Mistakes: The Departure Point for Creativity

Light bulb patent application. Photolithograph...
Edison's Light Bulb

Accept that you will make mistakes as everyone does. If mistakes are so inevitable would it not be better to incorporate them into your creative process and use them as opportunities to be exploited rather than set-backs or even fatal flaws in the project.

The ever wise Dorye Roettger famously said, “There are no problems – only opportunities to be creative,” and for a person who adopts this as their maxim, every mistake made in the creative process can become an extraordinary opportunity, too.

At the very least, a mistake can be a lesson in what doesn’t work. The inventor Thomas Edison said, “Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won’t work.” However, a mistake can be so much more than that. It can be a prompt that kicks you off the tramlines of your typical thought processes and in pulling your best effort in order to compensate for your “mistake” you may find that you excel yourself or stumble into new paths.

A chess player who makes an error in their opening line of play could throw their opponent off guard with their unorthodoxy, be forced to invent a new line of strategy and work ten times harder because of their vulnerability.If your inventive mind has a tendency to fall into a rut a mistake can jerk you awake and bring you back to a sense of presence in the task.

A songwriter who always finds themselves going back to the same old chord progressions could take a hint from John Lennon and switch to a less familiar instrument. He is reputed to have done most of his writing at the piano because it was much less familiar and he was therefore more likely to stray into new musical territory. He may not have called it progress by mistakes but this is much closer to the kind of attitude that an opportunist creative needs to take to make the best of the inevitable.

Hints for using mistakes as a departure point for creativity

Get Socratic: Ask “why” at least five times until you get to the root of something. “Why did this happen?” “Why do I see this as a mistake?”

Get Freudian: Is this slip up some expression of a deeper subconscious intelligence? How might this “mistake” be seen as a wise move?

Get Existential: Instead of lamenting your stupidity in the past, even the past five minutes, embrace the fact that you are here now and nothing will change that. Enjoy the moment. Assess your options in the “NOW”.

Zen Out: Walk away from it for a while and settle your mind on something else. You may have made a “mistake” because you were trying too hard or wanting it too much. If you take a break and look away as if you do not care quite so much, you give your mind a chance to engage the subconscious.

A creative breakthrough is never far away from a mistake, let it find you.

Using Beads as Visual Reminders of Values and Priorities

I periodically attempt to realign my daily activities with my values, goals and priorities in life. Being someone who has “serial passions” (i.e. I get profoundly “into” things for weeks or months and then drop them for the next thing), I am constantly needing to check that the stuff I am spending my time on is developing in line with some sort of overarching sense of meaning.

This afternoon I got into this by imagining that I was the me I hope to be in two years time, getting some thoughts on paper to send back in a time machine to the me now. Some good stuff came up and I was able to identify five categories into which I could fit all the things that matter, and that I should be doing with my time.

At various points I have worn what I call a “matter band”. This is just any old elastic band that goes around my wrist but it reminds me, whenever I see it, to ask the question, “does what I am doing right now matter?”.

Today I took this one step further, my matter band now has matter beads on it, too. Beads have been used for thousands of years to focus the mind in prayer. Putting this together was a meditative and prayerful process of re-orientation. I’m also hoping it will nail down some of what I have been trying to develop in terms of a “values based” time management system.

We have an old box full of beads so had a rummage and I made myself a bracelet with a different bead symbolising each of the five broad areas I had identified.

"Matter Beads"

1. The Heart – Loving People: This one is to do with reaching out to others, being generous with my time and skills, listening, flowing  downwards and outwards. Something Rumi said comes to mind, “step out of your house like a shepherd.” Lots of activities fit into this from staying in touch with people by letter and phone, through preparing material for the people I am mentoring, to giving practical help or sitting and listening to others. I’d love to grow in these things but I’m repeatedly foiled by being absorbed in personal projects.

2. The Butterfly – Growing Creativity: Last year I felt I emerged from a chrysalis, leaving one job to give more time to creative stuff that had been brewing for a long time. Growing creatively for me now means investing in two or three very concrete and specific projects in the now. I know what they are and need to keep them to the fore. The sense that surrounds this butterfly phase is one of giving wings to dreams and embarking on what I might call in the future, “my life’s work”.

3. The Flower – Stewardship and Providing for Needs: This is about doing the things I need to do to make sure a roof stays over our heads and food on the table. It’s not just about putting time and effort into developing income streams and keeping to budgets but also about creatively looking at meeting our basic needs through things like growing vegetables. Cultivation of this area of life is mundane but rewarding, like gardening.

4. The Fish/Alpha Symbol – Simplifying: This covers a broad category that covers putting the house in order, getting rid of clutter, paring down, being organised, practicing the presence of laundry and dishes, hewing wood and carrying water. Making space to keep the main thing the main thing. This bead is also a reminder to let “ΙΧΘΥΣ” be the “α”.

Cloisonne beads
I'm a sucker for cloisonné

5. Cloissoné – HUGS: This is the only coloured bead, blue and green cloisonné symbolising quality time with loved ones, breathing, worshipping, being in nature, enjoying life.

The bracelet serves as a reminder to be present to what I am doing at any given moment and to be conscious of how and why it matters … and, I guess, I hope, I am less likely to fritter time away on inconsequential nonsense that has nothing to do with these five things.

One final thing I noticed was that I took a very long time over choosing the beads. I passed over some of the more obvious beads to symbolise certain things, because they didn’t feel right. For instance, I initially picked the butterfly for simplicity and a sense of “touching the world lightly” but the more I looked at it, the more I realised it needed to stand for the creative development, so it displaced the star which never made it into the final five beads because it just didn’t fit even though it was saying something to me about “shining a light.” What this indicates is that although I chose the beads to fit the categories I now have an odd feeling that the beads are shedding new light on those categories. Make sense? No … ok, well, welcome to my world … this is how I roll.

Surrounding ourselves with symbols, I think, has a similar effect to the hole behind the strings in the body of a guitar. Symbols take the sound of a single note and amplify it so that it sets all the harmonics in motion and deeply enriches that simple sound. This is one of the most precious things about being human; a butterfly is never just a butterfly, it’s a thousand metaphors and it dances like a needle, stitching Heaven and Earth together. And a butterfly lives alongside other sound-holes of meaning on my bracelet of things that matter.

Other posts a bit like this one:

How to be Brilliant at Anything

Five Wise Things I Learned from My Dog

Two Little Time Management Tips

Unblocking With Mind Maps

FreeMind 0.9.0 RC4 - Mind Map with User Icons
Image via Wikipedia

With a good plan, an article or blog post practically writes itself.

There has been a deathly hush on this blog for a few weeks now, broken only by the tumbleweed of the odd visitor bowling through. Since making a decision, for a season, to concentrate on a couple of fiction writing projects I seem to have lost the ability to churn out blogs and articles that require a bit more research and a different sort of attention. It has brought home to me the broad difference between essentially factual and fictional writing.

When writing from the imagination, in spite of having a vague idea where things need to go or end up, the author experiences many surprises and cannot predict the outcome. Like remembered dreams, plots and characters continually bewilder me because I know that they arise from my own mind but I am as surprised to see them as anyone. Getting used to this kind of writing has its own kind of thrill but I have fallen down when I have expected to be able to take the same approach to non-fiction. It is a very different discipline – of course, silly me, anyone could have told me that.

A simple tool is unlocking things for me again.

I have not posted on this blog for a long time because of the overwhelming amount of things whirling around in my brain and my utter inability to get a handle on it and work it into any shape.

Enter: Mind Mapping

Around New Year I always give some thought to identifying priorities and threads to follow in the coming year. Sometimes I work through a list of questions I ask myself at such times. This year I opened up a nifty piece of Mind Mapping software called “Freemind” (it’s free); and started storming ideas and organising them into nodes and branches. Wow! In ten minutes I had 2011 mapped out on a single page. Since I had the application open, I started to get down a few ideas for articles I have been meaning to write. Suddenly, everything seems manageable again. With a good plan, an article writes itself painlessly … sweet!

I always hated doing “spider diagrams” at school because they were something that we were supposed to do and I was against that in principle (the “supposed to” bit, I mean). Subsequently, attending training days and work related meetings where some appointed “scribe” would have to put our pointless ideas on a flip chart in spidergram form has done nothing to improve my taste for them.

Mind Mapping, invented by Tony Buzan, is so much more than a spider diagram, however. In its truest form it uses as much colour and visual signage as possible. It hangs on simple keywords and it adds the possibility of multiple branching or hierarchies that enable the representation of vast amounts of conceptual and material information for any purpose. As a system it is intended to imitate neural pathways in a way that is supposed to be really intuitive for the brain.

Where it has saved me today is by helping me to get unblocked. Paralysed by information and ideas? Unable to settle into any one of the hundred things calling for your creative attention? Pull up a page and sketch out a plan, make a mind map, and get something on paper. It feels great.

Opportunities vs. Temptations

“Opportunity knocks only once, but temptation leans on the doorbell.”

Can you tell the difference between an opportunity and a temptation? As a freelancing homeworker with a gazillion things clamouring for my attention and no-one telling me what to do from day to day and from hour to hour, it is really quite important that I learn to tell the difference.

I am not a “go getter” in life. I always default to passivity and it’s not something I am proud of but I also reject both go-getter-ism and let-it-happen-ism. There is a third way that assumes that everyone encounters opportunities, maybe five a day, regardless of who they are and what their circumstances. Each opportunity requires active appropriation – it’s the perfect blend of waiting for it and reaching out to grab it. It is not lazy for, as John James Ingalls said, “opportunities are usually disguised as hard work so few people recognise them”. By the slow accumulation of taken opportunities, massive change takes place.

Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915), an early thinker in the Arts and Crafts movement writes in “The Philistine” that:

” … the only place where you can get away from Opportunity is to lie down and die. Opportunity does not trouble dead men, or dead ones who flatter themselves that they are alive.”

It is simply not true for anyone to say that they do not have opportunities. It would be truer to say that we are simply quite poor at detecting their presence. Preoccupied with the demands of the rat-race and the need to maintain our standard of life and retire with a tidy sum, it is easy to think that there is nothing else for us.

Good Morning
A Window of Opportunity

Deep down, I think we all know the difference between an opportunity and a temptation and we can spot it well enough; we just want to kid ourselves that that temptation is really an opportunity.

Opportunities have a different flavour to them, they are like the hint of a scent in the breeze. They are a time-limited phenomenon that catches your attention for a moment, just like that knock on the door. I have a friend who has no qualms about politely addressing strangers on the train, “Please excuse me, but I couldn’t help overhearing you talking about … X … and I happen to be quite interested in that area, myself.” Conversation ensues, contacts are exchanged, connections are made. I envy that ability, but it is a highly developed instinctive recognition of the scent of opportunity. Opportunity, hangs momentarily in the air and then it is gone.

I see opportunities as doorways that stand open for a short time before closing and disappearing. They are always portals to a whole host of further possibilities. They often catch us on the hop and we never have enough time to weigh them before we need to decide. Because they are so transient, we have to prepare ourselves mentally to capitalise on opportunities and this involves being very aware, listening for that timid knock above the incessant, buzz of temptations.

Temptation is less delicate, in fact it is downright rude and it capitalises on missed opportunities saying, “I’m still here, you know … if that other thing doesn’t work out for you, you can always try me.” These nagging possibilities are often the good that is the enemy of the best if they are not monstrous time sinks with rapidly diminishing returns. An opportunity can take a few seconds to engage with and bring massive returns. A temptation sucks everything you have got and when you have finally extricated yourself from it, it sits in the corner making faces at you.

“I knock unbidden once at every gate — If sleeping, wake — if feasting, rise before I turn away — it is the hour of fate, And they who follow me reach every state Mortals desire, and conquer every foe Save death, but those who doubt of hesitate, Condemned to failure, penury and woe, Seek me in vain and uselessly implore, I answer not, and I return no more.” (John James Ingalls, 1833-1900)

I wish the reader all the best in staying awake and saying “yes” and “no” to the right things today.

How to be Brilliant at Anything

In a nutshell? “Practice makes perfect.” If you want to be brilliant at something, there are no short cuts to simply “putting the hours in.”

I am currently reading another of Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating books, “Outliers: the story of success.” The second chapter is about the 10,000 hour rule. Gladwell quotes neurologist Daniel Levitin,

“The emerging picture … is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert — in anything.”

He then outlines how many times this has been repeatedly proved in the sciences, sports, and arts. The compelling implication is that Mozart (for instance) became who he did through the accumulated effect of about 10,000 hours of practice. Of course there was some giftedness to begin with but it was those hours at the keyboard that made the difference.

Winston Churchill in Downing Street giving his...
Winston: He's the man!

Winston Churchill said, “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” I believe he is saying exactly the same thing. I have never looked at it like this before but this morning it dawned on me: Practice is a long string of failures. How many times have you or I set out to achieve mastery of something or other only to be confronted  by failure within a few minutes and (crucially) have interpreted this failure to mean that I am not a “natural” or that it is “too hard”? If we approach practice with a different attitude, expecting it to be a story of repeated failure, then we’ll be well on our way to those 10,000 hours.

So how can anyone be brilliant at anything? Provided there is some shred of ability to begin with, for all of us it is simply a case of putting the hours in. I find this enormously encouraging rather than discouraging. For a writer, it means hundreds and hundreds of hours of writing and possibly hundreds of rejection slips. For a musician, it is racking up millions of wrong notes year after year. For a chef, it is about turning out thousands of imperfect dishes.

So, quit dreaming about the day your talent will be noticed and start grafting …