the part of ‘being creative’ we don’t talk much about
“Far better to live your own path imperfectly than to live another’s perfectly.” -Bhagavad Gita
“Creativity comes from a conflict of ideas.” – Donatella Versace
So much of creative work feels like groping in the dark.
Both of them say the same thing: you gotta do it.
Embrace the thrash.
Sit in the chair, no matter how bad those electric shocks get.
It’s the part of the process we don’t talk much about. Ambiguity makes us uncomfortable; we want to resolve it fast, or skip it altogether.
We would like to think that someone’s sparkling, crystal-clear vision for their novel or product or company or life leaped magically out of their skull, like Athena born from Zeus’s forehead with nary a labor pain. (Of course, this was because Zeus ate her mother, but regardless.)
The first stage of creativity is a period of preparation: identifying and framing the problem, gathering all your materials, your knowledge and research and experiences.
Then you enter the stage of incubation: where those materials combine and recombine and meld and transfigure and wrestle and bake and thrash out into something new.
That ‘something new’ is the stage of illumination: the eureka moment, the insight, the vision.
(Then you head into the stages of tweaking, evaluation and revision, which I won’t go into here.)
The problem is — as Fields noted in his post — that when we tell the stories of the great creators (whether it’s Picasso or Steve Jobs or JK Rowling), we begin at their moment of illumination – their eureka – as if that was the beginning of their process. But in fact it’s midway through. They’d been learning and practicing and inquiring and seeking and wandering the wilderness for years.
They’d gone all the way up to their own personal cutting edge —
— and found what lay beyond.
Johnson uses it to describe the formation of new ideas.
New ideas can only be made by combining ideas that already exist “in the space of the adjacent possible”, defined by the current structures of what we already see and think and measure and know.
To get to something new, we have to get to the very edge of those ideas — and go beyond.
“We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape….The next big ideas in any field are found right beyond the current cutting edge, in the adjacent space that contains the possible new combinations of existing ideas.
The reason important discoveries often happen multiple times, therefore, is that they only become possible once they enter the adjacent possible, at which point anyone surveying this space – that is, those who are the current cutting edge – will notice the same innovations waiting to happen.”
Newport takes this idea and applies it to figuring out the mission, the vision, for your career.
(I would apply it to any breakthrough work of creativity.)
“A good mission…is an innovation waiting to be discovered in the adjacent possible of your field. If you want to identify a mission for your working life, therefore, you must first get to the cutting edge – the only place where these missions become visible.”
Otherwise all you do is reinvent the wheel. Lots of enthusiasm, as Newport points out, and little to show for it:
“If life-transforming missions could be found with just a little navel-gazing and an optimistic attitude, changing the world would be commonplace. But it’s not commonplace; it’s instead quite rare. This rareness….is because these breakthroughs require that you first get to the cutting edge, and this is hard – the type of hardness that most of us try to avoid in our working lives.”
In other words, you’re unlikely to hit on the compelling vision for your work — or your life — when you’re an undergraduate, or at the beginning of your working life, or simply coasting. You can’t see enough from that vantage point.
It’s only when you make it through the creative gap — do the stuff that other people won’t and master some niche in your field — explore and experiment and develop skills that create real, tangible value in the world — learn and practice and thrash and grope your way toward your own personal cutting edge.
Then you can look and – eureka – see what’s there.
What compels and inspires you.
What you can do, and contribute; how you can serve the world in a way that’s unique to you and necessary for the world; and for which you’ll be rewarded.