Brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm, stall. In a culture that demands constant innovation and disruption, it can feel like our imaginations become worn down through constant calls for the new. To fight such burnout, how can we refresh our eyes? How can we see things in new and inspiring ways? One possibility is to turn to the metaphor of the trees and the bee, whose relationship gives fruit as the result of cross-pollination. In our work, coming into contact with the ideas of another “tree” can be similarly productive.
In agriculture, cross-pollination is an important barrier against the environmental risks of monoculture, in which we rely too much on one plant type; it “freshens” plant reproduction with pollen from outside. In a business or creative setting monoculture has its own risks, as we habitually turn to the same sources, people and habits for new ideas. Over time, these ideas can take on a similarly predictable taste. Or, worse still, the turn to the old and reliable can mean disaster if something comes in and disrupts your environment.
Luckily, there are inspiring models of creative thinkers who have behaved like the bee, moving from disciplinary tree to disciplinary tree, spreading the pollen of ideas from one to another:
- Leonardo da Vinci is perhaps the most famous example of the richness offered by gaining knowledge and experience from markedly different fields. In addition to being a master painter, he was also a deeply engaged scientific thinker, and the interaction between the fields is clearly on display in his paintings that capture the human form with a level of detail and realism unusual for the time.
- Equally beloved, but working on a smaller scale, Beatrix Potter was a naturalist whose closely-observed drawings of mushrooms, birds and other life can be felt in the Peter Rabbit stories, each of which share carefully-rendered depictions of small wildlife.
- The flow isn’t only from the sciences to the arts, either. Already, descriptions of code as “elegant” suggest that judgments of beauty circulate in the tech world, too. Steve Jobs, for one, radicalized personal computing in part because of his belief that the computer might aspire to the level of art.
Even if you’re not so ambitious in your pursuit of exotic new trees as da Vinci or Potter, you can build the cross-pollination habit through simple, regular practices:
1. Make a date with yourself.
In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron suggests a weekly practice she calls the “artist’s date.” Importantly, the artist’s date is not a date to work on your own regular creative work. Instead, it’s a date to feed your inspiration by looking at something artistically nourishing and stimulating.
So, if you are someone who writes computer code for a living, you might go to an art exhibition one week or browse your independent bookstore for a new novel the next. If you are a writer, you might go for a walk in an arboretum on Monday mornings or take a cooking class on a Friday each month. It may be that in contemplation of a painting of a seashell, you are inspired to solve an immediate problem, but the purpose of the artist’s date is less directive. Instead, the idea is to enrich you, to fill you with wide-ranging, stimulating and nourishing material to promote creative living.
2. Read about creative lives.
Start building a library of others who have lived inspirationally full and productive lives, whatever their background. Biographies and how-to guides from other fields can be wonderful sources of inspiration that also open you up to the way a day—and a life—might be structured: What might you gain from working as Stephen King suggests in On Writing, or reading about and emulating the morning routine of a favorite athlete?
In Deep Work, for example, computer scientist Cal Newport describes the inspiring life of psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who worked in a tower in the forest to develop theories away from the distractions of his day. Although there’s a wide chasm between contemporary computer science and Jung’s somewhat idiosyncratic psychology, Newport draws inspiration from his work habits to explain why he avoids the social media chatter of the modern day.
3. Get in touch with your “beginner’s mind.”
It can be refreshing to one’s self as a knowledge-seeking being to be very bad at something, to get viscerally in touch with what it means to learn as a process, full of curiosity and uncertainty. In disciplines with which we are familiar, we tend to come to problems and projects with a sense of our approach already established. But how do you approach fly fishing? Crochet? Trapeze flying? Extremely novel experiences require close attention and intensely focused thought of a kind we may have lost in relation to our most frequent and yet most important work.
To experience the new and learn more about the world makes life richer and more meaningful, a gift in itself. But at a more practical level, it gives us not just material, but different ways of thinking that allow us to innovate and explore our work in exciting new ways.
This article was published in July 2019 and has been updated. Photo by Milan Ilic Photographer/Shutterstock
Katherine Fusco is an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she teaches film, theory, and American literature. She is the author of Silent Film and U.S. Naturalist Literature: Time, Narrative and Modernity (Routledge) and Kelly Reichardt (University of Illinois). Currently, Katherine is working on a book about stardom and questions of identity in the 1920s and 1930s. Katherine has appeared in The Atlantic, Dilettante Army, Harpers Bazaar, Headspace, OZY and Salmagundi; you can find her blog on motherhood and creativity at CreateLikeAMother.blog.