Frank Chen

Frank Chen

email newsletter #11

creative laboratories

We should have more creative laboratories in our lives.

I think in our heart of hearts, we're all creative people, we just haven't cultivated the right environment to consistently bring it out. Instead, it's common to get stuck at the level of assuming that creativity is some innate skill.

What is a creative laboratory? This video of John Mayer just screwing around with music in his house captures it really well.

Call it a place to experiment, a sandbox, or a creative laboratory - the idea is to fuck around and discover new things, break out of the old habits that we've grown accustomed to and to follow interesting.

What does this environment enable?

  1. non-judgmental spamming of ideas
  2. low risk
  3. random constraints

Back when I was still bboying, there were days where we would structure "cyphers" (a circle where you jump in and do your stuff). No time limit, completely optional, and good vibes all around. If you crashed or made mistakes, no one gave a shit.

The whole point was to spam new ideas without fear of judgment. (Sound familiar?) It was low risk in that it wasn't a battle or competition. No money, pride, or ego was on the line.

You see this with bboys quite frequently - bboy Menno and Victor come to mind. They're in their studios or garages just playing.

What about constraints? If you're accustomed to doing the same thing - toprock, some footwork, a power move, and then a freeze, that's a neural pathway that's well worn. When you're playing around the key is to break out of that. Maybe do the same thing but only use your right hand. Throw a freeze every time you transition out of a power move. Do only airchairs in one set.

By doing this, you start breaking habits, digging up new movement modalities that were previously unexplored, and mapping out new experiences. You're purposefully "doing something different", but in the larger picture, what you're really doing is crafting an environment that promotes creativity.

Let's talk about creative laboratories in cooking.

Most of the time, we don't spam random ideas in the kitchen because we don't want to face the disappointment of our guests or serve something bad.

Serving guests (in the traditional sense) is not the time to be experimenting. But in the process of finding what works, you're gonna fuck up, you're gonna throw something out at some point, or just eat weird tasting food (because someone is has to taste it).

Non-judgmental trying takes place in the test kitchen. This is the time and place to have that dialogue. Because it's a test kitchen, there's no risk. You're not going to get a 1-star Yelp review. The worst is some private critical feedback, and that'll mainly serve to help you adjust.

With constraints, when I was cooking more often in my supper club, I limited myself to three random ingredients that I had to build a menu around. The characteristics of those ingredients helped limit the scope of what I was doing and forced me to use unknown ingredients in different ways. Don't get me started on how much weird tasting shit I produced. But there were some very interesting meals, and that's what I was going for.

Creative laboratories in jiujitsu help me with skill development.

Going at "high intensity", like in a bboy battle, or executing a dinner menu, will force you to go down the most well-known neural pathways because those are the ones that are second nature. In jiujitsu, you're not going to be working your B or C game when someone is coming for your neck. "A" game only.

Again, the creative laboratory is the time and place to play around and discover new neural pathways. During these times, don't judge movement as good or bad - it's exploration. Get caught in a submission? Lose position? You're training with trusted partners in an experimental mindset. There are no medals, money, or pride on the line. Purposefully get entrenched into positions you might not find yourself in and find ways to work out of them. Skill development works best when you're in a low-ego state.

You can choose to impose optional constraints to further break out of bad habits - don't use your left hand, only play certain guards, look for only triangle chokes throughout your entire roll, or impose time limits on getting a sweep or a pass.

I think you get the gist. Creative laboratories are purposefully crafted environments meant to break you out of entrenched habits. If you're not having fun, you're doing it wrong.