I like this quote from Brian Eno taken from Steven Johnson's 'The Innovators Cookbook':
"I think there are periods that, when you’re in them, seem desperately unfruitful, and you think, “Why am I doing this? I’m completely useless, and I’ve lost it all.” Then an idea finally strikes you, and you suddenly realise that you’ve been working on it for quite a long time but you weren’t aware of it. You’ve assembled all of the mental and physical tools you need to handle it in what seemed like a fallow period".
It reminded me of some writing I did during my own recent creative pause about switching off and letting our unconscious memory do the work.
I’m yet to meet a person who hasn’t hit a creative wall at some point in their working lives. This creative crash usually comes as a result of over thinking the problem. You’ve gathered all your resources, you’ve started making connections, but you are failing to come up with the final answer. After countless hours working the problem over in your head the ‘a-ha’ moment you desperately seek seems further away than when you started. Battling through is not the answer yet it is how most people attack the problem. You can’t ‘walk off’ a blister so why try. Taking a pause, whether it is for 30 minutes, 30 seconds or even 30 days, will help quiet the noise in your brain allowing the answers to rise up.
The creative pause is one of the more tricky elements of the creative process for people to come to terms with because the results it produces are difficult to account for. But think about it for a moment. How many times have you heard people say ‘The idea came from nowhere’ or ‘I was in the shower’ or ‘I was doing the dishes and it struck me’ or ‘I was in the car on the way to work’. For Archimedes his famous eureka moment happened whilst taking a bath. Newton was hanging out in an orchard when the penny dropped in the form of an apple. These epiphanies happening away from the actual process of problem solving owe a lot to the size of our subconscious brain power compared to that of our conscious brain power.
The science bit: how the creative pause works:
When we solve problems we not only use different sides of our brain, we are also using different bits of memory: our ‘working memory’ and our ‘unconscious memory’. Because we are more familiar with our working memory we tend to give it more credit for problem solving than our ‘unconscious memory’. Let me explain how they differ.
Your ‘unconscious memory’ has an incredible ability to call upon stored information to help us complete challenges way beyond the capabilities of the ‘working memory’.
For one moment I want you to imagine that you are Lionel Messi, the slightly short but rather brilliant Barcelona and Argentina center forward. You're about to take a free-kick, which is 30 meters away from the goal. The ball is placed 11 meters to the left of the center of the goal. In front of you stands a wall of players situated to mandatory 10 meters from the ball.
The average height of the 5 players in the wall is 6 feet tall. Because of their positioning your view of the goal is totally obstructed. You want to kick the ball in to the top right corner of the goal, as far away from the goalkeeper as possible.
To compensate for his positioning slightly left of center the keeper has positioned his wall to cover the right side of the goal. To have and hope of hitting your target you must make the ball curve around the wall and come back in before the ball travels a distance further than the goal.
As well as curving the ball you must also apply enough power to make the ball rise and then dip just at the right point so that when it hits its desire target it enters between the posts no more than 2 inches from the top post and 2 inches from the right post.
To achieve all of this you must hit the ball with a specific part of your foot, with your foot at a certain angle and with an exact amount of pressure. Easy. Right? Wrong.
It’s the kind of goal Messi scores on a regular basis using his unconscious memory to make the exact calculations for him. Just walking requires your basal ganglia to make a multitude of calculations every second to coordinate all the muscle groups required to create the actions required.
Throughout our entire working day we continually put faith in our ‘unconscious memory’ to make the kind of incredible calculations our ‘working memory’ could never solve. Yet somehow when we have a big problem we insist on piling the pressure on a part of our brain already buckling at the knees. Kicking a donkey harder will not win you the Grand National, mounting a thoroughbred might.