When I was in Hong Kong I came across a little boy called Tian Tian that I have become incredibly fond of. Tian Tian is a character created by Hong Kong artist Danny Yung, and was inspired by the motto tian tiang xiang shang (every day we look up), a message from Chairman Mao to Chinese kids in the 1950s to work hard and aspire to a great future.
Since finding Tian Tian, I have him in two poses on my desk – in one he is pointing to the sky, and in the other standing reflectively, hands in pockets. For me, these two characteristics embody a large part of the creative process: observation, inquiry and reflection.
In the book Hamlet’s Blackberry, the journalist William Powers writes about the conundrum of what it means to be digitally connected and argues that one thing that our hyperconnectivity risks is depth. Powers writes that what distinguishes the great artists, thinkers and leaders in history is “what they did with their intelligence, the depth they reached in their thought and brought to bear in their work.” It is a combination of ‘knowledge’, ‘reflection’ and ‘doing’ that has led to their significant contributions to the world.
Our culture today places much emphasis on ‘knowledge’ and ‘doing’ while ‘reflection’ is the hardest to achieve. Technology provides us an endless supply of information, and we are constantly incentivized to increase our productivity. And though ‘reflection’ is important, the other two tend to impinge on the first. There is never enough time. The mind is too busy thinking about 1 and 3. I will note that though there is a growing movement encouraging mindfulness, it is different from ‘reflection’. Mindfulness is being in the present. ‘Reflection’ is a process of contemplation.
The late great physicist Richard Feynman told a story about an experience he had as a child where a kid said that Feynman’s father had not taught him anything because Feynman was unable to identify a bird’s genus. On the contrary, Feynman’s father had taught him that knowing the name of a bird did not mean one knew anything about the bird. “I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something,” Feynman is often quoted. This knowing something is the space between ‘knowledge’ and ‘doing’. To understand the relationship between the two, one must take the time to reflect.
In the professional world, ‘knowledge’ and ‘doing’ run parallel with each other. In my work, with campaigns we are always presenting rationales and conceptualizations because this is what gets presented to the client. This is what everyone sees, and therefore it bears the most importance. But no sees the contemplation involved and therefore reflection is counted as secondary; an inconvenient time expense, a blip in the process. Who really cares what you think? It’s what you know and what you do that matters, right?
I’m afraid to say that you can get away in life living according to that method and probably do quite well for yourself. We are a superficial society and in our careers it’s the outcome that matters. Most people don’t have the time to inquire any further, or are generally disinterested. But the richness in human ideas and experiences come from that tangled mental and emotional process. To quote Danny Yung, “Creativity is the most important energy that can be generated from critical thinking. Likewise, creativity also leads to critical thinking.” It’s a symbiotic relationship, and I hope a case for elevating the status of reflective practice.