- The Essays
2.1 Creativity and Probability
2.2 Creativity through Association
2.4 Means and Ends
2.7 Pattern Matching
Atomic essays are ~250 word experiments, a way to test whether the ideas I have for my writing projects are worthwhile. I’m aiming to write 3-4 a week and will add them to this page as I do so.
Creativity and Probability
It is interesting that to be creative requires that we possess some level of expertise, yet expertise is not guaranteed to make us creative. Indeed, often we find that the most creative individuals are not experts of their domain. Domain experts are familiar with their fields—familiar with what works. Creativity requires that a non-obvious solution is developed, necessarily something which previously had low to no chance of working. It is precisely because this combination of ideas has not yet been tested that it is creative.
Is it possible, then, that expertise actually gets in the way of creativity? Having a deep understanding of a field of knowledge, the expert is versed in exactly what is currently done and why. What reason is there to test new methodologies? new materials? the solution exists and many are content to follow existing guidelines to ensure instructions are carried out correctly and problems are solved.
It takes an individual who is able to accept that the status quo works but who believes that there may be a different way to achieve a certain outcome. They must be prepared to forgo guaranteed success for almost guaranteed failure. This requires that the rewards for innovation are sufficiently large, sufficient belief in an alternative and sufficient resilience against failure. Not an easy combination, which explains why so much innovation is the result of chance circumstances—to intentionality innovate is, on almost all fronts, irrational.
Creativity through Association
When we encounter something we believe to be creative, it is typically the product of two or more concepts drawn from disparate fields, which combine to produce a cohesive yet unexpected outcome. While creativity often feels (or is reported by others to feel) accidental, this begs the question—why are some people more creative than others?
One key attribute of highly creative individuals is that they have strong abilities of association. That is, they are willing to look for and pursue ideas or concepts that others are likely to consider either irrelevant or not consider at all. Cognitive research refers to individuals with this capacity as having a shallow associative gradient. Incidentally, this attribute gives rise to the connection often made between genius and madness; a schizophrenic individual differs simply in the ability to dismiss these unsuitable suggestions and, without such a filter, becomes incomprehensible. For most individuals (those with a reasonable filter already established), this concept has useful implications for those looking to improve creativity.
It is not practical to suggest that someone merely flatten their associative gradient. What can instead be inferred is the efficacy of investigating low-probability thoughts while brainstorming—allowing for more exploration without judgement.
If creativity corresponds with unique, far-reaching associations, it also serves you to increase the number of associations you can select from. Reading books, listening to podcasts and generally increasing your exposure to new ideas and perspectives allows you to draw from a larger ‘library’ within your mind. While not guaranteed to increase your creativity, this will surely improve your probability of success.
In his book Liquid Modernity, Zygmunt Bauman riffs on Schopenhauer’s observations of reality as the indifference of the world to the individual’s intention, positing that freedom in life is achieved only when the imagination is not greater than one’s actual desires.
By this definition, nobody can truly and authentically be free—the individual needs either to artificially restrict their imagination in order to meet their current skillset, or expanding one’s ability to act such that it meets their imagination. While the second scenario appears more likely, it is not reasonable to expect that the imagination of an individual does not grow as their ability grows.
Impossible as these scenarios are to achieve, the definition still seems correct. I cannot find fault in the statement; you feel more free when you have increased capacity to achieve your goals, your imagination. Simultaneously, I do not believe that expanding our imagination as we work is the solution, this serves only to patch a fundamental conflict within the mind. I think the correct approach is to understand that freedom is not something we ever achieve yet should constantly be pursued.
Perhaps this is a narrow-minded view of the world, the musings of an individual who has not seen life from enough angles, has not experienced enough ways of working and living. It seems to me that the best we can hope to achieve is to imagine lofty goals and ways of carrying out our lives that bring us fulfillment, working each day to reduce the differential between the existing and the imagined.
As our skills and our relationships grow, so too will our ambitions—this is ok. Understand that this is the nature of the human condition and we will never feel ‘finished’. Freedom comes from accepting this is the case and continuing to get up each day and work towards the imagination regardless.
Means and Ends
Having agency and endless options is incredibly freeing; there are always alternative pathways to pursue in life. These options also bring with them a price, an anxiety that any given person is not pursuing the correct option at any given time. On top of that, any sense of achievement is not (and can never be permanent) because there is always more achievement to be had. There will always be more activities available to you than you are able to take part in.
What results from this situation is a desperate need for guidance and tools to help people decide what activities will be most worthwhile for them. Instead of trying each activity one after the other, we look to other people to see what they’re doing. Youtuber personalities walking their viewers through their daily routines is more than entertainment, it is a simulation of what that kind of lifestyle looks like. If viewers like the Youtube personality and the way they live, they use these kinds of videos as examples of how they can live. This is a shortcut through the search process.
The same process takes place when people read biographies, philosophy and self-help books. They are looking for examples, tools and mental models which will allow them to narrow their search for the next activity to engage in or the next possession to buy. In all cases, people are shopping—hunting for the next step which will bring them the most joy. For the first time in human history, the ends have become more important than the means. We know how to get things, just not which things to get.
When looking at the lives of those we admire, those who are successful and skilled in their professions, their identities look cohesive. From a distance, it appears that they pursued an interest in a given area and achieved a certain level of expertise which they leveraged to produce incredible results. When they engage in activities, we draw connections between what they are engaged in and how this related to their overall goal of furthering skill levels and being compensated for providing value. This coherent, unified identity is, however, an illusion. One that seems true for all individuals.
Our identity is unable to stay static because we are unable to fully commit to a set of sub-identities; areas of interest that guide our decisions. While we certainly believe some areas are more important than others, ultimately we never want to feel as though we are unable to change these interests. We are adamant that these remain choices and as such will always be forced to re-evaluate the necessity of each as we encounter new potential interests in our lives. In this way, each of our interests must ‘pay rent’, in the sense they must continually prove they are worthwhile having and, most importantly, more worthwhile than other interests.
This is likely the between delayed gratification and success—by being able to resist the temptation of new, novel activities we are able to maintain and improve our skill in areas of existing expertise. As a result, it seems like a generally-useful heuristic to apply is that that new activities must be significantly more interesting than our current ones in order to replace them. Novelty wears off for all activities and as such, it makes sense to account for this predicable drop—liking an existing and new activity equally suggests the new activity will fall below the existing when novelty wears off.
There exists a large internal conflict in my mind between when to do productive work and when to remain in a restful state. It is one of my core beliefs that true satisfaction comes from the process of improving myself, which necessitates work which expands my capabilities and ultimately requires time spent focusing on complex and/or novel tasks. However, spending time on these tasks is rarely highly enjoyable in the moment due to the high level of concentration required and the increased likelihood of frustration due to lack of understanding.
The payoff for such activities is far more likely to come after the activity itself, when I am able to reflect on whatever code, writing or design I have produced. It is ultimately an act of delayed gratification which serves my future self more than it does my present. Should such work be something I do despite not feeling like it? I believe so. I feel as though it doesn’t matter whether I want to do it, I am better of for having done it so ultimately there is no choice to complete it. There will never be a truly correct answer as to when to force myself and when to listen to my mind and put the activity off; I can only be aware that I am personally biased towards inaction and must take concrete steps to counteract that bias.
I’ve become increasingly aware that the concept most people refer to as expertise or ‘mastery’ is essentially identifying and applying patterns learned from experience or theory. This is something I think most of us understand intuitively and, honestly, something that probably seems obvious to most. To be able to identify an apple we first need to see and, to a certain extent, experience it such that we can successfully identify it in the future. I think the element of this concept that I didn’t truly grasp until reflecting on the idea further is that in order for a model to be useful, we have to know that it is a model.
What do I mean by this? Well, when encountering a fruit (like an apple) for the first time, it seems pretty obvious to us that this is something new and, if we can remember our encounter with it, something that can help us in the future—if we get hungry and are looking for something healthy or sweet, we know an apple could serve as a possible solution. What can often happen in the rush of daily life is that we miss potential opportunities to learn patterns and models from less obvious sources of information—responding to an impolite email is often overlooked as a mundane (if frustrating) task, yet it has the potential to further inform our models of dealing with agitated people, if only we take the time to recognise the moment as being such an opportunity.
It may sound cliché but each day presents us with countless opportunities to refine and grow our abilities, if only we are able to have the presence of mind to recognise them, reflect and apply the learnings in the future.