The Doing Thinking Flywheel

A few days ago, I tweeted a quote from Austrian American scientist Heinz von Foerster, “If you want to think differently, first learn to act differently.” Foerster was also known as a pioneer in the field of cybernetics, which investigates communications and automatic control systems in machines and living beings. I’d included this in my book Creative Doing, in a prompt entitled, “From action comes progress.”

I received a great response to this quote, “Action presupposes thought. Different action requires different thought… Any action directed at a desired result must start with a thought. If it’s arbitrary, how can you expect your desired outcome?”

In other words, in this perspective or paradigm, any action requires a corresponding thought. How can one act differently before one thinks differently? In this case, thinking causes doing; there is no doing without thinking. It’ll look something like this:

More often than not, this conceptual model causes a lot of people to get stuck. It makes us constantly think we need to get more thinking done before we can actually move forward with the doing. If we just think our way into the perfect plan, collect enough research, and anticipate and mitigate all possible negative outcomes, then we’ll be able to do perfectly. 

In the Thinking Doing Linear Sequence, we live our lives like Ocean’s Eleven; only after we plan out the perfect heist, recruit the perfect team, then we can execute.

This conceptual model works well with fiction, and not so well with reality. You and I are finite beings, and we have a craving for control of how things turn out. We don’t want to relinquish results or relax our expectations; the longer we spend working on something, the better it has to turn out. It’s the only way our brains can stay consistent; what else did we spend two years collecting research for?!

That’s how creative blocks start. There’s no shortage of things that can go wrong; it’s futile to aim for flawless success, or to try to prevent failure. 

Thinking causes doing, for certain; in reality, this is only half the picture. The other half: 

Doing causes thinking.

Our mind-body connection goes both ways; just as our bodies receive feedback from our brains, so our brains receive feedback from our bodies. This applies to metacognition—how we think about thinking; the more we execute, the more experiences we’re exposed to, the more the conscious and unconscious parts of our brain soaks up. 

In Creative Doing, I write, “Leonardo da Vinci called this “componimento inculto,” which biographer Walter Isaacson describes as “an uncultivated composition that helps work out ideas through an intuitive process.” Basically, thinking by sketching.” If da Vinci were alive today, he might use the term embodied cognition, or thinking with your hands. (For those interested, Sian Beilock writes about the social science of this perspective in her book, How the Body Knows Its Mind.)

Doing and thinking fuel each other. Here’s a conceptual model more accurately represents this perspective:

In this conceptual model, the Doing Thinking Flywheel, doing and thinking feed each other. Sometimes, a thought can cause an action; other times, an action can cause a thought. New insights emerge from action, doing, and execution. 

This is how professional artists practice their creative processes; as influential artist Chuck Close says, “Inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work. And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will—through work—bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great ‘art idea.’”

A really good example of this is serendipity; there are a few different types of luck, and action can improve our odds of stumbling into luck. In Creative Doing, I write, “You get lucky as you keep moving along and learning. Or, perhaps, it’s more true to say that your unluckiness runs out. If you have to wait until you’re sure of what’s going to happen before you take action, you could be waiting forever. Even if you believe that circumstance, fortune, and fate control the majority of your life, you still have choices to make about the small parts you control.” 

Waiting around is a risky strategy for creative work; the most reliable, consistent, and rewarding approach is to keep moving forward. Show up every day. Practice. As Michelangelo advised his apprentice, “Draw Antonio, draw Antonio, draw and don’t waste time.”

See also, creative oscillations.

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