How a talk begins
A dispatch from the middle of trying to figure out what I want to say
Whenever I do a speaking gig, the question for me is: Carlin or Seinfeld? The comedian George Carlin famously threw out his old material every year — he threw out the old material so he was forced to come up with something new. Jerry Seinfeld, to me, represents a sort of “You ain’t Carlin” attitude — he once said you bring the audience your best material. For me, it’s usually some blend of old and new, customizing what I have to fit the specific audience, medium, time limit.
The fact of the matter is: If the audience is new to you, the “old” material is new. And even if someone in the audience is familiar with your work, when you do “old” material it’s like you’re playing the “hits.”
How a brand new talk comes together for me is sort of mysterious and tortuous. (If not torture.) It doesn’t necessarily start with a big idea at first. It starts with little pieces, little seeds that I plant.
Years ago, in one of Nancy Duarte’s books, I read about her what is/what could be pattern, and I think it’s one of the simplest structures to work with: The world is like this, but it could be like this.
I’m currently working on a 15-minute online talk for a client called “Drawing the Future.” The title was something they invented as a placeholder, but when I heard it, I told them to keep it 1) because I thought it would be fun and 2) sometimes I really like the constraint of a title. (In fact, I often wish my publisher would just come up with a good title for a book and pay me to write it!)
I find it much easier to create under specific constraints, and right away, there are two: the title and the length. The other constraint is the big theme of the event: “imagination.” As you can imagine, I have thought about this subject quite a bit.
The first thing of any depth I wrote about imagination was a piece clearing up some misconceptions about what imagination actually is.
I used to think it was simply about “making images in your head.” What could be simpler than that? I would judge people who I perceived to be without imagination, for example, shouting at the people on episodes of House Hunters who didn’t buy a house because they didn’t like the paint color. I even went so far as to make a funny little zine about it.
But then I discovered something really interesting: There are people in the world who can’t make images in their heads! The condition is called “congenital aphantasia.” Researchers estimate that 2-5% of the population are “non-imagers,” or “mind blind.”
You’d think such a condition would be a kind of death warrant assigned to a creative career, but not so! Ed Catmull, who co-founded Pixar and helped make huge advances in 3-D animation, announced “my mind’s eye is blind” a few years ago, and even found other animators at Pixar with aphantasia. He told the BBC that aphantasia helps clear up “some misconceptions about creativity”:
“People had conflated visualisation with creativity and imagination and one of the messages is, ‘they’re not the same thing’.
“The other one I think that people might have assumed, but if you think about it you can see why it’s false assumption, is you would think if a person could visualise, they’re more likely to be able to draw.
“If you open your eyes and you take out a pencil and pad, how many people can draw what they see? The answer is a very small number, so if you can’t draw what is in front of you then why would we expect that you would be able to draw what you visualise?”
I wrote more about aphantasia on my blog last year, admitting that I used to be one of those people who conflated imagination with creativity:
When I first heard about aphantasia, it sounded like a disability to me, but I quickly learned that it can actually be helpful, depending on what you’re trying to do. For example, I read about a writer who said that since she doesn’t think in images, there’s no need to translate them, so it’s easier to get thoughts down on the page. (My friend Kelli Anderson talked to a designer with aphantasia who said she worked with “a tinkering, try-things-out process.”)
What I did not expect is that after reading my blog post, my wife would look up from her phone and say, “I think I have that. I have that.”
Yes, the woman who I’ve lived with for over 15 years, the woman who has a master’s degree in architecture, the woman who has one of the best eyes and senses of style… she can’t make pictures in her head!
People can live their entire lives with it and never know it. These people often respond to my apple exercise by saying, “Wait. People can see the apple in their minds?” They think “counting sheep” is just a metaphor and not something that people can actually imagine.
All of this is background. A long way of saying I knew I wanted to use aphantasia as the starting point of my talk, to get people to think a little bit differently about what imagination is, and how it is different than creativity.
Imagination is just being able to think of things that aren’t right in front of you, whether they be images or words or concepts.
Creativity is about taking what is in front of you — the material at hand — and turning it into something that wasn’t there before. Something new.
So now, I’ve got that first piece. The second piece comes in the form of a meme that I have seen float around the internet. It’s a clipping from a late 19th century newspaper: