“The Smart Work Company helps you ‘Diagnose, Do, Develop’ Practice Makes Possible!”*
Having reached a big birthday this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ve done with my life and whether, or not, I’m satisfied with that. More to the point, what am I going to do with the time I’ve got left?
I’ve followed an academic route, particularly through the past twenty years, choosing subjects that demand analytical, critical thought. It turns out that this way of thinking – slow, deliberate, analytical, and takes effort – is subject to all sorts of irrationality and biases. It is what the psychologist, Daniel Kahnemen calls System Two thinking.
System One thinking is automatic, unconscious and emotional. Kahneman tells us that both systems shape our judgements. My academic training did not equip me to understand or access this unconscious thinking. I did, however, notice it when I was writing a book. Ideas and solutions regularly came to me, unbidden, just as I waking from sleep in the morning.
Since my mind is seldom at rest, this continues to happen. Would ideas jump into my head if I don’t struggle to understand something? I doubt it. The effort, I think, is essential.
We are exhorted to steal like artists, but I don’t hear many exhortations to see and hear like them. Could be that I haven’t been listening – but I am now. For a start, artists have an all-encompassing passion for what they do. I’m reading Last Exit to Brooklyn just now. This is the opening sentence of the introduction:
“I started writing because I did not want to die having done nothing with my life”
Artistic thinking, like academic thinking, requires effort. I used to think that art came easily to people who could draw, paint and write. How wrong could I have been? The author of Last Exit, Hubert Selby Jr, describes how he learned to write. Apart from the struggle that it takes, he affirms what Kahnemen tells us about how we think:
“There is always so much in a work that we are aware of not having put there. I learned very early to re-read my work and look for these elements … It seems to me that when these elements, known and unknown, conscious and unconscious, mesh perfectly an overtone is produced, a synchronicity created, that sings off the page and becomes a ‘work of art’ rather than simply ‘authorship’ “
Hearing Like an Artist
I’ve admired this next artist for a long time. The percussionist, Dame Evelyn Glennie, has been deaf since the age of twelve. She senses sound through vibrations in her body. The headline of an article about her, published in The Scotsman (Saturday, January 21st), is a quote from her:
“It’s not whether you hear or don’t hear. It’s whether you pay attention.”
Asked what her reaction would be if doctors could restore her conventional hearing, she is reported as saying:
“Oh, no. No. I’ve spent so much of my professional life, in my profession, in my environment, really tuning in and opening that body up to be like the big ear. That’s really important in how I connect with what I do as a musician. That’s the spine of my work.”
She now wants to set up a centre that will “teach the world to listen”, where people from business, sports, music and medicine can share and learn from each other about what listening means for them – and together to generate new ways of listening. I think that’s exciting.
Seeing like an artist
My husband is an artist, although he denies it. To my perhaps untutored eye, he has a talent for drawing. It is more than that, though. He observes. I look but do not see. He notices. One of the books he has in his collection is Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, the aim of which is to show people how they can practice and learn to draw.
The author, Betty Edwards, summarises the component skills of drawing as perceptions of:
- Relationships (perspective and proportion)
- Light and shadows
- The whole – as Edwards puts it, “the “thingness” of the thing”.
That’s a lot of skills that go into drawing something.
Combining words and images
The French regard bande dessinée as an art form. Comic strips are not just for children: they can communicate concepts and tell stories. When I met the Nick Sounanis, the author of Unflattening, at the 44th BD Festival in Angouleme, I told him that I cannot draw but would love to learn. This is what he drew in my new copy of the book:
Did you notice his play on the words ‘to’ and ‘two’– “to drawing and future conversations”, and “deux possibilities”? To my mind, that playfulness is also something that artists do, and it’s something that I would like to cultivate.
Practice makes possible
Thinking about my own personal development, it seems to me that I really need to practice thinking, seeing, listening, and playing like an artist. Since my formal education has been no help in equipping me to do that, it feels like I have my work cut out for me. But that’s the adventure, the purpose, the direction for the rest of my working life.
My Twitter bio says that I’ve been “Facilitating new ways of working & learning since 1995”. That’s true. It also says that I “Help people to practice future-focused work skills: Diagnose, Do, Develop – Practice Makes Possible!”. That’s my aim – I do that to the best of my abilities. But what are those future-focused skills? Social and critical thinking skills, definitely. What else?
I think we all need to start learning from artists, especially those of us who studied rational, analytical, quantitative subjects. Future-focused skills will be the sort of creative, integrative, whole mind and body skills – noticing and paying attention – that we can learn from artists.
Artificial intelligence had to come into this post at some point, didn’t it? Yes, it did. In the same weekend magazine section of the Scotsman, where the Evelyn Glennie article appeared, there’s also a review of T2 Trainspotting, the 20-year follow-up to Trainspotting – a favourite film in this house. According to the review, the book’s author, Irvine Welsh, has come to the conclusion that:
“The book’s legacy, and the film’s too, the reason they continue to resonate, may be their status as reflections on our ongoing transition into a world without work. The decimation of industrial working class jobs is now spreading to middle class professions … people from all walks of life are going to have to find different things to do. That’s what Trainspotting’s about. It’s about finding different things to do other than work. That’s our quest.”
Who knows what’s going to happen with artificial intelligence? Some people will need to find new things to do, in which case focusing on developing artistic talents could give people purpose – like Hubert Selby Jr. I don’t subscribe to the ‘robots are going to nick all the jobs’ perspective. New jobs will be created.
New technologies are bringing together the worlds of fashion, creativity and science. This BBC tv programme from a few years back was about how a designer of customised shoes used 3-D printing and CAD. The designer’s “background and qualifications as an architect enable him to apply maths and physics to solving exciting problems in the world of fashion”. Now there’s a specific reason for scientists to learn to think like artists – and vice versa. We are all going to have to learn to talk to each other.
It’s easy to see, I think, machine intelligence replacing analytical thinking, yet another reason to focus on learning the skills that artists use. What if machine intelligence becomes creative? All the more reason to focus on honing artistic skills, to out-see, out-think, out-listen and out-play machines.
I don’t know about you, but I’m going to start to practice thinking and seeing like an artist. How? I’m thinking about it!
* Images courtesy of the fabulous Simon Heath