The Creative Sandbox:
Don't feel like reading? You can listen to an audio version of this post here.
The creative sandbox is a concept I have of a space where interdisciplinary ideas combine to form something else.
It could be the marginalia in a book. A notebook with random thoughts and jottings. The types of conversations where anything goes. Weird projects.
But it’s a space where we bring together different disciplines and parts of our lives to form something new. It's a space where we look at the gaps in between and the overlaps.
You know those moments as you fall asleep when a weird medley of images drift through your mind? When nothing feels concrete and everything mixes together?
That’s what it feels like when you combine disciplines in this unpressured way. Like laying film negatives over each other, finding new images.
Lately, I’ve been experimenting with incorporating more creative sandboxes into my life. The natural first step is to crystallize what that means. This is one of those idiosyncratic things which has long made sense to me and is quite hard to explain. I'm trying to articulate a vague, very personal concept here so I'm unsure how much sense it will make to anyone else.
Creativity is all about stealing ideas from one area and applying them to another. The cool thing about an idea is that it doesn’t expire. It doesn’t get used up, it doesn’t wear out if you keep using it in fresh ways.
We’ve been reusing the same few storylines for centuries (or millennia) after all. Just about every concept I research seems to trace its roots back to Ancient Greece/ Rome. The new usually isn’t new.
Our best hope for originality is to look elsewhere. Move to a different bookshelf in the library. Follow a tangent. Look up a footnote. Then return to the initial area with a fresh insight.
I’ve never been good at specializing. I’ve always had far too many broad interests which tug me from topic to topic. At this precise moment, I am spending my spare time researching: statistics, microeconomics, the history of nutritional research, military strategy, marketing, the future of jobs, time. A cursory glance at my bookshelf makes the scattered nature of my interests apparent. Same goes for my notebooks and email subscriptions.
Interdisciplinary learning is, quite simply, combining different areas at once. It’s what we do in primary school - have classes on a few different topics each day. But as we get older, we are forced to niche down and focus on one area. We end up with a narrower and narrower area of study. Since leaving formal education, I have been throwing myself into interdisciplinary learning.
Interdisciplinary knowledge is a way of diversifying. Ideas sometimes get trapped in one area when they would work better elsewhere.
And as Robert A. Heinlein put it:
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
The creative sandbox approach is about using interdisiplinary ideas and thinking in an unpressured way to expand our thinking. I use that, admittedly cheesy, name for it because a sandbox seems like the perfect metaphor for low stakes tinkering with whatever happens to be available. It works for me - it is primarily how I think and it's what I credit with my output of 60,000+ words per month.
Here are some of the areas I view as creative sandboxes.
A. Multiple simultaneous projects
I tend to work on a lot of different projects at once.
They ALWAYS end up meshing somehow. Similarities emerge.
The research I do for one helps another, the skill I learn in one makes sense elsewhere. Switching between projects never fails to undo creative blocks. In fact, I’ll often deal with a block by reading about a completely unrelated topic. A connection sparks and forms a new idea.
It’s not so much about the individual projects, but the space between them. The opportunity to combine ideas from one with another to form something new. Or to inform something ongoing.
It keeps things interesting - and interesting is an underrated adjective. We’re not designed for boredom and ennui always leads to dull work. We need variety, as Joshua Foer writes in Moonwalking with Einstein:
“Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next - and disappear. That's why it's so important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.”
Although I spend the majority of my waking hours researching, a good chunk of it is unfocused. Curiosity is the driver, sending me off on tangents. But those tangents always feed into something later on. As long as the finished projects have a degree of cohesion and don’t descend into chaos, it’s working.
B. Any digital notes repository
I am a shameless cheerleader for Evernote. It’s my second brain. Although I usually prefer paper notebooks (see C), being able to access inspiration anywhere without lugging around stacks of Moleskines is a little more practical.
In Evernote, I keep a few notebooks with loose themes. Writing, career, travel, health, productivity, philosophy, mental models, life lists, drafts, culture, minimalism, and quotes. Every time I read a book, I type up notes and favorite sections. I use the web clipper to collect articles. I constantly scribble stuff down in text notes. At the end of each week, I process everything, trim, annotate, and transcribe.
Evernote works as a creative sandbox is because it makes it easy to combine disciplines. When I start a new project or have an idea, I can search a relevant term and see what I have that relates. Or when I’m stuck, I’ll pick notes at random and see what happens when they mix. It’s very different to researching via a search engine.
Google is definitely not a creative sandbox. A curated selection of research is because there’s no fluff, no room for distraction.
C. A physical notebook / commonplace book
There are endless ways to keep a notebook - recording, planning, organizing, researching.
I always keep a general purpose, creative sandbox notebook. It’s the common link between everything else. The privacy and versatility make it unintimidating. No one has to see the contents, nothing needs to be perfect. Just open up a page and scribble. Keeping a Moleskine with me at all times provides a place for ideas to incubate.
Every big plan, every change, every leap in my life has begun in a notebook. I know some people keep separate ones for different areas of their lives. Personally, I prefer to have one on the go at a time - it’s less to carry and allows for the serendipitous marriage of ideas.
D. Marginalia and multiple books
A few people have asked me recently if it’s better to read one or multiple books at a time. I don’t have a defined answer, but I prefer to have at least two on the go at once. Once again, it’s the spaces in between that matter, the commonalities between books. Even without intentionally selecting complementary books, there will always be connections to make.
Marginalia (jottings in the margins/back pages of books) is another way of combining ideas. Yes, I know most of us are taught never to write in a book. I know most people see it as a sacrilegious insult to the book. Well, I love books. But I have no problem with underlining, doodling, folding corners, and writing in the margins. It's a means of connecting what I’m reading to what I have read before or any other information I’ve picked up. The margins of the books I read are a creative sandbox.
Blogging has always been an experimental medium for me. I'm amazed when people talk about having a pre-planned content strategy. Or about figuring everything out before 'launching' a site. That's appropriate for some , but my personal site has always been a place to develop ideas. That becomes ever more important when I do more work outside of this format. I started blogging pretty young (about 13) and it has been an integral part of how I have developed my thinking.
Blogging (and I can't believe we still don't have a less ugly word for it) is the perfect medium for exploring ideas.
View each post as a scientific experiment. You have an idea, your hypothesis. During the process of writing, editing etc and getting feedback, the idea will often wither away. Sometimes though, there's something there.
The barrier to entry is non-existent. If you mess up, the costs are usually minimal.
The creative sandbox type of blogging is not about promoting yourself or optimizing metrics or anything contrived. That type of blogging has its place. Instead, this is the kind of writing that aims to turn half formed ideas into something concrete.
Most of my posts start off in my journals. I have an idea and I'm trying to figure it out. I do some research (but not too much), jot things down and then it forms a structure that feels coherent. It is truly never intentional. I just explore, finding the gems worth communicating.
Writing is the ultimate way to learn to think. It's essential to have somewhere to write privately (journaling might just be one of the best daily habits.) Having somewhere public to start a dialogue and get feedback changes the process.
F. Experiences and conversations
To quote Whitney Cummings in her interview with Tim Ferriss, for art to imitate life, you have to have a life.
This is something I’m working on at the moment - recognizing that, being a deeply introverted teenager with anxiety, I have very little life experience. And trying to figure out how to do the damn work while living the damn life. Trying to find spaces for play and tinkering, for doing things that don’t scale.
In the last week, I've spent something like 30 hours on trains, tubes, buses, coaches and taxis. Oddly enough, the whole experience has been somewhat conducive to creative thinking. Something about the rush of visual stimuli out of a moving window makes a perfect backdrop for bouncing my thoughts around. After taking a weekend off from work for the first time in about six months, to experience things and do some thinking, my head feels clearer than ever.
As Ryan Holiday writes in his latest book, "An idea must be given space to develop...A book should be an article before it's a book, and a dinner conversation before it's an article." The kind of diffused thinking we do in conversation or while exploring a new place or whatever
Most of the books I love came out of what the authors saw and experienced, not what they ruminated over while sat alone in a study. Nassim Taleb’s books are mostly the result of his time as a trader and the misunderstandings he saw. Tim Kreider’s hilarious essay collection, We Learn Nothing, is only funny because of his anecdotes and descriptions of friends. Michael Lewis’ books obviously wouldn’t exist without his wild time working on Wall Street. As I learned earlier this year, isolation is not conducive to creativity. This line from Martin Eden (Jack London's least appreciated book which every young writer needs to read) exemplifies this:
'You fool! You wanted to write, and you tried to write and you had nothing in you to write about. What did you have in you? Some childish notions, a few half-baked sentiments, a lot of undigested beauty, a great black mass of ignorance, a heart filled to bursting with love and an ambition as big as your love and as futile as your ignorance. And you wanted to write! Why, you're just on the edge of the beginning of getting something in you to write about. You wanted to create beauty but you knew nothing about the nature of beauty.'
I’m bad at this. And it’s not something we can exactly force - I can’t get up tomorrow and decide to have a memorable experience. So the alternative is finding the space to allow for serendipity, saying yes a little more, looking for options outside the current rut. The randomness of these moments is what makes me view them as creative sandboxes - the room for connections and experimentation. In the end, it all works out as material for something.