Saturday, March 05, 2016

The Angst Overhead

In high school, our crew coach often reminded us to relax our faces. Crew is a sport based on precision and pain. Though frowning is often the natural response, holding on to tension while rowing simply wastes energy.

Recently I have been wondering when this advice applies to to creative processes, especially as many believe that tension is necessary for producing great work. One of the stories in Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler features two writers, an untroubled one who produces best-sellers with ease and a tortured one pursuing an elusive truth. Each is envious of the other: the first of the second's facility of creation, and the second of the first's depth of pursuit. In the story, each writer tries to be more like the other and becomes less effective than before. This dichotomy between between productivity and depth is one many of us believe in.

There is evidence that believing creation should be difficult can slow the process of creation. In her memoir The Art of Asking, singer Amanda Palmer talks about how public perceptions of artists, as well as artists' romanticization of their own processes, can hold creation back. Amanda presents the image of the artist as solitary, locked in an attic, brooding, and probably wearing a scarf. She then describes once breaking her own rules--not going on Twitter while writing a song, because artists are solitary--and producing one of her best pieces.

Still, many of us cling to the association between creation and masochism. I've seen it in myself and among my peers in academia. We want to produce good work in the world, so we produce pain in ourselves. Perhaps subconsciously, we deny ourselves that break from our desk, that conversation with a friend, because we believe that this might somehow get in the way of the creative process. The weight of what we want to achieve overwhelms us. It is difficult not to obsess until we have brought our abstract idea into the world of the concrete. But we fail to realize that this angst, while often a product of creation, does not produce creation.

Much of my development as a researcher has involved reducing this angst. Early in my PhD, I had an internship with a researcher who, after listening to me talk about my ideas, would say, "Just go do it." I would watch in amazement as he executed on difficult tasks of uncertain outcome with little apparent angst. Similarly, I learned from my advisor the power of calmly writing things on a whiteboard to process both ideas unfamiliar to us and ideas no one has ever presented before. It is not necessary to feel the weight of the entire project with each forward step. Allowing work-angst to absorb us--or worse, believing that the angst is what makes the work good--often only wastes energy.

Computer Scientists often think in terms of "overheads," how much a process slows down the time required to achieve the desired task. Angst often incurs significant overhead with little gain. Thus, to better pursue elusive truths, I am now pursuing minimal angst overhead.

5 comments:

Ben said...

Great post! I would go even further and say that the creative process should be one of joy and fun. Amin Vahdat told me at an NSDI long ago that I needed to have more fun in my work. That's helped tremendously, and also helped unleash my inner goofiness on my students.

Norman Ramsey said...

Read Robert Boice.

Philip Guo said...

I like Ben's answer about joy and fun. On a related note, joy/fun makes it easier to attract and motivate students/collaborators as well, which counts for a lot.

glassquarter said...

Ah, this was a post that I really needed to hear.

Particularly:

"Still, many of us cling to the association between creation and masochism...We want to produce good work in the world, so we produce pain in ourselves...The weight of what we want to achieve overwhelms us. It is difficult not to obsess until we have brought our abstract idea into the world of the concrete. But we fail to realize that this angst, while often a product of creation, does not produce creation.

...It is not necessary to feel the weight of the entire project with each forward step. Allowing work-angst to absorb us--or worse, believing that the angst is what makes the work good--often only wastes energy."

Time to do some things, and focus more on the work than the work-angst.

Thank you!

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