The Fundamentals of Creative Work

In order to look at the fundamentals of creative work, we have to check what work is and how it works: we have to understand it as a creative process.

And to understand work as a creative process, we have to start from looking at the nature of creative processes: how things come into existence, how things grow and transform, how things end. We have to understand the creative processes of nature as a whole — rather than limiting ourselves to the specific culture of work in human society in our lifetime.

And to do that, to look at work in that way, we need to put down all the usual furniture of the working world — looking past the superficial norms and forms and illuminating the fundamentals. What is essential about work and how work works? What is natural?

Not 9 to 5. Not job titles. Not promotions. Not limited companies.
Not inboxes. Not lunchbreaks. Not business plans. Not personal brands.

We have to drop below all those things and think and feel our way to what work actually is at a more subtle level. And that also means dropping below the self-help how-to’s and the seven habits of highly effective people. And it means dropping below inspirational quotes about meaningful work on Pinterest. Because, for all their seductive, feel-good ‘do it this way’ prompting and t-shirt friendly insights, they don’t actually get down to what work is. They don’t actually articulate what work is for.

What is work? And what is work for?

Think about trees. 
Think about grass. 
Think about bees.

Think about a pack of wolves hunting. 
Think about a bird building a nest. 
Think about squirrels collecting a winter stockpile.

Think about building a shelter.
Think about finding food.
Think about raising a child.

Walk through a forest and see and feel life at work all around you.

These creative processes that we are surrounded by and that we engage in every day — they are so natural that we don’t even see them. But if we stop and look it’s clear: they follow rules, they have structure, they have properties in common. A bird builds a nest so that… the eggs don’t roll away. The need defines the work. The need dictates the form. A nest is the shape it is because eggs are the shape they are. And when a bird has built a nest that will protect the eggs — it stops work. Because the point of the work is to meet a need.

It’s a natural way to work. Noticing something is needed. Working to understand that need — and what is required to meet it. And taking the steps that are necessary to meet that need — and then stopping when it is met.

It’s how we work naturally. We eat until we’re full. We sleep until we’re rested. We travel until we get there. We listen for what we need, we do what is needed — and then we stop.

Some of our stories about work have gone astray. Superstitions have crept in. That it’s ‘bad’ if a company closes (rather than a sign that the need has been met and the work can stop). That working harder, longer, more is ‘good’ (rather than the amount of work being in proportion to the size of the need being met). But those superstitions only serve to separate us from the real potential of work.

We eat so we don’t die. We build shelter so we don’t freeze. We learn to speak and sing and dance so that we can communicate with each other and understand each other — and learn to live together without killing each other.

Work is creative. Work is life ensuring the continuation of life. Life ensuring the expansion of life. Whether it’s animals collecting food for the winter or me collecting food from the shop — the appetite arises from life’s own urge to sustain itself. And that appetite provides the direction — and the energy — for the work. And in order to understand the fundamental nature of work, we need to understand that appetite of life in us. That creative impulse that isbeing alive, that is being a part of life on earth.

When we work in that way, with an awareness that we are alive and that we are a part of a vast living system, then work is natural. When we work with an awareness of the rules of that system, the demands of that system, the constraints and possibilities of that system, then work comes naturally.

Sometimes it feels to me as if we treat work as something imaginary. Where we can just invent rules of work and say that’s how things work. And we treat the world as imaginary — where we pretend that all you need to succeed is to listen to a motivational talk or get up earlier. As if there were no context, no cause and effect, no environment. And we treat ourselves as imaginary — where we pretend that people and jobs are just interchangeable — swapping out one person and swapping in another. As if there were no such thing as individuality, or personal history, or personal relationships.

But we are actual creative beings living in a specific creative system. And there are definite principles that we can learn about how to work creatively within that system. And we have to take into account who we are and where we are and what we need.

And that means not only knowing what work is and how work works and what work is for, but also feeling those things. So that when someone says the word ‘work’, you don’t think of offices and desks or money or shovels or timesheets or teabreaks, but rather you feel your place in a vast creative system. You feel the appetite for life inside you. You feel the direction and the information and the energy bound up in that appetite.

When someone says ‘work’, the antennae inside you activate and tune into here and now and start listening for what actually needs to be done.

When someone says ‘work’, you remember your capacity to empathise with others and intuit what’s going on — and respond in the wisest and most compassionate way.

When someone says ‘work’, you think of all the vast miraculous projects mankind has undertaken — of mapping genomes and building cathedrals and inventing alphabets — and you think of the infinite complexity of countless mundane daily miracles happening all around us — as seeds are planted and dinners are made and paths are cleared and people are healed.

And, with this as our starting point, we can look at how we work and find ways to work more effectively, more creatively, more naturally. Not by learning lists of rules or by trying to turn ourselves into someone we’re not — but by developing a profound and intimate understanding of ourselves as creative beings.

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