Another day, another trip to the mailbox, another magazine telling me that I’d better board the bullet train of disruptive change if I hope to survive. Today it’s Time with a cover prominently displaying the words “change the world.” Not long ago it was The Atlantic with one of its regular celebrations of all things innovative. And pretty much every day the aptly named FastCompany.com brings me the latest in catch-me-if-you-can creative destruction. If I listen closely, I can hear the afterburners of history as time passes me by.
Amid the whistle and whir of all this high-speed disruption and high-volume hype, it’s tempting to say that creativity is the capacity to see things for what they aren’t. Dispense with the present; onward to the future! But it’s difficult to see the hidden possibilities in things unless you can first see them for what they are. And that kind of vision isn’t just a gift; it’s a process—one that, strangely enough, rewards those who take it slow.
Creativity calls for looking at the world from different angles and seeing it for what it is from each of those angles. The wonder of this process, if we give it the time it deserves, is that each time we change position and look anew, the world (just as Time promised) really does change, right before our eyes.
This sense of change—this creative insight—comes not from a disrupted world but from our own transformative perception of the possibilities the world has harbored all along: Look closely, explore, take your time, cover the angles across space and time and memory, examine all the facets of the diamond and note the way the light shines through. Cut the diamond to pieces and collide the fragments in search of juxtaposition, fusion, repulsion and concord. The possibilities, as they say, really are endless.
Next comes a second phase of slowing down. We’ve generated a forest of observations; now it’s time to choose the timber and start building. At this stage, three questions can help us find our way:
• Which details contribute most elegantly to the solution of a problem?
• Which ones change our focus, inform us that there’s a better question than the one we’ve been asking, and send us down a new path?
• As we tell the story of our discovery, how do we put emphasis where it most belongs?
The final question challenges us to know the difference between a detail that is mechanically necessary (a “need-to-know”) and one that is spiritually indispensable (a highlight), and it leads us to a technique that writers call “unpacking.” When we talk about unpacking a moment or image, what we’re really talking about is the selective deceleration of time—identifying the most important moments and making them last.
The creative process is a continuing narrative of discovery, yielding countless insights, shimmering at close range, each making its case for further development. But even after initial pruning of the idea tree, it’s impossible (and ineffective) to develop all of our observations to the same extent—we must look closer, set our priorities and choose the spark whose light most merits our descriptive powers. Deceleration helps you show your audience—and yourself—what is most resonant in your tale; it sharpens focus, heightens tension, provokes thought and inspires emotion.
But how do you make time move slowly? Here are two methods, one grounded in space, the other in time: The first is to hold the camera on the moment (or image or insight) and draw out its details, both global and granular, soaking in and then sharing all that the senses provide. The second—the province of the flashback, the flash-forward and even the comparative analysis—is to use the narrative moment as a gateway in thought to a place, time or concept that informs and is informed by the present moment.
Go to this place, explore, and remember to resurface to the present, where you are needed. Then pack your bags, rejoin the flow of time and ride on, eyes and ears open to the blur and crackle of time.