How to be a creative individual

Hey all! This one’s a monster, so no huge preamble. Enjoy! Congrats this week to my friend Jade who is now working at Re-Nuble with the awesome Tinia and Riyana. Nice one Jade!

This is part 2 of a 2-part post. Part one was about understanding the conditions for creativity. Read it first, if you can.

This is about creativity as an individual, and how your worldview and practices can assist a good outcome. Let’s go!


As I mentioned at the start of my last post, examples of creativity are everywhere - anywhere you are doing anything that does not have a fixed outcome. So, always.

  • Figuring out how to remember your hotel room number

  • Learning how to sell to fish restaurants

  • Discovering how to drum a polyrhythm

  • Asking for a raise

  • Managing a chronic condition

The advice in this post inevitably becomes abstract, because we find that the creative process — whether it’s in the form of creating an illustration or a new product or a song or a new way of organizing your company — has lots in common across disciplines.

So as you go through this post, think about how this stuff applies to your own specific situation, and start to see how the techniques become a general practice. Bounce back and forward between short-term and long-term, between big picture and detail.


Most of us are brought up to believe both of the following statements.
But only one of them is true:

  1. Some people are inherently more talented at specific things.
    This is indisputable and observable everywhere

  2. Some folks are ‘creative’ and others are not.
    This is bullshit

You have been tracked into a worldview

There are lots of lovely things about school, but making a space for everyone to feel creative is not an aspect of most later-stage schooling. Schooling tends to put creativity in a box, and that box is labeled ‘art’.

As a child you might have exposure to a massive range of creative practices within that ‘art’ box — of mediums, of styles. Or you might be exposed to just one or two - like ‘art class’ is a place where you paint, and that’s about it.

There are an infinite number of so-called creative outlets, and in the professional art world you get a glimpse of this - people who work with paint, with installation, with video, with sculpture, with sound, with performance art, with fireworks. It helps to remind yourself that you may have not yet found all of the toolsets that will speak for you most clearly.

But most importantly, BEYOND these traditional creative outlets, some of the most actively-creative folks in the world work in ‘non-creative’ practices - like social work, therapy, construction, negotiation, business and law.

The larger the group, the harder it is to find confidence in your talent

You compare yourself to the best in the universe

A toxic downside to a globally-connected society is the impression that you are competing with billions of people in your level of ability and talent and hard work. When you start out in any creative work, you cannot help compare yourself inadvertently to Taylor Swift or Ai Weiwei or Denzel Washington because you see their work coming at you every day.

One reason this exposure is problematic is your estimation of quality is calibrated so high that it demotivates you. Ira Glass has a classic take on this:

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there is this gap. For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. A lot of people never get past that phase. They quit.

Everybody I know who does interesting, creative work they went through years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. Everybody goes through that.

Ira Glass (James Clear has more to say on this here)

We’re not evolved to compare ourselves with billions of other people.

We might (maybe) be evolved to rank ourselves with about 150 other people (the Dunbar number, which is not ‘real’ but is a coherent theory). For me, evaluating my own skill at anything among ~150 people makes sense. I’m not amazing at making music, but if you took this number of random people from around the planet, I wouldn’t feel ridiculous being in a musical group with the self-selected musicians from that 150 people.

I mean, might feel different for you if you end up in the random group with, say, Prince but you know what I mean.

Of course, you’re not actually competing with anyone. Your competing with your surroundings which are attempting to kill creativity from the moment you turn on your computer.

The modern work environment kills creativity

Something that is so obvious that we never talk about it: Shallow work — like waking up in the morning and having to process 23 different emails and messages about 5 different topics and then jump on four back-to-back video calls with 7 people — is not conducive to having a single original thought.

We know this, and in this same breath we lament the lack of creativity in work culture. Beyond the routine, most businesses do not have many folks working there who think about the concept of creativity. Which means that we continue to install more apps and adopt more project management tools and slack integrations to give ourselves less and less space to have an original thought.

As I’ll repeat later and have written before, conditions beat causes when it comes to creativity. And it is really, really hard to convince senior people to change their worldview on things. So this is one of those situations where if you want to unlock more creativity, choosing your environment, moving towards places where you have more autonomy, moving away from situations which reduce your energy and cause frustration will serve you better.


Clear away the crap

You have crap in your brain. One of the biggest takeaways from the book ‘The Artist’s Way’ is that having a continual process for removing mental clutter will give you a much better chance of creative pleasure.

Julia Cameron advocates a process called ‘Morning Pages’, the idea being that first thing in the morning, you write a stream of consciousness journal for twenty minutes, and then essentially never look at that page again. You write everything that comes into your head, knowing that no one else will ever see it, that you do not have to act on it, that it has no consequence. You are instructed to write Morning Pages freehand (I do it on an iPad usually) because this gives you a more human connection to your words.

It is a morning pee, a mandala, and a therapy session all in one. I have been doing this for around four years now, and it’s something I know is helpful to me and my ability to create. Morning Pages achieves a few things all at once:

  1. Writing your thoughts gives them a solidity so that you can examine them briefly, but the fact that you never have to share them gives you total freedom to express ‘unlikeable’ or ‘dumb’ thoughts with no judgement whatsoever.

  2. The practice of doing this frees up brain space for whatever comes next. It’s kind of like your brain just needs to release random rubbish so that it can start to focus on more compelling things, more fully.

  3. Doing this daily is a gift to yourself in a direction of creativity. Even if you feel like you did not produce anything of value later in the day, you are still performing a practice specifically for yourself. It gives you a ‘win’ early in the day, for free. I believe the benefits accrue.


Let’s talk bigger picture about ‘clearing out the crap’:

  • there is probably stuff going on in your life

  • that you are reacting to a certain way

  • because of other stuff that has happened to you before

This stuff makes you who you are. And it gets in the way of who you are.

If you recognize these two symbiotic truths, you have a choice in every moment as to how to move forward — whether to examine your mindset in order to gain clarity, or whether to continue in your existing state to gain momentum. One of my favorite filmmakers and all-round fearless human beings is Werner Herzog, who espouses a belief that therapy is harmful:

I'd rather die than go to an analyst, because it's my view that something fundamentally wrong happens there. If you harshly light every last corner of a house, the house will be uninhabitable. It's like that with your soul; if you light it up, shadows and darkness and all, people will become "uninhabitable." I am convinced that it's psychoanalysis—along with quite a few other mistakes that has made the twentieth century so terrible. As far as I'm concerned, the twentieth century, in its entirety, was a mistake.

Werner Herzog

I don’t agree with Herzog here. You can be mindful about the approach and the depth of your exploration, but in order to do so you probably should try to do something so that you have some perspective.

Most people find that going through some kind of therapy is helpful to free them of ruminative thought patterns, biases, reactivity or other constraints. If you want to be your best creative self, your ability to rise above your innate reactivity and have an awareness of how you work is likely to be freeing, rather than constrictive.

Giving your brain space in daily life

When I am in a Western country, my brain instinctively leaps out and attaches meaning and thought to all of the hundreds and thousands of words I see every day. This happens in Spanish and French and Italian too — even if I don’t know the meaning of many of the words, I hear the sounds and attempt to make meaning.

There was a strange thing I enjoyed about living in Japan, especially in the earlier years when my grasp of the written language was at its most limited. I could walk down a busy street crowded with signs and have no idea what any of them meant, and with no compulsion to read any of them. I am sure that this ignorance gave me a sense of peace even when surrounded by intense commerce. While it is possible to walk down a New York street without being distracted by the advertising, it is much harder.

This is one of the reasons I will never wear a watch with a brand name emblazoned on the dial - I do not want to go through the process of reading and thinking about that brand every time I want to know the time. Being able to avoid visual interruption in the forming of written language can give you space. In a recent interview the always-interesting Agnes Callard made a similar point about visual patterns being incredibly interesting, but words having the power to remove that attraction because they make meaning intrude:

I like patterns. I like visual patterns. I like them because they’re distracting. And I suppose, I think, that there are forms of distraction that I would find unpleasant. So there are definitely forms of distraction I find unpleasant, like if someone is talking while I’m trying to work or something like that. So maybe it would be interesting to think about why some forms of distraction feel pleasant, and others feel unpleasant.

[…] I would guess that there’s a feeling of voluntarism with the visual where I can look at it, but it doesn’t force me to look at it. Whereas a voice that is speaking, it’s producing meaning in a way where I cannot detach from that. I have to receive that meaning.

It’s like, a friend of mine once told me that she used to really enjoy the way the Coca-Cola signs looked — the swirls. And then she learned how to read, and she couldn’t see the pattern anymore […] because she was receiving the meaning, right? And so there’s this way in which a world of visual patterns is not a world that is conveying meaning to me. And that makes it feel unintrusive. It allows me to think all the meaning thoughts I want without having them being imposed by my space.

Agnes Callard speaking to Ezra Klein

Learning how to work deeply as a practice

Cal Newport has popularized the concept of ‘deep work’, referring to a state where you are able to focus single-mindedly on individual work, free of shallow distractions as mentioned above. Deep work is proven to allow you to produce your most thoughtful output, and helps you create the conditions for flow, a pleasurable mental state. It feels better and it produces better work. In my view, the ability to work deeply is a huge asset to any creative individual.

Because of the infinite number of distractions available to us in modern work environments, the default behavior for most of us has been to seek distraction the moment we encounter a block in our work. As in, most of the time we might find ourselves actively avoiding deepness.

The prospect of single-minded focus is scary to some folks

Add that many work teams nowadays tend to communicate continually on Slack and other messaging platforms, and you get a real crisis of concentration. When you are able to break out of this and give yourself dedicated time to write, to think, to make — you will be surprised how incredibly productive you can feel.

If nothing else in this post resonates, an exploration of deep work and a disciplined attempt to achieve it multiple times a week will add quality and quantity to your creative output more than any other practice.

I will write more about deep work in later posts. I am obsessed with it, I feel like we refer to it often as a culture, but we keep designing workplaces, software and rituals that kill it dead. We can fix this.

Feeling flow

Ultimately the purpose of deep work is to find yourself in flow. Flow is a massive topic with whole books written about it that I can’t hope to do justice to here. This video by the NYT is a really great primer.


There’s a reason apprenticeships work

Most of us can remember the first time we came into contact with people who really care about quality.

If you’ve seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi you will be familiar with the sushi world’s multi-year apprenticeship system, whereby you might be given a seemingly tiny and insignificant task (like preparing rice) for years, before getting access to more varied tasks like, for example, slicing tuna.

The purpose of all this is to surround you with a certain expectation of quality, and to give you the time to absorb all of the unnoticeable things that go into that quality, things that are most likely not apparent to you on your first day.

In school, I felt like there were plenty of teachers who I learned deeply from and who inspired me and motivated me. But it wasn’t until I got to my first year of art school (Foundation course, at Kingston University in the UK) that I was surrounded by folks who truly challenged me to produce output at the very highest level possible. When you are confronted with this for the first time it can be demoralizing (see Ira Glass’s point above) but it can also be incredibly freeing - that all that is expected of you is to do the best possible work.

At Kingston, I learned to love the critique, in the motivation of a social deadline, the prospect of having to speak to the work and receive the opinion of peers and tutors creating enough drive to do good work. Contact with reality creates meaning, and as a designer you learn to appreciate the moments in your career that you will get informed feedback from experienced eyes who care much more about quality than the size of the logo or the style.

Inevitably as we specialize, we start to surround ourselves with students and experts from the field we are in, whose standards of quality are focused and high. If you are lucky enough, your first managers at your first job will have an eye for quality and will give you useful and detailed feedback. And most importantly, the culture within the group you are in will support efforts to achieve high quality.

You can pick up this environment in various different ways.

The great bounty of agency work is that you get to work on hundreds of different briefs with different clients, varied lengths of projects, mediums, types of people, types of feedback. Ridley Scott’s approach as a director is informed strongly by his early career making commercials at breakneck pace with limited budget - quality under constraints.

The toll of agency work comes from its nomadic nature, its lack of ownership, of the need to solve and move on, solve and move on. The fact that while internally you might have an incredibly high standard of quality, but you might work for clients who do not. As you work in nomadic contexts like freelancing or agency work, you can learn to appreciate the specific craft of picking up a project, giving it your full focus and attention, and then letting it go without a care after it is delivered.

The contrary attraction of settling down, of working in-house at a brand is the promise of being able to iterate on a specific problem, to own it to the extent that you can fully explore its opportunities and approaches as a team. Of course, you must pay for such experimentation by having to sell stuff or constantly fundraise, and you must maintain and repair - practices that are often completely antithetical to folks who focus on creation!

Wherever you are, if you are surrounded by the right folks, you will build a focus on quality in the craft of creativity and in the craft of making.


Wherever you see good creative work and high-quality execution, you will find underlying constraints that have focused the creator’s efforts.

As you become more experienced in problem-solving, you start to look for constraints as early as possible. Constraints help you shape the solution because you know the bounding box within which you are operating.

Examples of constraints include:

  • Budget

  • Time

  • Technology

  • Format

  • Brand

  • Audience

  • Stakeholder constraints

  • Worldview

  • Materials

  • Theme

Worldview is probably the slipperiest of all, because you normally get a secondary description of it rather than the real truth. A client might say something boring like “I really love the latest Apple commercial” during the brief but they really mean “I wish our brand was as loved as Apple” which is not a constraint but an unrealistic desire.

The early job in most design projects is to uncover the constraints. The initial brief you might get from a client will include around 50% of them if you are lucky. The remainder of them you will find out at some point in your project - ideally it’s not after you have printed millions of copies of a ‘finished’ design.

As you get more experienced, you find techniques for uncovering constraints as early as possible and as painlessly as possible.

Constraints produce thematic consistency. By self-imposing constraints on your own work, you can often give the output a consistency that aligns the work in a way that is not easy to achieve otherwise. The hand-painted maps of Pentagram partner and all-round creative powerhouse Paula Scher are an example of a creative constraint that gives her work a unifying presence.

US Geography & Climate, Paula Scher

Median Home Prices, Paula Scher


Motivation, or food for creativity?

Folks who are just starting out in creative practices often instinctively look at existing art within that field for their inspiration. This makes sense - if you want to be a great guitar player, you will watch and absorb everything that great guitar players do.

But it’s important to separate quality-level inspiration, from inspiration as food for creative discovery. If you are writing songs and just listening to Prince, your songs will sound like Prince songs. This is a reason why many standup comics avoid listening to other comedians while they are writing new material, because inevitably the style, cadence and topics will be from another person.

Even more importantly, if you only listen to Prince, the topics you think about and talk about will be the things that Prince has experienced directly — not you. You will be getting a second-hand version of life via another person. When your source of inspiration is the creation of another individual, you are getting a filtered view of the world. Whatever you produce directly as a consequence of that, is as much theirs as yours.

Normally the problem isn’t so much focusing on a specific artist, but instead using the creative output of artists (or brands) in general as your inspiration. If you scroll an instagram feed of thousands of creators, you are getting a curated and processed version of the real world — one which might resonate with but is no substitute for your own real experience. The output of any creative process inevitably also conceals the working - without digging deep into why the work is as it is, you have no idea what the original inspiration, motivation, creative constraints or other factors were.

Imagine that consuming an algorithmic media feed is your primary method of discovering new things and being creatively inspired. You are now two levels removed — you are being shown things based on your own preferences, and those things are mostly the output of someone else’s choices. So you are two steps away from reality.

Consider also that many of folks contributing to that media feed are doing the same thing - posting artwork inspired by the artwork that they see on their own social media feeds. It is inevitable that this kind of feedback loop fosters unambitious work, because it is a mirror image of a projection. It has no depth.

This is partly why coffee shops in New York and London and Oslo and Shanghai all look alike nowadays. It is partly why every AirBnB you visit feels crappy in a similar kind of way.

We are creating a larger feedback loop like this with AI. It is weird.

What do I do instead of looking at Instagram?

So how do you escape from this pixelated version of reality?

Look for primary sources instead. Look for your own real experience of the world for inspiration. Primary sources might include:

  • Things that you observe happening in the natural world

    • behavior of beings

    • substances and materials

    • biological systems

    • physical systems

  • Experiences that have happened to you or are happening to you

  • Landscapes and objects around you

  • People

  • Ways you have felt or feel

  • Experiences of others that are minimally processed

  • Current events

  • Things that happened a long time ago

  • Cultures and practices from a long way away

  • Stuff that isn’t art

Find things, unprocessed. When these things enter your brain as inspiration, your brain can bounce off these things and use them in a completely unfiltered way. When you open an old book you will discover a phrase, an illustration, a quote that no one on Instagram has ever even heard of.

‘Nature’ is the primary source. The more you talk about ‘nature’ the more you find it ridiculous to use the word ‘nature’, by the way. Nature is 99.99% of the universe we live in when we remove the concrete and the screens. We just close ourselves off from it so securely that we need a word to refer to it.

Nature is complex and therefore fascinating to the brain. As we walk through a park and look up at the trees (forest bathing!) our brain is stimulated in a far deeper and more rewarding way than looking at a city street. A common experience for folks during a psilocybin or LSD trip is to seek out plants and natural forms in preference to anything human-made - because we thrive off the complexity and find patterns and emergent movements that go beyond the individual components.

I felt as though I were communing directly with a plant for the first time and that certain ideas I had long thought about and written about—having to do with the subjectivity of other species and the way they act upon us in ways we’re too self-regarding to appreciate—had taken on the flesh of feeling and reality. I looked through the negative spaces formed by the hydrangea leaves to fix my gaze on the swamp maple in the middle of the meadow beyond, and it too was now more alive than I’d ever known a tree to be, infused with some kind of spirit—this one, too, benevolent.

Michael Pollan in the Atlantic

In contrast, human-made items are inherently more basic and less vital.
A cloud, a tree, a stream and a glass of fizzy beer contain infinite fractal depth and an alive quality that a glass office tower will never show you.

Escape the algorithm

We have learned that modern life is hard to resist. Most people find that to some extent at least, they have to mindfully manage their consumption of sweet, rich and salty foods, and consciously seek out physical exercise in order to stay healthy. We cannot assume that what we are told to eat on TV and in our supermarkets is going to be good for us and the planet.

In the same way, feed algorithms are not our friends, especially when it comes to creating novel work. If you want to see yourself as a creative person, your ability to break free of a spoon-fed stream of inspiration is a practice you will need to cultivate continually.


I’m not someone who finds much difficulty in a blank page - but I do identify with those moments when you find yourself ‘stuck’ at a stage when you thought you were moving along well, maybe halfway through a project. Thankfully there are plenty of other folks who have found themselves in the same situation.

I think our concern and anxiety around being ‘stuck’ finds itself in a peculiar state at the moment. Because of what I’ve mentioned above — that we have infinite distractions available to us — I think the specific experience of being stuck nowadays feels much more like “I was feeling stuck so I looked at TikTok” than “I was feeling stuck and I didn’t know what to do” — as in the default is to turn on a distraction.

It is really OK to be stuck

Being OK with being stuck, or being OK with not having a solution, is absolutely fine and far preferable to suggesting a bad solution.

Most people cannot resist suggesting a solution within the first few seconds of being faced with a question. In contrast, many valuable creative projects take months and years to complete — much of that time spent in creative uncertainty about what the right solution might possibly be.

And the solution lies in exploration. That exploration might mean movement — in going for a walk or doing a boxing class or climbing a mountain. That exploration might mean going down a ‘rabbit hole’ with a particular technique or thought process.

Understanding who you are when you are stuck, how your brain works, what it attaches itself to and how it might be more comfortable in situations of unresolvedness, is a craft in itself within the bigger craft of creativity.

Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas

One of my favorite things in existence is Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies card deck. The cards came into existence after Eno and Schmidt both identified that they found themselves in situations (in Eno’s case in the recording studio, in Schmidt’s in the art studio) where they were under pressure to produce work, where they felt a time constraint, and where they found benefit in being pushed in almost any creative direction so as to pursue creative discovery instead of stagnation.

Picture the scene — you’re in an expensive recording studio surrounded by important people and experienced musicians. Everyone is a respected professional and no one has time to waste. You’re there to record a song, and the record label is saying they need something by the end of the day to hit the release schedule, and anyway the artist needs to be on a plane to Miami in the morning. How can you possibly come up with a deeply creative piece with this kind of pressure?

In this situation the default outcome is bland, safe, boring work. Artists are afraid to experiment and explore because they might look bad. Producers are afraid to go down a path that might not be fruitful and ‘waste time’.

Knowing this, Eno and Schmidt came up with Oblique Strategies - simple instructions to ‘do’ something or think a certain way, that are basically guaranteed to get you out of a rut. They are weird, sometimes hard to understand, but always helpful in ways you do not know until you try.

Two made up cards in an Oblique Strategies deck

Here are some examples on the cards:

  • Use an old idea.

  • State the problem in words as clearly as possible.

  • Only one element of each kind.

  • What would your closest friend do?

  • What to increase? What to reduce?

  • Are there sections? Consider transitions.

  • Try faking it!

  • Honour thy error as a hidden intention.

  • Ask your body.

  • Work at a different speed.

You can see how you might apply these enigmatic pieces of advice to almost any situation. Think how you might apply the advice within a contract negotiation, the design of a spice rack, an ad for butter.

You can read the full history here.

The further you go from home, the better

One of the implicit techniques within Oblique Strategies is to take you away from ‘home’ - from the safety of thinking in your normal structured way and acting in a standard way. It is a forcing mechanism for discovery, which gives you permission to do ‘dumb’ things.

Forcing yourself ‘outside’ of your normal path has a lot of value in a world where we are encouraged to organize and tidy up as a constant process.

It goes against our desire to reduce entropy. For example, when you are cooking dinner, you (probably should) create the mise en place, and clean up as you go along, so that as you serve the dish you just have a couple of items to clean and you haven’t left your spouse with a toxic waste cleanup operation. You are constantly in a mode of stabilizing, and going through a defined process of known operations.

But creativity is different!

When we try to stay in that ‘stabilizing’ mode during a creative process, for example naming all our photoshop layers, and organizing folders, and making a perfectly arranged set of tasks in Notion… we aren’t creating at all. We are trying to get to a new place while staying at home. We’re trying to go on a journey while remaining unchanged. This is impossible and naive.

A lot of us think about our goals as getting ourselves from point to point:

  • When selling a product, we talk about ‘educating the market’, implying that we are going to remain the same, and others are going to learn. We prepare materials talking all about our product and we have a cute slide about our company.

  • When we think about creating an image, we might have an image in our minds about the finished result.

  • When we start a new job, we might think about all the expertise we have and how we are going to impact the company.

This is a naive expectation.

Instead, the creative process is about getting out of a routine, about getting out of a standard set of ideas, and ultimately about changing yourself. It is not about knowing the path in advance.

So going further from home is, counter-intuitively, the best way to find your way back. Applied to the examples above:

  • When selling a product, your real job is to understand the customers, the market, the landscape, and learn.

  • When we think about creating an image, what we’re really trying to do is fully understand and communicate something, not create pixels. Our job is to think about that message and its context and its place, not what the end result is.

  • When we start a new job, your first job is to learn about the job, the people, the company, about yourself.


Every creation is within a continuum. In one of my favorite TV shows (also the source of the greatest single-take piece to camera in television history), James Burke illuminates the web of connections of ideas and inventions that has created the modern world.

Burke jumps from one discovery in chemistry 

to another in physics,

that then might unlock a new material,

which enables an inventor to create a solution for a specific use-case

that is then generalized and adapted to something else,

which allows a different tinkerer to create a new piece of equipment 

that allows a new discovery,

and so on, around we go.

Here are all the connections from just the second episode of the show — directly from Wikipedia. As you can see - the path is unexpected.

Burke examines how being able to test the purity of gold with a touchstone allowed the ancient world to replace a trading system based on barter with one based on cash. This innovation stimulated trade from Greece to Persia, ultimately causing the construction of the huge commercial centre and the Great Library of Alexandria which included Ptolemy's star tables. This wealth of astronomical knowledge aided navigators during the Age of Discovery 14 centuries later, following the introduction into Europe of lateen sails and sternpost rudders. Mariners who ventured further afield discovered that the magnetised needle of a compass did not actually point to the North Star, leading to investigations into the nature of magnetism by William Gilbert, and thus to the discovery of electricity by way of the sulphur ball of Otto von Guericke. Further interest in atmospheric electricity at the Ben Nevis weather station led to Wilson's cloud chamber, which in turn allowed development of both Watson-Watt's radar and (by way of Rutherford's insights) nuclear weaponry.

From Wikipedia

Burke is encouraging you to think about creation, not as a straight line from inspiration to fruition, but rather as a web of causes between ideas, phenomena, trends and desires. Each person in the web contributes something, and everyone is leveraging the work of others that came before them. In a very similar way, Rick Rubin talks about how ideas are often floating around in many people’s heads at once, because of these connections and influences. When we talk about working creatively, the skill is in plucking those ideas out of the zeitgeist and giving our own personal spin to them.

Technology is one of the conditions

Every new technology enables a new way of working and being, and a new way of thinking. Every time artists get hold of new equipment and tools, they react by using these tools and then folks react against that reaction.

For example, the development of acrylic paint spurred millions of artists everywhere to create new, bolder works using the faster working style and fresher colors now available to them. The canvas became a playground for quick, vibrant expressions from artists like David Hockney and Bridget Riley.

This is happening now with AI. The moment you watch a SORA video you, yourself are thinking about how you might use the technology, the limitations and problems with it, your personal fears and excitement, the ways it impacts your life and your loves. Already someone somewhere is creating a reaction to it, which might subvert it or embellish it or use it for good or bad, or to nullify it, or to have a reaction that depends on the reaction of someone else.

The earliest 3D printer originated in 1981, when Dr. Hideo Kodama invented one of the first rapid prototyping machines that created parts layer by layer, using a resin that could be polymerized by UV light. But it wasn’t until the mid 2000s that commercializing and open-sourcing of this tech made everyone aware of how it might impact the way objects might be constructed, and influenced artists to react and counter-react in their own ways — going far beyond beyond the scratchy, small-scale output of the desktop 3d printers we usually think of.

At the start of this wave I was still a student at Camberwell College of Art - part of the University of the Arts, London creative powerhouse. I lived ten minutes walk away, around the corner from a huge, mysterious workshop that would swallow and spit out humungous, softly-shaped extrusions and shapes and forms, components of some larger machine unknown to us. No signage was outside the building. My flatmates and I theorized this covert operation was a specialist military boat parts manufacturer, a contractor for nuclear cooling towers, a theme park atelier.

It turned out this strange building was in fact the studio of British-Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor, famous for his abstract smooth forms on an XXL scale. The parts we saw go in and out were components of his huge sculptures. Kapoor has followed me around the globe covertly — twenty years later, one of his shiny mirrored beans appeared at the foot of a luxury skyscraper around the corner from Farm.One’s farm in Tribeca.

In 2007, Kapoor reacted to 3D printing technology and mindset by using a machine for cement pours to create bulging, organic sculptures.

In 2015 Neri Oxman and a research team at the MIT Media Lab created a far more elegant machine to print hot, flowing and glowing glass into smooth, honey-like shapes.

People are conditions

Speaking of glass…

Last August I did this, and then went to Cologne to see my friend Kathrin. Kathrin was the first person I met at Kingston University for my Foundation course, sitting in the empty kitchen of our dorm with a cup of tea on the day before term started. Over the years we went on to start a ridiculous film festival called Emerge and See with our talented animator friend Hana, which gathered all the great student-created films and videos from around Europe and showed them in cinemas in London and Berlin and Budapest. Stories to come.

We visited Cologne’s cathedral, spared as a historical landmark by the British bombing campaigns. The cathedral is around 800 years old and took about 600 years to build, starting in the mid-13th century with several significant pauses in-between. The building is massive, imposing, intricate, and storied with mindblowingly-old relics such as the Shrine of the Three Kings which is claimed by some to contain bones of the original Three Wise Men from Christian mythology.

Photo by rhx on Flickr

One purpose of art is to bounce our perception off it, to ricochet our brain into a new space. The more reassuring and conventional the art, the easier it is to predict where our brain will go - this is safety. The power of challenging art is in its ability to send your brain to a new space. It might seem surprising to find anything like this in a ‘traditional’ space like a cathedral.

The cathedral also contains a controversial abstract stained-glass by Gerhard Richter installed in 2007. Of course, I love it, for its oppositeness to the surrounding Judao-Christian imagery, for its boldness, for its controversy, for the simple pleasure of standing in its glow. Richter is a master of many mediums (his paintings are my favorite), and has managed to create something that is simultaneously right at home in the space and also elevated. But I think the story goes beyond him and speaks to this web of connections.

The history of the window is as follows:

In 2003 the cathedral chapter for the Cologne cathedral decided to have the window renewed. The original designs from the 19th century were, like the stained glass windows themselves, destroyed in World War II and no longer available. It was planned to make a memorial to the German martyrs of the twentieth century, such as Edith Stein and Maximilian Kolbe, and to commemorate the Holocaust. The visual designs of the commissioned artists Egbert Verbeek and Manfred Hürlimann could not convince the cathedral chapter, but the abstract design by Gerhard Richter, who had been asked to provide one by master builder Barbara Schock-Werner, did. He had cut up a photo of his painting 4096 farben from 1974 and pasted it behind the tracery of the window. In 2005 the cathedral chapter asked Richter to develop the design further. In 2006, the artist was finally commissioned.

From Wikipedia

The “Master Builder” who helped make this happen is Barbara Schock-Werner - who was the first and only woman to hold the position in the cathedral's 800-year history. While her title might suggest a stonemason or traditionalist, Schock-Werner is an accomplished architect and professor who has been instrumental in significant modern buildings - an interesting case is the Olympic Stadium in Munich, which uses a lightweight tent design that was groundbreaking for its era, featuring expansive canopies of acrylic glass supported by steel cables in an unprecedented large-scale application.

Richter’s window didn’t appear out of nowhere as a random addition or a provocative element for no reason. It came out of an emerging tradition of contemporary artists contributing to stained-glass works - Chagall, Theo van Doesburg, Polke, an opportunity that only comes along once or twice in a hundred years, and a church that has to continually balance the weight of tradition with the desire to stay relevant with the culture and artistic movements of the day. And it was also spurred by an architect in the right place at the right time who saw the possibility.

One lesson is to seek a network of supportive folks and rare situations that provide the opportunity for unexpected creativity.


Creativity comes from new connections

Creativity is fed by multiple inputs, and the most innovative ideas often come from a combination of practices. For example, if you are designing a new kind of packaging, you might find that the answer lies in something you learned from a swim class, or you might be inspired by a complex polyrhythm you heard in an Indian classical music performance.

The common phenomenon we hear about people having their best ideas in the shower, or on a walk, is often not so much about those specific locations being magic, but rather these being occasions for the mind to synthesize data that has been subconsciously gathered among varied previous situations. These are also moments that we have given ourselves ‘permission’ to wander.

Being able to dip in and out of creative problems is a practice that allows you to skip away from creative blocks and integrate different kinds of thinking. ‘Being’ in different modes, for example playing music versus programming versus whiteboard conversations, intrinsically unlocks different perspectives on a problem and will show your brain different possible connections.

Long-term, building up expertise in different industries and areas just makes the world more interesting.

Have multiple big problems on the go

The physicist Richard Feynman worked and played in multiple disciplines, and was known to work on several, very different ‘big’ problems throughout his life. By keeping these big problems somewhere deep within his mind at all times, he was able to start to create non-obvious connections between each area, giving him an incredibly deep and creative long-term problem-solving ability.

This makes a ton of sense to me. I am someone who loves having multiple things on the go. When I reach a blockage with one of them, I can dive into another. When I learn something in one space, I love bringing that mindset to a new field. People talk a lot about finding that unique ‘zone of genius’ that you alone have - the combination of several things that you are good at and love.

My own list of problems I’m working on is below (I’ve omitted a couple of personal ones). Of course these problems are unique to my specific background (you’ll see much of it is a consequence of moving around my whole life). These problems evolve over time and birth their own questions.

  1. How do I nurture long-term meaningful relationships with my family and friends who are spread out around the world?

  2. How do I help people follow their desires to create and build while healing our work culture and planet?

  3. How do we make kindness a practice at work?

  4. How do I fulfill my desire for human connection, learning and culture while having a strong daily connection to land?

  5. How do I create and maintain financial stability for my family while pursuing all the above goals?

  6. How do I reconnect people to creating music as a daily ritual?

  7. How do we explore and respectfully integrate wisdom from indigenous cultures into future visions of a sustainable society?

  8. How do I find my place across everywhere I have lived?

What are some big questions you are working on, long-term?


On how to think about creativity

I find individual creativity to be an endlessly fascinating topic, and I want to recommend a few books in which the author dives deep on the subject, that I think give you specific perspectives that can stay in your brain your whole life.

The Creative Act by Rick Rubin: Rubin has an amazing grasp of the dynamics of creativity within individuals and groups. Over his multi-decade career of producing records he has seen hundreds of iterations of the creative process among hundreds of different individuals — and somehow found some sanity and logic behind it all. I find listening to Rubin speak and reading his words incredibly calming, motivating and instructional.

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron: This book provides really straightforward and actionable instruction. Her advice about morning pages and artist’s dates are fundamental and timeless.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield: This book is there to help us defeat the things holding us back from creative output. It is simple and easy. Read it.

Finding toolset books within your field

I’ve spent all of my life thinking about food, and the past 8 years of my life as part of the world of food and agriculture. One of the reasons I was excited and happy to dive into food was discovering some of the toolsets and frameworks, which give newcomers trustworthy frameworks. These can be comforting when you have no idea what to do next.

It’s a case of ‘if you know the rules, you can use them and break them’. These toolsets exist everywhere — for example, in the world of graphic design, understanding grid systems is really useful, and in the world of painting, knowing how to set up a two-point perspective layout is really useful, and in the world of music we have structures like modes and tools like the circle of fifths to guide us to probably-good choices.

One idea from the world of food is about flavor balancing. When creating, chefs will explicitly or subconsciously balance flavor - which, depending on who you ask, will include saltiness, fattiness, acidity, sweetness, umami, bitterness. Beyond this there are more complex fundamental interactions of the volatile compounds in foods, and cultural traditions about certain flavors and pairings. For instance, the frequent pairing of tomato flavors and basil flavors in Italian food. Trivia - the basil’s been there for many centuries, the tomato only came in the 1700s!

Books like the Flavor Thesaurus and the Flavor Bible give you a set of frameworks for thinking about how to balance flavors. For example, you look up Fennel, and you find that it not only pairs well with garlic, but also with grapefruit — so you have a great base for a new experiment. These books will help you take the leap from following recipes to creating dishes.

In Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Samin Nosrat dives deeper into the nuance of these areas - for example the kinds of saltiness you might find, from Himalayan salt to artisanal soy sauce production in Japan. So you get a profound education that allows you to experiment even further.

Look out for these kinds of toolset books in every practice — the best ones provide useful information that can be combined in thousands of possible permutations.

I also found immense resource in agriculture-related cookbooks like Six Seasons by Joshua McFadden and Martha Holmberg, which give you a glimpse into what it’s like to be deeply connected to the earth and the plants that are most vibrant and plentiful at each time of year.

This conception of the fluidity of our weather and climate is not unique to their book and is found worldwide in peoples who have a closer connection to land. For example, the Yawuru people of the Broome area in the Kimberley region of Western Australia recognize six seasons: Mankala: the hot, wet season / Marul: the humid season / Wirralburu: the season of first rains / Barrgana: the cold, dry season / Wirlburu: the build-up to the wet season / Laja: the monsoon.

The Sámi, indigenous to the Arctic and subarctic regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, traditionally divide the year based on the natural rhythms of reindeer herds and the environment, rather than a fixed number of seasons - for example an interpretation might be: The awakening, when daylight returns / The period of melting snow / The warmest season, important for fishing and gathering / When the first frost arrives / The season of harvest and preparation for winter / When the snow begins to settle / The coldest, darkest season / When daylight starts to increase, anticipating spring

Looking out across New York today it seems like we
might be in our own little period of melting snow


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