|And it is a lonely place. From a mathematical blog: http://easyquestion.net/thinkagain/2011/02/18/think-outside-the-box/|
This is a personal reaction to an article I ran across in Slate over a month ago that hit me where I live titled, Inside the Box: People don't actually like creativity. It is a short piece that presents the phenomenon in this country where we celebrate imaginative people and where "viewing the world creatively is supposed to be an asset, even a virtue," but we actually have a bias against the ideas generated by that creativity. The referenced study reveals that people desire creativity, but reject creative ideas when we have a practical motivation counter to the creative idea. In other words, we like the idea of creativity, but not the actuality of it.
By day I am a mild-mannered architect and, until recently, teacher of design where I am supposedly valued for my ability to think and act creatively. As pointed out in the article, though, this is not what people really want from me. They want products that are a good-looking version of what they already know and are comfortable with. Something they have seen before that doesn't challenge them, something that doesn't stick out, something that is acceptable to others because that is what others have.
Oh, they will say they want you to 'think outside the box' (the phrase I hate the very most hearing), but what they really want is for you to be good at replicating what is already in the world. And, after being in model railroading for almost 40 years now, I have learned that model railroaders are people, too, and the same applies in this hobby world as much as it does in the real world.
The lack of risk-taking in the hobby has and will always surprise me, but I now have a tenuous grasp on the situation - at least enough of one to be able to better handle the situation. In general, people like recipes, solutions and 'right.' They don't like messy thinking, trying several iterations before being satisfied, or uncertainty. The want to 'know' how to do something and not to figure out how to do something new. As a consequence, I have gone from an exuberant young hobbiest throwing out ideas left and right to any and all who ask, to a much more cautious encourager of different approaches to a problem, to a reserved and reluctant adviser. I'm not happy about this change, but it is a survival skill learned the hard way.
As a designer, I was taught to respect the past, but not to replicate it. I am always looking forward, re-designing old things, looking for new problems to solve and trying to improve on any and every situation I come across. 'Progressive', 'new', and 'innovative' are the watchwords of the designer. Being creative is not an outcome, it is a different way of living life. It is a process and not a product. But it makes it difficult to relate to others at times, and it is almost always exhausting, especially when nothing comes of it. This happens in life, and equally unfortunately, it often happens in model railroading.
I used to offer 'creative' ideas about layout design to any and all that asked. The way these encounters go is that there is general discussion about "doing something" to a layout - be it scenery, track arrangement, fascia design, operating scheme, etc. This is like a form of crack cocaine being offered to a designer.
What happens is that my objective brain begins to shut down. This is the part of the brain that comes up with all the inhibitions and all the reasons not to do something. It is the logical, linear and doing part of the brain. It shuts down so that the subjective, free-associating, abstract and creative part of the brain can get some breathing room to do its thing - come up with a new idea.
So, my eyes get big, my pulse quickens, the world starts to slow down as the ideas speed up. I am in the zone. I ask innocently, "what is it that you are really trying to do?" A sharp first question is almost always devastating. "What do you mean?" is the usual response. I probe more. "What kind of mood are you trying to present? Do you want grandeur, intimacy, ruggedness?" Now I've got them thinking in a different way. It is not about finding the solution anymore. Our conversation is suddenly now about defining the problem and figuring out a desired outcome. Not until that is set will we concentrate on 'solving' the actual problem.
"You are talking about "x", but it seems like "y" is the problem if you are trying for that effect," I say tentatively. "You're right!" they say with surprise. "Then what if we did..." and we are off on a brainstorming adventure that comes up with many 'outside the box' (cringe) ideas. It is an exciting conversation, and it often lasts for several minutes. Or even hours, because once you are in the design thinking zone, you are looking at the layout in a totally different way. Suddenly that initial 'problem' transforms into a multitude of 'opportunities' to apply the same conceptual idea thought of for the original. Now everything is falling into place. Every decision about the layout relates to a central idea. Every decision becomes easy. Everything now makes sense.
Then the logical side wakes up in my conversation partner. "That's nice, but nobody builds a layout that way," he says suddenly aware that he has left the comfort of everything he has ever seen in a model railroad. "So?" I reply innocently shrugging my shoulders just the slightest bit. "Those are really creative ideas, but I'll have to think about it." And with that I know that nothing we talked about will ever happen.
I can't begin to count all the times that scenario has played out in front of my eyes like a car wreck you see unfolding in front of you with no power to stop it. It is a horrible feeling. It is the crash after a drug-induced high. Over the years the highs are not as high and the crashes are not as hard since I am pretty well desensitized, but it is still something that I actively avoid. I try not to think creatively when I am around (most) model railroaders - it's not what they are actually interested in hearing.
There are still the inquiries for advice. After editing the Layout Design Journal where I tried to do something different and was rejected, I get several inquiries from people who are looking for creative ideas. What they are actually looking for, though, is the 'right' answer - the answer that others have done before. Yes, there are good general rules of thumb like any endeavor, but there are also a universe of new ways of interpreting those general rules. For a while I tried to vet people to make sure they were looking for creative ideas - testing them, asking if they were really sure they wanted a creative suggestion, and they always said "yes", but they always meant "no." I don't try to vet anymore. At this point, I either just do what they have already decided is the right way or decline to help.
I have learned to adapt so that I can have fun, and it has worked out pretty well. The stress of trying to convince people to look at things a different way is gone, the disappointment and awkwardness in others' reactions is gone, the feeling of being a weird outsider is gone. I can now blend in and back slap everyone on what they do and not have to explain my crazy ideas. Perhaps I can sneakily get others to design rather than just do, but for the most part now, I try to enjoy other peoples' approach to the hobby as they enjoy them and not how I would enjoy them. Kind of a Zen approach to the social aspects of the hobby. A passage in the book Chuang Tzu reads, “flow with whatever is happening and let your mind be free. Stay centered by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate.”
I've found a couple of people in this perhaps yet undefined niche who really like to design what they are doing rather than just do what they are doing, and I follow their work, and we have great conversations. Some call it 'thinking man's' pursuits - I just call it designing. I'm hoping to find a few more of these types of modelers and maybe put some of our thoughts together in a publication.
The point of having a hobby, though is satisfaction on your own terms, in your own time and place. My terms happen to include re-thinking what to do and how to do things versus doing them like everyone else already does it. Or more succinctly, I like to design.