Song suggestion: Like a Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan
Drink suggestion: Creative Cocktails, from Kathy Casey Liquid Kitchen

Creativity is the residue of time wasted. – Albert Einstein

He was sick of writing music, sick of playing music, sick of the whole music scene with the worshiping fans and hangers-on, sick of being the wise oracle and rambling troubadour of a generation, sick of everything and everyone associated with Bob Dylan, most of all sick of himself. After a grueling tour that ended in total burnout, he walked away from it all to become an author. He would be the secluded Emerson and Woodstock would be his Walden; a hermitage away from the chaotic and demanding world.

The irony behind Dylan’s nomadic escape in 1965 to his idyllic hide-away has been well documented: in this period of extreme fatigue and retreat from his craft the star composes his all-time biggest hit almost against his will. Dylan claimed to have vomited it out, that in his solitude at Woodstock he simply picked up the pen and wrote page after page for hours straight. It was if a ghost was guiding his hand. He didn’t care what it said and he didn’t care what it meant, he just wrote. Like a Rolling Stone was recorded a few weeks later and quickly broke the charts worldwide.

How does this happen? Why does this artist’s greatest inspiration erupt at the moment he’s trying hardest to avoid it? There are many similar cases explained in a new book titled “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” by Jonah Lehrer. According to Lehrer, there is indeed a biochemical explanation for Dylan’s creative outburst. I will spare us both the deep dive, but it involves alpha waves swarming the right hemisphere of the brain. When these waves flow more actively we tend to be more creative.  This has been observed and documented exhaustively through brain scans and creativity tests of all sorts, and the book lays them out in detail. It is a great read for those of you wanting a more thorough explanation.

So how do we stimulate our alpha waves? Surprisingly enough, it comes most organically by not trying hard, by removing ourselves from the stresses and excesses of deadlines and obligations. And this helps explain Dylan’s flash of inspiration. Out of the public lens and away from the demands of his agent and record company, he felt free for the first time in years to do absolutely nothing. In his calm the lyrics just burst out. This is not to diminish the role of deadlines, just don’t expect a flash of genius when laboring under them. When we are relaxed and our minds are free to wander we tend to have our most profound breakthroughs. Is this not true? Do your eureka moments come at the sterile office desk or under a warm shower head?

Lehrer goes on to explain that as a rule people are twice as creative in blue rooms versus red. Why the color effect? The going theory is that we associate red with danger, which makes us more alert and adept at attention to detail and accuracy, which is useful for solving math problems and finding spelling mistakes. On the other hand, blue recalls the expansive sky and ocean and opens up our imagination. Our minds unwind and we daydream more effortlessly. An increase in alpha wave activity can be observed when we think about calming scenes like passing clouds or a sandy beach, and as mentioned above, alpha waves are manna for our imagination.

Tech giants rely on a constant churn of creative new ideas to remain competitive (scratch that, to remain in business), and the most progressive amongst them architect “fun” campuses surrounded by trees, ponds, gardens; areas to wander and escape if only for an hour.  Ping pong tables and open air cafes abound. Just take a tour of Silicon Valley. When Salesforce.com decided to build a new campus in San Francisco, the CEO announced that it would feature “fountains and pools, and large outdoor art pieces, (which are) intended to give physical evidence of Salesforce.com’s philosophy of innovation.” Notice that he didn’t mention infinite rows of cubicles and free green eyeshades. Google employees have a 20% rule – 20% of one’s work week should be directed towards personal projects – and it’s hard to argue against Google’s creative output.

But greater invention through encouraged diversion was not a Google innovation. 3M has been pushing employees to not only think outside the box but get outside their heads since William McKnight took the helm back in the Depression Era. A company that generates a third of its revenues each year from new products needs A LOT of creative ideas. It was the first to mandate a daily “bootleg hour” for free thinking, and 3Mers are encouraged to remove themselves from their work, take walks on the Minneapolis campus, sit by a sunny window, daydream, play pinball, find escape. A list of their gifts to the world is astounding –scotch tape and post-it notes barely scratch the surface – and a fascinating read on the company and how it fosters creativity can be found here.

Why care about maximizing our creativity? For those of us passing through a re-invention phase at mid-life, creative thinking is required. That was then, what is next? Often, “next” is simply an extension of “then” with a new paint job and speed limiter on the throttle. Not a problem. But if Dylan’s loathing for the acoustic troubadour finds some resonance with your own situation, if you seek a more fundamental redesign and new ambitious tangent, then creative thinking without limitation is Step 1. Lehrer’s book provides a variety of insights on how to spark our creative sides, built on his mountain of research and observations. When aligning these with my own interest in personal development, I boiled the list down to 5 key dynamics:

  1. Setting. To increase alpha wave flow and boost creativity one needs to relax and release the tensions; this is known. Corporations who profit from creative ideas know that inspiration strikes more commonly while employees are on a long walk, relaxing by a pond, or perhaps getting a massage. My home town of Aix-en-Provence is a perfect location for finding zen. When I’m stumped and the gears won’t engage, a stroll down the broad Cours Mirabeau, under the leafy elms and past the cafes, often helps get past the block. I find that an early morning jog, before the city awakes and while the neighborhoods are still quite, is also helpful. I hear little and feel only the rhythm of my breathing, the tempo of my pace. The mind is calm and I can think clearly.
  2. Color. Work in a room with cooler colors, or better yet under the grand expanse of the sky. Blue has a positive correlation with enhanced creativity and helpful for establishing the relaxed setting mentioned in the previous bullet. Again I am lucky. Provence has over 300 days of sunshine per year on average. Lots of blue sky. How about you? Need a change of venue?
  3. Attitude. Fear of failure binds the imagination and limits our creativity. Indifference to criticism permits us to push into new and unknown territory.  To get their creative juices flowing, actors at Second City – the famous American comedy troupe – engage in a pre-performance ritual that involves humiliation in front of the other troupe members (they make loud burp and farting sounds, admit to intimate and embarrassing recent situations) to remove any inhibitions before going on stage. They claim that it removes the limitations that could hamper their ability to improvise and create effectively.
    Lehrer discusses “outsider status” as a particular fear for many of us. But newcomers to a field often bring its most disruptive ideas, whether it is in art, science, food, or other. Why are young people the most prolific inventors and groundbreakers? Because they know the least and tend to be the most fearless. Getting older doesn’t preclude us from imagining quixotic adventures, for pursuing our true passions, but it takes a greater effort to get through our learned limitations.
  4. Escape: We can escape both into ourselves and out to the wider world. And both are effective at stoking the creative flame according to Lehrer. Daydreaming is particularly good at letting our minds drift without bound. Certain parts of the brain interact directly only during daydreams, and in parallel with an increase in alpha wave activity. Disciplined daydreaming (that term almost takes the fun out of it) requires setting aside time for zen-like moments each day. By the way, I was encouraged to read that having a drink at the end of the day is an excellent way to induce mind-wandering!
    Likewise, being thrown into new environments is a challenge that forces us to think resourcefully. People who live abroad are better at solving creative problems (based on 2009 study by INSEAD and Kellogg School of Management). The assumed reason is that living abroad forces one to be flexible and think with an open mind, which transfers to other tasks and challenges as well. Even if a move is not possible, a stay beyond the typical 1-2 week holiday span is suggested.
  5. Emotion: Get happy, because as with the color blue, happiness and creativity are closely linked (interestingly enough, depression is also shown to stimulate the imagination, but I will not condone being miserable). Getting happy is easy to suggest of course, not always easy to realize. The other 4 recommendations on the list help establish positive emotion: finding a relaxing setting with calm colors, agreeing not to be bowed by others’ judgments (or our own), giving ourselves permission to “waste” time with daydreams, and challenging ourselves to thrive in new environments. I find that living in Aix-en-Provence doesn’t hurt.

I am always interested in readers’ comments about the themes explored in these postcards. If you have developed ways of getting the creative juices flowing I would love to hear about them.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Suggested Song: Penny Lane, The Beatles
Suggested Drink: Early Grey, or any proper British tea

LM2Just a short note. Readers of this blog know that I am fascinated with the mysteries of creativity and passionate about rock & roll. I’ve written on both topics – The Creative FlameBreak on ThroughOf Twerks, Kinks, and the Death of Pop Music – and believe that the musical partnership of Lennon and McCartney offered us the very finest examples of both. Because of that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this recent article (click here to read) in The Atlantic by Joshua Wolf Shenk, who contends that their creative collaboration remained vibrant throughout the history of the band in ways both obvious and less evident.

Enjoy!

http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/06/the-power-of-two/372289/

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Suggested Song: Travellin’ Band, Credence Clearwater Revival
Suggested Drink: Fogcutter cocktail: rum, brandy, gin, orange and lemon juice, orgeat syrup, sherry

I’m sitting in 36D – center section aisle (mon préféré) – and after 12 hours on this United flight from Munich I admit to some ache. The pilot has just turned on the seat belt sign and provided an update on the cool, foggy San Francisco weather adding, “we should be on the ground shortly.” Blessings to an imminent touchdown.

I haven’t written a dispatch from San Francisco since my last trip here in February. I haven’t written anything since February, actually. Why the pause, my first writing laps in 8 years or so? Now that’s a question I’ve been pondering too. The well isn’t empty, but the motivation has been flagging. I’ve been stretched with other projects, but that’s nothing new. A mystery. Perhaps we just need a breather sometimes to rethink and resync.

Is there a better city than San Francisco for inspiration, to get that figurative pen back to paper, whatever one’s form of creative art? None that I’ve know of. So here’s to a refire of the creative flame. Let’s see what develops. We’ve just touched rubber to tarmac, … and off we go.

Dispatch #1 – A Sense of Place

Noe Valley is a beautiful family neighborhood in the sunny center of San Francisco. It’s a perennial locals’ favorite but never a trendsetter. While the must-live-here-now quarters like the Marina, Hayes Valley, and the Mission bloom and fade on the shifting whims of the hyper-paid, transient hip, Noe Valley remains a priority destination for those seeking longer-term permanence in this city by the bay.

It hasn’t escaped the gentrification wave and real estate bubble burning through the city. There is a scattering of all-organic, locally sourced, gluten-free juice bars and quirky concept stores in the neighborhood now, but many of the boutiques along its 24th Street core remain in family hands after 30 years or more. Haystack Pizza, 24th Street Cheese, the Dubliner bar; I was a regular at all when Noe Valley was my first San Francisco home so way back when – the late ‘80s while studying at SFSU. I’m back in Noe Valley again this week, back to my morning buzz at Martha’s Coffee, my evening beer at the Dubliner.

Place plays an elemental role in life. It frames our quotidian and colors that community of friends and strangers who fill our days. When I take a pulse on how things are going – as I am this year – it’s the what I do, whom I love, and where I live that get the most critical reflection. Getting the where right is so important.

At 60 I’m ready for at least 1 more grand adventure, one more lifting of the anchor for parts unknown. This new course doesn’t have to be geocentric. It might just be the what or with whom. It is certainly not guided by a quest for more cash or greater security, which often fuels the flight in younger years. The eternal wanderlust for personal growth and new experiences, the adrenaline rush from knowing you’ll likely fail spectacularly … but what if not?, … that stubborn unwillingness to accept that this is it at any age; yep, this is the propellant.

I’ve rambled a bit through the years, living here and there in the States and now in France. A few of these places have left their mark, have spoken to something inside that is authentically Bill. Aix-en-Provence, where I’m living now, moves me at a deep level, and San Francisco as well. If I believed in past lives I’d say that I have wandered those streets before. And whenever I’m in the magic kingdom – Bagdad by the Bay, as the great columnist Herb Caen used to say – there’s no neighborhood that I love more than Noe Valley. Now off I go to Martha’s for the morning cup. Onward!

June 7, 2018

Dispatch #2 – Graduation Day

The motivation for this trip west was the high school graduation ceremony for my daughter Stella. One of those big life moments for her and for her proud parents as well. The wave of emotion that swept over me as she first appeared in the auditorium wasn’t a surprise – I knew what was coming the moment I’d see her in that purple cap and gown – but it was still a struggle to keep my pride in check. I’m a teary guy, what can I say?

Stoicism is a guy thing, maybe even more so an American guy thing, I’m not sure. We imagine ourselves as cowboys carved from some noble stone. What me cry? Never! Nothing stirs me more than music and certain songs can put a fine crack in the cool façade. Stella’s mother used to tease me for that vulnerability. When the Beach Boys Don’t Worry Baby came on the AM radio of my treasured ’66 Mustang, sitting behind the wheel and a warm California breeze chasing us down some coastal highway, well lets just say things would get a bit misty. I’m even moved as I write this now, hearing that brilliant third verse in my head:

she told me baby, when you race today
just take along my love with you
and if you know how much I loved you
baby nothing could go wrong with you
oh what she does to me
when she makes love to me
and she says don’t worry baby

I went to an Irma Thomas show last night at the San Francisco Jazz Center. She has a backstory that is as fascinating as the timbre and range of her voice. Doing studio work by 13, two marriages and 4 kids by 19, over 30 singles and 20 albums and a history of small victories, but always in the shadow of Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight and other better-known contemporaries.

Irma is 77 now and still brings it big. She had the committed crowd firmly in the palm of her hand, and for good reason. Her voice remains sure and strong and after 60 years in the business she knows how to command the stage. She had us on our feet for much of the night, white handkerchiefs waving New Orleans style as she worked through an endless string of requests from her long back catalog of hits.

We’ll all be lucky to still be bringing it at 77. Doing something we love, something so natural and sure that it seems destined. When I think about the kids graduating with Stella this week, about their futures and all of the questions and uncertainty they face in a world of rapid churn and change, I can offer just 1 piece of advice: never stop trying to find your reason for being alive. It’s rarely evident and you may keep asking the big questions well past midlife. But it’s that journey of discoveries and doubts that makes life as beautiful as a teary sing-along in a classic car or the sultry voice of an American soul queen. Sing on.

June 9, 2018

Dispatch #3 – For a Few Dollars More

The average selling price of a family home in Noe Valley in April this year was a cool $2.5 million. For the monthly rent on a 2-bedroom flat prepare to fork over $4,300. Welcome to the new world of San Francisco economics.

It’s not just the lodging that hurts. A veggie sandwich at Dolores Park Cafe ran me $14 earlier this week and my chai tea at Bernie’s last night was a steep $3.50. When you remove their cost for the tea bag – about 10 cents wholesale according to my back-of-the-envelop calculation – that’s some pretty pricey boiled water. But imagining their rent along that prime spot on 24th Street, I get it.

It’s an unvirtuous upward cycle driving this madness. A surge in the tech industry is once again pulling in boatloads of high-paid software engineers and designers who are young and hip and want to live in uber-cool San Francisco, not the uber-uncool suburbs of San Jose. And with the average salary for a tech worker now hovering around $150,000 they can afford it (well okay, maybe with a roommate!).

To woo the best and brightest, many of the newly minted barons of tech like Twitter and Salesforce are setting up in downtown now, and those that remain in Silicon Valley are providing wi-fi’ed commute transport from the city and back, … which feeds the need for even more pricey condos and chai lattes and all-organic, locally sourced, gluten-free juice bars in neighborhoods like Noe Valley. Sitting at Martha’s Coffee earlier this week, I counted 7 massive luxury buses in 14 minutes rolling down 24th Street, picking up riders for the hour drive south to Google, Apple, and other large corporate centers.

So where’s the problem? The techies are happy, their employers are happy, the city with its coffers full of higher tax revenues is happy. The problem is the loss of diversity, and that has always been at the heart of San Francisco’s unique color and flair. How does a cab driver or cellist or schoolteacher afford $14 sandwiches and $4,200 leases? They don’t.

I like tech workers okay and count a number of friends among them. I just don’t want to be limited by only their interests and sensibilities. There’s only so much bar talk about stock options and fundraising and blockchain that I can take before my attention disorder gets provoked. Yawn, pass the wine please, … and where do I set up my tent?

June 10, 2018

Suggested Song: Sunny Afternoon, The Kinks
Suggested Drink: an energising Irish coffee; Irish whiskey, Irish cream liqueur, coffee, whipped cream, nutmeg

I clung to the dwindling days of summer with particular tenacity this year, resisting most work-related activities despite the growing backlog through August, … including this blog. A languorous sideways drift is an easy bearing in the south of France through the hot summer months; the day’s prime ambition driven by produce discoveries at the morning markets, a banquet of local fruits and vegetables at their peak and the subsequent meal plans they inspire. Breakfast is the day’s only spread of predictable temperance, afternoon siestas de rigueur, and evening aperitifs with family and friends a given, often as not blurring into improvised dinners from the morning market haul.

My teaching at INSEAD started again this week, forcing a full stop to the August torpor. There are classes to prepare, students to manage, partners to organize, and the weekly commute between Aix and Paris to enjoy. All of this activity obliges a certain sense of drive and urgency that have largely been on holiday since June.

Photo by Evan Pagano
Photo by Evan Pagano

There is a multiplier affect from this vim of vigor that motivates a rekindling of fire under other activities from the backburner as well; a well placed cue ball into the rack. This is an odd but welcome phenomenon: the less spare time we suddenly find available, the more ambitious we are to fill it.

In my 2012 essay The Creative Flame (and How to Stoke It) I considered the creative spillover from artistic endeavors onto other activities benefitting from imaginative thinking. In both cases, one action can stimulate several unrelated and inspired actions. Writer’s block on a new blog draft can be dislodged by an hour at the piano. Resistance to the resumption of several ambitious to-dos this fall can be dissolved by a hard deadline in any single one. So for those readers returning to the routine with a bad case of sunshine melancholy, fret not. Voila, the multiplier effect that saves us from our summer months on slow idle, just being lazy.

On a completely different tangent

Some of us are born with a clear sense of ambition and direction, of obvious talents and seemingly predetermined destinies. The rest of us – the most of us – ramble down blind alleys and pinball from one promising endeavor to the next, drawn to the light of the latest epiphany.

What struck late bloomer mediumme most about the suicide of Robin Williams was his reported despair over the downward spiral of career options. The singular Giant in his field (with a capital G), the Michael Jordan of comedy and Academy Award winner, the transformative genius of so many creative characters; was he besieged by a success most deserved and predestined, and mortally despondent over an inability to continue its achievement at that level or find new avenues of expression?

Could it be that those of us with less obvious talents – at least revealing themselves at an early age – benefit from the late bloom? We work through careers of convenience, driven more by opportunity and less by passion, but gain exposure to a wide range of possibilities; likely wider than those of laser-focused prodigies like Williams. The limits of core career achievement may be gated by our distractions and fumbling, but at the midlife frontier, when the bias of priorities tilts toward pursuits of real meaning, our encore careers benefit from this broader exposure.

I offer this up less as a conviction than a question. What do you think?

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Suggested song: Falling In Love, Elvis Presley
Suggested drink: Broken Heart cocktail: vodka, Chambord, orange juice, grenadine

A secret to happiness in our later years is through acts of creation; showing yourself and the world that you can still produce something amazing. Giants in the field of positive psychology like Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi have written about this extensively. Wind down and kick back and you’ll ossify right into a fossil of your former impressive self.

We are at our most creative when emotions are hot and high. I write my best music when provoked by something beautiful or terrible, something blissful or sad. I prefer inspirations of the beautiful and blissful varieties, but life doesn’t always let us choose.

heart_and_sea_by_onelifeoneartPainful experiences are also emotionally charging and nothing hurts more than a broken heart. The ache can collapse you in tears of distress and desperation. You want to wake up from this very bad dream, but it’s not a dream. Want to hear that they were only kidding, but they weren’t kidding. Your mind spins with memories of tender moments. And the plans you had dared imagine together singe black and curl like pages of a book thrown to the flame, the ash slowly drifting away.

They call it heartache because it truly aches in your heart. There is a physical pain in the center of your chest that feels like an iron grip around that precious organ, the same organ that fluttered and thumped when you used to think about her or him, the one that walked away.

All you can do when brokenhearted is treasure the times you shared and be grateful for having loved so richly. The more precious the memories and splendid the plans, the deeper the cut. If it feels fatal then you know it was good. It’s hard, but that’s the risk you take when opening your heart for the deep, deep dive.

I’m running on a very raw set of emotions as I write this piece tonight. I can’t curl up in a ball on the bed because my mind will flood with beautiful, painful memories. I can’t drink myself to sleep because I’ll wake up feeling even worse about things tomorrow. But I can be creative. I can grab my guitar or sit at the piano and turn this dark emotional burst into something beautiful, like a soulfully sad song. The cause for my pain was an experience so very, very beautiful. Why should its legacy be anything less?

Life is short. You can play it safe and just paddle around in the wading pool, or you can venture to the deep end. You can be reckless and foolish and if you’re lucky taste the most beautiful, heartbreaking thing life has to offer: to be in love. Now where’s my guitar?

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Suggested Song: American Pie, Don McClean
Suggested Drink: Coffin nail cocktail (amaretto, Drambuie, scotch)

We owe a great debt to Miley Cyrus and her MTV Video Music Award antics for revealing just how empty and irrelevant the music side of popular rock music has become. Talented artists still record quality songs, but they rarely get mainstream attention and no longer define a generation, at least through the poetry and power of their music.

Miley Cyrus 2In pop music’s creative heyday – the 1960s through 1980s – Cyrus would have been a novelty act struggling a few rungs below Charo, who also found fame with sexy impishness but at least could sing well (without auto-tuning) and played a mean flamenco guitar. Imagine a music awards ceremony today with the strong fem bench of the past: Janis Joplin, Diana Ross, Linda Rondstadt or Tina Turner (add your favorite) still in top creative form. That the 2013 VMA organizers hand the prime time slot to a girl whose greatest talent is butt twerking and tongue hanging cements any suspicions that rock has reached a creative dead end. Any stripper worth her string must have been asking, what the hell was that?

That great journey from Presley through Petty and Prince has been marked by a number of momentous creative pivots starting with rock’s foundations in the mid-1950s (Berry, Richard), bleached clean for popular consumption (Presley, Holly); the infectious pop harmonies of the British Invasion (Beatles, Kinks) and echo answer from the Pacific coast (Beach Boys, Doors); the folk revival plugged in (Dylan, Young); the heavy hand of hard rock in its endless variations (Zeppelin, Cooper, Metallica); the heavily stylized rock operas (Who, Pink Floyd) and immediate fury of punk (Reed, Iggy, Ramones); the floating rhythms and all night party themes of disco (Bee Gees, Summers); and rap and a return of music to the street poets (Tupac, Jay-Z, Eminem).

Before MTV we first heard the music and then saw the band, or if we were lucky watched them on Ed Sullivan or Don Kirchner’s Rock Concert at midnight. Looks and style, while necessary, were always secondary to talent. The Monkees will always be a goofy TV show, not a legitimate rock band. Can you remember the first time you heard list A: Hard Day’s Night, Stairway to Heaven, Hotel California, Bohemian Rhapsody, Highway to Hell (for you metal heads), or Staying Alive? You didn’t dwell on what the musicians looked like, you were simply absorbed in the sound. Am I right? Now consider some of the biggest hits since 2000, list B: Hips Don’t Lie, My Humps, Toxic, Baby, or Born This Way. Which list is still relevant in 20 years? Can you even name the B list artists now?

Jeff KoonsMusical shifts over the past 20 years have been less momentous, more incremental. Most of been mélanges of pre-existing forms, 3 parts this with 2 parts that, creative possibly but not disruptive. Rap samples rock, electro infuses disco. If we compare the arc of first-half 20th century art with second-half 20th century music, we’ve become bogged down with Jeff Koons and his Hoover vacuums after an extraordinary sweep from the Impressionists through Cubism, Expressionism, and Surrealism. Sigh.

In the glory years each teen regiment, perhaps two to a decade, had their defining sound and iconic musical deities. My brother had Neil Young and Led Zeppelin, and 5 years later I had Bruce Springsteen and Alice Cooper. There are no analogs today, no artists releasing a series of albums and singles over multiple years on which to discuss and debate for hours on end and build loyalty. Great talent still surfaces from time to time, but the iPod has single-handedly destroyed the album and the internet has democratized the music scene. Now anyone, even your blogger, can record an album on their laptop and self-release on iTunes. It expands the playing field but makes it impossible for even the best to build a critical mass of rabid followers. My guess? Over the next 20 years concerts headlined by single mega-acts will be mostly displaced by multi-stage festivals featuring 20-30 independent artists. This is okay, but the throne of rock royalty has been splintered in the process. Now everyone is just a court jester.

Miley, come show us that twerking thing.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence