Today in Tedium: Today marks the debut of a fresh new look for Tedium’s newsletter that fully reflects my views on customization. It’s something built by hand, tested over numerous long nights, and ultimately a refresh that reflects a modest shift in direction for this newsletter. As I was finishing up the final touches, I was thinking to myself, why do this? Why spend so much time building a custom design when people are making huge salaries by running cookie-cutter Substacks? And I think the reason, beyond my views on ownership, comes down to the fact that some people need their creative victories to be hard-fought. So in honor of this new design, today’s Tedium is about the value of climbing creative mountains the hard way. — Ernie @ Tedium
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“I have decided not to become a college teacher. If I were a college teacher, I would want to do it the way you do, and I don’t want to work that hard.”
— Ellis Paul Torrance, a creativity-focused researcher and psychologist who spent decades as a professor at the University of Minnesota and University of Georgia, recalling something a student once told him in his 1995 book on creativity, Why Fly? Torrance, considered the “Father of Modern Creativity” by some, had discovered that many of his more difficult students actually were more successful in life because of the offbeat ideas they espoused. Torrance developed a series of tests related to creative thinking, with a goal of better understanding the needs of people who wanted to maximize their creative potential.
Why we need intentional barriers to creativity, sometimes
Sometimes, simple prompts are all the motivation we need to start working. When the blog first gained prominence in the early 2000s, one of the reasons it was a fascinating phenomenon was because it was rooted in the simplicity of creativity. The medium was still new, but just flexible enough to be dangerous.
People who wanted to spend a few minutes just writing could do that. People who wanted to build something more ambitious could do that, too. If you wanted to throw a ton of PHP or Perl at your problem, go right ahead.
I think, for most people, a simple Blogger or LiveJournal site was just perfect for expression. Its shape was simple and it didn’t require much to get your thoughts on the virtual page. This kind of simplicity brings in the masses.
But sometimes, you want more from what you’re doing. You want to have additional control over the final result. You want to sweat over every single pixel. And when things are not perfect, you keep working until you do.
You’re stationary, stuck in your house with nothing better to do, but you climb that mountain. It’s hard, but it shows results. This was the kind of mountain climbing that led me to create a brand new template for my newsletter, from scratch, in a single-week rush, where I conceptualized the basic ideas, pinpointed the weaknesses of the old design, and tried my best to modernize things while keeping true to the spirit of what I already built.
(Just don’t ask me to climb an actual mountain.)
It was a lot of work, and there are details I’m still working out—I am trying to set up Twitter embeds that work natively in the newsletter, which is actually fairly complicated to do for those wondering—but it in many ways reflects the way I think about creativity. Sometimes, it’s a long slog. Sometimes it’s a huge leap.
This is the kind of creativity that drives developers, graphic designers, artists, people who put a pen onto a sheet of paper and just go for it.
But it fits in other settings as well. In a world where IKEA has turned furniture into a literal plug-and-play project, what makes someone spend literal days putting together a fancy desk by hand? Watching videos like this has become a recent YouTube guilty pleasure of mine. When you have wood shoved into a vice for a day to ensure the wood glue dries correctly, you’re clearly not cutting any corners.
Another example is music. Free apps like Garageband changed the dynamic of making music significantly, basically making it possible for even inexperienced musicians to create cool things. In many ways, the basic elements of making music have been solved by these simple tools. But of course, people make stuff with incredible levels of sophistication using high-end tools. Ambition scales up.
Creativity doesn’t require a lot of extra tools, but people still want those extra doodads anyway, because they’re aiming for something higher.
“Art is the completion of nature, as if it were a second Creator … it completes nature, embellishes it, sometimes surpasses it … Becoming united with nature, it each day works miracles.”
— Baltasar Gracián, a Spanish Jesuit writer and philosopher, discussing the concept of creativity in El Criticón, one of his final works before his 1658 death. (Of note—the work was originally in Spanish, and this is a rough English translation of a French translation of the work. A somewhat contemporary English translation, found here, doesn’t use the term “Creator,” but given its usefulness to this text, we’ll rely on the Spanish-to-English translation.) Gracián’s text, in this translation, refers to creativity in its original form … as a reference to the Creator.
Why the kind of creativity we fully embrace today initially didn’t “click”
Up to this point, I’ve been describing modern creativity paradigms.
But for centuries, the tension of creativity was, at least in some cultures, not seen as fundamental in the sense we consider it today. Much of this awkwardness comes down to the origin of the term, with its basis in the Latin word creatio.
Greeks didn’t even have a word for creation. They just were creative in the modern sense, using the term “poiein,” which translates to “to make” to describe what they did.
But this concept of making amazing and original things and having ownership of them was complicated significantly by the addition of Christianity. A key philosophy of early Christianity was the concept of creatio ex nihilo, or the idea that everything in the world was created from nothing by a single entity. This approach, widely accepted in the Christian church and hardened by Medieval times, complicated the conceptual nature of creativity, as many saw that, by this definition, you can’t create new things from what was already created.
It was a terminology thing—obviously, the world was creating things left and right—but the hold of Christianity on the Western world during this time was such that it complicated the way we talked about other kinds of creativity.
Creatio ex nihilo did not leave room for any other kinds of creativity, at least not under that name. Art was art. Poetry was a craft. And other things just didn’t get treated as worthy of value in the way they should have. In many ways, it’s the very definition of inside-the-box thinking.
Think about Shakespeare or da Vinci, for example. Just masterful creators of some of the most important examples of creativity the world has ever seen … taking a backseat to this idea that the only creation that mattered was the original Creation. In many ways, the Renaissance was driven by those who saw strong inherent value in individual ideas and works, though they may not have necessarily called what they did creation.
Eventually, this limited view of creation was thrown off to the side, in bits and pieces. An early figure to question the standpoint was Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski, the 17th-century Polish poet and theorist, whose work De perfecta poesi posited that poets “create anew” “in the manner of God.” (Sarbiewski, notably, only limited his view on creativity to poets.)
After that formative first strike, many took their turn at chopping this limited philosophy down over a nearly 300-year period, with creativity becoming common in art theory starting in the 18th century (as Polish philosopher and historian Władysław Tatarkiewicz explained in his work A History of Six Ideas: An Essay in Aesthetics), but perhaps the person who most effectively put creativity in the correct terminology is Alfred North Whitehead, who explained the concept like this in his iconic 1929 book Process and Reality:
“Creativity” is the universal of universals characterizing ultimate matter of fact. It is that ultimate principle by which the many, which are the universe disjunctively, become the one actual occasion, which is the universe conjunctively. It lies in the nature of things that the many enter into complex unity.
After so many others downgraded the power of human ingenuity, here was someone taking the absolute opposite approach: No, creativity is the driving factor around how the world works.
And just in time, too. Now, so much of what we do is driven by this concept of creativity, how it bleeds into everything, how it defines craft and concept.
To leave something so fundamentally important in the exclusive realm of religion or theory would be to limit it unfairly.
The year that Alex Osborn, an advertising executive so prominent that he’s the “O” in the prominent ad agency BBDO, came up with the concept of brainstorming, initially called “Think Up.” Yes, the idea of formulating ideas in a group is a concept that someone literally formulated and wrote about in a book, rather than something we all simply did and someone came up with a name for. One has to wonder whether Osborn came up with the concept during a brainstorming session.
The fact that I jumped into the deep end and just started coding a bunch of stuff was actually kind of exhilarating, and something that I needed, mentally, in the midst of this pandemic that, by its nature, takes a lot of stuff away.
It felt like a way to take ownership of something that I wasn’t quite owning at that specific moment.
A strange point of inspiration for me here is the recent Seth Rogen movie An American Pickle, which I watched right around the time I started rebuilding my template. The film offers a nice discussion point around work, creativity, and motivation. Without spoiling the whole movie: Herschel Greenbaum, a early 20th-century man preserved in pickle brine for 100 years, doesn’t understand what his only living relative, Ben Greenbaum, creates on his computers, and what motivates that creation. (To be fair, they didn’t have computers in 1919, when he was first brined.)
The younger Greenbaum, whose own parents died in a car accident, is trying to create an amazing app that he sees as a potential financial success. He’s talented, but when it comes down to it, he’s pushing lots of pixels around—a way of life codified by the early internet and one intimately familiar to any modern techie. But he’s good at what he does, and he’s extremely motivated. His creativity is resilient and he obsesses over the little things. Honestly, he’s a lot like me.
The older Greenbaum, meanwhile, has more basic motivations of wanting to honor his late family (as well as his family name) driving his work. His creative efforts are more labor-intensive and borne of a need for survival, but in its own way, it’s a different twist on the same motivation as Ben. Hershel just wants to sell enough pickles to buy the plot where his late wife and family is located.
The plot’s tension comes from the fact that Herschel somehow finds more success than his younger counterpart. (Which I promise you is not a spoiler—literally everything I just mentioned is in the trailer.)
Both, in their own ways, are creating things that are important to them. Neither ever fully understand the other’s creative process or the motivation that is driving the final result. And that contrast makes the story that drives An American Pickle one of the most interesting parables on creativity and motivation that has emerged in quite a while. (I was tempted to write on the big screen, but … y’know.)
I see myself in both of Seth Rogen’s characters. Creativity, for many, requires a suspension of disbelief, an acceptance that you’re taking a leap somewhere where you may not know where the bottom is.
Creativity is scary. I always wanted to build a site like Tedium, and before that, ShortFormBlog. But my first few tries were wracked with nerves. Before I started ShortFormBlog in 2009, I had a graveyard littered with creative projects that I failed to finish.
Even back in the ’90s, I was trying to build something like this. A few years back, someone in the video game field who I knew way back when sent me a site I created when I was 16 and had completely forgotten about. It was a hilarious dumpster fire of an attempt. I relied on submissions, but I couldn’t get very many. I freely used profanity like a 16-year-old weaned on IRC and Usenet might. I tried to draw interest in what I was doing, then when I saw an opportunity to work on something related to music, I gave it to someone else.
Lots of other attempts exist like this, in my history, some bigger than others, most with a far lower quotient of four-letter words. Many left unfinished.
I decided, with ShortFormBlog, I was going to see it through, start to finish, because I wanted to feel what that was like. And I did.
I think, in many ways, that’s what motivates me, and possibly many others, to go the hard way, creatively. Because the thrill of finishing what I started feels a lot better than letting the graveyard get bigger.
Sure, nothing is stopping me from running this newsletter on someone else’s land and just focusing on the words, rather than the complexities of running a content management system, a cloud infrastructure, and a server as well. But by doing it this way, I feel like I earned it, just like I did when I built my first real site in two weeks after getting laid off from the best job I ever had.
Like the two characters Seth Rogen plays in that pickle movie, people passionate about creating things have their own internal clock and decision-making structure that drives them. As it should be.
We all have our motivations, and those drive us forward. Sometimes that mountain is a heckuva climb. But it’s a path deserving of each step.