One of my students told me recently that her biggest challenge was picking just one idea out of the many buzzing through her head, and asked, “How do you narrow your ideas down to just one?”
This was a really interesting question, so I thought I’d edit down my answer and turn it into an essay. So here it is.
There’s a Zen concept called “mu,” which can be translated roughly as “unask the question”. It means that the question is framed incorrectly, often with an assumption that makes it impossible to answer. (“Have you stopped beating your wife?” is the sort of question that might elicit “mu”.)
So….the answer to your question is mu. Sort of.
I think that the idea of winnowing ideas down to a single idea that you commit to doing is a bad approach, philosophically speaking, both because it isn’t how creative flow works, and because it creates an artificial sense of scarcity that can shut down your creative brain. (More on that in a bit.) Good creative work isn’t a single-project affair. Creative work is a series of explorations that evolve into something interesting over time. Hence, you can’t pick just one idea to work on, because there isn’t a single idea to be picked. It’s more like a river of ideas, with some flowing in and some flowing out as each project evolves into completion.
When I make something, I pick an idea for what I’m making – generally, it turns out not to be a great one, but you have to start somewhere. Then I start working on it. Something about it turns out not to be quite right, so I change my train of thought a bit. That brings another idea to mind, which I add to the work….Things evolve as the project progresses. As a result, I don’t get attached to any specific idea, because I know that all of them are interesting, and all of them are flawed. An idea is merely a starting-point.
If I can’t decide between two starting ideas, it means that both of them will be equally good choices, so it doesn’t matter which one I choose. Whichever one I don’t pick will still be there if I later decide to pursue it. I park it in an “idea notebook,” where I can revisit it later if I want to.
I do work on only one project at a time, because I can only physically weave one thing at a time on the loom. However, I tend to work in series rather than work on a single piece, so I will put a 10-yard warp on the loom, and work on a series of pieces on that warp. So I’ll put on a warp with one particular threading. That commits me to using a specific set of warp yarns, in a particular threading. But then I can use different wefts, different tie-up, different treadlings – exploring many ideas in a series of evolving projects.
Creativity is an evolution, not a single idea and its execution. In my creative practice, at least, the One Idea is a myth.
Closely related to the Myth of the One Idea is the Peril of the Perfect Choice. The Peril of the Perfect Choice says that since you can only have one idea, it needs to be the BEST idea, so you need to make the Perfect Choice. It’s therefore important to line up all the possibilities, put together a spreadsheet, exhaustively compare their pros and cons, and eventually reach a conclusion. This can take hours, days, weeks, and is mentally and emotionally exhausting – and, in most cases, any of the options would have been perfectly fine.
I think we’ve all had this experience.
My personal breaking-point was the day I spent half an hour standing in front of a display of batteries at the supermarket, trying to decide whether the ones designed for electronics would be worth the extra thirty cents compared to the “regular” brand-name ones versus the generic ones which were even cheaper, but could I depend on them not to leak and not to burn the house down, and what about rechargeable batteries? The correct answer would have been to grab ANY GODDAMN PACK OF BATTERIES FROM THE DAMN DISPLAY and get into line, because any pack of batteries the right size would have been perfectly fine for my needs. Instead, I wasted half an hour looking for the perfect battery. This, says the Buddha, is suffering.
Ever since then I’ve tried to do what’s described as “satisficing” – pick the first thing that satisfies the need, rather than trying to pick the perfect thing. So I compare options, but only until I find one that is satisfactory, and then I grab it and move on with my day. I don’t keep looking for all the possibilities. It’s surprisingly difficult to do the first time, but once you get in the habit it gets easier to maintain the discipline, and it saves a lot of time and brainpower.
(Unless it’s chocolate. In which case, Heaven help me, I must taste every possible combination of chocolate with every flavor that might be interesting. But purely for scientific purposes, you understand. 😉 )
In the specific case of ideas, it’s also useful to recognize when you are opening and when you are closing. When you are brainstorming new ideas, you’re opening. So welcome new ideas. The more, the merrier. Good ideas, bad ideas, doesn’t matter – collect them all! You want as many as possible because you don’t get to the good ideas without getting a whole bunch of bad ideas, too. Kinda like diamonds – to get diamonds you have to start with a ton of gravel.
But when you are in the closing phase, trying to winnow out ideas – that’s the point where you have to ruthlessly discard and satisfice. At that point I find that it REALLY helps to have an idea notebook or a “parking lot” for ideas. That way, when you decide not to pursue an idea, you don’t have to say goodbye to it forever, cast it out of the house with that harsh ring of finality. Instead, you can gently pat it on the head and say, “Not now, maybe later,” then stash it in the idea notebook, tucked safely away for later perusal. It makes letting go a lot easier.
The point in all of this is that there are two assumptions that every creative person should beware of. First, the idea that they need to focus on just one thing at a time. That can really kill the creative flow of ideas, and it can rapidly lead to the second pitfall: The assumption that because you can do only one thing, it needs to be the BEST thing. By creating artificial scarcity (ONE idea), you tell your subconscious to ball up, prepare for hardship, and make sure its decision is absolutely correct, because it’s critical that it get this decision RIGHT, by gum! This leads to perfectionism, which leads to decisionmaking paralysis, which leads to the death of creativity.
The answer? Let go. Let things be messy. Explore ideas in series, let some things peter out into the middle of nowhere, let others take bold leaps. Some will succeed. Some won’t. Don’t be afraid to waste some time or effort or materials doing something that isn’t perfect or isn’t fully optimal. Satisfice. Have fun. Have at it.