The most important ingredient for a creative life
Then there’s that famous quote by Einstein about having no talent but just a load of curiosity: “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”
Though I have concerns about Einstein’s downplay of the role of skill, the quote hits the mark in its emphasis on curiosity as a key feature of the creative process.
A little true story
At 15 I did work experience at a photography studio called “Haig & Mant”.
This guy called Mant (or Haig) looked like the scientist Stephen Pinker. Plus he embraced the whole ‘giving students experience of the world’ thing.
He’d never talk about what he was doing as he was doing it. Not in that instructional ‘this is how you turn on a light-box way’.
Instead, he gave me life hacks.
Then, of course, a life hack wasn’t called ‘life hack’. But looking back, I see Mant (Haig) was a life hack pioneer.
It’s been nearly thirty years since I sat next to him at his light-box looking at strips of negatives.
“ I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious. ”
One life hack happens to relate to the topic of this article – curiosity.
Once, as he looked into the loupe he said:
“Never stop asking questions, Naomi. Look at the chair over there.”
He nodded his grey curls in the direction of an ugly chair in the corner, “Ask where the chair was made, who made it, what it’s made from. Ask about all the things it can be used for – and can’t. Ask why it’s called a chair and what other objects are classified as such.”
When he said this I almost collapsed in a pile of fatigue. As it was, I had enough trouble working out the train timetable. But later, as I grew, I figured out what Haig/Mant was about.
He was about not letting the spark go.
He knew that once I mastered train timetables – and tax returns and relationships and all those facets a person negotiates to get a grip on life – I’d need something to anchor my creativity.
I’d need a strategy to stop me sinking underneath the muck.
And that one life hack, “never stop asking questions” was the key.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentihalyi says there are four key activities for cultivating curiosity:
1. Try to be surprised by something every day
Best way to do this is to take notice of what you see, hear and read about. Take care with the details of these things and don’t assume you know all about them. He says to ask “what is the essence of the things you saw or the conversation you had.”
Delving like this lends a richness to experience.
“ And that one life hack, ‘never stop asking questions’ was the key. ”
2. Try to surprise at least one person every day
Be a little whacky, but in a good way. Avoid predictability by saying something you haven’t said before, expressing an opinion you normally repress, ask a question you’d normally keep to yourself. Change your appearance, hang with a new group of people.
3. Write down each day what surprised you and how you surprised others
Record the results of 1 and 2 above. Write about the surprising and novel experiences they conjured. You might see a pattern over time and a domain you’d like to engage in creatively might reveal itself.
4. When something strikes a spark of interest, follow it
Often we’re too busy to follow something that’s captivated us, or it’s not in our domain so we feel it’s not our business.
Csikszentihalyi writes that letting the world lead us without the constraints of habit and expectation can open possibilities.
Take away …
What all this amounts to is the sense that Haig/Mant imparted to me in that small photographic studio, and what Csikszentihalyi describes as the world “being our business”.
As creatives everything encounter is the opportunity for a creative transaction.
That transaction is more likely to occur the more curious we are.
Post-script: I have tried to find Haig/Mant to thank him for his life hacks, which truly have made my life more fulfilling. The studio doesn’t exist anymore, but if by chance someone reads this and knows of the photography studio in South Melbourne, Victoria, Australia I write about, and the whereabouts of Haig/Mant, let us know at GIM.