Friday, January 25, 2013

The Creative Process: The Perfecting Spiral

OK, so let me say at the get go, one sure way to kill creativity is to embrace "perfection." Perfection is an intellectual construct designed to drive us mere mortals nuts. So forget about perfection. I'm using the concept of perfecting in the global sense of improving your craft, whatever that craft might be. Have a hunch that if you think about "perfect" when doing genealogy, you'll be miserable! Or am I just speaking for myself?

When I was teaching art classes at the local college I noticed that there was a general pattern to achieving excellence. I really wish that I could have spared beginning drawing students the pain and agony of those first weeks' learning, which was doing the very hardest work first. After a short while they had the basics under their belts (or if not they had dropped the class) and were on the way to enjoying what they were doing. Do we all remember the joy and misery of our early genealogy efforts? I sure do.

Semester after semester, through Drawing 2, 3, and 4, they spiraled through a pursuit of excellence. Small imperfections in their methods were identified and fixed. Little by little they got better and most got really, seriously good. There was never any shame or derision attached to finding those techniques that didn't work, and no labeling them as "mistakes". We simply spotted some task that wasn't working and happily replaced it with a technique that would work better.

And this process of perfecting was self motivated and driven by the goal of the "personal best". Who cares how Michelangelo or da Vinci drew! This is here and now and this is you! So by focusing the pursuit of perfecting inward, and not out to some outer goal, there was no drive to imitate in a hollow fashion. It all felt very much like an inward spiral of improving, getting closer to excellence with every loop of the circle, the spiral getting smaller and tighter too. For those who had worked at it a long while only smaller adjustments were needed... but those changes were also harder to spot. Very few made it to the deepest levels.

I try to remember this as I navigate the standards in the sphere of genealogy. Everyday I'm learning and trying to do better. It's not easy: do I go back and fix all the "mistakes" I've made or push forward... or a little of both? Which efforts are going to be important when I get down the road later? Do I pay attention to what I read in blogs or is there a higher standard? It's hard to say. I go and do and I learn. Every day.

I think it does help to think of this process of perfecting as a spiral. Once around the circle, and at this point it's a large circle, and one has a rough feel for the territory. Twice around, covering some of the same territory, leads to a deeper understanding of what's needed. A third time around and we often more easily see the errors of our ways and make some decisions about how the work can be improved. As the circles in the spiral get smaller the work gets more fine-pointed, room for improvements more difficult to see. Finding those small refinements moving toward excellence is for very few, and only the very persistent make it. And so it goes, around and around.

We live, we learn, we improve... hopefully. No "mistakes", no harsh judgements. Only ways to make the work better.

Cousins J. C. and brother Mike, the Williams boys,
on the occasion of the Frostburg, Maryland 150th year anniversary in 1962
of the town's founding in 1812. All the men in town grew beards and got a pin,
proclaiming them "Brothers of the Brush".
Small town fun if ever there was!

Mike Williams (1949 - 2000)

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