Getting Cosy with Creativity – with Aran Rees

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“Many years ago this was a thriving, happy planet – people, cities, shops, a normal world. Except that on the high streets of these cities there were slightly more shoe shops than one might have thought necessary. And slowly, insidiously, the number of the shoe shops were increasing. It’s a well-known economic phenomenon but tragic to see it in operation, for the more shoe shops there were, the more shoes they had to make and the worse and more unwearable they became. And the worse they were to wear, the more people had to buy to keep themselves shod, and the more the shops proliferated, until the whole economy of the place passed what I believe is termed the Shoe Event Horizon, and it became no longer economically possible to build anything other than shoe shops. Result – collapse, ruin and famine.”

—Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Does the above passage feel familiar to you? Not necessarily the part about shoes but more broadly. Does it feel uncannily as if something like this is happening now. Maybe right now. Maybe right here.

The Shoe Event Horizon is happening to my very industry

Well, it should. Because the Shoe Event Horizon is happening to my very industry. I call it the Creativity Content Crisis, or if that’s a little bit of a mouthful, we could go its rapper name; Trip C.

Trip C, like the Shoe Event Horizon, is the result of initial conditions running amok and eventually rendering useless the very thing that gave birth to them. In our case, the problem can be described this way:

Creativity is a Hard Not Complicated subject. The simple truth of it is that you don’t need to read a lot, consume a lot of information, in order to begin practicing it. You actually could be doing it right now without even realising it. That’s how little you need to know. But it’s hard.

“In this world there are mountains and there are waterfalls. A man can carve steps into the side of a mountain to make it easier to climb. But a salmon leaping up a waterfall has no such luxury.”

-From the Sabre Tooth Panda Book of Wise Sounding Things

Hard Not Complicated things require effort, regardless of how much you try to reduce them to more manageable chunks you’ll still need to exert yourself. Like exercise and weight loss, like having that uncomfortable conversation with a colleague or keeping your mouth shut when someone uses the incorrect personal pronoun. You can use all sorts of tricks to make these things a little bit easier but, in the end, you’re still going to have to put in the work.

Clever people are especially good at finding ways to avoid hard work

People hate doing hard work. We tend, you see, to look for ways around it. That’s what makes us such great inventors. Clever people are especially good at finding ways to avoid hard work. We swap hard but simple things for complicated things that require less personal effort. This is fine because it usually works. It works when we replace mental arithmetic with a calculator, for instance, or use massive combine harvesters to avoid the back-breaking labour of work in the fields.

But it doesn’t always work. Sometimes hard things are hard and there’s no amount of cleverness that will make them not-hard. But still we try. Old habits and all that.

Sometimes hard things are hard and there's no amount of cleverness that will make them not-hardClick To Tweet

Creativity or, more properly, building a strong relationship with creativity, is hard. It takes self-reflection, honesty, exposing one’s self to risky situations, sometimes looking like a fool. It takes effort over time. You have to deal with frustration, stress, fear and anxiety. Yes, there’s also joy and fun and curiosity. I’m not a sadist. But no amount of clever tools will make getting creative a pain free process.

But pain sucks! So instead of doing the hard work we read stuff like this.

Instead of doing the hard work we read stuff like this.

Reading this isn’t hard. It’s easy. And if you have made the fatal error of believing that reading this is part of the work required to get creative then you’ll probably want to extend this part for as long as possible. Maybe read another piece. And another. Perhaps you imagine that after a long time doing fairly easy reading you’ll find the secret!

But you won’t. It doesn’t exist. So what you actually end up with is lots of nice easy non-work filling your head with concepts and plans, process, methodologies, and tools. Over time you end up with lots of stuff in your head. Some of it is useful. The majority of it is nonsense. Now, to justify that time you spent you have to find a way to use it all.

In other words, by delaying the hard work and filling your head with lots of stuff, you’ve made it more complicated but not actually any easier.

If you can still remember the beginning of this increasingly rambling ramble you may be wondering how all this relates to Trip C, our catchily titled disaster. Well, I shall tell you.

Since people want the easy part – the reading about ideas instead of doing anything part – there is endless pressure on the world of creativity to produce lots and lots of content for people to watch, listen to, and read. The TED Talks, blogs, best-selling books and such are not going to write themselves. So we feed the monster.

But creating this content takes work – we have to keep finding click-worthy new ways to make you read more of our stuff which is exhausting! And since creativity isn’t that complicated to begin with and nobody wants to go deeply into anything, we end up having to cover the same things over and over with small tweaks to make them seem new.

We end up in a world of shallow entertainment masquerading as insight

Like the shoes in The Shoe Event Horizon, more and more Creativity Content is produced, increasingly of lower and lower quality. The rare items of good and useful content are buried in an avalanche of crappy listicles and rehashed, rebranded and repackaged stuff with new buzzwords attached. The upshot of all of this is that we end up in a world of shallow entertainment masquerading as insight. It looks good, feels good, sounds good in team meetings. But it’s crap.

We are on the path to Trip C right now. There is still some good stuff out there. But the rate at which nonsense is written will always outpace the good stuff. But there are some tricks you can use to at least avoid the worst of it.

Life is too short to read everything that's on offer. You need to be discerningClick To Tweet

Consume less and when you do consume lean towards older works

Life is too short to read everything that’s on offer. You need to be discerning. So if you’re reading something and you get bored, stop reading it. Find someone tedious or see reason to think them stupid; stop listening. You don’t have time to waste. And while it’s false to say that anything ancient must be wise it’s fair to say that history is pretty good at filtering out the truly useless. You want to know about creativity? Read Sun Tzu. Read Aristotle. Read classic works of literature. That new, super popular book everyone is talking about? Chances are it’s rubbish so why not let other people figure that out for you?

Learn to find comfort uncomfortable

Comfort is dangerous. You know what’s comfortable? Familiarity. Safety. Being told something that you already agree with. This is fine for entertainment. You can rewatch episodes of Friends in your spare time. But if you want to learn then you should be seeking discomfort. I’m writing this post about why people like me should write less and people like you should read less. So don’t say I won’t take my own advice.

For every minute you spend consuming, spend ten creating

Now that you’re consuming less stuff, you need to double down on doing something with the stuff you are consuming. I go by a 1:10 rule. If a book takes me 8 hours to read then I should be spending 80 hours applying what I’ve learned. If there’s not enough content in there to spend that much time, then the book is not worth my time. Further, if I can’t be bothered to spend the time doing something about what I’ve read then clearly I’m reading the wrong thing. This post, by the time you’re done, will have taken about seven minutes to read. Can you imagine spending an hour or so applying these ideas? If so, good. If not… sorry to have wasted your time. My bad.

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Getting Cosy with Creativity – with Aran Rees 'Many years ago this was a thriving, happy planet – people, cities, shops, a normal world. Except that on the high streets of these cities there were slightly more shoe shops than one might have thought necessary. And slowly, insidiously, the number...
Aran Rees
Founder and Coach at Sabre Tooth Panda
Aran is a creativity coach, facilitator and communicator, founder of Sabre Tooth Panda and creator of No Wrong Answers: the hypothetical quiz. He believes that expressing creativity is all about how you and those around you relate to creativity both at an emotional and intellectual level. He helps his clients to get cosy with creativity to solve big problems and have more fun.