Mistakes and the Creative Process

I came across this passage in Shaun McNiff’s Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go that speaks to the tension between fear of making mistakes and the necessity of them in the creative process.

When asked for advice on painting, Claude Monet told people not to fear mistakes. The discipline of art requires constant experimentation, wherein errors are harbingers of original ideas because they introduce new directions for expression. The mistake is outside the intended course of action, and it may present something that we never saw before, something unexpected and contradictory, something that may be put to use.

Management, generally by its nature and incentive system, attempts to remove variability and thus mistakes. Yet mistakes are a necessary component of creativity.

Fear also plays an important role in the creative process and how we come up with creative insights.

 

Thoreau’s Approach to Quelling the use of Profanity in the Classroom

Henry David Thoreau
Long before Walden, Henry David Thoreau was a school teacher with a disdain for the corporal punishment commonly thought necessary to gain a student’s attention and teach a lesson.

Instead Thoreau turned toward creativity to get the point across.

Consider this anecdote from The Adventures of Henry Thoreau, which details an equally effective approach.

Henry’s quirks contributed to the unpredictability of school hours. He disliked profanity, for example, and devised memorable ways to quell its use among the older students. “Boys,” he would say in his half-serious, half-satirical tone, “if you went to talk business with a man, and he persisted in thrusting words having no connection with the subject into all parts of every sentence—” he considered an example and interrupted himself to exclaim, “Bootjack, for instance!” and then resumed, “—wouldn’t you think he was taking a liberty with you, and trifling with your time, and wasting his own?” Over the next few minutes, to the delight of the students, he emphasized his point by speaking on some innocent topic but suddenly interjecting a random “Boot-jack!” into his sentences.

Making Decisions in a Complex Adaptive System

complexadaptive

In Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition, Mauboussin does a good job adding to the work we’ve already done on complex adaptive systems:

You can think of a complex adaptive system in three parts (see the image at the top of this post). First, there is a group of heterogeneous agents. These agents can be neurons in your brain, bees in a hive, investors in a market, or people in a city. Heterogeneity means each agent has different and evolving decision rules that both reflect the environment and attempt to anticipate change in it. Second, these agents interact with one another, and their interactions create structure— scientists often call this emergence. Finally, the structure that emerges behaves like a higher-level system and has properties and characteristics that are distinct from those of the underlying agents themselves. … The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

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The inability to understand the system based on its components prompted Nobel Prize winner and physicist Philip Anderson, to draft the essay, “More Is Different.” Anderson wrote, “The behavior of large and complex aggregates of elementary particles, it turns out, is not to be understood in terms of the simple extrapolation of the properties of a few particles. Instead, at each level of complexity entirely new properties appear.”

Mauboussin comments that we are fooled by randomness:

The problem goes beyond the inscrutable nature of complex adaptive systems. Humans have a deep desire to understand cause and effect, as such links probably conferred humans with evolutionary advantage. In complex adaptive systems, there is no simple method for understanding the whole by studying the parts, so searching for simple agent-level causes of system-level effects is useless. Yet our minds are not beyond making up a cause to relieve the itch of an unexplained effect. When a mind seeking links between cause and effect meets a system that conceals them, accidents will happen.

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Misplaced Focus on the Individual

One mistake we make is extrapolating the behaviour of an individual component, say an individual, to explain the entire system. Yet when we have to solve a problem dealing with a complex system, we often address an individual component. In so doing, we ignore Garrett Hardin’s first law of Ecology, you can never do merely one thing and become a fragilista.

That unintended system-level consequences arise from even the best-intentioned individual-level actions has long been recognized. But the decision-making challenge remains for a couple of reasons. First, our modern world has more interconnected systems than before. So we encounter these systems with greater frequency and, most likely, with greater consequence. Second, we still attempt to cure problems in complex systems with a naïve understanding of cause and effect.

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When I speak with executives from around the world going through a period of poor performance, it doesn’t take long for them to mention they want to hire a star from another company. “If only we had Kate,” they’ll say, “we could smash the competition and regain our footing.”

At first, poaching stars from competitors or even teams within the same organization seems like a winning strategy. But once the star comes over the results often fail to materialize.

What we fail to grasp is that their performance is part of an ecosystem and removing them from that ecosystem — that is isolating the individual performance — is incredibly hard without properly considering the entire ecosystem. (Reversion to the mean also likely accounts for some of the star’s fading as well).

Three Harvard professors concluded, “When a company hires a star, the star’s performance plunges, there is a sharp decline in the functioning of the group or team the person works with, and the company’s market value falls.”

If it sounds like a lot of work to think this through at many levels, it should be. Why should it be easy?

Another example of this at an organizational level has to do with innovation. Most people want to solve the innovation problem. Ignoring for a second that that is the improper framing, how do most organizations go about this? They copy what the most successful organizations do. I can’t count the number of times the solution to an organization’s “innovation problem” is to be more like Google. Well-intentioned executives blindly copy approaches by others such as 20% innovation time, without giving an ounce of thought to the role the ecosystem plays.

Isolating and focusing on an individual part of a complex adaptive system without an appreciation and understanding of that system itself is sure to lead to disaster.

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What Should We Do?

So this begs the question, what should we do when we find ourselves dealing with a complex adaptive system? Mauboussin provides three pieces of advice:

1. Consider the system at the correct level.

Remember the phrase “more is different.” The most prevalent trap is extrapolating the behavior of individual agents to gain a sense of system behavior. If you want to understand the stock market, study it at the market level. Consider what you see and read from individuals as entertainment, not as education. Similarly, be aware that the function of an individual agent outside the system may be very different from that function within the system. For instance, mammalian cells have the same metabolic rates in vitro, whether they are from shrews or elephants. But the metabolic rate of cells in small mammals is much higher than the rate of those in large mammals. The same structural cells work at different rates, depending on the animals they find themselves in.

2. Watch for tightly coupled systems.

A system is tightly coupled when there is no slack between items, allowing a process to go from one stage to the next without any opportunity to intervene. Aircraft, space missions, and nuclear power plants are classic examples of complex, tightly coupled systems. Engineers try to build in buffers or redundancies to avoid failure, but frequently don’t anticipate all possible contingencies. Most complex adaptive systems are loosely coupled, where removing or incapacitating one or a few agents has little impact on the system’s performance. For example, if you randomly remove some investors, the stock market will continue to function fine. But when the agents lose diversity and behave in a coordinated fashion, a complex adaptive system can behave in a tightly coupled fashion. Booms and crashes in financial markets are an illustration.

3. Use simulations to create virtual worlds.

Dealing with complex systems is inherently tricky because the feedback is equivocal, information is limited, and there is no clear link between cause and effect. Simulation is a tool that can help our learning process. Simulations are low cost, provide feedback, and have proved their value in other domains like military planning and pilot training.

Still Curious? Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition.

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Will and Ariel Durant: The Three Lessons of Biological History

The Three Lessons of Biological History

Human history is a fragment of biological history. If we are to learn enduring lessons it is best to go back in time.

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Our view of the world is fairly shallow.

We look backward but rarely to a time before we were born let alone the 5,000 years of recorded human history.

Organic systems, on the other hand, are about 3.5 billions years in age and offer an even more statistically relevant dataset.

So, if we are to look for lessons, the organic systems bucket seems like fertile ground.

Lessons of Biological History

Will and Ariel Durant, writing in the amazing Lessons of History, say “all of the achievements of man fall humbly into the history of polymorphous life.” They continue:

[A]ll our economic competition, our strife for mates, our hunger and love and grief and war, are akin to the seeking, mating, striving, and suffering that hide under these fallen trees or leaves, or in the waters, or on the boughs.

Therefore the laws of biology are the fundamental lessons of history. We are subject to the processes and trials of evolution, to the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest to survive.

If we escape these trials it’s because our group, which meets the tests of survival itself, protects us. The Durants offer three biological lessons of history.

1. Life is Competition

Competition is not only the life of trade, it is the trade of life— peaceful when food abounds, violent when the mouths outrun the food. Animals eat one another without qualm; civilized men consume one another by due process of law. Co-operation is real, and increases with social development, but mostly because it is a tool and form of competition; we co-operate in our group— our family, community, club, church, party, “race,” or nation— in order to strengthen our group in its competition with other groups. Competing groups have the qualities of competing individuals: acquisitiveness, pugnacity, partisanship, pride. Our states, being ourselves multiplied, are what we are; they write our natures in bolder type, and do our good and evil on an elephantine scale. We are acquisitive, greedy, and pugnacious because our blood remembers millenniums through which our forebears had to chase and fight and kill in order to survive, and had to eat to their gastric capacity for fear they should not soon capture another feast. War is a nation’s way of eating. It promotes co-operation because it is the ultimate form of competition. Until our states become members of a large and effectively protective group they will continue to act like individuals and families in the hunting stage.

2. Life is Selection

In the competition for food or mates or power some organisms succeed and some fail. In the struggle for existence some individuals are better equipped than others to meet the tests of survival. … Nature loves difference as the necessary material of selection and evolution; identical twins differ in a hundred ways, and no two peas are alike.

Inequality is not only natural and inborn, it grows with the complexity of civilization. Hereditary inequalities breed social and artificial inequalities; every invention or discovery is made or seized by the exceptional individual, and makes the strong stronger, the weak relatively weaker, than before. Economic development specializes functions, differentiates abilities, and makes men unequally valuable to their group. If we knew our fellow men thoroughly we could select thirty per cent of them whose combined ability would equal that of all the rest. Life and history do precisely that, with a sublime injustice reminiscent of Calvin’s God.

Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies. Leave men free, and their natural inequalities will multiply almost geometrically, as in England and America in the nineteenth century under laissez-faire. To check the growth of inequality, liberty must be sacrificed, as in Russia after 1917. Even when repressed, inequality grows; only the man who is below the average in economic ability desires equality; those who are conscious of superior ability desire freedom; and in the end superior ability has its way. Utopias of equality are biologically doomed, and the best that the amiable philosopher can hope for is an approximate equality of legal justice and educational opportunity.

3. Life must Breed

Nature has no use for organisms, variations, or groups that cannot reproduce abundantly. She has a passion for quantity as prerequisite to the selection of quality; she likes large litters, and relishes the struggle that picks the surviving few; doubtless she looks on approvingly at the upstream race of a thousand sperms to fertilize one ovum. She is more interested in the species than in the individual, and makes little difference between civilization and barbarism. She does not care that a high birth rate has usually accompanied a culturally low civilization, and a low birth rate a civilization culturally high; and she (here meaning Nature as the process of birth, variation, competition, selection, and survival) sees to it that a nation with a low birth rate shall be periodically chastened by some more virile and fertile group. … If the human brood is too numerous for the food supply, Nature has three agents for restoring the balance: famine, pestilence, and war.

In a famous Essay on Population (1798) Thomas Malthus explained that without these periodic checks the birth rate would so far exceed the death rate that the multiplication of mouths would nullify any increase in the production of food. Though he was a clergyman and a man of good will, Malthus pointed out that the issuance of relief funds or supplies to the poor encouraged them to marry early and breed improvidently, making the problem worse. In a second edition (1803) he advised abstention from coitus except for reproduction, but he refused to approve other methods of birth control. Having little hope of acceptance for this counsel of sanctity, he predicted that the balance between mouths and food would be maintained in the future, as in the past, by famine, pestilence, and war.

While this argument seems lost on the present generation, there is a limit to the fertility of the soil. “Every advance,” the Durants write, “is sooner or later canceled by the excess of births over deaths; and meanwhile medicine, sanitation, and charity nullify selection by keeping the unfit alive to multiply their like.”

To which hope replies: the advances of industry, urbanization, education, and standards of living, in countries that now endanger the world by their fertility, will probably have the same effect there, in reducing the birth rate, as they have had in Europe and North America. Until that equilibrium of production and reproduction comes it will be a counsel of humanity to disseminate the knowledge and means of contraception. Ideally parentage should be a privilege of health, not a by-product of sexual agitation.

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Still curious? Pound-for-pound the The Lessons of History might be the richest book I’ve ever come across.

In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed

We live in a world of scarce understanding and abundant information. We complain that we never have any free time yet we seek distraction. If work can’t distract us, we distract ourselves. We crave perpetual stimulation and motion. We’re so busy that our free time comes in 20 second bursts, just long enough for us to read the gist and assume we understand. If we are to synthesize learning and understanding we need time to think.

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The modern storm of bits and stimulation, relents only when we sleep. (And then only if we remember to turn off the iPhone.) Lost in all of this is the art of stillness.

We live in a world with more information than ever and yet we understand less. We have come into the belief that the simple act of reading confers understanding. Worse, most of our reading is elementary reading, or skimming — a far cry from syntopical reading, which seems more fertile for the mind willing to do the work.

But that’s just it. We don’t want, or can’t find the time, to do the work that’s required to hold an opinion. It’s much easier to simply read the opinions of another and let them think for us.

What’s worse is that we get confused.

When someone else does the work we think we understand the problem better than we do. This is why Elon Musk asks questions of depth when hiring people. He wants to filter out the people who did the work from the people who took credit for the work. And so with thinking.

Deresiewicz concentrating

Understanding comes from focusing, chewing, and relentlessly ragging on a problem. It comes with false starts, dead ends, and frustration. Thinking requires time and space. It’s slow. It means saying I don’t know.

In short, thinking is everything the modern workplace is designed to eradicate.

We’re expected to have an opinion about everything and yet our time to think is near zero. We hold more opinions than ever but have less understanding. We don’t even understand ourselves. How could it be otherwise?

As Milan Kundera wrote in his 1996 novella Slowness, “When things happen too fast, nobody can be certain about anything, about anything at all, not even about himself.”

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In Praise of Slowness

Larry Dossey, an American physician, coined the term “time-sickness” in 1982 to describe the belief that “time is getting away, that there isn’t enough of it, and that you must pedal faster and faster to keep up.”

Carl Honore, wrote a book, In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed, to explore why we’re always in such a rush, what if anything is the cure for time-sickness, and whether it’s desirable to slow down.

The book is not an all-out declaration of war against speed.

Speed has helped to remake our world in ways that are wonderful and liberating. Who wants to live without the Internet or jet travel? The problem is that our love of speed, our obsession with doing more and more in less and less time, has gone too far; it has turned into an addiction, a kind of idolatry. Even when speed starts to backfire, we invoke the go-faster gospel.

We’ve become fast and fat.

Overwork is a health hazard in other ways, too. It leaves less time and energy for exercise, and makes us more likely to drink too much alcohol or reach for convenience foods. It is no coincidence that the fastest nations are also often the fattest. Up to a third of Americans and a fifth of Britons are now clinically obese. … One reason we need stimulants is that many of us are not sleeping enough. With so much to do, and so little time to do it, the average American now gets ninety minutes less shut-eye per night than she did a century ago.

“Inevitably,” Honore writes, “a life of hurry can become superficial. When we rush, we skim the surface, and fail to make real connections with the world or other people.” Moreover we don’t make connections with ideas. We don’t synthesize. We don’t test theories over time. We don’t play with ideas.

When everyone goes fast, most advantages brought by speed get lost. The only choice we see is that we have to go faster. It’s an arms race that I call the Red Queen Effect. David Foster Wallace summed this up perfectly when he said “Bees have to move very fast to stay still.”

The implications on thinking are fascinating. We are all fast-thinkers now.

We have forgotten how to look forward to things, and how to enjoy the moment when they arrive. Restaurants report that hurried diners increasingly pay the bill and order a taxi while eating dessert. Many fans leave sporting events early, no matter how close the score is, simply to steal a march on the traffic. Then there is the curse of multi-tasking. Doing two things at once seems so clever, so efficient, so modern. And yet what it often means is doing two things not very well. Like many people, I read the paper while watching TV— and find that I get less out of both.

In this media-drenched, data-rich, channel-surfing, computer-gaming age, we have lost the art of doing nothing, of shutting out the background noise and distractions, of slowing down and simply being alone with our thoughts. Boredom— the word itself hardly existed 150 years ago— is a modern invention. Remove all stimulation, and we fidget, panic and look for something, anything, to do to make use of the time. When did you last see someone just gazing out the window on a train? Everyone is too busy reading the paper, playing video games, listening to iPods, working on the laptop, yammering into mobile phones.

Instead of thinking deeply, or letting an idea simmer in the back of the mind, our instinct now is to reach for the nearest sound bite. In modern warfare, correspondents in the field and pundits in the studio spew out instant analyses of events as they occur. Often their insights turn out to be wrong. But that hardly matters nowadays: in the land of speed, the man with the instant response is king. With satellite feeds and twenty-four-hour news channels, the electronic media is dominated by what one French sociologist dubbed “le fast thinker”— a person who can, without skipping a beat, summon up a glib answer to any question.

In a way, we are all fast thinkers now. Our impatience is so implacable that, as actress-author Carrie Fisher quipped, even “instant gratification takes too long.” This partly explains the chronic frustration that bubbles just below the surface of modern life. Anyone or anything that steps in our way, that slows us down, that stops us from getting exactly what we want when we want it, becomes the enemy. So the smallest setback, the slightest delay, the merest whiff of slowness, can now provoke vein-popping fury in otherwise ordinary people.

Slow does not always mean slow.

Fast and Slow do more than just describe a rate of change. They are shorthand for ways of being, or philosophies of life. Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality. Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity. It is about making real and meaningful connections— with people, culture, work, food, everything. The paradox is that Slow does not always mean slow.

Speed is not always the best policy.

Evolution works on the principle of survival of the fittest, not the fastest. Remember who won the race between the tortoise and the hare. As we hurry through life, cramming more into every hour, we are stretching ourselves to the breaking point.

Fast eats time. One consequence of fast is that we make poor decision after poor decision. Those decisions don’t go away never to be seen again. It’s not like we make a bad decision and we’re done with it. No, the consequences are much worse. Poor decisions eat time. They come back to haunt you. They create issue after issue. They feed into the perpetual motion machine of busyness. And in a culture where people wear busyness as a badge of honor bad decisions actually lead us to think that we’re doing more.

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Still Curious? In Praise of Slowness introduces “the Slow movement to a wider audience, to explain what it stands for, how it is evolving, what obstacles it faces and why it has something to offer us all.”

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The Books That Influenced C. Roland Christensen

C. Roland Christensen
I thought C Roland Christensen’s response in The Harvard Guide to Influential Books: 113 Distinguished Harvard Professors Discuss the Books That Have Helped to Shape Their Thinking was one of the more interesting. Christensen was a pioneer in the field of business strategy. We can also thank him for reviving the case method from the ancient Greeks.

In the preface to his response, he writes:

Here are the books—all old, dog-eared, reread and reread, little (no big fat volumes), most committed to memory—of my five-inch bookshelf. But they miss the greatest influence on this educator—Miss Adams, a seventh-grade teacher in Iowa City, Iowa. She introduced me to poetry, where the ultimate wisdom —the philosophy of life—is found. The first step in the development of an anthology was our study of “Miniver Cheevey” by Edwin Arlington Robinson. It is still exciting fifty-four years after that original encounter.

What Is History? by Edward H. Carr

Carr’s little book has a magnificent message—to live we must understand our historical roots. Carr gives us a way of
understanding the past so as to predict the future.

Can Man Be Modified? Jean Rostand

Rostand, a biologist, views man in a very human way, examines how science is impacting that basic humanness and then teases us with what he/she will be in future centuries.

How to Run a Bassoon Factory, or Business Explained by Mark Spade

Spade tickles the mind; with tongue in cheek, he describes business so that one laughs—even roars—at his chosen vocation.

The Insect World by J. Henri Fabre

Fabre looks at the smallest and lowest—insects—and shows us their great abilities—even wisdom. A constant reminder to look at the ordinary to see the extraordinary.

The Art of Scientific Investigation by William I. Beveridge

For the investigator, this little book is a gold mine of reflection and practical suggestion. He brings the power of scientific discipline to bear on everyday life.

Power Without Property by Adolph A. Berle, Jr.

The book raises fundamental questions about modern business organization and ownership. It outlines the quiet revolution which has changed the power bases of our industrial society.

Follow your curiosity, for more in this series check out the books that influenced E. O. Wilson, B. F. Skinner, Thomas C. Shelling, Michael J. Sandel, Jerome Kagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and John Kenneth Galbraith.