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Chapter 05: AWAKEN THE DIMENSIONAL MIND: THE CREATIVE-ACTIVE
As you accumulate more skills and internalize the rules that govern your field, your mind will want to become more active, seeking to use this knowledge in ways that are more suited to your inclinations. What will impede this natural creative dynamic from flourishing is not a lack of talent, but your attitude. Feeling anxious and insecure, you will tend to turn conservative with your knowledge, preferring to fit into the group and sticking to the procedures you have learned. Instead, you must force yourself in the opposite direction. As you emerge from your apprenticeship, you must become increasingly bold. Instead of feeling complacent about what you know, you must expand your knowledge to related fields, giving your mind fuel to make new associations between different ideas. You must experiment and look at problems from all possible angles. As your thinking grows more fluid your mind will become increasingly dimensional, seeing more and more aspects of reality. In the end, you will turn against the very rules you have internalized, shaping and reforming them to suit your spirit. Such originality will bring you to the heights of power.
THE SECOND TRANSFORMATION
From the moment he was born, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91) was surrounded by music. His father, Leopold, was a violinist and composer in the court of Salzburg, Austria, as well as a music instructor. All during the day, Wolfgang would hear Leopold and his students practicing in the house. In 1759, his seven-year-old sister Maria Anna began taking piano lessons from their father. She showed great promise and practiced at all hours. Wolfgang, enchanted by the simple melodies that she played, began to hum along to the music; he would sometimes sit at the family’s harpsichord and try to imitate what his sister had played. Leopold could soon detect something unusual in his son. For a three-year-old, the child had a remarkable memory for melody and an impeccable sense of rhythm, all without having had any instruction.
Although he had never attempted to teach someone so young, Leopold decided to begin teaching piano to Wolfgang when he turned four, and after only a few sessions he realized the boy had other interesting qualities. Wolfgang listened more deeply than other students, his mind and body completely absorbed in the music. With such intensity of focus, he learned more quickly than other children. Once when he was five years old, he stole a rather complicated exercise meant for Maria Anna, and within thirty minutes he could play it with ease. He had heard Maria Anna practice the piece, and remembering it vividly, the moment he saw the notes on the page he could rapidly reproduce the music.
This remarkable focus had its roots in something that Leopold saw almost from the beginning—the boy had an intense love of music itself. His eyes would light up with excitement the moment Leopold laid out a new challenging piece for him to conquer. If the piece was new and hard to figure out, he would attack it day and night with such tenacity that it would soon become part of his repertoire. At night, his parents would have to force him to stop practicing and send him to bed. This love of practice only seemed to increase with the years. When it came time to play with other children, he would find a way to transform a simple game into something that involved music. His favorite game, however, was to take some piece he had been playing and improvise on it, giving it a personal flair that was quite charming and inventive.
From his earliest years, Wolfgang was exceptionally emotional and sensitive. His moods would swing wildly—he would be petulant one moment, highly affectionate the next. He had a perpetually anxious look on his face that would only disappear when he sat down at the piano; then he was in his element, losing himself in the music.
One day in 1762, as Leopold Mozart heard his two children playing a piece for two pianos, an idea came to him. His daughter Maria Anna was a very talented piano player in her own right, and Wolfgang was a veritable marvel. Together, they were like precious toys. They had a natural charisma, and Wolfgang had a showman’s flair. As a mere court musician, Leopold’s income was rather limited, but he could see the potential for making a fortune through his children. And so, thinking this through, he decided to take his family on a grand tour of the capitals of Europe, playing before royal courts and the public and charging money for the entertainment. To add to the spectacle, he dressed the children up—Maria Anna as a princess, and Wolfgang as a court minister, complete with wig, elaborate waistcoat, and a sword dangling from his belt.
They began in Vienna, where the children charmed the Austrian emperor and empress. They then spent months in Paris, where they played for the royal court and Wolfgang bounced on the knee of the delighted King Louis XV. They continued to London where they ended up staying for over a year, playing before all kinds of large crowds. And while the sight of the two children in their costumes charmed audiences enough, Wolfgang’s playing astounded them. He had developed numerous parlor tricks, stage-managed by his father. He would play a minuet on a keyboard that was hidden from his view by a cloth, using only one finger. He would deftly sight-read the latest composition by a famous composer. He would play his own compositions—it was impressive to hear a sonata composed by a seven-year-old, no matter how simple it was. Most marvelous of all, Wolfgang could play at an incredible speed, his tiny fingers flying over the keyboard.
As the tour continued, an amusing pattern began to develop. The family would be invited to do some sightseeing, tour the countryside, or attend a soirée, while Wolfgang would find some excuse to stay behind—a feigned illness or complaints of exhaustion—and would devote his time instead to music. His favorite ploy in this vein was to attach himself to the most illustrious composers in the particular court they were visiting. In London, for instance, he managed to charm the great composer Johann Christian Bach, son of Johann Sebastian Bach. When the family was invited out on a jaunt, he declined to join them with the perfect excuse—he had already engaged Bach to give him lessons in composition.
The education he received in this fashion, from all of the composers he met, went far beyond anything any child could hope to receive. Although some argued that it was a waste of childhood for someone so young to be so single-minded, Wolfgang felt such an ardent love for music and the constant challenges it presented that in the end he derived much greater pleasure from his obsession than any amusement or game could provide.
The tour was a great financial success, but it nearly ended in tragedy. In Holland in 1766, as the family was beginning its return journey, Wolfgang fell ill with a powerful fever. Losing weight rapidly, he drifted in and out of consciousness, and at one point appeared near death. But miraculously, the fever passed, and over the course of several months he slowly recovered. The experience, however, altered him. From that moment on, he had a constant feeling of melancholy and a foreboding that he would die young.
The Mozart family had come now to depend on the money that the children had generated through the tour, but as the years went by the invitations began to dry up. The novelty had worn off, and the children no longer seemed so young and precious. Desperate to generate money, Leopold came up with a different scheme. His son was turning into a serious composer, with the ability to compose in different genres. What was needed was to secure for him a stable position as a court composer, and attract commissions for concertos and symphonies. With this goal in mind, in 1770 father and son embarked on series of tours of Italy, then the center of all things musical in Europe.
The trip went well. Wolfgang performed his magic on the piano before all of the major courts in Italy. He gained acclaim for his symphonies and concert pieces—they were quite impressive for a teenager. He mingled yet again with the most celebrated composers of his time, intensifying the musical knowledge he had gained on his previous tours. In addition, he rediscovered his greatest passion in music—the opera. As a child he had always had the feeling that he was destined to compose great operas. In Italy he saw the finest productions and realized the source of his fascination—it was the drama translated into pure music, the nearly limitless potential of the human voice to express the full range of emotion, and the overall spectacle. He had an almost primal attraction to any kind of theater. But despite all of the attention and inspiration he received, after nearly three years of visiting the various courts in Italy, he was not offered a position or a commission that was worthy of his talents. And so, in 1773, father and son returned to Salzburg.
After some delicate negotiation with the archbishop of Salzburg, Leopold finally managed to secure for his son a relatively lucrative position as court musician and composer. And by all appearances the arrangement was good: not having to worry about money, Wolfgang would have endless time to work on composing. But almost from the beginning Wolfgang felt uncomfortable and restless. He had spent almost half of his youth traveling throughout Europe, mingling with the leading minds in music, and listening to the most renowned orchestras, and now he was relegated to life in provincial Salzburg, isolated from the European centers of music, in a city that had no theater or opera tradition.
More troubling, however, was the mounting frustration he felt as a composer. For as long as he could remember, his head was continuously filled with music, but it was always the music of other people. He knew that his own pieces were simply clever imitations and adaptations of other composers. He had been like a young plant, passively absorbing nutrients from the environment in the form of the different styles he had learned and mastered. But he could feel stirring from deep within something more active, the desire to express his own music and to stop imitating. The soil was now rich enough. As an adolescent, he was assailed by all kinds of conflicting and powerful emotions—elation, depression, erotic desires. His great desire was to transpose these feelings into his work.
Almost without being aware of it, he began to experiment. He wrote a series of slow movements for various string quartets that were long and drawn out with strange mixes of moods, full of anxiety that would rise to great crescendos. When he showed these pieces to his father, Leopold was horrified. Their income depended on Wolfgang supplying the court with the kind of pleasant melodies that would delight people and make them smile. If they or the archbishop heard these new compositions, they would think Wolfgang had gone insane. Besides, the pieces were too complicated for the court musicians of Salzburg to perform. He begged his son to stop indulging in such strange music, or at least to wait until he had a position somewhere else.
Wolfgang acquiesced, but as time went on he grew increasingly depressed. The music he was being forced to write seemed so hopelessly dead and conventional; it had no relation to what was going on inside him. He composed fewer pieces and performed less often. For the first time in his life he was losing his love for music itself. Feeling imprisoned, he grew irritable. When he heard an operatic aria sung in public he was reminded of the kind of music he could be composing, and he would go into a funk. He began to quarrel incessantly with his father, passing from anger to begging for forgiveness for his disobedience. Slowly he resigned himself to his fate: he would die in Salzburg at an early age, without the world ever hearing the kind of music he knew existed within him.
In 1781 Wolfgang was invited to accompany the archbishop of Salzburg to Vienna, where he was planning to showcase the musical talents of his various court musicians. Suddenly, in Vienna, the nature of his status as a court musician became clear. The archbishop ordered him about as if he were simply one of his personal staff, a mere servant. Now all the resentment Wolfgang had felt for the past seven years bubbled and rose to the surface. He was twenty-five years old and losing valuable time. His father and the archbishop were actively holding him back. He loved his father and depended on his family for emotional support, but he could tolerate his circumstances no longer. When it was time to return to Salzburg, he did the unthinkable—he refused to leave. He asked to be dismissed from his position. The archbishop treated him with the utmost contempt, but finally relented. His father sided with the archbishop and ordered his son to return, promising that all would be forgiven. But Wolfgang had made up his mind: he would stay in Vienna, for what would turn out to be the rest of his life.
The rift with his father was permanent and extremely painful, but sensing that his time was short and that he had almost too much to express, he threw himself into his music with an intensity that was even greater than what he had displayed in childhood. As if all of his ideas had been pent up for too long, he exploded in a creative outburst unprecedented in the history of music.
The apprenticeship of the past twenty years had prepared him well for this moment. He had developed a prodigious memory—in his mind he could hold together all of the harmonies and melodies that he had absorbed over the years. Instead of notes or chords, he could think in terms of blocks of music and write them out as quickly as he heard them in his head. His speed of composing would now astonish those who witnessed it. For instance, the night before the premiere in Prague of the opera Don Giovanni, Mozart had gone out drinking. When his friends reminded him that he had not yet written the overture, he hurried home, and while his wife kept him awake by singing to him, he wrote one of his most popular and brilliantly conceived overtures in a matter of hours.
More important, the years he had spent learning how to compose in every conceivable genre now allowed him to use these genres to express something new, to stretch their boundaries and even permanently transform them through his creative powers. Feeling turmoil within himself, he searched for a way to make music something powerful and expressive, and not merely decorative.
In his time, the piano concerto and symphony had become rather light and frivolous genres, with short, simple movements, small orchestras, and an overabundance of melody. Mozart completely reworked these forms from within. He wrote for larger orchestras, expanding in particular the violin sections. Such orchestras could produce a more powerful sound than had previously been known. He expanded the length of his symphonic movements well beyond convention. In his opening movement, he would establish a mood of tension and dissonance that he would proceed to build up in the slow second movement, and which he would resolve in a grand and dramatic resolution at the finale. He gave his compositions the power to express dread, sadness, foreboding, anger, exhilaration, and ecstasy. Audiences were spellbound by this new sweeping sound that suddenly had so many new dimensions. After these innovations, it became almost impossible for composers to return to the light, frothy court music that had previously prevailed. European music had forever been altered.
These innovations did not spring from any conscious desire on his part to provoke or rebel. Rather, his transforming spirit emerged as if it were completely natural and beyond his control, like a bee secreting wax. Aided by his superior sense of music, he simply could not help but personalize every genre he worked in.
In 1786 he came upon a version of the Don Juan legend that excited him. He immediately identified with the story of the great seducer. He shared Don Juan’s obsessive need and love for women, and he had the same disdain for authority figures. But more important, Mozart felt that as a composer he had the supreme ability to seduce audiences and that music itself represented the ultimate seduction, with its irresistible power to strike at our emotions. Translating this story into an opera, he could convey all of these ideas. And so the following year he began early work on his opera Don Giovanni (Italian for Don Juan). To make this story come alive in the way he had imagined it, he would once again apply his transformative powers—this time to the genre of opera.
At the time, operas tended to be rather static and formulaic. They consisted of recitatives (spoken dialogue accompanied by harpsichord that conveyed the story and action), arias (sung portions in which the singer would react to the information in the recitative), and choral pieces, featuring large groups of people singing together. For his opera, Mozart created something that flowed as a continuous whole. He conveyed the character of Don Giovanni not just through the words but through the music, accompanying the seducer’s presence on stage with a constant twitching tremolo in the violins to represent his nervous, sensual energy. He gave the work an accelerated, almost frantic pace that no one had ever witnessed before in the theater. To push the expressive value of the music further, he invented ensembles—stirring, climactic moments in which several characters would sing, sometimes over one another, in an elaborate counterpoint, giving the opera a dreamlike feel and flow.
From beginning to end, Don Giovanni resonated with the demonic presence of the great seducer. Although all of the other characters condemn him, it is impossible not to admire Don Giovanni even as he remains unrepentant to the end, laughing all the way to hell and refusing to submit to authority. Don Giovanni was not like any opera anyone had ever seen before, either in the story or in the music, and it was perhaps too far ahead of its time. Many complained that it was all rather ugly and harsh to the ears; they found the pace too frenetic and the moral ambiguity too disturbing.
Continuing to work at a deliriously creative pace, Mozart exhausted himself and died in 1791, two months after the premier of his last opera, The Magic Flute, at the age of thirty-five. Several years after his death audiences caught up with the radical sound he had created in works such as Don Giovanni, which soon became among the five most frequently performed operas in history.
KEYS TO MASTERY
…Several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason… .
If we think deeply about our childhood, not just about our memories of it but how it actually felt, we realize how differently we experienced the world back then. Our minds were completely open, and we entertained all kinds of surprising, original ideas. Things that we now take for granted, things as simple as the night sky or our reflection in a mirror, often caused us to wonder. Our heads teemed with questions about the world around us. Not yet having commanded language, we thought in ways that were preverbal—in images and sensations. When we attended the circus, a sporting event, or a movie, our eyes and ears took in the spectacle with utmost intensity. Colors seemed more vibrant and alive. We had a powerful desire to turn everything around us into a game, to play with circumstances.
Let us call this quality the Original Mind. This mind looked at the world more directly—not through words and received ideas. It was flexible and receptive to new information. Retaining a memory of this Original Mind, we cannot help but feel nostalgia for the intensity with which we used to experience the world. As the years pass, this intensity inevitably diminishes. We come to see the world through a screen of words and opinions; our prior experiences, layered over the present, color what we see. We no longer look at things as they are, noticing their details, or wonder why they exist. Our minds gradually tighten up. We become defensive about the world we now take for granted, and we become upset if our beliefs or assumptions are attacked.
We can call this way of thinking the Conventional Mind. Under pressure to make a living and conform to society, we force our minds into tighter and tighter grooves. We may seek to retain the spirit of childhood here and there, playing games or participating in forms of entertainment that release us from the Conventional Mind. Sometimes when we visit a different country where we cannot rely upon everything being familiar, we become childlike again, struck by the oddness and newness of what we are seeing. But because our minds are not completely engaged in these activities, because they last only a short while, they are not rewarding in a deep sense. They are not creative.
Masters and those who display a high level of creative energy are simply people who manage to retain a sizeable portion of their childhood spirit despite the pressures and demands of adulthood. This spirit manifests itself in their work and in their ways of thinking. Children are naturally creative. They actively transform everything around them, play with ideas and circumstances, and surprise us with the novel things they say or do. But the natural creativity of children is limited; it never leads to discoveries, inventions, or substantial works of art.
Masters not only retain the spirit of the Original Mind, but they add to it their years of apprenticeship and an ability to focus deeply on problems or ideas. This leads to high-level creativity. Although they have profound knowledge of a subject, their minds remain open to alternative ways of seeing and approaching problems. They are able to ask the kinds of simple questions that most people pass over, but they have the rigor and discipline to follow their investigations all the way to the end. They retain a childlike excitement about their field and a playful approach, all of which makes the hours of hard work alive and pleasurable. Like children, they are capable of thinking beyond words—visually, spatially, intuitively—and have greater access to preverbal and unconscious forms of mental activity, all of which can account for their surprising ideas and creations.
Some people maintain their childlike spirit and spontaneity, but their creative energy is dissipated in a thousand directions, and they never have the patience and discipline to endure an extended apprenticeship. Others have the discipline to accumulate vast amounts of knowledge and become experts in their field, but they have no flexibility of spirit, so their ideas never stray beyond the conventional and they never become truly creative. Masters manage to blend the two—discipline and a childlike spirit—together into what we shall call the Dimensional Mind. Such a mind is not constricted by limited experience or habits. It can branch out into all directions and make deep contact with reality. It can explore more dimensions of the world. The Conventional Mind is passive—it consumes information and regurgitates it in familiar forms. The Dimensional Mind is active, transforming everything it digests into something new and original, creating instead of consuming.
It is hard to say exactly why Masters are able to retain their childlike spirit while accumulating facts and knowledge, when such a feat has been difficult if not impossible for so many. Perhaps they found it harder to let go of childhood, or perhaps at some point they intuited the powers they could have by keeping their childhood spirit alive and bringing it to bear in their work. In any event, achieving the Dimensional Mind is never easy. Often, the childlike spirit of Masters lies dormant in the Apprenticeship Phase as they patiently absorb all of the details of their field. This spirit then comes back to them as they attain the freedom and opportunity to actively use the knowledge they have gained. Often it is a struggle, and Masters go through a crisis as they deal with the demands of others to conform and be more conventional. Under such pressure, they may try to repress their creative spirit, but often it comes back later with double intensity.
Understand: we all possess an inborn creative force that wants to become active. This is the gift of our Original Mind, which reveals such potential. The human mind is naturally creative, constantly looking to make associations and connections between things and ideas. It wants to explore, to discover new aspects of the world, and to invent. To express this creative force is our greatest desire, and the stifling of it the source of our misery. What kills the creative force is not age or a lack of talent, but our own spirit, our own attitude. We become too comfortable with the knowledge we have gained in our apprenticeships. We grow afraid of entertaining new ideas and the effort that this requires. To think more flexibly entails a risk—we could fail and be ridiculed. We prefer to live with familiar ideas and habits of thinking, but we pay a steep price for this: our minds go dead from the lack of challenge and novelty; we reach a limit in our field and lose control over our fate because we become replaceable.
What this means, however, is that we equally possess the potential to spark this innate creative force back to life, no matter how old we are. Experiencing a return of this creative force has an immensely therapeutic effect on our spirits and on our career. By understanding how the Dimensional Mind operates and what helps it flourish, we can consciously revive our mental elasticity and reverse the deadening process. The powers that the Dimensional Mind can bring are nearly limitless, and within the reach of almost all of us.
Look at the case of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He is generally considered the epitome of the child prodigy and the inexplicable genius, a freak of nature. How else are we to explain his uncanny abilities at such a young age, and the ten-year burst of creative activity at the end of his life that culminated in so many innovations and universally loved works? In truth, his genius and creativity is eminently explicable, which does not at all diminish his achievements.
Immersed in and enchanted by music from the very beginning of his life, he brought to his earliest studies a high level of focus and intensity. The mind of a four-year-old is even more open and impressionable than that of a child a few years older. Much of this powerful attention stemmed from his deep love of music. And so practicing the piano was not some kind of chore or duty, but an opportunity to expand his knowledge and to explore more musical possibilities. By the age of six, he had accumulated the hours of practice of someone twice his age. The years of touring exposed him to every possible trend and innovation of his time. His mind became filled with an extensive vocabulary of forms and styles.
In his adolescence Mozart experienced a typical creative crisis, one that often destroys or derails those who are less tenacious. For close to eight years, under pressure from his father, the archbishop, and the court of Salzburg, and bearing the burden of supporting his family, he had to temper his own powerful creative urges. At this critical point he could have succumbed to this dampening of his spirit and continued to write relatively tame pieces for the court. He would have then ended up among the lesser-known composers of the eighteenth century. Instead he rebelled and reconnected with his childlike spirit—that original desire of his to transform the music into his own voice, to realize his dramatic urges in opera. With all of his pent-up energy, his long apprenticeship, the deep level of his knowledge, he naturally exploded with creativity once he had freed himself from his family. The speed with which he could compose such masterpieces is not a reflection of some divine gift, but rather of how powerfully his mind had come to think in musical terms, which he could translate easily onto paper. He was not a freak, but a signpost of the outer reaches of the creative potential we all naturally possess.
The Dimensional Mind has two essential requirements: one, a high level of knowledge about a field or subject; and two, the openness and flexibility to use this knowledge in new and original ways. The knowledge that prepares the ground for creative activity largely comes from a rigorous apprenticeship in which we have mastered all of the basics. Once the mind is freed from having to learn these basics, it can focus on higher, more creative matters. The problem for us all is that the knowledge we gain in the Apprenticeship Phase—including numerous rules and procedures—can slowly become a prison. It locks us into certain methods and forms of thinking that are one-dimensional. Instead, the mind must be forced from its conservative positions and made active and exploratory.
To awaken the Dimensional Mind and move through the creative process requires three essential steps: first, choosing the proper Creative Task, the kind of activity that will maximize our skills and knowledge; second, loosening and opening up the mind through certain Creative Strategies; and third, creating the optimal mental conditions for a Breakthrough or Insight. Finally, throughout the process we must also be aware of the Emotional Pitfalls—complacency, boredom, grandiosity, and the like—that continually threaten to derail or block our progress. If we can move through the steps while avoiding these traps, we cannot fail to unleash powerful creative forces from within.
Step One: The Creative Task
You must begin by altering your very concept of creativity and by trying to see it from a new angle. Most often, people associate creativity with something intellectual, a particular way of thinking. The truth is that creative activity is one that involves the entire self—our emotions, our levels of energy, our characters, and our minds. To make a discovery, to invent something that connects with the public, to fashion a work of art that is meaningful, inevitably requires time and effort. This often entails years of experimentation, various setbacks and failures, and the need to maintain a high level of focus. You must have patience and faith that what you are doing will yield something important. You could have the most brilliant mind, teeming with knowledge and ideas, but if you choose the wrong subject or problem to attack, you can run out of energy and interest. In such a case all of your intellectual brilliance will lead to nothing.
The task that you choose to work on must have an obsessive element. Like the Life’s Task, it must connect to something deep within you. (For Mozart, it wasn’t simply music, but opera that fully engaged him.) You must be like Captain Ahab in Melville’s Moby-Dick, obsessed with hunting down the Great White Whale. With such a deep-rooted interest, you can withstand the setbacks and failures, the days of drudgery, and the hard work that are always a part of any creative action. You can ignore the doubters and critics. You will then feel personally committed to solving the problem and will not rest until you do so.
Understand: it is the choice of where to direct his or her creative energy that makes the Master. When Thomas Edison saw his first demonstration of the electric arc light, he knew then and there that he had found the ultimate challenge and the perfect goal toward which to direct his creative energies. Figuring out how to make electric light not just a gimmick, but something that would eventually replace the gaslight, would require years of intense labor, but it would change the world like nothing else. It was the perfect riddle for him to solve. He had met his creative match. For the artist Rembrandt, it was not until he found particular subject matters that appealed to him—dramatic scenes from the Bible and elsewhere that conveyed the darker and more tragic aspects of life—that he rose to the occasion and invented a whole new way of painting and capturing light. The writer Marcel Proust suffered for years as he struggled to find the subject matter upon which to base a novel. Finally, when he realized that his own life and his own failed attempts to write the great novel was actually the subject he was looking for, it all poured out of him and into one of the greatest novels ever written, In Search of Lost Time.
This is The Primary Law of the Creative Dynamic that you must engrave deeply in your mind and never forget: your emotional commitment to what you are doing will be translated directly into your work. If you go at your work with half a heart, it will show in the lackluster results and in the laggard way in which you reach the end. If you are doing something primarily for money and without a real emotional commitment, it will translate into something that lacks a soul and that has no connection to you. You may not see this, but you can be sure that the public will feel it and that they will receive your work in the same lackluster spirit it was created in. If you are excited and obsessive in the hunt, it will show in the details. If your work comes from a place deep within, its authenticity will be communicated. This applies equally to science and business as to the arts. Your creative task may not rise to the same obsessive level as it did for Edison, but it must have a degree of this obsessiveness or your efforts will be doomed. You must never simply embark on any creative endeavor in your field, placing faith in your own brilliance to see it through. You must make the right, the perfect choice for your energies and your inclinations.
To aid in this process, it is often wise to choose something that appeals to your sense of unconventionality and calls up latent feelings of rebelliousness. Perhaps what you want to invent or discover is being ignored or ridiculed by others. The work that you envision will stir up controversy and ruffle some feathers. In opting for something that has deep personal appeal to you, you will naturally move in an unorthodox direction. Try to ally this with a desire to subvert conventional paradigms and go against the grain. The sense of having enemies or doubters can serve as a powerful motivating device and fill you with an added creative energy and focus.
There are two things to keep in mind: First, the task that you choose must be realistic. The knowledge and skills you have gained must be eminently suited to pulling it off. To reach your goal you may have to learn a few new things, but you must have mastered the basics and possess a solid enough grasp of the field so that your mind can focus on higher matters. On the other hand, it is always best to choose a task that is slightly above you, one that might be considered ambitious on your part. This is a corollary of the Law of the Creative Dynamic—the higher the goal, the more energy you will call up from deep within. You will rise to the challenge because you have to, and will discover creative powers in yourself that you never suspected.
Second, you must let go of your need for comfort and security. Creative endeavors are by their nature uncertain. You may know your task, but you are never exactly sure where your efforts will lead. If you need everything in your life to be simple and safe, this open-ended nature of the task will fill you with anxiety. If you are worried about what others might think and about how your position in the group might be jeopardized, then you will never really create anything. You will unconsciously tether your mind to certain conventions, and your ideas will grow stale and flat. If you are worried about failure or going through a period of mental and financial instability, then you will violate the Primary Law of the Creative Dynamic, and your worries will be reflected in the results. Think of yourself as an explorer. You cannot find anything new if you are unwilling to leave the shore.
Step Two: Creative Strategies
Think of the mind as a muscle that naturally tightens up over time unless it is consciously worked upon. What causes this tightening is twofold. First, we generally prefer to entertain the same thoughts and ways of thinking because they provide us with a sense of consistency and familiarity. Sticking with the same methods also saves us a lot of effort. We are creatures of habit. Second, whenever we work hard at a problem or idea, our minds naturally narrow their focus because of the strain and effort involved. This means that the further we progress on our creative task, the fewer alternative possibilities or viewpoints we tend to consider.
This tightening process afflicts all of us, and it is best to admit that you share in this flaw. The only antidote is to enact strategies to loosen up the mind and let in alternative ways of thinking. This is not only essential for the creative process, but is also immensely therapeutic for our psyches. The following five strategies for developing such flexibility have been distilled from the lessons and stories of the most creative Masters, past and present. It would be wise to adapt all of them at some point, stretching and loosening the mind in all directions.
A. CULTIVATE NEGATIVE CAPABILITY
In 1817 the twenty-two-year-old poet John Keats wrote a letter to his brothers in which he explained his most recent thoughts on the creative process. The world around us, he wrote, is far more complex than we can possibly imagine. With our limited senses and consciousness, we only glimpse a small portion of reality. Furthermore, everything in the universe is in a state of constant flux. Simple words and thoughts cannot capture this flux or complexity. The only solution for an enlightened person is to let the mind absorb itself in what it experiences, without having to form a judgment on what it all means. The mind must be able to feel doubt and uncertainty for as long as possible. As it remains in this state and probes deeply into the mysteries of the universe, ideas will come that are more dimensional and real than if we had jumped to conclusions and formed judgments early on.
To accomplish this, he wrote, we must be capable of negating our ego. We are by nature fearful and insecure creatures. We do not like what is unfamiliar or unknown. To compensate for this, we assert ourselves with opinions and ideas that make us seem strong and certain. Many of these opinions do not come from our own deep reflection, but are instead based on what other people think. Furthermore, once we hold these ideas, to admit they are wrong is to wound our ego and vanity. Truly creative people in all fields can temporarily suspend their ego and simply experience what they are seeing, without the need to assert a judgment, for as long as possible. They are more than ready to find their most cherished opinions contradicted by reality. This ability to endure and even embrace mysteries and uncertainties is what Keats called negative capability.
All Masters possess this Negative Capability, and it is the source of their creative power. This quality allows them to entertain a broader range of ideas and experiment with them, which in turn makes their work richer and more inventive. Throughout his career, Mozart never asserted any particular opinions about music. Instead, he absorbed the styles he heard around himself and incorporated them into his own voice. Late in his career, he encountered for the first time the music of Johann Sebastian Bach—a kind of music very different from his own, and in some ways more complex. Most artists would grow defensive and dismissive of something that challenged their own principles. Instead, Mozart opened his mind up to new possibilities, studying Bach’s use of counterpoint for nearly a year and absorbing it into his own vocabulary. This gave his music a new and surprising quality.
At a young age, Albert Einstein found himself fascinated by the apparent paradox of two people observing the same beam of light—one pursuing it at the speed of light, the other at rest, on Earth—and how it would appear the same to both of them. Instead of using available theories to gloss this over or explain it away, for ten long years he contemplated this paradox, in a state of Negative Capability. Operating in this way, he was able to consider almost every possible solution, until finally he hit upon the one that led to his theory of relativity. (For more on this, see chapter 6, here.) This might seem like some kind of poetic conceit, but in fact cultivating Negative Capability will be the single most important factor in your success as a creative thinker. In the sciences, you will tend to entertain ideas that fit your own preconceptions and that you want to believe in. This unconsciously colors your choices of how to verify these ideas, and is known as confirmation bias. With this type of bias, you will find the experiments and data that confirm what you have already come to believe in. The uncertainty of not knowing the answers beforehand is too much for most scientists. In the arts and letters, your thoughts will congeal around political dogma or predigested ways of looking at the world, and what you will often end up expressing is an opinion rather than a truthful observation about reality. To Keats, William Shakespeare was the ideal because he did not judge his characters, but instead opened himself up to their worlds and expressed the reality of even those who were considered evil. The need for certainty is the greatest disease the mind faces.
To put Negative Capability into practice, you must develop the habit of suspending the need to judge everything that crosses your path. You consider and even momentarily entertain viewpoints opposite to your own, seeing how they feel. You observe a person or event for a length of time, deliberately holding yourself back from forming an opinion. You seek out what is unfamiliar—for instance, reading books from unfamiliar writers in unrelated fields or from different schools of thought. You do anything to break up your normal train of thinking and your sense that you already know the truth.
To negate the ego you must adopt a kind of humility toward knowledge. The great scientist Michael Faraday expressed this attitude in the following way: Scientific knowledge is constantly progressing. The greatest theories of the time are eventually disproven or altered at some future point. The human mind is simply too weak to have a clear and perfect vision of reality. The idea or theory that you are currently formulating, that seems so fresh and alive and truthful, will almost certainly be shot down or ridiculed in a few decades or centuries. (We tend to laugh at people prior to the twentieth century who did not yet believe in evolution and who saw the world as only 6,000 years old, but imagine how people will be laughing at us for the naïve beliefs we hold in the twenty-first century!) And so it is best to keep this in mind and not grow too fond of your ideas or too certain of their truth.
Negative Capability should not be a permanent state of mind. In order to produce work of any sort we must create limits on what we’ll consider; we must organize our thoughts into relatively cohesive patterns, and eventually, come up with conclusions. In the end, we must make certain judgments. Negative Capability is a tool we use in the process to open the mind up temporarily to more possibilities. Once this way of thinking leads to a creative avenue of thought, we can give our ideas a clearer shape and gently let it go, returning to this attitude whenever we feel stale or blocked.
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