Episode 40 – How to Live a Creative Life

In this episode I discuss some of the ways you can start to live a creative life. There is a lot more to waves than you might believe.

When I was young, my father would take us on vacation for a month every year. When I was fifteen, we were in Durban, a port city on the East coast of South Africa. They were holding an international surfing contest. For a fifteen-year-old kid, this was heaven. Sun, sea, sand and a beach filled with attractive young women. This was the definition of paradise. Especially when you are young and good-looking. Of course, now I’m just good looking.

The competition came down to two surfers. The Australian, Shane Horan caught the first wave. It was a perfect run down the length of the beach. The Hawaiian, Dane Keoloa caught the next wave for the final run of the competition. It was another perfect run. Right at the end of his run, with the waves about three feet high, he did a perfect 360 on his board. The beach erupted with applause.

I don’t know much about surfing, except that it is fun to watch. I do know something about waves. From quite a young age I would paddle out passed the breakers and swim around for a while. When you are close to the beach, it is quite easy to dive over the waves. When they get a little bigger you have to know how to handle them. If a wave is cresting you have two options. You can try to chest up the wave if it is not too big, or you tunnel through the wave. If it isn’t cresting, you just rise up the swell and let the wave go.

Technology is much the same. It comes at you in waves. Just like a wave, you need to know how to handle it. Some innovations can pass under you without much harm. With some technology, you have to tackle it head on and dive through it. The greatest thrill of all is to paddle with the technological wave and body surf all the way to the beach. But if you don’t handle the wave correctly, it will smash you into the sand.

 I learnt this the hard way. I started in IT in the 1980’s and I became very successful. I was considered a technical expert in the computer language that I used, NATURAL, as well as ADABAS, an early database. Due to my expertise, I was able to apply to come over to the U.S. where I worked as a contractor. I earned a decent income right through the Year 2000. And then technology smashed me into the sand. The work dried up. People moved to personal computers and new languages. The old mainframe language died. Quickly.

 I was so busy earning an income that I had neglected to keep up with technology. No one wanted my skills. I took a certificate course at a local university, but, not having experience, no one cared. Technology not only smashed me into the sand, it also dragged me around and filled my lungs with water. I eventually learned some of the new languages, but I was never the expert that I used to be.

 I have always been innovative. Not Bill Gates or Steve Jobs innovative, but innovative nonetheless. In the early 1980’s, I developed an email system using a security system that I designed as a control hub for programs. The idea of email wasn’t new. DARPA, the group that developed the early Internet, developed email years before. Also, my program did not communicate between machines. But it did communicate between users of our systems.

 A few years later I developed an analytics system using a number of different technologies. The system allowed clients to access large amounts of data without the need for programmers. This saved the company a lot of money. I was never able to go beyond the idea and commercialize it.

 Today, I am sitting on what is potentially a billion dollar idea. It is quite possible that someone else has come up with the same idea and is busy developing it. It is also possible that it is not commercially viable. The chances are pretty good that my idea will never see the light of day. That is one of the central problems with innovation. We don’t follow the idea through to commercial success. Like waves, if you don’t seize on an idea and develop that idea, it will pass you by. Or smash you into the sand.

 Most people are naturally innovative and creative. It is how our brains evolved. Most of us approach a problem in the same way. We sit and look at the problem from different angles, to try and solve the problem. This is a tough process, and at some point during the process, we become frustrated. We believe that we cannot provide a solution to the problem. Some people just push the problem aside and forget about it, and the chance to solve it disappears. Others worry about the problem obsessively.

 We think that we won’t solve the problem, so we have a shower, watch a movie, or go to bed. And then the answer hits us. A spark of insight. We believe that insight is unrelated to the original problem, that we receive the answer from some external source. That belief is certainly wrong. The work that we put into the original problem was exactly what we should be doing. The minute we relax and free our minds from the numbing avalanche of detail, our right hemisphere is free to pull the threads of all those details together. That is when the answer hits us.

 Our brain is divided into two hemispheres. The left-brain is our logical brain. That is the hemisphere that follows a step-by-step plan to solve problems. When that hemisphere becomes frustrated, we need to involve the right hemisphere. That is the creative hemisphere. When we stop obsessing about a problem and relax by having a shower or taking a walk, our left brain can relax and allow the right-brain to put the pieces together.

 Far too many people sit at a computer screen for eight hours a day in the belief that more work will provide solutions to their problems. Society has the same mistaken belief. When you become so totally frustrated with a problem that you want to give up, just doing some totally unrelated activity can allow your creative brain to provide solutions. Humans evolved to solve problems. It is how we survive. Unfortunately it is also how we threaten our own existence.

 Creativity is tough. It takes a lot of hard work to smooth the rough edges of our creative minds. We may feel a flash of insight, but we must first nail down that insight. We need to look at it in the cold light of day. We need to examine it more closely and decide whether it is worth pursuing. That is when the hard work of chiseling away all extraneous material until the statue appears as though fully formed from within the marble.

 People who believe that creativity is a momentary burst of brilliance are woefully misinformed. My extremely creative grandfather used to tell me that, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Consider the writer who is never satisfied with a sentence, the poet who discards a beloved line, a master diamond cutter who stares at a diamond for days before applying his chisel. The truly creative artists, or engineers or mountaineers dedicate their lives to the mind-numbing details of their craft. That creates the conditions for that spark of genius, that symphony or that graphic art.

 If you want to be creative, you have to put in the time to master a single note on that cello, a single swipe of the paintbrush, or an abbreviated piece of computer code. You have to battle through the frustrations of being unable to solve a mathematical equation. Those struggles will set the scene for your burst of brilliance.

 You have to learn how to handle the waves, do you tackle them head one, ride the wave, or learn from being smashed into the sand. Innovation is an art, a state of mind, and you can learn to be creative.