a cool mental trick to help make you more creative (…and totally hot and fit and rich…)
I’m in freaking Scotland.
(Edinburgh is stunning, but Mike Myers is in my head, shouting “If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!” Over and over again. Help me.)
I joined my boyfriend at TEDGlobal and he told me something interesting he picked up in one of the presentations — I’m assuming it was by Keith Chen — about how your weight and money problems might be to blame on your grammar.
It goes something like this. Different languages have different ways of talking about the future. Some languages, like English, use a future tense (“They will have wild animal sex”) to indicate that the action hasn’t happened yet, while other languages, like Mandarin, mostly use present tense (“They have wild animal sex”) and depend not on grammar but context (“next Wednesday at midnight while swinging from the neighbor’s trapeze”) to establish that the action hasn’t happened yet.
Chen, an economist, divides countries into those with a future tense and those without and discovers an intriguing correlation. Countries that speak a language with a future tense — like English — tend to smoke more, save less, exercise less, and be more overweight.
Language structures our way of thinking, and the future tense serves to distance us from the future — the future is happening somewhere out there — while the present tense keeps the future close to us — the future is happening here and now.
While correlation is not causation, we do think about things more abstractly the more we remove ourselves from them. If I ask you what you’ll be doing tomorrow, chances are you’ll tell me about your kid’s playdate and the report due at work and how you need to buy a new dress for that wedding you’re forced to go to on Friday because your girlfriend ignored all your advice and is marrying the fool. If I ask you what you’ll be doing ten years from now, chances are you’ll tell me about dreams, hopes and goals.
One of the things you learn as a writer is how important it is to take what’s abstract and ground it in the specific and concrete in order to make it real for the reader.
When something is real (ie: you can see, touch, taste, feel, hear it) the reader cares. The reader feels a sense of urgency.
When something is abstract, it remains a vague intellectual notion that the reader might appreciate, but can’t embrace emotionally.
Here’s the thing: to truly move a person, to get a person to change their behavior, you have to reach them emotionally as well as intellectually. Reason alone won’t cut it. I know that smoking causes cancer. So long as cancer remains this vague abstract notion — because it exists somewhere out there in the ether of the future (“I will have lung cancer if I don’t stop smoking”) — it doesn’t seem relevant to what I need in the here and now, to ease the craving and relieve the stress and, hey, I can always quit tomorrow. If, on the other hand, a diagnosis of cancer were to push itself right in my face (“I have lung cancer”) what I need in the ‘here and now’ suddenly changes.
(This was actually one of the ways I managed to quit smoking: by imagining that I was creating cancer in my body every time I puffed on a cigarette.)
In my last post I talked about how your vision for the future can act as context for your present. You can pull your future close to you in a way that influences your subconscious to guide your actions away from something (cancer, poverty) or toward something (a fit, vibrant, drop-dead body, a million dollars in the bank). You can find ways to turn the abstract into something concrete and real. Wanting to get a better body is one thing; wanting to get a better body in time for your wedding is something else. The closer that wedding gets, the more real it seems, the more motivated you are to make your workout instead of excuses.
It can work the other way, too. If you’re stuck on a problem, put some mental space between it and you. Imagine the problem is happening ten years from now. Or in Alaska. Or China. Or Mars. The more distance you can get on it, the more abstractly — and creatively — you can think on it. When the problem or issue no longer seems so in your (mental) face, you shift to a different part of your brain, you can see the forest for the trees, you can examine that forest from different angles and find new pathways in.
It’s why, by the way, a change in location can be a surprisingly effective way to blast through a creative block or solve that pesky plot problem or come to a decision about your love life. A shift in time and space (either real or imagined) can bring a shift in perspective, and sometimes that’s just what we need.