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Newsletter #31: Two Mental Obstacles that Impede Creativity

Two specific obstacles have recently stymied my creativity: the Curse of Knowledge and the dismissal of the half-baked idea. Both involve failures of imagination on my part. I share them below to remind myself of them that I might better reflect upon and resist them in the future. Perhaps they’ll also help others who are similarly thwarted.

The first obstacle is a cognitive bias called the “Curse of Knowledge” (I wrote about this back in Issue #2). This problem manifests itself in our communications with others: we frequently—and mistakenly—assume that those with whom we communicate possess the same knowledge, experiences, and world-view we have.

For instance, we might omit important pieces of information, gloss over critical details or definitions, and assume logical connections our audience might not understand as we do (through no fault of their own). Even worse, we might neglect to communicate an interesting thought because we assume it is patently obvious to others.

When it comes to writing, the Curse of Knowledge frequently stops me in my tracks before I even begin; why bother writing about a particular topic if everyone else already knows about it?

Naturally, this is a ridiculous but pernicious assumption. In the real world, I find no shortage of gaps between my knowledge and others (and vice versa). Social interaction is fun, in part, because of knowledge and idea sharing. Moreover, even if an idea is familiar, there’s still tremendous benefit in being reminded of it or hearing a different perspective on it.

Ultimately, the Curse of Knowledge is a failure of imagination—a consequence of not getting out of my head and an inability to put myself in the shoes of others.


The second obstacle lacks a catchy name. I’ll clumsily refer to it as the dismissal of the half-baked idea. It occurs when I’m confronted with an under-developed idea that I disregard out of hand.

When writing, I find myself resistant to so-so ideas. I’d much rather write about the perfect idea. This line of thinking is counterproductive and frequently leads to procrastination and inaction. It overlooks the important fact that the very process of working through an idea is what turns something unremarkable into something “interesting” or “worthwhile”—even if only modestly so. It’s an error of conflating a starting point with an end-point and forgetting the transformational process that occurs in between.

I liken this thinking error to viewing our hopes and aspirations as blocks of unfinished marble. There’s something intriguing about the marble in its starting state, but because no effort has been made to shape it, the block remains poorly defined, unworked, unpolished, and of limited interest. The marble remains in a state of unrealized potential.

It’s one reason why I’ve found it more fruitful to start working actively on some idea rather than to passively await that “perfect idea.” It’s folly to expect a perfect idea to arrive fully formed like Athena from Zeus’ head. Like the block of marble, an idea requires effort and action to shape it into something.

The dismissal of half-baked ideas is a failure of imagination regarding the process of iteration, change, and incremental improvement. Like the Curse of Knowledge, it frequently robs many of our ideas from seeing the light of day.

What both obstacles share is a justification for inaction. I’ll keep a watchful eye on each in the coming months in the hopes of actively resisting them.

Now onto this week’s recommendations….


Articles:

  • Beauty Filters Are Changing the Way Young Girls See Themselves: “The most widespread use of augmented reality isn’t in gaming: it’s the face filters on social media. The result? A mass experiment on girls and young women.”
  • Brutalist Buildings Aren’t Unlovable. You’re Looking at Them Wrong: “An architectural style characterized by unfinished concrete, recessed windows, top-heavy design, and a proclivity for bulk and heft, Brutalism proliferated around the world in the mid-20th century…” I still don’t care for the aesthetic, but this article might helped me better appreciate it.
  • The Business of Scenery: Christopher Ketchum laments the commercialization, overcrowding, and emphasis of recreational uses over conservation across America’s National Park System.
  • In Defense of Thinking: A short piece by Cal Newport that observes that “we talk a lot more about information — how we can get more of it, how we can spread it faster — than we do its processing.”
  • The Lives of Others: Lindsay Jones’ long-form piece about two babies, born on the same day in a rural hospital in Newfoundland, sent home with the wrong mothers, and the chance meeting 50 years later that sets off a series of revelations that will change their lives.
  • Our Brain Typically Overlooks this Brilliant Problem-Solving Strategy: A recently published psychology study finds that people are biased towards additive solutions rather than subtractive ones. The scientific journal Nature published a related video worth watching, “Less Is More: Why Our Brains Struggle to Subtract.”
  • The Paradoxes of Modern Life: Fun list of a dozen paradoxes to contemplate. Here’s a sampler: “The Paradox of Skill: The more evenly matched opponents are in skill, the more of a role luck plays in determining the final outcome.”
  • This Is the Test to Apply to Everything: Ryan Holiday encourages us to repeatedly ask a question posed by the Stoic Marcus Aurelius: “Is this necessary?”
  • Why Animals Don’t Get Lost: Kathryn Schulz’s wonderful exploration of navigation and way-finding in the animal kingdom.
  • Writing Tools I Learned from the Economist: Ahmed Soliman examines the compact and direct prose of The Economist. This is an exercise I’ve been wanting to do for some time.

Podcasts

  • Conversations with Tyler: Dana Gioia on Becoming an Information Billionaire: Broad-ranging conversation with the poet and writer. It’s always instructive observing thinkers like Gioia navigate the richness of the humanities.
  • How I Built This: Siete Family Foods: Food industry episodes are always the best entrepreneurial stories in this podcast series, and this episode is no exception. Especially compelling is the family values that drive this successful company (it was founded by a tight-knit Mexican-American family of 7 in Laredo, Texas).
  • Not Overthinking: Brandon Sanderson: Ali Abdaal interviews the prolific bestselling fantasy writer. There’s some great insights about the creative work-ethic, writing, and the productivity systems used by the author.
  • The Productivity Show: The 3x Rule: Good reminder to address the root problem when recurring problems appear (rather than suffer through them with inefficient ad hoc solutions).

Odds & Ends:

  • The internet was abuzz with news of rediscovered footage of a Soviet made-for-television adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. Originally aired in 1991, the film was uploaded to YouTube in two parts (Part 1 | Part 2). It’s entirely in Russian, the effects are comically bad, but it’s still bizarrely fascinating. If anything, it’s an incredible contrast to Peter Jackson’s award-winning series that would premiere a decade later. English-speakers should look for a top-ranked comment from Chris Staeker for a detailed list of key events depicted and their corresponding time-stamps. Alternatively, you can enable closed-captioning and use Google’s machine-generated translation in your language of choice which results in some weird, semi-coherent dialogue.
  • 7% of Americans don’t use the internet. Who are they?: A recent Pew Research survey finds that age (those over 65), household income (< $30K/year), and educational attainment (high school and below) are strong indicators of non-internet use. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Pew found that nearly 30% of U.S. adults report they’re ‘almost constantly’ online.
  • A16Z’s NFT Canon offers a curated reading list of articles, guides, and resources for Non-Fungible Tokens. A16Z is the well-known venture firm that is often described as a content company that happens to make investments.
  • Five Books is a wonderful site for book discovery. The formula: the website interviews experts and asks them to recommend the best five books in their field. You can view the list of experts and fields here. Non-fiction is well represented, but you’ll also find recommendations for fiction and children’s literature as well as lists of newly released titles.

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