In athletics there’s a concept called motor unit recruitment, which refers to how the body activates additional motor units (i.e. one motor neuron and the associated muscle fibers it stimulates) to accomplish an increase in muscle strength. An example of motor unit recruitment is how light exercise recruits the body’s slow-twitch motor units, while high intensity exercise recruits fast-twitch ones. The recruitment concept explains why, as the essayist Nassim Taleb reminds us, “lifting one hundred pounds once brings more benefits that fifty pounds twice” (Nassim Taleb, Antifragile, p. 271). It’s also why say, a few minutes (or seconds!) of sprints can turbo-charge one’s running strength and form. When we sprint, our running becomes the full body exuberance it is: our stride lengthens, we land on the balls of the feet, and our arms swing like piston pendulums. What makes sprinting literally transformative then, is its intensity.
In my experience, a similar recruitment dynamic applies to creative work. Interesting things happen when we reach a level of working intensity akin to the athlete’s recruitment of fast-twitch muscles. A state of intensity requires us to actively achieve levels of focus and resourcefulness that otherwise remain untapped in everyday life. I notice that my focus and resourcefulness often increase in proportion to my irritation that at the moment, nothing is working. It’s a sensation of being boxed in by my own small-mindedness. I ask questions as if they are keys that might open the box:
Can’t you make something happen?
Can you turn this into something interesting?
Is there another way to spin it?
How might you reveal what’s already there?
Can you stay with it until it becomes compelling?
In sum, I wonder if the recruitment demands of creative work make it an athletic endeavor in disguise?