February 24, 2022

The two contradictory ways of creating stuff

We all create stuff. Maybe you’re a designer, or a writer, or a programmer, or a teacher, or an entrepreneur. At some point in our professional or personal lives, we all need to make something, sometimes.

And because we all have had to do it, we all know that creating great stuff is really damn hard.

There are a million pieces of advice about productivity and creativity out there, and if you look hard enough you’re bound to find some book or article that works for your exact needs. But basically, they all boil down to some variant of “have a process and stick to it.”

While that is great, I fear we sometimes lean too far into this pragmatic, logical approach, and through that, we can miss the magic.

The pros just do the work

Famed design studio House Industries released a beautiful coffee table book collection of their work a few years back with the title “The Process is the Inspiration.” It’s pretty great, go check it out.

But that title is the best encapsulation of how true professionals approach their craft. It’s not about waiting around for inspiration to divinely strike from the heavens above. It’s about deliberately creating the conditions that allow them to create great things. Observation. Research. Planning. Analysis. Debate. Whatever it is, when you combine process, skill, and experience, that’s how you make stuff. It’s a job.

Turn your radar on

But there’s another, somewhat contradictory method of approaching creative work that I think is also true. It’s the act of turning your radar on — setting your attention to notice the things you’re looking for.

Our brains are exceptional pattern recognition machines. Once we bring our attention to focus on something, we start seeing it everywhere. Psychologists call this “frequency bias,” and it actually can be a bit of a troublesome problem when applied to the wrong things, like eyewitness testimony.

But you can use this cognitive quirk as a power for good. Like a detective trains a hound on the scent, you can put an idea in your mind and start scanning the universe for things to connect with.

If you’re designing the packaging for a new product, you can turn your radar on and as you browse the grocery store or art museum you’ll start to see shapes differently.

If you’re writing a book on relationships, turn your radar on and you’ll see new dynamics in the couples all around you, and those in your latest Netflix binge.

This second approach certainly benefits from the luxury of time, a resource that most pros have in short supply. But when you can use it, great things happen when you focus your attention. Don’t just take it from me, listen to the words of pioneering psychologist William James from over a century ago:

Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind — without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos. Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground intelligible perspective, in a word. It varies in every creature, but without it the consciousness of every creature would be a gray chaotic indiscriminateness, impossible for us even to conceive.

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just wrote his first book (Simply Put), and works with cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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