The Unpredictability of Creativity

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The other day I was having a conversation in the pub with a friend about how unpredictable our bursts of creativity are. The following morning, appropriately, I woke up with this blog in my head and for reasons I can’t understand, this one too. Normally hangovers (2 and a half pints – that’s embarrassing) and lack of sleep conspire to prevent a single original thought entering my head, so why I woke up in a creative frame of mind is beyond me. It only goes to reaffirm the conversation my friend and I were having; creativity is a funny old thing.

 

How do we access our creativity? It’s a very pertinent question, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s very popular talk on TED goes to show that it’s one many of us are interested in. In her talk she reveals that on some days she sits down at her computer and that spark simply isn’t there – and this is from a bestselling author. It’s a conversation I’ve had many times with some of my more creative friends; some days it’s there, some days it’s not, and it’s hard to nail down why that is.

 

My take is that the triggers are deeply varied and complex, and I’m not so sure that a creative frame of mind is something that can just be switched on. Not to mention, each brain is different, and what works for one person may stifle creativity in another. What we can do is try to create the conditions that are conducive to creativity, that improve the likelihood of finding ourselves in a creative frame of mind. Although as I’ve said, these will vary from person to person. A few things that I find helpful are:

 

#1 Taking a mental break from whatever the creative activity is. I find that creativity comes more easily when my mind isn’t on the task and I’m not trying to force it. Somewhere in my unconscious ideas have been churning away, and I just need to give them the space to do so.

 

#2 Talking to people about the creativity activity. Interaction challenges and develops my ideas as I’m exposed to new ones. Sounds obvious, but sometimes we think people won’t be able to grasp our idea and so we stay quiet about it.

 

#3 Getting peace and quiet. There’s an unbelievable amount of noise in modern society, and so much information to be distracted by, which then occupies the mind. I know many writers who will shut themselves away somewhere isolated when they need to write, although this does make #2 difficult!

 

#4 Listening to music. This is a big one for me, but film and books can also inspire me. I recall reading not so long ago a neuroscience article about a study showing that music is good for creativity because of the areas of the brain it triggers activity in. There’s a good justification for playing music in the office!

 

#5 Mood. Confidence plays a big role in my creativity, so I need to be in quite a positive frame of mind. I know for some this is different – creativity is linked to any strong emotional state, positive or negative.

 

#6 Going for a walk! I’m not sure whether it’s the fresh air or the mild exercise, but after a walk I always come back refreshed with new ideas and focus.

 

What works for other people?

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Why we need to drop GDP as a measure of progress

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How do we measure progress? There’s no question that the indicators we use to achieve this are of utmost importance as they underpin key high-level decisions. Since 1944, the measurement indicator we have used is GDP. I am going to work through the flaws of this measure, and suggest alternatives that would more accurately and universally reflect human progress.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) can be defined as the value of a country’s overall output of goods and services at market prices, excluding net income from abroad.* In other words, the economic value placed on the amount of stuff a country produces. GDP has become the measure of progress. Countries use it to compare how they are doing against other countries. Governments use it to compare how they are doing against past governments.

In truth, it was never intended to be used in the way it is now. Simon Kuznets, the creator of GDP, said of it that, “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income.”** He disputed its accuracy as an indicator of standard of living. I’m inclined to agree, and I have serious reservations about GDP; honestly I find it astonishing that it is used as it is now. And that’s without even going in to the copious number of methods that governments have come up with allowing them to doctor GDP and present a falsely optimistic picture.

Pure production output fails to take in to consideration the physical or psychological well-being of the citizens, and indeed GDP has often been criticised for this recently. Some have called instead for ‘Gross National Happiness’ as a measure. I object to this, although it does have some merit. I take issue with happiness as a measure, because happiness is a fleeting emotion and my neuroscience background tells me that it exists (like any emotion) purely as a feedback mechanism rather than a long-term state of being that we can attain. I would argue that ‘Gross National Well-being’ is preferable, as our general sense of well-being is less transient than happiness. Perhaps for some people they are one and the same though and I am simply being pedantic.

GDP also fails to consider two concepts which I feel will become of increasing importance given current global trends. Those concepts are resource efficiency and environmental footprint. As we bump harder and harder against the natural limits of the planet, both of these will have to be used as measures of progress. How efficient we are at using resources and minimising waste will matter because of the growing scarcity of global resources. Countries ought to be incentivised to be as efficient as possible with the resources available to them. Similarly, we are making living conditions increasingly precarious through runaway climate change. Widespread deforestation is a danger given the crucial role that trees play in regulating the delicately balanced composition of elements in our atmosphere that we depend on. These are just two examples of environmental footprint; there are many others.

Somehow, it is in our human nature to keep on developing and moving forward; to learn and to create. Improving our sense of well-being and standard of living would seem to be at the heart of this, as we continue to make our lives more comfortable, more safe and more efficient. So this sense of well-being must remain in any measure of progress. Well-being does not go hand in hand with material wealth/output however, and yet GDP as a measure of progresses incentivises material production. By removing material production from progress indicators, you free up other means of improving well-being such as sense of purpose, sense of community, and leisure time to name a few.

So I believe a better measure of progress would incorporate well-being, resource efficiency and environmental impact. In this sense you are capturing the key indicators of progress – the country’s ability to sustain itself and its citizens’ well-being.

The Happy Planet Index developed by the London-based think tank New Economics Foundation is an excellent example of what a true measure of progress could look like – check it out. I would also recommend looking in to the recently launched Social Progress Index.

 

 

 

 

*Taken from The Business Dictionary http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/gross-domestic-product-GDP.html

**Taken from Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Kuznets

Are we destined for an international government?

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Some time ago, life was organised in to community living. People lived in small villages, everyone knew one another and they sourced all that they needed from the land in the village. We then started building towns and cities; great population and resource hubs. This required more sophisticated governance and management. Nations came next, made of multiple cities and towns and requiring yet another level of governance and management. I believe that we are approaching another stage, that of international governance.

 

For one, it seems a natural next step forward from the progression listed above. From community governance to city governance to nation governance to international governance.

 

Secondly, never before has our world been more interconnected. Few (if any) countries are entirely independent, as countries have come to rely on others for crucial resources such as food and oil. Nations now are even buying farmland in other countries to use for crops. Now if one nation struggles, then it has a knock-on effect on the rest of the world. We also feel empathy for those in other parts of the world, an empathy that goes beyond the borders of our nation. We are truly interdependent. The bizarreness of North Korea is the only obvious exception to this interconnectedness, but I’m sure that too will change in time (peacefully, I very much hope).

 

Thirdly, we are already seeing international bodies that represent something not so far off international governance*. Perhaps the closest example is the European Union, with its parliamentary process and shared currency – tying these nations closer together. The United Nations of course comes to mind as an international political body. The UN is a membership body rather than a governing body however, and has little power to issue directives to other nations, thus it can easily be undermined by the actions of a single nation (more so than the EU). Its charter is built around the principles of global peacekeeping, building relations between nations and solving international problems. It is the last principle here that I feel makes international governance inevitable.

 

Never before have we faced planetary limits as we do now. In the past, when a nation or civilisation has exceeded its natural limits it has collapsed largely in isolation. Now is very different, as any environmental crisis we face will be international in nature and thus require an international solution.

 

Climate change is perhaps the greatest threat humanity has ever faced, and requires every nation to commit to action on it. Yet we saw what happened in Copenhagen. With the whole world watching, no agreement was made. Even if every country but China were to drastically reduce carbon emissions, then so long as China continued their rate of emissions the disastrous impact would affect all of us and the good work would be undone. China have been obstinate on reducing carbon emissions, because providing a decent standard of living to their citizens requires continued industrial output and thus continued emissions. That would be all well and good if China had an atmosphere to itself, but unfortunately the atmosphere is not divided up by nation and we all must share the same one. International cooperation is imperative to tackle carbon emissions and we must commit to action as a global community; nation borders only prove an obstacle and lead to mixed motives. I could have used deforestation instead of carbon emissions as a very similar example.

 

The above is an example of our environmental impact, but the other side of the coin is our resource consumption. Our current consumption is beyond what the planet can regenerate, and we are overshooting by about 40% (and rising). Obviously, this cannot continue. And again, this requires international cooperation. Population size requires stabilisation, resource consumption needs regulation and global efforts need to be directed towards more efficient resource usage.

 

The UN in its current guise does not have the power to tackle the global challenges laid out above. How you would do it I have no idea and it would be plagued with issues, but international governance is required if we are to all live together on this planet. Nationhood is no longer sufficient in a global interdependent world facing global challenges.

 

The UN was born out of the most devastating international tragedy in human history. It will take something similarly catastrophic born out of the environmental sphere to mobilise nations in to international governance, but it will happen. It must happen if we are to work with the necessary international urgency and cooperation to tackle the global challenges we now face.

 

 

 

*Other examples are regional bodies such as the Arab League and ASEAN, and international membership institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund

Two types of confidence

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Here’s why the ego is weak and vulnerable; it depends upon external stimuli to boost it. It goes up and down according to the feedback it gets from the outside world. Thus, when our confidence is tied to the ego, our confidence too depends on the outside world. Our self-esteem is entirely dependent on how people behave towards us. It goes up when we are paid a compliment. Goes down when we hear someone talk ill of us. It is fragile and fickle. It can balloon up, but just easily burst and leave a person in tatters. Think about it, it means that our opinion of ourselves is inexorably tied to the opinion others hold of us. Other people can build us up, or tear us down.

 

I believe there’s another type of confidence. It’s a type I’ve seen in Buddhist monks, such as Thich Nhat Hanh. Sometimes I see it in prominent leaders, who are so self-assured, and yet seem so humble with it. This type of confidence is not dependent on our external world, but on our internal world. It’s a confidence that can only come from self-awareness and self-understanding. From self-acceptance. It is not so easily influenced by others in our external world. I’m sure these people still have ego (I believe it to be a fundamental part of evolutionary human nature), but they do not rely on it for their self-worth. How liberating…to not fear how others judge us. To try to be the best we can be individually, not the best that others think we can be.

 

As such, this confidence grows from deepening our acknowledgement of ourselves. Of accepting and embracing our weaknesses, just as we like to embrace our strengths. It grows as we grow in to ourselves, and try to be the best version of ourselves. When at peace with ourselves, we are not concerned with whether a person ‘likes’ us or not. In fact, some will dislike us for it simply because they envy that way of being. More likely, people will be drawn to it though. For all our differences, I believe at some level we are all looking for that sense of self-acceptance and inner contentment.

 

The ego can provide quick bursts of confidence that feel great. This inner type of confidence takes time, work and a lot of patience. But unlike that of the ego, it is real confidence. It stays with us and enables us to flourish.

Denial of limits: A fatal human flaw?

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This current sustainability issues that we are faced with will be a fascinating turning point for mankind. It has the potential to markedly change human behavior.

 

Our current unsustainable trajectory is not a consequence of specific environmental factors, but rather a consequence of human behaviour. All throughout history, human civilizations have collapsed due to being incapable of living in harmony with their environment – they extend themselves too far. They have consumed and consumed, until they find themselves living beyond their limits and the result is collapse (for those interested take a look at Jared Diamond’s TED talk. I’ve also just started his book, which is fantastic). However, I will be writing soon about my understanding that if collapse happened today it will be significantly different to any other example in history.

 

For whatever reason, unlike the majority of species on our planet, we are unable to form a sustainable relationship with our environment and surrounds. We grow rapidly and thus consume more rapidly. Perhaps it is our mastery of the environment (tools like medicine and technology) that enables us to escape some of the population limiting factors that other species are subject to such as disease and predators.

 

You have to wonder what this means for us in the long-term. In time, will we learn how to live within our means, or will we continue to repeat our growth-collapse paradigm? And that’s why I am so curious to see how this situation pans out. There are a few scenarios I can see in this context.

 

Scenario One: We radically change our consumptive habits and lifestyles such that we can live sustainably and within the limits of our planet (perhaps learning from certain indigenous peoples who have managed this). A transition is made (not without considerable bumps along the way) and we move away from the nature of past human societies that have caused their own downfall. Basically, we learn.

 

Scenario Two: We fail to address the environmental, economic and energy challenges we currently face and experience a collapse like past human civilizations have (albeit far more dramatic and global). The suffering and loss that follow drills home the lesson that living beyond our limits is unsustainable, as it always has been, and we adjust our behaviour accordingly. Prosperity, rather than growth, becomes the goal.

 

Scenario Three: As above, but as we learn how to utilize our (now rather more limited) resources again and there is growth, we again wind up living beyond our means. The lesson is lost and human behaviour does not change as we continue to be insatiable consumers.

 

If one were to take a Darwinian view of this, then perhaps those humans who have evolved to live within the limits of the planet will be the ones that survive and flourish. I am interested in some of the indigenous peoples (such as the Australian aboriginals) who have survived for many millennia, and for whom living in equilibrium with their environment is a fundamental part of their culture. By comparison, modern civilization fuelled by science and technology is only a few hundred years old. Is the inclination towards the growth-collapse paradigm one that makes us fundamentally flawed as a species? An obsession with growth will always cause problems in a finite world (unless you’re an economist).

 

However this all plays out, there’s no doubt that we are living through a fascinating period in human history. Our TV culture makes it easy to miss, but dig a little deeper and you realize that we are living through the greatest financial crisis (in scale) in human history, are approaching the limits of nonrenewable energy sources that we have relied on for so long. These are challenges that we have no experience of, which may sound scary, but we do all have the opportunity to shape how our future plays out – it’s just a matter of whether we choose to take that opportunity.

 

Can we reverse the habit of a lifetime (of our species) and learn to live in equilibrium with our environment? I can’t wait to see how it all plays out…

Let’s talk about the future

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Futures

 

 

Well, I must begin by wishing you a Happy New Year. I hope it was a refreshing Christmas break, and the first month or so of 2013 has treated you well (and some of those resolutions still remain intact).

 

I have been writing, but not blogging. I have also been thinking. In fact, thinking rather a lot. Again, I am pleasantly reminded of how time and space away from our busy lives enables understanding of life, the universe and everything to come to the surface.

 

So a few things happened whilst I was away travelling around Australia with my parents, and the end result of this is that my direction going in to 2013 is rather different to that which I had originally pictured.

 

In the work I’ve been doing over the last few years, I’ve come across a lot of noble individuals tackling social or environmental issues around the world. Something that is preached across this space, is the need to understand the problem thoroughly before trying to make things better.

 

The thing driving me over the last few years has simply been to try to make the world a little bit better for the people living in it, and that’s generally taken on the form of mental health. But now I experience a desire to understand the world better before I continue trying to contribute to it in a positive way, as mental health feels like a less dominant theme in my life. Whereas last year was largely spent ‘doing’ and busying myself, recently I am more drawn to reading, talking with people and generally learning, or ‘being’. Unfortunately, it’s more straightforward to earn money for doing things, rather than just ‘being’ and learning stuff, so I’m still working this one out.

 

And the problem I need to learn about is the future.

 

What has become apparent to me is that we are facing some monumental challenges in the 21st century. A few things have never sat well with me – a global economic system predicated on exponential growth and debt, exponentially growing nonrenewable resource consumption (resources that are running out), exponential energy use and as yet no global strategy in place to transition over to a world in which we use renewable, clean energy.

 

I read a book whilst travelling in Australia called The Crash Course: The Unsustainable Future, which neatly presented data from economy, energy and environment and tied it all together. I’m not going to make any bold predictions here about what’s coming next, only to say that there will be great changes ahead. A way of life which has depended on exponentially growing consumption of nonrenewable resources is simply not sustainable, no matter how you spin it (and there are some very clever ways of spinning it). We face potential shortages in food and water (http://www.earth-policy.org/book_bytes/2013/fpepch1), along with the threat of climate change, to name just a few.

 

These are some considerable challenges facing us. I, for one, am not comfortable sitting around and hoping that it just all works out and that life will continue along as usual. That the decision-makers in power will get us out of this mess, when they got us in to in the first place. I’d like to play some role in the sustainability of our future, and I believe that we all can in one way or another, even if I haven’t figured out what that is yet.

 

It’s tough stuff to come to terms with, as it doesn’t paint the kind of picture we’d like. It’s heavy and depressing. The last month or so my mind has gone through various stages of trying to reject this information, only to then see how clearly it makes sense. I’ve seen it in others I’ve introduced some of this too as well – they know there are some big warning signs, but at the same time they’ve had a desire to turn away from it all and ignore it. It doesn’t help that the crux of the counter-argument comes down to two main themes of ‘human ingenuity will save us’ (human ingenuity got us here in the first place) and ‘technology’ (why aren’t we making use of it?).

 

Since then I’ve been on an information-gathering journey that has touched on the issues I’ve already mentioned, future studies and evolutionary psychology. I’ve been noticing patterns in human behaviour throughout history and looking out for trends that may suggest where we’re headed in the future, as well as trying to understand where we actually are at the moment. If that sounds less interesting to you than the previous topics I’ve been writing about then I do apologise, as the next few entries will mainly be about this kind of stuff.

 

On we go…

 

 

 

For those interested in these global challenges I’ve (painfully briefly) mentioned and what they may mean for the future, I recommend checking out the following for starters. If you’re convinced that everything is just going to carry on as it always has done and that these economic and environmental issues are nothing to be concerned about, then I really really recommend taking a look at the following:

 

Video version of the ‘Crash Course’: http://www.peakprosperity.com/crashcourse

 

Money as Debt video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqvKjsIxT_8

 

Jared Diamond’s TED talk on the collapse of civilizations: http://www.ted.com/talks/jared_diamond_on_why_societies_collapse.html