Perspective

I want to tell a personal story. An incident happened to me in all of one moment and shook me to the core. It made me laugh at my stupidity and also handed me a valuable lesson. Oh and a story to tell the grandkids some day.

The story is set in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco, in a parking garage. A map of the exact location in Mission is needed here. J, B, U, Serrano’s and SFBC are locations on the streets as marked around the parking garage in question.

J and U are food establishments that I have frequented quite often in the past year that I have been in San Francisco. My route on such occasions from home via car is the orange arrow from Valencia on the left into the parking garage.

A couple of months ago, I enrolled in a weekly evening course at SFBC (on Bartlett, on the RHS of the map above). I would come straight from work using the route marked by the black directed line on 21st from right. I would cross Bartlett and turn left into the parking garage. I would park my car in the garage, walk over to the door (unlabeled gray box directly opposite SFBC) and go into SFBC. After the 2 hour class, I would walk back to the garage, pay the parking attendant at the booth the parking fees and exit out the garage the way the blue arrows go in the map above: out and left on to 21st facing Serrano’s, and then left on to Valencia to go to home.

I went for 6 weeks to SFBC for my course. The course finished. Then a few days later, I again went to Serrano’s (via the same orange route) and parked my car in the garage as usual. And there, in one moment, it was as if a bolt of lightning had hit me. I was left thoroughly shaken. I realized at that moment that this is actually the same parking garage that I used when coming in for my SFBC class. My brain raced to think about how it was when I used to come for the class. I then realized that I had often marveled how the parking attendant looked somewhat familiar and how once or twice I had felt that I “knew” the pizza place called Serrano’s when exiting the garage after the class. Whoa! How stupid could I have been? To top it all, it was a meditation class in SFBC that would usually leave me quite calm and awake so I was definitely not in an unalert state around my class. Granted that I am still new to SF, but what happened? Why did my brain not realize it earlier?

It is astonishing to me that I could not conclude this simple fact even at those times when I “felt” after the class that I had somehow seen the parking attendant before. Equally astonishing is the simple but powerful life lesson embedded in this episode: the crucial value of perspective. Isn’t it amazing how the same thing can look completely different depending on how you are looking at it. In my case a parking garage looked like two different garages for no good reason. You look at a thing slightly differently, perhaps at a different time of day or in a different frame of mind and an apple could look like an orange. Isn’t that incredible? A simple lesson in the wisdom of practising tolerance of other points of view.

I am definitely passing this story to my grandchildren!

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How to give creativity a chance every day ?

Andrew Wiles, the recent solver of the 350 year old mathematical mystery of Fermat’s last theorem said of his process: “You have to really think about nothing but that problem — just concentrate on it. Then you stop. Afterwards there seems to be a kind of period of relaxation during which the subconscious appears to take over, and it’s during that time that some new insight comes”.

Closer to home, it is known in the circles that D.E. Knuth, the famous author of the seminal work “The Art of Computer Programming”, has abandoned email since January 1, 1990 with the poetic words “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.”

Wiles and Knuth provide a glimpse of how they manage their creativity. These are great men and I am under no illusion of being in their class. However, in my own little world, I have to engage in the creative process as part of both my work and my interests. Hence a question often emerges in my mind these days — how can I allow creativity the attention and the time it deserves, on a regular, and ideally on a daily basis? Specifically, how many hours of time should I make myself engage in creative work, and during what portion of the day, and whether at one stretch or over multiple sessions? This question becomes more important over time with the increasing distractions of the modern work life such as email, blogs, twitter, meetings, interviews and so on.

Before we make headway, I need to define creativity, at least broadly. Because it is easier, I will define non-creative work instead — as any work that is reactive, any work that makes us a net consumer than a producer. By this definition, reading anything is non-creative. So is watching TV or consuming any information or facts. I want to put pretty much anything else in the creative category. Examples include thinking of new ideas, writing, even making a powerpoint presentation, writing a software program, deciding the goals of a team, etc.

I realize that problems can be trivially pointed out in this definition, as consumption and production are often intimately connected, but I don’t feel the need to explain myself more here. I can not believe that anyone believes that reading an unsolicited email is creative, or that thinking about a new way of doing what one needs to do is not. Further, my question probably doesn’t apply to some jobs by their very nature, but I have no particular interest here in getting to the general answer for all natures of work. Having said that, creativity seems applicable to me to a vast majority of works.

What is my purpose in asking this question? My own work requires a mix of creative and other work and certainly creativity needs the input of and interaction with external information to prosper. However, my goal is to maximize my creative output and tune my non-creative work to the level that only serves that goal. (There is also the very important role of relaxation, as Wiles has said above, but let’s ignore that for the time being).

I am doing my own research into this question, but am also quite interested in everyone’s opinion on this matter since I suspect several people wrestle with this problem in the modern era.