"When I was small, I was told a story about a garden of treasure with a secret entrance. Everyone searched and searched for this garden until, after a very long time, the door finally opened itself and there was no treasure. In the end, maybe the purpose of the search is the search itself, through which we learn about composing."
The composer Bright Sheng, from "The Muse that Sings" by Ann McCutchen
The above quotation contains an important truth about the creative process: many insights and other things of value are stumbled upon as we pursue our goals rather than when we attain them.
Many of us, however, can be so goal focused, so focused upon finding our very own garden of treasure, holy grail, magic bullet, theory of everything, money making opportunity, whatever we choose to call it, that we treat the things we stumble upon as inconvenient and sometimes painful obstacles along our path (rather than welcoming them as potentially valuable sources of unexpected knowledge and insight).
We would not voluntarily wear blinkers as we take a walk through the countryside to our favourite pub or café; we would miss the sights along the way and any stumbling would certainly tend to be painful rather than enlightening. But when we are at work we readily allow ourselves to become blinkered: our focus quickly narrowing towards the achievement of organisational goals, sometimes at the expense of pretty much everything else.
We often assume that the most efficient, cleanest and uncluttered path towards our targets is also the most effective. We are then surprised when, having so efficiently achieved our goals, our blinkers fall away and we see the upset caused to our surroundings, others and ourselves by our single-minded directness. We also, belatedly, comprehend the actual significance of our achievements which, when viewed within their true landscape, diminish and perhaps even disappear; having entered our secret garden we find little or no treasure.
The journey towards and achievement of our goals can be damaging. This is especially the case when our goals are associated with financial rewards or performance assessments: think about the damage caused by the bonus culture within the financial sector, where huge individual performance bonuses encouraged high risk investments; consider the perverse incentives created by target-setting in the UK health service, which led to patients being placed in corridors or kept in ambulances to achieve waiting time targets set for A&E; reflect upon the obsessive compulsive preoccupation with maximising sales, again within the finance industry, which led to the widespread miss-selling of payment protection insurance.
So, to be creative and innovative in the achievement of your goals, and to ensure their relevance, usefulness and benevolence, keep them in your mind but not always to the very front of it. Do not allow them, and the rewards and incentives associated with them, to pull you by the nose and stop you looking up, down and from side to side, and if you stumble, look mindfully at what caused you to stumble rather than absent-mindedly kicking it aside. You will then pick up glistening handfuls of unexpected insights shot through with multifaceted learning that will help you journey towards your goals: goals that can only be effectively achieved when perceived as the sum of the parts and the culminations of journeys fully experienced.
You may also find that the insights, wisdom and experience you gain along the way enable you to travel past your goal and achieve much more than you originally thought possible.
Develop the habits of:
Welcoming and exploring surprises, apparent wrong turns and unexpected paths that open up before you. Ask what insights you can gain from them.
Looking for ways to link unexpected insights with the goal you have in mind.
Being open to the possibility that unexpected insights, wrong turns and the occasional stumble may help you transform your goal into something even more useful than originally conceived.
Taking time to stop and reflect upon where you have been, where you are and where you are going.