The stability tradeoff

One thing that's surprised me is how much I have come to respect structure. Until a few years ago, I was generally of the opinion that a kind of carefree, laissez-faire working style was best for creativity. I think it's a fairly common sentiment, and seems to appear mostly by analogy: if there are certain qualities you want in your work, you try to take on those qualities. However, I don't think the analogy actually holds: the work and the worker are inherently different, and creation isn't always creative.

So over time I've been introducing more structure into how I work and enjoying the benefits that brings in terms of both volume and consistency of output. I've also found that consistency can make it easier to be creative, by providing a ready supply of raw material to be creative with. Other benefits include being able to plan more easily, and spend less time thinking about what to do.

But an interesting thing I've noticed is that stability is super compatible with more stability, and not compatible with even a moderate amount of instability. Perhaps that seems obvious, but it has some interesting consequences. For example, I used to quite enjoy working out of cafes, but these days it usually doesn't really make sense; I've got my current setup working well, and changing it makes it work less well. Having my location and work intertwined makes me less likely to travel. Being less likely to travel means it makes more sense to invest in furniture and housing. Before long I've got a dog, a big TV and nice curtains, all because I found work habits that made my life easier.

And what's wrong with that? Well, nothing necessarily, assuming those stability-compatible things are what you want (and presumably they are, if you chose them). But as all those stability factors combine to form a majestic stability fortress, your tolerance for instability goes completely through the floor. An opportunity that would involve, say, an intercontinental move, or living out of a bungalow in a forest, or even just changing career, becomes extraordinarily costly. In addition to its direct cost, you have to pay the cost of giving up all the stability you've come to rely on. Eventually, perhaps, that will just stop seeming worth it in the general case.

At that point, you've hit complete stagnation, or, to put it another way, have become totally adapted to your environment. The things you do currently, you can do exceptionally well, but it will be nearly impossible to do something unexpected. And that itself becomes a problem if you want to be creative. Sooner or later, your creativity will lead you towards some kind of fairly lateral step. Maybe you've been creating software for years and it leads you to producing electronic music, or art, or opening a nightclub. At that point, you've got a choice: be less creative, or take the huge stability hit.

I'm still a long way from that point, of course, but it's something to keep in mind. Stability is a tradeoff, an investment in things generally staying the same as they are now. That's often a sensible investment to make, but like any bet, you won't always be right. More importantly, you won't always want to be right. Change is an integral part of creativity and, when the time comes to throw away your stability, it's probably best not to have too much.