Why Splicer can't create

2011 has so far been an almost completely unproductive year. That's a terrifying thing to admit about the last five months of my life. I haven't been on sabbatical or family leave or vacation; instead I've been sitting at my desk in front of my computer accomplishing nothing. I've been accomplishing nothing and wondering why.

I've tried a myriad of solutions to address and correct this situation: sporadic attempts at physical exercise, hypnosis, binaural beats, reading motivational articles, prayer, mediation, journaling, chiropractic adjustments, GTD, support groups, motorcycling, and pharmaceuticals (as sanctioned by my doctors, of course.) I would have tried compulsive shopping, but being this unproductive I can't afford it.

One of the things I've done to pass the time (and it seems like a long time to have let pass) is listen to talks from the Commonwealth Club, TED, and other places. I recently mentioned two talks I listened to while running. In addition I've watched almost all of the TED talks that looked interesting. That's a lot of TED.

Three of the talks recently stood out to me. Without any intent to put them together, I watched these three in succession, and each provided one piece of the puzzle that has been plaguing me:

First, Sir Ken Robinson's TED talk on the need for a learning revolution focused on the field of education but touched on two points relevant to a forty-one year old whose academic life is probably all behind him. First that there is a great diversity of kinds of ability, and second that work in a field where one's talents and passions match the task at hand is both satisfying and enjoyable. He said that how we teach must match the individual. Inasmuch as Sir Ken Robinson's talk was about creating circumstances that allow the individual to flourish creatively and productively, it relates directly to my situation. The difference is only that I have to be both teacher and student as I create those circumstances in which I may flourish.

Chip Conley's 2010 talk about measuring what makes life worthwhile provides a bridge between business and happiness. He suggests that we must find ways to measure success other than GDP. He quoted Robert Kennedy saying that GDP, «measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.» Though GDP is a ruler held up to a nation's economy, it is clear that the principle must apply on the individual level.

I've been close to that truth for some time now and I have certainly never entered into a blind pursuit of wealth rather than well-being. I'm about as financially unmotivated a person as you'll ever find. But this distinction is important because money has a way of making itself important when it is scarce. It's an old saw, but the only people who say that money doesn't matter are people who have enough of it. While I may not have grand financial aspirations I can't deny that each day I get up and try to kick myself in the pants with my financial insecurity. I've had days—thankfully very few of them—when I've gone without a single meal for lack of the few pennies it would take to procure ingredients. That ought to be a strong motivator to productivity, but maddeningly it is not. Still, every thought I have about work is focused on money.

This brings to mind Gerald Weinberg's Fifth Law of Pricing: if you need the money, don't take the job. Counterintuitive? Yes. But it is nearly impossible to avoid one of two traps. Either one will set the price too low out of desperation to land the gig or one will set the price too high thinking the windfall will solve the financial problem. Either way has its own set of drawbacks but at the heart of the matter the focus is on solving the needs of the consultant, which undermines the consultant's ability to solve the needs of the client.

The last piece that fell into place, making visible a direct relationship between all these aspects of the doldrums was Dan Pink's TED talk on the science of motivation.

If you haven't yet watched the other talks, I encourage you to go watch Dan Pink before reading on. But in case you don't, here's the nut: reward-based motivation tends to hinder rather than aid the creative thought necessary for problemsolving. That kind of motivator causes focus to narrow when what's needed is for focus to broaden. Solutions become more difficult to find when reward is offered.

This flies in the face of conventional capitalist thought which claims that dangling money in front of a problemsolver will yield the best results. It's frightening for another reason. It's exactly the sort of information that will be used to justify underpaying the most creative workers. I've heard it more than once: «if you'd do it for free, why should we pay you?» Now add to that, «if we pay you more, your work will suffer.»

Though this is the tactic of a would-be client or employer without scruples, the response has nothing to do with scruples. Instead one must appeal to self-interest. It comes back to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. At the bottom of the pyramid are physical needs like air and food, shelter, security and safety, while creativity and problemsolving belong at the top with self-actualization. In short, one cannot expect to put energy into creativity and problemsolving while more basic needs are unmet. There is, or at least should be, strong motivation to compensate those people one wants at their creative and innovative best. Skimp on compensation and you guarantee that you won't get results.

And now some part of the struggles I've encountered in the past five months become clearer. It's little wonder that I can't perform at my best either creatively or technically while I'm beset by uncertainty regarding basic needs. For this I don't have a specific solution. It's a self-fulfilling cycle: the less secure I am the less creative, the less creative I am the less secure.

That's not the end and it's really secondary to the breakthrough I've seen here. The breakthrough is not a solution, but an insight into the actual nature of the problem. In a few hours my situation has ceased to be a problem in the sense of a handicap and begun to be a problem in the sense of being a maze to navigate or a puzzle to solve.

Perhaps a short window of security is needed as leverage to achieve the mental space and wide focus needed for productive creativity, and that creative burst will bring with it more security. If it's a self-fulfilling cycle on the way down, there's no reason it can't be the same kind of cycle on the way back up. Perhaps there's something else that I will need to do to bootstrap myself back into action. All those specifics remain to be seen, so at this moment they don't matter. So long as I know what I'm up against, I have a fighting chance. You'd be a fool to bet against me.