Getting Creative

I’m staring at the words, “getting creative,” on a blank screen. For writers, it is called writer’s block. Others might call it getting stuck. And wouldn’t you know, there is an app for that: unstuck.

This is a free app offering free life coaching for anyone who feels stuck. And that’s the beauty of the web these days. If you can afford the initial barrier to entry of a device that can process the information and a connection to that network of data, people and opportunities, there are people just giving things away. How does that work? Why do they do it?

The Long Now Foundation sums up the philosophy in reference to Tim O’Reilly’s seminar:

The global mind is not an artificial intelligence. It’s us, connected and augmented.

What keeps driving it is the generosity and joy we take in creating and sharing. The global mind is built on the gift culture of every medium of connectedness since the invention of language. You gain status by what you give away, by the value you create, not the value you take.

(Losing something is a terrible feeling. Finding that thing is such a relief. Like this quote I read yesterday, lost and just found again. Thank you, Google.)

Many people seem to be trying to figure out how to make money. Truth be told, so am I. People say that “money is the root of all evil.” Unfortunately, that is a slight misquote of the original, I think, which goes, “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”

It is interesting to discover that research appears to support the view that money is actually a very poor motivator (see Dan Pink’s RSA Talk, Drive—The surprising truth about what motivates us), at least when it involves any rudimentary cognitive skill. As an incentive, the power of money only goes so far. But, if someone is able to find some greater value in what they do, they’ll do it regardless of whether they get paid or not. Money is still a factor. But passion (see Steve Jobs talking about passion) is a far more efficient fuel than money.

Getting creative means tapping into those passions, igniting the fire, fanning the flames and fueling that passion with time and effort. Collaboration goes a long way, too. Just as a glowing ember can be removed from a fire and quickly turn as black as coal, it is all too easy to lose one’s passion. Bring these embers together, and you can set things ablaze, and people are drawn to the light and warmth.

I’ve been involved with a community of web designers and developers who have been working hard to improve some software that helps them collect, create, publish and sell. It is a little known system, but has garnered a very loyal following. These are people with passion, who are helping build an open source system that helps them do what they love. And in some cases, it has become a passion in and of itself. It is an XSLT-based web publishing system called Symphony. Some call it a framework or a content management system.

Something about this community and this small bit of code has fueled a flame of passion in me that won’t go out. I have been encouraged to give up this folly to invest my time in endeavours that align better with what is more popular and more successful. But that would mean giving up the community that I have come to know over the past several years and to abandon an approach to design and development that I strongly believe in. And there is nothing wrong with being small. Obscurity is good. It keeps the community at a manageable size, and the quality of the code and the interactions in the community very high.

I was willing to entertain the thought of giving up the connections I have built over these several years if there was another community of creative individuals that could live up to the same expectations I have about a creative collaboration. Unfortunately, I felt there was more lofty speech about creative processes and collaboration than actual effort and movement in that direction. There has been movement, but in a different direction than I have been moving. As these paths have continued to diverge, I felt I needed to make a decision about what to do with my time, rather than let someone else make that decision for me. Money ceased to be the motivator for me. The primary motivators, if we go back to Dan Pink’s book about Drive, are:

  • Challenge
  • Mastery
  • Purpose

When the work assigned to me seemed unchallenging, repetitive, arbitrary and uninspired, I did my best to infuse the work with creativity by giving myself a challenge to develop something innovative, by turning the work into a means of mastering a skill, and aligning the work with the purpose of demonstrating a high level of craft in everything I do.

There is a fundamental difference in my perception of the role of design in the work. Design has often been considered a necessary intermediate step in the process, fitting somewhere between content strategy and development. I believe that design encompasses the entire process. It is not merely about aesthetics. But that puts greater responsibility on the designer to understand the entire process. That has been my purpose for the past quarter century.

There has been a move away from a production-oriented assembly line process to a more collaborative approach involving interdisciplinary teams. This is great to see, and it is a necessary step in the evolution of the web design and development process. I am excited to see how this evolution can contribute to more innovative and creative work over time.

Again, money is a factor. I am not independently wealthy, but I am by no means poor. I have opportunity, tools, skills and ideas, as well as bits and pieces of code and design from abandoned projects. I don’t have a plan, but I have a passion and a will to create. I have a strong desire to create something that I think the world needs. Taking a long view of things, I don’t mind taking the time to get things right. However, there is a sense of urgency to what I am doing, since I have only so much time. But it helps to know that I’m not doing this on my own. I have established some connections that will help fuel the passions I have to create something of value in this world. Only time will tell whether it will have been worth the effort. But at least I will have tried.