Wednesday, February 13, 2013

3 Keys...

To Creative Problem Solving  

Whenever I'm trying to solve a problem, especially a creative one, I've found three things to be key: 

1. Keep the pressure on it. 

2. Take breaks from it. 

3. Find a balance between 1. and 2.

"Keep the pressure on it." 

By this I mean I keep the problem on my mind. I keep it on my plate. I sit down and think about it. I try to figure it out. I sort out my options. I try on hypetheticals. I sort out any emotions I may have about it. I let my brain know that I mean business and mean to solve this thing and I won't stop trying until I do.

"Take breaks from it." 

By this I mean I don't hammer away at a problem for hours that isn't yielding. I take breaks. I go for a walk. I set it aside for a day. I take up another task if possible. I watch TV or go to a movie. I clear my head. 

"Find a balance between 1. and 2." 

By this I mean I figure out when to take those breaks, but I find a way to keep the pressure on while I take those breaks. Waiting until the moment of absolute exasperation to take a break is sometimes the thing to do, but not generally. Usually, I just get this feeling that further pressure will not help right now. When I get that feeling, I know it's time for a break. But...while I take that break, I don't forget about the problem entirely. I don't "push it out of my mind". I keep it on the back burner and keep an awareness of its existence firmly in my consciousness. When I feel looser, relaxed and more open, I return to the problem and resume working on it directly.  

A typical sequence might look something like this: 

I'm working on the lyrics for a song. I started with just a line or a vague idea but now it's coming together. Verses are starting to emerge, the idea for the chorus is clear, my rhyme scheme is getting established. But with two thirds of the thing complete I hit a wall, or sometimes two. I need to say "X" but I need to do it with "Y" number of syllables and I need it to end with a word that rhymes with "Z". I might have only one of this type of problem in a given song or I might have several. Usually I focus on solving them one at a time, but sometimes skipping around can help.    

So, in keeping with the above mentioned keys, I will look at what I want to say and be sure I actually do want to say that. Is there some other angle that might work better? What is the core meaning I want to communicate? The number of syllables is fairly static, it's based on the rhythm of the song, but I ask myself, Can I vary this? Is there room for another approach that will free up more creative space? As for the rhyme, I think about all the possible words that will fit my rhyme scheme and see if any of them will say what I want to say. I might look in a rhyming dictionary, or I might examine and write down all the near or close rhymes I can think of. I might see if there's a way to end a line with a multi-syllable word, the first of which rhymes and the rest of which start the next line. It's like a word "sudoku" puzzle. I'm trying to make the pieces fit and still say what I want to say. I will keep this problem in my mind and apply pressure to it. I might be thinking about my options while I'm waiting for sleep to come. I might think about them while I'm walking to work. I might sit down for a brainstorming session where that's all I do.   

And then when I can't make any more progress and I get that "done" feeling, I set it aside. I keep it there at the edge of my thoughts but I focus on other things. And then often, after giving it a rest, I'll pull out those lyrics and bam! the first thing that pops into my mind is the solution I've been looking for.  

I think this is because my creative intuitive unconscious mind is sort of like a sub-person. It doesn't want to be micro-managed anymore than I do. It has its own ways and means and sometimes it needs to do its work in private. I give it goals (1. Putting the pressure on) but I leave it space to sort things out on its own (2. Taking breaks). But, and this is important, I don't leave it totally alone. Like any employee, its work need to be checked up on and monitored (Finding a balance between 1. and 2.). 

This is just a theory. The process is actually quite mysterious to me. I don't really know why the above method works for me, but it does. 

The unforced life, for me, means finding a balance between effort and receptivity, between the yang and the yin. When the right balance happens the answers just seem to come. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Don't Worry...

Take It As It Comes.

From looking at past calamities and how I dealt them, I've come to the conclusion that no matter how much planning and thinking and worrying I do, when the shit actually hits the fan, it usually boils down to one thing after another that needs to be done.

I used to freak myself out when I was younger, worrying about handling everything in my disaster scenarios at once, all the ramifications and complications that my fevered mind could imagine. But whenever anything bad actually happened, the reality was always the same: one thing after another that had to get done, one thing after another that I had to accept.

So now when I think, "Oh my God. What if (insert calamity "X" here) happens?, I just answer, "You don't have to figure it out now. There's no way to know how it will unfold. Once it's happening, you will see what needs to be done next and you will do it. And then you will do the next thing and the next thing and the next thing until it is dealt with or you die."

Planning is fine up to a point, it's certainly wise to look ahead and scope out the immediate future a bit, but I find worrying to be mostly a waste of time and energy.

Another thing I've learned is that human beings are incredibly adaptable creatures and that includes me. I have gotten used to all kinds of things that at first were pretty painful and unpleasant. Some of them I even learned to like. I've read accounts of people who endured incredible loss and hardship and still found great joy and meaning in their lives. 

Another of the fringe benefits of looking back at past calamities has been the realization that "who I am" is a much more fluid entity than I normally give it credit for being. I tend to think of my preferences and priorities as being more or less hard-wired but disasters have a way of instantly reorganizing them. I've had things that were incredibly important to me become suddenly utterly meaningless and trivial in a split second. Are you going to hold on to that ice cream cone when a car comes screeching around the corner straight at you? I've found it very edifying to learn first hand that some of the things I thought I "needed" were actually luxuries or wants and not needs at all. 

So when I imagine some horrible future circumstance, I remind myself that once I'm in that situation, it will not be how I am imagining it now. It will be different. It will be real. There will be one thing after another that needs to get done and I will surrender and adapt in ways that I can't possibly figure out or know about now. I worry a lot less than I used to and I allow myself to enjoy what's happening now a lot more. What comes will come. I will adapt or die trying. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

When To Help By Helping...

And When To Help By Not Helping. 

I learned something about helping people a long time ago. I think it's a guideline from the Transactional Analysis people: If the person I am helping is doing less than half of what they could be doing to help's very likely I'm being played. In other words if a guy is in a leaking boat and he's busy bailing out that boat and he asks me for help, I'm likely to help, and he's likely to be grateful for that help and put it to good use. But if he's sitting in that leaking boat, able-bodied but not doing anything but calling out for help, I'm likely to let him sink. For me, this is not an emotional decision, it's a practical one. I have a limited amount of time and energy and I've found that helping out the bailing guy is much more likely to result in good things than helping the not bailing guy. There are exceptions of course, but generally, this rule has worked well for me. After a while I could tell just by the way someone was asking for help whether or not they were helping themselves as much as they could and asking for some support, or they were just sucking energy because that's what they like to do. I like helping people who are already helping themselves but I think the others are better served by sinking on their own.