Shekhar Kapur directed that vignette in New York, I Love You. His better-known works are probably Elizabeth and The Four Feathers. At TEDindia, he said, and I quote, not verbatim:
“Knowledge weighs upon wisdom. Get rid of your mind, throw it into panic and chaos by destroying preparation and out of that panic will arise the truth of the universe, a moment of creativity.”
Besides the fact that, I’ve noticed, all these New Age-y artists always seem to attribute creative genius to something external from themselves, what Shekhar says about knowledge weighing upon wisdom seems very familiar. I’ve read that before in the most surprising place—a text on human genomics.
Jacques Derrida, French philosopher, spent at least two whole sections in ‘The Aforementioned So-Called Human Genome’ going back and forth about how “the norm must be lacking”. In my understanding, I take norm to mean established truth and proven knowledge. What he said can be eloquently summarized by a sentence in its midst:
“Freedom and responsibility demand that one know what is known, that one take knowledge into account as rigorously and in as unlimited a way as possible, but the moment of the decision, of responsibility as such, is not a moment of knowing, and neither consequently, is it a moment that depends on what this knowledge of norms might have to teach us.”
What I understand is that Derrida prescribes a system in which, while knowledge is important in initiating and grounding us into a discipline, it should not interfere with our ultimate resolution of that topic (whether that’s only a form of reconciliation within ourselves or a decision we have to make based on that). I think he used that within the context of ethical policy making in genomics but I see the relevance of his advice in creativity too. It seems creativity gurus all echo a subtext advocating un-learning (or a certain form of it) to reach a nirvana where ideas flow aplenty. I haven’t found much fault with that. I have to agree that being unencumbered opens your mind to wild things that may well turn out to be genius.
A few weeks ago, I attended a talk by Fredrik Haren, Swedish author and founder of interesting.org. He penned half of The Idea Book: “150 pages about ideas, 150 empty pages for your own ideas”. The talk was ‘Turning good ideas into great business’.
Fredrik Haren is an amazing speaker. Not so much for the enthusiasm or any kind of magnetism. He is understated, almost easy to pass over and speaks with quiet nonchalance (ironic detachment comes to mind). I did not go with high expectations because the title was boring and the poster design, amateurish. But I left, well, shaking with excitement and almost incoherent, to say the least. I had meant to write this down a long time ago, but my head swam with so many unfinished thoughts and half-baked ideas that I had to mull over it for a while.
Haren concluded his talk saying if he could have inspired just one person that evening, that would have been enough. He did. And I have a feeling there were more than me.
After the talk, I truly understood the modest title. Haren is a practical businessman. In business, there is no need for perfection. Progress is key. A good idea that makes for a good business is good until your next good idea comes along. The trick is to keep them all coming. That is good.
It makes me think about how that might apply to everything else in life. Striving for perfection paralyses you and chasing that ideal might ultimately only keep you from doing your here and now, from doing something at all.
It makes me think of a story told to me by a successful businesswoman (at least, in my eyes), who rose from being a mere nurse, scoffed at by the men in her business, to the regional director of an MNC. At the end of her first year as director, she had to attend a meeting where each regional director presents an annual report. She reported a good, steady growth that won the approval of the Board. Another regional director, also new, reported an astonishing growth that dazzled the Board. In a private chat after, she congenially warned that director, “Be careful, you should slow down.” He made no response to that.
A year later, before the annual meeting, she received a call from that same director, calling on her for assistance to create an excuse for his absence from that meeting. Because of his astonishing growth the year before, he had exhausted his market and had to report a loss. By going slow and steady, she has been reporting good growths for years now.
Life is a series of progress reports. If we stubbornly wait out the arrival of that perfection and stop ourselves from doing because we are ‘not ready yet’, what progress can we report? On the other hand, if we do manage to achieve perfection with one shot, what else is there? Of course, the things we may do in life are not quantifiable and moreover, they are infinite relative to us. Here, I talk about a self-defined, limited kind of perfection we set ourselves. I’m talking about the kind of perfection that keeps us from questioning our status-quo, the kind of perfection that makes us blindly follow tradition, stupid rules, red-tapes and bureaucratic idiocy.
I believe in creativity. I believe in questioning. I believe in thinking, a kind of philosophical inquiry, if you will, that keeps us at the tip of the rabbit fur (Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World). It may not be comfortable but it definitely makes your life worth living. It is the reason I love art—the use of allegory to rebel against life’s norms, an ongoing process of inquiry that renews itself with each viewer that walks away from it feeling perturbed.
Haren prescribes, “Question everything. Not that you have to change everything but you must know why you do something the way you do it.” And in the book, he even has a delightful story to tell about that:
“There is a story about an advertising executive in Los Angeles who was so fed up of being stuck in a rut that he forced himself to find new ways of getting to work every day. He never took the same route to work in his nine years of commuting. (Towards the end, he was forced to reverse down one-way streets in order not to repeat himself. → Personal note: Hmm, time for a new job! :D)”
Fredrik Haren is doing something incredibly beautiful with The Idea Book and interesting.org. He’s changing the world with the bug of creativity and he’s starting with the stuffy corporates!
Personally, I’ll define genius as asking the right questions, seeing connections and patterns that are the least visible to others and the art of storytelling. Being knowledgeable is not synonymous with genius. As I see it, knowledge is only a key and you probably only need enough of it to unlock your thinking. Knowing too much (and worse still, thinking you know much) slows you down and boxes you up. Somebody, I can’t remember who, once said that you should read as much as you can as a child and then stop. And storytelling is important because, what good is genius if it can’t be expressed/communicated? (It’s the same logic that Anselm uses to say that if God is perfection, he has to exist because existence is a quality of perfection.)
From here on, I must remember that I know nothing.