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It’s good to be ambitious in a film. It takes a lot of courage to deal with sickness, mortality, bereavement, love, friendship, marriage, parenting, creativity, culture, fame, failure – oh, and Beethoven – in under two hours.

An acclaimed New York string quartet have been playing together for twenty-five years. The cellist is diagnosed with Parkinson’s. And with this unexpected crisis everything else starts to unravel – the music, the relationships, even the past.

Most of this works. There are some powerful scenes. But somehow it didn’t quite fit together for me; I didn’t quite believe in the characters. It felt contrived.

Now surely this is an unfair criticism. The whole point of a chamber piece like this is that it is contrived: five characters (there is a daughter too), on stage before us for two hours, everything as carefully constructed as Beethoven’s quartet itself (op. 131).

It made me wonder about what was missing. Why is it that in a classic Woody Allen film (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and her Sisters, etc), however extraordinary the characters, and however overwrought the plot, you still believe that they have an existence beyond the film, that you are stepping into their life rather than seeing a life momentarily created for your entertainment?

Why does the willing suspension of disbelief sometimes work and sometimes not? I think this was too actorly, in a self-conscious way; verging on the melodramatic; and simply not as funny as Allen. And without the ragged edges that allow the film in front of you to fade into an imagined reality behind the screen. All of this, somehow, takes away from the authenticity that is the mark of a great film.

So it’s a good film! Go and see it. But with something missing…

Here is the Beethoven:

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What did we do before the iPad? (By ‘we’ I mean ‘you’, because I’m the dinosaur stuck with the lap-top). The answer: We played all day on the Etch A Sketch.

"Say Anything" on an Etch-A-Sketch by methodshop.com

Hours and hours of my young life wasted/gained/lost/liberated: on the sofa, in bed, in the back of the car.

It has everything the iPad has: text (writing ‘STEPHEN’ in large, uneven letters across the screen); images (all those pictures of stick-men, houses, battle-fields, random animals and geometric patterns); video (the pictures morphed and developed in the making); audio (the faint screech of the wires, the white noise of shaking the filings back into place, using the screen as an improvised drum). It even had wifi: the fact that if your little brother was just finishing his Etch A Sketch masterpiece on the other side of the living room you could use a carefully thrown basketball to edit or delete the image at will; no troublesome wires, no worry about incompatible sockets.

And perhaps all of my present obsessive-compulsive tendencies stem from my discovery that if you systematically rubbed out every millimetre of the screen by bringing the horizontal line back and forward and edging it down incrementally, you uncovered the inner reality of the mechanism: the wires, the pulleys, the metal filings piled up below. This took about half an hour, and I couldn’t stop until not a single filing remained on the underside of the screen. A first taste of mystery, of engineering, of taking things just a little bit too far…

Why this reverie? I just discovered that André Cassagnes, the Etch A Sketch inventor, died last month at the age of 86. This is from Margalit Fox:

A chance inspiration involving metal particles and the tip of a pencil led Mr. Cassagnes to develop Etch A Sketch in the late 1950s. First marketed in 1960, the toy — with its rectangular gray screen, red frame and two white knobs — quickly became one of the brightest stars in the constellation of midcentury childhood amusements that included Lincoln Logs and the Slinky.

Etch A Sketch was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester in 1998; in 2003, the Toy Industry Association named it one of the hundred best toys of the 20th century. To date, more than 100 million have been sold.

The toy received renewed attention in March, amid the 2012 presidential campaign, after Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney, described his boss’s campaign strategy heading from the primaries into the general election thus:

“Everything changes,” Mr. Fehrnstrom said. “It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”

The quotation, pilloried by Democrats and Republicans alike, was widely interpreted as an acknowledgment by the Romney campaign that its candidate had no fixed political ideology.

The complete eradicability of an Etch A Sketch drawing is born of the toy’s simple, abiding technology.

The underside of the screen is coated with a fine aluminum powder. The knobs control a stylus hidden beneath the screen; turning them draws the stylus through the powder, scraping it off in vertical or horizontal lines that appear on the screen as if by magic. (An early French name for the toy was L’Écran Magique, “Magic Screen.”)

To erase the image, the user shakes the toy, recoating the screen with aluminum; tiny plastic beads mixed with the powder keep it from clumping.

That is essentially all there is to an Etch A Sketch, and though the toy now comes in various sizes, shapes and colors, its inner workings have changed little since Mr. Cassagnes first touched a pencil to a powder-coated sheet on an otherwise ordinary day more than five decades ago.

And the discovery itself?

One day in the late ’50s, as was widely reported afterward, Mr. Cassagnes was installing a light-switch plate at the factory. He peeled the translucent protective decal off the new plate, and happened to make some marks on it in pencil. He noticed that the marks became visible on the reverse side of the decal.

In making its faux finishes, the Lincrusta factory also used metallic powders; Mr. Cassagnes’s pencil had raked visible lines through particles of powder, which clung naturally to the decal by means of an electrostatic charge.

Mr. Cassagnes spent the next few years perfecting his invention, which was introduced in 1959 at the Nuremberg Toy Fair. (Because the toy was patented by Arthur Granjean, an accountant working for one of Mr. Cassagnes’s early investors, Mr. Granjean is sometimes erroneously credited as the inventor of Etch A Sketch.)

After Ohio Art acquired the rights to the toy for $25,000, Mr. Cassagnes worked with the company’s chief engineer, Jerry Burger, to refine its design. Where Mr. Cassagnes’s original had been operated with a joystick, the final version mimicked the look of the reigning household god of the day — the television set. It soon became the company’s flagship product.

In later years, Mr. Cassagnes designed kites; by the 1980s, he was considered France’s foremost maker of competition kites, which can perform elaborate aerial stunts.

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If you liked yesterday’s post about making time for creative projects, see the website it’s from: 99u.com – “Insights on making ideas happen”. It’s got a really good mix of posts about management, creativity, using time well, productivity, self-help, etc.

This is from the About section:

99U is Behance’s research and education arm. Taking its name from Thomas Edison’s famous quote that “Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration,” the 99U includes a Webby award-winning web magazine, an annual conference, and the best-selling book Making Ideas Happen. Through articles, tips, videos, and events, we educate creative professionals on best practices for moving beyond idea generation into idea execution.

And this is the blurb for the book:

Making Ideas Happen is the national bestseller from Behance and 99U founder Scott Belsky. Based on hundreds of interviews and years of research, the book chronicles the methods of exceptionally productive creative leaders and teams – companies like Google, IDEO, and Disney, and individuals like author Chris Anderson and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh – that make their ideas happen, time and time again.

See especially the TIPS section here.

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Most of us deal with the little things first. We check texts and emails; we try to respond to the urgent requests others send us; we set about tidying up, clearing the decks, in the vain hope of creating some physical, mental and digital space in which we can one day address the really important and creative projects that matter to us.

Mark McGuinness explains why this doesn’t work.

The trouble with this approach is that you end up spending the best part of the day on other people’s priorities, running their errands, and giving them what they need. By the time you finally settle down to your own work, it could be mid-afternoon, when your energy has dipped and it’s hard to focus on anything properly. “Oh well, maybe tomorrow will be better,” you tell yourself.

But when tomorrow comes round there’s another pile of emails, phone messages, and to-do list items. If you carry on like this you will spend most of your time on reactive work, responding to incoming demands and answering questions framed by other people. It’s a never-ending hamster wheel. And it will never lead to remarkable work, in Seth Godin‘s sense, “worthy of being remarked on.” We don’t find it remarkable when our expectations are met – only when they are exceeded, or when we are surprised by something completely unexpected.

So what does McGuinness do instead?

The single most important change I’ve made in my own working habits has been to start doing things the other way round – i.e. begin the day with creative work on my own top priorities, with the phone and email switched off. And I never schedule meetings in the morning, if there’s any way of avoiding it. This means that whatever else happens, I get my most important work done – and looking back, all of my biggest successes have been the result of making this simple change.

It wasn’t easy, and still isn’t, particularly when I get phone messages beginning “I sent you an email two hours ago…!”

By definition, taking this approach goes against the grain of others’ expectations, and the pressures they put on you. It can take an act of willpower to switch off the world, even for an hour, during the working day. For some strange reason, it feels “unprofessional” to be knuckling down to work in this way.

The thing is, if you want to create something truly remarkable, it won’t be built in a day. A great novel, a stunning design, a game-changing software application, a revolutionary company – this kind of thing takes time, thought, craft, and persistence. And on any given day, it will never appear as “urgent” as those four emails (in the last half-hour) from Client X or Colleague Y, asking for things you’ve already given them or which they probably don’t really need.

So if you’re going to prioritize this kind of work – your real work – you may have to go through a wall of anxiety in order to get it done. And you’ll probably have to put up with complaints and reproaches from people who have no idea what you’re trying to achieve, and can’t understand what could be more important than their needs.

Yes, it feels uncomfortable, and sometimes people get upset, but it’s much better to disappoint a few people over small things, than to sacrifice the big things for an empty inbox. Otherwise you’re sacrificing real productivity for the illusion of professionalism.

McGuinness finishes with some practical tips:

1. Creative work first, reactive work second.
Either start the day on your creative work, or make sure you block out time for it later in the day – preferably at a time when you typically feel energized and productive.

2. Tune out distractions.
You know the drill – email off, phone off, work from home if you can, stick your headphones on if you can’t.

3. Make exceptions for VIPs.
Don’t be reckless. If you’re working with a client to a deadline, or your boss needs something urgently, treat them like VIPs and give them special access – e.g. leave the phone on and answer if they ring (everyone else gets the voicemail).

4. Be really efficient at reactive work.
You can’t ignore everybody all the time. The better your productivity systems, the more promptly you’ll be able to respond to their requests – and the more time you’ll have free for your own work.

I don’t do this, but I think it’s worth trying.

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The Guardian asked various artists, playwrights, musicians, dancers, etc. to give their top tips for ‘unleashing your inner genius’. Take a look here. It’s a great way to decide on some new year resolutions if you wish you could be more creative and adventurous over the coming year, even if the only ‘canvas’ you have to paint on is the day ahead of you

Here are some of my highlighs:

Guy Garvey, musician:

Spending time in your own head is important…

Just start scribbling. The first draft is never your last draft. Nothing you write is by accident.

Don’t be scared of failure.

The best advice I’ve ever had came about 20 years ago from Mano McLaughlin, one of Britain’s best songwriters. “The song is all,” he said, “Don’t worry about what the rest of the music sounds like: you have a responsibility to the song.” I found that really inspiring: it reminded me not to worry about whether a song sounds cool, or fits with everything we’ve done before – but just to let the song be what it is.

Mark-Anthony Turnage, composer:

Forget the idea that inspiration will come to you like a flash of lightning. It’s much more about hard graft.

Find a quiet studio to work in. Shostakovich could not have composed with the telly on.

Try to find a studio with more than one window. I work best when I have windows in two walls, for some reason; maybe it is because there is more light. At the moment, I’m working in a room with no windows. It’s not going well at all.

If you get overexcited by an idea, take a break and come back to it later. It is all about developing a cold eye with which to look over your own work.

Rupert Goold, director:

The best ideas are tested by their peaks and troughs. One truly great  image or scene astride a broken mess is more intriguing than a hundred well-made cliches.

Once you have an idea, scrutinise the precedent. If no one has explored it before in any form then you’re 99% likely to be making a mistake. But that 1% risk is why we do it.

Make sure you are asking a question that is addressed both to the world around you and the world within you. It’s the only way to keep going when the doubt sets in.

An idea is just a map. The ultimate landscape is only discovered when it’s under foot, so don’t get too bogged down in its validity.

Love the effect over its cause.

Isaac Julien, artist:

I have a magpie attitude to inspiration: I seek it from all sorts of sources; anything that allows me to think about how culture comes together. I’m  always on the lookout – I observe people in the street; I watch films, I read, I think about the conversations that I have. I consider the gestures people use, or the colours they’re wearing. It’s about taking all the little everyday things and observing them with a critical eye; building up a scrapbook which you can draw on. Sometimes, too, I look at other artworks or films to get an idea of what not to do.

Lucy Prebble, playwright:

Act it out yourself. Draw the curtains.

If ever a character asks another character, “What do you mean?”, the scene needs a rewrite.

Feeling intimidated is a good sign. Writing from a place of safety produces stuff that is at best dull and at worst dishonest.

Write backwards. Start from the feeling you want the audience to have at the end and then ask “How might that happen?” continually, until you have a beginning.

Break any rule if you know deep inside that it is important.

Susan Philipsz, artist:

If you have a good idea, stick to it. Especially if realising the project is a long and demanding process, try to keep true to the spirit of the initial idea.

Daydream. Give yourself plenty of time to do nothing. Train journeys are good.

Keep it simple.

Be audacious.

It doesn’t always have to make sense.

Polly Morgan, artist:

Don’t wait for a good idea to come to you. Start by realising an average idea – no one has to see it. If I hadn’t made the works I’m ashamed of, the ones I’m proud of wouldn’t exist.

Be brief, concise and direct. Anyone who over-complicates things is at best insecure and at worst stupid. Children speak the most sense and they haven’t read Nietzsche.

Don’t try to second-guess what people will want to buy. Successful artists have been so because they have shown people something they hadn’t imagined. If buyers all knew what they wanted before it had been made, they could have made it themselves, or at least commissioned it.

Don’t be afraid to scrap all your hard work and planning and do it differently at the last minute. It’s easier to hold on to an idea   because you’re afraid to admit you were wrong than to let it go.

Ian Rickson, director:

You cannot overprepare. Enjoy being as searching and thorough as possible before you begin, so you can be as free as possible once you’ve started.

Lots of this, of course, can be applied to preaching. In fact, wouldn’t our preaching take off if we really took some of this to heart (and kept praying and meditating on the scriptures and deepening our faith etc…).

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Yesterday, entranced by Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook moment,  I was searching for the next Really Big Idea. But someone sent me a link to this interview with Steven Johnson who writes: ‘Eureka moments are very, very rare’.Johnson is the author of the book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. He talks to Oliver Burkeman about how collaboration, rather than a sudden flash of genius, is usually at the root of our most innovative ideas.

“It’s very, very rare to find cases where somebody on their own, working alone, in a moment of sudden clarity has a great breakthrough that changes the world. And yet there seems to be this bizarre desire to tell the story that way.”

At the core of his alternative history is the notion of the “adjacent possible”, one of those ideas that seems, at first, like common sense, then gradually reveals itself as an entirely new way of looking at almost everything. Coined by the biologist Stuart Kauffman, it refers to the fact that at any given time – in science and technology, but perhaps also in culture and politics – only certain kinds of next steps are feasible. “The history of cultural progress,” Johnson writes, “is, almost without exception, a story of one door leading to another door, exploring the palace one room at a time.”

Think of playing chess: at any point in the game, several ingenious moves may be possible, but countless others won’t be. Likewise with inventions: the printing press was only possible – and perhaps only thinkable – once moveable type, paper and ink all existed. YouTube, when it was launched in 2005, was a brilliant idea; had it been launched in 1995, before broadband and cheap video cameras were widespread, it would have been a terrible one. Or take culture: to 1950s viewers, Johnson argues, complex TV shows such as Lost or The Wire would have been borderline incomprehensible, like some kind of avant-garde art, because certain ways of engaging with the medium hadn’t yet been learned. And all this applies, too, to the most basic innovation: life itself. At some point, back in the primordial soup, a bunch of fatty acids gave rise to a cell membrane, which made possible the simplest organisms, and so on. What those acids couldn’t do was spontaneously form into a fish, or a mouse: it wasn’t part of their adjacent possible.

What does all this mean in practical terms?

The best way to encourage (or to have) new ideas isn’t to fetishise the “spark of genius”, to retreat to a mountain cabin in order to “be creative”, or to blabber interminably about “blue-sky”, “out-of-the-box” thinking. Rather, it’s to expand the range of your possible next moves – the perimeter of your potential – by exposing yourself to as much serendipity, as much argument and conversation, as many rival and related ideas as possible; to borrow, to repurpose, to recombine. This is one way of explaining the creativity generated by cities, by Europe’s 17th-century coffee-houses, and by the internet. Good ideas happen in networks; in one rather brain-bending sense, you could even say that “good ideas are networks”. Or as Johnson also puts it: “Chance favours the connected mind.”

Another surprising truth about big ideas: even when they seem to be individual flashes of genius, they don’t happen in a flash – though the people who have them often subsequently claim that they did. Charles Darwin always said that the theory of natural selection occurred to him on 28 September 1838 while he was reading Thomas Malthus’s essay on population; suddenly, the mechanism of evolution seemed blindingly straightforward. (“How incredibly stupid not to think of that,” Darwin’s great supporter Thomas Huxley was supposed to have said on first hearing the news.) Yet Darwin’s own notebooks reveal that the theory was forming clearly in his mind more than a year beforehand: it wasn’t a flash of insight, but what Johnson calls a “slow hunch”. And on the morning after his alleged eureka moment, was Darwin feverishly contemplating the implications of his breakthrough? Nope: he busied himself with some largely unconnected ruminations on the sexual curiosity of primates.

A certain kind of businessperson, I suspect, will buy Where Good Ideas Come From in order to learn to how to come up with a killer business idea, bring it to market, and clean up financially. They may find themselves slightly alarmed, therefore, by a sequence of striking graphics in which Johnson demonstrates that the vast majority of major innovations since 1800 have come from outside the free market – from universities and other environments where profit wasn’t the overwhelming motivation. The urge to hoard, protect and directly profit from good ideas can work against the sharing-and-recombining ethos that the adjacent possible demands. And it’s often the case that those who do attain vast wealth have done so by finding ways to exploit the creativity of the non-market world. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is so rich today only because Tim Berners-Lee developed the web as a non-profit venture. (And a non-profit venture, incidentally, that had no eureka moment either. Johnson quotes Berners-Lee as saying that interviewers are always frustrated when he admits he never experienced one.)

I think this means I can come down from my mountain cabin, withdraw all my patent applications, return the billions of dollars my investors have sent me, and start talking to people again. It seems as if I am going to be poorer but much better connected.

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Toy Story 3 is about to hit these shores, and the Economist’s Schumpeter wonders how the studio that created it can continue to be so successful.

Pixar has mastered the art of creativity, but how can this be sustained? They have two answers.

The first is that the company puts people before projects. Most Hollywood studios start by hunting down promising ideas and then hire creative teams to turn them into films. The projects dictate whom they hire. Pixar starts by bringing in creative people and then encourages them to generate ideas.

The second answer is to encourage people within the studio to interact and give constructive feedback to each other.

In most companies, people collaborate on specific projects, but pay little attention to what’s going on elsewhere in the business. Pixar, however, tries to foster a sense of collective responsibility among its 1,200 staff. Employees show unfinished work to one another in daily meetings, so get used to giving and receiving constructive criticism. And a small “brain trust” of top executives reviews films in the works.

Pixar got the inspiration for this system from a surprising place—Toyota and its method of “lean production”. For decades Toyota has solicited constant feedback from workers on its production lines to prevent flaws. Pixar wants to do the same with producing cartoon characters. This system of constant feedback is designed to bring problems to the surface before they mutate into crises, and to provide creative teams with a source of inspiration. Directors are not obliged to act on the feedback they receive from others, but when they do the results can be impressive. Peer review certainly lifted “Up”, a magical Pixar movie that became the studio’s highest-grossing picture at the box office after “Finding Nemo”. It helped produce the quirky storyline of an old man and a boy who fly to South America in a house supported by a bunch of balloons.

Pixar also obliges its teams to conduct formal post mortems once their films are complete. In lesser hands this might degenerate into a predictable Hollywood frenzy of backslapping and air-kissing. But Pixar demands that each review identify at least five things that did not go well in the film, as well as five that did.

Imagine what your community or workplace or family would be like if people were really free enough to give constructive criticism and suggestions to each other – in the right context. It takes a great deal of trust, and a certain self-confidence. You need to have enough security to know that your place in that community is valued and assured – both to give it without unkindness and to receive it without defensiveness.

I’m not saying that the seminary where I work is perfect, but we have a very useful system for reviewing the year. We meet for a morning or afternoon each June to look back over the year together. In groups of five we collect ideas about what the highlights of the year have been for us personally, about what things have worked well in the life of the community, and about what improvements we could make for next year.

We feed all these ideas back to the larger group, and if there are any common or controversial issues emerging we talk through them to get some idea of what people feel, and to note any practical suggestions.

You can’t act on everything, and at the end of the day the Rector and his team will need to make some executive decisions, but it is a great way of acknowledging together what is working and discerning how to move forward. At the very least it stops you getting stuck, or (even worse) undoing the good that might already be taking place.

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