Friday, March 14, 2014

If you don’t write it down, it never happened

Tom Clancy was the bomb.

Quite literally, in fact.

He wasn’t just the master of espionage and military science; he also knew a thing or two about being prolific. With seventeen bestsellers and more than one hundred million copies of his books in print, he was one of the most successful thriller authors of all time.

In the novel Debt of Honor, the main character finds himself at a high stakes political meeting, attempting to restart the nation’s economy after an attack by a formerly friendly nation. Addressing the chief of staff, he says the immortal words:

If you don’t write it down, it never happened.

When I first heard this phrase, it had a profound effect on my creative process. It taught me to stop trusting my memory and start managing my creative workflow intelligently. To train myself to become an informational virtuoso who’s fast, responsive, proactive, organized, and never lets a single idea get away. It taught me never to encounter inspiration without picking its pocket.

And now, as a result of this training, when an idea crosses my path, I am ruthless.

My sixth sense will pick up on ideas before they even hit the ground. Even if they show up unsuspected and unforeseen, I will seize them with the devastating swiftness of creative ninja who’s so fast and efficient, that by the time his opponent realizes he’s just been decapitated; the ninja is already down the street drinking green tea.

You’ll never see me coming, and you’ll never see me leave.

Because if I learned anything from watching ninja movies as a kid, a true mercenary practices the art of invisibility. He leaves without a trace. He burns himself completely.

If you want to hone your ability to process information with that kind of speed, the first step is to relieve yourself of any and all editing duties. To retire your red pen.

This is a serious mental block that thwarts the creative process. We waste time and energy trying to judge if a particular idea is good. But that’s not our job. As artists, our job is to treat everything we encounter with deep democracy, fundamental affirmation and radical acceptance. Never meeting an experience with a tilted head.

Without this posture and way of seeing the world, we become the type of people who think, well, if I forget something, I didn’t need to know it. The silent dialogue in our head says, that’ll never work, that’s stupid, I can’t use that, that’s not logical, I’m not allowed to do that, I should really wait until I have hard data, so we walk through the world thinking that most great ideas are just waiting to be talked out of.

And it becomes an infinite progression of confirmation bias. We begin to favor information that confirms our beliefs, selectively documenting only those ideas that support our existing position of what a good idea is.

Mitch Hedberg used to have a great joke on this:

“Sometimes in the middle of the night, I think of something that’s funny, so I go get a pen and I write the idea down. Unless the pen’s too far away, and then I have to convince myself that what I thought of wasn’t funny.”

Now that’s funny.

Ultimately, if you want hone your ability to process information quickly and manage your creative workflow intelligently, the first two steps are to stop trusting your memory and stop editing.

Because if you don’t write it down, it never happened.