The late Steve Jobs once said that creativity was nothing more than connecting dots. Ignoring for a moment that creativity is more than just idea generation, and necessarily includes idea execution, I like the metaphor. The more divergent those dots, the more unusual and interesting our ideas and the solutions to the problems we’re working on, whether that’s a new photographic project, a painting or a novel. Divergence matters. Einstein said he had no particular talent except an insatiable curiosity and it was that curiosity that led him in divergent directions and gave him some of the most interesting raw materials – the dots, if you will – from which to draw his thoughts.
Where this applies to photographers is in our need to become more divergent. We need to collect more dots before we can make connections between them, and the more those dots come from different sources, the better. So why is it that wedding photographers spend so much time looking at wedding photographs and landscape photographers looking at landscape work? There’s a lot to be said for having domain knowledge and knowing our stuff, but if we’re looking for new directions and trying hard not to repeat ourselves, we need to look elsewhere. If photography is about lines, light, and moments, then we’d benefit from looking for those elements, and see how they’ve been used, in the work of other visual artists. Stuck? Look for ideas in a different arena than the one in which you hope to use those ideas. Consider spending a day with painters you’ve never heard of and see how they use line and colour, balance and tension.
It’s the same with business ideas. We’ll learn much more, and find more interesting ideas, if we look beyond the lessons already learned by our industry peers, and look elsewhere. It’s not like the most extraordinary entrepreneurs are found in the photography world, anyways. Sure, we’ve got some innovators, but none of us is Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg. Looking for solutions to business problems, or looking for new ideas and directions for your business, look past (but don’t overlook) the ones in the photography world and see how others are facing their challenges. Collect all the dots you can – books, bios, interviews, articles, tweets – but make sure they’re also divergent.
Another metaphor: it’s like diet. We all do better if we eat different foods, not just the same thing over and over again. Mix it up. Be curious. Learn. Stretch that brain. When Jay Maisel famously told his student he’d make more interesting photographs by becoming a more interesting person, I think we could have also said, “become a more interested person.”
The best dots of all, so long as we’re talking about collecting them before we can connect them, are the people with whom we choose to surround ourselves. The more divergent from our own field, our own work, our own thoughts, the better. Connections beget connections, and nothing makes us more the people we are, creative or otherwise, than connections to people that inspire us, that push us, and that create new connections for us, than amazing people.
We all get stuck. Putting our foot on the gas when the wheels are spinning almost never helps. Writers get writer’s block for all kinds of reasons, among them fear and procrastination, but I think the biggest blocks happen when we run out of raw materials, when we get so busy connecting the dots that we forget to seek new inputs. You can only draw water from a well for so long if the source dries up. When that happens there’s no sense in getting a bigger bucket or raising the rope more often. Put the bucket down and go to the source. Step back from the camera and go read a book, watch a play, visit the gallery, pick up a paint brush, have coffee with a wildly creative person who does something different than you. Fill the well again. That’s your inspiration, your act of breathing in. Now go exhale, do something with that new oxygen, before you get dizzy and pass out.