I caught this clip while half-watching an episode of Conan a few weeks back, and it’s stuck with me ever since. Its echoes have bounced around the back of my mind. Its subtext has haunted my subconscious. Its hypnotic hold over me was so powerful, I was compelled to break my summer-long hiatus to write about it.
(Not that said actually-longer-than-summer-long hiatus wasn’t somewhat planned. Intentionally timed, at least. Personal time off, let’s call it. A concerted attempt to avoid late nights glued to a screen and spend more time cuddled up next to the wife mostly, with every intention of returning to writing more come fall. At least that’s what I told myself as the non-writing weeks piled up. But that’s not what this is about. Not entirely anyway.)
Getting back to the clip. It’s actually the perfect subject for a return to writing. If you haven’t already clicked by now, please enjoy:
It’s patently absurd and totally hilarious. One awkward, badly-written local news segue after another, all going for the same tired joke. I laughed loud and hard at this premise (and at the idea of some poor editor going through hundreds of hours of clips to find this much material).
But then it gets uncomfortable. This isn’t only a handful of clips, it’s a deluge. And it just keeps going. To the point where you hope it’s over, but it’s not. Not even close.
By the end it shifts fully into depressing. It keeps going past the point of, “I get it, that’s enough,” and on into, “What’s going on? Is this real? Are we as a species doomed to this level of awful cliche? Do these people not know how unspecial they are? Make it stop! Please! I’ll never eat ice cream again, I’ll change my ways, just please let it end!”
That’s the part that stayed with me for weeks. Not how funny this segment was, but what it says about all of us. Most of us are not original. At all. We make the same cheesy, obvious jokes. We have the same uncomfortable self-awareness while we make those jokes in an attempt to connect with other human beings, and even the same awkward tone while we acknowledge that self-aware cheesiness to show we’re in on the larger joke of how sad the whole charade is. And yet here we all are, going through the motions… again, and again, and again. And again.
With Google search and Twitter tags and all the collective babble recorded for all to cross-reference, it’s easier than ever to realize how original we aren’t. Look at the photos on Yelp reviews. Click on a trending topic. How can it be anything but paralyzing? Why bother saying or writing anything? Someone else has already said it, or is busy saying or tweeting or blogging it better than you ever could. The odds of you being unique and sparkling and clever and making a lasting impression on your dinner guests, your social network, much less the world, is so incredibly small… why even go to the effort?
So sure, in addition to the personal time off, maybe the other reason I haven’t been writing is that fear that there’s nothing new to add. Better to spend my time reading what others — LOTS of others, the really smart, clever, always-leave-an-impression types — are saying. Some of their thoughts are truly original; some of their words are truly profound. Maybe it’s better to benefit from their ideas than struggle to add my own to the noise.
Of course, getting started on that track, it’s easy to find a whole other kind of deluge. Once you’re looking for them, there are actually lots of genius ideas and thoughtful writers and sharp thinkers. So many that you start thinking again, maybe I can do this too. Maybe I won’t go down in history as one of the greats, but even one would do. Just one original thought. Or if I’m lucky, a few per year. One per month. I’m not greedy.
So the cycle completes. I may spend most of the time being not very original, not very genius, but if I never try I’m accepting a world of others’ ideas without ever contributing my own. If that clip proves how dull we mostly are, in a way it also shows that it’s okay to be mostly dull, because that’s how people are. Just keep trying for that one original thought. Maybe it’ll come, maybe only rarely, but at least it’s not giving up and sitting around eating ice cream.
[Addendum: Between writing this yesterday and posting it this morning, a talented, incredibly original film-maker took his own life. I obviously don’t know the circumstances that drove him to such a drastic end, but if anything, the timing serves as a reminder that the search is ongoing, and better for ourselves and the world to keep looking as long as we possibly can.]
Follow any ‘creative industry’ person on social media and you’re sure to get intermittent links to things like, “7 ways to inspire better ideas,” or “How to do your best thinking,” or “How to trick yourself into A-ha moments,” and so on. There are a whole lot of people who now make their living off of [shudder] trying to think outside the box, and so of course they all want tips on how to do so more often or more easily. As a natural consequence, there’s another whole economy of people willing to help them try via their magazines, seminars, make-a-thons or *cough* blogs.
Here are a couple I enjoyed recently. This one is basically telling me to sleep in to be more creative:
In a study published in the journal Thinking and Reasoning last year, researchers Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks reported that imaginative insights are most likely to come to us when we’re groggy and unfocused. The mental processes that inhibit distracting or irrelevant thoughts are at their weakest in these moments, allowing unexpected and sometimes inspired connections to be made. Sleepy people’s “more diffuse attentional focus,” they write, leads them to “widen their search through their knowledge network. This widening leads to an increase in creative problem solving.”
This one, from my favorite dreamy science writer Jonah Leher in Wired, takes it even further with a raise of the glass:
According to the data, drunk students solved more [insight-based] word problems in less time. They also were much more likely to perceive their solutions as the result of a sudden insight. And the differences were dramatic: The alcohol made subjects nearly 30 percent more likely to find the unexpected solution.
Once again, the explanation for this effect returns us to the benefits of not being able to pay attention. The stupor of alcohol, like the haze of the early morning, makes it harder for us to ignore those unlikely thoughts and remote associations that are such important elements of the imagination. So the next time you are in need of insight, avoid caffeine and concentration. Don’t chain yourself to your desk. Instead, set the alarm a few minutes early and wallow in your groggy thoughts. And if that doesn’t work, chug a beer.
What a great world it would be if being slower to rise or knocking back a few were the secret to success! We could shorten the work day and provide delicious beverages and spend all our time having epiphanies left and right until every whiteboard in the building is just covered with scrawled-out genius.
Unfortunately, this part of our jobs that we like to think of as central, chasing those magical creative-insight eureka moments, is really only a small fraction of anyone’s duties. An inspired thought is great, but then there’s all that work it takes to do something with it. 99% perspiration, remember? Do we need a whole cottage industry of people figuring out how to help us with that measly 1%? I think we sometimes just enjoy reading about how to do more creative thinking to avoid having to do the work part of the work that comes from creative thinking.
Not that I wouldn’t take the fewer-alarm-clocks, more-happy-hours approach if offered.
it’s no secret that i think jon stewart is one of the best people on tv, so naturally i quite enjoyed this NY magazine profile on him and his staff. a little ‘how the sausage gets made’ tour behind the scenes. (side note: NYmag puts out some amazing feature-length articles. i feel almost guilty that i’m tempted to subscribe, while i’ve never read an issue of LAmag… assuming there must be one, right?)
anyway, though the article deftly describes stewart and team’s approach to their uniquely whip-smart brand of comedy, there was an added little bit that got my attention as a person also in the ‘ideas’ business. not that i’m comparing what i do in either relevance or quality to what they do on the daily show, but still, they must have a pretty successful formula to put out such top notch stuff four nights a week most weeks of the year.
in rough terms, their process seems to be:
— get in early and get to work.
— get in a room with a lot of smart (and in this case, funny) people and toss things around, keeping the best stuff to dig into further.
— do your homework; or rather, have a team of people on hand to help with the details.
— as a corollary, don’t get buried in information yourself, because…
— things are getting rewritten right up until the last minute, and in the end you’ll know what works..
— and what doesn’t work. don’t be afraid to cut that part. go with your gut.
obviously it helps if you have incredibly smart, motivated people around you, but still, not a bad system. the main thing i’m missing is probably #3; maybe i should have got an intern after all…