The Anything Machines

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2022-01-08 21:00:00 No comments

A common, well-meaning, and often unthinking form of inspirational advice usually comes in the form "You can do whatever you want if you try." I've always hated this line, because no, you can't do whatever you want if you try; sometimes it's simply not physically possible. Or it's such a long shot that all you're doing is encouraging someone to dash themselves against the rocks.

And yet there's a grain of truth in there — a tiny one, one I'd need IBM's atom-manipulating tweezers to grasp, but a grain all the same. Reframing the statement helps bring it out. "You can do whatever you want" seems better expressed as "You can attempt anything you want to attempt."

This is both more accurate and more honest. When we talk about doing whatever we want, we don't really mean to imply success is inevitable or even possible. We do mean to imply people should not shy away from attempting something out of fear of failure, because we don't always do things to do them successfully in the eyes of others, but rather just to see what the experience of doing them at all is like for ourselves.

John Holt talked about a phenomenon like this in many of his books — the fearlessness of children, especially infants, trying to do things without worrying about "failure" as a consequence. When you're a kid, a really little kid, everything is automatically interesting, even if it doesn't "work". You just do things for the sake of the experience of doing them. Yes, even falling down and skinning your knees.

You can attempt anything you want to attempt, and if you do that without shame or fear of failure, the experience itself becomes its own justification. You don't even have to tell anyone you did it; you can just go and do stuff and see what happens. What kind of lives would we lead if we weren't so hung up about results, and more interested in process and raw experience?

I have three things in my life I can relate back to all this. When I was much younger, an idea entered my head that I would learn archery, and train to join the American Olympic archery team. I never did a single concrete thing with this idea. I never even bought a bow and arrow set. It remained forever on the level of an idea. My point is not that this was a realistic ambition, but that I never even so much as dipped my toe into any of its waters to see what it was like.

Recently, I started dabbling in music-making. I'd tried it before and wasn't very good at it, but this time I came back to it with a different mindset: Don't worry about how good you are at it, I thought; just do it to see what the experience is like. That turned out to be a fruitful approach. Nothing I'm making will ever put Trent Reznor out of a job, but it's useful as an exercise. Same goes for graphic design: I do it not because I think my chops are all that great, but because I enjoy playing around and learning from my own work.

And then there's writing, the one thing I keep coming back to time and again across a whole lifetime of creating. Every time I turned my back on the words, the words kept calling me to return. I knew a lot of what I wrote wasn't very good for one reason or another (too long-winded, too absurd, too pretentious, too this, too that), but the process of just hanging out with the stories I wanted to tell, refining the way I hung out with them, beat everything else. Eventually I felt confident enough in my work to boot it out into the world, even if only a sum total of six other people cared about it. I didn't mind that not everything worked; what made up for it was that the one thing that always worked was me and my curiosity.

The whole point of human life is that we are machines that do most anything, even if not "successfully" (or successfully at first). We do stuff to have experiences, not just to generate results, and this goes double for all the things we call creation and which we also lump under the label recreation.

At some point I plan to try drawing again. What's the worst that can happen? A little wasted time? If we weren't put on this earth to waste time ingeniously, what else is there?

Tags: creativity creators