Thinking is Work
In the environment of creativity and innovation, we often hear the expression to “think outside the box,” or for those of us in the music profession, it might be edited to “think outside the music box.” As I explore innovation, I find that rather than thinking outside of any mental box, I find myself thinking through a number of different boxes.
Not to sound cynical, but one of my favorite songs of the late 1990s was “It’s All Been Done Before.” As I think through multiple boxes, I am giving credibility to the idea that most ideas are not new, but have been stated eloquently at different times, but also in different situations. Innovation is often about applying an old idea to a new situation.
The idea of a “web” has been around for as long as there have been spiders, but listen to Tim Berners-Lee describes the process leading to the invention that has proven to be the greatest innovation during my lifetime:
Inventing the World Wide Web involved my growing realization that there was a power in arranging ideas in an unconstrained, web-like way. And, that awareness came to me through precisely that kind of process. The Web arose as the answer to an open challenge through the swirling together of influences of ideas, and realizations from many sides until, by the wondrous offices of the human mind, a new concept jelled. It was a process of accretion, not the linear solving of one problem after another.
“The swirling together of influences of ideas…” There is a lot of insight packed into this phrase. Not only does this suggest that there is not a single “aha!” moment in the process leading to innovation, but it also suggests that innovation is not a specific idea, but rather, the “influences” of multiple ideas. This takes me back to the metaphor of the box—innovation is not to be found outside the box, but rather, through the influences of thinking through multiple boxes.
Recently I was helping my daughter, a junior music major at the University of Oklahoma, prepare for a listening exam for her early music history course. I was taking her through the “drop the needle”—or in the present technological environment, “point and click”—exercise that I remember so very well from my own college experience. I randomly played examples from her listening list that she was preparing to be tested on, and she responded to the track being played by recalling the genre, the composer, the period, and if spot-on, the actual name of the composition. Most readers remember this process all too well, even if we have forgotten the content!
As I helped her review music from the 9th-13th centuries, it was again clear to me that musical innovation, and notational innovation for conveying the music, came not as abrupt changes, but as adjacent additions to pre-existing ideas. Chant moved from syllabic to neumatic to melismatic. Additional lines were added to chant to first form duplum, then quad-duplum, moving in parallel motion, to a more florid polyphony. Amazingly, even the motet added words to existing chant words to form a multi-text polyphony.
These additions by accretion led to innovation. The same innovation can be observed visually as notation grew to try to do the impossible—suggest a multi-dimensioned sonic art form through the visual device of pen and paper.
Innovative ideas are the internal collaboration of thousands of neurons firing in sync with each other for the first time in our brain, resulting in an idea that emerges through our consciousness. Those ideas, however, have been formulating long before we are able to articulate the outcome. Innovation comes through a collection of thoughts, realizations, experiments, experiences, and other stimuli gathered and reflected upon over time.
In Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From, the author states “Most hunches that turn into important innovations unfold over much longer time frames. They start with a vague, hard-to-describe sense that there’s an interesting solution to a problem that hasn’t yet been proposed, and they linger in the shadows of the mind…assembling new connections and gaining strength.”
As I used to tell my students regularly, “thinking is work.” In fact, I had one of my choir students who was a Latin major translate that phrase for me into Latin so that it would sound even more profound: “Ratus est opus.” Then, to further solidify how important I thought those Latin words were, I had them stamped on a T-shirt that would wear so that people would ask me to translate my shirt. I delighted in saying the words, “thinking is work.”
To paraphrase the words of William Belan, a thinker I greatly admire, innovation “…is the work of alchemy, the merging of known successful entities for the intension of catalytic results, the conjuring of gold.” He continues, no innovation “…is only the kiss of the muse, nor simply good fortune; it is rather the result of hard work…”
So, what is the secret of innovation? Well, it is no secret: innovation is the result of hard work and serious thinking. It requires a curious mind and a mind that is interested in seeking answers for real problems, and sometimes answers to problems that have not yet appeared. How do we get there? We ask “why,” we read, we listen, we watch, we experience, we experiment, we fail, and sometimes, we succeed.
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