the creative part of writing. I was getting paid $200 an hour for words, but not my words. If I wanted to tell my own stories, things were going to have to change.

“You clear a big space, and creativity comes into it. It doesn’t clear the space for you.”

100% true story. I had a copy of the I-Ching on my bookshelves, that I had never read. One day I sat down, read the instructions, and cast the coins for the very first time, asking that ancient old book a simple question, “how do I get back to being creative?” Honestly, I’m not bullshitting you now, I cast hexagram 1, The Creative.

(Ever since this, I do my own I-Ching and Tarot readings, only at important times. I can and will write a whole essay on why they are so useful.)

This, in a nutshell, is what the I-Ching says about creativity. You must, if you want to create, forcefully evict from your life all non-creative things. And it MUST be in this order. You empty a big space, and creativity comes into it. It doesn’t empty the space for you.

For me, that meant I literally needed to empty out my life. Jobs were quit. Relationships vaporised. Friendships unfriended. I was pretty brutal about the whole thing, not least with myself. But that’s how it is when you’re driven to act.

But the space creativity demands isn’t really physical. You can create in the midst of clutter and busyness. You can create with seven kids and two jobs. When you CAN’T create is when you are fearful. The space and freedom you need to create is simply the freedom from fear.

The difference between productivity and creativity is simply this: fear.

If this is all sounding annoyingly quasi-spiritual to you (there’s a reason that God and creativity are linked, but that’s a whole other essay) then here is the science bit…

…you and I and every other human alive are evolved from ape like creatures that, for MILLIONS of years, benefited from experiencing very high levels of fear. Our brains and nervous system are wired for Random Leopard Attacks. If we weren’t wired to live in semi-permanent fear states, we wouldn’t have survived.

But we no longer live in brutal environments where death waits at every turn. Assuming you’re reading this on Medium, you probably live in the hipster district of a modern city, with a high chance of a sub-standard, over priced latte and ABSOLUTELY ZERO CHANCE OF BEING EATEN BY LEOPARDS.

Yet the fear persists.

The higher your state of fear, the more your body’s systems drive you back to an animal state. If you WERE being chased by a leopard, you would become something like an ape again. Human creativity then – the state of consciousness we need to write, paint, sing, dance and CREATE – is quite dependent on NOT BEING TERRIFIED.

Productivity is a high-functioning response to fear.
Productivity is better than low-functioning reaponses to fear – like wasting time on video games, or shooting up heroin. These numb you out, so fear goes unfelt, but when they wear off, the fear is still there. That can send you deep into addictive cycles of permanent numbing.

But obsessive productivity is feeding the fear cycle in a different way. Most productivity systems are placatory. The fear of forgetting an important task is placated by a todo list. The fear of failing at a big project is placated with that $70 project planning app.

It’s not that these tools aren’t useful. It’s that their usefulness is secondary to their value as a fear management technique.

Naming no names, but the makers, and especially the marketers, of productivity systems know all about your fear. To sell you anything, marketers like me map your “pain points”, the things you’re scared of that we can use to pressure or persuade you into a purchase.

“Do you know that 1 in 7 American’s will lose their a job after forgeting an important call, meeting or task? Don’t rely on a second rate todo list app, buy INSERT NEW TODO LIST APP.”

Productivity is a fear centric marketing concept. Yes, it’s high functioning. Yes, you might ride that fear cycle into building a business, or even a fortune (you might also ride it to a breakdown or heart attack). But where a high functioning fear response will never take you is to anywhere creative.

When fear centric behavior becomes dysfunctional.
The Noble prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman identifies two systems which humans use to make decisions. System 1 is our intuitive or imaginative mind. System 2 is our logical thinking mind. I teach the need to baklance both systems to my creative writing students.

Fear, even in low levels, drives us towards system 2. In response to minor fears, like missing a meeting, disappointing a coworker, or losing a business deal, we’re natural driven to seek logical solutions that appeal to our thinking mind. Exactly the kind of solutions that productivity focusses on.

But those logical solutions are directly interfering with better decisions, driven by the intuitive processes of system 1. Here’s a practical example. System 2 wants to not be late for meetings. System 1 wants to NOT GO TO MEETINGS AT ALL. System 2 sees a day packed with meetings as productive. System 1 sees a day entirely empty of meetings as creative.

I very rarely agree to meetings of any kind, real or online. Because I’ve learned that, for me at least, the intuitive needs of system 1 are far more important than the logical needs of system 2.

Creating is living with your fear, and living in your fear.
If you’re not sold on my pitch yet, let me rephrase the same insight from a different angle.

The one thing I can say with absolute certainty about creativity is this – creating is always a journey into the unknown. No two books, businesses, symphonies or technologies are ever created the same way. Computers are things of rules and systems, but creating the computer was a terrifying walk into blind night for Alan Turing. Which is why we respect him, and other great creators, so highly.

These great accomplishments we term “creative”, and the huge contribution they make to humanity, lie on the other side of uncharted oceans of fear. Your chimpanzee-like physiology was simply not evolved to make that journey into fear. That capacity comes from some higher place (sometimes, often, called god…sorry again for those who hate the idea).

Three years ago, sitting out fears of my own in the high Himalayan mountains around Dharamshala, I wrote a month long blog series on overcoming creative fear. There’s no answer to the question “how do I escape fear?” but there are answers to the complex ways of being WITH and IN fear.

We’re a planet of some eight billion semi-carnivorous apes, staring into the dark voids of the unknown, terrified. So it’s no surprise that most of what we do, however productive, is driven by fear. Our rare creative leaps come when we can stop being driven by fear, and can tunnel through, to whatever lies on the otherside.

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One very useful thing to know about depression

Through the month of September 2017 I fought a small scale conflict, against an army of negative thoughts and emotions that had claimed the territory of my mind. I recognised this mental state well. It was what we commonly call depression.

To win this fight, I needed strategies. I went back and reviewed the best thinking on depression that I have found over the years. And with that work under my belt, I want to share one insight into depression that I find very useful to know.

Like many people who experience childhood depression, it began for me with a parent. My mother had all the symptoms of severe depression, and in my early teens I experienced severe depressive episodes. I went from an A student to a school dropout, and by age eighteen I was was living alone, working minimum wage jobs, struggling with drug addiction, and caught in a trap of poverty and zero self esteem.

The path out of the place was long and tough. It involved many insights and changes, too many to talk about here. By 30 my life had improved a lot. I had returned to my life’s passion – writing. A stroke of good fortune had sent me to America for a summer writer’s workshop. I enjoyed the experience hugely. One morning I woke up to the bright San Diego summer, looked into the mirror and thought.

This is what it’s like to not be depressed.

My second thought was…I will not go back to being depressed again.

I had many more life changes ahead of me to make good on that promise to myself. But, with some lapses, it’s a promise I have kept. I just turned 40, and for almost all of the last decade, I have been depression free. When I have had minor relapses, as occured last month, I’ve been able to go back to the ideas that helped end my depression. And in particular, one idea that I want to share with you.

“Once we recognise the state of depression, the next step is to understand it.”

Depression is a subtle and complex opponent, with many causes. But the experience of depression is quite consistent. The mind falls into a negative state, it becomes hard to see anything positive in life, and an overwhelming feeling of “depression” permeates all of our experiences. Depression, while it may be a slightly vague word, is about the best term we have for this state.

It’s my personal belief that many people, perhaps even a majority of people, live with depression without ever recognising it. Many people self medicate their depression with alcohol, or over eating, or other coping strategies. Others angrily deny that depression even exists. These people, in my experience, are victims of the worst forms of all engulfing depression.

So, a happy thought for those people honestly and openly talking about depression…you are ahead of the game. You recognise the problem. However severe your depression is, once you see it, you have everything you need to escape it.

Almost. Once we recognise the state of depression, the next step is to understand it. I did a lot of reading to try and understand the causes of my own depression. I found compelling arguments for the physical causes of depression. And I found equally compelling arguments for the psychological causes. Both are useful. Then I found one idea that, for me, pinned together both – physical and psychological – into a unified model of depression. That’s the idea I want to talk about.

Among the most established treatments for depression is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT is a solution for many people. But it is also controversial. CBT trains people to examine their thought patterns, and to change or stop negative thoughts that might cause depression. I’ve never done CBT. I know some people swear by it. I know for others its ineffective, and can sound like a kind of “brainwashing”.

One issue with CBT is relapse. People often experience a cessation of depressive symptoms, then some weeks or months later, the depression returns. In an attempt to tackle this issue, a scientific study was conducted into combining CBT with Buddhist “mindfulness”, also an established treatment for depression. The approach proved successful, and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy or MBCT is now a widespread treatment.

This post is not an advertisement for either CBT or MBCT. I have done neither. It’s also not an argument for Buddhism, mindfulness, or meditation as the solution to depression. I am a Buddhist practitioner, but I don’t believe it’s a path for everybody. Instead, this is about one idea, that I first encountered when reading about Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, that I believe is very useful in understanding depression.

Anti-depressant drugs are the most widely used treatment for depression. They work, in many cases. I have never used them, but I am absolutely not here to argue against their use. Anti-depressants work by replenishing chemicals in your body and brain which, when their levels drop to low levels, seem to be associated with the depressive state. Topping up those levels can provide some level of relief from depression.

There is an ongoing debate about whether depression is caused by the negative thought patterns that CBT treats, or by the chemical imbalances that anti-depressants treat. The research into Mindfulness and CBT revealed a third possibility, that I find most useful. It’s the idea I’ve been working toward. It’s a little hard to explain, not because it’s complex, but because it doesn’t quite fit with how we think about thinking. In a single word the idea is.

Rumination.

Imagine a motor car, left switched on, with its engine running. With enough petrol the engine will run indefinitely. That is until it burns through its supply of oil. With the oil gone, the pistons and other moving parts in the engine begin to grind against each other. When that happens, the engine quickly starts to damage itself, becoming less efficient, and finally breaking down.

On the chemical level, your brain ia a little like this car engine. Your brain has chemicals that work a bit like oil, easing the connections between brain cells. In normal operation your brain can produce these chemicals at much the same rate it burns them. But when you start thinking really hard, you burn these chemicals at a faster rate than you produce them.

This is one reason why intellectual effort is literally tiring. As you exert your brain, these chemicals burn out, and thinking gets harder. Eventually, you have to stop thinking so hard and do something that uses little or no brain power, like watching Game of Thrones. Of course your brain is still doing things, even when you sleep, but at a sustainable level.

The real problems begin when your brain enters a state in which it can’t or won’t stop thinking too hard. One example are states of high anxiety. If you’re really worried about, say, a trip to the dentist, your brain can just kick into a high gear that you can’t switch off with an episode of Star Trek. We’ve all been there, and it can be awful. High anxiety can incite periods of depression. But usually these states are temporary, and the depression often passes with them.

A more dangerous situation arises when the brain begins to obsessively think about an issue on the unconscious level. Maybe there is a difficult situation at work. Consciously, you think about it now and again. But unconsciously, your brain is chewing it over all the time. And it’s burning brain oil* in the process. One name for this persistent, often unconscious thinking, is rumination.

* not actual brain oil, metaphorical brain oil

Rumination has many forms. We ruminate on short term problems. We ruminate on childhood traumas. We ruminate on imagined futures. You name it, your brain has a habit of ruminating on it. Sometimes rumination is conscious. You know you are doing it, but you just can’t seem to stop. Distraction doesn’t work, your mind carries on ruminating behind the scenes. Even when we sleep, the rumination just carries on.

Rumination places your brain into a state of overwork. Hours, days, weeks even months in this state use up the brain’s resources, and it begins to degrade. Like a dysfunctional app on your laptop or smartphone, a ruminative process can eat up all of your brain’s processing power and destroy its chemical balance, leaving you tired, unfocussed…and depressed.

Rumination opens up a different, and I believe very useful, way of understanding depression. Negative thought patterns and chemical imbalance aren’t sole root causes of depression, they are parts of a depressive cycle of which rumination is also a key driver. It’s not what you think that’s the issue, it’s the sheer repetitive length of time you spend thinking it.

Rumination overworks your brain, this depletes important chemicals, without which your brain functions poorly, which create negative thoughts, which you then ruminate on, which overworks your brain, which…creates the negative feedback loop that makes depression so very dangerous.

Rumination is the idea I find very useful to know about depression. It is not in itself a solution to depression. But many of the recognised treatments for depression intervene in the cycle that rumination causes.

  • Anti-depressants replace the chemicals that rumination depletes, but they don’t stop the processes depleteing them.
  • CBT and talking therapies unpick the negative thoughts that we ruminate on, but rumination will always find a new focus.
  • Sleep slows rumination and gives the brain time to recoup, but rumination can keep going even when we sleep.
  • A piece of cake, a pint of beer, a shot of heroin, provide a pleasure hit that can disrupt rumination, but it often comes back.
  • Distractions like a good book or video game session can push rumination aside but it can, again, keep going in the background.
  • Solving the problem that you are ruminating on helps, but a brain trained to ruminate will likely find another fixation to continue ruminating on.

If we can reduce the rumination itself, all of these treatments become much more effective.

I do not present rumination as equally useful for everyone. We all have our own ways of conceptualising the world, and rumination will not fit the model that everybody works with. But. If you do find the idea useful, I think there are two ways that it can help reframe depression in useful ways.

First. You do not have to stop having negative thoughts in order to stop being depressed. Which is good, because we all, however happy we are, have all kinds of negative thoughts. Negative thinking and depression are not the same thing. You can be happy, and yet often worry about whatever it is you worry about. These aren’t mutual exclusive states.

Second. You can’t think your way out of every problem. In fact, there are whole categories of problem that are completely insoluable to thought. When we’re depressed we often believe that if we can just think of a solution to this or that problem, then that will resolve the depression. In fact, thinking too much about the problem, IS the problem.

If rumination is the problem…how do we stop ruminating?

There is no way to reboot the brain. Stopping ruminative thought processes is very hard. I haven’t found an answer to the problem of how. My personal path to escaping the depressive cycle, and limiting rumination, included counselling, meditation, exercise, healthy diet and making important life changes. I don’t believe there is a singular “magic bulket” treatment for depression.

But understanding the role of rumination in the cycle of depression was, in and of itself, an important breakthrough for me. It reframed depression from a scary happening that I had no control over, to a recurring problem that I understood and could begin to control. And learning about rumination lead me to ask, when I felt depression approaching, what am I ruminating on? Identifying ruminative thoughts is, very often, all that is neccesary to defuse them.

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The full research on MBCT and its insightful model of rumination and depression is available in a new editions: Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression.

If you’re interested in exploring mindfulness further I recommend reading Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen vietnamese monk who founded the Buddhist sangha I attend in the city of Chiang Mai.

For a deeper exploration of meditation, I recommend American teacher Jack Kornfield.

I hope this idea is of some use to you as a reader. You can talk to me about this on Twitter @damiengwalter. And you can help reduce my existential angst about turning 40 by backing me as a patron.

The principle of creative opposition

I’m reading Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had reading a Pynchon novel. And I think I know why.

Creative. Opposition.

Pynchon is an ideas man. High-concept, conspiracy theorist, humanity as an organic mishap in a grinding clockwork universe kind of ideas.

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Inherent Vice is a small scale, comedy of errors, sundrenched California noir novel. It’s still Pynchon, but with the vast conceptual frameworks snipped into human insights.

This is a brave and good thing to do as a writer. Or any kind of creator. Figure what your strengths are, realise they are also your weakness, and locate a force to oppose them.

  • If you’re a writer of intimate character studies, place your characters in a galaxy spanning quest.
  • If you’re a sculptor of monolithic bronzes, apply those shapes to a pendant.
  • If you’re a songwriter of zippy pop ballads, work with an industrial techno collaborator.
  • If you’re a great cook of French meat dishes, experiment with a vegetarian menu.
  • If you’re an international businessman, spend a weekend running a market stall.

You get the idea. This might not produce your bestseller or top 40 hit, but it will reignite your creative engines. And it might produce your bestseller or top 40 hit.

Creative success can be its own trap. We always need something to resist, a force to challenge our strengths, a source of creative opposition.

Join my course for storytellers.

Or ask me a question on twitter.