The Creative Habit

I’ve been reading The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharp the past couple of days.  I’m becoming more and more fascinated by the process creative people use to create.  I’ve been thinking that this process (and it does seem to be a process, not anything more mysterious than that) would be something that someone like me would want to learn more about.

In chapter 6, she talks a lot about the concept of “scratching”.  What she means by this, I think, is the propensity creative people have to follow the white rabbit down the hole and see where it leads.  I talked a little bit about this in the essay I posted called “A letter to my son“.  I quoted Paul Graham, who, when talking about the mathematician G.H. Hardy, said “only later did he start to ask questions instead of merely answering them correctly” (emphasis mine).

That seems to be one of the keys to creativity, and one area where I find myself falling quite short.  I always did very well in school, and have conditioned myself to answer questions, instead of asking them.  I’m looking to develop the inquisitive mind and the child-like wonder that I find myself lacking.  Once I start asking those questions, when I start to “scratch” through the first source I read and move on to more and more sources in an effort to satiate my appetite for answers, then I’ll know I’m becoming more of a creative type.

A letter to my son

My son turned two a few months ago.  Naturally, it seems to me that only yesterday his mom and I were bringing him home from the hospital.  Before I know it, he’ll be graduating from high school, and ready to go off on his own.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and I want him to know a lot of the things that I wish I had known back when I was that age.  In all honesty, I don’t know if it’d help much, because I remember thinking I knew everything anyway, and I probably wouldn’t have listened to my dad if he’d told me some of this stuff.  Nonetheless, I’m hoping that my son is wiser than I was.

 

Dear Son,

 

I hope you know how proud your mom and I are of you.  The past 18 years have flown by and I know you think I sound like an old fart when I say that, so I’ll stop.  I’m just really excited for you now that you get to become a little more independent.  I remember how much I was looking forward to this time when I was your age.

 

I wanted to take some time to share some things with you that I learned when I was older than you are now.  I know that these might not seem important to you, and you can choose to ignore them if you want.  That’s your prerogative as an adult.  However, I think that if I had known these things, life would have been a little bit easier on me.

 

1.  You don’t need to know what you want to do to make money, at least not right away.  It’s okay.  I know a lot of people have been bugging you for the last few years about this.  Adults you meet, school counselors with their aptitude tests, some of your mom’s and my friends; they all seem so curious about it.  I know that it seems like you should have an answer to this stuff right now, but don’t worry about it.  

 

I never really knew what I wanted to do, either, but I felt like I needed to have an answer, so I always told people I was going to become a pastor.  I had been saying that since I was 12 or 13 years old.  The only problem was I found out that I didn’t want to do that after I checked it out more closely.  I enjoyed spending time with people and the social aspect of that type of work (talking to people, giving advice, being a friend), and since there were plenty of pastors on both sides of my family (your great-great grandpa, your great-grandpa, and your great uncle), it seemed like a given.  So, I stuck with it and didn’t really consider anything else until it was too late (when I dropped out of college).  In essence, I almost ended up with a job chosen for me by a 13 year old.  However, I ended up with a job as a financial analyst.  That one was chosen for me by my 21 year old self (who really needed money to be able to pay rent and buy food).  That wasn’t much better. 

 

So, take your time and don’t commit to anything too early.  That leads me to my next couple of points…

 

2.  Get a liberal education in the classical sense of the term.  Shop around and don’t declare a major right away once you get to college.  Make sure you take a lot of classes in a lot of different fields.  If you find one that really floats your boat, take another one in the same field from a different professor (that’ll let you know if you like the field, or you just like the way the professor taught it).  Having a degree in Liberal Arts will get you just as many interviews as will any other degree for starter jobs, so don’t sweat it too much if you can’t find a specific degree program.

 

3. If you find a focus (history, economics, whatever) that you enjoy, do some research on job prospects in the field.  Don’t ask your professor about it, because he or she’s been teaching for a long time.  Well, there are some professors in certain fields (computer science and business come to mind right away) that consult with companies.  They’re good ones to speak with.  Most of the others will definitely be a great source as to how academia functions, but they can’t tell you how a position in the public or private sector will function.  They’ll either have no experience with it whatsoever, or they’ll have had an experience so horrible that it drove them to become a professor.  Nothing wrong with this, by the way.  I’m not going to say, “those who can’t do, teach”.  Some folks could do what they teach, they just didn’t want to for whatever reason.  Money isn’t everything, and it’s sure not worth stressing yourself out long term for as a primary focus.

 

Try to get some internships, as well.  Those won’t really help you know what’s going on in a “real” job, either.  I once heard someone say that internships teach you as much about an actual job as being a batboy teaches you about hitting in the majors.  That’s probably pretty accurate.  However, the people you meet in those internships WILL be able to tell you what it’s all about.

 

4. Along these lines, do make friends with professors in the classes that you enjoy (and even in the ones you don’t enjoy).  You never know who’ll be in a position to assist you (or who you’ll be in a position to assist) down the road.  This goes doubly if you plan on getting advanced degrees.  You’re going to need recommendation letters from your profs, and you want them to be awesome.  The only way a professor can write an impeccable recommendation letter is if he or she knows you very well.  

 

At this point in your life, I know you still view yourself as a kid.  You might look physically like an adult, but you still feel like your views and opinions might not be valued much.  I’ll let you in on a secret that no one ever told me, and it was probably the biggest surprise I had growing older.  I still feel like an 18 year old.  I have this sense of self that really has never “grown up”.  Sure, I’ve got adult responsibilities and whatnot, but the truth is I feel like a big faker.  

 

I’m willing to bet that I’m not alone in this.  I know I’ve talked to people my age who feel the same way, so I know it’s not just me.  I’m willing to bet that most people are like this, and their mental image of themselves isn’t as a 50 year old executive, but a dumb teenager.

 

All this is to say that the good professors probably view themselves in much the same way that you view yourself.  Relate to them as equals.  They’re very interested in what they teach, and if you are too, they’ll be excited that they’ve found a kindred spirit.  They won’t look at you like an inconvenience, they’ll be happy to answer your questions, and these folks may become some of your first “grown up” friends.

 

5. Travel.  A lot.  To lots of different places.  At this point in time, Americans aren’t too big on “gap years” like Europeans and Austrailians seem to be.  Hopefully that changes between now and when you’re old enough to take one or two.  If you were to tell your mom and me that you didn’t want to go to college right away, but you wanted to do some traveling, I’d be pretty pumped for you.  There is NO replacement for the types of interaction you’ll have when traveling; both with locals and with other travelers.  It teaches self-reliance, getting out of your comfort zone, how to manage money, and a bunch of other stuff, too.  College can wait if you want it to.  It’ll definitely be there when you get back from wherever you’ve been, and you’ll have a bunch more material for your application resume.

 

As an aside, your grandpa wanted me to take a year off from college, but not to travel.  He wanted me to work.  Don’t do that.  If you’re going to take a year off, get experience doing something that will actually pay off for you in the long run and develop useful skills and traits.  Flipping burgers or mowing lawns will not do this.

 

6. I’ve already dealt with this on multiple fronts, I think, but it bears repeating.  Don’t lock yourself into stuff, especially when you’re young.  Really take a lot of time to consider any big purchases or decisions from all angles.  It’s really cool to own a house of your own, for example.  However, once you do, it takes a lot of options off the table.  Renting may be a drag because you feel like you’re flushing money down the toilet, but you can move when you want to if opportunities arise to do something new.  Commitment is great, but make sure you really know what you’re committing to.  If you’re worried, ask multiple people you trust what they think about it, explain your logic, and see if you’ve forgotten to consider any aspects of the issue.

 

7. Popularity is a contest you don’t have to deal with any more.  Depending on what end of the spectrum you were on in school, that may be good news or bad to you.  If you were popular, that’s not going to get you many places once you leave high school.  Check your ego at the door.  If you weren’t popular, then you’re not going to have to deal with it any more and you can just relax and be yourself.  

 

I was on both ends of the spectrum in my time in school.  My first few years of junior high and high school, I got picked on a lot because I was smarter than everyone else, I was kind of goofy looking (more so than now) and pretty small.  Didn’t have a lot of friends at school, so I had all my friends at church.  Then, when I was 17, the beginning of my junior year, we moved to a totally different school district and I was the new kid.  The new school was tiny; there were more people in my graduating class at my old school than there was in the entire new school.  I made a conscious effort to reinvent myself, and was actually pretty popular.  Made it on the homecoming court my senior year and was elected student body president.  Thing is, when I went to college, I had to start all over.  You make a group of friends and you’re just… friends.  There really wasn’t a cool group and an uncool group, there were just groups.  It doesn’t matter at all.  I never had anyone make fun of me anymore, but no one was impressed with me for who I was (student council president or whatever), either.  Only later did it really sink in to me that popularity never REALLY mattered, but I don’t think there’s that many people who do realize it until much later on.

 

8. Find something you enjoy and make a hobby of it.  I would suggest that it’s something active or creative.  Bonus points for “actively creative” or “creatively active”.  You can play golf or tennis, or paint or write.  Just find something you like to do that you can do for the rest of your life.  You’ll be happiest with it if it’s something that you can do that helps other people.  Not in the grand scheme of HELPING PEOPLE or whatever, but it brings enjoyment to those around you.  If you can draw pictures that other people like, or write stories, or whatever, you’re doing something that benefits you as well as bringing happiness to others.  That’s something you can genuinely be proud of.

 

9. Finally, whatever you chose for a career shouldn’t seem like “work”.  I’m going to quote something I read on a website that I found while writing this.  I might have some overlap with the other things the author said in his essay, too, but it’s really because he said the right things.  Anyway, he’s talking about finding work you truly enjoy and the fact that it comes from asking questions that you truly want to have answered:

 “It can take years to zero in on a productive question, because it can take years to figure out what a subject is really about. To take an extreme example, consider math. Most people think they hate math, but the boring stuff you do in school under the name “mathematics” is not at all like what mathematicians do.The great mathematician G. H. Hardy said he didn’t like math in high school either. He only took it up because he was better at it than the other students. Only later did he realize math was interesting– only later did he start to ask questions instead of merely answering them correctly [emphasis mine].  When a friend of mine used to grumble because he had to write a paper for school, his mother would tell him: find a way to make it interesting. That’s what you need to do: find a question that makes the world interesting. People who do great things look at the same world everyone else does, but notice some odd detail that’s compellingly mysterious.” -Paul Graham, What You’ll Wish You’d Known

 I’ve probably said this to you before, but finding what you love to do doesn’t mean that everything involved with it is candy and ice cream.  There will be parts of any task that you don’t necessarily enjoy.  However, those parts shouldn’t outweigh what you do enjoy about it.  Have a virtual scale in your mind with all the crap on one side and all the stuff you enjoy on the other.  If the good outweighs the bad, then you keep that in mind when you’re doing the bad stuff.  It’ll motivate you to get through it so you can do something fun.  If the bad outweighs the good, then it’s time to find something else to do.  

 

This applies to everything in life.  If a book you’re reading isn’t any good, then put it down.  If you don’t enjoy a movie that everyone says you should (like Blade Runner for me, for instance), who cares?  Life is too short to waste it on doing things you should do, rather than things you want to do (with obvious exceptions like feeding your family or whatever).

 

Well, if you’ve gotten to the end of this, you’ve got more discipline than I had at your age.  Sorry it’s so long.  I’m sure there are other things I’d like to tell you about, but they’re not coming to mind at the moment.  I hope this has been helpful, and not just in a “I’m older than you and I know more” sense.  I hope that it’s stimulated you to think more about your pre-conceptions.  Always be asking questions.  If something doesn’t seem right to you, whatever it is, don’t be afraid to ask yourself “Why?”.  And, most importantly, don’t be afraid to make mistakes.  It happens to everyone, and you’re young enough that you’ve got a ton of time to correct any that occur.  I love you.

 

Love,

Dad