Trying to find yourself is a staple of the self-help literature, along with the striving for authenticity and building up your self-esteem. I probably wrote about authenticity and how you needed to practice it in my book** because way back in 2007, I thought it was a good thing, a necessary thing.
Now I’m convinced that’s all wrong. The self that matters isn’t some tightly defined, self-loving, individuated thing in the world. The self that matters is the mashed-up self, the networked self — the self made up of relationships and experiences and interactions and ideas. It’s way bigger and more powerful than the un-networked you.
These are some ideas I want to explore: combinatorial creativity, connectivist learning, the third person perspective in the creative process, and self-transcendence. What all these have in common is they all overturn the idea that the individuated self is primary.
Writer and artist Austin Kleon on how we are mashups:
We can pick our teachers and we can pick our friends and we can pick the books we read and the music we listen to and the movies we see, etcetera. You are a mashup of what you let into your life. [via Maria Popova]
Maria Popova on networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity:
Which is interesting, recognizing not only the absolute value of content but also its relational value, the value not just of information itself but also of information architecture, not just of content but also of content curation….
The idea that in order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces and build new castles.
This relates to how we conceive of ourselves. Are we distinct individuals with hard boundaries? Or are we somehow only ourselves when you consider how we fit into a network of experiences, people, and knowledge?
Robert Fritz, author of The Path of Least Resistance, is someone who might be called a creativity guru but instead of that I would call him a creation guru. He doesn’t write so much about being creative as about actually creating. In his view, the self that we want so much to develop and pin down should be set aside:
Don’t try to define yourself, instead, suspend the question. That gives you a better lens by which to create anything you want to be.
Here’s what Fritz discovered when he tried to help people become more creative by improving their self-image:
Questions of identity got in the way of the creative process, even when people thought well about themselves. It took years to come to understand this. Everything pointed to a fairly simple and, yet, revolutionary pair of insights. The first was that what people thought about themselves, good, bad, or indifferent, wasn’t going to change. All notions of self-esteem training are predicated on the idea that people can change how they see themselves. This is one reason they don’t work.
The other insight was just as major. It is that your view of yourself has no place in the creative process. Simply put, the moment you make your success or failure about you, that’s the moment you can’t learn what you need to learn, experience what comes with the creative territory, and keep your focus where it needs to be, on the outcome you are working to create, and where you currently are in the creative process.
In his books, Fritz suggests that creators need to use a third-person perspective that takes themselves out of the equation rather than the first-person which makes creation all about the self, the I, the creator herself. Creation doesn’t grow out of some authentic, independent self. It launches from a networked self which is almost like no self at all.
Maybe the reason that thinking too much about our identities as distinct individuals stops us from creating is because creation comes through mashing up, through navigating networks of people and knowledge and ideas, not from the perspective of one isolated node in the network. The node alone is useless.
So we need to stop thinking so much about our individual selves — we need to transcend ourselves. Interesting that some of the most satisfied people combine a love of the new with persistence and self-transcendence. These seem like exactly the traits you’d need to succeed in a networked world. Neophilia (novelty-seeking, love of the new) draws you to new ideas, new people, and new experiences, giving you more material for the mashup that is you and the mashups you create. Persistence keeps you from being merely a dilettante, flitting from one new thing to another. And self-transcendence stops you from thinking that it’s all about you.
It’s really freeing to realize your self alone is this puny, incompetent thing whose self-love or self-loathing matters not a bit. It’s your networked mashup self that matters, that’s capable of doing and creating great things.
* With credit to JP Rangaswami for his “musing lazily about” series. I like to be able to wander around a topic without reaching any conclusions or forcing it into some structure that might obscure the evolving ideas.
** Which shall remain unnamed and unlinked because I’m so beyond what I wrote then even though I feel like there were some really great ideas that I’d like to expand upon and refine. E.g., busy vs. bursty.