Dammed Creativity

Benjamin Franklin had little free time in his old age.  He complained of this cram-packed-with-politics schedule to close friends.  The very new United States– still fighting to survive needed his diplomacy, wit, wisdom and time.  And nobody else could fill his shoes. His science experiments lay unfinished collecting dust in his backyard laboratory.  Like some homeowners in my neighborhood are house poor–  great salaries funneled straight to paying the mortgage and fixing up the house,  Benjamin Franklin was energy poor. State-building sucked every last bit of Franklin’s remarkable energy–  and he felt his soul shrink.

A few days ago, my eight-year-old son asked us all at breakfast, What is the worse possible thing you can imagine happening? I immediately thought of losing my child to scurvy or a car accident.  But my six-year-old daughter said,  Oh.  I think living your entire life and never having done what you were meant to do–  without doing what you love. That would be terrible.

My daughter is right on.  I’m so glad she can say this out loud without a second thought.

But how could you die without ever reaching your potential?  For Franklin a new nation claimed his time, thus suppressing his exuberant creative pursuit.  But energy-claimers are most often historic only in your wildest dreams– masses of urgent incoming e-mails, houses to build, fortunes to lay out for the future. You could die without ever cracking your creative potential by failing to ever decide to start.  You could give up attending to your dreams when the phone starts ringing or when your wife complains about the yard.  If you must choose between keeping bargains you never made or owning your energy and creative potential– well, I think you can guess what I’d say.

Having a choice at all, is a privilege.  If you have no food, many sick children, a husband who beats you, no shelter and no work in sight,  your choices are much, much smaller.  But my guess is,  if you have time enough to read these words– you have at least some (education, time, money, space) options for creation.  The French philosopher Ernest Renan said,

The simplest schoolboy is now familiar with truths for which Archimedes would have sacrificed his life.

Ignored creativity–  no matter how plentiful or unruly at the start or how honorable the competition, dries up. And once you decide you’ve got to create come hail or high water, what you do with the truths you know–  that is what makes you Creative or not.





How about you?  Is your creativity still dammed up inside you?

Sleeping Around in London

Before I start today’s post, I must disclose.  I sleep some,  but not enough to think and walk at the same time. My 11-month-old still nurses through the night.  I get up when she cries at night because I want her to fatten up and grow long.  And, she is my precious baby after all. So, against medical advice (my physician sister-in-law looks out for me–  she thinks I need more sleep),  I sleep some and figure, someday I’ll sleep more. And besides,  I can always find a chair to land on if I feel a thought coming.

It turns out, you don’t need a set amount of sleep at precise intervals to think original  thoughts.  Creativity scholar Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi found highly creative people work with their bio-rhythms.  They arrange their lives to sleep when tired but work when they’re sharp– regardless of hour.  My current baby-controlled schedule is not ideal ( i.e., running a 5k this morning seems impossible) but it’s not horrible for creativity.  I’ve had plenty of brilliant insights in between mid-night naps (unfortunately, I don’t always remember them by morning)  and I’ve found my sharpest hours seem to fall between 1:00 a.m. and dawn (if, I’ve slept early and deep the previous three nights).  I’ve made peace with my sleep issues and continue. My good friend Jennifer says, In a year, things will be different.  She’s right.  I can imagine longer nights a year from now.

Some friends– a high-flying London couple, are about to have their first baby.  She’s a novelist.  He’s a club DJ by night,  international lawyer by day.  Their spacious Hackney flat has plenty of space for the gear they’ll need and they both love kids. They’re more than ready;  they’re giddy non-stop with anticipation.  There’s only one small problem.  They love their current party-almost-every-night, sleep in, work late and do it all again life rhythm.  Last time I visited them,  the guy asked,

Do kids HAVE to go to bed early?  I mean,  that doesn’t make sense.  My sister is adamant.  She says, Just wait.  You’ll see.  Kids HAVE to go to bed super early. It’s just the way it works. But why would that be?  I mean, as long as they get the amount they need–  you know, like 8 hours,  or whatever.  Right?

I said,

I don’t know. I suppose you could convince your baby you live in another time zone–  you could carry around a full-spectrum light lamp in your diaper bag and shine it on your kid’s face at sundown.  And shut the blinds in her room in the morning,  so she still thinks it’s night. That shouldn’t be too hard–    days are pretty dark here in London anyway. I don’t know.  I haven’t tried it.

I don’t remember where our conversation went from there.  But now (two years later) I wonder if they’ll try to make the baby adjust to their time.  Will they lug her around London’s night-scene in a sound-proof bassinet?  I doubt it.  I think the novelist will nix any exceedingly silly plan.  But she is pretty flexible and does like to try things out.

In any case,  the man’s question is a good one.  Do babies need to sleep when 7:30 p.m. hits wherever they are?  I’ve always stuck to a traditional bedtime.  But, I’d love to watch the London couple trick their baby into sleeping exactly when they’d like her to sleep. If they pull this off,  they should write a book and I bet it would hit the bestseller list on Day 1.

Living the Creative Life — James Watson’s Take

How do you live the creative life? I’ve gleaned tips from some of my favorite Creators. For five days I’m writing about these insightful suggestions.  Today is technically Day 6– but I couldn’t help adding one more day of tips. Yesterday I wrote about Eleanor Roosevelt’s advice.

James D. Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA, recently wrote a book packed with advice for young scientists: Avoid Boring People and Other Lessons from a Life in Science . But it’s more than a how-to book.  It’s a great life story. I tried to read it to my children this morning (they lost interest rather quickly,  but that’s another post for another day).

Check out his advice below:

  1. Knowing “why” (an idea) is more important than learning “what” (a fact).
  2. New ideas usually need new facts.
  3. Think like your teachers not your peers.
  4. Seek out bright as opposed to popular friends.
  5. The sooner you narrow your creative interests,  the better.
  6. Keep your intellectual curiosity broad.
  7. Work on Sundays.  (More on this: Spending More Time at the Office).
  8. Exercise when you feel intellectually dull.
  9. Have a big objective that makes you feel special.
  10. Always have an audience for your creative work.
  11. Avoid boring people.
  12. Science is highly social.
  13. Leave a project or field before it bores you.
  14. Choose an objective apparently ahead of its time.
  15. Work on problems that take 3-5 years to work out.
  16. Never be the brightest person in the room.
  17. Stay connected to intellectual competitors.
  18. Work with a teammate who is your intellectual equal.
  19. Constantly share what you learn.
  20. Immediately write-up big discoveries.
  21. Travel increases your creative prowess.
  22. Be the first to tell a good story.
  23. Read out-loud what you write.
  24. Two obsessions are one too many.
  25. Don’t take up golf.
  26. Close competitors should publish simultaneously.
  27. Schedule as few appointments as possible.
  28. Never dye your hair or use collagen.

My favorites are #9, #11, #21 and #28.  What do you think?

*Don’t go away yet:  You may have noticed I’ve changed my blog’s look.  What do you think about that?  Is it better?  Worse?  In bad-taste?  Tantalizing?  I’d love to hear your opinion.  If you’re new here… I’d still love to hear what you think about my site, creativity…the Universe!

Nature is Leaden to Me–But I Figured Out Why

My previous post was a challenge.  I spent the better part of an afternoon sorting through random, uninteresting thoughts for a single exciting idea.  The children were around and as quirky as usual. I had plenty of time to write while they played with friends. Loads of books surrounded me. Still–I came up empty.  Ralph Waldo Emerson said,

To the dull mind nature is leaden. To the illumined mind the whole world burns and sparkles with light.

Although Emerson makes it seem like you have either a dull mind or an illuminated mind, most people experience both extremes in different ratios. All humans are dull–sometimes. But a key to Creativity is to be illuminated and excited by the world more of the time.

Recently, I’ve been reading Laura Vanderkam’s highly practical book–168 Hours:  You Have More Time Than You Think. She thinks planning days in 24-hour-blocks limits your creative accomplishments. Instead, she recommends looking at time as week-long blocks. She says,

The way I see it, anything you do once a week happens often enough to be important to you, whether it’s church, a strategic thinking session at work, you Sunday dinner with your parents, or your softball team practice.  The weekly 168-hour cycle is big enough to give a true picture of our lives.  Years and decades are made up of a mosaic of repeating patterns of 168 hours.  Yet there is room for randomness, and the mosaic will evolve over time, but whether you pay attention to the pattern is still a choice.  Largely, the true picture of our lives will be a function of how we set the tiles.

The poet Robert Louis Stevenson planned his schedule by weeks.  He said,

Even if the doctor does not give you a year, even if he hesitates about a month, make one brave push and see what can be accomplished in a week.

Your Creative energy often depends on your schedule–what gets a piece of your life and what does not. A huge part of creative accomplishment is simply getting your work done.To lose weight, you look at what you are eating and plan your meals to achieve the desired outcome–a slimmer you.  Looking at your schedule by the week functions like a food diary to show you what to cut and what you must keep in.

Schedules cannot be commoditized.  What fuels your Creativity or shuts it down is personal. Nobel Laureate for Peace Elise Weisel reads, travels and writes. But he won’t stop by the Louvre if he’s in Paris .  He says,

What is being lost is the magic of the word.  I am not an image person.  Imagery belongs to another civilization:  the caveman.  Caveman couldn’t express himself so he put images on walls.

But the philosopher Albert Camus saw things differently. He said,

A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.

The point is– images stayed out of Weisel’s schedule because they dulled his Creative appetite.

Yesterday, when I realized how slow my mind moved, I looked at my previous 168 hours and immediately found what was going down. Every day, the past week,  I made time for coffee. On the day I had trouble waking to the world and posting on this blog–I did not.   And, having spent most of the previous night talking, not sleeping– the effects of skipping coffee were blaring. Could a simple cup of coffee make my world burn and sparkle with light?

Writer Martha Beck says,

Almost all my middle-aged and elderly acquaintances, including me, feel about 25, unless we haven’t had our coffee, in which case we feel 107.

But the point  isn’t to feel young.  It’s to add sparkle and light to your world–so you can do what you love, well.  I like what the highly Creative mathematician Paul Erdös said best.  He said,

A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.

This morning–I won’t forget my coffee.


Directing Ones Thoughts: The One Human Freedom

I get up every morning determined both to change the world and to have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning the day difficult.
-E.B. White, American author

In 1964, psychologist Martin Seligman coined the term learned helplessness to describe a loss of will he observed in lab dogs. The dogs were inadvertently taught that their actions had no correlations to outcomes. These dogs shrank physically and mentally. They  acted tired, too wiped out to even move sometimes. But 1/3 of the dogs kept trying to effect change; they never learned to be helpless. These are the dogs Seligman continued to study.

Eventually Seligman studied similar characteristics in humans and found that some people refuse to become helpless in even the most adverse life circumstances. These positive people believe negative circumstances are temporary and that they have some control, even if the only control they really have is that of thoughts.

Viktor Frankl, Nazi concentration camp survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning says,

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

What Frankl calls the last of the human freedoms is also the first and possibly the only freedom that drives Creativity. You either direct your own thoughts or allow outside circumstances and other people’s expectations do so.

Highly Creative people know their work will change the world for the better. In the worst of times, this idea sustains life. In the best of times, it breeds Creation exponentially.

*Learned Helplessness is incredibly toxic to Creation.  Read more about the nuances of this problem and possible ways to banish it from your life in my post: Minimize the Toxicity of Learned Helplessness.

Can’t Wait to Get to Work

Highly Creative people keep favored routines.  For ten days I’m posting about the routines of individual Creators, historical and current. My previous post: Scheduled Time for Her Dream.

Thomas Friedman

Writer, New York Times Op-Ed Columnist

“Honestly, I still can’t wait to get my pants on in the morning,” Friedman said. He wakes early, then exercises on a stationary bike, and if he has a column in the paper that day he’ll read it through online two or three times, asking himself, “Did I get it right?” On weekdays, he’ll head into D.C.  for a seven-thirty breakfast meeting, which is sometimes followed by an eight-thirty breakfast meeting. The [New York] Times has a floor and a half of a building a few blocks north of the White House, and three of the four Op-Ed columnists who are based in Washington–Friedman, David Brooks, and Maureen Dowd.

Friedman’s large corner office has windows that are oddly small and high, leaving wide areas of wall space. He has hung a poster of a three-masted sailing ship tipping off the edge of a flat world, which he bought long before he wrote “The World Is Flat“–attracted, in part, by the title, which is “I Told You So.”

(From The New Yorker, Thanks to Mason Currey)

Bach for Today

Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything. –Plato

When I, or my children can’t seem to focus I put on Bach’s Goldberg Variations or Handel’s Water Music. It does the trick. Everyone quiets down and finds something to work on.  It’s like magic.

Educator Chris Bower recommends Baroque music for use in elementary school classrooms. Bower says,

Baroque music, such as that composed by Bach, Handel or Telemann, that is 50 to 80 beats per minute creates an atmosphere of focus that leads students into deep concentration in the alpha brain wave state.

Highly Creative people love music and use it at times to reduce mental entropy and focus on the task at hand or to rest from Creation.

Designer John Besmer says,

If you’re working on a project that’s elegant and beautiful, you might listen to something like jazz, something that puts you in that mood. But if you’re designing an in-your-face project, you want music that gets you there. After all, you wouldn’t go to the gym and want to work out to a lullaby, right? Music shapes the message.

Music affects more than your mood.  Cardiologist Michael Miller says,

When patients in my research study listened to joyful music, their blood vessels dilated by 26% — a very healthy response. It’s similar in magnitude to the response seen after aerobic exercise.

Albert Einstein played violin and enjoyed joyful classical music best. Einstein said,
If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician.  I often think in music.  I see my life in terms of music…I get most joy in life out of music.

Bach, Mozart, and some old Italian and English composers are my
favorites in music. Beethoven considerably less… Beethoven is for me too dramatic and too personal.

Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin says,

Music lights up almost every area of the brain, which shouldn’t be a surprise since it makes people tap their feet, encourages the recollection of vivid memories and has the potential to lighten the mood.

I’ve got a busy day today.  My children and I must rush around here at home to get ready for classes and projects. But first, I think I’ll put on some Bach, hoping for some background magic to lighten moods and heighten order.

Planning for August

This morning I’m working with three of my children, individually, to determine their schedule for the rest of the summer.  I will ask each the following three questions to start:

  • What would you like to learn to do?
  • What would you like to see? Or visit?
  • What do you want to get better at?

The questions may be a little vague, but I’ll adjust and clarify them as needed.  Each conversation will be a two-way exchange.

Then we’ll make a card for each project with detailed steps, similar to my cards,  for each of them to follow.  I’ll also add items, in step form, to my cards.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Read more about… Creativity by Projects.

Creativity-Giving Habits

Highly Creative people are creatures of habit, with the current Creative endeavor squarely centered.   Biologist E.O. Wilson writes longhand every morning with a favorite pen on yellow, lined legal pads. The pad is placed precisely on his desk, in writing position, the night before. Playwright Julia Cameron uses a Selectric type-writer.  She says,

I feel hopelessly old-fashioned.  I have been trying to write on a computer but that has not worked for me…Surely someone knows how to use this machine correctly and it is an advantage to them, but not to me.  The computer only mirrors and amplifies my own confusion.

Apparently, she isn’t the only writer in New York preferring simpler tools.  A small shop in Manhattan still sells typewriters.  Mark, the man who helps Cameron with her typewriter says,

We have writers all over the city.  There are a lot of people who cannot work on a computer.

Writer Adam Gopnik believes you are forever stuck using the technology you know well on your 4oth birthday.  Sort of like a sleeping beauty curse, at 40, you die technologically. But there is more to habitual use of tools for Highly Creatives.  Putting in 100 hours to master a new tool is that much time away from the core work.  Time is running faster.  Albert Einstein felt this way.  As he grew older he cherished time alone to figure out the Universe.

Once the perfect combination of habits is achieved, flow, Creativity’s Nectar, comes almost on demand, like Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the sound of a bell. Flow arrives with habitual cues.  Highly Creative people know this, so they cherish habits as tools of Creation.

A habit becomes less demanding of attention and more giving of space to Create in 30 days.  I’m working on my summer schedule to include the habits I want to keep.  This morning I started a new one.  I ran, in vivo (outside, not on a treadmill), for 20 minutes.

I’ve been meaning to go for a power run (read, super-short, but energy giving) for months now.  But meaning to, is passive.  It’s a cartoon arrow, sort of pointing the way.  I’ve had good excuses to not make this an active process.  My baby still nurses every two hours around the clock, for example.  But the days are long, it’s summer, now’s the time to start these power runs. Besides, I recently decided to dot my day with  brain-refreshments.  So, I will position my running shoes and clothes perfectly to be used first thing in the morning.  I will have the baby-jogger in ready position, and I will find a new double baby jogger so I can take both my toddler and my three-month old when I need to.  This isn’t a habit yet, but I’ve got thirty days to hammer out the routine.  My Creating brain needs the extra oxygen and blood-flow running gives.

Rest to Refresh

My children are back from an action packed trip to London.  They’ve been up since dawn and are crazy with ideas and energy for projects.  Rest time is at 1:00 p.m. today, I know they’ll need it by then.  They may nap.  They may tinker with Legos or shower and lay down to listen to an audio book.  However they choose to rest, the point isn’t to vegge-out.  They must emerge from their rooms refreshed.

Highly Creative people don’t ever consciously rest in a vegging-out sort of way. Even hospitalized, or after severe loss, or just after a long day of uninspired work, they rest to refresh.

Poet Marie Ponsot rested to gain strength after her stroke last Spring.  But the loss of words astonished her to insomnia.  She strained to extricate even the long-ago crystallized prayers of her childhood. Ponsot remembered the Lord’s Prayer first.

Weeks later, back in her Manhattan apartment, New York Times writer, Jim Dwyer says,

Ms. Ponsot had help in her hunt for syntax, a tool more fundamental to human existence than the wheel: a rotating group of poets who come to read and talk with her. “I really think if you’re in this kind of mental trouble,” she said, “all the medications are going to keep the body alive, but to have it work” — she put her hands on her head — “you’re going to have to do it yourself.

Playwright Julia Cameron swims laps five days a week to clear her head.  Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami runs marathons.  He says,

Stamina and concentration are two sides of the same coin.  I sit at my desk and write every day, no matter what, whether I like it or not, whether it’s painful or enjoyable.  I do this day after day, and eventually—it’s the same as running–I get…strength.  It’s like passing through a wall.  You just slip through.

Economist Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class says

Few of my Creative Class subjects show significant interest in spectator sports.  They want to participate directly.

Biologist Stephen Jay Gould had very traditional past-times. Gould said,

The solace of my youth was a miserable concoction of something sweet and gooey, liberally studded with peanuts and surrounded by chocolate…it was called Whizz and it cost a nickel.

While a less creative kid would chomp in hungry joy, the young Gould thought about price and size ratio fluctuations and eventually wrote the article Phyletic Size Decrease in Hershey Bars, which connects Evolutionary Theory to Hershey bars.

Gould also watched baseball, but with a sharp mind and pencil and pad at hand rather than sleepy-eyed stupor coupled with beer and a bowl of pretzels.   His TV watching led to several essays on baseball published in The New York Review of Books.

Rest to refresh.

That will be my mantra for this coming week.