Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Manufacturing Creativity

Previously, I've attempted to convince you that making software is a creative act, and I explored the implications for pursuing and managing software engineering. (By the way, science and engineering are also creative acts, and a great exploration of that idea is "Better Science Through Art" by Richard P. Gabriel and Kevin J. Sullivan. Love that paper.)

I've been thinking a lot lately about creativity and how it can be encouraged (even manufactured?). I've also been thinking quite a bit about why people do (or do not) take on ambitious projects, and how to survive a years long ambitious project. I've learned some very interesting things that some day I may write about, but I'd like to share what I've learned about creativity.

What I've discovered about being creative is that even from people in very different lines of work (actors, writers, artists, programmers, scientists, investors) there's a surprising amount of agreement about how it works. I've also discovered that it is not an innate talent that some people have and some do not. Everyone has the tools to be creative.

In many ways this goes all the way back to the very first Clojure Conj in October of 2010. Rich Hickey gave a talk titled "Step Away from the Computer"...actually, it had three titles, and it is best known by one of its other titles "Hammock-Driven Development." I was there in person. I came away with the mistaken impression that the talk was about writing software and solving technical problems. I now know that making software is a creative act, and Rich's talk was about how to be creative.

For Rich, the engine of creativity is the "background mind," which is in contrast to the "waking mind." Your waking mind is your normal mode of operation. It is good at analyzing and thinking critically, but can be too tactical and get stuck in local maxima. Your background mind is good at making connections, thinking abstractly, and synthesizing. It can make the leap past local maxima, unfortunately your background mind cannot be tasked directly. However, you can task it indirectly by obsessively thinking and reading about a particular problem, and, though you can activate it other ways, it is easiest to activate it by sleeping, or relaxing and simulating sleeping (i.e. using a hammock).

So, creativity is an indirect process of a relaxed mental mode that you task by obsessively thinking about a problem, and whose products you only filter after the fact with your normal critical-analytical mental mode. Now here's the surprising part, almost everyone who attempts to describe their creative process describes it similarly. In his essay, "The Top Ideas in Your Mind," Paul Graham says:

Everyone who's worked on difficult problems is probably familiar with the phenomenon of working hard to figure something out, failing, and then suddenly seeing the answer a bit later while doing something else. There's a kind of thinking you do without trying to. I'm increasingly convinced this type of thinking is not merely helpful in solving hard problems, but necessary. The tricky part is, you can only control it indirectly.

John Cleese gave a talk on creativity, and he called the background mind "open mode" and the waking mind "closed mode." In your open mode, you are relaxed, less purposeful, curious, and a bit playful. In your closed mode, you are active, determined, and have a critical eye.

George Land is a business man who investigated how to stimulate and direct creativity. He found there are two kinds of thinking: divergent and convergent. Divergent thinking is creating new ideas. Convergent thinking is judging and evaluating ideas. He did a longitudinal study that found that 98% of 5 year olds exhibit divergent thinking, 30% of 10 year olds, 12% of 15 year olds, and only 2% of adults think divergently. As a person gets older, he or she is taught to use both divergent and convergent thinking at the same time. The result is one criticizes and judges ideas before they can fully develop.

Of peculiar interest to me has been what independent game designer Jonathan Blow—who worked on his successful and influential game Braid for 3.5 years—has said about creativity and surviving ambitious projects. (Maybe someday Rich will talk about how he survived his own ambitious projects: how to maintain motivation day-to-day, how to fund it, how to plan and pace it, how to finish it.) The thoughts about ambitious projects are for another time, but what he says about creativity should be familiar by now. Blow says metaphysically you may not buy into the Greek concept of the Muse—nor may he—but functionally it is real. Creativity feels like something external, and you have to get yourself into a relaxed mode to provide opportunity for new ideas, though you cannot guarantee anything.

Tools and Techniques

I hope to find more resources on direct techniques for stimulating creative (e.g. instead of thinking about solving a problem think about how to make in worse and avoid that), but for now I've found a lot of agreement about how to encourage creativity in an indirect way.

Obsess about your problem. If your subconscious mind (or unconscious mind or background mind or whatever you want to call it) is going to solve a problem for you, then it needs information. Rich has a lot of great advice about this. Write down your problem. Write down what you know. Write down what you don't know. Read about your problem. Read about related problems. Pick apart other solutions. Paul Graham in "The Top Idea in Your Mind" says, "It's hard to do a really good job on anything you don't think about in the shower."

Relax. For Rich this is lying in a hammock and focusing, thinking through all the information you've loaded into your mind. For Blow, a relaxed state of mind is really a pretty active body. He likes to find something purely physical that he can enjoy, like going to a club and dancing. Cleese creates an oasis blocking off time and setting aside other concerns. He gives himself enough time that he can work through all the TODOs that pop into his head. He writes them down for later, and gets back to being relaxed and playful.

Pace yourself. Cleese recommends, if you're going to try to set aside time for creativity, to limit it to no more than an hour and a half, because you'll need a break. If you need more time, then do it again the next day.

Be Playful. George Land found that children are more creative. Cleese finds being in a playful mood conducive to creativity, especially when collaborating with others. Play, imagination, daydreaming all come from or lead to a relaxed state of mind, which accesses your creative mechanism.

Write things down. Rich is big on this. There are several benefits: it helps you think thoroughly, it helps you remember things, it is easy to skim for recall.

Gently keep your mind focused. Cleese says to be successful you must keep your mind gently around the problem. You may wander off, but gently come back to it. Rich uses hammock time not just to relax, but to recall information. Touch each fact with your mind to keep it fresh, and to make it interesting to your background mind.

Have a dogged persistence. Cleese sticks with an problem, and doesn't just take the first idea he comes up with. Sometimes a creative breakthrough requires persisting through the discomfort, even slight anxiety, of an unsolved problem. Rich reminds us that since this is an indirect process it may take days, months, or years for a solution to come.


How can you destroy creativity? Easy:

Chase success. Paul Graham says the way to destroy your creativity is to make money the top idea in your mind. It tends to consume all your mental energies. Blow also warns about thinking about success or how others will judge what you do. These things can easily lead to fear, and as Cleese says you need to feel confident to be able to generate ideas.

Obsess about disputes. Paul Graham talks about how Isaac Newton got involved in disputes and regretted the wasted energy. This is really just another form of worrying about what other people think.

Make a schedule. Blow warns about making a schedule, but also admits that we must all deal with schedules. Rich says his techniques don't work under pressure. While Cleese sets aside time to be creative, he recognizes that the process is unpredictable and needs time.

Pre-judge ideas. You must be open, Cleese doesn't call it "open mode" for nothing. Brainstorming forbids judging ideas, and as a technique it gets that much right. George Land found the more we use divergent and convergent thinking together—in other words the more we try to pre-judge ideas—the less creative we will be.

Get distracted. Cleese says you need to create a space free from distractions. For Blow, even the threat of a distraction can prevent him from relaxing, so he'll even spend time at a coffee shop for a few hours before heading into the office.

No humor. According to Cleese humor is about two frameworks coming together to make new meaning, and this is also the core of creativity. If you eliminate humor, then you eliminate creativity.

Live actively and urgently. If you want to ensure no relaxation happens, if you want to ensure that you are in closed mode, then live urgently and actively.


If you're here you are probably a computer programmer (most likely a Clojure programmer). That means you're probably a bit like me. You're good at thinking analytically and logically. You're good a judging solutions based on correctness, performance, etc. You're good at operating in "closed mode." These are great skills, and as Cleese says we need both open and closed mode to succeed, open to generate ideas, and closed to execute on them. We just may need to work on the open mode a bit.

You have the ability to be creative. You have a relaxed, curious, playful, imaginative self. There are some techniques that others have used that may help you access your creativity. They may help you, they may not. You may need to experiment a bit for yourself.

You cannot fully control this process. You can only indirectly stimulate creativity, and you cannot guarantee that your mind will solve the problem you want it to solve. One approach would be to work on several problems at once! You may also find some fruitful connections between the problems.

To be creative you must be persistent, and you must practice. I hope this helps you find those imaginative solutions.

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