This first appeared on January 7, 2010, as a feature at ScientificBlogging.com.
“Respected expert and director of the institute…” These are the words you hear as you are being introduced at a black-tie speaking engagement. You are an inventor, scientist, or artist, and this flattering introduction is music to your ears; had you seen these words written in the paper you would have saved a copy to show Mom. Finally, you are at the place every creative mind wishes to reach. The words wash back over you. “Respected”: The members of your community appreciate you. “Expert”: Your more than twenty years of dedication to the field have not gone unnoticed. “Director”: You have powerful tools and competent personnel to support your efforts. And “Institute”: Your work has attracted the funding of government, benefactors or investors.
You are liked, smart, powerful and rich! You’ve really made it!
Or have you? As an artist, scientist or inventor, success is defined in terms of your ideas – how many did you have that panned out, and how many were big? Being liked, smart, powerful and rich may be nice, but one can have these things and not have had the ideas that count toward the successful creative life. In fact, these seemingly nice things – being respected in one’s community, being an expert, having powerful tools, and having financial support – are a scourge on one’s creative potential. In order to harvest your full creative potential one must be…indifferent.
Indifferent to one’s community, indifferent to one’s previous talents or successful endeavors, indifferent to the tools one might have thus far accrued, and indifferent to sources of funding. Masters of ceremonies at black-tie events are unlikely to introduce a speaker as “the not particularly well-respected jack-of-all-trades and luddite penny-pincher,” but that is the signature of the creative individual extraordinaire. The actual introduction by the master of ceremonies sounds much nicer than this, but it is the signature of a creativity that was long-ago crushed; it is a eulogy for the dynamic idea-generating person you never came to be.
But why would indifference be helpful to creativity? Indifference helps an individual’s creativity because it helps the brain act more like a community of brains, and it is communities of brains where we find the greatest success stories for idea generation. Scientific, artistic and engineering communities are fantastically creative because there are many individuals working in parallel, each competitively striving for the next great idea.
Although most individuals in a community may not be successful at finding the next big idea, there will inevitably be some individuals who will be successful, even if only by accident. Individual scientists, artists and engineers tend to be utterly unlike these dynamic communities. Individuals tend to work serially, not in parallel; and individuals tend to concentrate their digging in one spot, rather than many. These tendencies for individuals are fine for the health of a creative community, but if one wants to be a creative individual, then one must ensure that one’s strategy for digging optimizes one’s own chance at hitting gold.
That sounds simple enough: in order for an individual to act like a community of idea-seekers, one must just carry out multiple directions of idea-generation in parallel. Dig many holes, not just one. However, it is exceedingly difficult for people to actually do this. The difficulty is not intellectual – we are, in principle, able to act like a (small) community of idea-generating individuals. The difficulty, instead, is psychological. We may be the smartest animals on Earth, but we are still animals, great apes in particular.
As such, we come with a suite of psychological attributes that, although especially helpful for surviving and reproducing among other humans in our ancient evolutionary environment, handicap us as idea hunters. Our handicaps center around the fact that we cannot help but desire to be the “respected expert and director of the institute,” a desire that inevitably kills the internal community needed inside a creative individual, and, instead, places our mind firmly within an external creativity-smothering community. The cure is to become indifferent, detached, aloof. … from communities, money, tools and even oneself.
(See also this ScientificBlogging piece on the benefits of being aloof: http://www.scientificblogging.com/mark_changizi/value_being_aloof_or_how… .)