The creative value of playing hooky
Twice daily Charles Darwin took a walk along the same gravel path near his home. He kept a pile of stones that he kicked one by one to the verge with each circuit completed. That way he would know when the walk was completed, because of course, he had his mind on other things than time and distance. Yet to the untrained eye he was just taking his Fox Terrier for a stroll.
Where do you get all your best ideas? I would venture few of them have come from the forced environment of a managed brainstorm. Or from sitting down chewing the end of a pencil while confronting ‘the tyranny of a blank sheet of paper’.
When we mime the act of ‘deep in thought’ it’s with clenched fist pressed against chin – a mock-heroic pantomime of mental struggle. We might have Rodin to thank for that. It’s a jokey, self-depreciating pose we might throw for a colleague if we say were off for a ‘think’ because we are a little embarrassed that to the outside world our toil looks a lot like slacking off.
You might be familiar with the story of the efficiency expert who submitted a glowing report to Henry Ford. All was good he said with the exception of ‘the man down the hall’ who was ‘always sitting with his feet on the desk’ wasting Fords money. Ford replied, “that man once had an idea that saved my company millions of dollars. And when he had that idea I seem to remember his feet were exactly where they are now.”
I think we all like to look busy. Having ideas has turned into the cottage industry of strategic plans and planners that have gathered around it the tropes and evidence of hard work. It’s pretty hard to bill for a five-second flash of quality thinking, but a bunch of charts, supporting evidence and suchlike earns the fee as well as the hearts and minds of the audience.
Perhaps we should celebrate and promote the value of doing very little rather more? Personally, I believe I earn my day’s wage during my morning shower. Here all the thoughts I have flying around settle into some kind of order. On a good day, I can believe a few impossible things before breakfast. That is until one family member or another wanders in for a chat. The rest of my day is the more billable practice of writing up all the thoughts I have had.Perhaps we should celebrate and promote the value of doing very littleClick To Tweet
“My best office is my bed,” claims Philippe Stark. The best example of this is Paul McCartney awaking one morning in 1965 having dreamt the entire melody of ‘Scrambled Eggs’. He quickly got to his piano before the dream faded. Over two thousand cover versions later we, of course, know this gift of a dream as ‘Yesterday’.
What’s interesting is that McCartney didn’t trust an idea that had come so easily, “For about a month I went round to people in the music business and asked them whether they had ever heard it before. Eventually, it became like handing something in to the police. I thought if no one claimed it after a few weeks then I could have it.”1
We tend to be suspicious of good work that arrives without hard graft. But doing nothing is so vital. If I can offer one tip it is this – if you are being asked for good ideas, get the question a week or two before you are ‘starting work’ on it. The harder and bigger the question, the more time you can benefit from it resting idle in your head.
Growing up in the countryside I chopped a lot of wood (this is not a euphemism). I still picture any big project as a pile of logs to be chopped. The thing with wood chopping is you don’t just steam in hell for leather swinging the axe. You walk around the log pile a few times. Have a cup of tea. Clear a space to chop and a space to stack. Size up the job in your mind before getting going. Partly you are just putting off the moment when you have to start burning energy.
Good thinking is the same. In my week or so run-up, the log pile that is the brief just sits there. But by the time I come to chop I’m ready. I have a notion of which log is going to go first, and where I’m going to put it. I have the wood stack all planned out.
Just give yourself time. It’s so much more effective than blocking out hours in a diary and trying the force the thoughts from your forehead. This might be lame or self-evident advice, but I’m hoping it comes over as more Kung Fu Panda than that. If you really want to achieve something, do nothing.If you really want to achieve something, do nothing.Click To Tweet
Then, of course, the ‘hard work’ begins. Darwin changed the world not just by exercising his legs and his dog. ‘On the Origin of Species’ didn’t write itself, and surely the toil that went into it turned initial ideas into resolved and rounded concepts.
Perhaps best to leave a few words on this stage to Darwin himself: “I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work; and I still think there is an eminently important difference.”
Just allow time for the inspiration before the perspiration.