Think being an ideas junkie makes you creative? Think again

There is no clinical evidence to prove this, but my brain fell in love with ideas and got close to that of a cocaine addict

Charles Assisi

[By Gerd Altmann under Creative Commons]

One piece of feedback that has consistently come my way over the years is that I get too engaged with a task on hand. In doing that, I neglect other things I ought to pay attention to. As is always the wont with feedback, I would onboard it as part of an annual ritual most people are provided with at “annual reviews” and get back to life as usual.

But then, all thanks to some adverse circumstances I encountered seven years ago, I was compelled to maintain a daily journal of what is it that I do every day. It was part of an exercise to monitor my routine and is now a habit I cannot shake off. Over time, I have come to carry “the benefit of hindsight” with me every place I go.

Since then, I have tried to build “foresight” into it as well by planning each day, week, month, year and even what my future ought to look like.

While on the topic of the future, if you permit me to digress for a moment, may I point you to one of the best reads I have come on how to think about the future? It was originally posited by the legendary investor Howard Marks in one of his much-anticipated memos: “… the future should be viewed not as a fixed outcome that’s destined to happen and capable of being predicted, but as a range of possibilities and, hopefully, on the basis of insight into their respective likelihoods, as a probability distribution.”

If this gets your attention, all of Marks’s memos beginning from 1990 are archived on Oaktree Capital. While written from the perspective of an investor, they contain universal truths and make for compelling reads.

That out the way, over the past few months, people who know me intimately have noticed something. All of them have accepted me as someone who leans towards introversion and is best left to communicating through writing as a chosen mode of communicating with them. But I was told subtly and in not-so-subtle ways they can’t quite put a finger on what is it with me in recent times. And as is always the case with people who have blinders on, I thought something was the matter with everyone else.

Out of the blue then, a gentleman called me up last week. I have known him for many years now, from my earlier avatar as a journalist. Over time, though, we got to know each other well, bonded and shared many personal thoughts and notes with each other. He continues to remain in public life and reached out to me, not as a professional, but as a patriarchal figure I look up to and aspire to be like some day.

The background to the call was a note I had written him asking for an interaction. This, so that I may better understand the machinations of governance, decision making and what it takes to be in public office. All for a project I am working on.

“I want to spend time with you,” he told me in his gentle, but firm tone. “I read and re-read your note to me. I need to understand your motives on why are you pursuing what you are.”

“Most certainly sir,” I said. And went on to articulate, over 30-odd minutes, what is it I was pursuing, why and the outcomes I was seeking. He heard me out patiently.

He then devoted the next 60 minutes to my question and compelled me to think along lines I never had before.

• Why did I frame my question the way I had?

• Before I framed my question, was I aware of who I was?

• How much of my time do I invest in building self-awareness? And how much of my time do I invest in engaging with a real world that comprises real people with real problems?

• If it is self-awareness that I am seeking, how much do I need? He told me I can expend a lifetime in getting aware of the self to attain nirvana and become Buddha-like. “Is that where you want to go?” he asked. “Or do you want to expend all of your energies in engaging with people outside of yourself without knowing who you really are? How far will that take you?”

• What kind of people exist around me as checks and balances who have the mental muscle to pull me out of questioning mode? The problem, as he put it, is that it is possible to go on forever asking questions and not get anywhere.

• When do I stop asking a question?

• How many answers are needed to a question before I attack a problem?

• Do I know what my frailties are?

• If I am aware, then I ought to know how do I frame my questions. If I am not, I won’t.

This was tough love and I told him that in as many words. He told me gently he could sense it from where he is—which is why he wanted to engage with me. I couldn’t thank him enough.

What they don’t have is the mental muscle to take an idea, stick to it and then make it happen

Some more introspection later and after a few more conversations with close friends, I figured I am veering closely towards becoming an “idea junky”. It didn’t take too long to figure this was dangerous territory to be in. As that famous quote by Hugh McLeod goes, “Good ideas come with a heavy burden. Which is why so few pursue them.”

The sum and substance of which is that an ideas junkie is always looking for a fix, for the next big high—much like a cocaine addict. They need a new idea every single day. What they don’t have is the mental muscle to take an idea, stick to it and then make it happen.

But idea junkies operate differently. For them, once they’ve shared an idea, they’re done with it. They see themselves as the creative types. Those who execute and implement it are, in the minds of idea junkies, boring people. That is why, at the end of the day, idea junkies manage to get very little, or nothing, done.

Creativity is the art of turning new and imaginative ideas into reality - Linda Naiman

“Creativity is the art of turning new and imaginative ideas into reality. Creativity involves two processes; thinking, then producing. Innovation is the production or implementation of an idea. If you have ideas, but don’t act upon them, you are imaginative but not creative,” writes Linda Naiman, an entrepreneur and writer.

And then almost by serendipity, I stumbled across a short question-and-answer session with the much-acclaimed scientist Richard Feynman on Less Wrong, a curated discussion blog.

You can either choose to watch the video because you get to watch and listen to Feynman speak in the inimitable way only he can, or you can read the transcript below it. May I suggest you do both?

I also assure you that it will confuse you. Because at the end of it, you won’t know whether Feynman was trying to point to the futility of the question, questioning and how far down the path of questioning you ought to go, or whether he was trying to take the mickey out of the interviewer. In any which case, time spent on the transcript and the video will be time well spent.

Interviewer: If you get hold of two magnets, and you push them, you can feel this pushing between them. Turn them around the other way, and they slam together. Now, what is it, the feeling between those two magnets?

Feynman: What do you mean, “What’s the feeling between the two magnets?”

Interviewer: There’s something there, isn’t there? The sensation is that there’s something there when you push these two magnets together.

Feynman: Listen to my question. What is the meaning when you say that there’s a feeling? Of course you feel it. Now what do you want to know?

Interviewer: What I want to know is what’s going on between these two bits of metal?

Feynman: They repel each other.

Interviewer: What does that mean, or why are they doing that, or how are they doing that? I think that’s a perfectly reasonable question.

Feynman: Of course, it’s an excellent question. But the problem, you see, when you ask why something happens, how does a person answer why something happens? For example, Aunt Minnie is in the hospital. Why? Because she went out, slipped on the ice, and broke her hip.

That satisfies people. It satisfies, but it wouldn’t satisfy someone who came from another planet and who knew nothing about why when you break your hip do you go to the hospital. How do you get to the hospital when the hip is broken?

Well, because her husband, seeing that her hip was broken, called the hospital up and sent somebody to get her. All that is understood by people.

And when you explain a why, you have to be in some framework that you allow something to be true. Otherwise, you’re perpetually asking why. Why did the husband call up the hospital? Because the husband is interested in his wife’s welfare. Not always, some husbands aren’t interested in their wives’ welfare when they’re drunk and they’re angry.

And you begin to get a very interesting understanding of the world and all its complications. If you try to follow anything up, you go deeper and deeper in various directions.

For example, if you go, “Why did she slip on the ice?” Well, ice is slippery. Everybody knows that, no problem. But you ask why is ice slippery? That’s kinda curious. Ice is extremely slippery. It’s very interesting.

You say, how does it work? You could either say, “I’m satisfied that you’ve answered me. Ice is slippery; that explains it,” or you could go on and say, “Why is ice slippery?” and then you’re involved with something, because there aren’t many things as slippery as ice.

It’s (not) very hard to get greasy stuff, but that’s sort of wet and slimy. But a solid that’s so slippery? Because it is, in the case of ice, when you stand on it (they say) momentarily the pressure melts the ice a little bit so you get a sort of instantaneous water surface on which you’re slipping.

Why on ice and not on other things? Because water expands when it freezes, so the pressure tries to undo the expansion and melts it. It’s capable of melting, but other substances get cracked when they’re freezing, and when you push them they’re satisfied to be solid.

Why does water expand when it freezes and other substances don’t?

I’m not answering your question, but I’m telling you how difficult the why question is. You have to know what it is that you’re permitted to understand and allow to be understood and known, and what it is you’re not.

You’ll notice in this example that the more I ask why, the deeper a thing is, the more interesting it gets. We could even go further and say, “Why did she fall down when she slipped?” That has to do with gravity, involves all the planets and everything else. Never mind! It goes on and on.

And when you’re asked, for example, why two magnets repel, there are many different levels. It depends on whether you’re a student of physics, or an ordinary person who doesn’t know anything. If you’re somebody who doesn’t know anything at all about it, all I can say is the magnetic force makes them repel, and that you’re feeling that force.

You say, “That’s very strange, because I don’t feel kind of force like that in other circumstances.” When you turn them the other way, they attract. There’s a very analogous force, electrical force, which is the same kind of a question, that’s also very weird.

But you’re not at all disturbed by the fact that when you put your hand on a chair, it pushes you back. But we found out by looking at it that that’s the same force, as a matter of fact; an electrical force, not magnetic exactly, in that case. But it’s the same electric repulsions that are involved in keeping your finger away from the chair because it’s electrical forces in minor and microscopic details. There’s other forces involved, but it’s connected to electrical forces.

It turns out that the magnetic and electrical force with which I wish to explain this repulsion in the first place is what ultimately is the deeper thing that we have to start with to explain many other things that everybody would just accept.

You know you can’t put your hand through the chair; that’s taken for granted. But that you can’t put your hand through the chair, when looked at more closely—why—involves the same repulsive forces that appear in magnets.

The situation you then have to explain is why, in magnets, it goes over a bigger distance than ordinarily. There it has to do with the fact that in iron all the electrons are spinning in the same direction, they all get lined up, and they magnify the effect of the force until it’s large enough, at a distance, that you can feel it.

But it’s a force which is present all the time and very common and is a basic force of—almost,  I mean, I could go a little further back if I went more technical—but on an early level I’ve just got to tell you that’s going to be one of the things you’ll just have to take as an element of the world: the existence of magnetic repulsion, or electrical attraction, magnetic attraction.

I can’t explain that attraction in terms of anything else that’s familiar to you. For example, if we said the magnets attract like as if they were connected by rubber bands, I would be cheating you. Because they are not connected by rubber bands. I would soon be in trouble. You’d soon ask me about the nature of the band.

And secondly, if you were curious enough, you would ask me why rubber bands tend to pull back together again, and I would end up explaining that in terms of electrical forces, which are the very things that I’m trying to use the rubber bands to explain. So I have cheated very badly, you see.

So, I am not going to be able to give you an answer to why magnets attract each other except to tell you that they do. And to tell you that that’s one of the elements in the world—there are electrical forces, magnetic forces, gravitational forces, and others, and those are some of the parts.

If you were a student, I could go further. I could tell you that the magnetic forces are related to the electrical forces very intimately, that the relationship between the gravity forces and electrical forces remains unknown, and so on.

But I really can’t do a good job, any job, of explaining magnetic force in terms of something else you are more familiar with, because I don’t understand it in terms of anything else that you are more familiar with.

(This article was first published in Livemint. Republished with permission.)

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About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is currently co-founder and director at Founding Fuel. He writes a weekly column as well under the slug Life Hacks in Mint, India's most influential business newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

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