Feedback Loops and Creativity

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August 11, 2014

We learn from others as much as we do from ourselves.

Day and night he will work, making many false starts, filling the trash basket with unsuccessful chains of equations and logical sequences. But some evenings he will return to his desk knowing he has learned things about Nature that no one has ever known, ventured into the forest and found light, gotten hold of precious secrets. On those evenings, his heart will pound as if he were in love. The anticipation of that rush of the blood, that time when he will be young and unknown and unafraid of mistakes...

There's this great novel, Einstein's Dreams, that follows Einstein as he is working on his theory of relativity. Each chapter is just a small vignette of a dream he's had, lasting maybe 5 pages or less. They describe alternate worlds in which time passes differently. For example there is a dream about a set end date to time that everyone is aware of, one where "... there is no time. Only images," and another where time moves backwards.

Value in creative work comes from bringing back these secret insights from the forest and letting them breathe. Those secrets are only valuable when shared because they are the things that awaken something in the observer and speak to them.

The man in the dream knows why he had to go into the forest. He is both the creator and the observer; he as a feedback loop. We are all feedback loops. We create and we observe. We observe other's creations. We observe our own creations in relation to others. We pivot as we grow. We unveil secrets and pass them on to anyone who wants to play along. In our world, time moves forward and there is hindsight, leaving you and I to stand on the shoulders of giants every day.

As feedback loops, we learn by copying. We take in these secrets that others seemed to have picked up on and let them inform us, then move on to make decisions in the present. Just as there is call and response in music on a small scale, there is such a phenomenon in a macro level in any field of work that I can think of. There is one song and everyone is playing it.

So why then do we bash trends? No one would belly laugh at a flower for being nearly identical to its peers – its beauty is inherent in its form, however repeated. It's found the secret, ya jerk. Shouldn't we be celebrating this crazy fortune we have? We gulp down inspiration and life experience on the daily only to spit back out insight and perspective.

We learn from others as much as we do from ourselves. In the modern world, we can create work and reflect on it rapidly, just as we should. Let the trends and the setters and the followers pass unscathed. If the secret is good enough, it'll be kept with all the other ones we've learned about.