“I used to second guess myself all the time. I can sit there and work in circles when I’m nervous about what I’m doing.” – Chino Moreno
I was out fishing with my cousin one day. We were sitting in the boat when he said: “Hey, look! The ducks are swimming behind eachother”, I turned around and saw a buttload of ducks in a row crossing the lake. An impressive sight. I turned back around, paused to think and said: “If the ducks are swimming behind eachother… Then the first one would be behind the last one?”.
We sat in silence for a few seconds and then laughed at the paradox, had a few more beers, caught some fish and headed home. But the memory came back when someone said something incoherent at a party. I just said: “…and the ducks are swimming behind eachother” and the only one who laughed was my cousin, the others were thoroughly perplexed at the exchange. I love these Escheresque moments.
A few months back I was relaxing, as I do, by playing Borderlands. Sprayed on a wall there was graffiti that said: “Turtles all the way down”. I didn’t get the reference and this bugged me for some reason. Instead of looking it up with my good friend Google I decided to do the “Frozen” thing and let it go.
Last week I was reading a book called “Plato And A Platypus Walk Into A Bar” by Thomas Cathcart & Daniel Klein. In the first couple of minutes reading I come across this fictional piece of dialogue:
DIMITRI: If Atlas holds up the world, what holds up Atlas?
TASSO: Atlas stands on the back of a turtle.
DIMITRI: But what does the turtle stand on?
TASSO: Another turtle.
DIMITRI: And what does THAT turtle stand on?
TASSO: My dear Dimitri, it’s turtles all the way down!
Ah! An answer! That’s when I decided to Google the phrase which apparently had been used by Stephen Hawking and alludes to the mythology of the “World Turtle”. Something that I actually was familiar with!
The thing is that in it’s original form the answer to the last question wasn’t “turtles all the way down” but the more common: “I don’t know” or “Let’s discuss something else!”.
I was having a movie night and saw “Whiplash”, a nice little piece about a promising jazz drummer (Miles Teller) who gets the mentally and physically abused by his perfectionist instructor played by J.K Simmons.
I won’t give away too much, but what caught my attention was an exchange about Charlie “Bird” Parker. Simmons tells Teller about how Charlie Parker wouldn’t have become “Bird” unless he’d gotten a cymbal thrown at him by Jo Jones due to poor playing.
While this might not be a true story it’s used to justify Simmons’s actions. The real story can be read in Stanley Crouch’s book “Kansas City Lightning”. Spoiler alert! The cymbal gets thrown on the floor, not anywhere near Bird’s head.
The movie shows the balance we as creatives need to strike between dicipline and improvisation. We need to be sure to get the fundamentals down. In this case? Tempo. Then we can get on with the flashy bits!
Also, it shines a light on how much we can learn by studying the “masters” of art, craft or business. To let ourselves be influenced!
When Teller then asks Simmons if he thinks there’s a line between what pushes someone towards greatness and what makes them give up. Simmons provides the answer that the truly great ones DON’T get discouraged. They keep going no matter what.
The Navajo Indians have something to teach about this constant search for perfection. Some of their craftsmen would create something called a “Spirit line” (see the picture above, the grey line sticking out) into their work. These built in imprefections occur in about 1/3 of their works.
Their reason for doing this is quite interesting. They believe in allowing that the spirit in their work needs to be released in order for them to have the energy and imagination to continue their work.
Some people are prone to looking at this and thinking “Pffft, I call bull!”. That’s OK, we don’t need to look at it purely as a spiritual thing. What do you supposed happens when we admit to ourselves that the work we do has no reason to be “perfect”? If we allow for mistakes to be made or even put them there intentionally? Isn’t that a huge burden that’s been lifted from our shoulders? Isn’t that what makes us human?
If we can let go of our need for things to be perfect then we could actually make some progress, instead of focusing on that red herring that prevents us from creating more of what we love.
Well, this post has been more animal oriented than I thought it would be. The fish taught us to relax, the ducks and turtles that some things just can’t be explained, the bird that we gotta keep moving forward and the red herring to not let ourselves focus too long on things that people don’t really care about.
This seems like a bleak view which, to a certain extent, it is. Don’t let it discourage you! Here are some hard truths that might just set your creativity free.
1. What you are doing is something no one has asked you to do.
2. There are more than 7 billion people on Earth. It does not matter who you are, about 6 billion of them will probably not care.
3. You will fail. Miserably. Over and over and over and over ad infinitum.
So now that we’ve inserted the shotgun into our mouths, let’s look at the obvious upsides!
1. You’re doing something because you love doing it!
2. It doesn’t matter what you do, except to the few people you love. This means you’re liberated from being responsible for the fate of the world. Yaaay!
3. The more times you’ve failed, the more you’ve grown and the closer you are to succeeding!
Isn’t this liberating? Can’t you just feel the freshness in the air?
Turtles all the way down!