Picture a cat.
Now picture that cat in your home, somewhere near you.
What do you imagine that cat doing?
Don’t overthink it. Whatever immediately came to mind when I said to imagine a cat in the room with you works fine.
So, what did you imagine?
Was it something you’ve seen a cat do before? Chase a laser pointer? Stare out a window at some birds? Knock something off a table? Curl up and purr in your lap?
Remember that. Keep your imaginary cat in the back of your mind for a few minutes.
Recently, my daughter looked down at our lazy, 13-year-old cat lounging on the carpet.
“When’s Luna gonna get bigger?”
I paused. “She’s already fully grown. That’s as big as she gets.”
Sprout started to pout. “So I’m never gonna get to ride her‽”
I didn’t see that one coming.
What Sprout did just then? That was beginner’s mind in action.
You see a cat, or you imagine a cat, and your experiences tell you about things that cats do. They tell you purposes cats have. You catalog and categorize the things you see in the world around you.
This thing is a cat. This thing is like a cat. This thing is not a cat.
Time passes. More things make their way into the matrix of your memory. All thoroughly cross-referenced and orderly.
And that’s why you didn’t consider riding your imaginary cat.
You have your reasons, and they’re good reasons. They’re true. It would be foolish to try and actually ride a housecat.
But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be an imaginary possibility.
I want to try to break down how Sprout came to this moment. My guess is she had some combination of these thoughts (not necessarily in this order):
- There’s Luna.
- I love my cat so much, I can’t handle it.
I am small, and so is Luna.
I am growing.
Is Luna growing? Ask a grown up.
I can ride animals, like that time I rode Oreo the pony.
If Luna was bigger, I could ride her!
When will Luna be big enough for me to ride? Ask a grown up!
Her creative process for this idea probably involved memories, established facts, and questions about the unknown.
It’s unlikely she’s seen anyone riding a cat, so that’s a novel element. It’s an aspect of the unknown.
However, that element of the unknown is an extension of the known. She’s not just creating this possibility out of nowhere.
So why am I doing a deep dive on two sentences from my daughter, besides the fact that they made me laugh really hard?
What I saw in her in that moment was a piece of the larger creative process: The desire to create something that does not currently exist, except in the mind.
It reminded me of the beginning of Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
The more we learn about an idea, or a process, or an art form, the more it can constrict our thinking. That which has already been proven, or has already been done, suggests boundaries for what can still be learned or done.
It limits the questions you ask, or the solutions you attempt.
While I can’t deny there is value to be had in deep study of anything you want to work with, be it a creative medium, a scientific field, or any job with its set of processes and requirements, adhering to strongly to “the way things are done” can stifle novel solutions.
The best cinematic expression I’ve seen of this comes from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. While training on Dagobah, Luke whines to Yoda about how he couldn’t possibly lift an X-Wing using the Force. He says that even though he can lift rocks with it, an X-Wing is much heavier.
Luke knows the weight of objects, and he knows his capacity to physically lift objects. He applies these rules to how he thinks the Force works.
And Yoda attempts to convince him that his strict adherence to just these facts isn’t helping him.
In this example, Yoda lifts the X-Wing out of the swamp using the Force to make a point: This is something new to you that you don’t yet understand. It isn’t a muscle. It doesn’t use your body. You can’t hold onto the same rules you learned from interacting with heavy objects using your body.
There’s a method to test and explore ideas. To not feel like everything is already decided for you, or that what you already know is an impenetrable wall, halting your progress.
Anchor your ideas in what you know, but test those boundaries of possibility. Ask questions, the way Sprout did.
Think about what happens if something you see as a hard rule could bend, just a little.
Then chase that notion.
It’s mental jujitsu. Use the weight of the knowledge you already have against itself, and try to swing it to the side to see if it will make way for something unexpected.
To be clear: I do not have all the answers to this, or a simple, listicle-friendly process for people to follow. It’s something I wrestle with regularly, too.
What I do know is that some ideas are less solid and impenetrable than they seem, and it’s important to be able to test your ideas to understand them as they truly are.
It does you no favors to look at a suggestion and see it as a rule, or vice-versa, like the difference between a stop sign and a yield.
One caveat: This doesn’t mean that all ideas formed in this Beginner’s Mind state are great ideas.
I can’t tell you how many times since having this conversation with Sprout that I’ve had to stop her from straddling Luna in preparation to actually try to ride the cat.
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