Proverbs of Creative Wisdom

September 2, 2012by

One can hardly overestimate the importance of insight and inspiration for creative work, even if it is only 1% of getting the job done as Behance’s 99% suggests. The routines and limits of our lives engrave in us a pattern of low expectations, and block us from seeing opportunities for better ways of doing things. We have to shake things up to maintain a creative edge.

In May of 2011, at a San Francisco CreativeMornings event, Kevin Kelly delivered a talk entitled “Possibilities” in which he delivers a wonderful shake up of creative inspiration. A recording of the presentation is embedded below. I’ll reserve further comment until you’ve had a chance to view it clean.

On the surface of it he just reads for several minutes arbitrarily arranged sentences accompanied by a slideshow of random images. This is at least what it feels like at first. After listening, thinking, and watching for a while, though, you’re taken in by this oddly intriguing, strangely inspiring flow of information.

One of the most peculiar things about the way Kelly delivered these bits of insight is that he did so without attribution. Hearing quotations without any indication of where they came from strips them of a potentially distracting layer of information.

The images add another dimension, appealing to the senses in a way that colors the ordinary way in which we evaluate information coming in the form of proverbial quotations.

The content of this “scrapbook,” as Kelly describes it, while it is not addressing exclusively the topic of creativity and inspiration, lends itself to having the kind of effect upon the hearer that engenders creative thinking and problem solving. The quotations come across as proverbs of a sort. They cause sparks and flashes of light. They knock down the cobwebs clogging the less trafficked hallways of the mind.

Two more things stand out to me about this experiment in presentation, which I believe can shed some light on how we understand creativity and the inspiration it emerges from.

Art as Event

Kelly says in reply to the first question from the audience, “I think the act of me presenting it made it into something more than what it was, even to me.” Artists have used time in a number of ways to create and display art, and it seems to me Kelly has hit on an intriguing way to do art as an event.

Public speaking like this tends to carry with it such a calculation of knowledge and conclusion based explanation that it is rarely an opportunity for discovery, certainly not for the speaker. The {presenter = teacher : hearer = learner} model is certainly a useful one, but not the only useful one. Kelly has assumed a special kind of humility here in taking his “scrapbook,” a simple artifact of his own curiosity, and making it into the centerpiece of his presentation in a way that was able to surprise even him.

I wonder how else this type of experimental presentation might be used. What other topics are there, with respect to which we have too high a presumption of understanding?

Everything is a Remix

Another noteworthy aspect of Kelly’s presentation is the way in which he blatantly steals the content. Copyright legalists of course cringe at such things, but it draws attention to a now quite commonly recognized fact: little if any creativity is entirely original. Most, in fact, is to some degree copied or stolen. As it was once playfully expressed by Picasso, “Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.” Or in the words of Kirby Ferguson, “Creation requires influence. Everything we make is a remix of existing creations, our lives, and the lives of others.”

Every creative act depends upon the materials available to the artist and the store of previous work from which they might lift an idea, an approach, or a spark of inspiration. In proper perspective we find that copying and theft are not so much a blotch on the character of creativity as they are a part of the very nature of art. They are, as it were, proverbial elements of the wisdom guiding all creativity.

Billy Collins, one of the greatest genius-thieves in contemporary poetry, describes it eloquently in The Trouble with Poetry:

Poetry fills me with joy
and I rise like a feather in the wind.
Poetry fills me with sorrow
and I sink like a chain flung from a bridge.

But mostly poetry fills me
with the urge to write poetry,
to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame
to appear at the tip of my pencil.

And along with that, the longing to steal,
to break into the poems of others
with a flashlight and a ski mask.

If you want to dwell a little longer on Kelly’s proverbs of creative wisdom in the old form of the written word, here are some of my favorite statements from the presentation, for some of which I found the original authors–couldn’t resist my curiosity (:

You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created. – Albert Einstein

Science may be described as the art of systematic over-simplification. – Karl Popper

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. – Philip K. Dick

Fun is better than winning. – the Oaqui

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls, and looks like work. – Thomas Edison

Specialization is for insects. – Robert A. Heinlein

The future is the only thing we can improve.

Open criticism is the only anecdote to error.

Things are more like they are today than they have ever been before. – Dwight Eisenhower

Research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing. – Wernher von Braun

Man is a genius when he is dreaming. – Akira Kurosawa

Art is in the omission …

One resists the invasion of armies; one does not resist the invasion of ideas. – Victor Hugo

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. – Soren Kierkegaard

The way to do is to be. – Lao Tzu

We are prisoners of our own metaphors, metaphorically speaking. – R. Buckminster Fuller

You mean my whole fallacy is wrong? – Woody Allen

An invention should make simple things easy and hard things possible.

Never mistake a clear view for a short distance. – Paul Saffo

Technology is anything that was invented after you were born. – Alan Kay

The empires of the future are the empires of the mind. – Winston Churchill

When you are through changing, you are through. – Bruce Barton

Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’m not that smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer. – Albert Einstein

The distance between insanity and genius is only measured by success. – Bruce Feirstein

Of all lies, art is the least untrue. – Gustave Flaubert

Life imitates art far more than art imitates life. – Oscar Wilde (this one seems like the aesthetic version of Marshall MacLuhan’s famous remark about technology: “We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.”)

Size is the enemy of growth.

The line dividing the real and the imaginary is more imaginary than real. (reminds me of Waldo Emerson’s lines on the division between human and divine: “Draw, if thou canst, the mystic line, | Severing rightly his from thine, | Which is human, which divine.)

The present is pregnant with the future. – Voltaire

I am looking for a lot of men who have an infinite capacity to not know what can’t be done. – Henry Ford

The future always arrives too fast, and in the wrong order. – Alvin Toffler

If I had asked people what they wanted they would have said “faster horses.” – Henry Ford

If you’re not prepared to be wrong you will never come up with anything original. – Sir Ken Robinson

The chief cause of problems is solutions. – Eric Sevareid

Life is a near death experience.

It’s not that we need new ideas, but we need to stop having old ideas. – Edwin Land

It is well to remember that the entire universe, with one trifling exception, is composed of others. – John Andrew Holmes

I criticize by creation – not by finding fault. – Marcus Tullius Cicero

It is better to be wrong than to be vague. – Freeman Dyson

Keep making new mistakes.

Never waste a crisis.

The more original a discovery the more obvious it seems afterwards. – Arthur Koestler

The only difference between me and a madman is that I am not mad. – Salvador Dali

We don’t know a millionth of one percent about anything. – Thomas Edison

Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me. – Sigmund Freud

Every person takes the limit of their own field of vision for the limits of the world. – Arthur Schopenhauer

Embrace the alien within.

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed. – William Gibson

Institutions are halfway houses for the temporarily uninspired.

What is best in music is not found in the notes. – Gustav Mahler

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. – Scott Adams

Small minds are amazed by the extraordinary. Great minds are amazed by the ordinary. – Blaise Pascal

Are we being good ancestors? – Jonas Salk