Jun 20, 2021 • 12M

Issue 139: Time & Space

The role of time and space in creative freedom at work

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Larry G. Maguire
The Sunday Letters Podcast is the weekly audio newsletter from organisational psychologist Larry Maguire on the meaning & purpose of daily work and our paradoxical relationship with it. We explore how we may break free from tiresome means-to-an-end labour and take command of their own working lives. Topics include solo working, careers, entrepreneurship, small business economics, society and culture. Content follows the written newsletter, which goes out to subscribers every Sunday.
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Time and space are important in creative work or, in fact, any work. Any work worth doing can be a creative outlet, but whatever it is, it needs time and space. We like to admire great works of art, and we believe there is something special about the people who create these things. Something special over and above ourselves. We couldn’t possibly come up with something as unique and beautiful as that. We’re inclined to keep moving, keep making whatever it was they taught us, and keep taking their dollar for our trouble. We’re too busy, you see, being something else to someone else and rarely anything ourselves. We have jobs to do, people to see, deadlines to meet and bills to pay. How can we possibly make the time and space we need to do great work? Being busy is more important, and any time we do make for ourselves, we spend it on frivolous things that lack complexity and stimulation.

On art, David Lynch quotes Bushnell Keeler, artist and father of a friend; “If you want to get one hour of good painting in, you have to have four hours of uninterrupted time.” That’s basically true, Lynch says. “You don’t just start painting. You have to kind of sit for a while and get some kind of mental idea in order to go and make the right moves… Then it’s a matter of studying it and studying it, and studying it; and suddenly, you find you’re leaping up out of your chair and going in and doing the next thing.”

I was glad when I read that because it gave me a licence to take my time. I mean, I knew it already, but a part of me questioned it. The thought comes in; you should be doing something, c’mon, you should use your limited time productively. But when I write, I need hours and hours. I can’t just jump into it and write something I consider good. There has to be a lead-in. Like Lynch says, “if you know you’ve got to be somewhere in half an hour, there’s no way you can achieve that.” There needs to be space for the idea to propagate. That means we’ve got to be on our own without distraction to allow the self to show us something.

Now, it’s a different story if we’re working to a tried and tested systematic process used to make stuff like an assembly line job, or a forensic analysis of a set of accounts, or building a wall with nine-inch solids. There’s a little upfront prep, but by and large, we know what is expected of us, so we can get stuck in without much lead time. Making widgets is not necessarily art. Ok, maybe the first widget was art, but subsequent widgets spat out by a machine do not constitute art. Perhaps what that process represents could be made art. For example, by putting that widget machine in an art gallery, throwing buckets of blood over it and propping up against it a stuffed chimpanzee, now you might have something. But in its designated place as an instrument of commercial production, it is the antithesis of art.

Art tells a story. It’s a story unique to each of us. It is the story of us and our struggle with the existence we seem to occupy. Productivity is literal; there is no mystery or discovery there. It is automatic and explicit. In art, the message is implicit and ambiguous. You’ve got to figure it out, like figuring out oneself. We want to figure ourselves out; that’s the reason for living. We don’t know who and what we are, and we never can, but the exploration brings with it intrigue. Without the question, there is no life. Life is an unanswerable question. Life is an exploration of the question, and when life becomes mundane, predictable and explicit, the reason for living goes. That’s why so many of us are at odds with daily work–there is little or no unique creative expression in that work. It is a means to an end. No wonder and curiosity? No life worth living.

Without time and space, with a focus solely on widget producing productivity, there can be no creativity. No books, no art, nothing unique, just a world of stuffed monkeys, bloodied machines, and widgets.

I’ve been reading David Lynch’s Catching The Big Fish, I think I mentioned that recently, and it is material such as this that reminds me of the importance of personal time and space. Time and space allow ideas to come to mind, then working on those ideas takes effort associated with which is productivity. Unlike the commercial world that demands higher output relative to input over a given time, creative productivity works in spurts. There are long arduous periods of work where we feel like we’re going nowhere, wasting our time, but then all of a sudden something jumps off the page. Although I have not drawn for some time, that’s exactly how it happens. Writing is like that too; we turn the focus wheel of our minds narrowing our attention to the task then zooming back out to form perspective.

When I was young, I had time: sixteen and little else to concern myself with besides attending the training college and playing football. I’d sit on my bed smoking out the open window playing tunes from my minuscule but invaluable music library without a care in the world. Thirty years later, I have held onto that time and space to think, although commitments tend to take me out of it sometimes. Work is important, so is money. Without money, we can’t live, so we have to find a way to get some. The problem is, we tend to sacrifice too much to get it, and because we’ve hitched it so inextricably to time and our sense of personal value, we give all our time to finding it and consider ourselves valuable to the degree we manage to accumulate it. So without time and space to do what we wish, there’s no freedom.

We can see that it’s almost impossible to be a free-thinking, free-speaking human being when we have shackled ourselves to our work to this extent. Work is supposed to provide a means to self-express, but it doesn’t, not really. The vast majority of us are under the organisation's command, and if we step out of line, we become a trouble maker. Your employer doesn’t want trouble makers. It wants loyal subjects that execute its systems and processes. So I really don’t see any alternative other than to work for one’s self and command one’s own work if we are to be satisfied and fulfilled, truly. Anything else is settling for less than we deserve.

I really believe that the aspect of ourselves we call ego or surface-level personality needs the structure and organisation of others to feel secure. Maybe it’s anthropological in origin, part of our tribal ancestry. Or maybe it’s manufactured by the forces of contemporary society. Regardless, security in life and work is illusory. There is none, and the ego believes there is so it seeks out all the apparent measures of it. The irony is that this apparent security imprisons us and is a major source of our personal difficulties. We crave the freedom to follow our impulses yet the route we’ve chosen restricts it.

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