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On Quiet Creativity


Outdoor Office

For a couple hours yesterday, the trails pictured above served as my office.

Earlier that morning, I was polishing a proof. In doing so, I needed to reference a pair of related papers. As I began reading these papers, I sensed a deep connection between these results and my own, but I couldn’t quite articulate it.

In my experience, this type of connection making is well-served by three ingredients: quiet, movement, and time. So I left my building and hiked onto a network of trails that abuts the Georgetown campus.

I spent the next couple of hours walking and thinking, trying to arrange and re-arrange my understanding of these results. I’m hoping this impromptu line of thought might yield something new and significant, but it’s too early at this point to tell.

More important for our purposes here, however, is the broader point this example underscores…

Quiet Creativity

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.

Take my own example: I don’t use Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Linked In, Tumblr or Instagram, and I’m bad about e-mail, but I still have no shortage of ideas to work on.

(This is not surprising, even without these technologies, I’m still significantly more connected than most scientists and writers in most other times — and they had no problem coming up with big ideas.)

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.

This is hard deep work. But it’s also the foundation for ideas that matter.

27 thoughts on “On Quiet Creativity”

  1. Maybe for someone can be difficult to believe, but sometimes (in a very few days in the year) i need to walk in the house where i work (from bathroom to kitchen, and from kitchen to bathroom, or simply making circles around the salon central table) UNTIL i get the ideas that i was needing!

    I use these strategy only in a few moments in the year, just when i need be alone enough with my ideas for build a new creative solution for a new problem for a new situation/customer (i work customized Web applications).

    I hope that what i said help someone… try it! 😉 i know that it’s not so idyllic as go to forest, hehehe … but it’s enough quiet and creative! When this is not enough i then try to find the inspiration walking in the neighborhood.

    Thanks for your blog!

  2. I don’t like the idea of new years resolutions, but this year I have done something similar. I’ve written a short word document that currently has 5 rules to live by outlined within it. One of these rules states that I will meditate for at least 5 minutes a day. The most important one however states that:

    “I browse the internet for a maximum 30 minutes per day. Before I go online I write a short plan of exactly what it is I intend to do, and stick to it. On week days this only takes place after I get home from work, on my laptop. A timer is set and when the alarm goes off at the end of 30 minutes, I disconnect.”

    My timer is ticking as I speak. I now have 24 minutes left. It works wonders.

    I am also purposely “bad” at email and likewise don’t have an account on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Linked In, Tumblr, Instagram or anything remotely similar.

    • its not that someone can be ‘bad’ at emails…or social networking…talking with people you dont know may have alot of things common with you …..the thing you have determination,motive which drives you…and this is helpful in many aspects….keep it up

  3. “I don’t use Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Linked In, Tumblr or Instagram.” Is it possible that these pursuits actually detract from creativity? Perhaps they just divert or stymie disk space in the brain.

    • Thank you Cal for being a praiser of “intellectual walking.”

      Did anybody see Hannah Arendt’s movie?

      Apart from all the political content, it was quite interesting in terms of how she used her spare time for thinking. Although the purpose of the movie is not to portray her intellectual life, there are some moments in where she is depicted thinking (there is also a little clip in where she talks with philosopher Martin Heiddeger about thinking as the previous condition for a philosopher). Those moments have a lot to do with Cal’s example. Apart from taking long walks, she also used to lay down, alone, thinking about her ideas. Other relevant walker was Albert Einstein. He used to walk every day from home to Princeton’s campus mostly alone.

      Knowledge work is part of the life of the mind (and in here there is no separation between sciences and letters.) It requires deep thought. Every single activity that contributes to immerse oneself into his/her ideas is valuable. On the contrary, every single activity that prevent yourself from fully considering your thoughts is counter-productive. According to that, I enormously doubt that internet helps to be creative because those sites are mostly distractive. If we talk about work, and not about socializing, Internet can be a powerful tool for gathering information, which is a part of the process. Once you have that information, you better be alone.

      PS: If you are not fully convinced of the deep intellectual power of walking, I give you another important name: Jean Jacques Rousseau.

      Happy deliberate-practice-new-year to all of you!

  4. Cal,

    I understand the purpose of avoiding Facebook and Twitter, but isn’t Linkedin something more professional and beneficial to anyone looking to make connections? I apologize if I’m mistaken because I’m new to Linkedin and it seems like something that might be useful.

    Your blog and writing have been very inspirational to me. Personally, I’ve left all social networking sites (but I still have a Linkedin because I was unsure about it).

  5. You nailed it! I wouldn’t say that you are disconnected though. I have my own theory about it. We all consume in one way or another, but how and what we consume (via social interaction, media, sensory input, reading, reflection, etc.) are different for everyone. I imagine that mindless consumption (taking in the daily news, socializing, etc.) during the waking hours result in mindless processing during our sleep. In contrast, meaningfully-focused consumption (gathering info to do an article or presentation, for example) is processed during our waking hours with exactly the steps you described: movement, quiet, and time.
    With practice, I’ve learned to process info quickly, taking about 15 minutes every hour to do a autopilot activity such as wash dishes, push-mow the grass (and it makes my neighbors crazy) or go for a walk. I choose autopilot activities that require a change of location, repetitive mindless movement, and most importantly, ones that discourage interruption from others. Socializing during processing time is always a no-no, as it brings processing to a complete halt and it induces the same annoyance that one feels when being awoken by someone thoughtlessly banging around the room in the middle of the night. First is consumption, next is processing, and finally, birthing, which can take many forms (an organized thought, a finely-tuned sentence, a precise word, a better mousetrap). The ongoing cycle is interesting, exhausting, energizing, exciting, and fulfilling, all at the same time. Fortunate are the ones who have experienced this!

  6. Time spent alone (especially in a natural setting) tends to spur creativity for me, as well. I’m an introvert, so that might have something to do with it. Interesting, motivating post. Thanks!

  7. I don’t recall seeing those three ingredients for connections listed together before, and I agree. Connections between ideas and connections between people. In regards to connections between people, what could one substitute for “quiet”? Intimacy? Shared experience?

  8. I have to say, reintroducing facebook to my life, although I use SocialFixer extension that helps immensely, is distracting. The less “inboxes” you have, the better. And FB is a mess. Plus, it causes fear of missing out and unhappiness because everyone posts just highlights – skiing in France, jacuzzi shrimp and vodka pyjama party or whatever. Every imperfection is photoshopped. Plus, it doesn’t help with connection either. There are people you don’t care about, then people you want to see life, and people you’d like to know better, but FB doesn’t really serve that purpose. Example: Long term FB chats with a girl put you into friendzone, while infrequent, shorttext messages work better.
    Strategy for success: identify areas where sou want to shine: fitness, looks, career, being social, hobbies…then be specific and efficient, what actions will lead to those outcomes? 1 hour of exercise daily, 4 hours of studying, 2 hours of social time…other reminders could be “eat real food and focus on style and grooming”. Each area can have specific sub-actions for variety – walking, gym…Now put these as reminders to your phone, recurring tasks. Add other daily small tasks to the app on the go and make sure your list is empty at the end of the day. Simple mobile apps that help immensely: Sooner or Later, Things.

  9. Thank you again for the insightful post Cal. Your blog completely changed the way I approach work and life in general.

    I think I understand the need to have time to reflect on and play with the ideas we’re already entertaining.

    Regarding cutting off social networks, what about them detracts from deep work?

    You mentioned the cost of these networks (distraction, cognitive load, shallow thinking) outweighs the benefit of finding a helpful resource once in a while.

    Is there a way to manage these resources to maximize benefits while minimizing the costs, such that they’re worth using? Or is it better to focus on maximizing deep work?

    Specifically, I’m thinking about limiting time on FB etc. to minimize negative impacts.

  10. Great post Cal. Thanks!

    I like your “three ingredients: quiet, movement, and time.” Every year or two I re-read Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s The Gift of the Sea. While the context is dated, the material on simplicity, solitude, and reflection is invaluable.

    I would also like to add a quote from Dag Hammarskjold:

    Understand–through the stillness,
    Act–out of the stillness,
    Conquer–in the stillness.
    In order for the eye to perceive color, it must divest itself of all colors.

  11. I think I’ve stumbled onto this way of thinking without articulating it to myself. Living in Shanghai though, I’m forced to adapt my methods. Quiet is the trickiest. The library is quiet but its hard to walk at the “exploring nowhere” pace I enjoy.

    I seem to find myself walking the local malls, hours at a time, listening to baroque music, occasionally making notes as thoughts occur, until the need to process these thoughts draws me back to a more permanent office.

    Listening to music isn’t quiet, but if I want to walk–and I often feel the need to–it’s my best alternative.

    I look forward to the day when I have a small hiking trail right outside my office. #jealous 🙂

  12. I agree that reflection is so valuable.

    This is why it sometimes takes me a long time to read through books–I don’t want to just read the information, but digest it and think about how it applies in my life and to the lives of my coaching clients.

    To your brilliance!

  13. I’m reminded of this quote from Jason Kottke (of who recently reviewed Drew Dernavich’s five-year adventure from New Yorker cartoon reject to published cartooner. Kottke stated (apologize for the vulgarity, but I believe it emphasizes the point):

    “This might be the truest description of the creative process ever written. Shit just takes time and creative people make time.”

    That “making time” aspect is a big part of a walk of solitude or distancing oneself from distractions.

    Quote source:

  14. I think “SGTCIY” will have a huge role in my life (more deliberate practice is required until I prove it to me). So thank you for everything.

    I’m using my 15 “internet minutes” of the day jut to ask you this: have you ever read “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance”? If so, how Pirsig’s book influenced you?

    I’m really curious about it…I think that if I could make a “synthesis” from both ideas I could really make a difference in my life.

    If you could send a email for me I would be very grateful.

    Again: thank you for everything.

    And sorry about my terrible english. I’m from Brazil (“deliberate practicing” my english with tour book!).


  15. So true!
    I totally agree that breakthough ideas are more likely to arrive during a quiet walk than in a meeting room.

    However, there is still a big component of discipline in your walks. When I go for a walk, or when I do bibliography research online, I usually end up forgetting about work and just enjoy the birds, the snow… Not so useful then!

    In addition, I would not say that you are “disconnected” because surely you do an extensive online search of all relevant works and publications related to your efforts, and attend the major conferences. The difference is that you direct what you are connected to, instead of letting information come your way through social networks. But in any case, social networks were never designed to be good for your job, they are a tool for managing (or mismanaging) our personal life, and I think they are fine if we only check them once a day outside work.

    All the best!

  16. Hi Cal,

    I have just finished reading “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr. From a quick search of Study Hacks, I see that you mentioned him in 2010 when the book was published, so I assume that you’ve read it. I thought it was a thoroughly interesting, if not slightly disturbing read about the direction in which we are headed as internet use on PCs, laptops, tablets and in particular phones continues to proliferate.

    Has this changed the way you browse the internet, either casually or for work and research purposes? I know you limit email and have never joined any social networking sites, but did you make any other adjustments to your browsing habits after reading this book? Did you do anything that helps in the long run to preserve your ability to think deeply and contemplatively. I know in this post you talk about going for walks in order yo mull things over etc, but I wondered specifically about internet use. It would be good to know if reading Carr’s work prompted you to make any changes.

  17. Very true. I also need to clear out my brain by a long walk in nature.

    Usually the things become clear and new ideas coming ahead.

    thanks for sharing

  18. Glad to hear a little sense in an age preoccupied with noise! I’ve had to be steadfast in ensuring that I take some time out to walk in the woods medicinally. It’s something that I think more people need (not just for creativity) but for peace of mind.

    Unfortunately, I think it’s highly underrated.


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