From the monthly archives:

February 2009

Boxes of Your Own Construction

by Matt Blair on February 26, 2009

in Exercises,Life Cycle of Ideas

Creativity is often presented as the key to thinking or working “outside the box”.

In many situations, that is exactly the right way to frame it.  Organizations and traditions tend to codify and calcify over time. As they do, the structures they form can limit lateral thinking and creative problem solving. When standard patterns and old approaches don’t work, escaping from boxes — anything that limits the scope of thinking and doing — is essential.

However, associating creativity with “out of the box” thinking can lead us astray, especially in less-structured situations. Creative minds can wander aimlessly, ambling unimpeded across the vast open spaces of the mind, on a journey unshaped by a formless landscape.

There are phases of particular projects when such an approach is optimal. When brainstorming, for example, you don’t want to get tangled in barbed wire or have your ankles caught in cattle guards. You want open spaces.

At other times, directionless causes anxiety, and brings us no closer to a particular goal.  What are we trying to do?  Explore the territory, or reach a destination?

Personally, I need boxes to push up against and work within. I need deadlines and structures — external or self-imposed. Constraints and obstacles can provide just the resistance we need to make decisions, understand our mistakes, better understand our options, and re-double our resolve.

I’m not urging you to climb back into any old box within reach. The key is to consciously build a box appropriate to the challenge, one that contains and shapes, yet leaves enough room for the project — and you — to grow.


  • Where does most of your work take place: inside a box or outside it?
  • Where do you feel more comfortable thinking?
  • Are these circumstantial? Externally-defined? Self-imposed? Intentional?
  • Do different phases of your projects benefit from different forms of openness or constraint? Is there a repeating pattern, or do you decide which is best with each new project?


  • Choose a project that you’ve been working on “outside the box”.  Did you intentionally move your activity there?  Why?  Was that a good choice?
  • What constraints could you add to the situation?  Try a couple different sets and see what works. Compare the results of each.
  • Then try working in an entirely free way again. What works best for you?
  • Would any of the constraints you contrived be helpful in other projects?  Start keeping a notebook of arbitrary constraints and refer to it anytime you find yourself wandering in the wilderness.

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The Next Act

by Matt Blair on February 19, 2009

in History,Life Cycle of Ideas,Reactions,Volition

Last weekend, I watched a video of Elizabeth Gilbert’s presentation at this month’s TED conference.  The title seemed promising: “A different way to think about creative genius“.

Her speech began with a common reaction to the success of her book “Eat Pray Love”:

“Everywhere I go now people treat me like I’m doomed.”

Many of the people she encounters sound that familiar post-victory refrain: “How are you going to top that?” She seems to have let that atmosphere of doom permeate her thinking:

“I should just put it bluntly, because we’re all sort of friends here now: It’s exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me.”


Her chief method of coping with the pressure to repeat the success of her last book is to seek what she calls a “protective psychological construct”. Looking to ancient Greece and Rome, she claims that ideas and creative efforts are not our own but come from “distant” and “unknowable” sources. In other words, we are the transcriptionists of spirits and elves and demi-gods, and can’t be held responsible for our creative output.

In her telling of it, this pure understanding of creativity held for centuries in the West, until:

“…the Renaissance came and everything changed and we had this big idea, and the big idea was ‘Let’s put the individual human being at the center of the universe’, right? Above all gods and mysteries, and there’s no more room for, like, mystical creatures who take dictation from the divine. And it’s the beginning of Rational Humanism, and people started to believe that creativity came completely from the self of the individual. And for the first time in history, you start to hear people referring to this or that artist as *being* a genius rather than *having* a genius. And I gotta tell ya, I think that was a huge error.”

I was just about to turn it off when I heard that part. She goes on to say that this shift put all the weight and expectation of creativity on the shoulders of a single person, and thus was born the archetype of the tortured artist, doomed to a life of suffering:

“And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years…”

Where to begin…

I agree: it is an error to see a single individual as the sole source of his or her creative output. The notion that ideas originate either from supernatural beings whispering into our ears and guiding our hands, or from the mind of a single individual is a false choice. It’s not either/or.

Ideas and creative abilities don’t come from gods or djinns or fairies, nor do they come from individuals.  Ideas emerge from the global conversation of culture, from the interaction of minds and the artifacts that other minds have left for future generations: cave paintings, sculpture, drawings, pottery, engravings, poems, symphonies, letters, recipes, books, etc. The source of creativity is us. The Big Us. The global human We.

That’s Humanism.

When I have a creative idea, whether it turns out to be insightful or banal, I don’t think of the source as simply, only me. It also comes from the poet I was reading this morning, and the music that was on while I was making breakfast, and the book I read last night, and an email from a friend, and someone’s photo gallery on Flickr that I was looking at three days ago, and on and on. Don’t tell the copyright lawyers, but every creative thought is, to some extent, a derivative work.

A slight tangent: Rationalism and science did not put human beings at the center of the universe. Quite the opposite, as I wrote about in my Darwin piece last week. Also, Humanism does not put the emphasis on the individual. If it did, it would be called “Selfism” or “Individualism”.

I didn’t write this merely to be obstinate or contrary — there are practical implications. Take a look at all those people around you who contribute to your ideas and your creativity, thank them, and support them in any way you can. Buy music from a local band you like or a painting directly from the artist or an e-book from an emerging author, encourage a young girl to go into science, or a young boy to learn to sculpt. Invest in your creative colleagues, and the creators of tomorrow, out of appreciation to all those in the past who have spent their own lives creating work and crafting ideas that have enriched your your world.

Returning to the fear that sent Ms. Gilbert on her quest back through the ages: lining up a scapegoat prior to the test of the marketplace, or demurely giving credit to intangible beings doesn’t seem like the healthiest ways of managing  creative anxieties.

What if her next book sells 10% as many as the last one?  What if it gets a terrible review in the New York Times? What if Oprah doesn’t choose it as a book of the month? Well, her publisher won’t be happy.

But, so what?  What if the book has a more profound impact on a smaller audience than her last book did on a larger one?

The question I would ask Ms. Gilbert is this: “As well as your last book has done, I doubt that it is money that motivates you to to sit down and wrestle with words and ideas every day.  What does?”

When we are scared that our next project won’t measure up to our last, maybe we should look at the way we measure success. By reflecting on what motivates us to put time and energy into our work in the first place, we can develop ways to evaluate what we do that have personal meaning.

I also question the idea that creative output has a single peak, after which it’s all downhill. Does one great success preclude future accomplishments of the same kind, or — more importantly — success of an entirely different and unimagined kind? If you’ve had success, why would you limit yourself to inventing elaborate coping mechanisms to cushion the bumpy ride down the mountain?  Instead, while still at the top, scan the horizon for other peaks to climb — or even unknown valleys to explore.

You can never know if your best work is behind you. Actually, there is one way to know with certainty: let that fear keep you from working.

The attitude of another TED 2009 speaker provides a helpful contrast.

Having affected the way hundreds of millions of people work each day, Bill Gates could have wandered off to some private golf course for the rest of his life, or sequestered himself in an isolated mansion building play forts out of platinum bars to protect himself from the specter of failure. He hasn’t.

Despite controversial business practices and the number of hours of human life lost to “blue screens of death“, by many measures, the creation of Microsoft was an astounding success.  Was it the success of a lifetime? Maybe.

Mr. Gates doesn’t seem to be spending too much time fretting about whether his next act will top the last one. The wealth and position he gained through Microsoft might some day be seen as merely a stepping stone on his path towards achieving far bigger and more ambitious projects. The eradication of malaria, and the increase in economic activity and quality of life that could engender in the developing world, for example.  There are no guarantees, but it is certainly possible that his work with the Gates foundation could positively impact far more lives than Windows XP ever has.

There’s another point here: When Bill Gates left Harvard to begin his career in software in 1975, he couldn’t have imagined — for many reasons — that in 2009 he would be spending “lots of time” asking AIDS researchers “what the bottlenecks are and understanding how we can make faster progress.” Or that he would be traveling to Nigeria in hopes of convincing community leaders of the safety of polio vaccines.

We don’t know where our work will lead. We don’t control all the factors that determine its success.

But we keep working and learning, learning and working, not shying away from the responsibility for our mistakes — or our accomplishments.

The results fall where they may. But we don’t have to fall with them.

We pick ourselves up and carry on, always ready to take the stage for the next act, with a commitment that we — that big, global We, again — will make this act better than the last.

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Who are you inviting to the table?

by Matt Blair on February 18, 2009

in Performance,Quotes

“Readers and listeners enjoy my books,
But poet Whozis thinks I’m pretty crude.
I don’t much care. I’d rather have my food
Appeal to hungry feasters than to cooks.”

(translated by Rolfe Humphries)


“As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.”

– Charles Darwin


But isn’t Darwin all about brutality and competition and death and extinction?

Today is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday.  He doesn’t have the best reputation, especially in America. The word Darwinian — not unlike Orwellian — has taken on a pejorative sense that maligns the profound ideas of the man. In modern usage, it is often associated with the death of “weak” and “undesirable” creatures, and sometimes people, as in pop culture references like the Darwin Awards.

A dim and destructive view of things, yes, but it’s certainly not the only way of looking at Darwin’s work.

There is another perspective: that Darwin’s natural selection (to be more specific about it) is the means  through which life survives and adapts. Adaptability depends on mistakes in reproduction, some of which make a species better able to carry on despite changes in its local environment. If such a process were not in operation, life might have been extinguished long ago by changing circumstances. How much more dismal and destructive history would have been if everything had stayed as it originated! In fact, there wouldn’t be any living history to discuss — nor beings to discuss it.

Static species die, and nourish the tree of life. Dynamic species adapt and evolve.

The Tree of Life (Charles Darwin, 1937)

The Tree of Life (Charles Darwin, 1937)

Darwin’s articulation of evolution was a significant break in the tapestry of human thought, as momentous as the realization that we are revolving around a star, one of many, rather than all the stars revolving around us; that the firmament is not a protective shell encasing us as a kind of cosmic womb, but rather that we are a constituent element of something that is far from firm; that we are a tiny little piece of an immense whole, on a pale blue dot, as Carl Sagan once put it.

If we are not at the center, we began to wonder, then what does that mean?  If Copernicus forced us to think about what we are on the edge of this vastness, the findings of Darwin and other biologists since have us wondering about who we are as a species in the span of time.

If we are designed creatures, each made from a single divine mold, then any attribute that is distinct is a deviation, a flaw, a blemish to be sanded down, or a reason to be sent to the seconds bin by the Quality Assurance team.

But if we are evolved creatures, then diversity and constant variation, the interaction of our distinct forms with our surroundings, and the way we adapt to those interactions all contribute to the ongoing creation of the species. Diversity is the very mechanism through which we have become what we are today, and through which we will become whatever we will be ten or a hundred or a thousand years from now.

Enough of cosmology and biological history: What does this have to do with creative expression?

In our thinking and our work, do we strive to find a single and original expression of an idea, some unreachable urtext or perfect Platonic form? Or do we let our ideas emerge, move into a particular moment and place, gain form through interaction with the minds and ideas and perspectives of others, and be sculpted by time and the elemental forces of history and culture?

Do we hover over our ideas, trying to control and force them towards a particular destination?  Or do we fertilize and nurture and ultimately follow our ideas as they twist and turn and become, recognizing that we are but one factor in the shaping of their future?

Darwin’s natural selection reminds us that even a process without a goal, or a journey without a destination, can produce interesting and useful and meaningful results — such as creatures who evolve to the point of understanding the process through which they became observant and reflective.

On the Origin of Species ends with these lines:

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.  This is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Creation is not some dusty fact of history, something that has already happened, something finished.

Life continues to adapt, and we are in the midst of it.

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General Principles, From an Organist

by Matt Blair on February 9, 2009

in Life Cycle of Ideas,Quotes

  • Don’t look forward to a finished and complete entity. The idea must always be kept in a state of flux.
  • An error may be only an unintentional rightness.
  • Do not get too fussy about how every part of the thing sounds. Go ahead. All processes are at first awkward and clumsy and “funny”.
  • Polishing is not at all the important thing; instead strive for a rough go-ahead energy.
  • Do not be afraid of being wrong; just be afraid of being uninteresting.

Excerpts of “General Basic Principles”
from organist T. Carl Whitmer’s 1934 book
The Art of Improvisation
Quoted by Derek Bailey in his book
Improvisation: Its Nature And Practice In Music


Color Your Thinking

by Matt Blair on February 6, 2009

in Places and Contexts,Process and Workflow

NPR’s Morning Edition reported this morning on new research about how color affects the way we work:

Scientists at the University of British Columbia studied more than 600 people as they performed various tasks, usually on a computer. Sometimes the screen’s background color was red, sometimes it was blue.

The experiments showed that with the red background, people did as much as 31 percent better at tasks like proofreading or solving anagrams, which require attention to detail. But for creative tasks, like designing a child’s toy, a blue background improved performance.

According to Ravi Mehta, the author of the study, red induces “avoidance motivation” that causes people to be detail-oriented and wary of mistakes, while blue creates an “approach motivation” in which people are more open and relaxed. Maybe that’s why Bono wears those tinted shades?

When I heard the story, I was intrigued because it reflects not only my own color preferences in life (blue, and a little green, rather than warm colors) but also my creative disposition. I seem to always have a steady flow of new ideas and connections running through my head, but my biggest challenge is what I call “editor’s block” — selecting the right pieces, fixing all the details in place and solving all the little puzzles required to achieve a final form. I can get myself into a detail-oriented or risk-avoidance frame of mind, but it always feels a little uncomfortable. To put it in terms of this study, I think blue, not red.

A tangent, indulged: My parents gave me a new teapot for Christmas, though with some hesitation, because the only one left when they bought it was red.

The results of this research are a reminder of the complex role our physical environment plays in our mental posture:

The study explains why previous research has produced conflicting results about how red and blue affect thinking, Mehta says. Either color can provide an advantage, he says, but only if it’s matched to the right kind of task.

And that’s the broader point: Pick a physical environment that is conducive to the mental approach that you need at a given moment. If you aren’t in the right mindset, alter the environment.

I notice significant differences from simple changes like walking while I’m proofreading, or writing at the kitchen table in front of the window when I’m first brainstorming, then sitting at a desk facing the wall while editing.  If I get stuck on deciding the best sequence for two ideas or whether to indulge a tangent, I might stand in front of the computer. I just did, in fact, without even thinking about it. Physical movement seems to allow more mental latitude.

Like any scientific study, I’m sure that future research will add nuance to or maybe even contradict this understanding of how color affects our work. But you don’t have to study how 600 people work under different conditions, or worry about some general theory. Make adjustments in color and position and lighting and temperature in your own environment. Take cues from research like this, and study yourself.

Well, I better leave it there. That red teapot is whistling at me.

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Distinct Roles

by Matt Blair on February 1, 2009

in Process and Workflow,Quotes

You cannot write books with a critical head. You cannot produce good prose if you are the skeptic, scouring every line for the false note, the exaggeration, the argument that doesn’t persuade.

The [editorial] hat and sneer came in handy later — once I’d written the first draft. It was then I needed to slap myself around, give the manuscript a hard time, and I was glad to have been a former editor. But I had learned something I’d never known: No amount of study, or work in the field, could prepare me for facing the page alone.

Marie Arana, in her introduction to
“The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think And Work”