Time’s a Wastin’

wastin' time

You know that feeling you get when you have a major creative breakthrough? That brain-giddy sensation that washes over you and makes you feel alive, excited, eager, itchy, and wonderfully inspired? Yeah, well, that’s not what this post is about.

It’s about the not-so-great, hunker-down rigor it takes to get to one of those ah ha moments. As Picasso said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”

Or Edison: “Genius: one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Or Einstein: “Work is the only thing that gives substance to life.”

And I’m sure countless other old (dead) dudes had lots to say about the value of hard work.

We don’t really know where breakthroughs come from, but we know we have to work really hard to have one. As Jonah Lehrer puts it in his book Imagine, “Before there can be a breakthrough, there has to be a block.”
Here’s Flash Rosenberg’s lovely video illustration inspired by Imagine **:

IMAGINE: How Creativity Works from Flash Rosenberg on Vimeo.

What can we do (besides really hard work) that will encourage inspiration to strike?

When I was in high school, I went to a summer camp where they taught us how to be bleeding-heart, liberal free-thinkers. I took a class there with this gangly, nerdy, French-speaking brainiac with floppy dark hair and endearing glasses. I think his name was Andy. I know many of the students were absolutely smitten with him. The only things I recall from his class were that we would spend hours looking at one short passage, we read something by Marguerite Duras, he explained “The Sublime” in a way that made it totally incomprehensible yet intriguing (rather sublime, actually), and he used the phrase (borrowed or his, I don’t know) “a profound waste of time.”

This phrase has stuck in my mind for the last decade or so. It’s such a human thing to waste time. You don’t see inefficiency very much in nature. But that very human tendency–to slack off, to daydream, to wander, to doodle–often gets badgered out of us. The irony is, wasting time makes us far more productive–at least in the realm of creativity.

Julia Cameron hints at this in The Artist’s Way (which, incidentally, I’ve never finished***). She recommends going on an artist date–an adventure you take by yourself to let your inner artist child be free…or some such hippie phrase. And while the aesthetic may be rather dated and reeking of New Age spirituality (and a hint of patchouli), the practice is a recipe for eureka moments. The artist date is not going to the museum or taking a daylong workshop on watercolor techniques. It’s a waste of time. It’s going to a flea market, or getting on the swings at the park, or coloring in a coloring book. It’s a big, fat, profound waste of time.

The big eureka! tends to happen when you’re doing something totally unrelated to whatever problem you’ve been working on. As the video above mentions, Archimedes had his moment in the bath. Isaac Newton, under an apple tree.

You want to get to ah ha? Do something more ha ha.

Or even uh uh, uh oh, or oh no.

**I came by this video friend Sally Day (thanks, Sal!). Don’t you think Flash Rosenberg is the greatest name? I so hope it’s real. Also, disclaimer: I have not read this book (but I would like to).

***Life lesson: Finishing books is overrated.