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Some Thoughts On Creativity

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In my line of work there is a requirement to be creative at certain times. As a software engineer I will admit that I do spend a fair amount of my time surfing the internet. And I’ll admit that a certain percentage of that time is spent looking at non-work-related material. I also spend a fair amount of time doing tedious things like testing and bug fixing. These essential parts of the software development process have to be done (we’re all human and make mistakes and it is impossible to write bug free code – I don’t care what you say) and in fact they make up the majority of my working time.

I spend perhaps 80% of my time doing unexciting things, some of them pretty dull. So that leaves 20% of my time to do the less unexciting things (you’ll note that I didn’t say “exciting things”). For me the most interesting thing about writing software is the stage where you have a general idea of what you want to create, but need to come up with some neat way of doing that. It could be a clever piece of user interface or a neat way of designing some code to accomplish some complex task. Quite often I can draw upon past experience and just do the same againTM. But sometimes I need to come up with a completely new idea. To create something from scratch. And doing that can be an interesting process.

Creativity is a difficult thing to measure and control. Like growing a plant you can’t force it to happen. Highly creative people tend (in my experience) to be passionate people who can very quickly go from states of high creativity to nothing at all. Some, like the author Douglas Adams, suffered from long periods of writer’s block. I expected when I started this site to have periods when I couldn’t write anything at all and I pictured myself tearing my hair out trying to think of what to write about. This hasn’t happened (unlucky for you) and I believe it’s due to the fact that I’ve worked out how to control my own creative flow.

I’m a pretty disciplined guy and am not prone to mood swings and emotional outbursts. This means I don’t have to rely on flashes of inspiration to make decisions. I just sit back and think about problems and try to solve them logically, with varying degrees of success. While I’m doing that – going through as many possibilities as I can – ideas will just magically pop into my head. Most of them are ridiculous, but thinking about them gives me more ideas and they build on top of each other until I have a few sensible solutions. The one thing I never do is put pressure on myself.

I firmly believe that pressure is self-imposed. If your boss is breathing down your neck to have that report on his desk in one hour sharp then you might argue that he is putting pressure on you. I on the other hand don’t give a damn about my boss’s wrath. I am no respecter of rank – if you are a beggar in the street or the Emperor of Earth then I’ll treat you just the same. We’re all just people at the end of the day. So if I don’t have it on his desk in one hour then so what? In a thousand years time I don’t see historians saying “the fall of modern civilisation was triggered by John not finishing that report on time”. So by not really bothering about the outcome I am free to actually get on with the task unhindered and guess what? I easily got it in on time. And it was the best darned report my boss ever read! Cue the future historians saying “the reason civilisation is still here today was that John managed to finish that report on time”. The point is, you put pressure on yourself.

So without pressuring myself to be creative and staying cool (and just being a carefree sort of guy) it just seems to happen. I recall reading about Douglas Adams after he was paid an advance to write his next book. He worked out how much he was getting paid to write each word by extrapolating how long the book was going to be. The pressure of getting paid a considerable amount of money just to write the word “it” got the better of him and just extended his writer’s block. Poor fellah.

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Creator of John's Background Switcher. Scotsman, footballer, photographer, dog owner, risk taker, heart breaker, nice guy. Some of those are lies.

3 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. It’s true that pressure is mostly self imposed. The trap that I fall into mostly is pride. If I say that I’ll have something done by X, then I pressure myself because I don’t want top break my word. Even day to day, I have always wanted to do things “right” (i.e. the way that I think is best), and that can create pressure because you avoid the easy routes to try and do something properly, which invariably takes longer. Although pressure is often seen as a bad thing, I’ve always believed that it can be very positive. I’m terrible at motivating myself to do things, but a bit of pressure works wonders at motivating me, and is often when I come out with my best ideas.

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  2. Ah. So I guess we’re all different then. Some people need a kick up the backside. If someone gives me one I want to punch them out. 😉

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  3. Speaking of the late, great Douglas Adams – I have to say I live my life by his quote: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” And a couple of the more fitting Jack Handey quotes: “It’s funny how the two little words, ‘I promise’ will stall people for a while.” and “Broken promises don’t upset me – I just think, ‘Why did they believe me?'” I don’t feel pressured, ever, because I honestly don’t care if I get things done in a timely manner or not. After a year of sitting around I finally finished painting Andy’s room. I’m so laid-back I’m horizontal. :o)

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