I wasted a good chunk of my years believing I was not a creative person. I used to admire other kids at school who could do anything ?special? ?i.e. not regurgitated from what we memorized in class: draw, dress differently, play sports, sing, and play an instrument. (In other words, pretty much everyone and their mother.) I wasted my high school and university years believing my well-written, well-received essays in English literature were just the result of discipline ?possibly coupled with a fear of falling behind. The competitor in me worked extra hard, read more, listened more, watched more to keep up with the creative, talented community around me.?
I say ?wasted? but I don?t really mean it. This time has been and continues to be a gift for me. For what is creativity but the product of data input coming together in a space of stillness and then expressing itself in a myriad manifestations from crazy hair to epic sculptures? You could say it is an idea. The space it needs to form is ?the time in the oven? so to speak. What it comprises is obviously time but more importantly quiet. Stillness. Space.
In Hatha Yoga pranayama, we call this space kumbhaka: the “retention or holding of the breath, a state where there is no inhalation or exhalation.? The science agrees that the magic and fruit of the pranayama (breath extension) practice is in the breath holds (kumbhaka). Like any practice, the beginning is challenging. One can barely hold the breath for a second. But as one learns and grows, the breath holds gradually become longer than the inhales and exhales. In the stillness of those holds, one begins to become aware of acute in-sight and heightened awareness of all senses. Everything is magnified ?and diminished at the same time because it feels like time stops and life slows down. This allows one to see details clearly, at a time when nothing is coming in nor getting out. Just pure, still magic. (Parallels can be drawn with swimming too, being immersed underwater with no breath and complete stillness. And the list goes on.)
And so it is with creativity. Think of the inhale as the time when we take in data from external sources. (You can say my ?wasted? years continue to be data input.) Some call this education. I call it conscious & unconscious absorption. It is the process of taking in information formally and informally. This data enters consciousness and is stored therein. The storage capacity is infinite and I believe crosses lifetimes. Then the creative among us ? pretty much everyone and their mother? understand but do not always prioritize the value of the gift of stillness. This can take many forms and is not confined to locking ourselves in a room and sitting cross-legged staring at a candle, chanting OM. Far from, in fact. This could be spent in quiet walks on a busy street, on a treadmill, in the forest, in a cafe, or sitting cross-legged staring at a candle, chanting OM. The kumbhaka of creativity is the processing time for quiet introspection.
I imagine at this time new input mixes with data from a second/day/lifetime ago. As we release the breath, our unique creation takes shape. Sometimes it is worthy. Mostly, it is torn up and thrown away. But even in the trash, it is uniquely ours because it is the amalgamation of broad inputs in our unique consciousness.?
Elizabeth Gilbert disagrees with me. She believes ?big magic? is floating around in the universe waiting for someone ready to host and run with it. We both agree there is something floating around in the universe. I think it is information. When we are ready for it, we absorb it. Stillness cooks it, with seasoning. The more varied the data [seasoning], the more unique the manifestation. In other words, the more breadth in our toolbox of data, the more creative the outcome. That is the crux of David Epstein?s argument in his latest book Range in which he presents a totally new paradigm of creative genius: range, a wide variety of trades/general knowledge/experience versus narrow, hyper-specialization.
I worry sometimes that we are not giving ourselves the gift of space. I am afraid one day our hard drive will run out of storage space. We will literally self-combust.
Creativity is the very gist of our human experience. When we lose that, we dis-empower ourselves. I found out yesterday that a coffee entrepreneur was in the process of automating the coffee barista operation in his coffee shops. Robots are soon going to replace servers. All they need is the data input, the process, and the anticipated result comes out flawless. No surprises in there. This is what David Epstein refers to as ?kind learning environments.? They are called kind because they have no surprises. 1 + 1= 2. No breath holds, no unique processing, no mix with old nuances. Kind learning environments equal machines and make us humans completely replaceable. The other ?unexpected? ones Epstein refers to as ?wicked learning environments? and those are the ones with the surprises. The more data from a wide range of experiences you have in you, the more likelihood you have of coming up with a creative, unique response to handle what is thrown at you. I prefer to call these learning environments ?human? because they are the ones that make us uniquely who we are. And in those environments, machines can never replace humans because machines can never be humanely creative.
Our world is forcing us into a ?kind? corner that is forcefully automating our human existence and pushing us further and further away from our humanity. Ask yourself how much of your day is dedicated to ?kind? data input and output that is bypassing the important magical stage of the hold ?the space. How much of your day is dedicated to answering tedious emails, messages, and phone calls? How much of your day is wasted on mindless social media browsing without the quiet time to process the data input? How often in your day do you give yourself time to quietly think deeply and process the data input in your consciousness to allow the creative equations overflowing in your consciousness the space to reveal themselves to you in your personal life and professional work? Do you have time in your day for deep thinking ?creation? that Cal Newport addresses in his work Deep Work??
Artificial intelligence is here to thrive. It is up to us to decide where we stand in this arrangement. Do we fight, stick to our ?kind? comfort zones and settle for replaceable mediocrity, or do we extend a collaborative hand and surrender tedious ?kind? arrangements to automation so that we can fully and courageously embrace our ?wicked? humanity by nurturing a wide range of data input, long holds, and unique outputs we can be proud of.?
Unfortunately for most of us, we spend our lives either denying our creativity, chasing it, or wishing for it, in the noise and clutter of distraction.
P.S. This is the output of Deep Work, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, and Range. They have been cooking for a while. There is so much more in the oven.