Sorting Screws

September 10th, 2014

There’s something very cathartic about sorting screws.

I was at an art lecture by William Bukowski and he said something I have heard others say, but something really made it stick with me this time.

“I’ve always said artists are kinda like, there’s something slightly off with artists, generally. Think of the artists you know and think about that. They are compelled to do something, to put themselves out there that normal people don’t want to do, you know? Think of a guy like Robin Williams, his performance, same thing. A normal person doesn’t do it. Maybe a normal person doesn’t paint or dance or sculpt or act, but the people who do feel compelled, we have to do this, it isn’t really a choice.” – William Bukowski, Sept 4, 2014

For the past year or so I’ve been making a conscious effort to spend less time playing video games. (Hang with me here, this is all connected.) It really hasn’t be difficult, I have a lot of other stuff I want to do and I get a lot of enjoyment from these other things, so I really just have to remind myself that I have other stuff to do and I’m good to go.

Yet, I still find myself gravitating toward certain games, activities, if you will. Lately I’ve allowed myself some time with MiniMetro. Conceptually, the game is really more just route optimization and pattern recognition. Arguably, it’s more math and problem solving than a “game” but I find it to be a fun challenge. Similarly, I’ve found myself playing a tower defense game on my iPhone (GeoDefense).

Games like these are challenging but have a very low barrier to entry.

In Getting Things Done by David Allen one of the contexts he encourages you to track is your energy level. If you have a lot of energy you can take on a challenging task. When your energy level is low, you take on a low energy task. This type of optimization allows you to “be productive” even when you don’t “feel productive,” but I think there’s more to it than this.

I have very little artistic talent when it comes to drawing or painting. I’ve never done much of it and it’s not something that calls out to me to pursue. At the same time, I am very compelled to do stuff, to create things, to solve problems. Even when I am tired, my brain wants to play. It wants to be distracted by problems. My brain doesn’t care if it’s trying to get little shapes to their appropriate train stations or preventing geometric objects from reaching their goal. It just wants something to crunch on, even if it doesn’t have the energy to do a higher level task.

Which circles back to sorting screws. There’s something very cathartic about sorting screws. It would not be a terribly exciting or fulfilling occupation, but occasionally it can be quite satisfying. It’s more than just bringing order to something that was chaotic, though that is undoubtedly part of the appeal. No, it’s more about puzzle solving, in some ways it is a puzzle. Monotonously sorting through pieces until you find a piece that looks like another piece.

Which brings me back to Bukowski’s quote. It’s not just artists who are compelled to do stuff. We are all compelled to do stuff, it’s just that we all have different abilities and we all find different ways to fulfill that need within us. You don’t have to argue over ‘what constitutes art’ to realize that everyone is looking for the type of satisfaction (or fulfillment) that artists are able to achieve by painting.

This isn’t necessarily something we’re conscious of, or something we think about in these terms very often.

Granted, we could discuss the cost-benefit or ROI values for alternative activities. I would be willing to entertain the concept that watching movies, reading books, or playing video games are just as valid as making art, woodworking, or gardening, at least in the sense that they are all means of passing the time. There’s certainly something to be said about having something to show for the time you put into the activity, but plants die, sculptures break, and paintings sit in store rooms, unseen.

Please do not think I’m advocating for the validity of people who do nothing but play video games or watch youtube. I certainly have a greater respect for people who create over people who simply enjoy to consume. But people who are creatively compelled do not always understand why other people are not. Similarly, people who are not talented artistically or have not yet discovered or developed their talents may be looking for a means to achieve that same sensation.

Are you compelled to be creative? What activities bring you satisfaction? Do you benefit from time watching TV or do you reluctantly turn it off feeling regretful that you’ve lost another chunk of productive time?