I have recently been researching heavily into something called meta-cognition. This concept is something which has great power, probably the most power of all the traits in a human. It is defined as:
higher-order thinking that enables understanding, analysis, and control of one’s cognitive processes, especially when engaged in learning.
That is to say that meta-cognition is the ability to analyse your thoughts, now combined with the idea that your thoughts motivate your actions, you are certainty onto something big. The simplest way I can see meta-cognition is as the ability to set goals and plan how to achieve them before taking action.
A novelist may write out the plot structure before beginning writing even a single word. A soccer player may visualize how he wants to strike the ball before he takes free kicks. The successful military tactician almost always develops a strategy before charging his men into battle.
Meta-cognition seems to be the most powerful way of thinking, all elite learners and performers seem to do it to some degree, whether consciously or unconsciously.
I played with a Jazz band for a period, and Jazz music is notorious for its emphasis on improvisation, that is: coming up with music on the spot.
How a typical jam would pan out was that our leader Dave would pick a tune, which we would play through as written on the sheet. Then, once we had made it through the written section we would each take turns making up a melody over it.
My first attempts at this were dire, I was simply dicking about over chords. I soon found myself approaching Dave and asking him for advice. He told me to learn the music off by heart.
I challenged him with the suggestion that this will take away the element of improvisation. He then explained that to improvise well, that is to create well, I would first need a skeleton with which to build upon. He was introducing me to the idea of meta-cognition, planning how to create.
Mapping out the Territory
What I began to see was when I knew the tunes inside out I did a much better job at improvising over them. My creativity had structure. I began to see these little sheets of music as maps, which I needed to learn off, because then I could improvise my journey across them in any way I wished.
It seemed that the greatest exercise for creativity may actually be – planning.
Then Dave threw another spanner in the works. One time when we were about to play a tune he told us to turn over our music so we had nothing to follow. He then stood up and turned off the light – which in my mind nullified the need to flip our pages in the first place, but maybe he was trying to psyche us out.
We were asked simply to play.
Someone said: “play what?”
“Anything,” replied Dave.
I started a little riff, someone latched onto it, but messed it up due to not being able to see their instrument. Dave shouted – of all things – “Good!”
Confused we all stopped.
Dave explained that the point was not to sound in harmony, nor to sound perfect, the point was to take away your eyesight and use a less dominant sense – which ironically for musicians is often their hearing. When you are really listening to another person instead of watching what notes they play it forces you to communicate a different way – It forces you to be more creative in your expression.
The power of this soon became apparent.
On our second attempt we played for so long that we were upset it had to stop, and despite the mar of fuck ups it felt good. It was devoid of rules and obligation, and so devoid of judgment for not meeting the rules standards. It was a safe creative space which allowed us to think differently because it forced us to disobey the single worst obstacle to creativity – the inner critic.
Take Action: The Two Exercises
Derived from these experiences I have used these two exercises in a thousand different ways. They boil down to two distinct principles:
- Learn the rules so you have a solid foundation to build upon.
Better known as the maxim; “you must learn the rules before you can break them.” This is all about giving yourself an instinctive guide, so that if you ever fuck up you don’t start panicking. It is the idea of preparation to the point of freedom.
- Abandon the rules so you can turn off your inner critic.
This is a very powerful ability because it aligns with the most pragmatic activity in the mammal arsenal – play. Once you have those rules learned, the most creative endeavor is often to disobey them. This is a world of fun and is crucial to development because it stops you from getting stuck in that plateau which people call writers block, which is merely someone with an untamed inner critic. This exercise is often called brainstorming.
Applied to any field these two exercises are sure to yield results.
Mapping The Creative Mind
Those two simple exercises are the how. Use them.
Here I will discuss the why. This is merely supplement.
The normal way of thinking is the habitual mind. This is your day to day mindset which was shaped in the jungles where its main priority was sticking to ways which satisfy basic drives like hunger, reproduction, and survival. It is so dominant because it’s safer to do patterned behaviors that to risk trying out new ones.
This mindset is often juxtaposed against an infamous part of our minds – the imagination.
The imagination is something that is the opposite of habitual. It focuses on possibility rather than safety. You evoke your imagination in many ways, from sheer fantasy to problem solving. The creative magic that we seek found in our imagination.
When we feel we lack creativity it is because we feel we can’t get in touch with the imagination. There seems to be an obstacle between our habitual mind and the more creative alternate. This obstacle is best known as our comfort zone.
Our habitual mind, and our attachment to it can often trap us in our comfort zone – this is precisely what Dave was trying to shake us out of in the dark room exercise. But that does not mean we should disrespect our habits.
Some of our habits hold us back, but others can actually increase our ability to be creative and engage in higher order activities. For example a reality of life is we have to eat, so if our habit is to eat McDonalds we are probably going to be less capable than if we eat 5kg of spinach per meal.
The healthy psychological habit is to deprogramme our minds every now and again and see how essential the habits we have become attached to are.
When we are weighted down with bad habits we can feel that we have lost touch with the imagination, and that we are experiencing a block between reaching our creative side. The exercises I provided aim to cover this problem from two aspects which should help evolve your thinking.
- The first forces you to learn the good habits which will act as pillars that assit you in reaching your creativity.
- The second forces you to deprogramme your mindset and experiment with alternate ways of perceiving the task.
Take these two exercise principles and use your creativity to apply them to any challenges you may be facing, so as to learn how powerful a mindset it is to defeat adversity with imagination.