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The (Harsh) Creative Habit

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A couple of months ago, I read Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit: Learn It And Use It For Life. As creativity is my research topic, I took some notes that seemed worth revisiting and pondering on today.

The first thing you need to know about The Creative Habit is that it leans towards self-help books instead of the more thoroughly researched works. Tharp explains the reader how she attained a lifelong “creative habit” through her own passion, dance. Therefore, most examples come from that world. Attempts to cross that boundary towards engineering are left as a thinking exercise for the reader, which is fine.

Except that Tharp seems to identify creativity with almost divine dedication. “Your work is your life” and “don’t expect anything less than perfection” make me want to run away from creativity instead of embrace it. I admire people like her and Jiro Ono, a 97-year old Japanese chef that dedicates his life to one thing: sushi.

YouTube video buF540VBwAE

In search for the perfect sushi, Jiro Ono still gets up at 5 AM and still goes to the fishing market himself to select only the best of the best pieces. Research confirms that giving up work (the thing we call retirement) increases chances of social isolation and cognitive decline, so it is certainly admiring to see these people continuing their dedication towards a craft.

However, the way creativity is portrayed in The Creative Habit makes it virtually impossible to achieve without putting in the required 10.000 hours (or more). I’m not a big fan of this view, although I recognize the learning mindset of Dreyfus' skill acquisition model. Of course technical knowledge brews creativity—it’s even a requirement to be creative—and of course practice makes perfect, but to demand nothing less but perfection cuts off 90% of us from the thing we all like to be more: creative.

In cognitive creativity research, different conceptions of creativity exist, such as the common distinction between “LittleC” creativity and “BigC” creativity (and various gradations in-between). We all use LittleC creativity to overcome daily problems and provide novel (to us) solutions or ideas, almost without blinking. In contrast, a major scientific breakthrough or the invention of a new AI algorithm could be called BigC creativity—something most of us will probably never achieve. In which category does the life-long passionate dedication of Twyla Tharp and Jiro Ono fit? Whoops, wrong taxonomy!

Some sections of The Creative Habit seem to spark a bit of hope for us:

Creativity is more about taking the facts, fictions, and feelings we store away, and finding new ways to connect them.

That seems much more doable, right? But in the next chapter, the seemingly unattainable craft mastery hits us again:

Creativity is leveraging your craft [above a certain level]. No craft, no creativity.

If you find new ways to connect facts, fictions, and feelings, you are learning. If you are learning, are you not also leveraging your craft? Remember that, although it already comes with a hundred or more interpretations, the term creativity is only a fairly recent invention.

For me, the problem with putting perfection on a pedestal is worrisome:

  • Perfectionism leads to burnout and depression—societal problems that already get too little attention and are mostly approached from an economic perspective.
  • The holiness of a craft leads to ignoring the reason why you’re doing what you’re doing. Programmers who see coding as a craft tend to overachieve on the clean code and underachieve on delivering a product that the customer wants.
  • This harsh and pretentious interpretation of creativity tends to dismiss smaller victories that are easily reachable for everyone;
  • Our society is already obsessed with productivity. Is creativity really yet another beating stick?
  • People without “one true calling” can still be highly creative proves Da Vinci and multipotentialite Emilie Wapnick.

In a way, The Creative Habit is filled with contradictions. Demanding perfection requires constant practice in which your LittleC is triggered daily, but those victories are ignored for the greater good. In an early chapter, to help flex those memory muscles and get good ideas going, Tharp suggests to “get busy copying [others' work]”, just like Austin Kleon does: copying is how we learn. Yet, twenty pages later, it states “always be original!”. Is copying just seen as an acceptable way to practice, but not as a way to generate output based on your craft? You tell me, I don’t know, I was confused.

For me, the book left me with more questions than answers—which for a creativity researcher is excellent, but for a person looking for practical tips isn’t. How does craft fit into creativity? How do memory models/types relate to it? To make matters worse, the terms “talent” and “genius” are loosely employed as well.

Still, the book provides usable handles on how to get that habit of being more creative going, even though it won’t immediately produce perfection. Tips like “scratching for inspiration” by collecting and clipping interesting things, creating daily rituals to “prepare yourself for creativity”.

The creative DNA—the Homo Faber—grows and burns in all of us:

I believe that we all have strands of creative code hard-wired into our imaginations.

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I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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