Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Last week, I was thinking this morning about milestones in history, perhaps because it was December 7, or Pearl Harbor Day in the United States.
Not all milestones are tragic, of course, but the important ones profoundly changed how we lived. On 4 September 1882, Thomas Edison threw the switch on the first electrical power distribution system. For the very first time, electricity was provided directly to people’s homes. On 18 October 1952, the transistor radio – the Regency TR-1 – hit the shelves. For the first time, recorded music was now portable.
For creativity, I think one of the milestones is an unnamed day in April 1973, when IBM announced the Correcting Selectric II. An improvement from the original IBM Selectric, this advanced typewriter had a key allowing the typist to back-space and then overstrike the previous character, thereby erasing it.
How could a single key be such a milestone?
Think about it. Two opposing forces, working simultaneously. You could interrupt your creativity with the negative act of censuring and editing. That can’t be good for the brain. It’s like a car trying to go forward and backwards at the same time.
The effect was more than just yin and yang. The act of editing was also an act of distraction. As distractions increase, our ability to focus on one thing would soon be gone forever.
This idea is incomprehensible to anyone who grew up without an easy keyboard. They never learnt how to create by hand. Before QWERTY, we composed our thoughts a nano-second before they came out of our head. Because you couldn’t easily change your mind, you gave a bit more consideration to how you expressed your ideas and transferred them from head to paper.
By April 1973, you could now adjust a word, a phrase, a clause. Edit out sentences. Remove a whole damning paragraph. The need to edit became as equally available – if not addictive? – as the need to create. Two steps forward, one step back. Or worse, one step forward, and two steps back.
I am constantly amazed at how many things there are in life which prohibit and damped one’s creativity. I can understand the outside influences – distractions and politics at work, society and peer pressures, traditional mores and negative attitudes. The one I don’t understand are the ones which we impose upon ourselves. Self-doubt is poison, and ironically we make it ourselves and its most dangerous to ourselves. Why we allow things – simple things, like a back-space key – to intrude on our ability to create is beyond me. If I ever got a tattoo, I’d put Lao Tzu quote from Chapter 33 of the Tao Te Ching on my fore-arm, to remind me every day that “Those who overcome themselves are strong.”
As an experiment, I tried to go back to those days. I did, for a week. I found a gorgeous old typewriter in Sydney at a garage sale for $10. Steely industrial blue with firm keys printed with white Arial letters.
It was heady at first. The convincing whirl of the cylinder as I rolled in a spotless white page. The click-clack of the hammers as they struck the paper with my ideas. The enormously satisfying swing to throw the carriage back to the beginning and start a new line.
The romance ended the moment I typed something I didn’t like. I stopped, I read the entire sentence. I was editing my thoughts before I’d even finished the sentence. I typed a new word, but didn’t like that one either. So I re-typed the sentence.
As I struggled to get to the end of the second paragraph, I realized this one would be preferable to the first. I whisked out the paper, made some jotting notes in red pen, and scrolled in a new paper. Hold on, I needed more coffee. I came back to my desk (after I stopped to add something to the grocery list), and realized I hadn’t called someone. Then I found myself typing and talking on the phone at the same time. I started taking notes from my conference call in the middle of my writing.
Later than day, the typewriter went back in its box, and I hugged by wireless keyboard.
I found this marvelous quote from author Will Self, in an interview with The Guardian in 2008. “Writing on a manual typewriter makes you slower in a good way, I think. You don't revise as much, you just think more, because you know you're going to have to retype the entire (expletive) thing. Which is a big stop on just slapping anything down and playing with it."
You don’t have to throw out your iPhone-droid and pull out the Smith-Corona because the concept of the back-space key isn’t going away. But I do think all of us need to learn how to control both the one on our keyboards and the one in our mind.
Perhaps to be more creative, all we really need to do is slow down and think. We need to allow our thoughts to come out, to be expressed. Do we really need to instantly judge our thoughts the moment they’re born? I can tell you this about egg farmers. They don’t grade the eggs the moment they’re hatched.
I’m also not a big fan of bashing modern technologies, because many of them have value. But rather than complain and damn these improvements, perhaps we simply need to put them into proper context. There is a time for efficiency and accomplishment. But there’s also a time for creativity and thoughtfulness.
Wouldn’t it be the most pleasurable holiday to simply turn off the mind? Ah, to let our mind wander and think. To focus on just one thing.
“Do one thing well and the world will beat a path to your door,” said Emerson.
Imagine. What could you do if you stopped using the back-space key?
Andy Eklund is a professional facilitator, specialising in creativity and brainstorms. In the past 15 years, he’s accumulated more than 35,000 hours conducting meetings, working in 19 countries on 4 continents. His company AQUS LLC works in the areas of strategic planning using LEGO Serious Play, creativity, and communications skills training. His blog can be found at www.andyeklund.com, and his website at www.aqus.info.