When a fan asked Ernest Hemingway how to start writing a novel, he recommended cleaning the fridge.
It was not an insult. It alluded to the weird way that our best ideas seem to pop into our head unbidden when we engage in a mindless task.
In an opinion piece for the New York Times, essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider once described what he calls “The Busy Trap.” Differentiating between people busy with multiple minimum wage jobs and those who self-impose busyness by taking on ever more responsibilities and activities, he questions what it means when people exclaim “I’m so busy!”
Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. I once knew a woman who interned at a magazine where she wasn’t allowed to take lunch hours out, lest she be urgently needed for some reason. This was an entertainment magazine whose raison d’être was obviated when “menu” buttons appeared on remotes, so it’s hard to see this pretense of indispensability as anything other than a form of institutional self-delusion.
Kreider describes himself as a loafer, the laziest person he knows, the “kid standing outside the classroom window making faces at you at your desk.” He laments his friends’ self-imposed busyness for the missed opportunities to spend time with loved ones. Yet he also asserts that constantly wading through a busy schedule keeps us from getting anything meaningful done:
Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body... The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done. “Idle dreaming is often of the essence of what we do,” wrote Thomas Pynchon in his essay on sloth. Archimedes’ “Eureka” in the bath, Newton’s apple, Jekyll & Hyde and the benzene ring: history is full of stories of inspirations that come in idle moments and dreams.
In short, busyness makes you feel important, but it’s crap for doing anything creative. For as Hemingway must have learned cleaning the fridge, creative solutions to problems one has been mulling appear in idle moments, or while engaged in mindless routines, but definitely not while busy cranking to inbox zero.
Priceonomics has not exhaustively reviewed the literature on creativity. (After all, we’re much too busy assembling data sets.) But anecdotes from people engaged in creative pursuits are peppered with assertions of this sort. One of the best discussions of how to facilitate creativity comes from Monty Python actor John Cleese, who found that creativity research done by psychologist Donald MacKinnon matched up nicely with the impressions he had formed over a career of acting and writing.
Cleese begins by asserting that no one can explain creativity. Freud, a man who attempted to explain people’s entire psyches by their relationship with their mother, asserted that creativity was too mysterious for psychoanalysis, and most research its nature ceased after the sixties and seventies.
He does state what creativity is not - it is not a talent. Creativity is unrelated to IQ and it is not an ability that some have and others don’t - an assertion echoed by people from IDEO to improv actors.
Instead Cleese believes that creativity is a mindset or a “way of operating.” A famed improvisation teacher once wrote that if you draw three dots on a piece of paper and tell a businessman to draw what he sees in the dots, he will draw a triangle. But if you tell him to draw what an artist or hippy would see, he’ll draw a creative design. Similarly, citing MacKinnon’s research, Cleese describes the mindset as a childlike state of play - a time when we can explore ideas “not for any immediate practical purpose but just for enjoyment.”
When we want someone to consider a new idea or think creatively, we often tell him or her to have an “open mind.” Cleese, citing his work with psychiatrist Robin Skynner, believes that people have two modes at work: open or closed.
The closed mode is that of execution: cranking through emails, making slides, or entering data. It’s our dominant mode at work where we know what we need to do and we get on with it. In the open mode, in contrast, we are more relaxed and inclined to humor, less purposeful. It is conducive to creativity, which, Cleese notes, is simply impossible in the closed mode:
When Alexander Fleming had the thought that led to the discovery of penicillin, he must have been in the open mode. The previous day, he'd arranged a number of dishes to that culture would grow upon them. On the day in question, he glanced at the dishes, and he discovered that on one of them no culture had appeared.
Now, if he'd been in the closed mode he would have been so focused upon his need for "dishes with cultures grown upon them" that when he saw that one dish was of no use to him for that purpose he would quite simply have thrown it away. Thank goodness, he was in the open mode so he became curious about why the culture had not grown on this particular dish. And that curiosity, as the world knows, led him to the lightbulb --- I'm sorry, to penicillin.
Now in the closed mode an uncultured dish is an irrelevance. In the open mode, it's a clue.
Creativity is mysterious because the connection between inputs and outputs can seem nonexistent. The ruminations of Elizabeth Gilbert - author of Eat, Pray, Love - on creativity and genius took her back to Ancient Greece and Rome. Back then, she notes, people did not think that great artists or philosophers were geniuses, but that they had a genius. Spirits called daemons or geniuses whispered ideas to Socrates and shaped sculptors’ work. Artists did not have more or less creative days, they simply had a guiding spirit that was either more or less generous. We may ascribe creativity to a person today, but great ideas still seem externally endowed.
For this reason, Cleese notes that one of the few things you can do to facilitate creativity - beyond being in the playful, open mode - is to take lots of time. If your daemon is not being generous, you can spend hours without result. But “if you just keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly but persistent way, sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious, probably in the shower later.”
Like Kreider advocating for the merits of idleness and avoiding the busy trap, Cleese believes that you need the discipline to keep idly thinking about your ideas or problems. He illustrates this with a story about writing comedy scripts:
I was always intrigued that one of my Monty Python colleagues who seemed to be (to me) more talented than I was but did never produce scripts as original as mine. And I watched for some time and then I began to see why. If he was faced with a problem, and fairly soon saw a solution, he was inclined to take it. Even though (I think) he knew the solution was not very original.
Whereas if I was in the same situation, although I was sorely tempted to take the easy way out, and finish by 5 o'clock, I just couldn't. I'd sit there with the problem for another hour-and-a-quarter, and by sticking at it would, in the end, almost always come up with something more original.
For this reason, Cleese advises us to beware “the deciders” who want to quickly make decisions with a “great show of confidence.” Instead of being bold, they are “strangling creativity at birth.” Learning to be comfortable with uncertainty and linger over potential solutions to a problem is much more valuable when creativity is called for.
Entrepreneurship faces a paradox in that it aims for innovation and creativity and also lionizes founders putting in jaw dropping hours as they build their company. Yet as Kreider and Cleese point out, creativity calls for stretches of idle time to play with ideas.
Cleese does not believe that people engaged in creative exercises should always be in the open mode. We need both - the open mode to play with ideas and come up with new ones, and the closed mode to implement those ideas.
Any startup truly meeting Steve Blank’s definition of “an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model” will need to be nimble and creative. When you don’t know what the business you are building should look like, or how exactly it should make money, you cannot simply put your head down and get on with it. But when you have an idea, it does take quite a lot of grunt (closed mode) work for a small team to test it out.
As with any creative endeavor, the key seems to be striking a balance between the two modes and moving smoothly between them as appropriate. It can be a good idea to “move fast and break things” - as the Facebook motto holds. But if you never slow down enough to linger over ideas (and let your creativity daemon slip a brilliant idea into your head while you’re cleaning the fridge), then you’ll move fast on all the wrong things.
We leave it up to each of our readers to decide individually whether they insist on busyness as Kreider's existential hedge against emptiness. The story (myth?) of entrepreneurs working insane hours has appeal. It certainly contains some truth about the amount of work needed to build a disruptive company from scratch. But it also imposes some order on the universe - the illusion of causality explaining the creation of millions or billions of dollars in value in just a few years. We should credit hard work as crucial to startups, but isn't the mysterious process of coming up with new ideas much closer to the heart of entrepreneurship?
Achieving balance between Cleese’s open and closed modes - one for creativity and one for implementation - is a difficult but important challenge. But if the comfortable story of the entrepreneur succeeding by out-hustling the competition with 100 hour work weeks persists, it will be a difficult one to maintain.