Lessons learned from Willy Wonka
All creativity begins with the moment of conception.
That little piece of kindling that gets the fire going. That initial source of inspiration that takes on a life of its own. That single note from which the entire symphony grows. That single spark of life that signals an idea’s movement value, almost screaming to us, something wants to be built here.
Based on my books in The Prolific Series, I’m going to be deconstructing my favorite moments of conception from popular movies. Each post will contain a video clip from a different film, along with a series of lessons we can learn from the characters.
Today’s clip comes from the computer scene in Willy Wonka:
Ideas evaporate unless they are massaged into reality. We can brainstorm ideas until we’re blue in the face. But eventually, it comes time to stop creating and start judging. That’s what separates the prolific innovator from the professional researcher. Their ability to stop gathering data and think about what has been gathered. Their capacity to shift neural gears in a hurry and click into a different zone at a moment’s notice. Computers, unfortunately, cannot do this. They can’t tell you where the next golden ticket can be found. Because what a computer does doesn’t depend on how it’s built, but on the program fed into it. The good news, however, is that human being can hone this skill. It’s simply a matter of punctuation. Establishing a line of demarcation. A microstructure that sets a boundary between gathering dating and thinking about what’s been gathered. Recently I was writing my course curriculum on being prolific. I reached the point where I had to transition from conceptual, freestyle brainstorming to more technical, structured outlining. And so, I used a centering sequence, which is a combination of deep breathing and incantation. I recited specific language that supported my intention to move in a certain direction, i.e., I am completely stopping, I am ready to start judging. I’ve used this tool multiple time each day for many years, and I find it’s a way of making a full body announcement that I’m entering into a different relationship with my mind. The ritual creates the necessary space to find the organizing principle of an idea, which moves the idea from word to flesh, from concept to reality. How do you transition from creating mode to judging mode?
You have ruined my sense of reality. I just finished reading a novel about a husband who kidnaps his wife for ransom. In the final chapter, there’s a powerful passage, in which the woman comes to terms with her new reality. “It’s a big blow, finding out a person isn’t who you thought they were, that the world isn’t the way you thought it was. You’re living your life under certain assumptions, and then you find out they’re all wrong. You thought you were walking on firm ground, but you’re really walking through a swamp of shit.” I know that moment. It’s sad and jarring you feel betrayed and you start to think you don’t understand the world anymore. I’m reminded of when I quit my first job. I spent an hour writing an earnest, thoughtful letter of resignation to my bosses, thanking them for believing in me, even requesting a face to face meeting so I could share my appreciation in person. Pretty professional, don’t you think? The bosses ignored me for two weeks. Literally, not a word. No acknowledgement. No exit interview. Just silence. Unbelievable. It really bothered me. I felt empty and invisible. Not because I was expecting balloons and cake, but a simple goodbye would have been enough. Jesus. Grant me that much. The point is, life is full of disappointment. As much as we’d like to remove the teeth from the cruel bite of reality, we can’t pretend that the world is different than it is. But that shouldn’t keep us from doing our best to make sense of it all. Because odds are, in the end, the majority of the tally marks will be in the win column. Are you shielding yourself from the sharp edges of reality?
Deep in the throes of delusion. Most artists and creators and inventors spend their days alone in a room with nothing but their minds to rely on. In fact, most of them will attest, you have to be a little deluded to stay motivated. Because if you cannot delude yourself into thinking your work is significant, you should probably find another career. And if you don’t think what you’re creating is the greatest thing that ever was, if you haven’t convinced yourself that your ideas are legitimately going to change people’s lives forever, you’re finished. It’s grandiose, but it’s also part of the job description. Nobody stands at foot of an unblazed trail without a few mental abnormalities. A certain level of healthy narcissism and productive arrogance are required to thrive. And so the question is, how do you know when your inventory of deceptions is dangerously imprisoning your creative potential, or when it’s actually buttressing your ideas for the better? Sadly, you don’t. Uncertainty is part and parcel of the creative process. Every new idea is just another public bet with your imagination. Consider history’s greatest innovators. Bell didn’t do market research before he invented the telephone. Jobs didn’t hold focus groups before he changed the music industry forever. Ford didn’t give his customers the faster horse that they asked for. And yet, each of their creations changed everything. Because these innovators operated from received wisdom, not perceived expertise. They knew that nobody knows what nobody wants until they actually see it. Proving, that all we can do as creators is trust our instincts. We can have faith that with every new idea we have, with every new project we execute, and with every new dimension we add to our being, our powers of perspective and judgment and contextual understanding will deepen. And we can hope that when our delusions take us too far, the people we love will help bring us back to earth. How do you know when you’re being delusional, and when everyone else is wrong and they just can’t see it yet?
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