Control | Bad Habits, part 1

Note: this page is part of the Cliffjump! Manifesto. If you’ve arrived from an external link, and haven’t read the previous parts of the book, you might want to start at the beginning


photo credit: Lori Photography

Full disclosure: I’m a bit of a control freak by nature. I have a strong tendency to try to do everything myself, thus controlling all variables and reducing my level of dependence on others. I’m a fairly quick study, and can learn the basic skills needed to dive into almost any problem relatively quickly, but obviously there are limits.

Nothing can substitute for real, deep and specialized skill, and even people far more talented than I am have not been able to achieve that kind of skill at more than a few things in one lifetime. In some ways, despite the fact that learning new skills is fun, interesting, and generally not as hard as many people imagine it to be once we dive in and start solving problems, there is also something to be said for focusing on your core aptitudes and collaborating with other specialists on things outside that area of expertise.

Control is the opposite of being open to the unexpected, the surprises which are such a big component of creativity as I have come to know it. And I’ve found that my creative work is more successful, more fun, and more fulfilling when I let go, at least a little, of my need to control everything.

Risky Business

Creativity is inherently, and by definition, at least a little out of control. If everything is perfectly predictable and goes 100% according to plan, it’s hard to call the process creative, since nothing really new or surprising can come from it. It’s probably also not going to end up being very interesting or exciting, because you’re not really taking any risks or discovering anything.

Risk is where the magic is; perfect control means that you’ve closed your door to the unexpected. And as Heraclitus wisely told us, “Expect the unexpected, or you won’t find it” 1

This is a bit of a dichotomy, since of course a certain amount of control is also essential. In the arts, you need a significant degree of control over the tools or the instrument or the language you’re using; in any case, these skills can bring depth and subtlety that is impossible to acheive without them. In science or business, control would probably equate to thorough understanding of the core concepts and relevant methods.

And of course control does not necessarily mean you are not taking any risks at all; in fact, in some ways you can break the rules a lot more creatively, or in more interesting ways, when you know them inside out. Also, unconsciously breaking all the rules all at once tends not to be as fruitful as consciously breaking one or two while following the rest…

Master and Commander

Control is technique, skill, command of the medium; it comes from training and experience, and without it your work will only go so deep. Technique is essential inasmuch as it makes it possible to work at a high level. When you have a solid grounding of technique, you can assimilate the happy accidents into a deeper network of knowledge that lets you recognize, replicate, and develop them more quickly, more thoroughly and more powerfully.

However, technique for its own sake can be a trap. It can become an addiction, where you are so busy learning and honing and perfecting technique that you never get around to doing anything creative or beautiful. And if you become lost in that maze, a slave to the myth of perfect technique and total control, it can sap the joy and the surprise and the life from your creative work. We don’t want that.

As a pianist, I made a decision at a certain point that developing a strong personal style based around my particular strengths and weaknesses was more interesting, a deeper well as it were, and a faster track to doing good work than spending 20 years trying to eliminate the weaknesses entirely, as if that were even possible.

I still work on my weaknesses, yes, but not with the illusion of perfect technique in mind. I try to balance practicing things I’m not so good at, which is essential, with reinforcing the things that come more easily, which keeps me connected to the pleasure of creating.

The essential thing is to let this happen organically – allow the work define the practice, not the other way around. If my creative curiosity leads me to something I need to build up some skill to pull off, it’s time to work on that skill – not to perfect it for the sake of perfection, but to do the thing that I can’t get out of my head, that I need that skill in order to do. And so that I can uncover the next unexpected connection that drives the next creative fascination.

Making it up as we go along

Technique and control of our process should be at the service of the unexpected, not in opposition to it; and we should not waste our time, energy and talent pursuing the illusion of perfection or of being able to control every variable. We need to find a way of working that makes the most of the limits of creative control, while simultaneously expanding them.

I have found that the best way to do that is to focus on the work itself, rather than the technique. Instead of viewing my creative work as an opportunity to show off skills, I view it as an opportunity to explore something, some new problem or possibility, find the pattern and the beauty in it, and develop the skills needed as I go along.

It’s a dynamic process. It’s at the heart of my approach to creativity. And it depends on recognizing both the value and the limits of control.

What’s your take? Does this make sense to you? Have you had creative experiences that confirm or contradict these musings? Please leave a comment in the Discussion section below, and start or join the conversation!

continue with Limitations

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