Home > Advice, cultural commentary > Planning, chaos and creativity

Planning, chaos and creativity

I’ve had a number of conversations recently that have revolved around the following kind of scenario and problem.

You’re a writer – or musician, or artist, or any other sort of creative person. You do your thing and you want to make money from it. Ideally, quite a lot of money. But you don’t have a clue how you’re going to achieve it. How do you get people to take notice? How do you get people to buy what you’re selling?

Well, don’t ask me – I’m hardly a model of commercial success. But here are some random thoughts.

When you first look at your situation, what probably strikes you is that it’s chaotic. I don’t have a formal definition of chaos to offer, beyond the usual one of events appearing so unpredictable as to appear random with no obvious structure or organising principle. The second thing that probably strikes you is that to get from where you are to where you want to be, there are few obvious ways forward – and they’re all impossible and blocked. Whatever you do is likely to have unknown, but probably minimal, effects. It’s difficult to read the situation in any constructive way that gives you a sensible plan.

It’s likely you’ll feel the normal advice you’ll get about how to get people to pay attention and part with money – marketing, SEO, social media – just doesn’t stack up. You haven’t got the kind of money, time or expertise that sort of marketing requires. You haven’t got the ‘social mass’ of a million Facebook friends (or even a dozen followers on Twitter) to get more people to gravitate towards you. And you don’t believe the promises of people who say they can get you high up in Google rankings, either.

[There is, incidentally, a whole literature on marketing with social media. One thing that stands out for me are is that much of it is about creating effects at the margins, so it’s only useful to large companies – a 5% increase in clickthroughs on web advertising is worth something if you have a zillion ads being viewed a day, but not if you’re looking for people to click a link from a blog that gets three viewers a day. And anyway, the major social networks are mostly rejigging their search algorithms to favour their big business advertisers.]

What’s next? Well, society isn’t ‘chaotic’ in any formal sense of the term. But functionally it is, from your point of view. In terms of cause and effect, you don’t even know if you have any levers available to pull or buttons to push, let alone what effects they could create. And you don’t know how the world is going to look in a week’s time, let alone a year’s time.

Business planning often revolves around identifying a goal, scanning the environment to assess your strengths and weakness, and for opportunities and threats. Then you identify ‘unknowns’ and seek to find out more about them, so you can set up contingency plans and mitigation plans.

But often this process falls at the first hurdle, because you can’t positively identify how or when something you think of as a strength might become a weakness, or vice versa; you may not be able to determine whether something is an opportunity or a threat (or both), and you can be pretty sure that whatever contingency plans you have, the contingency that actually arises will be one that won’t be covered.

For example, how many businesses have planned for the impact of contact with an alien species? And yet if you look at the World Economic Forum 2013 report on global risks, which summarises the views of over 1,000 risk analysis experts, it identifies several ‘X factors’ – important risks with unknown consequences. They include runaway climate change, significant cognitive enhancement, rogue deployment of geoengineering, the costs of living longer and the discovery of alien life forms. None of these things can be ‘risk managed’ or mitigated by any organisation operating alone, and I wonder how many religious leaders have seriously considered what their stance would be on first contact with an alien race, and how they would advise their followers and how their followers would react – and what the global consequences of the religious issues alone would be.

Under these circumstances, how is it possible to make chaos work for you? The short answer is that you can’t, in any direct way. But you can learn how to enjoy the ride.

[There’s more after the break – just hit the button below]

First: SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) is a common acronym for how businesses and people can scan their environment. So far as SWOT is concerned, you probably have some idea of what your strengths and weaknesses are – but no guarantee you’re right. You need to know yourself, your skills, your style of work; but whether any of those characteristics is a strength or a weakness is something you need to judge in the light of perpetually-changing circumstances. The same goes for opportunities and threats. Something you perceive to be a threat at one point can become an opportunity at another, and vice versa.

Second: marketing is a pain in the ass (as you might have concluded from earlier comments). Any number of people will offer advice and hardly any of it is worth the time it takes to read. So far as social media is concerned – a young musician starting out on their own would probably reach a bigger audience by busking. Facebook, Google and Amazon all rejig their search algorithms and rankings periodically so unless you spend your life nerding around to find out how these affect what you do, your fate is in the lap of the net-gods. Or events that are random and chaotic. Whichever. On Twitter, for most topics, you’re lucky if your tweets have an effective shelf life of more than about 30 seconds.

Third: this is the postmodern world we’re talking about. It’s fragmented. It’s tribal in a cultural sense. It’s also an intensely visual culture now (YouTube, Tumblr, Pinterest…). And media is the new reality. To give that some context, celebrities can get an income selling stories of their drug rehab. People can have their moment of fame being quizzed about their turbulent relationships on the Jeremy Kyle TV show (and in some circles having been on the show is a form of celebrity). Deviance is the new normality, to the extent that advertisers often seek to depict their products as breaking with convention and having a wicked ambience about them. Irony is ubiquitous, and a major part of everyday life. I could go on, but you get the general idea.

By way of digression, you might also think about trying to do something that will be ‘on trend’ by the time you finish it. Trendhunter.com specialises in predicting trends based on informants, crowdsourcing and media scanning, to identify and extrapolate current areas of consumer interest. Retail style and fashion, they probably do well at. Whether they can tell you what music, art, or literature people will be reading in the next year… that’s another question. For 2013, trends they’ve identified include vintage, nostalgic escape and dystopia fascination, upgraded ordinary and subscription shopping. If you can hit the first three, find a way to make your work stand out and sell it via subscription…

So what’s the plan?

‘Plan’ is an ironic word to use because you can’t plan stuff in a chaotic world. What you can do is remain open to what’s going on and use your knowledge of yourself to see what you can connect to and how to do it. And it seems to be a lot of success is about ways of doing that.

Here’s the ‘non-plan’, points in no particular order.

  • Stories and anecdotes about successful business people, for example, often cite the ‘law of attraction’. This is a New Age type concept that’s about being positive and visualising (focusing using visual imagery and props) on where you want to go and what you hope to be the result. Business people use it, self-hypnosis gurus advocate it, and it’s even being taught in some business courses. Oddly enough it started life as a concept in some forms of pagan magical practice (‘sympathetic’ magic, if you read books like Frazer’s anthropology of folk beliefs, The Golden Bough), of which more later.
  • What you’ve done is what you’ve done. Provided you’ve followed SF writer Robert Heinlein’s five rules of writing (which apply across all creative fields), you’ve made something. You’ve finished it, and you’ve put it ‘on the market’ – a term that can have different meaings in different areas of work, of course. So it’s part of your back catalogue. Author Robert J Sawyer discusses these rules and adds a sixth: as soon as you’ve finished one piece start another. Move on and create something else. You’re doing what you do, ultimately, because you feel driven – even though making a buck out of it would be an ideal scenario.
  • Think about stuff. Let the world prompt you to reflect on what’s possible. And don’t censor your reflections. If you aren’t getting enough stimulation to do that, there are plenty of tools to help you. I don’t mean mind-numbing self-assessment programmes, 360-degree evaluations and the like. Creative people often use more deliberately random stimuli. There was a fashion in some literary quarters a few years back to draw a Tarot card and use it as the basis for reflection. Musicians and others sometimes use a set of cards created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, ‘Oblique Strategies’. There are several print editions and online versions with comments such as ‘Always give yourself credit for having more than personality’ or ‘Do the words need changing?’. The idea is to help you access the thoughts that lie behind your conscious thinking processes.
  • Think about leverage. For example, Banksy makes graffiti in public places for which he gets no money. Others do, for example by cutting the brickwork out of buildings and auctioning it. So how does someone make an income when the single thing they’re best known for is the one thing they can’t make money on? I don’t know and I’m not likely to find out, but it’s a question worth asking yourself in respect of your own situation. The same might be said of bands, whose music is widely available for free from multiple web sources. Do they get it from gigging, merchandise, selling special edition vinyl or CD…? You may not have the same possibilities, but you can ride the flows of chaos and see what opportunities are there. Especially if you go with the law of attraction.

Some other websites (for example zenhabits.net)  offer insights on working with chaos, such as that:

  • having a peaceful, predictable order to work is boring. Work should be fun, playful, with spontaneity that has results you didn’t start out imagining you could create.
  • new possibilities can arise randomly and unpredictably. Develop the habit of being able to spot them.
  • creative work doesn’t happen by planning and control. You need chaos to open up paths you wouldn’t otherwise have explored.
  • it’s good to be open to the possibility of multiple outcomes from a single goal.

I mentioned magic earlier. I don’t see myself as a pagan, wizard, witch, scorcerer or magician. But I read. A lot, and widely. Tracing different ideas about chaos has led me to business and self-improvement stuff about risk management, controlling unknown factors and the like, which is basically pedestrian, tedious, self-important and often, I think, misses the point completely. But it’s also, via circuitous routes, led me to read about chaos magic.

Chaos magic is sometimes described as having the same relationship to other forms of magic as punk rock does to mainstream music. It’s abrasive, brash, based on the idea that anyone can do it and that you don’t need rules or special skills (though you might pick up a few skills along the way). Chaos magic is a recent development, starting in the 1970s, though of course those who were in at the beginning had a longer history of involvement in magic.

There’s no need here to describe the detail of chaos magic. However its key features include:

  • concentrating on the knowledge that something works, because that’s what makes it work provided you do it your way. Belief is a tool for changing the world.
  • doing things any way you can, and mixing things up deliberately in order to enhance your imagination. Chaos magicians don’t stick with the ‘old gods’ or traditional terminology. If you want to call the quarters by inviting characters from comic books to join your ceremony; if you want to mix Zen concepts with Marxist-Leninist ones; if you want to have a vodou altar to the spirit of marketing, it’s all a way to mix’n’match syncretism that can lead to new ideas, some of which may be worth pursuing.
  • custom design of rituals (ceremonies or more private everyday events) and spaces to reinforce intent subconsciously. Some people use the word ‘desire’ rather than intent.
  • some chaos magicians work with tools such as believing in, and practising, two contradictory frames of reference at the same time. This promotes a flexibility in understanding and interpreting the world – in shifting paradigms. It can also include working with alternate histories of events, or in some cases ‘retro-chronal magic that seeks to change the past.  [Whether chaos magicians seek to change the past in the past is a question I’m not going to mess with – but politicians and others are of course constantly seeking to change the ‘backstory’ of political initiatives, airbrushing the past in order to make what they’re offering more appealing in the present…] The points where conflicting paradigms causes conflict can be as productive of ideas as the points of congruence.
  • much of this revolves around the idea of ‘gnosis’, knowledge as the product of an altered state of consciousness. Drugs are sometimes involved – but other forms of altered states can result from meditation and trance, dance, sex, fasting, drumming, chanting, sensory deprivation and a several other techniques. Meanwhile, remember Rudyard Kipling’s comment that words are the most powerful form of drug known to humans. Maybe in the postmodern world, images have replaced words. But in any event, images and words are the most powerful tools you can work with. Politicians and religious leaders, of course, have always known this!

In occult circles chaos magicians are sometimes seen as controversial and potentially dangerously subversive people. Many of them follow chaos magic because that’s a label they like. [If it’s a label you like, you can find a collection of files on chaos magic, or varying quality and interest, at chaosmatrix.org].

Others suggest, perhaps more sensibly, that it doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in the paranormal and whether what you do has some supernatural effect. It’s perfectly reasonable to operate on the basis that what you’re doing is finding psychological ways to tap into and manipulate the complex social currents that surround you, and that you might not ordinarily notice. Look at it as a radical extension of the Jamesian formulation that if people think something is real, it is real in its consequences. You’re finding new ways to use the most potent and persuasive tools we know – words and images – to build a world that others are convinced is real.

The million dollar question (literally, if you’re trying to monetise your creative work) is whether any of this works. And I can’t tell you, because I haven’t done it. It certainly isn’t the kind of advice that offers X many simple steps to making friends and influencing people, or even to making them visit your website. But what it is, is a set of tools that might help you think about where you are, when you want to be and how to get there from here when the routes don’t appear on any map.

In terms of psychology, in terms of opening up your imagination to take advantage of new opportunities in a complex, fast-moving and seemingly chaotic world, I think that taken collectively, the points I’ve listed amount to an intriguing invitation. Provided of course you’re prepared to take the leap of faith necessary to believe in it at some level, and practice it in a way that’s meaningful to you and that you can make your own.

There are no guarantees. Ever. But I’m going along for the ride, and whatever happens it’ll be interesting.

***

By the way – look at the right sidebar and you’ll see a little horror/dark fantasy collection I put together a while back, Writing on Walls (on Amazon UK, or try the Amazon.com variety). I have a love-hate thing going on with horror, because I don’t much like many of the tropes and  props of the genre. Horror is often found in more everyday situations where it comes out of the blue, chaotically. So my ‘brand’ of horror is often a dystopic take on ideas like the WI James proposition that if you define something as real, it is real in its consequences. See what you think, it’ll only cost you pennies. And if you don’t like it you can always try my academic stuff instead.

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  1. August 13, 2013 at 3:40 pm

    Thought provoking. I will find ways to enjoy the ride! Most of us spend too much time worrying about the ultimate destination, but why miss all the gorgeous, interesting and challenging views, hills and valleys along the way?

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