Tension and Insight
"Pain is the truth of art. Art is not a hobby or a pastime. It is the result of an internal battle royal, one between the quest for safety and the desire to matter." – Seth Godin
Keys to Mastery. Part II
In the creative lives of almost all Masters, we hear of the following pattern: They begin a project with an initial intuition and an excitement about its potential success. Their project is deeply connected to something personal and primal, and seems very much alive to them.
As their initial nervous excitement inspires them in certain directions, they begin to give their concept shape, narrowing down its possibilities, and channeling their energies into ideas that grow more and more distinct. They enter a phase of heightened focus. But Masters inevitably possess another quality that complicates the work process: They are not easily satisfied by what they are doing. While able to feel excitement, they also feel doubt about the worthiness of their work. They have high internal standards. As they progress, they begin to detect flaws and difficulties in their original idea that they had not foreseen.
As the process begins to become more conscious and less intuitive, that idea once so alive in them starts to seem somewhat dead or stale. This is a difficult feeling to endure and so they work even harder, trying to force a solution. The harder they try, the more inner tension and frustration they create. The sense of staleness grows. In the beginning, their mind teemed with rich associations; now it seems condemned to a narrow track of thought that does not spark the same connections. At certain points in this process, many people would simply give up or settle for what they have – a mediocre and half-realized project. But Masters have been through this before, and on an unconscious level they understand that they must plow forward, and that the frustration, or the feeling of being blocked, has a purpose.
At a particular high point of tension, they let go for a moment. This could be as simple as stopping work and going to sleep; or it could mean deciding to take a break, or to temporarily work on something else. What almost inevitably happens in such moments is that the solution, the perfect idea for completing the work comes to them.
After ten long years of incessant thinking on the problem of general relativity, Albert Einstein decided one evening to simply give up. He had had enough. It was beyond him. He went to bed early, and when he awoke the solution suddenly came to him.
Stories like this are so common as to indicate something essential about the brain and how it reaches certain peaks of creativity. We can explain this pattern in the following way: If we remained as excited as we were in the beginning of our project, maintaining that intuitive feel that sparked it all, we would never be able to take the necessary distance to look at our work objectively and improve upon it. Losing that initial verve causes us to work and rework the idea. It forces us to not settle too early on an easy solution. The mounting frustration and tightness that comes from single-minded devotion to one problem or idea will naturally lead to a breaking point. We realize we are getting nowhere. Such moments are signals from the brain to let go, for however long a period necessary, and most creative people consciously or unconsciously accept this.
When we let go, we are not aware that below the surface of consciousness the ideas and the associations we had built up continue to bubble and incubate. With the feeling of tightness gone, the brain can momentarily return to that initial feeling of excitement and aliveness, which by now has been greatly enhanced by all of our hard work. The brain can now find the proper synthesis to the work, the one that was eluding us because we had become too tight in our approach.
The key is to be aware of this process and to encourage yourself to go as far as you can with your doubts, your re-workings, and your strained efforts, knowing the value and purpose of the frustration and creative blocks you are facing.
There is something elemental about the need for tension. The feeling that we have endless time to complete our work has an insidious and debilitating effect on our minds. Our attention and thoughts become diffused. Our lack of intensity makes it hard for the brain to jolt into a higher gear. The connections do not occur. For this purpose you must always try to work with deadlines, whether real or manufactured. Faced with the slenderest amount of time to reach the end, the mind rises to the level you require. Ideas crowd upon one another.
You don't have the luxury of feeling frustrated. Every day represents an intense challenge, and every morning you wake up with original ideas and associations to push you along. If you don't have such deadlines, manufacture them for yourself. The inventor Thomas Edison understood how much better he worked under pressure. He would deliberately talk to the press about an idea before it was ready. This would create some publicity and excitement in the public as to the possibilities of the proposed invention. If he dropped the ball or let too much time pass, his reputation would suffer, and so his mind would spark into high gear and he would make it happen. In such cases your mind is like the army that is now backed up against the sea or a mountain and cannot retreat. Sensing the proximity of death, it will fight harder than ever.
Choose Your Obsession
"Photography is my passion, my search for truth, my obsession.” – Alfred Stieglitz
Choose your obsessions, rather than letting them choose you, and you will move closer to your goals by learning how to productively obsess.
Clinicians label all obsessions as negative by definition. In real life, however, people regularly experience obsessions that not only serve them beautifully but also constitute an essential part of their effort to make personal meaning. An idea for a novel arises in them, and they begin to obsess about it. The problem of how to get libraries funded in third world countries vexes them, and they obsess about an answer. An issue like freedom consumes them, and they obsess documents like the Bill of Rights into existence.
It is fair to call these genuine obsessions rather than mere interests or even passions, because of the internal pressure generated. When a person really bites into a task, they generate a demand: they suddenly demand of themselves that they produce this novel, invention, or symphony, that they find this vaccine or solve that riddle in higher mathematics, that they turn their idea into some appropriate reality.
A demand is created that is fueled by their need to make personal meaning. This demand amounts to real pressure, as real as any pressure a human being can generate. One moment they are idly weeding the garden; the next moment an idea strikes and they feel compelled to drop everything and get to work. Whether or not they would consciously put it this way, a certain calculation, culminating in a decision, has occurred in their brain. They have calculated that this idea matters. They have decided that this is one of the activities that will define their time on earth and that has the potential to make them feel proud of themselves.
It is that big a thing; and with that bigness come pressure and a real measure of discomfort. This pressure, a combination of excitement at having discovered something worth doing, turmoil as thoughts collide and ideas morph, and fear of not succeeding, can cause sleepless nights, irritability, chewed fingernails and also great satisfaction and moments of pure bliss.
This pressure may feel unbearable at times, but it is the logical consequence of turning ourselves over to a pressing existential demand. A storm is created in the brain as meaning is sparked, passions inflamed, and anxieties stoked. Something suddenly matters and when something matters, the mind engages and the body revs up. We have no choice but to live with this pressure. If the thought is of our own choosing, if it connects to our passions, interests, and existential needs, if it is our best guess as to how we should take responsibility for our freedom, then we embrace the subsequent pressure, endure it, and do our work.
Scientific obsessions lead to miracle drugs, artistic obsessions lead to symphonies, humanitarian obsessions lead to freedom and justice. Productive obsessions are our lifeblood, both for the individual and for all humanity. We should not fear them simply because they put us under unwanted pressure, lend a compulsive edge to our behaviors, or in other ways discomfort and threaten us. Rather, we should learn how to encourage and manage them.
A productive obsession is nothing but a passionately held idea that serves your meaning-making efforts. See if the upside of making personal meaning by productively obsessing doesn’t outweigh the downside of pressuring yourself. Expect to feel challenged; also expect to feel rewarded.
Brainstorm – Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions