I did higher maths at school and loved it, though it was far from my best subject. Great teacher, models, complexity – you beaut. But the biggest attraction for me was that surprisingly, maths was all about the process rather than the outcome. Getting the ‘right’ answer was never as important as the way we approached the problem, and we could get nearly full marks without having correct results.
Standard maths classes were taught an endless list of formulas and where to apply them. Somewhat like many contemporary case-study based business consulting models. However we had to be much more creative. We were expected to derive the formulas in the first place. Which meant we had to understand how the ‘engine’ of what we were working on functioned.
This I loved.
This isn’t to say that I wasn’t frequently flummoxed. But when the fog of confusion would descend on me mid-exam and the sounds of my classmates’ pens scratching industriously across their ink-filled papers would echo reproachfully through my frustratingly vacant and increasingly panicked mind, I would reach desperately for my last ditch lifesaver of a fall-back strategy, trusting that like a faithful teddy bear, it wouldn’t let me down. This fail-safe gem?
“When in doubt, differentiate”.
I no longer have a clue how mathematical differentiation works but I know it saved my bacon on countless occasions and probably single-handedly got me through my HSC paper. And even though my maths skills are a faint and possibly hallucinatory memory, the principle stands me in good stead to this day.
When I teach people to draw in order for them to change their perception and thus their mindset when dealing with a wicked problem or strategic conundrum, differentiation – the ability to see distinctions without making judgements – is one of the key lessons they learn. When we judge a line or picture or situation or action to be ‘wrong or right, ‘good or bad’ we shut down the will to look further. When we acknowledge that we’re just making it up as we go along, and we see each line and each decision as an exploration, some of which are on track and some of which aren’t, we keep the engagement open and the process alive. “It needs to be a bit higher/lighter/stronger” or “a little less curved” or “more to the left” is so much more useful than “that’s crap” and has the advantage of adding an enormous amount of energy to the drawing that is being created. In art, it’s known as ‘finding the line’, and Da Vinci, Picasso, Giacometti and all the other masters spent their entire careers doing just that. Call it crap, it’ll end as scrap, and if ‘good’ means ‘good enough’, why look further?
Looking for distinctions on the other hand sparks curiosity and engagement – the keys to finding our way out of whatever wicked maze we’re in. The keys to artistry.
So the cure for being stuck? Get curious. And when in doubt?
Differentiate. Of course.