Have you ever thought of yourself as too “ADD” for your own good? I’ve heard people make the (insensitive) joke for years that a struggle to focus is some sort of mild disorder, like the dog in the Pixar film Up that interrupts himself to yell, “squirrel”. If your brain wanders off topic a lot, you know what I am talking about. But what if what some people would call an inability to focus is actually a sign of high creative thinking? What if you could harness your nomadic mind?
In the chapter on creativity in Tim Harford’s book Messy, I read the story of Erez Lieberman Aiden, who is what the author described as a “nomadic” polymath. Not that I have been a physicist, mathematician, historian, scientist, and so on, like Aiden, all before the age of forty, but I relate to the idea of being a nomadic thinker. I’ve long considered my nomadic thought life a flaw.
Harford got me to think differently about this trait.
What if your nomadic mind is a feature, not a bug?
In Aiden’s story, the defining characteristic of his work is that he’s always pursuing the most curious thing possible. Harford writes,
This wasn’t a fluke. It was a strategy. Aiden seeks the hardest, most interesting problems he can find, and bounces between them. A failure in one area gives fresh insights and new tools that may work elsewhere. (p. 24)
Hartford then shares about a pattern that emerged from a long-term study of the working methods of successful scientists. The question of the study was, What determines whether a scientist keeps publishing important work throughout his or her life?
The defining pattern?
The top scientists switched topics frequently. Over the course of their first hundred published papers, the long-lived high impact researchers switched topics an average of forty-three times.
Harford then gives a few examples of people in the arts who have had similar success by changing the subject. Among his examples is one of my favorites, Michael Crichton. Among other things, Crichton was famous in the 1990s for having enjoyed the #1 TV show, film and book, all in the same week.
So many artists stay with one genre or style. The upside of this is that you can master the style. The downside is that you age out.
A nomadic mind keeps you from aging out.
In a separate post I talk about another of my favorite artists, Johnny Cash (who I love pointing out is a distant cousin of mine by marriage – my mother-in-law is a Cash). Johnny went through some down periods in his life, but managed to enjoy several mini-creative resurrections. His final and one of his biggest creative resurrections came when he changed the subject, big time, to a set of albums produced by Rick Rubin, who was best known at the time as the producer of the hard rock band Nine Inch Nails.
In my post, I quoted Johnny when he said in an interview, “If you quit making, you quit living.” If changing the subject a lot is actually a feature and not a bug, then I may be in good shape after all. Or at least I have good company.
After reading this segment in Harford’s book, I saw a LinkedIn post from an online friend (Nate Smoyer, a guy whose posts I like but I have never met IRL) who posted something intriguing about writing down your thought streams.
Maybe this is one way to be intentional about my nomadic thinking.
To harness your nomadic brain, track your streams.
Have you ever listed out everything you’re actively trying to learn?
Today I tried this.
One thing I’m realizing is my interests don’t always overlap. This leaves me feeling that I’m wasting time and energy on work on isolated or disconnected things. But then again, I don’t know how or when these skills will come in handy most.
He then listed his interests and ended with the hashtag, #neverStopLearning.
I love this question.
What are you learning right now?
I don’t want to bore you, but here are some current thought streams (I say some because I may be forgetting somethnig):
- Upcoming St. Andrew sermon series creative briefs for Christmas called Fall on Your Knees; Galatians, as yet untitled; and Wisdom, with a set title that I’m not at liberty to reveal yet;
- The twin pillars of power and love as the end result of a life of consumption versus creativity, respectively;
- The story of Numbers, and the Israelite people fighting God all the way to the Promised Land;
- Building the new St Andrew website and looking for a succinct “Why” to describe each ministry in the church.
- This book, Messy, by Tim Harford, and its look at how tidiness inhibits creativity, collaboration, and other stuff we aspire to;
- The relationship of generosity to the life of following Jesus;
- My fascination with Amazon’s TV series The Man in the High Castle and the story of its fight against oppression.
What are your thought streams right now? Take a minute and write them down. Look for connections.