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Now, Pay Attention!

I’m fascinated by accounts of truly creative people: people who make a difference in a domain or discipline. My favourite book on the subject is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book called, yes, Creativity. I have returned to it several times for inspiration, guidance, and, of all things, permission—permission to believe and act in ways conducive to creativity, ways that, in many respects, amount to being odd. Yes, creative people tend to be odd, and this study of 95 outstandingly creative people underscores that truism and lets me think more freely about how I ought to arrange my life so that I can be as productive in my (odd) calling as possible.

I’d like from time to time to post good paragraphs on this subject of creativity and I’ll do so linking them via the category of “creativity.” (No, I agree that’s not a creative category name. But it’s accurate and it’ll do. Part of being creative is knowing on what to dwell. Let’s move on.)

Here’s one from today’s reading as I work on my manuscript on epistemology—a passage from Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge, a brilliant, truly odd, book by a man whose creativity affected two very different domains, physical chemistry and epistemology:

Obsession with one’s [creative] problem is in fact the mainspring of all inventive power. Asked by his pupils in jest what they should do to become “a Pavlov,” the master answered in all seriousness: “Get up in the morning with your problem before you. Breakfast with it. Go to the laboratory with it. Eat your lunch with it. Keep it before you after dinner. Go to bed with it in your mind. Dream about it.” It is this unremitting preoccupation with his problem that lends to genius its proverbial capacity for taking infinite pains. And the intensity of our preoccupation with a problem generates also our power for reorganizing our thoughts successfully, both during the hours of search and afterwards, during a period of rest. (127)

“Focus” is a nicer word than “obsession,” but “monomania” is truly what is being prescribed here. The mind cannot fully engage a significant problem until it is fully engaged in the problem. That’s why professors are “absent-minded,” of course: They/We are mentally “elsewhere,” dealing with something else and not paying attention to what is at hand.

Note also that last mention in Polanyi’s paragraph of “a period of rest.” The history of discovery is full of people solving creative problems in dreams, perhaps most famous among them being F. A. Kekulé’s daydream that led him to the ring shape of the benzene molecule. He had this dream, to be sure, after years and years of poring over the particulars of this chemical conundrum and keeping it ever before him.

I’ll return to this theme of solving problems while resting, dreaming, or walking the dog (!) another time. For now, however, the lesson is clear: One cannot hope to make progress on a problem, let alone enjoy a dramatic creative breakthrough, with half-hearted, on-the-fly attention. Focus, obsession, monomania: Pay the problem the attention it deserves.


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