Boredom, creativity and the addiction of distraction

Boredom: bored camel.Boredom may not be as boring as you think

Of the three things you most avoid that may be what you most need — suffering, failure and boredom — the latter seems like the most innocuous. Suffering and failure might feel more like an open wound or severed limb. In comparison, boredom’s more like a hangnail: not pleasant, but more of an annoyance you’d prefer would go away.

And that is exactly the problem.

You and I do all sorts of things to avoid being bored when in fact, embracing boredom may be one of the best things you can do to enhance your creativity and problem-solving abilities.

No, really.

Boredom and creativity

Being bored (and I’m talking about short-term boredom such as standing in line, being stuck in traffic, waiting for an appointment, etc. as opposed to long-term situations like a less-than-stimulating job) provides something rare: mental space for daydreaming. Without white space or a blank mental canvas, we don’t allow ourselves the ability to imagine. And without imagination, it’s hard to be creative.

Those stretches of time when you have nothing else to consider gives you the chance to make seemingly random connections that are at the heart of creativity. So much of our creative life occurs indirectly: we back into ideas or connect dots from different realms. Welcoming boredom or opportunities to not think about anything in particular allows you to ponder things in a different, non-linear way. And that’s when the creative ideas often flow.

But you’ll never get there if don’t open yourself to boredom. And if you’re like me, you can’t do that unless you address a hidden but powerful addiction: distraction.

The addiction of distraction

An addiction? You tell me. How long can you go without checking your phone or email or Facebook or a TV screen? How comfortable are you with silence? How often do you read the ads on the metro or subway just to have something to do? Distraction. It’s an addiction in our society and all the worse for the fact we don’t realize we suffer from it.

Distraction not only robs us of creative thought, it diverts us from deep thought. We’ve become so ingrained at checking our devices and living in a constant state of unfocus that we likely don’t even realize the toll it has taken on our ability to do better, insightful work.

Going deep

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport addresses the impact of distraction and its allies — networking and so-called productivity tools that keep us constantly connected and thus constantly checking rather than concentrating. I love this quote of his:

No one ever changed the world, created a new industry, or amassed a fortune due to their fast email response time.

Cal Newport

His point is that to do the kind of breakthrough work that makes a significant difference to society, we need focused time and effort. And that’s not easy in a culture addicted to distractions. Newport offers a wealth of solutions in the book, but one of my favorites is this.

Because distraction is so strong, we can’t beat it by trying to contain it. That’s why the approach many promote of carving out say, a day a week, for focused work with no social media rarely succeeds in the long run. That’s like telling an alcoholic to not drink one day a week. You don’t overcome addictions that way.

A better way to do focused work

Instead, Newport suggests a rather radical flipping of that process. Instead of carving out time in your week for focused work, instead, think of your week as being all about focus. Then, create small windows within each day for distraction. For example, as much as you can, arrange your schedule so that you refuse to go online or check your phone except every two hours and then for only 15 minutes. Be ruthless in sticking to this schedule. If you need to look something up online for the focused work you’re doing, wait until your two hours are up. If you absolutely can’t proceed without that information, at least wait five minutes. That way you’re training your brain not to give into the addiction pathology. You’re forcing yourself to at least pause before you automatically go online.

If you don’t do something dramatic like this, distraction will kick in. As an addiction, that means our brains have become trained to default to distraction whenever we’re agitated, bored or semi-engaged in something else. You need to break those habits of distraction and this reorienting your schedule is one way to do that.

Since reading Deep Work, I’ve tried this approach. I haven’t always been successful (addictions die hard), but when I stick to it and orient my day around focused time with distraction breaks rather than the other way round, the results have been dramatic. I get far more done and I haven’t missed out on any emergency emails, Slack messages or tweets that I just couldn’t live without.

What you may be missing most

I realize this last suggestion doesn’t relate directly to boredom. But it is a powerful way of breaking free of the addiction of distraction. So is embracing boredom. I highly recommend giving both a try. For when you do, you begin to realize how much you’ve been missing in your attempt not to miss out on anything.

If you haven’t already, check out the overview of this three-part series on the three things we avoid that we may most need, as well as the specific entries on suffering and failure.

 

The secret to making something great

The secret to making something great: The Great Works

Great work like this doesn’t happen by accident

The secret to making something great isn’t really a secret. It’s just something we tend to forget or chose to ignore.

Until we can’t any longer…

*******

Last month my wife and I helped our youngest son move into his dorm to start life at a new university. He’s in the film program there and for orientation, that department invited the new students and their parents to tour the studio and to hear from various professors.

One of the faculty relayed to the students the secret to making something great. He didn’t build it up as some earth-shattering revelation. He merely noted the following:

Exceptional people, those who produce the best work in their fields, tend to do the work no one else is willing to do and to work even when they don’t feel like it.

Ugh. This secret to making something great hit home. His words made me realize that I do want to make great work. But too often I prefer to do what others do and make my creative efforts mostly when I’m in the mood.

Beyond what he said, however, lies a deeper question, perhaps the underlying secret to making something great:

What do I — what do you — want more: Comfort or our best work?

Great work requires hard work. It’s that simple.

It’s just not easy.

Do the work no one else is willing to do and work even when you don’t feel like it.

Let’s go do some great work.

 

Collect, connect and share

I recently read The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer. She’s a musician who achieved a great deal of notoriety by being the first performing artist to raise over $1 million on Kickstarter to fund an album of hers. The book came as a result of a popular TED Talk she did on the same subject.

I doubt I will ever be able to apply all the principles of trusting and letting others help in the way Amanda has. But it’s a wonderful challenge to consider. She sums up the book and this need to trust, connect and simply ask for help this way:

“…this book is not about seeing people from safe distances—that seductive place where most of us live, hide, and run to for what we think is emotional safety. The Art of Asking is a book about cultivating trust and getting as close as possible to love, vulnerability, and connection. Uncomfortably close. Dangerously close. Beautifully close. And uncomfortably close is exactly where we need to be if we want to transform this culture of scarcity and fundamental distrust. Distance is a liar. It distorts the way we see ourselves and the way we understand each other.”

What I found particularly relevant in the book was her approach to capturing the creative process as being one where you collect, connect and share. As she puts it:

“You may have a memory of when you first, as a child, started connecting the dots of the world. Perhaps outside on a cold-spring-day school field trip, mud on your shoes, mentally straying from the given tasks at hand, as you began to find patterns and connections where you didn’t notice them before. You may remember being excited by your discoveries, and maybe you held them up proudly to the other kids, saying: did you ever notice that this looks like this? The shapes on this leaf look like the cracks in this puddle of ice which look like the veins on the back of my hand which look like the hairs stuck to the back of her sweater… Collecting the dots. Then connecting them. And then sharing the connections with those around you. This is how a creative human works. Collecting, connecting, sharing. “

She goes on to note how some people are best at collecting — noticing the details others miss, having experiences that then become the raw materials for poetry or songs, examining a scene until the truth of the place is revealed.

Others thrive on connecting the dots:

“…think of a sculptor who hammers away for a year on a single statue, a novelist who works five years to perfect a story, or a musician who spends a decade composing a single symphony—connecting the dots to attain the perfect piece of art.”

Collect, connect and share - The Art of Asking book coverFinally, there are those who most enjoy sharing: the writer who puts her work out there in print or online, the painter who hangs his work for others to see, the performer who reveals aspects of her own life and ours as well through a live show.

What I love about this construct of collect, connect and share is that it applies not only to creativity, but to travel. One of the best points of synthesis between what occurs on a trip and what changes in us when we return is our ability to take what we’ve collected while traveling, connect the dots in creative ways when we get back and then share the result with others.

Too often, we think that the sharing part only applies to showing our photos or having others read our travel blogs. But the wonder of great travel is that the experience seeps into every aspect of our lives. Thus, when you come back and make all the unlikely connections between what happened on the trip and where you are now, you begin to see how your travel experience affects how you relate to others, how you go about your work, how you spend your leisure time and even how you learn to serve others in new ways.

Sharing can manifest itself in every area of your life. And you’ll be better at sharing if you’ve been more intentional in collecting and connecting along the way. It’s a rewarding way to think about trips and creativity and frankly, a better way to travel.

Thanks, Amanda.

 

Why originality doesn’t matter

Why originality doesn't matter: Gorilla

“You want to paint my face? Really?”

Why originality doesn’t matter

I used to worry about being original. I also used to worry about acne.

I’ve outgrown both concerns.

Age took care of the acne.

Reality took care of originality.

That reality led me to these conclusions:

First, on one level, there’s nothing new under the sun. So I find striving for newness itself about as successful as mentally willing my acne to disappear back in middle school.

Second, originality is the wrong goal. Instead of striving to be original, seek to say or do something that matters to you and will matter to someone else. Write or create to help others, to add value, to make a difference, even if for only one person on one day. Pursue helpfulness and saying what you need to say over originality. If you pursue the latter, you will likely end up doing something crazy like trying to face paint a gorilla while dressed as a gondolier, reciting Tang dynasty poetry and simultaneously trying to record your work with your iPhone. Upside down. Original? Yes. But good and useful and helpful? Ask the gorilla.

The best way to be original

Pursue originality and you may get, well, something you may not want to show your parents (or a prospective mate). Pursue doing something that matters, that is helpful and strives to say something in the best way possible and guess what? You may just end up being original.

To prove my point, here’s a quote from C.S. Lewis I found after writing all the above:

Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.

See? Nothing new under the sun. But let me add a few other points.

When you cease striving to be original, you take a lot of pressure off yourself. You back your way into quality and freshness rather than obsessing and freezing up. Thus, you end up doing better — maybe even more original — work.

You may be the one

Most important, however, is this. If you’re a writer, even if what you write isn’t original or new, it may be new to your reader. In advertising, they say it takes six or more impressions (exposures to say, an ad) before a person even consciously registers that she’s ever heard of the product. That means that a reader may have read about a subject multiple times before they come across your take on it. But you may be the one writer who cuts through the clutter and makes sense to that reader. Your voice, your unique take on the same subject that dozens of others have addressed, may be the one that resonates with that reader at exactly the right time.

So don’t worry so much about being original. That will come with time and discovering and writing in your own voice. Instead, figure out what you want to say, what you’re meant to say and then say it. Write it. Proclaim it in your own best words and then trust it will find the right readers when they most need it.

And watch out for gorillas with face paint.

 

How to make your writing more interesting and memorable

How to make your writing more interesting: Image of The Gatteaux Family by Ingres

The Gatteaux Family by Jean Auguste Dominque Ingres

Want to make your writing or your art more interesting? Want it to stand out and be remembered better? Want readers to be able to visualize with great clarity what you’re writing about?

Add details.

There it is. Details. That’s the big secret, or at least one of them for crafting more interesting fiction and non-fiction and adding layers to your art.

As Steven Pinker points out in his excellent book, The Sense of Style, which sentence can you mentally picture (and thus likely retain) better:

“The set fell on the floor” or “The ivory chess set fell on the floor”?

Only two words differentiate the two sentences, yet that detail makes the second sentence more concrete. You can picture the ivory chess set better.

The ways in which you present details are as diverse as the types of writing you might do. But here are two considerations.

First, for fiction, use details to add depth and clarity to your descriptions. “It was a dark and moonless night” doesn’t make you feel the night as well as, “The darkness oppressed her, like the blackness of a cave, complete and unyielding.”

For non-fiction, wherever possible, use examples (as I just did above). Examples offer details while also providing an analogy the reader can relate to.

Details are your friend. But how do you go about making their acquaintance? You can rely on your imagination. But your imagination will grow if you learn to collect details and stockpile them for later.

Travel helps us in this regard. When we go out into the world with our eyes open and our notebooks or cameras or sketchpads at hand, we can see and then capture details we’d otherwise miss. We then bring back these small treasures to our studios for use in our work. Anyone can do this, but it helps to know some shortcuts and techniques. And where might one find such helpful tips?

I just completed a new paper, just for you, my guide to capturing and collecting details. It’s a free resource here if you’ve signed up on the site. I call it Come Closer: The Novelist’s Approach to Collecting Details because the basic concept came from an interview with a novelist I read many years ago. He described traveling to a city, for example, where a scene for his next book would take place. But instead of writing all the details about the whole city, he would find one interesting street corner and then document that thoroughly. He’d then have some great details he could throw into his descriptions that provided authenticity and made the scene more compelling.

I liken it to an Ingres drawing. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, the 19th century French painter, is considered one of history’s finest draftsman. His drawings, such as the one above, are exquisite, but what I appreciate is his isolated use of extreme detail. In the above image, the background is a mere suggestion. Even the clothing is rendered with the minimal lines needed to convey meaning. But look at the faces. They are meticulously drawn. Ingres used details where they mattered and didn’t waste the effort in areas where they don’t. And so should we.

If you want to make your writing more interesting, check out the guide to capturing details. The beauty of it is that you’ll learn tips and techniques that will not only make you a better writer or artist, they’ll improve how you travel as well.

 

The Closet Creative

Let’s start the New Year with something I wrote for a friend who was forgetting just how creative he is (something we all do from time to time). May it encourage you to live more creatively in this New Year…

********

Door of a potential Closet Creative in San Gimignano, Italy

Hey Closet Creative, are you in there? It’s time to come out!

You know who you are.

You watch commercials not because you’re interested in the product, but in the story they’re trying to tell. Or the music. Or the set design.

You skim through the headlines of the newspaper (which you likely browse online) but then you settle down for a slow read in the culture section.

You like bright shiny objects not for their material value, but for their design.

The conversations that energize you are ones of possibility, of new ideas, of what if’s…

You follow innovators and creative types on Twitter. Your newsfeed reflects similar interests.

Beauty matters to you.

And very few people know any of this about you.

Why? Because while art and creativity, inspiration and the imagination, technology and design are all powerful interests, you — to varying degrees — deny that these are yours. They fill a large part of your soul but a small part of your identity.

You are, in short, a Closet Creative.

Why is this?

  • Creativity isn’t practical. And you are a very practical person.
  • Creativity doesn’t pay the bills. You’re still practical.
  • Creativity is for other people. Artists and such. They don’t look like you (or so you think).
  • You likely took a stab at some creative effort when you were younger. A drawing perhaps. A musical performance. Maybe a poem or a project that meant a great deal to you. And it got shot down. Wasn’t “good.” Didn’t meet others’ standards.

You learned at a young age that creativity involves risks. Ones you’re not willing to take.

So you stay in the closet.

It may be dark in there, but it’s “safe.” Certainly not as scary as creativity.

Creativity? Scary? You bet. You can’t control it. You can’t really understand it. Others certainly won’t. It makes you feel something inside that doesn’t feel normal. You don’t know what to do with any of that.

And yet…

And yet. You know who you are. You may not know why creativity matters to you, but deep down it does. Desperately.

Deep down, you want someone to give you permission to be the creative person that you sense you might be but never could be. You want the green light. The go-ahead to try something new, something different. Something…creative.

This is it. This is your permission to heed that inner longing, that yearning that you suppress and even deny but that won’t let you be.

You are creative. How do I know? Because we all are. In one way or another, we all have an innate hard wiring to make something new, find a cure, solve a problem, do something better, create something that never existed before.

Some of us just hunger to express this more than others. And far too many of us ache to create but never act on it. And then we get to the end of our lives and all we have to show for it are regrets. Let that not be you.

Be the creative person that deep down you know you are. I give you permission, but most of all, you need to give you permission. You no longer need to be a Closet Creative.

This won’t be easy, but it will be good and right and true.

We’ll be coming back to this topic much more soon, but for now say these three words to yourself enough times until you begin to believe it.

“I am creative.”

Yes you are. Welcome to the club.