Please note: The original draft of this was created late yesterday afternoon. Given what I say below, you can see why I waited until today to proof and post it. 🙂
One of my favorite books from last year was Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide, by John Cleese. It comes to mind quite often, and did again today (June 14, 2021) as I began reading a new work by Barbara Oakley and Olav Schewe, Learn Like a Pro: Science-Based Tools to Become Better at Anything. What reminded me of Cleese’s book was Oakley and Schewe recommending a mix of focus and diffuse modes for learning:
But what if you’re trying to learn something new and more difficult? Let’s say you’re trying to understand the multi-pump system of the heart or the mathematical concept of a derivative, or master a physical skill such as how to do a double kickflip on a skateboard.* You might focus hard, then harder, and then even harder, and you still can’t get it. Strangely enough, allowing yourself to take a break, whether for several hours or overnight, often works magic. It’s the magic of the diffuse mode. When you return your focus to the issue at hand, you’ll have that “aha” insight that allows you to make progress on the issue you’ve been struggling with.
Now, that approach isn’t just limited to learning, as is seen by their test taking advice:
The Hard Start Technique takes advantage of your diffuse mode when solving difficult homework tasks or test questions. This technique is simple: Scan over the test or homework problems and make a tiny check mark over any problem that seems especially hard. Begin working on the hardest problem. You will probably get stuck after a few minutes. As soon as you find yourself getting stuck, move to an easier problem. Return to the hard problem later after you’ve done one or several easier ones. You will often be surprised that, when you return after working on another easier problem (or problems), you can make more progress on the hard problem. This occurs because, while your attention was focused on the easier problems, your diffuse mode was able to work behind the scenes on the harder problem. Also, when you first started work on the problem, your tendency might have been to fixate on your approach, even if it was wrong. Temporarily switching what you’re working on can allow you to reboot mentally, so when you return to the problem, you’ve got a fresher perspective.
I’ve provided similar exam-taking advice to the students in my trigonometry Supplemental Instruction sessions, since it has three major benefits:
- It helps you solve what may seem, initially, unsolvable
- It keeps you from wasting limited time
- It reduces stress and frustration
How do Oakley and Schewe’s recommendations intersect with those of a talented comedian around creativity? Well…
If I wrote a sketch by myself in the evening, I’d often get stuck, and would sit there at my little desk, cudgeling my brains. Eventually I’d give up and go to bed.
And in the morning, I’d wake up and make myself a cup of coffee, and then I’d drift over to the desk and sit at it, and, almost immediately, the solution to the problem I’d been wrestling with the previous evening…became quite obvious to me! So obvious that I couldn’t really understand why I hadn’t spotted it the night before. But I hadn’t.
This is how I began to discover that, if I put the work in before going to bed, I often had a little creative idea overnight, which fixed whatever problem it was that I was trying to deal with. It was like a gift, a reward for all my wrestling with the puzzle. I began to think to myself, “It can only be that while I’m asleep, my mind goes on working at the problem so that it can give me the answer in the morning.”
Cleese then told a story about how he and Graham Chapman once wrote a funny sketch, which he (Cleese) lost. After rewriting it based on memory, he found the original comedic piece and…
You know what?
The recreated one was better than the original. Cleese’s conclusion?
So I began to realise that my unconscious was working on stuff all the time, without my conscious being aware of it.
What does this mean for you and me?
Although focus is good (e.g. avoid multi-tasking), problem solving and creativity are enhanced by a mix of focus and diffuse modes. I’m a “roll up my sleeves and get it done” kind of guy, especially with tasks I really don’t want to do. However, whether it is programming, creating an executive presentation, writing an employee review…or pretty much anything else that isn’t rote, the result is less creative or less effective or…summarily…
The result just is less.
Which leads to a final excerpt of John Cleese’s short masterpiece. The Monty Python alum discusses research that psychologist Donald MacKinnon did about creativity with regards to architects:
The conclusion he [MacKinnon] came to was that there were only two differences between the creative and the uncreative architects.
The first was that the creative architects knew how to play.
The second was that the creative architects always deferred making decisions for as long as they were allowed.
Knowing how to play is outside the scope of this article (maybe I’ll do one about finding joy at work…and helping others find joy at work…in the future), but did you catch the second one?
I pride myself on delivering early…sometimes way early. (You know, roll up the sleeves and get ‘er done.)
But, if I want to truly be creative and deliver at the top of my game…I need to stop that. No, I shouldn’t put off tasks until the last minute, but maybe get them partially (mostly?) done and then temporarily stop.
Focus and diffuse. Let my unconscious continue to work on them.
Put it aside, even when I don’t need to. Be creative.
What do you think?
Please leave a comment. #LetsLearnTogether