The nature of the creative

To do world class intellectual work, the first requirement is a completely calm mind – no matter what is happening around you, or what shit is going down in your life – one must completely relax and only then work.

And even before starting work, you must reflect on it, visualize it and visualize the solution. You must already know what you are going to write or program, BEFORE you touch the keyboard.

The fact of the matter is, that if you are spending more than 6-8 hours at your “Brain” job, you are doing it wrong. Either the idea will strike you in a moment, or not at all. And if you are stressed or driving yourself hard, the idea will never come – it will come to you only when you are happy & relaxed.

So the first Mantra to success is a Calm Mind. If you want to do world class research, if you want to create, you must master your own mind, your own emotional state.

As a natural corollary, this means that most of the day, you will not be “working” in the strict sense of the world – you are just mastering your own mind, or visualizing the work you intend to do.

This, however, creates some problems.

First, to an outsider, it creates the impression that you are too lazy, or too free or that you are just dreaming. [In fact, one is dreaming – the job requires you to dream after all!]

The second, is that because an impression is created that this is “easy” work, sons of farmers and others, who may not have seen a single book in generations, start entering such intellectual professions, and totally ruin the atmosphere. Pretty soon, you are being judged by an agricultural mindset – of how long you spend in the office, how “hard” you work, and so on.

This idea of working smart instead of hard has been much explored in the realm of programming – there are entire languages devoted to this idea, in fact – Lisp, Haskell, Scheme, Clojure & others.

Paul Graham, one of the most successful tech entrepreneurs and Lisp exponent, in his essay, Beating the Averages writes,

In the summer of 1995, my friend Robert Morris and I started a startup called Viaweb. Our plan was to write software that would let end users build online stores. What was novel about this software, at the time, was that it ran on our server, using ordinary Web pages as the interface.
A lot of people could have been having this idea at the same time, of course, but as far as I know, Viaweb was the first Web-based application. It seemed such a novel idea to us that we named the company after it: Viaweb, because our software worked via the Web, instead of running on your desktop computer.
Another unusual thing about this software was that it was written primarily in a programming language called Lisp. It was one of the first big end-user applications to be written in Lisp, which up till then had been used mostly in universities and research labs. [emphasis added]

Why Lisp?

Robert and I both knew Lisp well, and we couldn’t see any reason not to trust our instincts and go with Lisp. We knew that everyone else was writing their software in C++ or Perl. But we also knew that that didn’t mean anything. If you chose technology that way, you’d be running Windows. When you choose technology, you have to ignore what other people are doing, and consider only what will work the best. [emphasis added]

Working in this manner is not only efficient, it also gives you a competitive advantage.

When I was about nine I happened to get hold of a copy of The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth. The main character is an assassin who is hired to kill the president of France. The assassin has to get past the police to get up to an apartment that overlooks the president’s route. He walks right by them, dressed up as an old man on crutches, and they never suspect him.
Our secret weapon was similar. We wrote our software in a weird AI language, with a bizarre syntax full of parentheses. For years it had annoyed me to hear Lisp described that way. But now it worked to our advantage. In business, there is nothing more valuable than a technical advantage your competitors don’t understand. In business, as in war, surprise is worth as much as force.

As Paul Graham notes, had they written their software in C++ or any other mainstream language, they would have had to work much much harder at making their company a success, would have had a harder time matching up to their competitors.

What were the results of this experiment? Somewhat surprisingly, it worked. We eventually had many competitors, on the order of twenty to thirty of them, but none of their software could compete with ours. We had a wysiwyg online store builder that ran on the server and yet felt like a desktop application. Our competitors had cgi scripts. And we were always far ahead of them in features. Sometimes, in desperation, competitors would try to introduce features that we didn’t have. But with Lisp our development cycle was so fast that we could sometimes duplicate a new feature within a day or two of a competitor announcing it in a press release. By the time journalists covering the press release got round to calling us, we would have the new feature too.

For another such story, of using Lisp as a competitive advantage, see Inside Orbitz. From this link on the Franz Lisp we read,

Calculating ticket prices and flight schedules can often be more complex than flying an airplane. There can be as many as 50 different types of rules associated with one fare — days it’s available, which flights, number of seats, etc. This can add up to an overwhelming number of scheduling and pricing combinations.
The airline systems which manage this process were invented nearly 40 years ago in Assembler language on mainframes, and are still in use today. These applications are so massive and intricate, that industry developers thought it impossible to make major updates or changes to them…at least until Jeremy Wertheimer founded ITA Software in 1996 [emphasis added].

But, again, Lisp to the rescue,

Wertheimer and his small group of programmers quickly became the “whiz kids” of the airline industry. No one could believe that 3 programmers were able to write an application that many senior airline executives thought impossible in less than two years. Not only was ITA Software’s system less expensive to maintain in terms of computer resources and manpower; but it offered significantly more flexibility and speed as well. [emphasis added]
“We can search thousands of pricing and scheduling options in the time it takes the other airline engines to search several hundred. And, thanks to our lisp-based algorithms, we can adapt our questions to become more narrow or broad depending on the situation.” Says Wertheimer.
ITA Software selected Allegro CL as their original development environment. “We use Lisp for the high level structure, in conjunction with a variety of other languages such as C and Java throughout the application.” Explains Wertheimer. “We were pleased with Allegro CL’s strong foreign function interfaces, powerful compiler, and multi-platform support.” He adds.

The language Lisp is just one example, of how one must and can work smart instead of working hard.

In fact, this idea of working smart than hard is a theme explored in some depth in the area of software engineering. See for instance, Brook’s Law:

Brooks’ law is a claim about software project management according to which “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”.[1][2] It was coined by Fred Brooks in his 1975 book The Mythical Man-Month. According to Brooks, there is an incremental person who, when added to a project, makes it take more, not less time.

Go back and read that again now – for every person you add to the project – you slow the project down!

And this recalls the old joke about the engineer and his hammer:

The Graybeard engineer retired and a few weeks later the Big Machine broke down, which was essential to the company’s revenue.  The Manager couldn’t get the machine to work again so the company called in Graybeard as an independent consultant.
Graybeard agrees. He walks into the factory, takes a look at the Big Machine, grabs a sledge hammer, and whacks the machine once whereupon the machine starts right up. Graybeard leaves and the company is making money again.
The next day Manager receives a bill from Graybeard for $5,000. Manager is furious at the price and refuses to pay. Graybeard assures him that it’s a fair price. Manager retorts that if it’s a fair price Graybeard won’t mind itemizing the bill. Graybeard agrees that this is a fair request and complies.
The new, itemized bill reads…
Hammer:  $5
Knowing where to hit the machine with hammer: $4995


always be patient with people with jobs that require intelligence and intellect. They will come through – for sure – if you know they are capable they will. Give them their space, give them their freedom to create. Facilitate the process, but don’t try to control it (because none can, really.)

AND NEVER try to hurry them along. For that will only break their calm, which in turn, will only slow them down further!

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