Focus, stress on the need to prioritise ‘the one thing’ and razor sharp targets are in vogue. If we want to ‘succeed’ (whatever that might mean to us) we’re told to stay on track, to concentrate on what matters.
The pitfalls of distraction
It’s certainly true that modern life comes with a million distractions, many of them trivial and time-wasting at the least and sometimes destructive of our humanity as well. A poignant short film by Steve Cutts, It’s Our World, illustrates this brilliantly. In it, the people are so distracted by technology that they pay no attention to relationships and see even someone else’s suicide as merely entertainment to consume.
Attention is something that should heighten our connections to the world, to the environment, to others. Simone Weil notes that
Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.
Attention in a relationship can be transformative. Conversely distraction can eat our time at an extraordinary rate. How many hours are lost to mindless internet surfing or phone browsing for absolutely no result, whether of deep pleasure or creativity? And it’s not only phones and social media that can consume our time leaving us feeling ragged and dissatisfied.
Many institutions now work on the principle that our time is of no account. Needing to speak to someone about our electricity account, insurance, wifi provision, tax return, bank statement … can be a frustrating exercise in listening to jarring jingles for hours while we work our way towards an ‘operative’ who is often having their own bad day and may have no power to help with whatever the original problem was.
So the calls to not waste our time on things that make no difference, to not lose ourselves inside phone screens or social media accounts, to stop fearing that we will miss out if we don’t check emails every five minutes, are wise.
The pitfalls of myopia
Sometimes the price of single-minded productivity to the exclusion of all else, is a myopia that kills relationships and sacrifices the riches of a multi-disciplinary approach to life.
But alongside such calls there is often an assumption that eschewing distractions goes hand in hand with refusing to have ‘too many’ interests. If we’re not used up with FOMO (fear of missing out) and irrelevancy then we’re caught on the opposite pole of productivity, another god of our age.
Productive people, we learn, are those with their heads down who do one thing well. Whilst there are people who pursue a single passion to great effect, the dictum of the one thing can also be narrowing and separating. Sometimes the price of single-minded productivity to the exclusion of all else, is a myopia that kills relationships and sacrifices the riches of a multi-disciplinary approach to life.
Writing about the Futurist painter and composer, Luigi Russolo, Luciano Chessa notes:
In analyzing Russolo’s writings and works what strikes us above all is the peculiar continuity and coherence of his concepts and how they migrate from painting to music to philosophy.
What is fascinating about Russolo is his ability to dabble with several fields as well as becoming expert in a couple, letting ideas from one discipline cross-pollinate with radically different disciplines and perspectives in order to reach entirely new ideas and perspectives. This is neither giving way to a million distractions nor intellectual myopia. The opposite of inattention and distraction is not focussing on only one thing, but having the discernment to know which ideas to leave behind and which to work with and collide.
The power of adjacent possibilities
Despite the hype of focussed productivity from pursuing only one thing, one idea, one passion, the notion of adjacent possibilities seems to me to be richer, deeper and infinitely more creative. When we collide and recombine ideas from disparate areas, extraordinary notions are born. Steven Johnson puts it like this:
The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.
The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.
Imagine a whole network of square rooms. Each one holds an idea, an area of expertise, an ideology, a thought. Each room has four doors, one on each of its sides. Open a door and two ideas merge in their shared oxygen. Open another and then what?
The notion of the adjacent possible began in the work of biologist, Stuart A. Kauffman, writing about information and networks in nature in At Home in the Universe, but offers a superb metaphor to writers and creative people of every discipline.
When we collide and recombine ideas from disparate areas, extraordinary notions are born.
A fantastic example of working in this way is provided by Claude Shannon, written about in Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni’s excellent book, A Mind at Play. Shannon was an engineer and mathematician working up to the 40s and it’s no exaggeration to say he was a leading ancestor of the information age. As the authors point out, many mathematicians write astounding theoretical papers but fewer are also
jugglers, unicyclists, gadgeteers, first-rate chess players, codebreakers, expert stock-pickers, and amateur poets.
He played jazz clarinet, learnt to fly a plane and was a not inconsiderable photographer. Shannon was a man of extraordinary attention and focus. Nothing could distract him from a problem he was immersed in, but that didn’t make him mono-focussed.
The power of time
Creativity can be an elusive element for writers and artists of all kinds. The world is bursting with lures that would take out time and power and leave us hollow and aching for depth and insight. And the world is bursting with possibilities that might be the ideas we need to make extraordinary leaps. In The River of Consciousness, Oliver Sachs notes that:
It takes a special energy, over and above one’s creative potential, a special audacity or subversiveness, to strike out in a new direction once one is settled.
We can’t chase after every idea. We can’t know everything or be experts at everything, but two things we can do.
- Like Luigi Russolo and Claude Shannon, we can dabble in other areas, perhaps even becoming quite adept, in order to feed ideas into that once passion, whether art of science, that is central for us
- And like Sachs, we can not only have a broad range of stimulating (not shallow and distracting) interests and learn to go to these at moments when some problem in our main area simply isn’t reaching a solution. Sachs says that deep creativity is often and equation of time + forgetting + incubation. When we look the other way, stand back and immerse in another area for a while, letting our subconscious work on the original problem, letting it gestate, then we suddenly find unexpected answers.
Undistracted attention with many focusses
The opposite of inattention and distraction is not focussing on only one thing, but opening yourself to ideas from many places. It will involve a style of deep attention that will transform your ideas and your work. To be simultaneously undistracted, focussed on a major passion and take in a breadth and richness of ideas from other areas is demanding. It requires that you:
decide what merits your time
Not every email needs an answer. Not every demand warrants a response. Not every social media platform is worth even five minutes of your time.
Ideas don’t come when we are anxious and worried about many things, most of them time-grabbing but of little value by the next morning, the next week …
trust your instincts
Ideas don’t come when we are anxious and worried about many things
So often writers, artists or creative scientists are worried that they must first have an outline, a plan, a complete schema. Creativity is often much messier than that. In the novel I’m currently writing I started with two character and knew only one major fact about each.
Now is the time of instinct and dreams.
A little later I discovered a major location, more by serendipity it seemed, than thinking, but certainly by using Sach’s equation of time + forgetting + incubation. I’m feeling my way through this particular narrative, going where dreams and odd intersections of events lead, which has so far taken me to a magical location in Roscommon and is about to lead me to Brittany in the autumn.
There will come a point where the structure will need revisiting and several rounds of deep editing will be needed. But not yet. Now is the time of instinct and dreams.
connect and listen deeply
Colliding ideas from many fascinating areas while having a major focus and holding the rest of your life together takes intelligence, creativity and discernment. We are so much more likely to succeed if we find transformative relationships along the path.
Trusted mentors, the best courses, the most stimulating colleagues and peers don’t let us stay safely in a comfort zone. Neither do they take us limb from limb and leave us in pieces.
find transformative relationships along the path.
Connect with people with big ideas, in your own area and in other arenas. Connect with those who provoke thought, encourage new insights, who think it’s fine to fail and take risks and who challenge you. Above all, having found such people, have the humility to listen.
try things, risk things
The wonderful thing about dabbling is that you can try something out, take something, leave it as and when you want and need. We can apply this approach to our major passion too. A writer doesn’t have to finish every piece she starts.
Not everything you do is about ‘producing’.
A prose writer can have a volume of poetry that is never going to be seen by anyone else. That writing is still vital, it is a foray into lyricism, a different sort of form, or just a period of playing with language differently. Not everything you do is about ‘producing’.
spread your wings
Swim in other pools of knowledge
We live in a time of more knowledge than any single person can accumulate, but we can be true to a quest without putting blinkers on and shutting out the world. One poet I know is also a talented visual artist who just happens to be a recently retired surgeon. He is also someone who reads widely and has an extraordinary range of general knowledge that goes far beyond the shallow and superficial.
Swim in other pools of knowledge than your main area and you will find all kinds of fresh ideas bubbling to the surface.
give yourself permission to work slowly
This is a return to Sach’s equation.
Creativity = time + forgetting + incubation
You can’t rush great ideas. Some will assault you in a cascading rush so forceful that you struggle to wrestle them all onto the page. Others may feel like pulling teeth. There isn’t a time line.
Revel in it.
Give your writing time every day. Give your writing processes and writing life space and power and honour it, but don’t force how fast or slow a paticular piece emerges. If you are trusting your instincts, listening to trusted mentors with humility and taking risks, the writing will happen.
Creativity is not a straight line.
Revel in it.
An invitation to become your story
Thank you for reading — I’d love to help you as you transform your story.
At the height of summer, about to head into August and the first harvests in the natural world is great time for creativity, I have a special offer on my major journalling course (Becoming Your Story) plus a series of 8 seasonal courses, to take as online mini-retreats through a 12 month cycle (Diving Deeply into Your Story), which I’m adding for free for everyone who signs up by August 2. You’ll find a video about the courses here
You’ll also find free courses on my site, Giving yourself time to become a different story and Finding the rhythms of your different story as well as taster lessons from my main courses, or sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life.