#68: Recommendations: Creativity Vs. Reactivity

Hi hi, friends,

It’s been forever. The earth’s had half a rotation. I’ve missed writing this letter, and it’s now resuming a schedule, every Friday for the near future. I have an enormous pile of stories, links, cool things I’ve read that I’ve been stockpiling away like some kind of demented scrapbooking squirrel and so the new few weeks will be devoted to batching out some of those. Old links, dold shminks. So picture a shed; picture an unsuspecting person walking up to the shed and opening the door; picture an avalanche of acorns streaming out of the shed, to the surprise of the person standing there. That’s me, vomiting five thousand acorns in your lap to say hello.

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot this year is the idea of creativity vs. reactivity. I first heard about it from the coach Christine Kane, who lives here in Asheville, and I find it a super useful concept. To shorthand it: when you’re in a creative mode you’re acting in a deliberate, purposeful manner meant to advance you toward a goal; when you’re in reactive mode, you’re the human equivalent of a pinball that’s been hit by a flipper, whizzing through the galaxy. You’re reacting; not steering. Sometimes that’s fine. You have a plan, then things come up, other people have needs or requests, or their own ideas on how to proceed, and you shift to adapt—that is, you react—and it’s no big deal, just part of jostling along through life. Other times, of course, it’s not fine. You stay in permanent pinball mode, and it’s miserable.


I’ve found the concept helpful for understanding certain patterns I get in. “Why do I feel like such a pissy minotaur? Well, I haven’t written in four days because first x. happened and then y. came up unexpectedly, and then z. and z. again and if z. happens again tomorrow I swear to Zeus, I’m going to take out Theseus and every Athenian ship in that harbor. So what can I do to form a plan that will allow me to get in thirty minutes of writing even if z. does come up, the execution of which plan will thereby keep me from raging through the streets of Crete tomorrow, screaming, ‘Why won’t you leave me alone in the solitude of my labyrinth so I can write this #$&*)# book!” at various startled-looking people in togas before bursting into loud minotaur frustration-tears and slinking off in shame and damp dudgeon?”

For example!

(“‘Philip Roth didn’t need a labyrinth. All he needed was a place in Connecticut,’ the minotaur was heard to cry as she loped off. ‘Read Asymmetry, you’ll see!’”)


The other reason I’ve been so fastened on the idea of “creativity vs. reactivity” is in trying to make sense of our current political scene and sorting out what are the best actions I can take in response to it. Sometime before the 2016 election, it became evident that Trump and his cohort had an amazing ability to redirect narrative and the flow of people’s attention. You will have your own point at which this now-obvious fact struck you, where you thought “wait, how is this guy slipping away from this story?” For me, it was with the Trump University settlement. So many other stories I could have said there: “grab them by the pussy”! sharking behind Clinton during the debate! mocking a reporter with a disability! support from Nazis! Multiple bankruptcies, not paying contractors, literal resemblance to devil, GOLD ELEVATORS, etc. etc., which of course, is the point: There. were. so. many. things. to. choose. from. And there have continued, each week, to be so. many. Terrible things. Petty ones. Reprehensible ones. Two years of it now. Four this week: the movement of hundreds of children in the dead of night to a detainment camp in West Texas; mocking Christine Ford at a taxpayer-funded rally; continued loud support of Kavanaugh; as well as the massive, damning tax fraud story in the New York Times. That I’m mentioning that tax story last is in some ways my point: There are so many stories, happening unchecked and all the time, that they form a sort of shapeless swarm. (And haha! I forgot the Kim Jong-Un letter thing.)

Around the election, I often referenced a metaphor I read somewhere of how computer viruses work: by striking so many places at once they overload the system. Lately, though, I’ve shifted to thinking about this administration in terms of creativity vs. reactivity, and how it’s the nature of abusers and domineering people to create such fields of chaos that everyone around them is thrown into a never-ending reactivity mode. Which then benefits the creator of the chaos because, when someone’s stuck in reactivity mode, it’s hard for them to think and behave strategically. You become the pinball, bouncing and rebounding in anger and incredulity and getting more hopeless and helpless feeling with each week. And so the question is, how to switch from the pinball back to a person who is able to act with determination?

This may not be a helpful framing advice for you, and today with the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing especially so—you might be too worn out, or too directly affected by all that’s been happening, and if so, I send a big pulse of warmth to you. (Last night my FB feed was all women who don’t know each other asking for suggestions about what to do about chronic migraines: “They’ve been worse the past year.”) But if this construct seems potentially helpful for getting through your days right now, here’s how I’ve been working with it:

What makes me feel reactive and helpless? Then I try to reduce or cut out those activities. This is an ongoing balancing act. I slide and get out of whack here all the time. But I try to keep an observing eye on it.

What is my plan? A plan is the first step towards creative action. It’s choosing “here’s what I’m going to do” in a way that’s informed by what’s happening in the world but feels, at least for me, qualitatively different. Like wresting narrative control back.

Right now, for example, there are 32 days till the mid-term elections. So one shape a plan could take would be evaluating where you can be of the most help and what forms your help might take (e.g., donating money, volunteering, etc.). If you’d like to help register voters, what org can you work with and what hours do you actually have free? Then you look at your calendar and decide. It may feel paltry, small, in the face of what’s happening. That sense of insignificance gets wrapped up with the feeling of hopelessness. And the only remedy I’ve found to it so far is small but steady, boring-looking forward action. As you write things on your calendar, try not to feel like you have to be amazing—all you’re trying to do is move from “tenebrous goal of doing something” to “that’s nice but what and when.”

Short version: Basically, take every efficiency tip you’ve ever read and apply it to formulating your plan of steely determination. Be specific. Break it into small goals. Calendar it. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. (The Minotaur’s TED Talk.)


My plan here in North Carolina is mostly dedicated around helping to get the word out about the six (terrible) state constitutional amendments that will be on the fall ballot and encouraging people to #nixallsix when they vote.

It feels—not small, exactly, but odd to be focused on an issue that I don’t see mentioned much on Twitter. However, one of the amendments targets voting rights (it’d make photo IDs necessary) and that’s an issue I care a lot about and where I can do something, i.e., possibly change how people are going to vote, so volunteering around that made sense. (The sheer dullness of the phrase “state constitutional amendments” makes people glaze over and miss what’s at stake with this set of amendments—such as the targeted suppression of black voters, as well as another one that would beggar the state and its schools for decades to come—and on the ballot itself the amendments are worded confusingly. Thus the need for talking to people early. If you’d like to get involved on this too, I’d point you to Democracy North Carolina.)

A couple other options and resources:

• Highly recommended: Laura Olin’s recently launched newsletter, Votes For Women. It’s one thing you can do every day to help a Democratic woman win office on Nov. 6. Extremely well researched and with options ranging from “takes two minutes” to longer. (I’ve been giving a little $ to each of the candidates, and it feels great.)

• If you haven’t already, consider signing up to volunteer for The Last Weekend.


• A while back, Jia Tolentino recommended the StayFocusd plugin which lets you limit how much time you spend on different social media sites each day. I like it a lot—not least because it features this little eyeball that turns into an emoji-ish red eye of Sauron when you’re on one of your “limited” sites, which is often enough to make me go dancing off.

(Quasi related, every time I think of this photo sequence of Jia’s dog descending a spiral staircase I laugh.)

• The Pema Chodron audiobook for Getting Unstuck. I’ve shared this with a couple clients and listened to it several times myself, and it’s always been a sure but comforting nudge when I feel trapped in a bad habit pattern. There’s also a bit at the end where she gives her interpretation of A Beautiful Mind that only gets funnier and funnier as we get farther from 2001.

(Quasi related, this Sarah Miller piece on reviewing The English Patient in 1996 is my favorite thing I read this week.)

Next week: recommendations related to bears and books!

Until then,
hoping you’re always greeted on the streets of Crete with sympathy and the warmest understanding,