Useless, and Valuable

TAoN No. 74: Creative thinking. Plus, a new icebreaker, and more

In a slight departure, I’d like to start today not with a prompt but with thoughts about why creativity matters. I doubt any of you need to be convinced — but perhaps some of you, at times, feel you need to convince others?

A few weeks ago Kottke pointed to this 9-minute Ethan Hawke Ted Talk. (And yes I am aware that the phrase “Ethan Hawke Ted Talk” sounds like the premise of an SNL sketch. Stick with me.) Honestly the best thing about the video is its title: “Give yourself permission to be creative.” While I’m actually skeptical of the routine claim that “everyone is creative” (a topic for another time), I absolutely agree that, as Hawke suggests here, much in our culture devalues and thus discourages real creativity.

Hawke describes the job of the poet — who functions in his talk as a stand-in for a creative thinkers and behavers in general — as being, at times, a disruptive force, a trickster who risks playing the fool but in so doing makes you see the world differently. Kottke singled out this section:

“Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about poetry. They have a life to live, and they’re not really that concerned with poems — until their father dies, they go to a funeral, you lose a child, somebody breaks your heart, they don’t love you anymore, and all of a sudden, you’re desperate for making sense out of this life, and, ‘Has anybody ever felt this bad before? How did they come out of this cloud?’ … And that’s when art’s not a luxury, it’s actually sustenance. We need it.”

This stuck in my head because it reminded me of a comment Michael Longley (a poet) once made on On Being. Longley’s remarks strike me as both a higher-stakes and more expansive version of the idea.

“One of the marvelous things about poetry is that it’s useless. It’s useless. ‘What use is poetry?’ people occasionally ask, in the butcher shop, say. They come up to me and they say, ‘What use is poetry?’ And the answer is, ‘No use.’

“But it doesn’t mean to say that it’s without value. It’s without use, but it has value. It is valuable.

“And the first people that dictators try to get rid of are the poets and the artists, the novelists and the playwrights. They burn their books. They’re terrified of what poetry can do. … Poetry encourages you to think for yourself.

Let’s just continue to use poetry to stand in for creativity more broadly. This note that Longley lands on — thinking for yourself — is what really resonates with what I think of as a primary TAoN theme: creativity starts with engaging with the world on your own terms, noticing what others miss, and attending to what matters most to you. That is: Deciding what’s valuable to you even if it seems, even if it is, useless. Thinking for yourself.

I want to link that to some of Hawke’s other comments that are more in the realm of the every day. “Don’t read the book that you should read; read the book that you want to read,” he advises. Try new things — listen to new music, talk to new people, “follow your love.” Maybe sometimes you’ll feel foolish, but “be willing to play the fool.” Again: what’s useless but valuable?

Actually, my second favorite thing about Hawke’s short talk is a cautionary aside. We try to offer something good to the world, which sounds like a reasonable goal. But we should remember, he says: “The world is an extremely unreliable critic.” Indeed. The world likes useful; value is personal. Being creative has its own rewards, but acclaim, admiration, or even respect are not to be expected.

Maybe that’s what it means to play the fool? That’s certainly what it means, to borrow from Longley, to think for yourself. Which is, of course, the goal. So let’s make it this week’s prompt:

Give yourself permission to be creative.

  • Noticing is about other people, too. The Icebreaker series aims to help with that. There’s a central collection spot for all the icebreakers to date, here. || There’s also an Icebreaker Slack app, here. (Back story on that here.)

This week’s icebreaker is from reader Judi Kauffman:

Tell a lie and a true thing about yourself. Let others guess which is which.

Judi explains that she taught college design and art courses for years, and on the first day of class asked students “to tell a lie and a true thing about themselves, making it sound as if both were true. Then the other students had to guess which was which, and defend their choice.” (Those who had a hard time with the idea of lying could make it a “dream.”)

“Lots of laughter and a lot of interesting information emerged,” she continues. “Was that guy a wrestler or a pig farmer? (Wrestler — but his grandfather raised pigs.) Was the quiet, older woman who had wiped off her drafting table before she got settled a nurse or a pilot? (Pilot!)”

Judi would go first. “I said I had been the captain of my swimming team, and that I had been a hair model,” she says. “Most people immediately guessed that I’d been a swimmer because I was lanky, but I don’t leave the shallow end. That was the lie. But when I was a teen and a college student I had very long hair that made me some very good money because it could be teased and shaped any way a stylist envisioned. (Truth be told, I still imagine myself gliding through water like a fish — but it’s never happened!)” I love it. Thanks so much, Judi!

As usual, I’m still working through the backlog of icebreaker submissions. But as always, I want more:

Send your favorite icebreaker (whether you made it up or found it elsewhere) to

Up next

  • For Thursday I’m working on a post on the subject of ambition in the pandemic/sorta-post-pandemic era; Saturday I’ll be starting a new occasional feature called Say Something Nice. Those posts will be for paid subscribers! Sign up so you don’t miss anything. ; )

In Other News

@carmencis_, @els_kardol

Okay that’s it!

As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, things we need a word for, and of course your icebreakers: Or use the comments!

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All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032 

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