Here is a new podcast that I did with Kelly Robbins of Freshtracks
One important understanding of the creative process in its long tradition is that it is philosophically neutral, in other words, the process itself has nothing to do with what you believe, or assume, or your deeply held convictions. The proof of this is history. People from various and contradictory belief systems have mastered the creative process.
Those who think it is important what you believe often tried to tie their beliefs to how your life will turn out. If you adopt the “right” beliefs, you will be all right. But if you don’t, look out! You will have hell to pay.
Human beings want to believe in things. That is our nature. And belief is a personal matter. It is no one else’s business if you believe in God, or metaphysics, or have your doubts, or are a confirmed atheist.
Yet, it is common these days to ask politicians what religious beliefs they hold. And they are expected to hold ones that are acceptable to the general public. And God forbid if they don’t! In fact, for some politicians, they do not respect the intellectual discipline of science, but they will happily go on about their religious concepts about life’s true mysteries speaking as if they had a mystical understanding of what can’t be understood.
Our society has fallen into the bad habit of tying belief with things that do not call for belief. Integrity, for example. The fact is one can have integrity independent of any belief system. If we think about it, in fact, integrity must be completely separate from any set of beliefs for it to be true integrity.
Integrity is about values, not beliefs. Values are about the choices you make when they are competing with each other. Truth Vs. Kindness is one pair of factors that are often mutually exclusive. Love Vs. Duty is another, and one that makes for great film plots as in Casablanca. Quality Vs. Quantity might be another, one that we see occur in business. What matters most to you? If it were truth for truth’s sake, belief must be put aside, not considered at all. As in the old TV cop show Dragnet, “Only the facts, Ma’am.”
But, you might think that at least you need to believe in yourself. This is one of those silly ideas that has become a social norm and a truism that is simply not true.
It began with the positive thinking folks, and then infiltrated the rest of society. Then came the self-esteem movement, and the rest is the unfortunate history of the popular notion that you need to believe in yourself and have good, positive thoughts, and love yourself, and have high “intention” to get anywhere in life. Not only is this total nonsense, it is a detrimental notion.
One study that Dr. Wayne Andersen and I found while researching our book Identity comes from Columbia University. They took 400 eighth graders and divided them into two groups. They were all given the same easy puzzle to solve. Every child in one of the two test groups was told this one line, “You must be smart at this.” The kids in the other group did not get any feedback. When the time came for the children to choose the next puzzle, a majority of the children who were not complimented chose a harder puzzle to try. But, a majority of the children who were complimented, even though it was only that one sentence, chose an easier puzzle to solve. The study showed how those students who were focused on “how smart they were” were de-motivated to challenge themselves. But the ones who were left to whatever they thought, were ready to engage in more complex challenges. This is only one of many such studies we have seen, now contradicting the claims that it is important to think well of yourself.
It is not that each person who creates has no personal belief or even philosophic viewpoints. It is that it doesn’t matter at all.
So, while those in the “belief business” try to sell you their various beliefs as if it were the ticket to success and happiness, know that in the “Creating business” it doesn’t matter what you believe. Creating is as philosophically neutral as is swimming, driving, walking, cooking, painting, commerce, and science.
Someone once said about a very talented person, “He has many talents but one: the talent of using his talents.” There is much insight in this remark. It is not the talent, abilities, skills, intelligence, nor experience you have that matters. It is the ability to put it all together. And that takes discipline.
We can see that there are many talented and successful people in the world. Some of them build and build. Some of them self-destruct over time. And it is so sad when that happens. Of course, we are prone to think, “How could they have been saved?”
Maybe a better question is, “What was missing?” Or, “What makes the difference between those to build over time, and those who fall apart?”
All of these people began with a large degree of discipline in their art. No matter how talented you are, there is work to do. But then, after that, there is even more work to do. And that is the history of artists. Unlike celebrity, in the arts you never make it. There is always a next step, a new vision, a new place to go, something new to learn, new challenges to conquer.
What is discipline? Many of us have the wrong impression because the word was used in some schools to mean punishment for bad behavior. But the real thing is the factor in how we are able to go well beyond our current capabilities, talents, skills, and knowledge. Discipline is the central way to put into practice experiential learning we might need to be able to accomplish goals that we care about.
Much of the time, discipline involves doing things we might not like doing. Some people think that discipline is forcing yourself into doing these things. Willpower, manipulation, and intimidate yourself into “good behavior” never works for very long. It is not sustainable. You can’t build an orientation of true disciple that way. Yet, the advice many give us is to do just that.
In our approach to the creative process, we work with a very different principle to create discipline. It is the dynamic relationship between the primary choice, which is the goal you are working toward, and the series of secondary choices, or actions, that are needed if you are to accomplish your goal. This is technical, on the one hand, and orientational, on the other. The technical aspect is the strategic development of the process by which you will create your goal. This means that you will understand the relation between the primary choice and the secondary choices, which give you the most solid reason to take the actions you take: not because you like these actions (often you don’t,) but because this is the path that will enable you to create to result you want.
About orientation, discipline itself has an overall context in which it is always seen and understood as a system of choices. Choice always means you can do it or not. This is an important insight. If you are forcing yourself into action you don’t want to take, that is not out of real choice, but out of the pressure you are putting on yourself. The truth is that you can take this action or not. If it were not for the primary choice, you would not take it at all.
There is only ONE reason you choose to take the action, and that is because there is a higher order choice it supports. In this orientation, you never feel like you are giving up something, or making trade-offs. There is no resentment about what you are doing because the reason you are doing whatever it is in support of your goal is crystal clear. Yet, because you are not putting the typical emotional strain and resentments people often have when doing things they do not like to do, you are free to exercise your system of choices strategically and effectively.
That is the key to discipline, on the project to project level, and the discipline of discipline, on the creator level.
A study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology claims that repetition was the key to the success of most hit songs, such as Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk,” and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” The study asserts “This finding supports the theory of processing fluency, which suggests that the easier a message is to digest, the more positively people will react to it.”
So that’s it, then. If you want to write a hit song, just repeat something a lot.
What the study misses by a mile is how the structure of songs work. In “Shake it Off” and “Uptown Funk,” as in every other great song, there are built in tension resolution systems both in the actual music, but also in the lyrics. These tensions drive the piece forward, and strive for resolution in the end. As David Mamet said about drama, it creates order out of chaos. At first, we don’t know exactly what is being said or implied, but later we do. The tension is resolved, the question is answered.
In “Shake It Off,” the first lines are:
I stay out too late
Got nothing in my brain
That’s what people say, mmm-mmm
That’s what people say, mmm-mmm
Okay, what Taylor is describing is the criticism the character in the song gets from other people. She is dumb and stays out “too late,” meaning she is having too good a time because she is stupid. Then more criticism:
I go on too many dates
But I can’t make them stay
At least that’s what people say, mmm-mmm
That’s what people say, mmm-mmm
So, she can’t have better relationships, and it is her fault that they leave. Notice it is that SHE “can’t make them stay.” But, the clever and skillful masterstroke here is in this one phase, “At least.” Here is a situation that may not be true, even if people claim it. In those two words, Taylor has completely positioned a contrast between what may be true and others impressions, which may not be true. These types of contrasts create tension-resolution systems that propel the song forward. This is not the function of repetition but of very carefully crafted structure.
Now, to contrast the original situation in which she has reported the criticism, she says (sings:)
But I keep cruising
Can’t stop, won’t stop moving
It’s like I got this music
In my mind
Saying, ‘It’s gonna be alright.’
No matter what they say, she has a certain level of self-knowledge, in which her restless spirit will keep moving, and no matter what is said, things are going to turn out alright, independent of the critics.
Then she states the condition of the world:
Players are going to play,
Haters are going to hate,
[BUT she is going to] shake it off, shake it off.
Heart-breakers are going to break
And Fakers are going to fake
[And she is just going to] shake it off,
in other words, not let the phonies, the “fakers,” the “haters,” and the heartbreakers get to her. She will be free of them.
See how much the researchers didn’t know? It is as if they were watching the film Casablanca, and claimed that the reason people love the film was that there were a lot of black and white stripes in the film (which there are.) Kind of misses what’s really going on.
“Uptown Funk” is one of the best music videos I’ve seen in years. Bruno Mars is fantastic, as are all of the performers. And yes, there is a lot of repetition. But the repetition is in contrast to what is not repeated.
The song is in distinct sections, which is not a matter of repetition but contrasts of form. The first lines are:
This hit, that ice cold
Michelle Pfeiffer, that white gold, …
The next stanza contrasts cold with hot:
I’m too hot (hot damn)
Called a police and a fireman
I’m too hot (hot damn)
Make a dragon wanna retire man
In fact, the major contrast in the song is between uptown and downtown folk. The song claims that uptown folk are much sexier and hotter. And the entire song is done with wonderful tongue in cheek. The video, itself, besides having magnificent choreography, moves in and out of street scenes, a beauty parlor, a shoe shine stand, and, in the grand finale, a club setting where everyone we’ve seen performs as one of the best show bands you’ve ever seen. Professional creators know how to create structures that build, and lead to final resolution of the tensions they have carefully set up. Movement, not repetition, is what people love about song form.
The fact that this study was taken seriously maybe one of the problems with the discipline of psychology, and it’s overall lack of understanding of structural dynamics. The principle is this: the underlying structure of anything will determine its behavior. Without understanding structure, it is easy to miss what is really going on, and hard to find the causal factors in anything.
Take a look at these websites to see what the power of the creative process can do within the context the developing world. This effort is led by my long-time friend and colleague Mwalimu Musheshe who has brought the creative process to rural development and brought new levels of understanding and dramatic improvement when people place the power in their own hands through such things as structural tension. The URDT (Uganda Rural Development & Training Program) is forging new ground for questions of development, not as aid imported by external forces which tends to make people less self-generating, not as problem solving which is one of the worst ways to address issues of development, but from within communities themselves, so people find the power of their own creative process.
There is a lesson in this for us all! Bravo URDT, The African Food and Peace Foundation (American partners with the URDT,) and Mwalimu Musheshe.
Rosalind and I really enjoy watching a TV program on the Food Network called Chopped. It is a simple idea. 4 chefs compete with each other by making an appetizer, entrée, and dessert. They are given surprise ingredients, often ones that are weird. The chefs may get cotton candy, pickled pigs feet, yogurt, and green peppers for the starter. They have 20 or 30 minutes to invent something and serve it to the judges, who are superstar chefs.
What I have really learned by watching the show is how the judges think so compositionally. They are always very structural: this, in relationship to that, contrasting flavors, textures, colors, immediate, Vs. longer lasting, and various elements of a dish weighed against other elements.
In each round, one of the competitors gets “chopped.” In other words, he or she loses. The appetizer round begins with 4 chefs, and one of them is then chopped, the entrée round has 3 competitors, and one of them is chopped, and the desert round has 2 competitors, and one of them is chopped, and one of them wins.
It is fun. But there is another dimension going on that most people might not notice, and that is the underlying assumptions of the competing chefs. It might be a cultural phenomenon, but so many of them seem like refugees from the self-help movement.
For example, many of them claim they would win because they have the most positive attitude, or they are the most sincere, or somehow they deserve it because they have worked so hard in their lives. There is a lot of talk about determination and intention. The underlying assumption is that winning has most to do with mental attitude, rather than the food they create. This notion actually makes them less competitive, given it is a food competition, and winning or losing is directly related to the food they make.
Most of them have dramatic life stories, “I’m doing this for my dead grandfather, who taught me how to cook,” or “I was a drug addict and I got my life to together by cooking, and I want to prove that people can change,” or “I am doing this to prove to myself that my decision to be a chef was the right on.”
Some think they should win because they have the most experience, or because they are more inventive, or because they have talent. Seems most of them have a rational why they SHOULD win. 4 chefs, only one winner. That means, 3 of them are going to lose, no matter what they claim their reason for winning is.
When they lose, there is that long walk to the green room, and they get to say what their reaction is to having been chopped. Some of them say they were robbed, and the judges didn’t call it right. Some of them say it wasn’t their day, or they had trouble with the oven, or that they had never worked with one of the ingredients before. Some say at the beginning of the program how much this means to them, but if they lose, it is all sour grapes: “This is only one little thing, and I know I’m a great chef!”
In all the time we’ve been watching the program, only once did one of the losing chefs say that he lost because the other contestant produced a better dish than he did. He, as it happens, was French. So far, there have been no Americans that have admitted to being beaten fair and square.
So much of what we see is the manifestation of identity issues taken up an octave. Most of these chefs confuse their abilities and talents with who they are. They have trouble admitting losing a contest with 3 other highly capable competitors because they didn’t do as good a job. No one likes to lose, no one likes to be rejected, no one likes to be chopped. Yet, it is nothing personal. Let’s say you did the best you could, and so did the competitors. And, someone else’s best was better than your best. How is that personal? But the explanations tell the story.
When what you do is confused with who you are, failure, which comes with the territory in a contest in which 4 equally talented people compete against each other, leads to a slight identity crisis.
Chefs, you are not the food you cook. If you were, you would disappear the moment someone ate your food.
This August, from the 9th to the 13th, I am leading a workshop titled THE ART OF THE CREATIVE PROCESS. This will be at the famous Kripalu Center in Stockbridge Massachusetts in the beauty of the Berkshires. This is the second time I’m leading this workshop at Kripalu, and, mostly likely, the last time because of my schedule. So, if you are an artist, and want to take The Art of the Creative Process, this may be your only chance. Last year it was one of the highlights of my year, great students, great class, fantastic results, and great friendships that we all formed.
I wanted to lead this workshop because there have been countless principles I’ve developed over the years that, in many ways, I think of as great secrets of the creative process, first as applied to the making of various forms of art, and secondly, as applied to how one can create the life he or she wants to live. I love working with other artists, and love to share a good thing.
I have a BM and MM in composition from the Boston Conservatory of Music. It was a fantastic educational experience. But there is a difference between what I learned as a student, and, later, learned in professional life. Sometimes, even now, there will be something I “discover” that was taught to me by one of my great teachers way back then. And I find myself saying, “Oh, that’s what they meant!” And there is a well-considered pride one can take in being a true professional. Amateurs can do it when they are in the mood, or in the “zone,” or under some spell or other. But professionals can make it happen no matter what the circumstances. Therefore, to be a professional, one needs a reliable creative process.
This is one reason I so admire the work of Constantin Stanislavski and Lee Strasberg. The methods they developed had the purpose of developing a reliable creative process for actors. And while there is often controversy about this or that approach to acting, that isn’t the point. Before Stanislavski, there was, what was called, the trick of the muse. The artist had to rely on inspiration hitting just at the right time. The muse could not be relied on. Strasberg writes in his book A Dream Of Passion, that one night he was impressed by the performance of an actor on Broadway. The next night he brought many of his friends to the theater only to be disappointed by the very same actor. He was told, “That is the actor’s problem. The muse may or may not be with you.” Then Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theater came to New York. Strasberg came night after night, and night after night every actor was superb from the leading roles to the minor roles. That is was the start of his experiments in acting techniques, all with the goal of a reliable creative process.
That has been my quest as well, although I have approached it structurally. That was a natural path for me because of my compositional background.
There comes a point, and most artists often come to this point, that your vision and aesthetic aspiration far outpaces your ability, capacity, instinct, or technique. Those are golden moments. They can be frustrating as hell. But they usually are exhilarating because something new is about to be born, something that you hadn’t considered, something that may be so simple that you scratch your head and say to yourself, “Why didn’t I think of that before?” Or, it may be something not obvious, and you think, “Wow!”
The creative process is not the same subject as “creativity.” When I wrote my book Creating, I was booked for a lot of conferences on “creativity.” I found little in common with those who talked and wrote about it. First of all, most of them were not from the arts, didn’t create anything other than books on creativity, and had little understanding of what it takes to produce high quality work within a deadline and budget. They didn’t understand structure, counterpoint, contrasts, tension-resolutions systems, color balances, value studies, poetry, song structure, etc. Mostly they came from the field of psychology, or neuroscience. They never had to get a painting to work, or build momentum in act 2, or develop a theme throughout a symphony. They reminded me of people who may witness something going on before their eyes, but not understand what it takes to produce it themselves. A little like a music critic watching Glen Gould play Bach. He can’t quite tell how he is doing it, and certainly can’t do it himself. So, in light of not knowing, it is easy to invent theories about how it works. There is no shortage of theories in the creativity business.
Creativity is concerned with producing the unusual. The creative process is concerned with producing the artist’s vision, usual or unusual. As a process, it is consistent, predictable, reliable, practical, and productive. It is a process for professionals who know what they are doing and, from that, have track records. This is so different from what the creativity people appreciate. One of the major differences between the two fields is this: Freeing the mind Vs Focusing the mind.
Creativity people think that we were all so creative as children because we were non-judgmental and imaginative. This is the glorification of childhood creativity. But, let’s state the obvious; children are not as creative as adults. Most children do not build buildings, or create great films, or write symphonies (with the exception of Mozart and Mendelssohn, both of whom became more accomplished when they got older,) or create software, and so on. Creativity people think that if we got out of our own way, free-associate, generate lots of ideas, and think laterally, we’d be very creative. Professional creators don’t use any of these techniques. Instead, they use structural tension, focusing the mind on the desired outcome and the current reality as it relates to the outcome. This focus gives the mind a job, to generate a path from the starting point to the accomplishment of the goal. If you can’t get there conventional ways, the mind, creative as it is, will invent new ways to get to the goal. That is the real foundation for creativity. But, for the artist, creativity is never an end unto itself, but a process toward an artistic results.
Artists know about the creative process because that is their stock-in-trade. Too few write about it, and when they do, it is always worth reading. One of my favorites is Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. Another is Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. One of the best documentaries on music is Paul Simons Graceland, where Simon discusses just how he made such an incredible album. On Writing by Steven King is excellent.
Artists are told by non-artists what their job is. They are supposed to have social purpose, or be political, or be showing something about humanity, or carry a message. It is important that each artist find his or her own way, and reject the opinion of those who do not create. Too often, the artist becomes confused about direction, meaning, purpose, and reason to create art in the first place. To often, the artist tries to be too many things to too many people, loosing what we could think of as an artistic compass.
Also, too often, artists get into ruts with themselves. This is NOT creative block as it has been described. Instead, it is this simple, they are bored with themselves. They have done what they know how to do, and now, they have become stale, unable to move ahead. These moments challenge the artist to do something different. This is the time for experimentation, throwing out all the usual techniques, rethinking the approach and orientation, and finding a new, fresh way to create something different than before. These moments are golden for the artist to reinvent him or herself as a creator. Almost always something good comes out of these moments.
Creating is a skill, and it is an orientation, and a way of thinking, and a way of approaching life, and, for some, a calling. It is not raw talent as evidenced by many talented people who never developed their skill. Mastery of the creative process happens over years of experience in which you grow, develop, learn, and deepen your understanding of just what it is you are doing. And it happens to be one of the very best things in the world.
To find out more about The Art of the Creative Process:
This past few weeks brought into focus just how true his words are. Some would like to think that the young man who prayed with people in a black church, only to shoot and kill them in the end, was simply the act of a deranged, mentally ill soul who didn’t know better. And, to some degree, that is true. But to describe it as that misses the more obvious and deeper understanding of the dynamics of prejudice, bigotry, and hate. There was a climate where his hatred was born, that was ripe for triggering his appetite for violence, and, even while he said that he had second thoughts because everyone was so nice to him, ignored his own humanity to destroy the people that were so nice to him. How are we to understand this?
Of course, identity is at its roots. In his case, white identity against black identity. What underlying assumptions did he make? First, that his group’s identity was senior and more important than his sense of individual self. The most basic human instinct is to survive. Yet he was willing to give up his life to support what he thought of as his group identity. Secondly, that anything that was different and not in his group was a threat to his group’s survival. This is exactly the same conviction that all terrorists share. To create such destructive acts one needs to see their victims as an existential threat that must be destroyed before it is too late. This is more than ideology. While people might argue over various ideologies, they do not die for them. But, when, for example, ideology becomes a matter of identity, then they do. So it is foolish pride they are dying for, and not their belief systems.
The killer said that he wanted to start a race war. That’s a pretty clear statement. What happened instead was something to behold, people rejected the act, the thought behind the act, the historic divisions, the politics, embraced humanity, and joined together to show that love is, indeed, a stronger force that hate.
And about the Confederate flag that was flying over public buildings in South Carolina, at first, some described the flag as representing “Southern Pride.” Let me get this straight, you want to take pride in something you didn’t do? Like every form of identity pride, people are claiming value from something others have done. So, any form of national pride, in that sense, is counterfeit. If you personally achieved a .350 batting average in baseball, or won a Pulitzer prize for journalism, or even had no cavities in your latest dental check up, well, you can take pride in that. That is very different from group pride. If you accomplished a great batting average, should all baseball players take pride in that? Should all journalists take pride that one of them reached a high level professionally? Should we all take pride that, no matter the condition of our teeth, one of us had a good check up? Of course, the thought, itself, is absurd.
In fact, historically, that flag was placed there in 1962 at the height of the civil rights movement, the symbolism had little to do with Southern Pride, but rejection of the rights of black people. And that is why, with all the talk of pride, it wasn’t put there for that reason. These are just the facts anyone could study. I suppose, in the end, anything can sound like it has a reasonable explanation. Good for South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley for having it removed from public buildings.
Group pride, unlike individual pride based on true accomplishment, says that, because you are a member of a group, somehow that, in and of itself, is worthy of honor. In fact, often those who are unsure of themselves, gravitate to group pride of one sort or another to make up for their deep insecurities.
Now, I like the gay pride movement to a degree. Once a group is oppressed, there is often the desire to counter balance the negative stereotyping that attempts to compensate for the subjugate. As people who are gay are more and more accepted in general society, it will harder and harder to take pride in your sexual orientation, something you had little to do with.
How can you take pride in something you had nothing to do with? I’m proud I’m a man? I’m proud I’m a woman? What choice did you have?
Human beings suffer the quest for identity, too often to their own detriment. And, in the extreme, sometimes some very wonderful and innocent people die. This is not explained by insanity alone but because of the tragedy of foolish pride.
And done SO publicly, it challenges the notion of freedom of the individual. Are people free to live their lives as they want, or do they have some hidden obligation to conform to how others, or society as a whole, would decide for them?
This is not an unsubstantial question. Because it puts the value of freedom of the individual against the ideal of social conformity.
Now, we are not talking about sovereignty. We are not talking about “are people free to throw their garbage on my lawn?” That is not a question of freedom, but of private ownership, and the rights that go along with that ownership. People who get a little nervous about issues of freedom often slip into issues of sovereignty, which then, allows them to avoid thinking more deeply about freedom.
So, is Jenner, according to your values, rather than the type of choices you might make for yourself, free to live his/her life the way he/she sees fit?
Most people favor the value of freedom. But, too often, the issue is abstract. One can favor it in theory, but when it comes to their own parents or adult children, suddenly the issue is not so clear. We all have opinions of others, and often we think we know better about how they should live their lives than they do. Very human, indeed.
But living consistently with your values is a test for most people. And here is Jenner, unapologetic about her choices in life, against a sea of criticism, disparagement, and even worse, ridicule from people, some of whom claim to be all for freedom.
I have no idea what it must feel like to be transgender. The closest maybe that I’ve always felt like a Catholic but wasn’t raised to be a Catholic. When I finally converted to Catholicism, it was no big deal to society, or even to the people who knew me. Maybe it’s like that. A private matter.
But, you may say, Jenner made it a public matter, and for that, I am all admiration for her. Good for you, Caitlyn! Do what you want, live your life the way you want, be as public or private as you want! More power to you.
And for those who would choose for Jenner over her own wishes, you are free to have your opinion. Just never claim you are for freedom.