Don’t Hurry, Be Curious Podcast: Episode 2

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Episode 2: Photography as a Way
What does photography mean to you? What role does photography play in your life? This episode we delve into photography as a “Way of Life” and what that means.
A Way is a kind of path, a personal philosophy, a type of quest or journey of self-discovery to seek and address questions about ourselves and our world, to find our place in the world amongst our family, friends, community, society, and culture. It’s the manner in which we live our life in a a direction toward an idealized lifestyle we select for ourselves. Five characteristics of a Way are:

  • 1. Vision
  • 2. Values
  • 3. Passion
  • 4. Talent
  • 5. Goals

Two concepts of a Way are:

  • Wa: harmony, peace, or peacefulness
  • ensō: a hand-drawn circle symbolizing the interconnectedness of things

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Getting in the Zone

When I started my research, blogging, and posting about Creativity a few years ago, I jumped head first into a very deep and broad pool. We often think of creativity in terms of its definition; the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others. But, the definition only describes what we think creativity is, not where it comes from, how it manifests itself in our daily activities, whether we can call it up at will, whether it actually exists, or what, if any, the related aspects of creativity are.

One aspect of creativity is what is commonly called The Zone. It’s the mental state we adopt when we’re fully immersed and engaged in an activity we’re passionate about. It’s a heightened state of consciousness and completely focused motivation where our emotions are channeled and positively aligned in the service of performing or learning. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term flow to describe this mental state, and I’ll use this term from now on. Other philosophies that could be related to or incorporate flow are Chi (China), Prana (India), Mana (Polynesian culture), rLung (Tibetan Buddhism), and Humors/Vital Energy (western culture).

Flow is more studied and researched in sports than in the arts, though flow transcends disciplines as well as cultures. Individuals from all walks of life have experienced instances of flow, described as being on autopilot, the outside world diminishes, the senses are focused, you know what to do and how to do it without thinking about it, there is a feeling of selflessness and timelessness, of being outside reality, hours seem to pass by in minutes or minutes expand, passing slowly.

But, what actually is flow? Csikszentmihalyi determined the human nervous system is only capable of processing information at about 110 bits/second. To hear and understand one person speaking requires about 60 bits/second. When there are three people speaking to you at once, you generally have a difficult time separating out who is talking about what because your brain is having trouble processing all that information (180 bits/second is 70 bits/second more than your brain can handle). So, Csikszentmihalyi theorizes when you’re fully engaged in creating something new, or immersed in working on a task or learning, you’re using all your attention bandwidth and don’t have enough left over to do well at that task and, at the same time, monitor how your body feels, or to address your issues at home, or even realize if you’re tired or hungry. Your brain stops recognizing these things – your body and everything non-essential to the task at hand disappears from your conscious thought processes – your existence in space and time is temporarily suspended.

It’s recognized that flow, similar to inspiration, can’t be called up at will. It simply happens when the conditions are right. Research has shown those conditions to be when a person is experienced in the skill being exercised, physically relaxed, mentally calm, experiencing low anxiety, is energized, optimistic, mentally focused, self-confident, and in control. Flow is temporary, involuntary, and not necessarily associated with a successful performance outcome (winning, for example), although mastery of the basic skills necessary for the task seems to be a pre-condition for the occurrence of flow. Cskikszentmihalyi says a truism of creativity is you can’t create anything new with less than 10 years of technical knowledge and immersion in a particular field; that it takes that long to begin to change something in a way that’s better than what existed before. Malcom Gladwell, in his book Outliers also stated it generally takes 10,000 hours of practice to become proficient in any task (20-hours a week [3 hrs/day] for 10 years). Of course, if you spend more time practicing, you’ll shorten the 10-year estimate. Does it take 10 years of practice at something to be able to engage in flow? It helps, probably, but I think it’s not a requirement. However, the more skilled you are at what you do, the easier and more frequent flow occurs. I suspect individuals who have the ability to engage in deep concentration probably experience flow even when they are working on relatively unskilled tasks. So, I think the ability to focus your attention is a key component to flow. I experience flow, in various degrees, when I’m photographing, writing, teaching, listening to music, taking a walk, and I certainly did when I was actively rock climbing and skiing as well as back in the day competing in sports in high school.

Getting to a state of flow is a balance between skill and challenge, between the point when you’re excited about something but not over-challenged by it (stimulation), and when you feel comfortable but not really excited or challenged (control). If you are pushed beyond your comfort zone at the stimulation level you can move into flow with a small increase in skill level (i.e. learning something new). If you are comfortable but not excited, you can move into flow by increasing challenge in the control area (i.e. driving) – see chart below. The mean level of challenge and skill (the central point on the chart) is different for each individual and changes for each individual throughout their life. Csikszentmihalyi says, though, if the mean level is known, a person could accurately predict when they will be in flow.

Flow Diagram

The seven characteristics of being in flow:

1. Focused concentration – being completely involved in what you are doing, there are clear goals and feedback
2. A sense of ecstasy (ecstasy means to “stand beside” or to be in “a state beyond reason and self control”), a balance is reached between challenge and skill
3. Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done and how well you are doing, action and awareness merge
4. Knowing the activity is doable – that our skills are adequate to the task, we have control
5. A sense of serenity – there are no worries about oneself, there is a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego, a loss of self-consciousness
6. Timelessness – being thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes or minutes are expanded, passing slowly
7. Intrinsic motivation – flow is a self-rewarding experience

Flow is a fragile thing. It comes and goes only under certain conditions and can easily be interrupted if you become distracted. A sound, a touch, a thought not related to the task can put an end to your run of creativity. Your self-consciousness about your activity and how you look or are perceived by others is a barrier to flow; if you think you’ll look ridiculous to others or be judged negatively in any way, you won’t be able to get into flow. Flow is a fleeting thing, like inspiration. You have to take advantage of it while it’s there.

How can you encourage flow?

1. Choose an enjoyable, challenging activity. Do something you love that challenges your skill level
2. Eliminate distractions. Turn off your phone, TV, email, social media. Find a location without distractions and where you are not likely to be interrupted
3. Think before you do. Do your research and preparation before you engage in the task. Stopping to do research or other unrelated tasks will knock you out of flow
4. Let go. Give up expectations about yourself and the results of the activity. You’ll be distracted by comparing what you’re doing to what you expect to achieve and risk narrowing your focus too much, removing any flexibility to change if your flow takes you down a different path. Don’t second guess what you’re doing. Go with the flow
5. Forget time. Placing a time limit sets expectations. Once you’re in flow, time will melt away, anyway. Once you think about how much time you’re spending on a task, other issues of the day will intrude and kick you out of flow
6. Control/ignore fear. Leave your ego at the door. Your self-consciousness will sabotage your flow.
7. Practice. The more practiced you are in your activity, the easier it will be to enter a flow state.

But, flow (being in The Zone) is not a magic bullet. It’s only a state of focused concentration. While being in flow can help your creativity and productivity, it is not necessarily a solution to a problem or will lead to the creation of great work. And, if you think about it too much, or try too hard to enter a flow state, it won’t likely happen. So, there’s the paradox; when you’re in flow you can’t think about it and when you’re not in flow you can’t think about it. Usually, you recognize flow once you’re on the other side of it. While you’re in flow, you experience that sense of being “in the moment”; it’s very pleasurable and you feel very productive. It is a good place to be. As more research is done on this elusive mental state, perhaps one day we’ll be able to harness it and use it in a more productive way. Until then, enjoy the ride.

References

Csikszentimihalyi, M. 1990. Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Rowe, NY.
Csikszentimihalyi, M. 1996. Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. Harper Collins, NY.
Csikszentimihalyi, M. 1997. Finding Flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. Basic Books, NY.
Gladwell, M. 2008. Outliers. Little, Brown & Company.
Loehr, J.E. 1986. Mental toughness training for sports: achieving athletic excellence. Plume, NY.
Maslow, A.H. 1962. Toward a psychology of being. Van Nostrand, Princeton, NJ.
Ravizza, K. 1977. A subjective study of the athlete’s greatest moment in sports. Proceedings of the Canadian Psychomotor Symposium, Psychomotor Learning and Sport Psychology Symposium: 399-401. Coaching Association of Canada, Toronto.
Ravizza, k. 1984. Qualities of the peak experience. In J.M. Silva and R.S. Weinberg (eds.) Psychological Foundations of Sport: 452-461. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.
Young, J.A. 1999. Professional tennis players in flow: flow theory and reversal theory perspectives. Unpubl. PhD. Thesis, Monash University, Melbourne, AU.

Creativity

fertilityV.jpgCreativity: So, where does it come from? Is it inherent or learned? And, if it is learned, can it be taught or is it merely discovered and nurtured through guidance? I lean toward creativity being inherent, only most of us tend not to notice we have it. Creative inspiration comes from many sources though primarily from our own experiences, past, present and future (future experience being what we hope/dream/plan. How we perceive our future impacts how we feel and what we do in the present). We’re certainly influenced by what we see others do, adapting someone’s perception to our own, sometimes outright copying or “appropriating” (what a nice word that also means “plagiarize”). Mostly, creativity seems to be an internal force, maybe a 7th sense. It’s definitely a means of communication different from sound, sight, taste or touch, yet incorporating elements of each as well as something more.

When I first started getting serious about photography, my mode of thinking was like most everyone else in that same situation. I read several articles and books that differed in their response to the question “where do I get my inspiration from?”. Many of them recommended looking at what others were doing and either to emulate them or take their vision and modify it. Very few said “do what comes natural” which is what I really wanted to do. After more thought I decided that doing what came natural to me would be both more personally satisfying and open up more avenues to be truly creative rather than just mimicking what was already out there. I have to say that I’m not there yet, it’s possibly a longer road than emulation, and along the way I’ve probably copied several artist’s works without realizing it. mystery.jpg I used to not read art books or look at what others were doing, just so I wouldn’t be unduly influenced. By not looking at other stuff, I could be assured that what I was coming up with was not based on something I’d seen, but on my own creativity, my own vision. Eventually, though, I started looking at magazines, books, the internet, not so much to get ideas but now to compare what I was doing with what was out there. I saw, and still see, quite a bit of work that blows me away. Dedication has a lot to do with creativity. Time and effort spent experimenting, technical knowledge, life experiences, simple contemplation, all come together like a recipe made from scratch, sometimes appearing easily, other times being forced out or dragged out then hammered into shape. 6681.jpg

Creativity has everything to do with how we see, perceive, and experience the world around us. Our vision, a biological process involving photons of light energy refracted and focused onto nerve endings then decoded by our brain, is selective. Millennia of evolutionary change has not completely dulled our visual perceptions, but our lifestyle has. Our brain is more or less hardwired to respond to situations that might either pose a danger or benefit to ourselves.

Back in the day, our simple lives were centered around eating or being eaten. We tended to be more aware of our surroundings, paying attention to subtle clues and cues, always vigilant for predators, prey, or food. Our current lifestyle (at least in developed countries) does not necessarily require us to take advantage of any situation. We are not always looking for food or running away from being food. We have jobs, supermarkets, traffic lights, fences, policemen and military, government, tailors and seamstresses, butchers and bakers, auto repairmen, plumbers, pilots, and preachers all taking care of us, helping us cope, doing some of the work needed for our individual selves to survive. That leaves us to daydream, worry about relatively insignificant things, listen to music, get into a routine. That routine, traveling the same path day after day, passing the same buildings, driving the same streets, encountering the same people, becomes familiar. Familiarity leads to complacency. We stop noticing what’s going on. nevadayellow.jpg

In the present day, we tend to only notice (or be aware of) those things that are a holdover from the tundra, those events that effect us directly in terms of food or being food (or personal danger). Lights and sirens, smoke, loud bangs or shouts, bright colors, someone standing too close or staring, certain smells, certain types of touching, certain movements of things, like trains, cars, airplanes. The rest of the environment is ignored. Common things, cars, people, buildings, weather, all meld into the background noise of our routine. Our senses are dulled, our awareness is stifled. Consider the nightly news and other television entertainment. Shocking stories, outrageous acts get our attention. The Discovery Channel used to be about education and learning, now it’s about celebrity and extremism. Creativity can be stifled by too much information, too much going on. We are inundated by new technology, iPods, Tivo, cell phones, email, the internet, natural disasters, the economy, digital photography, Photoshop, instant gratification, short attention spans, terrorism, urban growth, the list goes on.

Sean Kernan, in the January/February 2006 issue [Vol. 47 No. 8] of Communication Arts says “Right now we are all like seasick passnegers on an ocean liner who just want the damned boat to stop rocking. There is too much that is new in our lives, and little of it is good. Stiil, instinctively, we know that the only way out is forward. And this stasis will end thanks to something new that stands out against the field of the familiar…the way to move forward is to be new ourselves, to free up our seeing and thinking so we will not miss the turn on a new road forward.” BPI201.jpg

Creativity can be learned, I believe. It’s the individual that needs to make the first move, to regain awareness of yourself as well as the environment around you, and how you fit into, relate to, and move around in it. Doing that requires some amount of work and effort. Look at the bottom of this post for a short list of good books. Take a workshop not on technical aspects of photography or art, but purely on creativity. Take a workshop for an artform you don’t currently do, like acting or painting or pottery. Expand your horizons. Read, fiction, non-fiction, trade magazines, popular magazines, comic books. Go to museums. Visit your state capitol and other historic buildings and actually look at the architecture. Listen to your family. Go to the mall and just sit and watch people interact with one another, watch their behaviors and gestures. Go to the woods, desert, ocean and just sit quietly alone, listening, opening up your senses to your surroundings. Imagine.

Photography (art in general) can be a limitation to awareness. When you’ve been looking at the world in snapshots (“That would make a great picture”, “That’s the painting I’ll do next”) we, like the camera, eliminate what is going on around us. Sometimes it’s helpful to put down the artist tools, put away the artist. And just be.

References:

Phillipe L. Gross and S.I. Shapiro. 2001. The Tao of Photography: Seeing Beyond Seeing. Ten Speed Press

David Bayles and Ted Orland. 1993. Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking. Image Continuum Press

Andreas Feininger. 1973. Principles of Composition. Amphoto Press

Ansel Adams. 1983. Examples: The making of 40 photographs. Little, Brown & Company