From the Archives: On Quiet Creativity

I’ve been writing posts for since July, 2007. This was soon after I finished all of my coursework and qualifiers for my doctorate at MIT, which I had tackled concurrently with writing and publishing my first two books. Which is all to say that by the summer of 2007 it suddenly seemed like I had a lot of free time on my hands. My solution to this state of affairs? This blog.

In recent days, in a fit of nostalgia, I’ve begun browsing my voluminous archive. I thought it might fun to every once and while briefly revisit a post from the past that I particularly enjoyed.

I’ll  start with an entry from January, 2014. It’s titled: “On Quiet Creativity,” and it opens with me talking about hiking the trails near Georgetown’s campus (see above), working on a thorny proof.

Here’s the thesis I extracted from the experience:

“When I talk about my purposefully disconnected life, a common retort is that I’m missing out on the creative possibilities born of the frequent exposure to new people and ideas delivered through social media and related technologies.

But here’s the thing, for the most part, this is not how high-level creative work is accomplished. It’s not, in other words, lack of input that stymies creative breakthroughs.

What does stands in the way of creative breakthroughs — I’m increasingly convinced — is lack of time spent walking quietly with your thoughts, working and re-working your understanding of a concept in search of new layers of meaning.”

A few reflections on this post:

  • When I wrote those words back in 2014, I was getting lots of pushback about the fact that I didn’t use social media. It really did baffle and concern people. Today, my abstention is considered reasonable. It’s amazing how much our society has shifted on this issue.
  • I still really believe in the idea of quiet creativity. Gathering inputs is the easy part. It’s the long thinking, and rethinking, then thinking again that’s really needed if you want to produce industrial strength insights.
  • I believe (but am not positive), that this is the paper that resulted from the long thinking walks described in that post. It ended up published in October of that year.

17 thoughts on “From the Archives: On Quiet Creativity”

  1. A surprisingly soothing read.

    I think I need to start thinking of ways of creating these opportunities for quiet reflection, and using them to improve my reflection on important/difficult skills and concepts I’m working on at a given time.

  2. Cal,

    I own every book you’ve written – going all the way back to your books on making good grades as a student. I think I’ve adopted your diagnoses of a lot of problems (i.e. tech companies mining our attention), but I’m having trouble buying into and implementing your prescriptive solutions.

    I’m an extrovert, and I love doing things around people. Even when I study or write, I prefer being in a busy coffeeshop to being alone in my apartment. It seems to me that the barriers to doing deep work or switching to a minimal digital presence are far lower for an introvert than an extrovert. In fact, interacting with fewer people but in far more depth may be something introverts love about digital minimalism. They may also like a more monastic lifestyle with long walks in the woods.

    All that said, that’s not really the life that feels authentic to who I am. I prefer not to be physically alone. And, I want to be able to be in touch with my closest 5-10 friends at least once or twice a day. Still, I want to be able to engage in deep work both by myself and with others.

    Here’s my question: How can digital minimalism and deep work be adapted for extraverted people who want to do deep work and lead a digital minimalist life — but also satiate a voracious appetite for human interaction?

    Thank you so much for your writing. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


    • I second this comment. I, like this poster, am very extroverted in the sense that I love being around others.

      I bought Deep Work and Digital Minimalism and read through them in what seemed like minutes. I’ve also been reading your books since I was in high school wandering the library basement.

      Point is I’m a fan and devoted to the themes of your material but enacting it all as a very outgoing personality type can be rather difficult.

      Any advice on adapting would be magnificent.

      • I third this comment. As someone who gets depressed when isolated, I favour working in public spaces such as libraries or the office I share with other grad students. Any advice on how to balance your books’ recommendations with an extroverted personally type would be greatly appreciated.

      • I am also a very strong extrovert, so I understand where you and Mel are coming from. I think that digital minimalism is quite consistent with my deep need to share ideas with actual human beings. For me, it’s the interaction between people that really sparks me to take ideas to the next level.
        I also find that time with my own thoughts sets me up to be much more productive in those interactions. For me, its a question of finding the perfect balance.
        I will say that I have had a LOT of trouble thinking these past weeks as I’ve transitioned to working from home. I went out early this morning for my first “pointless walk of the week and finally figured out how to break through a few lingering problems.

    • Hi NSA,

      I don’t think that the two things–deep focus and socializing with others–negate time from each other.

      In Deep Work, I get that impression that up to 4 hours of serious, deep work a day, is a formidable amount (i.e. not sure one can really go above that). Let’s say you sleep 8 hours per night, that leaves you with 16 waking hours:

      -If it’s a weekend and you want to work deeply on a personal project: if focus on deep work (quietly, by yourself), for 4 hours, then that still leaves 12 waking hours for everything else, including lots of socializing.

      -If it’s a weekday and you want to work deeply on a work project: if you focus on deep work (quietly, by yourself, for 4 hours, then that leaves 4 hours (assuming an 8-hour workday) for shallow work, and getting your people fix via meetings/socializing with coworkers.

      -If it’s a weekday and you want to work deeply on a personal project after work: if you focus on deep work (quietly, by yourself), for 2 hours (limiting to 2 as this is an after-work activity, but it’s still a significant chunk of time), then, assuming 8 hours for work, and 2 hours for commuting (and 8 hours for sleep, as mentioned above) that leaves 4 waking hours for everything else, including meeting up with friends for dinner/drinks.

      In other words, fitting in Deep Work time, would still leave you with plenty of hours in any given week to socialize lots. 🙂
      Hope that helps to think of it that way?

  3. I think I can relate to this experience. Even when I was in high school, but even more so when I was a student of physics at university, I observed something similar.

    When I learned something new, at first I always had an uneasy feeling of not really understanding the topic, of not having a firm grasp of the concepts and ideas. But the brain keeps working on it in the back of your head, sometimes for weeks.

    Then, all of the sudden, weeks later, things that were really hard at first seemed simple, elegant and beautiful.

    In my professional capacity as IT professional, I experience the same thing when trying to solve an architectural or engineering problem. After initial loading of my brain, I have this feeling of not really having a grasp on the problem.

    Then, the idea just pops up in my mind when it pops up. There is no way of predicting of how long it will take. The subconscious mind processes the information at its own pace, and when it’s ready, it hands over the idea to your conscious mind.

    There’s really no influencing it, like you pretty much can’t influence your digestion at will (even though some yoga gurus may claim otherwise).

    As to the social media craze, being a bit older than Cal, I used IRC and later ICQ as social distractions. I made some real world friends over IRC, but ICQ really started to annoy me when I was trying to study. It broke my concentration so badly that I got rid of it, and then friends and peers reprimanded me for being so lazy to react to those instant messages.

    Also, I always felt weird about posting personal details online for the whole world to see them.

    For the time period that study hacks focused on the detrimental effects of social media, I was quite frankly bored, because it was preaching to the choir. But still, for the vast majority of people there was a case to be made, and therefore, Cal fulfilled a very important mission there.

    Still, I am glad that he starts posting about thinking, creativity and deep work again. Maybe that’s a bit selfish, but I do concede that he pressed a very important point, and strengthened it by being single-minded about it for some time.

    • The subconscious brain working in the background idea is also in Barbara Oakley’s Mind for Numbers. She explains it by stating that the mind has two states – focused and diffused. When you intently focus on something you activate focused mode and when you’re not thinking about something particularly and letting your mind wander then you’re in diffused mode. The back and forth between these modes generates insights over time. You can trigger diffused mode at will by going to bed, taking a bath or while commuting. This was famously used by Edison, he used to take small naps.

  4. “…time spent walking quietly with your thoughts, working and re-working your understanding of a concept in search of new layers of meaning”

    Couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m being mentored in a specific technique/philosophy in art and other inputs have slowed down my understanding of this philosophy and pull me away thinking I need ‘something else’.

    Cheers Cal.

  5. Aww!

    I’m a devoted runner and this happens to me a lot. As PhD candidate (I’m in a first-year), I do have some things to carry in my heads and sometimes, when I’m about to go for an easy effort run, I’m just letting my thoughts to play with a specific topic, argument, section, everything.

    It is really a way to go and now my takeaway message from your post should be to try to trace this ideas or new perspectives I’ve discovered being out.

    Thank you for what you are doing. You are really an isnpiration for me. Can’t wait to start witch Digital Minimalism.

    • Loved that post. Thanks to this blog i read of “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life”. Amazing book. I will read it again when i finished “How to Build a Boat”, Jonathan Gornall’s book, described as “part ode to building something with one’s hands in the modern age, part celebration of the beauty and function of boats, and part moving father-daughter story”.

  6. I’ve found the most astounding thing happen to me this week.

    My city is on lockdown, meaning I don’t do much other than take walks & go to the grocery store.

    I am not a particularly social person. Going to 1.5 social events/week is fine by me. But in the past week, I’ve had 8 social events coordinated online. Every day after getting off of work, I’ve had one or two events that I’ve been jumping between, barely having time for dinner. The only times I felt good were during my walks. I took a 3hr walk on Sunday. Yesterday, I spent 10 minutes trying to look at a particular bird (I’ve never birdwatched in my life before). These were the happiest points of my week.

    I’ve ended the week emotionally exhausted. As a result, I’ve cut out a couple social plans, and refuse to take more. Having 1-2x/wk is fine. Having free time to walk more, read more, play an instrument, these are the things that I want to be doing.

    The threat of ongoing events made me thing I needed to grab every social opportunity available, because they’d now be in limited supply. In practice, that’s not true. There is still plenty of opportunity to be social – which means I still need to keep guard over my time.

    I thought I’d go crazy with time to introspect at a time like this. But I think the opposite might be true.

  7. I think social interactions are a necessary fuel.

    This quote on Activity Theory comes from Lev Vygotsky – “All higher mental functions appear first on the interpsychological plane and then on the intrapsychological plane”

    Innovations are pregnant in the society before they are internalized by an individual.


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