Santa Fe and Habitual Creativity
Friday, February 28, 2014
I’ve always been fairly creative. Not wearing odd cloths and performing at open poetry readings creative but rather the ability to step back and look at things in a different way, often leading to creative or "outside the box" solutions. Much of my supposed skill in software development, language design and such is really just applying this ability. You could even say I’m a one-trick pony who depends on ability to get things done.
As you might imagine I was more than a little worried when I started having trouble taking that mental step outside the box. My usual tricks to jump start creative thinking—time at a coffee shop with just a notebook, getting more sleep, or taking long walks—weren’t effective. It was time to do something drastic which for me meant an extended time off and a trip to Santa Fe.
Why Santa Fe? The easy but unsatisfying answer is that I find it easy to be creative when I’m there. A more complete answer involves my history with the city and the way our environment shapes the way we think.
My first trip to Santa Fe was for the 1992 Artificial Life conference. This was quite the mind-bending experience with large quantities of strange ideas, margaritas, and interesting conversation. I attended the conference with long-time writing and business collaborator Gene Korienek and over the next ten years he and I met at Santa Fe a half dozen times. Gene is the most creative person I know and our meetings were filled with brainstorming ideas for books, business startups, and solving the world’s problems. Thus my experiences in Santa Fe were almost always one of thinking and creating... and margaritas.
I have a theory that people are creatures of habit in a profound way that goes well beyond what is normally considered a ’habit’. The sounds, smells, and sights of a particular location—be it a city, desk tucked into a corner of the living room, or a favorite coffee shop—can have a powerful effect on the way we think and behave. Santa Fe makes me creative, my desk makes me work, my old windows laptop makes me play games, and a fireplace makes me crave toasted marshmallows.
Habits can be bad. I used habitual creativity in Santa Fe for a mostly positive effect. Other habits like a craving to smoke while in a tavern or grabbing a snack when you go to the kitchen for a glass of water are obvious examples. One that I ran across when I was teaching was students who had become used to sleeping in class. What might have been acceptable behavior for a good student in high school became a disaster for that same student in college-level computer science courses. Because they had become accustomed to sleeping in class, had developed it as a habit, it was very difficult for them to stay awake and pay attention. As their teacher I felt it was my duty to help them overcome this habit by throwing erasers at them and berating them publicly when they fell asleep. I didn’t do those things because I enjoyed it... much.
Part of my theory is that the way we think, or don’t think, is often controlled by our habits. That’s a big enough topic that I think I’ll save it for another post.