Saturday, November 12, 2005

Growing from Un-Knowing

When my son, Dan, was about three years old, we were sitting in my big recliner, watching "Thomas and the Magic Railroad," for about the 209th time, and he asked me, as James, the Red Engine, was being pused towards almost certain doom by the evil Diesel engine (whose Christian name escapes me):

"Will James be OK?"

"Yes, Dan," I replied. "James will be fine."

We kept watching, and Dan kept asking questions about upcoming plot issues. Will this-and-such happen? Will they find the gold-dust? Will the giant rats feast on the living brains of the graduate students (that may be from a different Thomas the Tank Engine movie... they all run together in my head)?

The point being... he kept asking questions about a movie we'd watched together many, many times.

Finally, I asked him, "Dan. We've seen this movie before. Do you understand that it will be the same every time?"

"Oh," he replied. "No. I didn't know that. OK."

"He's never asked me questions like that again about movies he's seen before."

It was an absolutely explosive moment for me as a father, and as someone who thinks about thinking and learning and creating.

Why should a child -- new to the world, and new to our very fast-paced, media rich world -- have any idea that a movie will be the same every time? We, of course, as adults understand this implicitly. But a child's world is different everyday. And not in the same way that our days are different -- they discover the world every day; we just experience it.

So until we learn that a movie -- or a book or any recorded media -- proceeds along the same line each time, we have no way of establishing that this is, in fact, the case. It makes no more sense to assume a thing is one way as opposed to another.

The Buddha called this state of being, "The Beginners Mind."

The Beginners Mind is incredibly important to the creative experience. Why? Because it is, essentially, the blank canvas. Assumptions are deadly to creativity, both in one's private, personal art, and in the art of business, marketing, commerce, etc.

My son, Dan, is now in Kindergarten. And he's having a grand time of it. We were afraid, at first, that he wouldn't. He goes hot-and-cold on structured learning activities. He loves picking stuff up on his own, and, if he becomes comfortable with a teacher or group of other kids... goes gangbusters. But if something makes him uncomfortable, he can really zwang off into a corner (both emotionally and physically) and avoid participation. But his teacher and  class -- a public-school in Columbus, OH -- are doing a great job at providing what I might call "non-threatening structure." Which is, frankly, what the Kindergarten model has been about for quite some time.

Kindergarten was invented around 200 years ago by a young German academic named Friedrich Fröbel (good article about Fröbel  at Boxes and Arrows). Before that time, it was generally assumed that kids younger than seven were unable to think and learn in a fashion appropriate for schooling. They were, from an educational standpoint, ignored.

Frightening, eh? We know, now, after two centuries of developmental psychology and physiological study, that children's minds are most active and open to learning during their first five to eight years. So, ignoring them until they are seven or so, is not only a bad idea, it is, in fact, totally wrong-headed and counter-productive from a cost-benefit standpoint. It is, frankly, the absolute worst thing you can do.

But it took Fröbel to figure out that it wasn't kids who couldn't learn, but school -- the old-style school for older kids -- that couldn't teach. He needed to apply the Beginner's Mind to the subject of the mind itself.

How meta is that?

What assumptions are you making in your creative life? Who are you continually correcting or challenging, when, really, you may simply be seeing things from very different perspectives? What basic views do you have that need to be examined at a root level so that you can wipe your creative canvas clean and reinvent your process?

If you don't start fresh once in awhile, you may be losing out on major opportunities.

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