Specificity vs. Freedom

Day 353 Week 52 Q4  Monday, December 19, 2022

As creative outliers, we really like our freedom. We like freedom a lot. Freedom to express. Freedom to choose our projects and colors and fonts and business models. Freedom to not be ruled by others or even by the clock. So we also like freedom in our schedules so we can go in whatever directions we chose in the present moment.

Well, we also may like chocolate and pasta, or beer and wine or other things but if we always give in to the whims of the moment, we may end up fat and unemployed or for some stoned and unproductive. So although we do love our freedoms, we also know that some structure or rules of thumb or framework is also needed or at least helpful. Now not being a very big fan of rules myself, I try to avoid them most of the time, but I have found from experience that the smallest number of rules is not zero. Because as Dillon said, “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.”

Seriously, I dislike rules as much as the next creative person and try to determine the smallest number I can to adhere to but that number is never zero. For example, if you want to stay married or have a roof over your head and your heart, you have to abide by some things that are not totally under your control. And hey, face it, a lot of life is not under your control. This brings on the need to do a balancing act between Specificity and what I, and others, call “Degrees of Freedom”.

Now we do realize that constraints are helpful in the creative process. For example, you do not want to change fonts in every paragraph, even in a short story or a blog posting. And if you are a musician, you do not want to change what key you are in every four beats. Or if you are a business person and do not stick to the knitting but change your product line and market and business plan every month, well, you will not be a business person much longer if you ever were one in the first place. But hey, I bet a lot of us did change our major in college more than once or at least thought about it.

So this balance between specificity and freedom is constantly going on. It is a larger problem for creative outliers than for everyone else because we tend to have this annoying for others set of traits called curiosity and imagination. This dynamic duo that seems to be hard-wired into our being is not always welcome by others. Even if you are given enormous degrees of freedom at work, which I had the great fortune of experiencing many times, it is not without constraints. Although there was one case, I need to mention when I worked at Apple and asked what my budget was. Amazingly I was told they were prepared to provide me with more funds than I would need because I was reasonable enough to investigate things in enough detail before committing to them, that there would not be enough time for me to intelligently spend money at a rate greater than they would support.

That truly blew my mind, and it was not the first time this type of thing happened to me, but I went back to balancing specificity with degrees of freedom. I think the answer is not to balance them at all but to integrate them. Balancing implies to me an act that continues to have to oversee with a lot of effort required to keep all of those balls in the air. For as soon as you could juggle a few without dropping them, why not pick up a few more, which sort of works until you begin to drop some or even all of them? 

Assuming you like degrees of freedom in your projects and works but also need to have some guard rails or rules of thumb at a minimum, then what about your life? Your life, after all, is your greatest work or your greatest project, as we are all clearly works in progress.

If we are not always to be rebalancing which can consume all of our effort and time if you are not careful, then how can we integrate so that our lives have the integrity of not having always to be repeatedly and tiresomely rebalanced?

Well, the only answer I know, since the number of and types of projects, enterprises, relationships and dreams are totally time-varying, is to take a hard look at what is not so variable. And there is only one thing in my life I am aware of, that is the least time-varying, and that is the number of hours in the day. Even if time does not exist, that is an entirely different conversation than we would have had to invent it. And whoops, I have shown my hand, as we did invent it.

Assuming here on earth we are all dealing with the same, roughly 24 hours in a day, well not quite, which is why we have invented leap years, then we have a starting point. Because time is the only nonrenewable resource except when you are in your early twenties before you realized this, it is our most valuable resource and, therefore, the one to think about managing the most. And no, I do not means scheduling your entire life into fifteen-minute intervals, which used to be the most anal or greedy thing a professional could do, but now has proceeded in some professions to six-minute intervals. Tenths of hours? Seriously, to, me that is artificial-accuracy, or imaginary precision. If your life is comprised of six minute segments, you are not doing anything creative at all except maybe getting rich or more Lilly making someone else richer.

Back to the need to integrate the degrees of freedom we crave with the specificity we can not avoid. How do we do this? I have been wondering for decades and sometimes discover it and sometimes forget it, but it always comes back. You have to schedule an adequate number of parts in your life where there are enough degrees of freedom not to hem you in.  

Many people, go to work at the same time every day and take a lunch break at the same time every day and then go home at the same time every day.  This does not work well for creative outliers who tend to bridle at such a predictable existence. But there is no reason you can schedule islands full of freedom during your day where you can have a lot of variety. For example, taking a half hour or even an hour for lunch never worked because lunch was not just lunch but also a time for errands and socializing, and then there was the driving to somewhere, which is always frowned upon by employers.  

The first thing I dissevered is having a boss was not my most productive or fulfilled state of being; I then discovered that even if I was my own boss, I still did not like to take orders from him either. Neither one of these worked very well for an involuntary innovator. Eventually, I determined if I took between 2 and 4 hours in the middle of every day, where I had a lot of freedom or many degrees of freedom as we nerds used to put it, that I was willing to take the few hours before and after this “freedom island” and focus on one thing (or another).

After all, if you are not doing a deep dive, you are probably not getting anything wonderful done personally, maybe by proxy by directing others, but no deep dives means no heavy progress.

In any case, assuming you get to a point where you realize that your life is your greatest work, then the degrees of freedom have to balance with the specific requirements in your life even more than in your other projects, none of which, in general are as long as your life, unless you are a parent, but that is another story.

However, you manage to create an integrated life, with sufficient freedom to permit you to exercise your creativity is fine. If you do not find some way to house your creativity and wait until you are on vacation or retired, you will not be a happy camper. This is not true for everyone, only for creative outliers, for they are haunted by the twin demons of curiosity and imagination, which is why we are outliers.

But outliers not only do not have to be nuts or suffering; we can also be the most productive people in the world, who, after all, bring everyone else tomorrow. The future is envisioned and manifested by creative outliers, but only the ones who integrate adequate degrees of freedom into their lives to feel fairly permanently balanced with their specific needs and obligations. Those who defend the integrity of their creativity by remaining creative outliers can then move toward being involuntary innovators who can not only deliver tomorrow to the world but turn their insights into income, their visions into value and their concepts into commercialization.