Impatience and Creativity

Last week I wrote about certain perceptions of time. This week I’ll continue on that theme.

In a session last week (our second) a young, 30ish client who is unhappy with his current career and is beginning the process of exploring alternatives expressed frustration with his inability to come up with “the answer.” This after less than 3 weeks of focused investigation, totaling perhaps twenty hours, balancing at the same time the demands of his job and his family. His impatience brought to mind a speech on the creative process (forwarded to me by another client) that was given to the plebes at West Point at the beginning of the academic year by the essayist William Deresiewicz (hardly a household name, but his comments are well worth reading and thinking about):

“A study by a team of researchers at Stanford came out a couple of months ago. The investigators wanted to figure out how today’s college students were able to multitask so much more effectively than adults. How do they manage to do it, the researchers asked? The answer, they discovered—and this is by no means what they expected—is that they don’t. The enhanced cognitive abilities the investigators expected to find, the mental faculties that enable people to multitask effectively, were simply not there. In other words, people do not multitask effectively. And here’s the really surprising finding: the more people multitask, the worse they are, not just at other mental abilities, but at multitasking itself.

“The Clock is Ticking”

One thing that made the study different from others is that the researchers didn’t test people’s cognitive functions while they were multitasking. They separated the subject group into high multitaskers and low multitaskers. They found that in every case the high multitaskers scored worse. They were worse at distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant information and ignoring the latter. In other words, they were more distractable. They were worse at what you might call “mental filing”: keeping information in the right conceptual boxes and being able to retrieve it quickly. In other words, their minds were more disorganized. And they were even worse at the very thing that defines multitasking itself: switching between tasks.

Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.

I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.”

To paraphrase Mr. Deresiewicz, slowing down can ironically be the fastest way to develop the best solution to a problem. My clients know that I often space sessions several weeks apart in order to provide the time and space for the reflection described above, and to move out of their conventional way of thinking about a problem by contemplating new input (whether from research, keener observation of their emotions, paying greater attention to the seemingly random events of life, or imagination). Impatience can only be detrimental to this process.