15 Sep

Why You Should Never Critique Yourself When You’re Working Through Problems

Daydreaming_GentlemanEvery formal brainstorming session begins with the group listing ideas. No one is allowed to opine on the worthiness of the ideas. The point is to create the free flow of thoughts and concepts. Every idea is admitted, no matter how far-fetched. Once the list is compiled, the merits of the ideas are discussed and edited. By taking no out of the initial list development, you are likely to surface some new approaches to break your progress block.

I haven’t got the faintest idea where that quote comes from. Probably some management or self-help book. I read a lot of those. It’s a hobby of mine.

I do know that it’s the truth, though, for as soon as you start thinking about what you’re doing, what you’re creating, how and why, you put the lid on your creativity.

I’m not saying “stop thinking and do things on automatic”. That’s not the way to create great games, or great art, or great writing. No, what I’m saying is to lock up your inner critic, bash him over the head with a flowerpot, drag him into the pantry and throw away the key. Then get down to the business of designing solutions.

I’ve worked in groups where this was the norm: first we brainstorm, then we critique. I’ve worked in groups where the opposite was the norm: we critique while brainstorming. I’m guessing that you already know which one I’ll recommend. Yeah, critiquing while you’re trying to brainstorm is like trying to eat while forcing your lips shut. All you manage to do is create a whole lot of mess.

That’s fine to do in a group, say that we’re going to accept all ideas, no matter how out there. But there’s always that little voice in your head, the little poacher waiting to shoot down any idea you might get: “it’s no good”, “it won’t work” and the ever insidious “the other’s won’t like it”. In a good group those get taken care off. If you’re ever in a truly free brainstorming session you won’t be able to miss the energy, those almost literal sparks flying between members of the team, the ideas that seem to come out of nowhere, the laughter (because there’s bound to be laughter, at how weird the ideas are and at the inevitable jokes that your creative freedom will kindle).

Wonderful image, isn’t it? I’ve been in a few brainstorming sessions like that. I’ve been in a few bull sessions like that, too.

Now I’m trying to get those same sparks to fly when I’m alone.

Yeah, the game designer’s, and the writer’s, work is often lonely and hard. But you need to find a way to release that energy or you will use yourself to fuel your creativity and forcing yourself to create will, eventually, burn you out.

So, back to the topic: how do you remove that censorship and set your brain on fire?

Me, I’ve got two ways of doing it, a fast one and a slow one. I’m not saying that either is better. The fast one is the direct one, the slow one is the indirect one. Neither is 100% dependable but both work.

The fast one entails just sitting down and writing. Yep, that’s right. I just come up with ideas all on my own. Neat, isn’t it?

Sorry, it’s not that simple. There’s a mongol horde of forced practice days behind this. I can’t do it with something that’s truly new, where I don’t have the confidence to let my ideas spread their razor wings and fly through the safety meshes of my mind. I can’t do it when I’m thinking about the goal I hope to achieve, or who will see what I’m doing.

I know of people who can, writers I admire, but me, I have to cheat myself into the fast way. I force myself to forget who’ll read what I’m writing, who’ll play what I’m designing.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it does not.

The fast way is fast, simple, but not dependably achievable (yet). When it fails I have to resort to the slow way, the trudge to forgetfulness. I call it daydreaming.

Ha! I’m getting away with saying that all you need to do is daydream!

Yeah, I am. Because daydreaming, when you truly let yourself go wherever you want, is the generation of ideas without criticism. I often daydream about things I would be ashamed of admitting, like being the president of the world. Everyone adores me and on my 60th birthday, when I announce that I’m stepping down because I’m such a great guy that absolute power hasn’t corrupted me in the least, then I’m whisked away by my family and friends and they put that blank visor helmet that Luke uses to lightsaber-fight the flying tennis ball, they put it on my head and I can’t hear, can’t see and they lead me out onto grass and when I remove it I’m at the Superbowl except the stands are filled with Symphonic Orchestras from all over the world and who’ve volunteered to play my theme song in tandem. 80 000 classical instrumentalists and choir singers produce a rolling wave of sound that washes over me and I’m so moved that I walk to the edge of the field and climb up to the first level of seats and I climb around it while shaking hands and everyone keeping singing and playing and saluting me.

Did I really write that out loud?

You betcha. And now I better post it before my inner critic wakes up and decides to edit it down to size.

But before that: Yeah, daydreaming your problems away is great, but sometimes that doesn’t work either.

Then I pull out the vacuum cleaner and start hoovering the house. Or I take a long, long shower. Or I wash the dishes. Anything that occupies me physically but leaves mental capacity to spare. Then I can’t help but to start daydreaming. And after I’ve cried a tad at how everyone loves me I can start to shift my thoughts to whatever problem I need to come up with solutions to.

And sometimes that works.

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