Beginner's Mind, on Demand
Two months ago, I was scared. Scared I wouldn’t be able to keep up the course I was on. Scared my progress would grind to a stop. Scared I wouldn’t be able to deliver on the commitments that I’d made. Scared that I couldn’t cut it on the new level I was playing at.
See, about five months before that, I’d decided to go full time into product and software engineering with very little background in it. It was an incredible opportunity: join one of the best software product teams in the world and learn from, and with, the best. My answer was yes, almost without thinking, when I got the chance.
That was the end of last April. True or not, I believed that to rapidly get to a level where I could really contribute, I’d have to make an almost Faustian bargain: I would have to drop everything else in my life to learn what I needed to in such a short period of time. Social life, hobbies, most everything that I did for fun, gone. Note: there was no explicit deadline looming, but I always feel the clock ticking in my head. One of the curses of my brain. But to me, this deal was a no-brainer.
Pulling it off damn near broke me. As of early December, I was burned out. Totally fried. I could barely think straight anymore — even easy problems felt overwhelming, and I felt a sort of persistent mental cloudiness. I’d experienced that once or twice before in my life, but not in years. I knew something was seriously wrong and needed to change, stat, or things were going downhill.
It turned out the answer was two-fold: first, I needed to take care of myself physically. It’s not news at all: Regular exercise and a healthy diet are essential (I follow a low carb, Paleo-ish diet). The mid-afternoon hours always feel flat to me, so I started going for a light jog during that time. Within 3 days, I felt hopeful again and the cloud was dissipating. But it wasn’t enough.
The other key was, paradoxically, to do less. I won’t go into a whole “less is more” tangent right now, although I do believe it to be true. Taking care of your body is only the first step in getting to a place of sustained energy and creativity, and knowing that maintaining that level is NOT an accident or stroke of luck. That feeling alone is huge: knowing how to systematically crank up your creativity. The other part is cultivating the mental space and stimuli that make you better.
In this post, I’m going to explore the mental side of reclaiming creativity and energy around work, through the vehicle that saved my ass and is rarely given the credit it deserves: a hobby. This post will give you ideas for how to get your creativity going again if you feel like I did two months ago.
Before I get into what you should do, let’s cover what you shouldn’t do: abuse alcohol and/or drugs, or stay out all night. While it’s tempting to go rage a lot and internally justify it as a well-deserved escape, this will lead to bad places. I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work.
Now, on to what does work: systematically opening up space and filling it with things that stoke your creativity. Caveat: I recommend getting your health in order before taking up other hobbies. There is nothing that generates a higher return for you than an investment in your own health.
Why should you use your time and energy to cultivate a hobby?
Context switching is a powerful hack for your mind
Your mind can be a Clydesdale horse, or a jackrabbit that runs everywhere. It is each at different times, and times when each serves you best. Learning to switch between these two modes is a useful exercise, because each is useful at different parts of the creative process. The jackrabbit is very useful early in the creative process, when you want to generate a LOT of ideas. Quantity of ideas leads to quality of ideas, and the jackrabbit is your go-to mode here. But later in the creative process, when it comes to actually creating and delivering something of value, you want to go into Clydesdale mode. You need to hitch your mind to a certain context and let it go to work. That’s how you’re able to “turn it on” when you get into your office — your mind develops an almost Pavlovian response to the context of your office. That space means it’s time to go to work. This is referred to as “embodied thinking,” in which our physical context frames not just the types of ideas we have, but even the frames in which we think and the metaphors we use to explore ideas.
Fair enough, Andrew, but how does this help me be more creative overall? It’s an easy one to miss. There is a pattern at work: association with a context influences the ideas that come to mind for us and affects what we think of. So you can do two things to make yourself more creative: first, you develop a second context for your hobby. For me, that new physical space was right around my kitchen table and stove, where I spend a lot of time reading recipes and cooking.
But the real hack is to get your mind going in one context, and then when you are not making any progress, switch to the other context. The background processes in your mind will still be working on things from the first context (programming) and your conscious mind will be occupied with the new context (cooking). This lets your subconscious do its thing and generate more answers, and fairly predictably you will realize the answer to a problem while doing your hobby.
This is the exact same principle as having an idea hit you while you’re in the shower, or busy doing something else: your subconscious doesn’t stop.
Third, the creative problems of your hobby will often find strange ways of overlapping with the creative problems you face on a day to day basis. It turns out cooking and programming have lots in common: on a basic level, you have a set of inputs that have to be manipulated to produce a desired outcome and state, with lots of constraints and state changes along the way. Working through the problems in one improves abilities in the other.
Hobbies lower the cost of experimentation and perceived risk of failure
Our minds tend to generate their best ideas when at play, because we freely form new associations without risk. Developing a hobby is great for developing the habit of low-cost experimentation. Failure is cheaper, so we try more things and in turn get more results. When we’re at play in our hobby, making a mistake is not fatal and we know that. This contrasts with the way we implicitly view experimentation at work: risk.
When we attach huge stakes to something, we focus on it so much that we strangle our own creativity and actually reduce our odds of discovering a truly creative solution. But when we’re able to lower the stakes, suddenly, incredibly, ideas flow freely and we get we are really looking for. So a core principle of developing more good ideas it to lower the cost of experimentation and perceived risk. A hobby is perfect for this because you know in your gut that it doesn’t really matter. Or at least that’s what your conscious mind says.
The thing to remember here is to do whatever you can to lower the perceived — not actual — risk of experimentation and cost of failure. You’ll directly increase the number of ideas you have. And quantity of ideas leads to quality of ideas.
Hobbies are perfect training for other skill development
There are literal pathways of neurons in the brain that are developed as we learn new skills or exercise existing ones. The more we practice a skill, the deeper we make the associated grooves in our brain, and the stronger the pathways get. Thus, if you want to develop a habit, the most important thing at first is not quality of practice, but quantity.
Developing a hobby is the perfect place to learn how to develop any new habit, skill, or other thing you want to add your life you believe make it better. At the end of this post I have concrete suggestions for how to implement this frequency and skill-building in the early stages.
Diversifies your self-worth
Western society is very focused on the individual. Most people associate a great deal of their self-worth with their job. What’s the first thing you get asked at a cocktail party: “What do you do?” (Aside: I think there is no more boring question early in meeting someone.) The question is generally a cop-out, because were afraid of talking about something more interesting that might make us vulnerable. But it’s also indicative of how much of our self-worth we associate with our jobs. We know that we can use it as a bridge to talk to most anyone, at least for a little while.
While it’s generally true that we need to feel that we are useful and have autonomy to feel good about lives, it’s not a good idea to have your entire self-worth tied up in your role at work, or in a nonprofit or whatever it is that you do with most of your time. You are much, much more than your job title. You have so much more to offer to someone you meet than your knowledge of accounting, or programming, or advertising. You offer the sum total of your experience, your passions, the things that make you excited about life and that make you who you are.
And cultivating a hobby is one of the places where we get to develop those other sides of ourselves, thoughtfully and with intention. And this makes this much richer individuals in every way, adding more value and joy to everyone around us.
Forces you to say no
If you want to get good at anything, you’re going to have to not be good at something else. Blocking out time for hobby development is a good forcing function to make you remove nonessentials. Knowing that I’ll spend two hours cooking at night is a really good way to ensure focus and productivity in the hours that I’m actually working. I get more done in the same amount of time, because work usually expands to fill the amount of time we allow it.
We idolized people who seemingly can take on everything that comes their way and do more, and more, and more. But every example I can find of highly creative people — both in well-known luminaries like Steve Jobs, or in the wonderful people that I know personally — everyone I know who is really creative is also very focused. And not focused in a sense that reduces the color and joy of the world, the focused in the sense that they are focused on things that are important and add value to themselves and the world.
Let’s say there are ten things you want to do and become good at. You will be better served by slicing off just one to work on, and getting good at it first, and then moving on to the others. This this makes sense rationally, but very few people do it, instead trying to do everything at once. As the saying goes, “common sense is not common practice.”
How Do I Actually Use This?
1. Pick a hobby that is whimsical and different than what you do all day
I say “whimsical” because if it doesn’t have a lighthearted feel about it, then it’s a chore, not a hobby, and it won’t help you. You need a fun outlet, not another rote obligation. The more different it seems than what you do all day to support yourself, the better. Programmer or writer? Go cook, do woodworking, or make something tangible. Mechanic? Learn to dance. Chef? Try architecture.
Define a minimum acceptable amount, or “minimum quitting point.” Remember, in the beginning stages of developing a hobby (which is great training for any other skill or habit you want to develop later), quantity IS quality. Want to exercise? Start by doing 5 pushups a day. Make your initial daily goal LAUGHABLY small. So small that there’s no way you couldn’t do it. Pretty soon 5 pushups will become 15, then 50. Want to cook? Start by learning to make scrambled eggs with different flavor combinations: they’re easy, cheap, good for you, and have a great neutral flavor that you can use to try out different flavor combinations. Plus, they’ll spice up your morning.
2. Track that minimum action every day
I recommend using the Lift app (iOS). Just do something, ANYTHING, in the direction of your new hobby (this is why it’s so important to pick a laughably small minimum and be OK with hitting it). I’ve tried every “use this app and you’ll develop a hobby faster” that I’ve seen in the last 3 years, and this is by far the best one. Download it and put it on the home screen of your phone (note: I have no relationship with the company other than being a passionate user).
We manage what we measure, and just being conscious of doing it every day will increase the odds of you developing a habit.
3. Get a buddy
Everyone wants to be more awesome. Talk to your best friend and share what you want to learn to do. Odds are pretty good — assuming they are a positive, uplifting person, which is the kind of people you should be surrounding yourself with — that they will open up and share something that they’re working on too. Team up.
If you want to turbocharge this, use loss aversion to your mutual gain and bet a small amount of cash (even $10 does it) to a charity you hate if you don’t deliver. Use Stickk (free).
4. Capture new ideas that come to you
One counterintuitive pattern that you can bank on is that your biggest breakthroughs will probably happen away from your primary work environment. The established context, or way of doing things, is incredibly powerful in focusing our attention. We spend a huge percentage of our time — for most people, this is at their job — doing a small set of activities within a defined context that has relatively constant rules. Changing that context allows for new ideas to get into your subconscious and mingle with what’s already there, and the results can be amazing.
You MUST have a system to capture ideas, whenever they appear, wherever they appear. The particulars of the system aren’t important. The point isn’t the system itself, it’s the ideas you’ll capture with it. Whatever works for you, do it.
For me, two things were really important: speed of idea entry and the ability to access those ideas anywhere. My overall system is a version of GTD, using Evernote for overall organization and storage and Captio for fast idea capture, anywhere (I set the @ address for Captio to my Evernote address). Captio may be the most productive $0.99 I have ever spent.
5. Sustain beginner’s mind
You’re probably familiar with the concept of the “beginner’s mind.” The reason that a beginner’s mind is so powerful is that, lacking knowledge of how things are already done in a field, a beginner has no choice but to use concepts they bring with them from a previous field.
Powerful new insights come from seeing a truth in plain sight, that is hidden because of what is commonly believed to be true. Beginners don’t have beliefs about a field yet, so the truths that hide in plain sight to an expert are not hidden. They’re just sitting there, waiting to be picked up or asked about.
It’s impossible to develop your creativity in one field without developing it in other fields. Seemingly diverse fields often share similar thought patterns, but the different context takes the pressure off and so your subconscious is free to do its thing and come up with great answers. Like John Cleese says in his excellent talk on creativity, you give your subconscious some time and space, gently pressing on it, and it will reliably come up with something incredible.
Learn how to develop hobbies, you have a reliable and never-ending source of beginner’s mind.