Less is More

I have been thinking about and studying the creative process for a long time.

There are tons of books on this topic, but no book addresses the subject better than Chapters 6 and 7 of Benedict Carey’s How We Learn and Why It Happens (Random House, 2015).

There is a lot of meat in these two chapters. I am going to condense them in this and the next few blog posts.

OK, let’s say you are involved with some activity that requires an answer, a solution, a creative idea. But, you are hitting the wall.

When you are stuck - totally out of ideas - it’s time to stop thinking about the matter at hand. Rarely can you muscle your way into a solution.

The current science on inspiration (getting unstuck) is that you have to alter the environment in which your mind is working. This can (and often does) mean your physical location - go for a walk or move from one room to another (the religious reformist, Martin Luther, claims to have gotten his best ideas sitting on the toilet). But, it also can mean changing up what you are focused on - go watch TV, play a videogame, take a nap (more on that in subsequent blogs).

Every activity you engage in provides your mind with certain mental cuesPrompts that can help you see your challenge in a whole new way.

Here is one example of how subtle the cues can be:

One study brought 20 people into a room, each person being in front of a table with a hammer, a large box of nails, candles, and matches. The challenge was to mount a candle on the wall so that it could be lighted. Almost everyone tried to nail the candle to the wall which broke the candle.

Then, a new group of 20 people were brought into the room. Nothing was different (all the same materials were on the table) but this time the nails were out of the box (mental prompt). This group experimented a bit and found that using the empty box as a platform (nailing the box to the wall and melting wax in the box into which the candle could be positioned) was an excellent solution.

No change in the materials. The only change was that the second group was given a hint.

The point: by changing up the information flow to your brain, you can sometimes produce mental cues that will unlock the creative solution you so desperately need.

Jim Randel is the founder and author of The Skinny On book series, condensed explanations of important life skills. One of his books is The Skinny on Creativity.

Randel’s books are currently best sellers in China - three of his e-books in the top 100 best- selling e-books in China.

I have started writing a new book with the title above.

I believe that brevity is the key to good writing. Word surplus is the enemy of learning.

I recently read an excellent book about learning - How We Learn - and Why It Happens, by Benedict Carey (Random House, 2015).

There were several great takeaways from this book. Let me give you one.

The brain has an unlimited storage capacity. There is no worry about the brain running out of room. But, what the brain does do is forget stuff. The brain’s retrieval capacity - its ability to call forth information as and when needed (i.e. learn) - is limited.

When a writer communicates her point in 20 pages, she overwhelms the brain’s retrieval capacity. When she writes her point in a one-page explanation or summary, the reader’s brain is much better at embedding that information in a place where it can be comfortably retrieved.

I love a quote from Carey’s book - from the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges:

“Writing long books is a laborious and impoverishing act of foolishness: expanding in five hundred pages an idea that could be perfectly explained in a few minutes. A better procedure is to pretend that those books already exist and to offer a summary, a commentary.”

In other words, less is more. Less is More !!

Jim Randel is the author of The Skinny Book series. These books were recently translated into Chinese and published in China. Today, 3 of these books are on best seller lists in China and The Skinny on Time Management was ranked #17 yesterday in the best-selling e-books in China.

I have started writing a new book with the title above.

Why do writers feel so compelled to use 2 (or 4 or 6) words when often one will do?

Laziness is one answer. To write succinctly requires re-reading and re-writing.

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Mark Twain

Another answer is lawyers - the bane of clear and concise writing. And lawyers of course (I am a lawyer) write 99% of the documents we all must labor with. And so, we as a society are burdened with words - suffocated with verbiage.

Why are lawyers so wordy?

Also, laziness. All lawyers have forms with clauses that have existed for twenty years - not read or understood by anyone in the last ten years. These legacy clauses never go away. They only multiply.

And, fear. All lawyers worry about the one-in-a-million event that might impact their client - or, more accurately, might cause someone to sue them for malpractice. And, in an effort to cover their butts, they deluge us with nonsense that even Dr. Seuss did not envision (“but what if Sam does eat green eggs and ham and gets sick?”).

In my book I am going to make a case that less is more. I am going to cite some of the great written works of our time and show how their brevity actually enhanced their effect. A pamphlet called Common Sense (Thomas Paine) was the inspiration for the U.S revolution. A mini-book called The Prince (Machiavelli) has been a guide for politicians for hundreds of years. A document called the U.S. Constitution has, well … you already know.

Jim Randel is the author of The Skinny Book series. These books were recently translated into Chinese and published in China. Today, 3 of these books are on best seller lists in China and The Skinny on Time Management was ranked #17 yesterday in the best-selling e-books in China.

No normal person would ever try to write a “Skinny” book… it’s too darn hard.

Our Skinny Books are compilations of perhaps 50 books or articles on one subject.  The objective is to cull from each book/article the most important ideas therein.  Then, to try to weave all these ideas into a story that makes some sense and might even have some entertainment value.

Writing skinny books was a reaction to my belief that no self-improvement book should ever be more than 100 pages.  That is more than enough space to convey the meat of the author’s ideas.  Anything longer and readers don’t engage.

My view is supported by several studies which show that people learn best FROM SUMMARIES.  Give one group a 20-page explanation of a subject or phenomenon.  Then, give another group a 2-page summary.  And, EVERY SINGLE TIME the group receiving the summary will have better comprehension of the subject at hand.

Actually that is not surprising.  We all have a limited amount of “bandwidth” to absorb information.  Our brains are not unlike our stomachs.  We can only fill the brain with so much before it starts to regurgitate.  So, less is DEFINITELY more when it comes to comprehension and learning.

Also, what is a summary but the culling of the important points from a longer exposition?   In other words, the person writing the summary has to do the hard work.  Read the exposition and figure out what is really crucial to know and then convey ONLY THAT. 

That is the theory behind the skinny books.  To give people just the information they need to know on a particular subject.  If a person is so intrigued that they want to learn more, all our books have bibliographies with all the referenced material.

So, why did I start writing Skinny Books?    Well, I thought I would create a series of great, simplified, easy-to-understand content that could be read in one hour and would have the impact of 25 books or articles.  Let me leave you with a story.  One of the greatest judges in US legal history was Oliver Wendell Holmes.  In writing a friend one day, he said “sorry for the length of this letter … it would have been much shorter if I had more time.”  

Jim Randel

In building your creative muscles, it is important to learn to expand your thinking BEYOND the obvious.

When speaking on creativity, I sometimes divide the audience into 3 groups.  I will then ask each group to think of potential uses for a simple household object - say a chair or a piece of paper or a spoon. 

I will ask Group #1 to stop at 3 ideas, Group #2 to stop at 8 ideas, and Group #3 to come up with 13 ideas.   Now, here is what is interesting:  Group #3 often has the best and most creative ideas.

Why?  Well I am sure that they say to themselves (perhaps unconsciously): "Hey, we have to come up with 13 ideas for a spoon … that's nuts … we'd better let our minds go totally crazy."  And the result is often amazingly creative.

When boosting your creativity, you need to break from convention and from what is called convergent thinking.  Convergent thinking is the type of thinking you need to respond to a need or problem with the most logical or reasonable idea.  It is what helps us survive - we have an issue and we deal with it as logically as possible.  But, convergent thinking also stifles creativity.

The opposite of convergent thinking is divergent thinking.  Divergent thinking is when you let your mind flow (go crazy) - giving it license to explore all the nooks and crannies of your imagination.  It is divergent thinking that sometimes leads to super creative ideas.

Our minds are programmed to think by convergent thinking.  That is OK.  We need that.  But, when in a situation where you need to think creatively (13 uses for a spoon??), well then take off the reins and let that bronco in your head run free.  You never know!!

"Nothing is more dangerous than an idea . . .

when it is the only one you have."

                                                           Emile Chartier, French Philosopher

Here’s the thing about creative ideas – they are different and oftentimes threatening to the status quo.  As a result, WHATEVER your idea, there will be naysayers.

                             “At every crossroads on the path that leads to the future,

                            tradition has placed 10,000 men to guard the past.”

                                              Maurice Maeterlinck, Nobel Prize Winner, Literature

Your job – in improving your creative skills – is to simply learn not to listen.

In subsequent posts we are going to discuss how to boost your creative impulses.  In this post, I want to make the point that you should be careful about when you share your creative works or ideas with others.  If you are too early in the process, you risk hearing a negativity that may be rooted in the status quo.  Only when you are ready to bring your work or idea to life, can you begin to reveal it to others.

I could write 100 blogs about great creative works or inventions or ideas that were rejected over and over before they became huge successes.  My Skinny books are a pedestrian example – I was rejected by every single publisher and agent who I showed them to – in some cases, more than once.  But I was fortunate to get a Chinese publisher to believe in the format and today I am on several best seller lists in China (with U.S. success right around the corner).

Of course not every idea you have or work you produce will be truly creative (have a future).  But, for the moment, the goal is simply to protect your ideas/works until you have done your own deep assessment, in other words, don’t mention or show them too early to others.

There is only one thing worse than never having a good idea or producing a creative work.  And that is to have it before someone else, be deterred in pursuing it, and then watch someone else gain success with “your” concept.                    

                            Good-humored inflexibility when the whole cry of voices in on the

                            other  side.  Else, tomorrow a stranger may say with masterly good

                            sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we

                             shall be forced to take with shame our opinion from another.”

                                             Ralph Waldo Emerson

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