In Praise of Things You Don’t Like

Artists, as aesthetes, tend to surround themselves with things they like.  Part of their aesthetic is about what they select and what they discard.  Ordinary people do this in their everyday lives, too.  The totality of their comfortable existence is a product of the things they choose to embrace and equally of those that they reject.  These things can be fashion, architecture, ways of speaking, political ideals, the colours they choose for their walls (why is it always bleeding magnolia?!), you name it.  We’re all curators and our aesthetic choices are what define us as artists and people.

The problem with that approach is that it rapidly becomes sterile and sclerotic.  Eventually, you surround yourself with only the things you like and you become an intellectual museum piece.  While ideas and art move on, always innovating, you freeze yourself in a moment in time.  That might feel comfortable, safe and secure, but it’s also consigning yourself to increasing irrelevance.  You’ve opted out.  You’re no longer part of the struggle and the debate.  You know what you think and what you like and everything else is jettisoned from your world view.  You have become, in effect, bigoted.

We see this effect on social media and in art classes, alike.  On social media, you tend to endorse and follow only those people that say things you agree with and who are the sorts of people you would like.  Algorithmic timelines then ensure that these people’s postings are what you preferentially see.  In art class, people will cluster around a particular style and approach, rejecting all others, in the interests of group-think and unity.  We subtly conform to those around us, simply by choosing to be with them, instead of amongst people that will challenge and discomfort us.  We’d rather sip coffee over insipid chatter, than participate in meaningful, animated discourse with people that might change our minds.

We form these little hermetically sealed bubbles to exist within and so everything we hear is as if in an echo chamber.  It’s just a reinforcement of things we would think, say or create anyway.  We choose to block out the discordant noises and shut out the light that hurts our eyes.  We’d rather have our certainties and our prejudices stroked and reassured, than run the risk of being proven wrong.  We’d much prefer to perfect our ability to render the bland and superficial, in our art, with photo-realistic fidelity, than to attempt the risky endeavour of creating something abstract, or in false colours, or with genuine emotional impact, badly.  We aren’t, in the main, aesthetic researchers, explorers or seekers.  We’re aesthetic adopters.

When I was a young child, you couldn’t force me to eat prawns (shrimp).  The very smell and look of them was repulsive to me.  I didn’t get as far as tasting one, because the very idea of them made my skin crawl.  Later in life, I eventually relented and tasted one.  Oh my word!  What had I been missing?  These delicacies of the sea were utterly delicious.  Since my first taste of one, I’ve been fortunate enough to seek out and enjoy some of the most exquisite examples.  The best ones were in Spain and Queensland.  Had I doggedly stuck to my initial prejudice, I would have denied myself an entire universe of pleasure.  My stubborn insistence that I knew what I would and wouldn’t like proved to be wrong.  I was idiotic.  In truth, the years in which I eschewed prawns were nothing more than lost opportunity to enjoy one of life’s finer things.

Your tastes change and evolve, whether or not you are aware of it or want it to happen.  It’s inevitable that, as you age, your senses change and you are inadvertently exposed to new aesthetic experiences, until one day you find yourself appreciating the finer points of things you didn’t much care for, or even notice, before.  I initially saw disco music as worthless, but have since come to appreciate its finer points.  It’s still not a favourite style of music, for me, but the excellent things in it definitely inform the way I create music in my own style.  The attitude is useful.  There are things I learnt from disco music that can make anybody’s music better, including my own, in a style quite removed from disco.

Your perspectives change, too.  Whereas I was pretty sure of my views on a wide range of subjects, in my early twenties, I’ve come to realise that I really didn’t know enough about what I thought, to think through all the inevitable consequences of upholding those ideas and ideals.  I know better now.  I’ve read challenging books and watched challenging movies.  I’ve listened to people with ideas opposite to my own, who eventually persuaded me to see the rationale and reason behind what they were saying.  There are many ideas I blindly endorsed, as a younger man, which I have come to see through, in later life.  I expect that ideas I hold today will also eventually succumb to better information and deeper understanding.  Being so sure of what you think that you stop questioning your opening assumptions is quite dangerous.  The rulers of everything rely on most people doing this, in fact.  People fixate on and ossify ideas that are repeated to them and that suits the people harvesting the rest of the population, for personal gain, just fine.

You see, each and every one of us has been neuroprogrammed, deliberately and systematically, since we were born.  Those that seek to preserve their privileges spend vast fortunes repetitively reinforcing ideas that they want the rest of us, without the resources to influence the masses ourselves, to adhere to.  We’re fed convenient ideas that defuse dissent and reinforce obedience and subservience.  We are deliberately passivated, in order to shore up their vast fortunes.  Our capacity for neuroplasticity is taken advantage of and we are brainwashed to think what we think, without being aware of the process, or acknowledging that the ideas we hold most fervently are not our own – they were implanted in us for a purpose.

But neuroplasticity works both ways.  We can reprogramme ourselves.  Through techniques of repetition and continual exposure, we can immerse ourselves in ideas and aesthetics that are antithetical to the interests of the privileged elite.  We can counteract the effects of twenty four hour, rolling news, with its drumbeat propagandisation, by reading alternative things, watching other ideas and exposing ourselves to ideas that initially cause us a feeling of emotional and intellectual discomfort.  We can overcome our own psychological inertia and begin to replace the ideas that were implanted in us, since we were children, with ideas that we’ve thought through, which faithfully reflect our human values and which we choose.  If we can’t choose the things we think, then we have no choice in anything.  Sadly, so few of us acknowledge that the things we think were put into our heads by other people, for their own interests, without us even noticing.

It’s vitally important, as an artist and as a human being, to stay open to the possibility that there are other possibilities.  Other ideas and aesthetics might be the prawns we’re currently refusing to eat, because we think they will be odious.  We may be denying ourselves intellectual delights and uplifting, emotional sustenance, simply because we refuse to entertain the very idea of understanding and embracing other ideas and aesthetics.  Stay open to new ideas and viewpoints or ways of seeing, even if they offend your aesthetic sense.  Your current viewpoints and aesthetic choices might be wrong, or not serving you as well as alternatives might.  It’s quite probable that they are.

Try to learn from everything; even stuff you don’t agree with or like.  Keep a few cranky extremists on your timeline, but genuinely attempt to understand their viewpoint.  Sometimes, they’re just damaged people, spewing their bile and hurt over everybody else, in an attempt to lessen the personal burden of it, but often not.  Often, the crank with the unworkable, unrealistic, utopian idea is onto something very valuable.  Sometimes the obnoxious, flag-burning renegade, with every conspiracy theory under the sun in their head, has exposed a real, gaping hole in the official story and revealed the manipulation and manipulators that need to stay in the shadows to be most effective.  Neuroprogramming fails, you see, if you can perceive the unsavoury motivations of the programmer.

The best way to develop your technique, as an artist, is to do the work that feels least comfortable and familiar.  They call it “going outside of your comfort zone”.  As a musician, try to play in a style you wouldn’t normally listen to, for no other reason than to inject new ideas, adapted from the style you don’t like, into the style you do like.  Always look for the gems.  You still might discard most of what you encounter, but if you were honest, you would always find out why other people like what you do not and find a way to respect and admire that aspect of it.

It works for painters, too.  Use the brushes, mediums, painting techniques and colours you don’t particularly like.  Paint in styles you prefer to bypass, in the art gallery.  Try to discover the aesthetic aspect that makes it work for other people.  See if you can make that idea work for you, somehow.  Be a collector and explorer of other ways of seeing and doing.  Get out of your self-imposed rut.  Creativity springs from this willingness to explore and experiment.  If you visit only your own, familiar neighbourhood, pretty soon you have encyclopaedic knowledge of it, but not much else.  Being an expert on a small world is not as exciting or useful as knowing a little about a vast world.

As a writer, use words you wouldn’t ordinarily use, in sentences you wouldn’t normally write.  Read books that express views you don’t agree with, or which tell stories in a way you find awkward and unfamiliar.  Write dialogue the way you would hear it and say it, not the way it has come to be stylised, in other people’s writing.  Break the rules.  Try to distinguish convention and habit from genuinely useful techniques.  If you write, write with honesty and heart, not in an attempt to emulate the style of a great writer.  If the style checking programmes indicate that your work is less than conformant with the designated style rules, rejoice!

The paradox at the heart of focusing your life and your art on things you like is this:  When it is all said and done, you can always find something disagreeable in even the most agreeable of companions or artworks.  Hence, there is no point in trying to surround yourself with only the things you like.  It’s exposure to the things that you don’t like that shape you into a better human being.  Being insular and isolated merely confirms you in your conservative, obsequious, subservient, obedient, designated role.

That’s a role that short changes you, denying you the opportunity to be the best human being you can possibly be and it’s one that short changes the rest of us, because your greatest gifts are never fully realised and shared.  It doesn’t even serve the privileged elites as well as unleashing your talent and potential would.

But they don’t see it that way, do they?  They’re stuck in their own echo chamber bubbles, living in gated communities, rising above the ordinary miseries of the common people through their sheer purchasing power.  They don’t interact or experience.  Instead, they seal themselves into their own private clubs and exclusive enclaves.  From their cosy viewpoint, they imagine a world out there that is theirs to control and farm, by right.  They never consider the possibility that a populace that disobeys and challenges the rulers of everything and doesn’t do what it’s told is actually the route to realising a much better world for them, too.

“None of us are as smart as all of us.” – Japanese Proverb

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Baked-in Animosity

There’s a war going on.  It has been going on for many, many decades, quietly, but the battles are numerous and daily.  The conflict shows no sign of dissipating, either.  If anything, the longer each side remains entrenched in their attitudes, the worse the carnage.  The consequences of the battle are waste, frustration, pollution, underemployment, wasted time and continuing impoverishment.  It’s a first world problem that has extended to the second and third worlds, spreading like a cancer.  The war is played out with every product purchased and every piece of software we have to use.

At the root of the issue is the conflict between makers of things and the people that use what they make.  Makers are treated with utter contempt, by “sovereign” consumers that erroneously believe that their money gives them the power to regard makers as lesser human beings.  Consumers behave tyrannically toward makers, insisting they jump to their orders and paying them a pittance and a fraction of the real worth of their skill and effort.

Makers, for their part, treat their consumers with utter contempt, trying to pass off sub-standard, low-quality, low-integrity wares onto a population they regard (with a little justification) as being stupid and ignorant, worthy only of being ripped-off unashamedly, for their lack of knowledge and skill in making things.  Why produce high quality things, when it’s wholly unappreciated by consumers that can’t tell the difference and doesn’t pay any better?  Why place pearls before swine?

On recognising that they’ve been sold utter crap, consumers’ regard for the character and honesty of makers only further erodes, undermining any possibility of a rapprochement between the two warring sides.  They treat the things they’ve been sold with equal derision and condescension.

Animosity has been baked-in to the very design of the products made.

Somewhere along the line, money has corrupted the transaction.  Makers of useful or beautiful things are not treated well by those they make them for and never have been.  Those that want to use things they can’t, themselves, make or who wish to be surrounded by beautiful things, find that what they want to purchase is not even available.  Only pale facsimiles, with every corner cut, are on sale.

When a maker makes a thing of beauty, think how abused it is by the average, ignorant consumer.  Fine tools are rendered useless, by brutal treatment in wantonly ignorant hands.  Incredible, previously unimaginable marvels of technology are discarded like toilet paper, once the novelty has worn off.  Software that places incredible creative possibilities within reach of everybody is routinely stolen.  When something breaks, usually through insouciant misuse, it’s thrown away, as if the remnant of the thing has no value at all and as if the repair were automatically impossible or prohibitively expensive.  Wonderful things, made by people that care, are almost always used contemptuously.

Knowing that nobody values anything, once the novelty or fashion wears off, makers make disposable products.  They know that consumers will never bother or pay to have the thing repaired, so they design it so that repair is an utter impossibility.  They encourage the abuse of their products and of themselves as makers, by delivering less than best.  In other words, by making contemptible products or software, treating consumers as contemptible too, consumers feel justified in treating the goods with contempt and their producers in exactly the same way.  We have a giant, circular contempt-fest going on.  Each act of contempt only reinforces the next, in the cycle.

We all pay.  We’re kept impoverished as makers and we are kept poor by having to replace, at regular intervals, things we’ve already bought, as consumers.  Our sweat is regarded cheaply.  If we are both a maker and a consumer, as many of us are, then you lose twice.

Meanwhile, the planet is despoiled and irreplaceable resources are squandered.  People that are capable of making things that are more durable and better, waste their lives making crap.  Consumers that could have used their earnings for betterment are, instead, forced to replace broken crap, just to maintain their standard of living, making no progress whatsoever.  In the final assessment, we’re producing and consuming mountains of crap, which drip with condescension, when the alternative could be the production of quality things that last, which would enable consumers to progressively improve their standards of living.  All that thwarts us is our contempt for each other and the contemptuous nature of the money system, in how it commoditises and depersonalises exchanges of valuable, useful, beautiful items.

Software is now the face of most businesses.  The only interaction people have with a company is via its applications and web sites, not through face to face exchanges, with well-trained and smartly-dressed company representatives, in bricks and mortar stores or offices.  The company literally is their software.  Yet most software induces feelings of learned and imposed helplessness, when it goes wrong.  We’re left feeling powerless and helpless, when software fails, because we have no redress and no means to fix it ourselves.  Most don’t even have the comprehension and understanding to put software right, even if the tools and source code were available.

Software has become a take it or leave it proposition, built mostly to save costs, rather than provide rich human experiences.  When the end user license agreement, which permits you to use but never own the software, exceeds the length of Magna Carta, what possible legitimacy or legal force can a check box that asks if you have read, understood and agreed to the terms and conditions laid out in the “agreement” have?  Of course you haven’t.  That’s what the check box should say, if it were honest.

People check the box, because their only other option is a huge loss of amenity.  If that’s not a tactic straight from protection rackets, that menacingly ask to be paid to protect your establishment from “unforeseen accidents”, knowing full well that they, themselves, are the only possible saboteurs, then I don’t know what is.

And so the war perpetuates.  Makers make crap.  Consumers treat it like crap.  Consumers treat makers like crap.  Makers regard consumers as crap.  All the while, both sides worry excessively about their money.

What if purity were restored (if it ever existed)?  What if makers made things with integrity, to the very best of their available materials and ability, to have durability, utility and beauty?  What if their primary concern was the enrichment and betterment of other people’s lives, in important and meaningful ways, enabled by the things they produce?  What if their goal was to increasingly make available new and better items and experiences, which better human existence?  In return, how refreshing would it be if the grateful recipients of their improvements to life were respectful and fair in their attitudes toward makers, ensuring that their needs are met and that their lives are more than tolerable?  What if consumers sought to enrich the experience of being a maker, providing things of value?  What if makers loved what they made and the people they made them for and consumers loved and cherished those precious, made miracles and adored the makers that made them possible?

Then I awoke from my somnambulant reverie.

 

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Under-communication

I’ve been reading a very interesting book, lately, about originality and how to bring original ideas to fruition, against the tidal wave of pressure against the idea, from naysayers and sceptics.  The author makes a very interesting point: when you have conceived of an innovative, new, original idea, it exists in your head, fully formed and, no doubt, rehearsed and reworked many times, before it became clear to you.  You carry a high fidelity representation of that idea in your imagination.

The mistake we make, as originators of those fresh ideas, is that they are obvious to other people.  We unfortunately assume that, in the absence of a high fidelity model of the idea in the audience’s heads, they will conceive of it in the same rich detail we hold, from just a few words, suggestions or notions that we convey about it.  We imagine the idea to be so obvious and right, that anybody with half a brain could also conceive of it, in full, from just a few nudges in the right direction.  It just doesn’t happen that way.

The challenge for all original ideas is in communicating them in the same rich detail that they have in our imaginations.  Getting new ideas, or your art, accepted in any widespread way, with zealous adherents, disciples and fans, absolutely requires that you communicate enough about the idea to make even those resistant to the idea clear about what you have invented in your head.  It’s all about sharing your hallucination, so that others may share the same hallucination in vivid detail.

Most art and new ideas fail to ignite the imagination of the public because we, as originators and artists, fail to communicate.  We under communicate – chronically.  There is plenty of evidence to bear this out.  How often do you discover something good, which you had never heard of before and found yourself wondering why something of this obvious quality fell on deaf ears?  I discover ideas like this all the time.  They’re wonderfully described, but rarely promoted.  The originator did enough to conceive of and explain the idea, but not enough to propagate it.  How many more brilliant ideas never make it out of the imagination of the person that thought them up?

Propagating and promulgating new ideas requires that you have a certain status with your audience.  That status is all about believability and it’s not something that you can just assert; it has to be earned and granted, over time.  So, the first obstacle you face, as an artist or original thinker, is that if your audience hasn’t granted you the status of believability, granting you the power to influence the community, then you will struggle to have your ideas or art accepted.  In this case, under-communication isn’t your issue.  It’s the willingness of the audience to believe what you communicate, no matter how much or how well you do so.

Communicating your art or your idea is notoriously hard work and may be the reason why artists and innovators so regularly under-communicate.  It feels like a distraction to have to huckster for an idea you’ve already conceived of, instead of spending your time creating more great ideas.  Not only does it take a lot of time, it’s expensive.  It is, after all, marketing.

Organising your thoughts so that they are palatable and comprehensible to people that lack your original thinking abilities is also challenging.  How to do you teach people about something so far outside of their experience, that they struggle to even conceptualise a framework of understanding for your new idea?  You can’t assume they have the same background knowledge that you do.  What took you a lifetime of thinking to arrive at, in reality, may be difficult to encapsulate in an elevator pitch.  People regard every new thing you introduce to them as an inconsequential, trivial, toy, until the value of it is proven.  The PC was originally believed to be a toy, but look how many creative outcomes have been brought into existence for the sole reason that the creator had a PC.

A case in point is music sales.  Since the advent of iTunes and its ilk, it is now insanely easy to offer new music that you make for sale.  What’s harder is doing enough communication to make the iTunes client base even aware of your music and then to do enough subsequent communication to convince them that they ought to buy a copy.  A full one third of tracks offered on iTunes have sold precisely one copy.  94% of all available tracks sold fewer than one hundred copies.  Only about a hundred tracks, of the approximately 7.5 million on offer, ever sold more than a million units.  Having a hit is an exceedingly rare event.  How do you communicate enough about your brand new music track to make it the 1 in 75,000 that breaks through?  Those are long odds.

The answer is you have to get enough people to notice your track, in that sea of 75,000 other tracks and then convince those people that it’s worth their time, attention and money to buy a copy.  In other words, you have to show them that they will want to hear it more than once.

To achieve adequate communication, you have to be skilled at written, verbal and non-verbal communication modes, because everybody absorbs new information optimally in different ways.  One communication style, at the expense of the others, just leaves large parts of your potential audience behind.  Yet, all the while, people will actively resist your new art or new idea.  They start from a position of not wanting it at all.  Turning that around into a relationship where they desire your music, your art or your new ideas is a non-trivial undertaking.

To understand why people resist new ideas, it’s worth looking at the Kübler-Ross change curve:

Kubler Ross Change Curve

It turns out that people go through all of these stages, when dealing with change.  There is another interesting analogue to this curve.  It is the Kübler-Ross grief curve, which shows the stages we go through, when we experience a significant loss:

Kubler Ross Grief Curve

Interestingly, we face change in a very similar way to the loss of something we love.  We resist change for similar reasons to resisting mortality.  Imagine how careful, sensitive and nuanced your communication about a new idea has to be, to get people to accept it.  It’s akin to telling them a loved one has died.

It’s true to say that imaginative daydreamers would much prefer to be daydreaming, rather than communicating.  It’s what they do.  They get lost in their own imaginations.  The trouble is, if you want your idea or art to be accepted and acceptable, you have to abandon the daydreaming, for a while and get on with communicating.  In the attention economy, where attention is the scarcest resource, it’s almost inevitable that you will under-communicate, because of the intense competition for attention and its value.  Unfortunately, you are a scarce and finite resource, too.  There is only so much time and energy available for communicating your art and ideas, especially if you want to balance this with the time and energy you need to actually make new art and have new ideas.

For communication to be maximally effective, it needs to be structured and consistent, or it can fail.  Unstructured communication might be easier to do, but it’s harder to consume and that will necessitate you spending even more time on communicating.  Deluging people with information is not the same as communicating your art, idea or viewpoint in an accessible, logical and somewhat obvious way.  You have to take your audience on a journey.  You won’t be able to get them to make the intellectual leaps required, in a single bound.  I don’t care how good your idea is.

Don’t forget that all behaviour change typically takes eighteen months.  Whenever you try to introduce new art or new ideas to the world, the uptake is not going to be immediate, with the best will in the world.  Every new idea has a slow burn associated with it, as people struggle to accommodate the new thing in their model of the world, which they hold in their heads and live by.  Even when people say they get it, they’re still going to take some considerable time to internalise it and make it a part of their everyday lives.

In 1999, I couldn’t convince the company I worked for, a leader in mobile phone operating systems, that smart phones, heavily reliant on pictures, video and music, were going to be a big thing or even a thing at all.  Now, I doubt you could find a single human being, familiar with smart phone technology, that doesn’t see this as obvious and natural, but it wasn’t the case back then.  Even (especially) the experts thought it was unrealistic, mad and wild speculation.  Holding the view that I did was harmful to my career and prospects within that company.  Such a thing, that focused mostly on selfies, tunes and snapchats, instead of business appointments and financial spreadsheets, would be just a toy.  I was a heretic for pointing out what is, today, entirely obvious.

This brings me to another important point about under-communication for originators and artists.  If you under-communicate in a collaboration, you run the risk of discovering divergent intentions way too late.  In the case I described above, at least I unearthed a significant difference in our visions and intentions early.  I was able to go and pursue other things, instead of belabouring an idea, protected fiercely by the rest of the company, which I didn’t believe in any more.  For their part, the company more or less crashed and burnt.  They are no longer a leader in mobile phone operating systems.

A final challenge in communicating new ideas and art is that the gap between under-communication and overexposure seems to be precariously narrow.  There is a point at which you are preaching to the choir and your didacticism is seen as an annoyance, not furthering the acceptance of your idea.  Don’t be an originator that misjudges an audience and bludgeons them to death with repetitive information that they have already absorbed.  Know when you have already made an ally.

So, to summarise, communicating just the right amount is essential, but especially difficult.  You have no choice, though.  You have to do it to get your ideas and art out there.  Just don’t expect it to be as easy as creating.

 

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Unmade Contributions

In every vocational situation you find yourself in, you try your best, if you have any integrity.  You try to accomplish good things.  Sometimes, though, the doubters win and you find that you cannot assemble enough belief, faith, support, resources and the wherewithal to accomplish the vision.  Plans for breakthroughs come to nothing, other than some slide-ware and preliminary plans or sketches.  The massive contribution you were prepared to make never gets made.

There is nothing unusual in this, unless you happen to be somebody that is skilled in seeing future possibilities and how to realise them.  This is not voodoo; it’s methodical.  The way to conceive of breakthrough projects is to be good at noticing what people really need and understanding how available technologies could be bent into a shape that fulfils those needs.  You need imagination and a lot of practical, technical understanding.  It’s not enough to understand your tools and your media; you have to be able to see, in your mind’s eye, how to shape the media into something that doesn’t yet exist but could, with the tools you have.  Sculptors say that you remove all of the stone that isn’t the sculpture.  The same technique works with software, with electronics, with wood, with all sorts of materials.

Underneath the vision is a workable concept.  Just about everything we make is actually mostly a concept, which you then realise with materials and skills.  The idea of it is what comes first, though.  The book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” discussed this notion at length.  A motorcycle isn’t a thing, as much as it’s the culmination of a lot of thinking, ideas, concepts and imaginative connections, fixed in metal, rubber and other materials.  The idea is the essence of the thing, whether or not it is yet made.

Those people who say that ideas, on their own, have no value are in pure denial.  The same idea exists, whether in your imagination, or fixed in tangible materials.  So, how can the idea be worthless when just an idea, but valuable when you can get your hands on it?  It’s the same idea, but in different form.  Surely the materials, alone, are not valuable.  They’d just be raw materials, without the technology.

Humanity, perversely, tends to value ideas they didn’t think of themselves as worthless.  Other people’s ideas are worthless, whereas my ideas are valuable.  That’s the thinking.  The proof of the value of the idea is in the physical object, but that’s the last stage in the process.  Without the initial imaginative conception, the making is purposeless and the product useless.  The idea behind the thing is what holds it all together and makes it surprise and delight us.  Ergo, the idea must be intrinsically valuable, irrespective of our ability to see or measure that value.

Some people start by attacking their materials with their tools, without an imaginative plan in their heads and the concept gradually takes shape.  I would say that is the mainstay method of incremental innovators.  However, the more powerful (and somewhat disruptive) method is to take those same tools and materials and set about doing something with them that has never been done before, based on the concept that initially exists nowhere else but in your imagination.  That sort of consistently directed innovation, guided by a strongly imagined concept, produces astounding, breakthrough things that fit needs perfectly and surprisingly well, as if created by intelligent design (because they were).

I look back over my working life and see that I have served many different markets: content creators, musicians, composers, video editors, artists, retailers, motivators, monitors.  In every case, I envisaged breakthrough concepts, which have not yet been realised, to this very day, but which could take each market to a new level.  These ideas remain relevant, but I’ve moved on.  I couldn’t make the contribution because there was too much resistance to overcome.  I couldn’t keep hurting myself, physically and psychologically, to keep up the fight against overwhelming scepticism, rooted in nothing more than an inability to imagine what I could imagine.

Some may say that the right outcome occurred.  I had no proof that the ideas in my head would result in better things for all.  That may or may not be so, because in the absence of a real example of the thing I imagined, the proposition remains unverifiable.  However, there were classes of things I imagined which, much later, were made by other people and those things did succeed.  Those instances at least validate my ability to do what I say.  These concepts, which I first thought of, but which were subsequently also dreamt up and realised by others, were sound.  They would have worked.  We could have been the first to create them.  There was a real need for them and people were glad, once they were available.  The people around me, preventing me from realising them, really did miss a valuable opportunity.

I still have a long list of unmade contributions, many of which are listed on my personal web site.  They include a way to edit augmented reality, a better way to mix and record music, a distributed data centre that works faster and better for all, a permission and relationships based way of rewarding people for doing good things, a means to manage an independent music career without a record company, a way for artists to improve their draftsmanship and colour conceptualisation, and so on and so on.  Most of them, to this day, provide something better, which is not yet available.  But not enough people wanted them.  Not enough people were even interested enough to allow me to share what was in my imagination.  Egos get in the way.  The powerful need to assert their position in the false meritocracy and so cannot admit that somebody else’s imagination could be holding something within it that they, themselves, could never conceive of.  It’s more important to scent mark the boundaries of their imaginary territory in their hierarchy, than it is to explore a fertile imagination in a shared way.  So be it.

Some of those unmade contributions, perhaps most of them, will never be made.  Those imaginative ideas will never be made tangible or real.  I’m not going to kill myself trying to convince people, gatekeepers, to let me realise them.  Frankly, I’ve done enough of that and the stress and wear and tear on your body and soul is not sustainable.  It takes too much out of you.  I’d rather be creating than convincing people to give me the permission and resources to create those larger, grander visions, with more applicability, to bigger problems and which would matter to larger populations of eventual beneficiaries.  I’m not prepared to be abused in that way.

So I will continue to create in the ways I can, with the resources I can apply to those projects myself, without any external permission, investment or assistance.  Yes, that limits the scale and scope and hence the value of the things I do create, but at least I’m not spending my time on earth in conflict, for no good reason.  I’m not burning away my life trying to convince people that don’t want to be convinced.  Leave them to the sub-standard realities they inhabit, I say.  Better is possible, but why should anyone have to shove it down their throats, if they are determined to not embrace anything better?

Perhaps there are unmade contributions of your own that you recall with a mixture of nostalgia and slight regret.  You might have started and never finished projects that could have been really good, but which never were.  I find I have to let them go and reconcile myself to the fact that I did my best, at the time and as much as I could, to bring those ideas to life.  Nobody should have to be a martyr to innovation, crucified and destroyed, so that the rest of humanity could have it better.  I’m not the Messiah.

I’ve been very fortunate.  I have had more ideas than can be accomplished in a single lifetime.  I may yet have still more.  When it comes to workable ideas for better futures, I bat above the average and I’m grateful to inhabit a mind that works that way.  It gives me joy to imagine those future scenarios, even if I feel frustration at not bringing them to fruition.  It’s not my problem, though.  I’m not the diehard-sceptic whisperer.

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Is Art Disposable?

It seems that humanity has a schizophrenic attitude toward art.  Some works are considered scarce, valuable and precious and definitely not disposable, whereas other art forms are happily, gracelessly, casually trashed, without a care in the world.  We have funny aesthetic prejudices.

I recall when a painting by Jackson Pollock, called “Blue Poles”, caused uproar in Australia, because the national gallery had paid what was deemed to be an enormous sum of (presumably taxpayer) money for it.  It’s now one of the nation’s most valuable tangible assets, because they’re not making Jackson Pollock paintings anymore.

Musicians were always treated as disposable, by their record companies.  When one star fades away, another will come to take their place.  That was how the contracts were written and how the master tapes were treated, in any case.  Well, there hasn’t been another Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon or Freddie Mercury and there never will be.  Those artists came, gave us their art and are now gone forever.  Their works, it turned out, were not disposable after all.

We spend inordinate amounts of money on the preservation of country piles, built on the proceeds of the slave trade or some other imperial exploitation, crafted by semi-slave labour, to aggrandise what amounts to a sanctioned and glorified thief.  However, go and try to find the site of the invention of the jet engine or the workshops where they pioneered the bouncing bomb.  See if you can find where Turing did his most groundbreaking work, or where the first Formula One racing team worked.  Seek out George Martin’s Caribbean studio.  Those sites, of genuine historic and economic merit, are gone.  Disposable.

Answer this question truthfully: Has there been another Vincent Van Gogh?  Or Monet?  Or Caillebotte?  Gustave Caillebotte’s finest works were destroyed by invading armies, who used the canvases for more prosaic purposes, like butchery and food preparation.  Those paintings are lost forever.  A life’s work.  Every artefact that is destroyed takes away a piece of our collective memory and a tangible reminder that once, greatness graced our species.

Today, most music is copied and consumed as if it were disposable – with a status no better than plastic coffee cups or those infernal plastic bags that supermarkets used to thrust upon us.  Nobody makes any money, as a professional musician, because their product has been reduced to the status of a commonplace, unloved commodity.  Of course, if music stopped being made, how would people miss it?  Terribly, I submit.

We’re altogether too cavalier about some of the finest expressions of the creativity and originality of the human mind, while simultaneously too willing to sanctify works which displayed no great skill, insight, innovation or risk at all.  We love our monumental art, so long as it doesn’t disturb our nice, safe world views.

I think that the destruction of any art, which displays genius, extreme levels of skill, stunning originality or extraordinary creativity is a sin against humanity.  It is the barefaced denial of the fact that a mind superior to most of the rest of humanity’s once existed and produced beauty.  That denial is rooted in violence and jealousy.  There are people only willing to acknowledge art as being any good, if they feel they could have produced it.  Others denigrate art they claim they could have produced (ignoring the fact that they didn’t produce it, or anything comparable to it).  Still others deny that art that reaches far beyond their insights, understanding, capabilities and skills is worth a damn.  The valuation of art is a twisted business, laden with psychological twists and turns, signifying enormous ingratitude.

I think art is too fragile and too ephemeral, too precious and too remarkable, to be disposable.  And yet, we dispose of great art, in quantity, each and every day.  It is a measure of our barbarism and failure to evolve into higher-thinking creatures, as a species, which is at the root of this wanton waste.  And while we deplete the stock of beauty in our world, we are doomed to inhabit a permanently ugly one.

Creative work is important.  It is not disposable.  The geniuses that walk among us come too infrequently to be ignored and denigrated.  The myth of the nobility and necessity of the starving artist is a pernicious one.  It allows others to see art as worthless and disposable, made by people that haven’t the wit to become “successful” in this money-obsessed culture.  It’s all lies.  Some of the most incredible people that ever walked the earth were artists and they deserved better treatment from their fellow men than they received.  It’s scandalous that such creative people were treated so badly.

This is why art is not disposable.  It’s a monument and a testament to more evolved human beings; remarkable people, whose example ought to be emulated, not forgotten.  If you think art is disposable, you’re one of the less evolved.  One’s opinion on the disposability of art and the status of creative individuals in society is a pretty good yardstick to measure one’s relative sophistication, enlightenment and refinement.

I fear that the barbarians are still in the majority.

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Actions Speak Louder

What do you spend your spare time and money on?  That decision, it turns out, is a pretty reliable guide to how you have stacked your wider life priorities.  When people say they have no idea what they want to do with their lives, I always ask them to examine how they spend their spare time and money.  This is obligation-free, discretionary spending of both.  What you decide to devote your resources to, when there are other options available, is a pretty good guide to who you are and what you value most.

This isn’t the same as what you need to spend your money and time on, to survive.  Rather, it’s about self-actualisation.  If you happen to obtain a windfall, do you travel, buy books, have an expensive meal, donate it all to charity?  What do you do?

In my case, it’s paradoxical.  I most often spend windfalls on furthering my abilities on the guitar.  Sometimes, that’s through new equipment that enables or supports new techniques that I have not yet mastered.  At other times, it’s educational materials.  Oddly, though, the way I tend to spend my time has changed.  As a teenager, the first thing I would do is pick up a guitar and play it, whenever there was time available.  These days, I tend to write (for example, this blog) or interact with other people electronically.  I reach out more.  Guitar playing is more of an insular, solitary activity.  At present, I feel a stronger need for connectedness and inclusion.  Now, if only I could join the dots and marry my need for connectedness with my improved guitar playing!

The other aspect to this is how you choose not to spend your spare time and money.  As much as I enjoy repairing things when I do it, I don’t prioritise it.  There are things I’d rather be doing.  I have to schedule repairs and be very deliberate about sticking to the agenda, when I do so.  Consequently, the house still needs much more work done on it, there are electronic gadgets that need attention and so on.  I have literally hundreds of unfinished and not-yet-started repair jobs awaiting me.  The more you own; the more things you have to take care of.  Eventually, those unattended-to tasks become a stone around your neck.  I know I have to knock a few more of them over, to feel peace.  That will mean diverting money and time away from things that I value more.

I also tend to invest in the creativity of my family members.  When I can, I like to support their creative endeavours, as far as possible.  I’d rather do that than squirrel away a nest egg for security.  It seems to me that whenever my parents were able and willing to support my creativity, as a younger person, I flourished and blossomed.  When they weren’t supportive, I really struggled.  I’d rather my children had help in removing some of their obstacles to creativity.

Creating is a struggle in itself, so if you can help eliminate some of the material issues, leaving only the inner drive and focus issues, then creativity comes down to working against your own internal limitations and a process of self-improvement, as a human being, not a scramble to amass the resources.  That’s not to say that everything should just be thrown at them and placed in their laps, in the hope they will create.  There is satisfaction in working for and finally obtaining one’s own artistic material needs too.  It’s vital to respect that.

My parents’ priorities for my life were not always aligned with my own and that conflict led to pressures that I wish I hadn’t had, in some ways.  While it’s true to say that I am a much better and more accomplished engineer than Joe Satriani can ever hope to be (a fact that gives me some considerable satisfaction, it has to be said), in prioritising that over my guitar playing, I feel the loss acutely.  Joe and I have been playing guitar for nearly the same amount of time (give or take a month or so), but I feel far behind.  Guitar playing is the closest thing to the essence of my soul.  It needed more nurturing and support.

The ambitions you articulate are not very reliable.  Talk is cheap.  Lots of people say they want to write a novel, take up oil painting or learn to play an instrument, but the ones that get the job done are the people that make it a priority.  They pick up the instrument, the paintbrush or write, whenever there is a moment to do so.  That drive, coupled with how they direct their discretionary spending, is more effective than any number of longing wishes, however articulated.

It’s worth noticing and very interesting to honestly and objectively evaluate how you spend your free time and money.  If you are an artist, you will observe that you spend your time and money mostly on furthering your art.  You’ll be routinely investing in your artistic capabilities and creativity.  If you don’t do that, but think you’re an artist nevertheless, then I am afraid you are merely posturing and pretending.  That may be a painful realisation.  What you do is what counts.

Actions really do speak louder than words.

 

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Decompression

Yesterday, I believe I did some of the best work I have ever done, in my (now extensive) professional career.  I did the hard work: several weeks of careful, painstaking research, then I distilled it and simplified it for sound bite-like consumption and supported it with instantly understandable infographics.  I did the work I do best, which I am pretty sure nobody else in the organisation can do.  I’m pretty sure it’s a relatively rare skill set amongst human beings, truthfully.  I turned the complex and confusing into clarity; the overwhelming into the obvious.

My aim was to add the most value I could contribute.  What I do is act as way-seer and envisioner.  Yesterday, I presented it, with confidence and assurance, in a six hour meeting, during which I stood and talked for the entire time.  I took questions and objections.  At most interjections, I had supporting research to hand to draw upon, laid out clearly on previously created slides that were supplemental to my main presentation.  I was very well prepared.

My work is aimed at causing positive change.  I think many of my messages hit home.  Many of the previously believed and fervently held articles of collective faith have been challenged and replaced with a more realistic story about ourselves and where we are.  This is a better starting point for heading into the future.  The way ahead has been demystified and clarified and people seem to be on board with it.

Today, I am exhausted.  Fortunately, I booked some holidays a while ago, so the timing turned out well.  Rather than feeling elation, every last bone and muscle in my body aches, my head is sore and full of brain fog and I am very, very tired.  Last night, even though I had a medicinal snifter of Armagnac before bed, I awoke at 4AM, with my mind buzzing and filled with thoughts.  The cogs of my brain were whirring at a thousand revolutions per second.  It felt like lunacy.

This is what I have found, when you deliver some of your most creative, imaginative, detailed, innovative and foresighted work.  Rather than feeling deep satisfaction and relief, there is a sense of a dark, empty vacuum that occurs instead.  I have so many exciting projects I could be doing today (upgrading the tuning machines on my baritone guitar, changing the strings on my newest guitar and setting it up the way I like it, upgrading my digital audio workstation to the latest specification, buying electronic and guitar design CAD packages), all of which I wanted to do on my time off, but I find that my mind and body won’t let me.  I’m too distracted and too depleted to do that work well.

Reaching the peak is not the end of the journey and there are always new peaks to scale, but I think it’s only human to need to stop to draw breath, reflect on it all, give yourself the accolades for the work which others seldom do and let your mind and body decompress and recover.  Nobody can create at full tilt, with pedal to the metal, the whole time.  I find I need a quiet, contemplative day just to recharge the batteries of creativity.

So, here I am – decompressing.  A little recreational writing is a tonic, but so is my habit of chain-drinking cups of coffee.  It’s not even particularly good coffee, but functional, none the less.

People react in strange ways, when you deliver something remarkable, unexpected and unlike what they had ever seen before.  They’re almost never the reactions you expect.  Everybody comes at new information, like this, from their own perspective, their own state of personal growth and their own experience and maturity.  It doesn’t actually mean anything about the quality or other of the information and presentation.  It’s more about them and where they are, as human beings.  That’s useful to remember and something I didn’t realise until quite late in life.  Shame and small jealousies are as much a part of the mix as getting excited by ideas that hadn’t occurred to them.  The job, though, is to present the best information you can find, the best way you know how.

Next steps, from here on in, could go either way.  You can never tell.  All I know is that today is the wrong day to concern myself with that.  Today is the day I relax, unwind, refresh, recreate and decompress.  Job done – for now.

Do you find coming to the end of a major creative project is like this for you too?

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