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[BIFFS vol. 2] Work as trace
“Intention is all there is. Work is just the reminder”
Note: This is Volume 2 of my ongoing series, Big Ideas from Small Sabbatical, where I share the unfiltered ideas that have emerged from my creative sabbatical. You can read the previous volume, Rest does not require artifacts, here.
I was recently gifted Rick Rubin’s The Creative Act for my birthday, and I’m loving it.
Over the past few years, I’ve read many books about creativity, and it’s made me realize the sad truth that most people don’t read books on creativity. And so “to be creative” in the mainstream view is limited to making visual art or music or other artifacts. But when you read books on creativity, you discover a whole process that kindles a lot of what it means to be human. And it turns out you can get better at that process with just a bit of intention sprinkled here and there, until one day you wake up and your life has taken on a delightful new flavour.
I’ve experienced this recently on a profound level. This year I really wanted to change my relationship to work. I felt a cynicism creep in that felt unsustainable and de-energizing. In hindsight, I think a lot of it had to do with how focused I was on output rather than process. Work was about what I produced, and what I produced was a byproduct of what I consumed, and what I consumed was determined by what others produced. And so on and so on. It felt like there was very little space for original thought and creation.
Work as trace
“Intention is all there is. Work is just the reminder”
– Rick Rubin, The Creative Act
The great thing about reading books on creativity (and performing various creative acts) is it’s helped me to step outside of my conventional thinking about what work ought to be.
I’ve recently been exploring the metaphor of work as trace – that it isn’t so much about what we put out into the world as how we put it out; that the thing we really ought to care about, the thing that ultimately matters, is the intention from which the work emerges. The rest is all mirror, representation, resemblance.
I’ve tried to embody this exploration by playing around with different ways of performing work. For example, in one consulting project I set up a ritual of reading a few pages of The Design Way before opening anything related to the work itself. I wanted to shift the spotlight from the “work” to the abstract idea I was trying to learn alongside it (design philosophy). This brought process to the foreground and moved output to the background.
This method, which I’m going to call experiential “braiding”, is a great way to approach learning and personal knowledge gardens* – you intentionally pair slightly related but different things, wrap those things in a ritual, and then sit back and observe your intention (whether it was consciously articulated or not) percolate through the experience. In this way, the work becomes a trace of something much more beautiful and timeless happening on the inside.
*Édouard U. has a beautiful reflection on the importance of building personal knowledge networks
Another way I’ve experienced work as trace is more literally in my art. I like to sketch lines a lot, especially on my reMarkable. Over the years I’ve noticed an uncanny thing – I can look back at any drawing I’ve done, even those from years ago, and tell you exactly what I was thinking and feeling with each mark. The finished work is a visual trace of my mental state at the time.
This process has taught me the hard and unavoidable truth that my best work will always and only ever reflect the intention with which I did it. The reason I can point to scratches on a surface and translate them to past mental states is because during the process of making them, I was truly, wholly present.
New metaphors for intention-filled work
Reframing “work” as a process of embodied intention not only inverts the relationship between process and output (and makes us question why that relationship ever seemed hierarchical in the first place) but also forces us to prioritize the things that make process more enjoyable, true, delightful and meaningful.
With this lens, perhaps it makes more sense to invest in a daily habit of meditation than yet another upskilling course. It makes more sense to take a few months off on sabbatical than to take on yet another position for the sake of accumulating experience.
This point is crucial as we reimagine what “work” might become over the next few years. Journalism and science fiction offer us two (probably overly dichotomous) possibilities: in one world, everyone is freed up to be more creative (which presumably must coincide with some form of universal basic income). The other world is a bit like Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, where most people have lost their jobs to machines and have one of three choices on how to spend their lives: join the elite engineering class, enlist in the army, or find employment with the “Reconstitution and Reclamation Corps” where they will spend their days digging and filling holes.
In the midst of the unfolding crisis with work – a fundamentally spiritual problem – it seems to me that we desperately need new cultural metaphors to describe labour. What, actually, is this thing called “work”? Why do we do it? What does it afford us? What can’t it afford us?
For now, I find solace in the metaphor of work as trace. In a world where “intention is all there is” and “work is just the reminder”, what artifacts do we create? What media and methods are we called to explore in an effort to make those traces ultimately more beautiful, good and true?
Thank you for spending time with my thoughts! I write very infrequently – but you’re welcome to get notified when I do: