Grey flowers. Neutral coffee. Silent vibrations from the stereo.
I cannot long contemplate the loss of any of my senses. A few years ago after a bizarre and serious illness, I went for almost five weeks without a sense of smell. My doctors told me in grave tones that smell was the most delicate of all the senses and that it might be gone forever. I recall a hole in the world, a space where my children and wife essentially became less real to me. I lost a measure of their solidity that I hadn’t known existed before it disappeared. With the loss of my most nuanced of sense, I felt myself becoming unmoored to my own life. Moving a pile of firewood with my children that autumn felt strangely disembodied. The smell of leaves, of firewood, of the year’s ritual prismatic transformation from greens to oranges did not carry any scent at all. I didn’t know how much they were a part of my expectations until they were gone.
Smell is apparently the engine of taste more than actual “taste”. When I lost my sense of smell food immediately stopped being pleasurable. I love to cook for family and friends; I love to eat! Suddenly, food became mechanical and frustrating. The small pleasures of an ordinary day evaporated like fading perfume.
A creative life is about noticing details all around you that might ordinarily be taken for granted. Being aware that the counter help at the bagel shop is unusually bright and cheerful one morning affords a window into an otherwise invisible reality, namely someone else’s life. If you’re a financial planner, your focus will inevitably be on the assets you manage for respective clients. But do you notice the choices your client makes about his or her money are generally tied to decisions about the life they want to lead? Whether your client is an industrialist or and artist, you as their designated Money Maven have the potential to transform your relationship with them. Rather than delivering disembodied red or black lines on a chart, you can influence their future by being open to other criteria. That is, you have the potential to influence their life constructively only if you open yourself to the details—even just brief details!— of their life. Paying attention to information beyond obvious facts makes all the difference in the world.
And yes, it is possible to be a financial planner and think like an artist.
When my sense of smell ultimately began to return—slowly, bit by bit—I found myself becoming more physically solid in the world. It’s as if I had been ever-so-slightly transparent, only to re-condense again into someone with mass. I recall the tang of citrus in my nose one morning when someone poured a glass of orange juice next to me in the kitchen. The world suddenly presented a place through which I could move. Cars began to smell of exhaust again where for the past five weeks they had been phantom cars. Garbage suddenly reeked of decay where before it was simply a visual nuisance, a memory of something to drag to the curb. Chocolate became chocolate again.
I will never forget the transformation.
But I will also never forget the great opportunity afforded to me from temporarily losing a precious sense. Now, fully recovered, I know that it’s entirely possible to miss my own sensory inputs simply by not paying attention to them. The cliche obtains: we never know what we have until it’s gone.
We make the world real only by noticing the details around us. When we don’t notice, or worse, when we don’t really care to notice, we capitulate a measure of our own solidity and relevance. When we capitulate our own relevance in the world we cease to be able to do things we’ve never done before. And when we stop doing new things, we stop being creative.
That’s why you’re reading this blog. You care about what it means to be creative.
When you’re being creative, you’re making part of the process of making reality matter.