Thursday, August 27, 2009

From Imitation to Improvisation

Gotcha! - When we encounter experiences, people, or things that touch us deeply in some way, it is natural to want to hold onto them. We try to "capture" the things that bring us pleasure or that resonate with who we are or who we hope to become and incorporate them into our lives somehow. For most of us, that means snapping a photo, purchasing a postcard, getting the recipe, buying the book, or "friending" the person.

Acquisition v. Integration - However, acquisition is not necessarily the equivalent of integration. The photos and postcards get shoved in a pile of things we plan to scrapbook someday, the recipe gets buried on the kitchen counter, the book sits on a shelf--unread, and our interactions with people turn into "What's up with you?" and "We should really do lunch sometime." What conditions energize us to the action required to make those experiences a permanent part of ourselves--incorporating them into our way of thinking, behaving, and being?

This video offers an interesting perspective on these issues:

At this point, my mind flashes in a variety of different directions. In an attempt to take the same advice I have been giving to some of my graduate students lately, I am going to share the raw, undeveloped thoughts in a telegraphic manner and see where that takes me.

Concrete Examples:

Picasso -
  • Classical training
  • Internalized rules of the discipline
  • Restless
  • Fought against constraints of the discipline
  • Integrated daily life, travel experiences, influences, and personal associations into his work (blue period, rose period, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, etc.)
  • "Copied"/reinterpreted master works
  • Associated with other "famous" artists
  • Continuous experimentation ("I have a horror of copying myself")
  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Vision
  • Intense productivity
  • Epiphanies
  • Pushed the profession
  • Transformed the world.
Albert Einstein - Similar story, similar associations with cutting-edge colleagues, different medium

C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien - Ditto

Mozart (and other musicians) - Ditto ("too many notes!")

New generation of web 2.0 businessmen, educators, & scholars - Ditto, but association with cutting-edge colleagues is more prevalent

All had to fight for their beliefs, justify their works because they broke the "rules" and threatened the status quo (among other things)

Additional examples - Dalí, Goya, Rivera, Velásquez, or both Old and New Testament prophets - All addressed different problems, but fought similar battles

The general masses are limited by what they can see - "it isn't possible, we don't do things that way, but traditionally . . . ., that wouldn't be the prudent course of action, there's no precedent for that" are common objections. Does writing to an audience of skeptics change the quality of one's work?


1) Categories of Performance:

  • Novice
  • Experienced
  • Professional
  • Expert

2) Catalysts for Increasing Levels of Performance:

  • Information
  • Experience
  • Access, time, resources, relationships, & problems
  • Abstraction

3) Common Types of Performance at Each Level:

  • Imitation
  • Integration
  • Innovation (often in the form of recombination, typically preceded by reinterpretation?)
  • Improvisation (opposite of "functional fixedness" - requisite conditions do not seem to be the absence of problems but vision, cognitive flexibility, skill, and perseverance to overcome them)
Do exercises like Quickfires facilitate the development of improvisational skills?

A Possible Taxonomy:

When an innovator succeeds, others try to achieve similar results by copying (with varying degrees of success).

Imitators - Copy the appearance of the item, but the imitation lacks the quality, reliability, or substance of the original. (Knock-off watches, handbags, clothing, software, art prints, or books, for example.)

Integrators - Draw on the same elements (books about wizards or vampires, covers that look similar to the original success), some authors try to copy their own success and become formulaic writers in the process.

Innovators - Understand the underlying principles and experiment with recombining them in ways that produce an entirely new, but equally successful product (artists, authors, designers, and scholars who can produce a variety of distinct, but equally good works which often span several genres)

Improvisors - Produce high quality, innovative works that are responsive to the environments in which they find themselves even when their access to time and resources is limited or constrained.

Concrete Application: Fashion

Consider teenagers. Resonance--an emotional, intellectual, and visceral reaction /interaction between who they are (their current identity), who they hope to be (their aspirations), and what clothing styles communicate about those things--seems to motivate them to adopt particular styles.

Imitation - Most simply pick a style that resonates and copy it--typically by buying those same items of clothing (or something as close as they can find that fits within their budgets). When the styles change, they have to start over.

Integration - The fashion-savvy ones are able to analyze the underlying principles, to internalize what "works together" and what doesn't, and to mix and match things well enough that they are able to integrate the style into their lives. They aren't limited by particular items of clothing.

Innovation - A select few of those teens become the trend-setters--those who recognize new possibilities and experiment with them, but without fully abandoning the current styles. And then there are those who can improvise--the teens who can walk into a thrift store and walk out looking like they just stepped off of a fashion runway.

Improvisation - The most skilled become the designers who destroy parts of the existing style, combine it with elements from other trends, and ultimately transform it. The ability to improvise seems to be one true measure of deep expertise, but what makes the shift from innovation to improvisation possible?

Transformation - Grenville Kleiser wrote: "Nothing touches the soul but leaves its impress, and thus, little by little, we are fashioned into the image of all we have seen and heard, known and meditated; and if we learn to live with all that is fairest and purest and best, the love of it all will, in the end, become our very life."

Personal Application - But how do we know the degree to which the things that touch us are changing us, and how might we measure their impact? One way would be to look for traces of them among the physical artifacts that surround us. Did we bother trying to "capture" them (digitally, in a journal entry, or as a souvenir)? If so, did the "captured" experience make it into our living rooms, onto our walls, into our journals, or onto our playlists?

Self-examination: A closer examination might require us to ask questions like, "Has my participation in the experience or my interaction with the person shifted my perspective in any way? Do I use words or expressions frequently associated with the experience or used by the person when I speak? Have I adopted tools or materials from the person or experience into my daily work? Do I approach problems in the way s/he does? Do I think or act differently for having had the experience or for having known the person? These questions seem to apply equally well to professionalism, scholarship, friendship, or discipleship.


Spice Girl said...

Missed you! Thanks for giving me things to think about!

Cherice said...

Tee hee. I'm still waiting for the next installment of your tree story!