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Beethoven's Creative Strategy

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Beethoven kept his creative promises by strategically using his time to incubate ideas. His favorite method of thinking things through? Long, solitary walks through the forested valleys of Vienna.

He placed great importance on this planned time for reflection and idea evaluation. It appears he wasn’t alone; notable craftsman the world over share similar sentiments on the utility of breaking up their day with walks.

Beethoven went for a vigorous walk after lunch, and he always carried a pencil and a couple of sheets of paper in his pocket, to record chance musical thoughts.

Gustav Mahler followed much the same routine — he would take a three- or four-hour walk after lunch, stopping to jot down ideas in his notebook. Benjamin Britten said that his afternoon walks were “where I plan out what I’m going to write in the next period at my desk.”


Absorb State vs. Synthesis StateGiven the often muddy nature of creativity, it is an understatement to say that I’ve greatly enjoyed the practical, down-to-earth advice from Harvard psychologist Dr. Shelly Carson.

In her book "Your Creative Brain," Dr. Carson highlights the importance of using strict boundaries between your absorb state (taking in and evaluating information) and your synthesis state (when you execute on your ideas). Her research has led her to believe that this is potentially the biggest roadblock to being consistently creative:

Everyone has a built-in censoring system in their brains that filters thoughts, images, and memories, and stimuli from the outside world before they reach conscious awareness.

Learning to loosen up this mental filtering system to allow more novel ideas and stimuli into conscious awareness is one of the biggest challenges for people who don’t think of themselves as creative.

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When did Beethoven gave his "absorb state" of taking things in if he spent his downtime taking long walks in the forest? Shouldn't he have been going to museums or reading or something?

He was already creative.  He didn't need the down time and blank slate to synthesize material from without; he used the time and activity to develop his own ideas.  

Ah, then this article is less helpful for we who are looking for ways to find creativity and inspiration.

For everyone!

Recently, psychologists took an interesting step (or two) forward in understanding the creative benefits of walking — a Stanford studywas able to show that walking helped subjects produce more novel ideas and enhanced creative thinking during the walk and immediately after, compared to sitting.

As the title of the study so humorously points out, walking may be the missing ingredient to consistently give your new ideas some legs. There are a few reasons why walking is genuinely useful to the creative process:

1. The fact that walking is exercise. It has been well established that exercise is beneficial for thinking creatively. The key seems to be that exercise consistently improves one’s mood, and further studies on creativity show that working during a strong mood (especially a positive mood) will result in more novel ideas. Although walking isn’t strenuous, it is certainly better than being hunched over in a chair.

2. Allowing time to re-conceptualize. Notice how Beethoven and others used their walks as breaks. They didn’t start their day with incubation, they included it to break up an earlier work session where they had already put thought into a project. Eureka moments will remain illusive if the work isn’t done first: “In general, creativity seems to come when insight is combined with the hard work of analytical processing.”

3. A separation of stimuli. The use of stimulus control to change behavior is nothing new (often used by Dr. BJ Fogg, discussed here). But what if a strict association of external stimuli could help with creativity? Walks help create divide between a work environment and a thinking environment — engaging in both at your desk makes it a nebulous location where too many things happen at once.

And don't it feel good!

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