How To Create Order From Chaos
In today’s Sunday Letters, I’m taking a look at how we can create order from chaos. I’m staying with The Artist’s Manifesto until publication on October 15th, and This article is part two of chapter eight, titled; The Creative Self.
Many of us in western industrialised society do not believe ourselves to be creative.
We assign creativity to those we see as having natural talent, assuming that the expression of creative or artistic ability is inherent in some but not in all.
We believe that we were not bestowed the gift and therefore shouldn’t waste our time.
Besides, in the practical world of things to pursue the creative life is risky and can never pay the bills.
That’s the thin script some of us have running in our minds. So hemmed in by this belief, we often lack the broadness and depth of thought we need in chaotic times.
When professional challenges arise such as job loss or financial difficulty, we feel unable to cope.
Our environment has so successfully conditioned us to its norms that we fail to see the multitude of options and creative possibilities available to us.
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In the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse, I came to this understanding in no uncertain terms.
My first business, which I had worked so hard to create, had failed.
The climb down from the self-assigned pedestal felt impossible. I had invested my sense of self entirely in my work and the business I had built, and I could not separate them.
However, I regret none of it. Given that there is no better teacher than experience, there was a benefit to the entire sequence of events.
The Emotional Brian
I happen to believe that human beings have an enormous ability to overcome chaotic life circumstances.
Skills such as courage, grit, resilience and perseverance can provide the route to creative solutions to these problems.
To access these skills the desires and demands of the surface level personality, of the ego, often need to take a back seat.
But given that most of us operate within strict societal boundaries, it is usually impossible for the ego to relent.
In stressful situations our emotional brain takes over, shutting down our ability to think rationally and objectively.
The Hippocampus, that area of the brain responsible for memory and learning cannot be accessed either, and we act irrationally.
In defence of our fragile selves, we blame things and other people.
We refuse to take responsibility for the results of our own decisions and actions.
Having externalised our goals and motivation for achieving them, we lack the unconscious self-assurance required to find a way through.
The Self-Assured State
In the self-assured state, instead of seeing ourselves in opposition to the environment, we see ourselves as part of it.
We don’t see ourselves as something alien, cast down into the world against our will, left to survive alone in a hostile place.
Although the adversarial aspects of the ego often convince us this is so.
Instead, we see ourselves as a component of the process rather than separate from it.
In this state of mind, we can accept conditions for what they are and exercise patience and reserve in the face of chaos while maintaining the assuredness of right action.
There are no mistakes in this state of mind.
There are no conditions we can’t overcome; in many respects, there is nothing to overcome.
In the self-assured state, the ego led surface personality fades into the background, and the deeper, genuinely creative self comes forward.
Now the self, the process, and the environment become and act as one system.
This oneness with the environment, acceptance of painful conditions, and the application of transformational skills do not mean you will smile all the way through hell.
But it will allow you to come out the other side a stronger and more resilient person capable of dealing with whatever life throws at you.
You will subsequently become someone possessing a stable, internalised sense of self, willing to work in harmony with the environment regardless of circumstances, becoming more complex and creatively astute than you were before.
“The good things that belong to prosperity are to be wished, but the good things that belong to adversity are to be admired”
Seneca | Stoic Philosopher
The Creative Personality
It is perhaps impossible to define a single creative personality type that consistently reflects the self-assured state of mind of the successful artist.
Because as we have seen earlier in this chapter, the self is a moving changing thing and traits of personality will always vary from one person to the next.
The environment has an effect too.
However, there are certain aspects of personality that weigh heavily on how we manage challenges to our creativity in life and work.
In that, unfortunately, some of us are unable to experience the joy of doing things for the sake of it.
For we are either too self-conscious and afraid or too self-absorbed and narcissistic.
When we worry about evoking the correct response from others, or we are so self-absorbed that we focus only on personal profit, happiness is fleeting.
Outwardly focused, we rarely afford the creative personality an opportunity for expression.
The Autotelic Personality
Something that is autotelic has a purpose in and of itself.
The word is derived from the Greek; autos meaning self, and telos meaning “goal” and is used to explain the nature of consciousness in individuals who engage in complex work for its inherent enjoyment even when the activity is potentially threatening.
The autotelic personality is detailed in the book Flow, by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
The author stresses that individuals he has studied undertake their work not in a frivolous manner to provide short-term stimulation, but as a long-term, often lifetime expression of intrinsic goals.
In other words, they engage in their work for the primary purpose of personal enjoyment and challenge.
Subsequently, this engagement results in the growth of the self.
The autotelic self possesses the ability to transmute challenging, boring, or even life-threatening situations into activities that bring about transformative states of being.
For the autotelic personality, there are no wasted experiences; they can utilise all life circumstances to their benefit.
This does not mean that undesirable conditions are accepted in defeat and hopelessness.
On the contrary, the experience is used to challenge the self to uncover unique and creative means to overcome the conditions.
Autotelic individuals accept the nature of current circumstances and resolve themselves to determinedly discover the required solutions.
Autotelic people do not scramble to be noticed by their peers or the public, and they do not regard the primary reason for engagement in their work as competitive.
They do not waste energy in defence of a fragile ego, because it does not exist.
The creative work they engage in is something most other people would not have the patience or ability to focus on for the time required to deliver results.
Time is irrelevant to the autotelic personality.
Many subjects Csikszentmihalyi interviewed reported that in their work, time both speeds up and slows down depending on the task.
In many respects, the autotelic personality may come about as a result of upbringing.
A more stable childhood environment and the freedom to explore opportunities without obligation to parental expectation may provide a suitable ground for the development of autotelic personality in children.
Although some creative people develop an autotelic personality in childhood, this does not exclude those who have not from developing the traits of autotelic personality in later life.
Csikszentmihalyi explains as follows, four rules for the development of the autotelic self.
1. Goal Setting
The ultimate aim of the self is happiness and fulfilment in the moment of Now.
When we are engaged in an activity we enjoy, and we do so for the inherent challenge of becoming proficient, there comes about the natural pursuit of goals.
We should not think of goals as a linear process whereby we consciously strive step by step to reach a future version of ourselves.
Instead, we should regard goal setting as the natural draw towards an inner desire to understand everything about the work with which we engage.
The development of a more proficient version of us may more accurately be said to be a multidimensional often unconscious process within which we execute daily and hourly tasks.
The autotelic person sets goals on an hourly, daily, weekly basis etc. from an intrinsic rather than extrinsic perspective.
In doing so, they continually assess results, adjust their actions, and remain consistently aligned with their values. Modifications to their efforts can be made based on feedback from their observed results.
Goals are therefore self-directed.
The development of an autotelic personality can be achieved in part by becoming totally immersed in our chosen work.
The type of work we choose to execute is less important than the degree to which we engage with it.
There is a great satisfaction and personal fulfilment, for example, in washing dishes or the car in the driveway as there is on the fringes of the study of quantum gravity.
Our immersion and relentless focus of attention in the given field of endeavour is of primary importance.
That is not to say that we must grit our teeth and grind it out. Rather, it’s more to do with dancing or playing with the work that it is toil and laborious effort.
Level of skill of course, and expectation has a bearing on results.
If I started an apprenticeship in cabinetry in the morning it’s unlikely I’ll be capable of creating a masterpiece by next week.
I must accept that my progress will be slow for quite a while.
Unrealistic expectations will invariably lead to failure and disappointment.
On the other end of the spectrum, the skilled craftsman must continually challenge himself to better standards in order to maintain and develop the complexity in himself.
To languish in mediocrity breeds discontent.
I like to wash dishes by hand, and when I do, I am thoroughly engaged in the process.
It’s like a meditation. If I am not, the wet plate may skite out of my hands and onto the floor. In which case, my wife will not be too pleased.
Ok, a trivial example, but you get the picture.
The same applies to creative people engaged in complex tasks.
Take a surgeon carrying out a complicated operation for example, or a photorealistic artist working on a large format pencil drawing.
For both these people, heightened attention to the task at hand is critical to their successful output.
The autotelic person is capable of holding their unwavering attention to the task at hand.
There is no room for self-consciousness.
The focus of attention on what others may be thinking or feeling about the work we do is a self-conscious action and will destroy our chances of making something great.
Therefore we must control attention. With deliberate practice, this is entirely possible to achieve.
As you may agree, enjoyment in our work is a crucial factor in allowing ourselves full creative expression.
If you don’t enjoy the work you do, you won’t stay the pace.
Extrinsic motivation might keep you there for a while but it won’t last. Besides, if you don’t enjoy it what is the point? Work must incorporate an aspect of play in order to satisfy the creative personality.
As Stuart Brown, founder of The National Institute for Play states in his book, Play; “Play seems to be so important for our development and survival that the impulse to play has become a biological drive”.
Play seems to prepare us for the difficult challenges of life, but when life becomes a constant difficulty devoid of enjoyment, it ceases to have meaning.
It seems that most of us regard our work as toil, and as such, we can’t wait to escape it.
And when we do we engage in activities of low complexity.
We largely forgo enjoyment in work for the sake of a pay packet at the end of the month.
Work is not supposed to be fun. However, for the autotelic person, fun and enjoyment is an essential aspect of the creative process.