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Blog // Creativity
May 3, 2017

Have Fewer Gurus

We live in a golden age for creativity and learning. But there are so many ideas, so much advice, it can easily become overwhelming.

As a kid, I played golf, occasionally and for fun. Only during my three years living in Delhi did I very play seriously. Re-learning the game as an adult was fascinating, given the changes in the way the equipment was made and the techniques were taught. So much was new, from the materials used in making the balls and clubs, to video-aided analysis of the player’s swing.

What Golf Magazines Taught Me About Creative Process

This was apparent one day while I was reading a golf magazine. Amongst the interviews with players past and present, these magazines always had tips and lessons. This particular edition had two articles on how to get out of a bunker (a sand trap).

One article suggested the player address the ball with an open stance, open the face of the club and strike with a slicing motion. The other article suggested the player take a more normal traditional stance, play with a square face and make adjustments to the normal stroke, but without the slicing motion.

While contradictory, both approaches can work, and they make sense, from differing perspectives.

The first approach is the older way of playing out of a bunker. It comes from a time when golf club design was less specialised, when players had to manually manipulate the club in their hands to make it lift the ball out of the sand. The second approach was a newer method, possible because the design of clubs had evolved, with them being made and shaped with greater detail, even catering for different kinds of sand (dry, wet, fluffy, and packed).

Either approach will work, but, confuse the two kinds of advice, and you may find you can’t get the ball out of the sand!

The Glut Of Advice

In my book No Missing Tools, one of the central themes was the away our relationship to the skills, ideas and information required to do creative work has fundamentally changed. In less than a generation, we’ve gone from these resources being costly and scarce, to them becoming abundant and cheap.

Since the book was published, the well of online resources, ideas and advice has filled to overflowing. There’s so much, in whatever creative field we pursue, more than we’ll ever have a chance to get through in one lifetime.

For photographers, this abundance of resources is such a mixed blessing. We can learn anything, but we can also get stuck forever, debating film versus digital, sensor sizes and, how much to use “photoshop.”

The Real Lesson From My Golf Coach

My golf game improved only when I started reading fewer magazines and got a coach. The first thing he did was simplify my game, batting away random ideas I’d picked up in magazines or online forums, and helping me build a reliable, consistent swing.

While I learnt a lot on the practice field, the learning really clicked into place when we went out onto the course together. Because I wasn’t improvising every single shot, struggling to decide between competing pieces of advice, my game seemed to feel lighter and easier. The moments that did require some innovation – when I was stuck under a tree, or facing a tricky obstacle – found me with more available mental energy.

Not surprisingly, my scores quickly dropped, and while my friends commented on my improved technique, I knew the real battle had been won in the mind. No longer did I have to keep competing ideas at bay: I felt free to just play each shot as it came.

Be Less In Our Heads

As much as I love the internet, and all the educational, creative and social benefits it gives us, it’s clear something insidious, perhaps even addictive, is lurking as well. Spend too long online and it’s like a conversation keeps playing on a loop, in our minds, even as we get on with our lives.

The internet also tends to flatten everything. A random ‘like’ carries the same weight as one from a professional in your field. And, although we try to tell ourselves the fly-by snark from an anonymous troll doesn’t hurt us, all too often it lingers, like a mosquito buzzing around our soul, sucking the life blood out of creativity one tiny, poisoned sip at a time.

Fewer Gurus

I’m not suggesting we cut ourselves off and leave the internet. But, increasingly, I’m seeing the creative people I admire, including my peers and friends, spending less time online and being a lot more intentional about their relationship to it, especially with social media.

We could also benefit by limiting the amount of advice we open ourselves up to. Instead of trying to have having shallow relationships with many gurus, some of dubious worth, it might well pay to be more selective, following fewer lines of advice and acting more deeply on them.

This certainly worked for me with the golf lessons. I also believe it’s why my photography advanced so quickly between 2009 and 2011, because I didn’t seek input from online forums, meet-up groups or random evaluations of my work. Instead I only sought the advice of a handful of professionals who were working hard and advancing their careers.

Surrounding ourselves with lot of advice, ideas, e-books, tutorials and courses can feel like a learning experience, because we are processing a lot of information, but it doesn’t always help us clarify what we should be doing with our own work. Also, it can feel deceptively similar to productivity, because it requires time and effort is required to wade through it all. But, it’s easy to get to the end and have little to show for it.

Pick a few voices, listen deeply to them, and wrestle with what they are saying to you.

Dane Cobain 6 years ago

Interesting take on this, I also think there’s a lot to be said about learning when to overrule your gurus. For example, let’s say you have a personal trainer who’s pushing you harder and harder and you realise that if you don’t take a break, you’re going to injure yourself. You can process those signals from your body better than your coach could and if you put too much faith in them, you’d keep on pushing until you did some damage. Sometimes you know yourself and your own abilities better than they could.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever really had a guru as such as I think I’ve mostly learned from/with my peers rather than from any figurehead as such. Or from my own experimentation. But it does help to have someone to help to guide you in the right direction, even if they’re just confirming what you already kind of knew.

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