Let's Work Happy: Emergence in the Creative Process


The task: write a piece on working happy, my last blog post at the HumanCurrent before moving on to create something new. I'm stuck. I'm tired today and a little winsome, so I wander back down the hall to Doug's office, our recording studio (aka the library) where all the books are. On the giant table that serves as my mentor's desk, an old beat up copy of Erich Fromm's The Sane Society is wedged between Dynamic Control Systems and The Essential Yung. 

For some reason the book is "shiny." It stands apart from the others somehow, and I don't know why until I open it up to a random page. On page 177 Fromm questions "the meaning of work" in our capitalist society:

"But work is not only an inescapable necessity for man. Work is also his liberator... his creator as a social and independent being." 

Did you hear that? We work to create meaning, and in that active search for meaning, the work also creates us.

Bingo. That's emergence. That's when work feels like magic. 

Today the team asked me and Angie to describe our research methods in terms of a process. I can describe my process, and Angie can describe hers, but while we may be leading this project, we aren't bosses. The way it works for the team (purposefully flat and self-organized) is the way it works; we built the HumanCurrent to incorporate each team member's individual search for meaning, knowing that what they found on their treasure-hunt would add far more to the collective richness of the conversation than a rinse-and-repeat method. So here goes, the best way I know to describe baking emergence into an editorial design process:

Look for "shiny objects." I can't make this stuff up, because it doesn't come from me, or Erich Fromm, or even our mentor Doug, who reinforced my manic tendency to look for "shiny objects" amidst open books and even people. The best advice he ever gave me was to understand the totality of knowledge in the universe as a "source field" from which infinite connections and human progress can be made. Today's science speaks of a fundamental interconnectedness down to the quantum level, so I don't think Doug's claim is too far off from reality. 

Inspiration is the conversation between you and your network. Not only your local network, but with the greater network of information and the fundamental structure of relationship beneath all things. This may sound crazy, but I think it speaks to you any and every which way it can. Ideas whose time has come arise not in a flash of lightning, but at the tip of a network of exchanges and unlikely connections--conscious and unconscious--and most often in a team setting. We are all holding a piece of the puzzle, and the only way we can get to the big picture is to see how they fit together. I can't tell you how many times Angie and I came to the table a half hour before recording time with completely different outlines and marveled at how well they weaved together. We humans weren't meant to work in a vacuum. We're meant to collaborate and co-evolve. 

In creative works a beginner's mind will always have the advantage, so whatever you have to do to get there, get there. The best work you can do, in my opinion, is to develop good listening systems, seeking out and destroying your unconscious biases and realizing that novelty is produced by mining the relationship of seemingly unrelated nodes. So go ahead, hang out with strangers, talk about everything with people you love and ones who drive you nuts; let the tension of your burning question eat at you. Have random conversations. Let it simmer in the background as you go about your day. Then pick up a book, any book, and turn to any page. 

Don't believe me? The next thing I picked up was Eknath Easwaran's commentary on The Upanishads, a collection of ancient Vedic texts that brought Indian philosophy to the rest of the world. Again, randomly, on page 111:

There are people whose lives are molded by an all-consuming desire, as overwhelming as a mighty river.  If you have seen a great river such as the Ganges or the Mississippi in flood, you know what power it can have; anything in its path is swept away. Similarly, the man or woman who has unified desires sweeps all obstacles aside. 

This is you. This is me. This is anyone who has fallen in love with any idea and found success in life. To the creative mind life is one big treasure hunt for meaning. As your desires are unified, so your life will be--your personal life and your career--as the network reveals infinitely diverse sources to supply you on your quest.

As time passes into history, individual narrative arcs will cascade, and the story that will be told is the one that made the most impact on the networks of human beings that digest it. You can't judge what will have meaning for someone else, but you can get better at following the trail of breadcrumbs that leads to meaning for you. So start anywhere, but start with whatever task (great or small) feeds that search for meaning. Adjust as needed. We know that in a complex system, changes in local conditions ripple outward to produce changes in the larger network. Your local experience is your best toolbox to speak to the world.

The phrase "write to your audience" has always made me cringe a little. You can't know what mental models your listeners or readers are running. You can't control what circumstances they're experiencing when they read your work. What you can do is hope that by being as authentic and curious as you can be, you will authentically connect with others where they are. And wherever you are and wherever they are is where you both need to be to have an authentic conversation. Incorporate the feedback. See where it takes you. Nature doesn't need our help to move information through its networks. The world is always changing. But wherever our shared curiosity has directed its movement from mind to matter and back again, the human current can be found.

In the process of work... man molds and changes himself. He develops his powers of co-operation, of reason, his sense of beauty. He separates himself from nature, from the original unity with her, but at the same time unites with her again as master and builder. - Erich Fromm

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