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At the end of each year, the calendar often seems to have just the kind of dip in deadlines and workload that invites a contemplative wallow. Especially so for me this year, since I was traveling the first half of December.

I knew I’d want to spend some time over the winter holidays processing my thoughts and sensations from that trip: writing about the places, cataloging the sounds I recorded, sending follow-up emails to those I’d met, and organizing photos like this one:

Sunrise in Torres del Paine

Sunrise in Torres del Paine

But I also wanted to devote some time to thinking through my plans for 2010, to set out some specific and concrete goals, and decide how to achieve them.

I had a basic structure in mind, using questions and exercises I had accumulated over the last few months, some of my own creation, others pulled from books like Carol Lloyd’s fantastic “Creating a Life Worth Living“.

At the end of two weeks, I imagined I’d have some combination of “outputs” like:

  • a writing schedule for the blog and podcast
  • a tidy page full of measurable goals
  • practical achievable quarterly reading lists
  • answers to all the deep questions
  • maybe even a Gantt chart or two

All the kinds of artifacts you’re supposed to have to switch into the past tense with confidence, and say: “I planned.”

Well, enlightenment didn’t arrive in a neat bundle. Despite all the planning for the planning, my brain has been wiggling and writhing away from most of the tools I’d selected.

Sitting at the table, I kept reaching past the activities I’d assembled to pick up Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt or Anne Carson’s translations of the Sappho fragments, or Borges or Chatwin or Emily Dickinson or Marcus Aurelius — or even Mark Bittman.  All delightful, and all worth reading, put not necessarily frameworks for long-term planning or establishing those measurable goals.

Or maybe they are, indirectly: I found that each changed the contours of the course of my thoughts throughout the rest of a day.

I’ve read in those repositories of modern American myth known as business magazines that there are people who put “30,000 feet” projects on their schedule at a given time, for example “Plan future from 10:00 to 10:30″, and it works for them. They must be under some spell that I haven’t encountered. I sometimes envy creatures with such clockwork minds — but only sometimes.

When the mind wanders, why not let the body follow? Or at least try, if it can keep up.

Rather than confining myself to my desk, as though I was back in middle-school detention, I went walking — in rain, sun and even snow.

Amidst what seemed more like a muddle than work – walking on a whim, whenever the mood struck — I found myself engaged in a different approach to planning: I wandered with a pen and a pocket full of index cards, stopping as needed to scribble thoughts as they came to me.

Now, looking back at it, I don’t have all the fastidious “deliverables” I had expected, but I do have some clues:

So...who's going to type all this up?

So...who's going to type all this up?

Each card is like a ballot. Sorting and counting and typing and editing them has become a kind of informal, non-binding straw poll of where my mind is headed.

As I tally the votes, look for ballot-stuffing and other irregularities that might signify unwanted interference, and make note of all the write-in candidates and ad-hoc ballot initiatives with scarcely any support, I’ve discovered several patterns amidst those scribbles.

I’ve achieved much more than I originally thought.

And I’ve also been reminded: not only do we often find answers in unexpected places, but the path to those places is often unexpected, too.

So what do I have in the works for this year? I hope you’ll keep reading as it unfolds.

What’s your 2010 looking like? Did you do any year-end planning? How did it go? What methods worked for you? Please add a comment or send an email and let me know. And Happy New Year.

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If inefficiency is culture, as I recently asserted, what is the effect of a nationwide preoccupation with efficiency? Isn’t that just another kind of culture?

When I use the word culture, I’m describing what I see as an ideal culture: a diverse and evolving conversation of ideas.

If enough people in a particular society decide that productivity is more important than quality, they are likely to adopt similar hyper-productive techniques and approaches. This can produce an abundance of something that is healthy in smaller amounts, but might not necessarily be good for us in large amounts. Overall diversity suffers. Culture suffers.

The Maize is All The Same

America grows so much corn that we don’t know what to do with it anymore, so we’ve starting stuffing it in every kind of food and drink we can find. After we ran out of ways to use it to fuel our own bodies, we started turning it into fuel for other animals, machines and manufacturing processes.

As Michael Pollan put it in a 2002 article:

“Even farm-raised salmon are being bred to tolerate corn — not a food their evolution has prepared them for. Why feed fish corn? Because it’s the cheapest thing you can feed any animal, thanks to federal subsidies. But even with more than half of the 10 billion bushels of corn produced annually being fed to animals, there is plenty left over. So companies like A.D.M., Cargill and ConAgra have figured ingenious new ways to dispose of it, turning it into everything from ethanol to Vitamin C and biodegradable plastics.”

No surprise that enthusiasts in South Dakota even assemble a ‘palace’ every year in its honor:

Mitchell Corn Palace

But if you want corn like this in the United States:

Corn in a market in Peru

Corn in a market in Peru

You are most likely out of luck. It’s harder to grow. It’s different. “No one” wants it.

But I want it.

Adaptability

Culture is the accumulation and assemblage of myriad small decisions: if individuals are making decisions based on their own interests and aptitudes and surroundings, the results will be varied and idiosyncratic.  Some pockets will be very interesting and fertile, while others are less so, but as a whole, the culture will be very rich.

Yet if individuals start to perceive that they are all solving the same problems and answering the same questions, they are more likely to adopt similar techniques and solutions. The results converge towards the middle of all possibilities, and the choices for everyone become more limited.

The scope of our knowledge as a society becomes smaller, our modes of thinking fewer and our perspectives narrower. Even our empathy diminishes.

This is the macro-effect of a society-wide surplus of sameness: We are less adaptable, not only as artists or thinkers, but as a community and a civilization.

In Praise of Peculiarity

I have some very specific, and in some ways peculiar, thoughts about the creative process. Some of my ideas are pretty solid, based on years of personal experience.  Some are nascent and emerging and subject to change. And most of them are still so tiny and tentative I probably haven’t noticed them yet.

I would never say that any of my ideas are the one way to do it — even for myself.

I delight in coming across ideas that point in an entirely different direction from my own.  I think, “Wow, that actually works for that person? I wonder why?”  Part of it is natural skepticism, but it is mostly curiosity.  We are all so different, and the more insights I’ve sought into the ways we perceive and process and think and work, the more nuance I find.

Peculiarity is Incalculable

To twist a cliché, creativity isn’t rocket science. And by that I mean that it isn’t a process that works by mathematical rules, according to testable concepts, with repeatable results.

There’s not one way to do it. There is no orthodoxy.

Creativity and art are natural heterodoxies, systems that encourage a flourishing divergence of thought.

One of culture’s most important functions is to serve as a repository for stories, perspectives and experiences. It is a storehouse which we can visit when we seek beauty or meaning, or encounter difficulty — both personal and societal. The more similar the ideas in that storehouse, the fewer our resources. The less diverse our models of what it means to be human, the fewer solutions we have to apply to emerging and present challenges. We are poorer.

This is why creative diversity and cultural richness matter.

Instead of techniques that generate a surplus of similar ideas, we need techniques and approaches that give us a diversity of ideas.

We don’t need questions that suggest similar answers: we need techniques and formulas and patterns and attitudes that yield an ever-changing series of new questions.

Related: This article is part of a series on creative surplus.

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