experience: let things leave a mark
part two: creativity functions, chapter 4
“It is often said that before you die your life passes before your eyes. It is, in fact, true. It’s called living.” — Terry Pratchett
It’s almost dawn at the pastoral province of Saint-Rémy in southern France. Only the moon and the stars are lighting the dark night sky. In a small, dark room, a young man is staring out the window, hypnotized by the night’s scenery. The narrow bed on one side of the room is neatly made. One sheet of paper filled with hand-written sentences perfectly aligned on imaginary rows is placed on the small wooden desk opposite the bed. It will have to wait. This is not a time for writing letters. It is time for being inspired.
“The sight of the stars always makes me dream,”1 he once wrote to his brother, and tonight he is indeed dreaming… with his eyes wide open. The bars on the window become invisible. They can prevent him from going out, but they cannot prevent his mind from wandering. He aches to paint, but he is not allowed to, so he memorizes every small detail of the scenery, and while doing so, his troubled mind adds layers of other memories and imaginary shapes and creates an invisible painting with bright colors and powerful movement.
Later, he will close his eyes, but not to sleep. He will relive what he saw, imagined, and felt. He will pick up his brush, and although the sun will be high in the sky by then, he will recreate the night on his canvas. When the painting is finished, he will feel he had failed. “I still have remorse when I think of my work, so little in harmony with what I’d have wished to do,”2 he will write.
The one thing Vincent van Gogh could not imagine and didn’t have a chance to see was The Starry Night he painted becoming one of the iconic artworks of our time.
The Search for Inspiration
If Vincent van Gogh hadn’t committed himself to a mental asylum and looked outside his barred window at night, The Starry Night would never have been created. It was that view and the thoughts running through his head that inspired Van Gogh to create this powerful painting.
At about the same time, a med student at the University of Edinburgh was inspired by one of his lecturers: Dr. Joseph Bell. It was not Bell’s medical knowledge that left such an impression on that student, but rather his rare observation and deduction capabilities. He could accurately guess the occupation of people he had just met as well as their recent activities merely by observing them. Bell preached to his students that a competent physician should be able to know what bothers their patients even before they describe their problem verbally. The young student became Dr. Bell’s assistant, and for a few months, he carefully observed him. In his mind, a character was born: a detective with the remarkable ability to see what others don’t and use what he perceives to draw accurate conclusions about people, events, and, most importantly, crimes nobody else could solve.
A few years later, Arthur Conan Doyle, the former student, introduced Sherlock Holmes to the world. Conan Doyle’s imagination and literary skills made Sherlock Holmes one of the most famous fictional characters, but it was the experience of going to medical school and the time he spent with Dr. Bell that seeded the idea in his mind. If Arthur Conan Doyle would have chosen to go to a different university or happened to have a different lecturer, the name Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t have said anything to any of us.
In 1998, a Creative Director in one of Hollywood’s aspiring studios started to play with the idea to create an animation movie staring… cars. John Lasseter’s love for cars and his childhood memories played a significant role in coming up with the idea, but John still didn’t have a good storyline for the movie. Following a documentary he saw about the impact of interstate highways on small towns and having finished other extensive projects, John decided to take some time off and go with his family on a two-month road trip across the USA. They chose to use mainly smaller, older roads and visit the towns along them. In retrospect, almost every frame in the movie Cars is rooted in that trip, what John saw while driving through dozens of long-forgotten towns, and the people he met along the way. But the heart of Cars — the heart of the story — was not inspired by what John saw, but rather by what he felt.
Their two-month trip brought his family closer together in an experience of a lifetime. “I came back knowing what I wanted this movie to be about… a character discovering what I discovered: that the journey in life is the reward,” John later said in an interview3. And that is when he also realized the main character must be a race car, with one ambition in life — being as fast as possible — forced to slow down. It is this jigsaw puzzle of memories, visuals, and feelings that made Cars so authentic and lovable by kids and adults alike.
Inspiration is as mysterious as any of Sherlock Holmes’ cases; It is as magical as the movie Cars; It is powerful as The Starry Night. Any creative act, from solving a problem in your project to creating an artistic masterpiece, starts with that magical moment of inspiration. It doesn’t matter if inspiration is 5% of the work needed to accomplish a project or 0.005% of it — inspiration is the trigger that sets any creative act in motion.
We intuitively understand what inspiration is and we can easily identify it after the fact, but while inspiration is the trigger of Creativity, we cannot really be inspired on demand; we cannot predict when and how we will be inspired, or what will inspire us.
Luckily, even though we cannot control inspiration, we can increase the chances of inspiration to strike. Just like we cannot control or predict the exact movement of atoms, but we can increase the chances of particles colliding by heating a material. Inspiration might be impossible to capture as the result of a repeatable set of actions, but any chain of events that ends up with someone being inspired starts the same way: with an experience.
If we wish to increase our chances to recreate the magic of inspiration in our creative life, there is a painfully simple equation to follow: the more we experience, the higher our chances to be inspired.
Food for Creativity
Nothing is created in a void. Any creative thought, whether it is personal and limited in its scope or has a global impact, is based on previous inputs. Imagine a huge pantry storing everything we observe, sense, or feel. It is full of these ingredients waiting to be used. Some might seem trivial, some are exotic and rare. For some, we might have an immediate use, while others reside on a high shelf in the pantry waiting years until we rediscover them and realize their value.
Any creative thought we have is made from these ingredients. At times, we pick them consciously, just like Arthur Conan Doyle created the character of Sherlock Holmes based on the role model he saw in front of him. At other occasions, it is our subconscious reaching for some exotic spice we collected years ago — one we might not even remember exists in our pantry. Any instance of inspiration in the history of humankind is such a chef dish created from ingredients in that huge pantry in someone’s mind.
The more abundant and more diverse your pantry is, the higher the chances you will come up with an original, surprising dish.
Creative people are collectors. They collect these ingredients throughout their life. Anywhere they go, and whatever they do, they pick ingredients and store them on the endless shelves in their mind-pantry. They don’t start to collect ingredients when they have a clear recipe for their creative dish or when they are starving and in need of a nutritious meal. Creative people collect stuff without knowing if it will ever be useful. Most of it will never be used. And that is why creative insights appear to be magical: nobody can say how our brain eventually picks a handful of ingredients from this huge pantry and combines them to create a surprising dish. No formula guarantees a creative output given a predefined set of inputs. What we can say for sure is that the more ingredients we have to play with, the chances for this magic to happen increase dramatically.
Collecting this raw material — the ingredients for potential future creative insights — starts with the first core function in the Creativity Operating System: Experience. Creative people are always in an experiencing mode. Our experiences define how rich and diverse our pantry is. When we have an experience, our brain stores it (or pieces of it) for future use. And the more mindful and connected we are to the experience, the greater the chance of it to register and have an impact.
An experience can have an immediate effect. When Arthur Conan Doyle encountered Dr. Bell, the inspiration for creating Sherlock Holmes was quite immediate. When George de Mestral noticed the burrs on his clothes, the creative dish that resulted in the production of Velcro started to take form4. But in many other cases, experiences take years to accumulate potential energy until they surface as inspiration.
The inspiration for the Wright brothers’ life project, which changed (or even created) the aviation industry, was seeded years before they started their work on a self-propelled flying machine. It was a rubber-band-powered toy helicopter their father, Milton Wright, bought them. Other ingredients had their part in the invention of the Wright Brothers’ modern flying machine, but it was that toy that sparked the kids’ imagination and set them years later on a course to be named the creators of the modern airplane.
So, we understand Creativity is tightly coupled with Inspiration. We realize the chances for inspiration to strike increase the more experiences we collect. But, let’s be honest: this still sounds pretty random. What does it mean to be in an Experiencing Mode? How can we develop and master our Experience core function so that we experience more and eventually have a richer and more diverse pantry to choose ingredients from? Can we turn Experience into a proactive function?
Welcome to Experiencing 101.
To understand how we can spend more of our time in Experiencing Mode, we have to start with the definition of experience. And there is no better place to look for that than a dictionary:
an event or occurrence that leaves an impression on someone.
When you first read this definition, you might be tempted to focus on the subject of the definition: it seems to revolve around the event. And it shouldn’t be just any event. To be counted as an experience, the situation should be unique or powerful enough to leave an impression. The problem with this line of thought is that it keeps us in that random, reactive realm: either we encounter such an extraordinary event, or we don’t. And if we don’t, well, we don’t really have anything to do about that.
I read this definition from an entirely different perspective. If we wish to collect more experiences, it is not the event that should leave an impression on us. It is us who should take something — an impression — from the event. Any event. It is up to us to stop being indifferent. The key to having more experiences is the realization that anything can be an experience.
So, here is the plan. To be more creative, we need to fill our mind-pantry. To do that, we need to collect as many experiences as possible, and there are two paths we should take in parallel to achieve that. The first is creating even more opportunities to experience; The second path is to avoid being indifferent to things we already do or come across and deliberately treat them as experiences.
These are not always conscious choices by default, but we can still affect them. We can easily practice both these methods and start to proactively collect more experiences. Our goal is to have the Experience function always running in the background — not wasting even a minute without registering an experience. And as a bonus side effect, being in Experiencing mode will make our lives much more exciting and meaningful.
A few years ago, I bought a kite. I don’t recall if it was my idea or my wife’s, or maybe it was one of our children who asked for one. I didn’t give it any special thought when I bought it, but soon after that, I realized I didn’t have any memory of ever flying a kite before. So, with a bit of excitement, we packed it and went out to the park. It was a sunny, windy day. We found a beautiful spot with endless space to run in. I took the kite out of its bag, assembled it, and hoped to manage to get it up in the air. To my surprise, I didn’t have to do much. I just released some string, and the wind did the rest.
I remember feeling how powerful the wind is. The higher the kite flew, the stronger we had to hold the string to prevent it from breaking loose. Animated by the wind, the kite seemed almost alive. It was the ultimate metaphor of freedom. We hoped it will never come down. I looked at the face of my daughter. She was as amazed and surprised as I was, and watching her just added to this amazing experience.
Flying a kite for the first time at the age of 35 was an experience. It left a strong impression on me, and it is stored in a place of honor in my mind-pantry even since. Will I ever use this experience as raw material for a creative insight? Well, I just did, but that is not the point. The important thing is, I did something I don’t usually do (or at least something I wasn’t used to doing until that moment). It was a deliberate activity designed to be an experience. I didn’t know in advance what impression it will have on me or what senses and thoughts it will evoke, but I planned to do something with the hope it will leave an impression. And it sure did.
Imagine you could have one deliberate experience every day. It needn’t be grand or require any special preparations. All you need to do is plan to do something you don’t usually do, or plan to do something routine differently. Saying “good morning” to a stranger, watching the sunset, taking the train instead of driving to work, writing a short poem to a person you love, watching an ant carrying a leaf, getting lost in a city you don’t know — the list of deliberate experiences we can have is endless. Any of these experiences can be the one unique spice — the missing part of the puzzle — in a future creative insight.
Deliberate events are an essential part of experiencing. They might require some planning, even if eventually they don’t take long to exercise. But experiencing can take a different shape — one of a recurrent habit like reading, listening to music, going to the theatre, or watching a movie. I call such activities: Open-Ended Habits. We can cultivate them as repeatable activities, but at the same time, each time we practice them, we are in for a different surprise — each instance of them is an experience by itself.
I start almost every weekday with one hour of reading a book. I started a few years ago when I decided to reduce the time I waste on driving as much as possible and use public transportation instead. As a result, I magically got a gift in the form of 60 minutes of free time, which I deliberately chose not to spend on emails, social media, or phone calls. And every minute of this hour, five days a week, is an experience. Most days, I am on the same bus, making the same route, seeing the same people. But, when I open my Kindle, I immediately find myself in a different reality, surrounded by different people (or creatures), visiting distant worlds or different times, and experiencing things I can’t even imagine in my “real life.” During that hour, the book becomes my real-life, and my mind-pantry gets a special delivery of raw material for future use.
The best thing about Open-Ended Habits is that they are by definition repeatable activities, so it is easy to integrate them into your daily or weekly routine. At the same time, they are diverse, and they result in a different experience each time you practice them. To be effective, you should surprise yourself by making these activities truly boundary-less. Watch movies from various genres; Read books by authors you don’t know; Listen to songs in a language you don’t speak. Make the most of the open-ended nature of these activities.
Open-Ended Habits are not restricted to the consumption of someone else’s creation, of course. Drawing, writing, photographing, or playing music are also powerful experiences. Creating something — anything — is an adventure.
One of my weekly habits is taking a photo-walk in the streets of Tel-Aviv. What started as a way to collect material for my photography projects, soon became a weekly opportunity to experience. When I walk in the ever-changing empty streets, I feel like a tourist in a different reality. My senses are all in reception mode, just like when you visit a new place for the first time, even though I have been doing this for fifteen years, always in the same area. The visuals, the smells, and the sounds never seize to surprise me, and the impression they leave lasts. But this is not where the experience ends. Revisiting the photographs I captured later, working on them, turning them into stories or carving out the stories hidden within them, is no less of an adventure. Although it is done in front of a PC monitor, it is an integral part of the creative experience as I get a chance to revisit the things I saw and felt and turn them into my own creation.
The great thing about creating something is the long-lasting impact it has. You might think of these experiences as ones which are consumed immediately, but in fact, they often provide ingredients for future creative insights as well. When you are deeply engaged in observing the world around you, imagining, and creating, your experience is deep and rich. The abundance of information you consciously and unconsciously absorb fills your pantry and also train your mind in the mastery of using these ingredients for crafting a creative dish.
Eben Bayer grew up on a small farm in Vermont. As a child, he experienced first hand how people work with nature to produce great things. Years later, during his studies, Eben encountered Professor Burt Swersey. “It was there where my experience with farming and what I observed in nature came together with need finding for the real world,” he says in an interview to Forbes5. The result was inventing a new kind of material made out of fungus, which could totally replace plastic for packaging and other applications and is 100% environmentally friendly. It was Eben’s experience — an experience not planned and not designed for coming up with creative ideas — that directly led to an invention which could change an entire industry. But according to Eben, it was more than just the specific innovative idea that grew from his childhood experiences in the farm. The notion of working with nature, appreciating its complexity and simplicity, affected his vision and his mission in life.
We are shaped by our experiences. Anything we experience leaves some residue. Even if the effect is not direct or conscious, anything we do, say, or think, has traces of past experiences. Most of these experiences are not planned — they are accidental. Our childhood experiences are great examples of that, but we don’t stop experiencing when we grow up. We can gain new experiences every single day of our lives, and all of these experiences have the potential to be used as raw material for innovative, creative insights.
Unfortunately, nowadays, we miss so many of these opportunities. Many of us are just not present most of the time. Instead of being part of what is happening around us, our attention is quickly drifting to the nearest screen.
Imagine George de Mestral taking a smartphone with him to the hike that resulted in the invention of Velcro®. There is a fair chance, that instead of being part of the experience — being attentive enough to these annoying burrs — he would have read an email or shared a Tweet. It is not unlikely that he would have missed the observation that led to his creative insight. We are surrounded by opportunities for accidental experiences, but it is up to us to be present and attentive enough to realize their potential. It is our responsibility to become aware of these fantastic opportunities, and once we recognize one, to stop for a minute, appreciate it, and make it our own.
Think of the last time you got stuck in an airport waiting for a connection flight. Most people probably don’t register that as a positive experience. But if you just put your smartphone or tablet aside for five minutes, you might discover a surprising opportunity to experience. An airport is an astounding place to explore. From the stunning diversity of people to the variety of shops with things you can find only in airports; From hidden passages to mechanical devices you cannot find anywhere else. Being in an airport can be an experience even if you are a frequent flyer, but the vast majority of us are either rushing through it or spending the time waiting for our flight doing the one thing we can do anywhere else: staring at a screen. It doesn’t matter if you watch Netflix or endlessly scroll your social feed — if your eyes are on your smartphone’s or tablet’s screen, you are missing some really cool stuff which you cannot see anywhere else. You are missing an experience.
And that is just one example. It might be challenging at first, but when you realize anything can be an experience, you discover the world is an endless source of inspiration. You don’t have to travel to exotic places or practice extreme activities. A simple walk in the street can be an experience if you are just attentive enough. When you are tuned to the things that surround you — when you appreciate them and don’t take them for granted — they become part of an experience — they leave a positive residue that accumulates over time. This is the stuff that gets stored in your mind-pantry6 — the things that might just be the necessary ingredients for an amazing creative dish sometime in the future.
Being present means cultivating a mindset that nothing, nothing is mundane. An experience is not defined as worthy of our attention by some objective scale. Anything we put our attention to becomes worthy of it by definition. When we become part of what is happening around us instead of fighting it and tagging it as boring or trivial, we can discover some great stuff. When we aim to be surprised, we find surprising things.
When we treat something as an experience, it becomes one.
All the experiences we discussed until now were out-of-context experiences. Whether they were deliberate or accidental, they all played a significant role in coming up with creative insights, but they didn’t start as part of a creative project or a problem that had to be solved. In a sense, that is their beauty: any experience can potentially be used in any domain. This is the magic of inspiration.
Sometimes, however, we come across surprising opportunities as part of a project or a problem we are working on. Some of them might look like failures, accidents, or just things that have nothing to do with what we are looking for. They are easy to dismiss unless we treat them as experiences as well.
Dr. Spencer Silver, for one, made the most of such an accident. In 1968, he was on a mission to develop a super-strong glue, but during his scientific quest, he just happened to create the complete opposite: an adhesive strong enough to hold only a piece of paper, but with some unusual traits. This clearly-not-super-strong glue was unintentionally also reusable. You could use it to glue the paper to some surface, then break the two apart, and place the paper on a different surface without applying another layer of glue. To top that, this strange glue didn’t leave a mark on the surface. Others could have easily dismissed this discovery because it totally missed the target of the project. Dr. Silver, however, treated that as an experience. He “stored” it in his pantry. Actually, Dr. Silver did more than that: he identified the potential of the glue he had invented, but he didn’t have an idea for a real-world commercial application at the time. So, he tried to pitch the new material to his colleagues at 3M with the hope that they will help him realize the potential of his invention.
Six years later, Arthur Fry had a completely different experience. When he was singing with his church choir, he tried to bookmark the pages in the hymn book using pieces of paper, but they kept falling. Others might have just got frustrated, but when you treat something as an experience, it becomes one. Arthur Fry merged his experience with Dr. Silver’s and came up with a real-world application for the strange glue: he coated a piece of paper with it and made it stick to his hymn book. When removed, it left no trace and could even be applied again.
If it weren’t for these two events, experienced by two different people, six years apart, 3M’s Post-It® notes would have not been invented. Or more accurately, had Dr. Spencer Silver and Arthur Fry dismissed these experiences as frustrating events, they would have easily missed the opportunity to create an iconic, successful product.
When we are in the midst of a project or trying to solve a problem, we become naturally biased toward meeting the predefined goal. We see everything through the lens of what we are trying to achieve. That is why it is so easy to miss opportunities and entirely different options than the ones we initially imagined. As we continue exploring the Creativity Operating System, we will discuss other functions that we must develop to identify the potential of such events. But the most basic one — the one that triggers the rest of the elements of the Operating System — is Experience. When we give in to our natural tendency to perceive such anomalies or surprises as failures or setbacks, there is little chance we will later revisit them and see them for the opportunities that they are. If, however, we treat these events as experiences, we become open to the possibilities they embed.
Once again, it is your mindset that defines an event as an experience. Being open to experiences does not mean being willing to accept invitations to try new things — it means to proactively treat anything that happens to you as an experience.
Imagine a life full of experiences — a life in which you collect new experiences all the time, wherever you are and whatever you do.
Experience is not just a Creativity function. When you are in an experiencing mindset — when you are tuned into everything that happens — you become part of the experience as much as it becomes a part of you. When you are experiencing, you are more aware and, therefore, more connected to the world around you. Experiencing is the key to being empathic and being able to see things from more than one perspective.
The ability to experience is one of the core functions that make us human.
Being mindful is often associated with Creativity. Being conscious and aware of the things around you and living the present moment is, by definition, to experience. But experiencing takes us even further. Experiencing is not just about being aware, but also about letting the world around you leave an impression. To experience is to allow yourself to be affected.
Experiencing life is the gateway to leading a creative life. As we continue our journey in the Creativity Operating System, you might be inclined to focus on the core functions we will discuss next. Remember, though, that Experiencing provides the fuel for the entire operating system. It is the portal through which you perceive the world. It is how you acquire input for any creative insight or original idea. And the more raw material you have, the richer your creative process becomes.
Experiencing life to its fullest does not mean doing something grand every day. It is much simpler than that. It means leading a life in which you regard anything that happens as an enriching experience. A trip abroad can be a great experience. Climbing Mount Everest is probably amazing. And watching the earth from space will soon become the ultimate experience for those who will be able to afford it. But reading a good book can be as mind-blowing as any of those. Talking to someone and really listening to them can be as eye-opening. And seeing a child and his father playing together in the park can fill your heart and leave an impression that will last for years. These are the experiences that make us feel alive.
Letting this idea to lead our lives is not trivial, but we can start practicing it today.
The Next Step: Plan to Experience
To master the Experience function, please refer to the Core Practices defined in the c.os model. The following activities are an excellent place to start, though. They are designed so you could experiment with Experience in lab conditions. To lead a creative life, your next challenge would be to implement all the Core Practices, turn them into habits, and seamlessly apply them in everything you do.
Our motivation in getting familiar with the functions of the Creativity Operating System is not limited to understanding the theory. Ultimately, we wish to define a personal set of practices, tools, and habits that will enable us to realize the potential of the Creativity Operating System so we can apply it more effectively more often.
But before we can develop and optimize our creative processes as a whole, we need to practice and strengthen each of the core functions. Eventually, you will have to find out what works best for you. I really don’t like the idea of holy-grail-best-practices. Each of us is wired differently, and what works for me might be much less effective for you and vice versa. Still, you have to start with something and work your way through from there.
This last part of the chapter is dedicated to helping you get started with a proposed set of activities and exercises designed to develop the Experience function. All of them are defined such that they can easily be applied by anyone. It is up to you to fill the concrete details based on what you find to be most effective. To do that, you will have to experiment with these activities first, try different ways to apply them, and then reflect and decide which of these applications had the most impact. Don’t stick only with the activities you find simple or feel more comfortable with. Challenge yourself and judge each activity based on its results, not based on your comfort level. And most important, don’t settle for one or two types of activities. Diversity is the key to realizing the potential of each core function.
Have One Deliberate Experience Every Day
Generally speaking, we lead a busy life. Most of us feel we always have something to do — from the projects we are committed to at work (which we often take home with us, at least mentally) to the numerous tasks, errands, and commitments we have in our personal lives, and of course the endless cry for attention of our “social” apps. With all these things occupying us, it is quite common to reach the end of the day with a feeling that we did nothing that really enriched our mind-pantry.
The way to fix that starts with deliberate planning. And while this might sound like a project by itself, it is quite simple and requires little more than awareness. All you have to do is take five minutes in the evening and plan to have one deliberate experience the next day. Remember, we are not talking about grand experiences that require careful planning and probably time and money. Your deliberate daily experience can be as simple as watching the sunset for ten minutes or starting a conversation with someone you don’t know while waiting for your train; It can be flying a kite or cooking something new. Some preparations might be needed for some activities, while others require you to “just do it.”
When planning your deliberate experience for the next day, look at your schedule for tomorrow. Make sure you pick an activity that fits in your agenda. One way to reduce the overhead of having a deliberate experience is to come up with activities based on your schedule. If you have a meeting with a client scheduled and it just happens to be in part of the city you haven’t visited for a long time, your deliberate experience can be to go for a short exploration walk around the block or have lunch in a nearby restaurant you are not familiar with. It is as simple as that.
And of course, the most essential part is to follow through and actually execute your plan the following day.
- Every evening, plan a deliberate experience for the next day
- Make sure the activity you plan fits it in your schedule or even derived from it
- The following day, perform the activity and describe it in your Insight Journal
The value of planning not to let a day go by without a deliberate experience is difficult to overestimate. Apart from enriching your mind-pantry, taking a short break to intentionally do something you don’t usually do will literally boost your day. It will affect not only your Creativity but also your productivity and overall feeling. There is an excellent chance it will make you smile.
Develop Open-Ended Habits
We are creatures of habits. Whether we work to develop a habit or it comes naturally to us, once a practice is established, our brain is biased toward it. Our brain is wired to prefer known patterns and repeat them. You might have to force yourself to go to the gym three times a week at first. But after a couple of months of doing so, it becomes a natural, expected part of your weekly activities. Your brain doesn’t just expect it — it needs it to keep the pattern intact.
The great thing about Open-Ended Habits is that they have this repetitive nature of a habit, which makes our brain favor them, but at the same time, their content and outcome are anything but monotonous. They always leave the residue in our mind-pantry, and they always challenge and surprise us.
From reading a book to drawing, from watching a play to writing short stories — Open-Ended Habits, whether they are passive or active, result in a truckload of experiences and insights. And if we manage to create a good, diverse mixture of such habits, there is also a good chance for surprising interactions between them.
In one of my favorite personal photography projects, for example, I combined two things I love: music and photography. Music, for me, is a passive habit: I love listening to music, and I try to open my mind to artists and even genres I am not familiar with. It was quite natural (but completely unplanned) for me to create a photography project which is based on a selection of my favorite songs. It was an amazing experience to relive the songs, trying to capture their essence or creating a new angle, and bringing it to life in a photograph. It was a whole new experience that was created by joining two Open-Ended Habits I already practiced.
Take a few minutes to map your Open-Ended Habits. Write down a list of ongoing activities you are already doing (preferably ones you do on a fixed schedule) which are open-ended by nature. Make sure to list only things you regularly do. If you happen to read a book every few months, it might have some value, of course, but we can’t call it a habit. Ideally, your list should include a mixture of daily, weekly, and monthly activities. My list, for example, includes:
- Reading a book: one hour, daily
- Listening to music: throughout the day, daily
- Playing with seempli: daily
- Photography Walk: 1-2 hours, weekly
- Writing: 2-3 hours, weekly
- Watching a live music show or going to the cinema: at least once a month
Note, that this is not a complete list of all the open-ended activities I do. The list is focused on things I do * regularly*, almost without compromise. It is a list of habits.
Once the list is made, review and asses it. Is it diverse enough? Are activities frequent enough? Are you really doing them every day, week, or month? Can you enrich it?
It is hard to say what would make a good list apart from being diverse and plentiful. The number of different activities, their frequency, and their nature, are all very subjective. Eventually, you will have to be honest with yourself when assessing the list. The only thing I can say for sure is that if you can squeeze in another Open-Ended Habit to the list — if you can fit it in your schedule — the value it will provide is guaranteed.
We all have constraints and obligations, but let’s be honest, we also have a lot of dead-time or wasted-time. You will never regret replacing part of this time with an experience-oriented habit.
After you have a diverse list you are OK with, it is time to commit to it, and the best way to do it is to close repeating time blocs for the various activities in your calendar. Treat these time blocks sacredly and do whatever you can to avoid skipping them, especially if you are still in the phase of building these habits.
- Map your existing Open-Ended Habits
- Assess the list
- Refine the list and make it diverse and rich enough
- Close time blocks for the various activities in your calendar
- Re-evaluate every few months
Last but not least, it is a good idea to repeat this mapping and evaluation every few months. First, to verify you are still engaged with the same habits — that you actually execute them. And second, to make sure they are effective for you — that they are diverse enough and that they provide the level of experiences you expect them to. If they don’t, you will have to change something in how you engage with these activities or replace some habits with new ones.
Plan to be Surprised
Next in our plan to experience more are accidental experiences. But how, you might ask, can we plan or promote something which is by definition unexpected. The answer, as in many cases, is mindset and awareness.
Experiencing-wise, most of us are idle most of the time. Whether we are engaged in an important task or just walk from the office to our parking, we are rarely in an experiencing mindset by default. In other words, we are blind to the endless amount of details and occurrences we can treat as experiences. If we could just intentionally notice them and perceive them as experiences, they will immediately become ones. They will register in our mind, get stored safely in our mind-pantry, and maybe, just maybe, enrich a future creative insight.
Going from idle mode to active experiencing mode requires nothing but a decision.
Think of your upcoming day. Pick the most ordinary, non-creative task or activity, like going to the grocery shop, catching a train, or being stuck in traffic. Write it down on a blank page in your Insight Journal. Now, take a few minutes to think and write down a few things you can do to spice up this everyday activity and turn it into a unique experience.
One of my favorite activities, for example, is observing people I don’t know and coming up with an imaginary short story inspired by what I see and sense when I look at them. Don’t think even for a minute that these bits of stories are any good. Honestly, they are not. This is not even an exercise in creative writing. At least I don’t treat it as such. The point of this exercise is to turn a piece of dead-time — an activity which is otherwise a burden or at least an overhead — into a one-of-a-kind experience that enriches me. No matter how many times I take the same train at the same time to the same destination, playing this little game with myself turns each of these rides to a unique, surprising experience.
Of course, this is merely an example, you could as easily explore the clouds, or take note of the sounds around you (by default our brain blocks many of them unless we intentionally listen), or listen (God forbid) to one side of a phone call someone is having, trying to imagine the other part of the dialogue. The options are endless, and the benefit cannot be overestimated.
When you treat these dull, gray parts of your day as playgrounds, they become ones. Imagine your day full of such playful experiences instead of a series of routine activities you have to do between your meaningful tasks. Turning dead-time moments into accidental experiences will not only fill your mind-pantry. It will make any day, a day to remember.
Accidental experiences can happen anywhere and at any time. As you develop your experiencing-oriented mindset, you will notice you gradually treat more things as experiences even without intentionally planning to. You will naturally identify the potential of everyday events and activities, make yourself part of them, and store them in your mind-pantry. What starts with an intentional play during specific activities, soon becomes a natural habit you don’t have to plan ahead. You will see people rushing in the street with their eyes glued to their smartphones, and the first thing you will think of is, “they don’t know what they are missing!”
- List the dull, time-wasting activities for the next day
- Plan how you turn them into playful experiences
- Write down your insights after each such activity
This would be an excellent place to talk about taking notes.
Investing a couple of minutes in recording your experiences, whether accidental or not, what you saw and sensed, how did you feel, and any insight you might have had is essential to making the most of them. Reflection is a vital component of the Creativity Operating System, and relying only on our memory for that will probably not be sufficient. We will discuss this in-depth in upcoming chapters.
But recording your experiences also helps your mind focus on them, give them the proper attention, and store them in your mind-pantry. Taking a minute to describe the experience to yourself helps you to absorb what you sensed and felt, contemplate it, and maybe even create some surprising connections to other experiences or challenges you are facing in different domains. If nothing else, it allows you to revisit the experience and enjoy it again in the future.
No matter how carefully planned and well-thought-of a project is, something can always go “wrong” or merely surprise us. In most cases, such surprises don’t promote the predefined goal of the project, but that does not mean they are not useful.
If we treat such anomalies as experiences — like going sideways instead of taking the main route to your destination — they will provide us valuable raw material for future insights. When we are aimed toward a specific goal, such surprises can be extremely frustrating. But if we celebrate them instead and see the beauty in them, our mind will register them as useful experiences.
Don’t expect any such detour to immediately trigger a creative idea. It took Dr. Spencer Silver years to find an application for the super-weak glue he invented by mistake. Realizing the potential of such “failures” is what turns them into experiences. Seeing the unique traits in these events — what makes them different — is much more useful than seeing them as merely inadequate solutions to the specific problem we were set to solve.
- When something happens not according to plan, record it.
- Focus on what makes it different.
- Try to think of applications for what you have just experienced, but don’t dismiss the experience even if you can’t come up with any.
- Share your discovery with colleagues from other domains
This last point is critical. It might just be that in the problem domain you are occupied with at the moment, the anomaly you discovered is really a setback. But often, one person’s trash is another one’s gold. What you have experienced might be the key to major breakthroughs in other domains. Sharing your alleged failure and thus creating a collaborative pantry of experiences can quickly become a game-changer.
Take a Detour – Get Lost
When we are in an unfamiliar place (physically or mentally), we are more alert and perceptive. We are more curious, and we are more likely to marvel at the things we see. Getting lost is an experience, and it is a great setup for the next functions in The Creativity Operating System to work in.
It’s 5:30 AM. I am walking in an empty street with my camera, as I have been doing for almost fifteen years. Tel-Aviv is the second-largest city in Israel, but on a global scale, it’s tiny. Its area is less than 7% of the area of New York City, and less than 4% of the area of London. If that’s not small enough, I tend to do my walks always around a few neighborhoods in the southern part of Tel-Aviv, so you would think that by now I know every building, every wall, every ally, and of course, every single street.
So, it’s 5:30 AM, the sun is just about to peek above the urban horizon, and I find myself on a street I never knew existed. I don’t know its name, and apart from a very vague orientation, I don’t really know where I am. And it feels GREAT!
It has been a while since I managed to get lost. Really lost, that is. I manage to forget the fact that I am in the city I grew up in and have been photographing for more than a decade. I feel like I’m in a foreign country. It doesn’t matter that I’m practically five minutes away from a street I do know. I look around, and everything seems new and unfamiliar. I feel like an explorer in uncharted territory, and suddenly the magic happens: I find a little treasure I can use as raw material for my artwork.
It is so difficult to get lost nowadays. And why shouldn’t it be? We are on the grid 24/7. There was never a time in history when we could know our exact location in the universe at any given moment. We know exactly which train to take and when. We know which road to take to avoid traffic jams. When we go abroad, we use Google’s Street View to see the locations we are about to visit so we could know exactly what they look like weeks before taking off.
We are losing our ability to get lost in more than just the geographical sense. By knowing exactly where we are and where we are going at any given moment, we are losing our ability to be surprised, and with it our ability to notice. If we know where we are, and we know where we are going, our brain operates in auto-pilot mode — it doesn’t have to focus on what is around us, and then we fail to observe.
- Save regular times to wander aimlessly.
- Allow yourself to explore places you don’t know.
- Wander aimlessly also in familiar places. When you don’t have a concrete destination and an immediate goal, your brain will be more receptive.
- Plan not to take the fastest and shortest route. Leave some time for yourself to take detours — physical and mental — no matter where you are heading.
- When facing a problem, allow yourself to get lost in a search for a solution — don’t do a Web search as a first, automatic step.
- Save some time to do nothing but getting lost in thoughts.
In a sense, any act of creativity is a detour. Any act of creativity relies on our ability to go somewhere unexpected, sometimes physically and sometimes mentally. Getting lost is an essential part of the game. We need to allow ourselves to get lost from time to time, and as Elsa sings7: “let it go.”
From Sowing to Harvesting
Experiences are the seeds of Creativity. They are the source of inspiration, and they provide us with the raw material for any original thought or creation in its most basic form. Inspiration might be magical, but it is not mythical. Inspiration is built from the ingredients stored in our mind-pantry, and the more we experience, the richer and more diverse our mind-pantry becomes. We can’t create inspiration on demand, but we can significantly increase the chance of this magic to happen by experiencing more.
Whether your experiences are deliberate or accidental, in-context experiences or stand-alone ones, they are the necessary input for the Creativity Operating System. The in-flow of experiences directly affects how creative you are. And the key to having more experiences is first and foremost treating anything as an experience — sowing the seeds wherever and whenever you can.
The next core function we will discuss is designed to help us harvest raw material from the things we experience. Being present and intentionally experience is crucial to Creativity. It is like being in a plantation full of an infinite number of trees with breathtaking, colorful, ripe fruits. To make the most of it, though, we need to pick some of these delicious fruits and take a bite.
1 Vincent van Gogh, the Letters, item 638 ⤴
2 Vincent van Gogh, the Letters, item 777 ⤴
3 The Inspiration for ‘Cars’ (Video 2006) ⤴
4 The Creativity Operating System, Getting Hooked ⤴
5 Founder Eben Bayer On Harnessing Mushroom Power To Eradicate Plastics ⤴
6 Experience is the basic function required for things to get stored in our mind-pantry. It is an essential function, but it does not operate alone. The next function we will discuss — Observe — is necessary to pick a subset of the endless potential inputs that surrounds us and archive it for future usage. But without experiencing, there will be nothing to observe. If we spend our time seeing the same feed on the same screen, we miss the opportunity to observe something new and surprising. ⤴