A broken pencil tip will only impede someone who's not serious about working on a project in the first place.

A broken pencil tip will only impede someone who's not serious about working on a project in the first place.

JS Bach is the antithesis of untidy. His music is a marvel of mathematical perfection. One of the many reasons he’s captivated listeners for so many centuries is precisely because it all fits together so well.

There are other solutions to inventive beauty, however. One is not better than the other, but they often achieve different kinds of results. Structured in an entirely different way from Bach, John Coltrane’s improvisational riffs are free to fly, virtuosically daring, yet still fully formed. They behave nothing like the great kapellmeister’s works, but they speak with an equal clarity and passion, despite their wholly different vocabulary.

Aspects of precision apply in some circumstances more than others. It matters that language follows certain rules and conventions. Grammar and usage rules facilitate precise meaning. In fact, for those moments when deviation from formal rules of language present themselves as vital to achieving the nuanced, colloquial, or simply honest depictions their authors desire, those deviations are only possible if there’s some sort of convention from which to deviate in the first place. Quoting the folksinger Arlo Guthrie here, “You can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in.”

It’s not that rules were meant to be broken, however. Without some measure of structure and organization, creativity becomes just so much convective heat, undirected and inapplicable. For those creators who think they can just toot their freeform jams and count on talent and verve to see it through, they’re wrong.

Successful movie productions support themselves by relying on high tension crossbeams of order and chaos. On a movie or video set there are endless forces pushing, pulling, distracting, and presenting new options for consideration. The clock ticks relentlessly, and a unit production manager worth his or her spreadsheeted iPad knows how to fight through the clutter and keep the action moving. On one hand there’s the master plan: the spreadsheet. On the other hand are the many relentless reasons why the team will need to improvise and solve dilemmas on the fly.

At a smaller scale, the tension of an untidy desk versus a cataclysmically messy one provokes endless debate. Where the messy space suggests a million ideas living and breathing at arms length, it also suggests the challenges of disciplined focus, of determined decision-making, of intentional thinking. Ideas big and small require specificity and focus to come to fruition. Quality rarely emerges in any discipline simply because the creators desires such an outcome. All ideas revert to work if they’re going to become relevant. The methods of organization may change; the music may come out like Bach or Coltrane, but one thing is certain. If the creator cannot marshal cognitive clutter, he or she cannot focus on excellence. Even amidst a sea of competing, compelling ideas, the creative person needs a plan and a determination to focus on a singular goal.

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