Whiskey, the Moon, and Unimagined Possibilities

Why do creative types, writers in particular, have the reputation for lifestyles that are so at odds with the conventions associated with other occupations? Consider this quote from William Faulkner:
The tools I need for my work are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey.
Does that sound like your job? He is also quoted as saying this:
It's a shame that the only thing a man can do for eight hours a day is work. He can't eat for eight hours; he can't drink for eight hours; he can't make love for eight hours. The only thing a man can do for eight hours is work.
By reputation, Faulkner disproved the notion that a man "can't drink for eight hours" many times over. And note that it never occurred to him to that a man can, if he so chooses, at least attempt to sleep for eight hours.

Booze. Late nights. Two of the hallmarks of the artistic lifestyle. Are these just proof that artists tend towards hedonism and irresponsibility? Perhaps not. (Or perhaps not entirely.) Jonah Leher at Wired Science Blogs looks at a couple of new pieces of research -- inflicting brain teaser exercises on sleepy and drunken college students, respectively --  that lead to a rather surprising conclusion:
Why Being Sleepy and Drunk Are Great for Creativity
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.
Leher explains that both sleepiness and inebriation take away our ability to focus our attention. That ability, normally crucial to being productive, actually inhibits the creative process by preventing random thoughts from sneaking in. An unfocused mind has many more options to choose from than a focused mind, and is therefore capable of making a creative breakthrough that the focused mind would likely have missed.

So what, Phil, does any of this have to do with the future? More specifically, what does it have to with accelerating change and the world getting better all the time?

Well, I could make the argument that we have never been in a better position to take advantage of these creativity accelerators than we are today. No previous generation has enjoyed such a wide selection of alcoholic beverages so readily available. And between video games, movies on demand, and social networks, no previous generation has faced so many distractions trying to compete with bedtime.

But that isn't exactly my point.

As I noted yesterday, a key to achieving personal success in the years to come is recognizing  the breadth and depth of the possibilities that lie before us. We have a lot of filters about what is possible, what is likely, what is achievable, and so on that can severely limit our thinking. Some of these filters reflect society's general lack of understanding about how rapidly things are changing. Some of them are holdovers -- formerly useful rubrics that have outlived their relevance.

For example, I've spent some time on a couple of recent podcasts  talking about this story:

Israel, The Third Nation on the Moon?

If all goes according to plan, by December 2012 a team of three young Israeli scientists will have landed a tiny spacecraft on the moon, explored the lunar surface, and transmitted live video back to earth, thereby scooping up a $20 million prize (the Google Lunar X Prize), revolutionizing space exploration, and making the Jewish State the third nation (after the U.S. and Russia) to land a probe on the moon. And they’re doing it in their spare time.

In a few short decades, putting a probe on the moon has gone from being a massive, prohibitively expensive undertaking reserved for superpowers to something that three guys, given the money to do so (which is still a substantial amount by personal standards, but sub-microscopic by going-to-the-moon standards) can do on the side. This is a dramatic instance of the same dynamic that has given us world-transforming companies founded in garages and, more recently, dorm rooms. It is the reality of living in a world where, as Ray Kurzweil points out, today a kid in Africa with a smart phone has access to more information than was available to the president of the United States 20 years ago.

Unprecedented leverage and resources are available to all of us. Ahead of us lie vast untapped and (by and large) unimagined possibilities. Just as soberness or being wide awake can hinder our creative processes, subscribing to a worldview that was perfectly valid 10 years ago (sometimes even 10 days, or 10 minutes ago) can blind us to what  is truly possible for us and for the world.

We must learn to question, test, and dispute our assumptions. Any of them can potentially block the aha! moment, the realization that we can set an unexpected, previously unimagined, and now fully achievable course for our lives.

So challenge  those assumptions. There is so much at stake here, you should be ready to do whatever it takes to see past your filters. If that means staying up late once in a while, so be it. And if it means having a little sip of something -- well, keep in mind that you're only doing it for the betterment of your life and in the name of progress for all humanity.


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