The Chaos & Order of Creative Work

The rocky downhill slope of creative work

There’s a hilltop between chaos and order where wild dreams and schemes shift from “this is crazy” to “this just might work.”

Plan in hand, we step downhill to make a project real: a poem to perform, an app to tap, or a hypothesis to prove.

After fighting an uphill battle to create an innovative solution, finally getting our hands dirty in the real work is a welcome change.

The second half of creative work – the “work” part – is like climbing down a rocky slope.

As we descend out of the clouds into reality, the view narrows: tiny complications and complexities appear with each step. The steps feel lighter and the finish line closer, but we find the devil in the details; Hidden pitfalls, hijacking distractions, and nigh impenetrable blockades await in the shadows to disrupt the best-laid plans.

After figuring it out, we move downhill to "making it work."

No plan makes it to reality unscathed. But there are common traps and blunders we can avoid to make the journey more enjoyable and productive.

Blunders to avoid when moving work downhill

The creative half of “creative work” is taxing but intoxicating. There’s no discernible structure, timeline, or shortcut to insight; Yet, there’s an infinity of possibility behind every inquiry. Chaos is like a slot machine for the incurably curious.

Inspiration may not yield to our terms or timeline, but if we wrestle hard and for long enough, we’re sure to reach the summit.

After a eureka moment, it’s natural to pause, relax, to soak in the satisfaction of discovering a solution with so much potential. But if we let it sit to long, we fall into the first trap:

A pristine, untested plan.

The Kairos Time Trap is when we stay at the peak instead of starting the downhill work of making a plan real. It’s easy to fall for this trap because making it work requires precise steps, concessions, and tedious attention to the details – the opposite of the exhilarating uphill discovery.

To make creativity work, we must break free from fickle Kairos time and take up the more predictable tools of Chronos time: deadlines, to-do lists, and red pens.

“Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work”
– Peter Drucker

For those of us with an affinity towards chaos, it’s more appealing to leave our perfectly creative plan unharmed by the rocky slope that leads to reality.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going; But when things become too prescriptive or tedious, creative types often go find another hill to climb.

Prompt: What creative solutions have you left sitting at the top of the hill?

The Snowball Blunder is a mistake that’s easy to make right at the starting line. Initially, work hums along and the deadline is comfortably distant. The work to get from here to there – turning in the final paper, launching the new product, or delivering a keynote presentation – seems malleable.

Meanwhile, creative ideas keep popping up, and we think, “Why not add this little improvement as well? There’s plenty of time.”

But our instincts are inverted: it’s more dangerous to add a small idea at the beginning of a project than a larger one near completion.

Trivial additions at the top compound like a snowball into a snow-boulder and, before long, an avalanche. But additions made at the bottom – right up against the deadline – tend to be clear-eyed and practical.

Prompt: on your next project, perhaps experiment with keeping the surface of work as small as possible in the beginning and leave space at the end for anything you want to add on.

The Snowflake Blunder is the opposite of the Snowball Blunder. Here, instead of making edits and concessions, we unyieldingly pursue an idealistic plan.

Getting every detail right is one thing, but unadaptable perfectionists deny a gravity-like law of order: order never embraces the new without compromise.

As we grow closer to horizon clarity, it's best to trim and bend our plans into a shape that meets reality as it is, not how we wish it were. If we don’t bend a little, we risk meeting stony indifference or hostility from the people and systems who like things just the way they are, thank you very much.

The Rocky Landing comes unexpectedly at the end of a project and destroys the impact it might have had. But we’re so focused on making a fantastic new possibility work that we don’t even see the fast-approaching collision with the old, hard reality we’re aiming to replace.

Here’s another law of order: every new way of doing or seeing requires sacrificing an old way; progress demands that old code be refactored, derelict buildings be demolished, and cherished beliefs updated.

Creative workers and leaders necessarily make peace with sacrificing the old for the new. But we forget that most people find peace within the safety of order and fight tooth and nail to preserve it.

We tend to think that, sure, the important things will be guarded, but the old, silly things will be more easily discarded for something so clearly better. But, again, our instincts are inverted: waning beliefs and practices are held all the more desperately as their replacement grows imminent.

“The battles were so fierce because the stakes were so small.”
– Henry Kissinger

Taking a pickaxe to these stubborn archaic brambles is tempting, but indiscriminately destroying the good with the bad leaves little to build on. Bringing chaos to order is good – but bringing chaos into order is only destructive.

Change-makers who aren’t deconstructive revolutionaries find ways to soften the soil slowly on the way down the hill. They don’t expect every inventive part of their project to root in all at once. Instead, they spread seeds and lay foundations. Then, once established, they add a little more.

Before long, the order of things is transformed beyond recognition. But most folks don’t notice that much has changed at all.

Thorin’s Blunder is the easiest to get away with yet most destructive in the long run.

The hero who cunningly risks it all to rescue treasure from the dragon of chaos is the oldest, most profound story we know. It’s the narrative underlying most stories:

  • the talented slum kid who becomes a star,
  • a persecuted prophet warrior gains freedom for their people,
  • and the scrappy inventor in the garage becomes a billionaire.

We revere people who achieve great creative works so much that we give them a pass for personal failings we don’t give ourselves or anyone else.

But herein lies a final mistake: progress requires sacrifice from the inventor and the team that brings it to life. That’s easy enough to see. But there’s a hidden sacrifice as well: adventure and innovation are possible only when supported by robust order. But then, innovation disrupts the old order of things, leaving many people displaced or discarded. Again, old ways must make way for the new:

  • Factories replaced humans with robots, and robotic cars will replace millions of paid drivers soon enough;
  • Code replaced most clerks in the last couple of decades, and AI will likely replace as many knowledge workers in the next few;
  • New expressions of values and beliefs displace traditional ones leaving prior generations despised or ignored as old-fashioned.

After we’ve made an arduous but successful journey wrangling chaos into a new order, it’s easy – even expected – to take on Thorin’s view at the end of The Hobbit; We defend our right to the hard-won treasure against all outside claims and externalities. But if the spoils of conquest only flow to the top – merited or not – all-out war comes in the end; A sad truth Thorin learned soon enough.

A good creative leader reaps the rewards of creative work for themselves and others. But great leaders share credit and proactively tend to those who are inevitably disrupted by progress.

Prompt: Where could you share more credit for your creative work? How could you look out for people who are displaced or disrupted by progress?

In all the ways the uphill climb is challenging, the downhill trek is easier. But it comes with its own set of challenges and risks.

If the dream or scheme you’ve been trying to make work in the world feels tediously slow and unrewarding, take heart – “creative” is only half of creative work. And if it feels an awful lot like work, then you’re already more than halfway there.

“Nothing in the world can take the place of perseverance. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost legendary. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Perseverance and determination alone are omnipotent.” – Calvin Coolidge

Each month, I write a short essay about the Chaos Map:

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