On Intensity And Focus: Applying Physical Training Principles To Creative Work

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We often think about physical fitness and creative work as completely separate and unrelated domains, but training principles can be applied outside of exercise. Here are a few I have been applying from endurance sports:

The 80/20 Rule
The 80/20 rule suggests that 80 percent of your training should take place at a relaxed and easy or conversational pace. In other words, if you’re running or riding bike, you should be able to hold a conversation while doing so. The thinking behind this go easy strategy is that it gives you a chance to log miles while simultaneously recovering from harder efforts.

The Tempo Workout 
A tempo workout (and I like the rhythmic resonances here) brings you up to an effortful level, just below an all-out racing pace. Tempo workouts train you to be comfortable with an uncomfortable and sustained level of activity. If you’re running or riding a bike, you can’t talk much at a tempo pace. You just grunt.

Going Long
Going long is a workout where you move at a moderate pace for an extended period. If you don’t mind repetition, this is perhaps the most rewarding kind of exercise for the perceptual surprises it brings: a lot can happen after one hour or more of continuous activity.

Maximal Efforts/Intervals
Maximal efforts are relatively brief bouts of very intense exertion interspersed with rest or walking. What is interesting about this workout type is how it kicks your body into new mechanical gears. When you go this hard your body stretches into new postures, remembering the fluid ergonomics that accompany high speed and intensity.

Fartlek 
Fartlek is a Swedish term for “speed play” which refers to a training that mixes up steady-paced activity with intervals of higher intensity. This workout type is fun because you can improvise on the fly.

In my experience, all of these workout types can be applied to creative work fairly directly. The 80/20 rule, for example, can mean that you do most of your work at an easy intensity. Tempo and maximal effort workouts can be applied by giving yourself a tight time constraint in which to get something done (like 10 minutes to generate a new paragraph, or 25 minutes to improvise your way into a musical theme). Going Long can mean staying with a single project for an extended period (like a few hours) without a break, to facilitate what Cal Newport calls “deep work.” And fartlek workouts can be a chance to mix everything up within a single work session–moving among different levels of intensities as you see fit.

The takeaway from applying these training principles to creative pursuits is that different levels of intensity bring with them different kinds of focus. And when you’re trying to make something new, focus is everything.

On Key Moments In Composing

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Each time you sit down at the computer and the keyboard to compose it feels as if you have no prior experience to draw on. Even though all your conscious knowing tells you that this can’t be the case, you’re beginning as if from scratch, facing the empty screen without being able recall the hundreds of tracks you’ve already recorded and meticulously edited down to their nano structures. Sigh.

What’s going on here? Is this simply a default way of thinking, or is it a self-imposed constraint to focus yourself on the present? Either way, because you can’t recall what you’ve already done you hunker down with the unlikely prospect of doing something significant today. Your quiet desperation is registered as you pull in your chair a bit, wipe off some dust from the keyboard, stretch the hands. Sigh. But this is a key moment in the process because in momentarily forgetting your creative past and at a loss for what to do right now you’ve adapted a shoulder shrugging, whatever happens happens mindset, resigned to the reality that you’re not much improved since the last time you sat down to face down musical uncertainty. It’s a key moment because you’ve almost—but not quite—given up before you’ve begun. Usually we construe this kind of mindset as a species of negative thinking, but negative thinking in doses is not necessarily bad. In this case, your almost—but not quite—giving up frees yourself from self-imposed and unnecessary expectations derived from your past outcomes or imagined futures. A whatever happens happens mindset as you sit in front of your computer and keyboard is a perfectly imperfect state in which to dwell for a while. You’ve tapped into something priceless: attention unmodulated by assumptions.

It took a few minutes, but it’s only now, with your attention unmodulated, that you bring your hands to the keyboard. Evidently your hands didn’t fully absorb the lessons of your whatever happens happens mindset and they immediately move along their old pathways, finding friendly routes through g and d-minor maybe, or staying safe within F major. But your hands are just scared and need a little push. You ask them why they so often ignore D-flat and F-sharp or any of those terrains over the black, mountainous accidentals. This is not to say that you’re conscious of keys and scales all the time. You’re just trying to point out to your hands that, from where you sit, the terrain is wide open. Go explore a bit! This frees up the hands and now they roam. This is a second key moment because your hands have almost—but not quite—given up trying to make any definitive musical statements. They have permission to stay local or travel far, but either way it’s just messing around. It doesn’t count. No one cares what happens. It’s just music. Just do whatever seems interesting. And so it goes for a while, as your hands bounce around and you follow them. In your state of pure attention, no one—not you, not your hands, not your computer or your keyboard—really cares about what is happening.

Which brings us to a third key moment where not really caring transforms itself instantaneously into…caring deeply. Boom! Something happened—the hands fell into something and now you’re woke. It could be a dissonance, or a rhythm, or a symmetry. Playtime’s over, folks. Forget what you did yesterday or what you might do tomorrow—this thing here, right here, is something special, no? Your quiet desperation is now sure-footedness. Boom! Now you have goal and a purpose which is to flesh out the possibilities of this something the hands fell into—mobilize its potentials as quickly as possible before the magic dissipates. You’re like the mother whose child is trapped underneath the car who summons a bolt of energy to do some heavy lifting. What you thought was a quiet resignation, a shoulder shrugging, whatever happens happens mindset was not a lack of confidence or some calculated Zen move. No, you were saving your quality energy for this pivotal moment where you can rescue what may be a good idea from being crushed under the world’s indifference.

Owning The Phenomenal World: Jeong Kwan On Creativity

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“Creativity and ego cannot go together.

If you free yourself from the comparing and jealous mind,

your creativity opens up endlessly.

Just as water springs from a fountain, creativity springs from every moment.

You must not be your own obstacle.

You must not be owned by the environment you are in.

You must own the environment, the phenomenal world around you.

You must be able to freely move in and out of your mind.

This is being free.

There is no way you can’t open up your creativity.

There is no ego to speak of.”

(From Netflix’s Chef’s Table, season 3, episode 1)

Chasing Creativity

 

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Creativity is a wolf that you’re chasing in a mountain forest in the middle of winter. You run after this stealth silent and fleet-footed animal that sprints ahead of you, flying over rocks and branches, leaping over iced streams, always vanishing just around the next bend in the trail. You’re patient in your pursuit, keeping him in your sights from a distance while maintaining an even pace you’ve learned from your training. The advantage you have over Creativity is that he occasionally gets lost (he never has a plan of action) and likes to stop once in a while to ponder, pursue scents, take in the sights. These are the moments when you make headway on him, closing in—but not too close to scare him away or provoke an attack—to spy the animal up close.

At one point he turns around and notices you as you both stand motionless, taking in one another from ten feet, your breaths turning to steam in the cold air. It’s scary. Creativity is elegantly wild: a strong build, smooth white fur, unafraid of frigid temperatures, effortlessly going for long stretches without food or water, and of course, he has those eyes. Those penetrating, blue-grey eyes that decipher your weaknesses in a second, while at the same time looking at you uncomprehendingly because clearly you’re of an alien species. Creativity can easily outrun you, but for the moment he stares you eye to eye in the alpine stillness and the fading light of a late afternoon sun. What are you to do? You’re in his environment now—way off the grid, feeling your feet, nose, and fingers freezing by the second, and your GPS watch has lost its signal. You can’t stay out here as long as Creativity can—he lives here, after all—but you can give chase for a while and maybe learn some things from him. Then Creativity speaks.

Let’s keep running he says in confident, perfectly unaccented English, and then disappears deeper into the forest pine.

As you chase after Creativity you think about what it felt like to look into his wolf eyes up close. You realize that Creativity doesn’t care about you. He only sized you up as a less efficient animal intruding upon his habitat, leaving much unspoken.

You’re welcome to follow me, but I won’t wait for you.

I may change direction at any time and I won’t help you if you fall.

On the upside, follow my footstep patterns and learn from my maneuvering.

Maybe later you can analyze why I moved as I moved.

And remember, unlike you I’m a wild animal: my appetites are my survival.

(Do you like wolf analogies? Here is a bird analogy.)

Reading Analogically: Ideas From René Redzepi’s “A Work In Progress”

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“We’re always searching for an association that allows the dish to make sense on a fundamental level–a connection we can build the finishing elements on.”

“We made a dish with no reference points in the past nor in other lands.”

Examining in depth a single ingredient.

Mapping ingredients and creating a knowledge bank.

“It’s almost as if our intuition wants more than our mind is capable of understanding. But from that moment, you subconsciously start gathering the tools for it to make sense down the line.”

“A new tool for us, a way of creating brightness…a way to sharpen anything, really.”

“Creativity is the ability to store the special moments, big or small, that occur throughout your life, then being able to see how they connect to the moment you’re in. When past and present merge, something new happens.”

“Gut reactions are just as important in discarding an idea as they are in generating one. The answer that appears milliseconds after a question is posed is likely to be the purest, most honest answer you have.”

“Efficiency and longevity are the difficult things to achieve in any creative activity.”
(Ferran Adrià)

100 Metaphors For Thinking Through Creativity

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Creativity is a balancing act.
Creativity is a candle that burns for a while.
Creativity is a circuit.
Creativity is a difference that makes the difference.
Creativity is a game.
Creativity is a key.
Creativity is a lone voice.
Creativity is an encounter.
Creativity is an outpouring.
Creativity is a radar system.
Creativity is a renewable resource.
Creativity is a response to a call.
Creativity is a series of small victories.
Creativity is a sum more than its parts.
Creativity is a weather system.
Creativity is additive and subtractive.
Creativity is adjectival.
Creativity is aiming.
Creativity is anticipation.
Creativity is anti-cliché.
Creativity is attitude.
Creativity is broad strokes.
Creativity is changing the frame of reference.
Creativity is coming up short.
Creativity is concept-stretching.
Creativity is contagion.
Creativity is conundrum.
Creativity is coping.
Creativity is cyclical.
Creativity is data management.
Creativity is deep fishing.
Creativity is derivative.
Creativity is designing.
Creativity is dialogue.
Creativity is disinterested.
Creativity is distillation.
Creativity is distortion
Creativity is doing it in a series.
Creativity is endurance.
Creativity is enthusiasm as a compass.
Creativity is exponential.
Creativity is everyday.
Creativity is fermentation.
Creativity is flow.
Creativity is focus.
Creativity is fractal.
Creativity is granular.
Creativity is harmonics above the fundamental.
Creativity is hidden competition.
Creativity is hyperlinking.
Creativity is hypothesizing.
Creativity is improving.
Creativity is incremental.
Creativity is judging proportion.
Creativity is juggling ideas.
Creativity is juxtaposition.
Creativity is leaping.
Creativity is learned.
Creativity is lift under the wing.
Creativity is liminal.
Creativity is linking.
Creativity is measuring.
Creativity is minimalism and absence.
Creativity is multitasking.
Creativity is pattern recognition.
Creativity is neural firing.
Creativity is noticing.
Creativity is numerical.
Creativity is off-road driving.
Creativity is ordering.
Creativity is overhearing gossip.
Creativity is playing the odds.
Creativity is polyphonic.
Creativity is pruning.
Creativity is question-asking.
Creativity is redirected desire.
Creativity is refraction.
Creativity is remixing.
Creativity is resourcefulness.
Creativity is rhizomatic.
Creativity is rolling the dice.
Creativity is round shapes into square pegs.
Creativity is seeing the two faces instead of the vase.
Creativity is spotlighting.
Creativity is step-wise.
Creativity is sui generis, a one-off.
Creativity is swimming against the current.
Creativity is switching gears.
Creativity is sympathetic resonance.
Creativity is tessellation.
Creativity is textural.
Creativity is therapy.
Creativity is timing.
Creativity is tinkering.
Creativity is toil.
Creativity is travel.
Creativity is tuning/turning the dial.
Creativity is uncertainty.
Creativity is variations on a theme.
Creativity is wonder.

Notes On Ed Catmull’s “Creativity, Inc.”

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“The uncreated is a vast, empty space” – Ed Catmull

Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. is a memoir that explores and analyzes the history and creative life of Pixar, the American computer animation company. Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar, its current president, and an accomplished computer scientist, untangles the complex business of how to build a sustainable creative culture (xiv) that thrives by continually asking questions about its work and how to do it better (64). Creativity, Inc. brings a scientist’s rigor to the problem of how a group of creatives collaborate to make compelling animated art.

The most striking aspect of Catmull’s narrative is the strange joy the author takes in recognizing and solving problems with a clear head. Catmull seems to thrive on problems small and large, because problems indicate not only new idea terrain, but also opportunities for improvement. It’s almost as if problems are themselves kinds of creative ideas, waiting for deeper understanding, one step at a time. At Pixar, ideas don’t come out of thin air–they’re “not singular. They are forged through tens of thousands of decisions” (75). In this way, creativity is about problem-solving and takes time. Pete Docter, director of Pixar’s film Up, tells Catmull that he simply makes lists of problems: encountered in his work “Having a finite list of problems is much better than having an illogical feeling that everything is wrong” (151) he says. Good advice.

A persistent theme in Creativity Inc. is proceeding in the face of uncertainty, randomness, and the unknown, and it’s in this regard that the book might resonate with many readers. For Catmull, the key is recognizing the complexity in what we don’t know and what we can’t predict. In fact, the “unpredictable is the ground on which creativity occurs” (148). He urges us to embrace the unknown, but not to do so with blinders on “in the interest of keeping things simple” (157). Sometimes–oftentimes–new situations are complex and layered.

Catmull revels in complexity and figuring out better ways of doing things as Pixar creates its films. One strategy used by the company is to focus on what Catmull calls microdetails–tiny elements that inform the look and feel of a work on an almost subliminal level. Microdetails are “a hidden engine” (198) of creative work that lend it authenticity and conviction. Pixar employees go to great lengths to acquire such details. For example, they take field trips to research places and things (i.e. the kitchens of French restaurants for the film Ratatouille) to build a vocabulary of mircodetails that will inform their future work. Other strategies used include self-imposed limits and tricks of perception. Catmull spends several pages explaining some drawing exercises inspired by Betty Edwards’ classic book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. One technique is to place an object we want to draw upside down so it can be looked at “as a pure shape and not as a familiar, recognizable thing” (212); another is to focus on the negative space around the object. These lessons are intended to help us “see shapes as they are–to ignore that part of the brain that wants to turn what is seen into a general notion” (ibid).

There are some general notions here that extend beyond the act of drawing. Catmull observes that a trained artist “is able to capture what the eye perceives (shape, color) before their ‘recognizer’ functions tells them what it is supposed to be” (212). In short, trained artists–and here I don’t think Catmull means just animators–have “learned how to turn off their minds’ tendency to jump to conclusions” (213). Catmull is getting at a technique for altering the limits of perception that could be useful to anyone who makes things: “to learn to suspend, if only temporarily, the habits and impulses that obscure your vision” (214). Speaking of vision, given Pixar’s track record of hit films, a peculiar challenge they face is how to stay fresh and nimble despite their successes. Building on the Betty Edwards drawing exercises, Catmull mentions a few pages later the Zen notion of “beginner’s mind” (222)–carrying on as if you don’t know anything, paying attention to the present moment and “trying to set up our own feedback loop in which paying attention improves our ability to pay attention” (222). When a beginner’s mind isn’t feasible, having useful mental models is. It doesn’t matter what metaphor you use. What matters is having “a mental model that sustains you” (224).

What makes Creativity, Inc. such an engaging read is that its meta-theme is ecological: the sustainability of a creative culture. To keep our work vibrant, Catmull reminds us, “we must not be afraid of constant uncertainty” (295) and the fact that “complex systems respond in nonlinear, unpredictable ways” (310). In other words, we’re surrounded by chaos. But isn’t part of the fun of creativity figuring out how we might make some sense out of it all?