Knowing Afterwards

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Logic, rationality and planning are valuable and probably irreplaceable. But there are other times where we can surprise ourselves — moments of creativity where rationality doesn’t have much to do with it. But I think our lives would be less without them.

I’ve rarely held a normal job — from Christian youth worker to masseur to acupuncturist, my jobs have been on the edge of the mainstream. One of the closest to the mainstream was teaching psychological courses in a remand centre.

One of the main courses I taught in the remand centre was called Cognitive Skills. It was a ten week course (this was considered lengthy) and the message of the course was: think first! One of the few differences between people inside and outside gaol is impulsivity. (In Australia, the other is drug addiction. In Australia, most crime is drug related, but legalising drugs is still beyond the consideration of our politicians.) People are often in gaol for doing what they realise later was a pretty silly thing to do.

This is in line with common sense — and is backed up by the data of those in prison. It is also in line with our cultural and educational bias toward rationality and planning. Those who can devise a plan and implement it step by step are approved of. Not having a plan is often dis-esteemed; try saying “Failing to plan is planning to fail” with a tone of approval in your voice.

This approach runs deep and usually makes our lives easier. Knowing that people will usually turn up at the time they have told me is something I enjoy and appreciate. Getting half way into a project and realising that there is no hope of its working, because of something I hadn’t anticipated, is no fun. So planning and rational consideration have considerable benefits in normal life — as well as doing their part to keep us out of gaol.

However, there are other times when our lives are different to this. Perhaps the most important is our times of creativity. A creative process usually involves working with a medium — it isn’t abstract. And the creation of a work is often modified by the medium. The initial idea is ‘shaped by the medium’. The writer finds that a phrasing is clumsy and a new thought results. A painter finds that a figure doesn’t look right and a new direction emerges for the painting. A musician finds that a set of notes isn’t working and a new tune shifts the emphasis of the whole song or musical piece. The creative act is a long way from an abstract idea implemented step by logical step. (Some “art” can be made this way — but I am talking about creativity, not art.)

In the creative act we sometimes surprise ourselves. Ideas or inspirations ‘come to us’. In one way this is ridiculous: they are our ideas, and they may relate closely to our personal learnings and biography. On the other hand, this does represent accurately the experience — we don’t deliberately originate these ideas or inspirations. They may not come to us from outside ourselves, but they certainly come from beyond our rational and intentional selves.

These inspirations are usually realised in the doing. As I’m writing, a phrase will come to me in the writing. The inspirations are usually embodied in the medium being used. A musician is inspired by a tune, not an idea. An artist’s ‘idea’ is of a different figure or colour or line.

In these moments of inspiration and creativity we don’t know what we are going to say (or do) next. We may be interested to see what is ‘going to come to us’. And we may be surprised what does.

This doesn’t just apply to “art”; I think it applies to any situation that we are fully engaged with. In these situations of engagement we may not ‘know what we have to say until we say it’. (I have heard this saying somewhere but can’t find a source for it.)

I think this means that there is more to us than our rationality and intentionality (as important as these are): that there is more to us than we (rationally) know.

I would like to hear from you about any times where you have surprised yourself with what you know. Perhaps you have been surprised with the words that came out of your mouth. Perhaps you are an artist (in any medium) who is familiar with inspiration ‘coming to you’. I’d love to hear your experience in the comments.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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