The intersection of chaos and craft
Innovation happens at the intersection of chaos and craft.
The worst room to brainstorm in is the one in which one or many of the ideators responds to every new idea by instinctively reciting a litany of the reasons the idea won’t work. If you’ve been in a room like this before, you’ll likely know that what usually happens after two or three shoot-downs is the people proposing ideas start only suggesting the safest, most milquetoast and straight up boring ideas they can – if they even continue to suggest any ideas at ALL – because they know that any of the more imaginative ideas won’t pass that first gate of skepticism.
It’s not just a phenomenon that happens in marketing campaign brainstorms. It happens to artists trying to get those first brushstrokes on a canvas. It happens to sad people when someone suggests an activity that might help uplift us. It happens to (probably) all of us when we’re considering a career pivot or a new hobby, or when we’re trying to “find” ourselves or just get better at doing hard things. In all of these situations, we tiptoe towards a daunting or even implausible new solution to a challenge or opportunity, but rather than really engaging with it we try to prove ourselves wrong. And we do that again and again and then we wake up two years later in the exact same spot we claimed we wanted out of so badly.
I get why that instinct to censor presents itself as often as it does when it does. It’s an instinct that’s trying to protect us from failure, from wasting our time, and from discomfort. It’s trying to help us, and there’s a time and place for it to do its job in any changemaking process.
But… that time and place is not when we’re beginning to explore new ideas.
That exploration of ideas needs to happen unencumbered by skepticism, pragmatics, and sometimes even friggin reality. Because often, the only reason great breakthrough ideas big and small aren’t implemented is because we haven’t given them room to breathe and ourselves room to sit with them.
Here’s what I’m learning recently about not only poetry, but also innovation, change, and disruption in all areas of our lives and work that matter: they happen at the intersection of chaos and craft.
The chaos part of the cycle is where we dive headfirst into the unfamiliar, the unknown, and unlikely. It’s a phase of adventure in which we let our observations and intuition guide us towards anything and everything that might be the starting point of a new idea without passing any judgment about whether those ideas are good or bad. It’s a phase that feels chaotic not because it’s destructive, but because novelty, imperfection and uncertainty come with an inherent feeling of chaos – one that some of us thrive in, but that others are deeply terrified by. Leaning into the chaos half of the equation means remaining curious about the world outside of what’s familiar to us, sure, but it also means making an active effort to try things our rational brain doesn’t believe are possible, an active effort to make mistakes, and an active effort to turn towards the messy insecurities that stop us from saying or trying or doing the things we want to be able to.
The craft is the part where we take what’s been started and give it the care it needs to become better. This is where a draft becomes a finished piece through our tinkering and discernment. It’s a crucial part of making meaningful change both real and as effective as they can be, but it needs to standalone as an isolated part of the creation process that we engage only after protecting our curiosity long enough to get some ideas on the page – whether those ideas seem compelling or crappy at first glance.
My observation is that a lot of people tend to over-index on one of these things or the other. For example, I am GREAT at drafting new poems without getting down on myself for all the weird stuff that presents itself in them. What I’m not as great at is having the patience and the bravery to look back at those messy drafts in a measured way and putting in the sweat required to help them become all they can be. Like, I'm not even gonna read this draft back to myself before I post it. I can't bear to. I know, probably a little toxic. I'm working on it.
On the flipside, lots of folks are more like the people described at the beginning of this post and struggle not to have their antennae up at all times for the potential weaknesses in a brand new idea.
My guess is that it’s totally normal to be way better at one of those things than the other. But my bid to you for this week is that you ask yourself which direction you tend to lean towards. And the next time you’re staring an opportunity for change in the face at work or in your personal life, ask yourself: am I honoring the chaos and craft that are essential components of this process?