How To Get On With The Work In Front Of You


Wednesday, 7.54pm

Sheffield, U.K.

We think in generalities, but we live in detail. – Alfred North Whitehead

Tim Harford in his book Adapt: Why success always starts with failure has a section on the worm’s eye view – and that is a phrase worth exploring.

Much of the time we think that what we need is a bird’s eye view – we need to soar above the landscape and pick out what is important, see the big picture, work out where we’re going. Strategy is, after all, the art of figuring out which direction to head in.

And that’s all very well except when it comes to matters of people and action in daily circumstances. That’s because the landscape you’re thinking about is different for everyone, we have our own ways of looking at the world and making sense of what is going on. What’s the point in looking down at a landscape that’s hidden from sight or that changes all the time. The ways we use to find out what people want have significant methodological problems. For example, if you run a staff satisfaction survey how do you know if people say what they really think or say what they think you want to hear, especially if you’re in a small company and the results are something you want to talk about. Does the fact that a survey show that you have happy staff really mean that you have happy staff? How can you tell?

The way you tell what’s happening is by going to see what’s on the ground. The Japanese call this going to Gemba – the place where work is done. In the new series of Turner and Hooch there’s a line where Turner and his sister are sat in a car, doing what their Dad, a policeman, called doing a “look-see”. Turner wants to stay in the car and his sister tells him that they have to get out and walk around – otherwise it’s a look-sit, not a look-see. When the police want to search a crime scene they do a fingertip search, get down on the ground and let their fingers walk. That’s taking a worm’s eye view – that’s how you see what’s really going on, what the obstacles really are and how you get around them.

This is hard, mundane, detail work that most people don’t want to do. It’s much better soaring up in the air, free as a bird, looking at the big picture and telling people what to do. But what actually happens is down on the ground and if you don’t get your head around that you won’t be able to make a real difference. It’s also where you discover value – after all, you don’t fly around and find treasure. You dig for it. In the ground.

Whatever you do – if you find that things aren’t working, it’s probably because you aren’t looking at the detail of the work that’s in front of you. If your message isn’t getting across the problem is in the details, it’s that your product needs to be better, the pitch needs to be thought through more, your advertising needs to be on point. Getting it right is about getting the detail right.

This takes time and trial and error and learning. No one gets it right the first time. And no one gets it right by reading books and thinking about principles. They get it right by doing it, seeing what happens, working out what went wrong and what they could do better and trying again, going around that loop until it works.

There are no shortcuts. There is just the act of getting on with the work.


Karthik Suresh

How To Understand The Values That Drive You


Tuesday, 8.07pm

Sheffield, U.K.

It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are. – Roy E. Disney

The way people think and what they believe in should drive the way they act – there should be a connection between values and behaviour. But before we can explore the link we first need to know what values are in the first place.

Shalom H. Schwartz came up with a theory of basic human values in 1992 that said there are 10 basic values people hold across countries and backgrounds – and these relate to the way they think, the beliefs they hold, what they do, their personality and the makeup of the societies they live in. In an updated paper (Schwartz et al 2012) the authors refine this list to create 19 values.

For the purposes of this post, however, let’s stick with the 10 values. In the theory the basic idea is that these values lie on a circle and the ones that are closer on the circle relate more closely to each other and ones that are further away are opposing ideas. In this post I want to look instead at the values using a bipolar construct – how does each one compare to the one that seems its polar opposite and does seeing that help you in any way?

Let’s start with security – the need for you and your family to be safe. The opposite of that might be stimulation. You could look at this as a choice to choose security rather than stimulation – a choice to go for a safe job rather than one in a different city, a choice to travel in safe countries rather than sail a boat in pirate infested waters.

What about hedonism – the desire to make the most of your life and enjoy everything, rather than settling for conformity and fitting in with what’s expected of you? Or opting for self-direction, deciding to do something that you enjoy for work rather than joining the family firm or going into a profession.

What about the need for achievement – to do the best you can, become the best surgeon, the best lawyer, rather than benevolence, working with Doctors without Borders or taking on a public defendant role. Which one would you go for?

Then there’s power, the need to get it for yourself, rather than universalism, feeling for, appreciating and working for the benefit of humanity as a whole.

These bipolar constructs, shown as X rather than Y, may not be accurate but they’re a good start to help you evaluate where you are in life and what’s important to you. You might be someone that values self-direction, security and benevolence – or you might be drawn towards tradition, power and conformity. It feels like you have to pick which values matter to you – some combinations work and others don’t – but you need to be clear on what you’re going after.

As important, perhaps, is knowing what others want. If you want to work with others and you know that they’re after one of these things then you can figure out how to arrange things so that they get what they want and you get what you want. There is always a conflict, for example, between power and self-direction. Terry Pratchett puts this nicely in one of his books when a character shows another some work he’s been doing that he’s interested in and the first says, annoyed, “In my time?” The implication is that the first person has bought the other person’s time and it now belongs to him. The second should have no thoughts that he controls his own time. How do you resolve this other than showing the first person how he benefits from the work?

Knowing someone else’s values tells you how you can work together – maybe it’s a handshake or perhaps it’s a iron-clad contract. You need what you need for the situation. And knowing how someone else ticks can tell you when it’s time to give up and go away – if someone you are with is far too interested in stimulation or hedonism for you then it’s worth knowing you can’t keep up as early as possible.

Values, it seems, are important. Knowing yours will help you make the right choices for you.


Karthik Suresh


Schwartz, S. H., Cieciuch, J., Vecchione, M., Davidov, E., Fischer, R., Beierlein, C., Ramos, A., Verkasalo, M., Lönnqvist, J.-E., Demirutku, K., Dirilen-Gumus, O., & Konty, M. (2012). Refining the theory of basic individual values. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(4), 663–688.

What Are Problem Structuring Methods And Why Are They Useful?


Monday, 8.31pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Good management is the art of making problems so interesting and their solutions so constructive that everyone wants to get to work and deal with them. – Paul Hawken

Management as an art form is relatively recent. It was born in the United States to deal with the complexity involved in coordinating the work of increasingly larger organizations, like the continental railroads. The pioneers of management, like Frederick Taylor, dreamed of a scientific method that would reduce work to predictable elements. Taylorism made many improvements but didn’t quite realize that management is not just about the science of work – it’s also about the art of power.

This duel between work and power continued throughout the 20th century. The wars made it even more necessary to coordinate and organize large groups of people and things and managers of one kind of another were a crucial part of this process. Organizations got better at everything – mechanizing, optimizing, increasing efficiency – all amid a backdrop of power struggles between a group of European cousins – and the resulting loss of millions of lives.

The scientific approach works very well – so well that it seems like it’s the only way that works. So we try and approach everything using a science based mindset. But as history shows the one thing that science does not get is the way power works or what makes people tick. People and their feelings are irrelevant when it comes to scientific truth. But they are rather important when it comes to living.

Scientific approaches began to struggle in the 1970s with this issue of people and how they worked together. In wartime you can gloss over this because there is a clear objective – there’s an enemy and either we win or they do. In peacetime it gets more complicated and you have to get people to work together because they want to, not just because they have to. Managers, however, still operated like they had done for the decades before, using command and control strategies like generals commanding an army, not realizing that the battleground had shifted.

Problem Structuring Methods (Rosenhead, 1989), are a way to deal with the situations we are likely to find ourselves in these days. These situations have certain characteristics (Kotiadis and Mingers, 2006):

  1. They’re not clean and simple – they’re unstructured and messy situations filled with different kinds of problems.
  2. There are many actors.
  3. These actors have different perspectives or views of the situation and what they see as problems.
  4. The actors may have conflicts of interests.
  5. There are lots of unknowns – major uncertainties.
  6. You can’t put numbers to everything – many things are unquantifiable.

These kinds of situations send most people into a bit of a panic. They’re used to a world where there are clear goals – an objective that can be met. All you need is a plan and you need to work that plan and you’ll get there. In any real business situation, however, none of this is really that clear.

As an example consider the problem of home working that many organizations are grappling with these days. Some people think that you need to be in the office to do good work. Others have seen that being at home means they are more productive and provide better service. Do the people who want you in the office want you there because you work better there or because they feel they can control you better. Are some of the proponents the ones that own office blocks and shops that depend on occupancy? What about the reduction in emissions from commuting? Is your working from home policy helping productivity or damaging it if your people leave for a company that does let them work from home?

How do you go about considering such a problem space? Do you just go with what the bosses want or do you ask employees? What if you get the wrong answer? Should you try and arrange things so that you get the answer you want? And so on… the questions multiply and options diverge and converge and get entangled until you know that everyone will be unhappy whatever you do.

Problem structuring methods are a way of grappling with these situations. They are ways of thinking about these knotty problems and perhaps coming up with approaches that will make the situation better. They are, however, not general solutions – they are ones that can be used by a group of people in a particular situation to improve things. But a different situation will have different people who think differently and have different needs. And they will need a different approach and solution. And that’s ok. It’s about recognizing that life is complex and solutions have to deal with that complexity rather than reducing everything to a magic shortcut hack formula process.

Okay, you say, but what are these problem structuring methods?

Well, that needs a few more words and is perhaps one for another post.


Karthik Suresh


K Kotiadis & J Mingers (2006), Combining PSMs with hard OR methods: the philosophical and practical challenges, Journal of the Operational Research Society, 57:7, 856-867

J Rosenhead (Ed) (1989), Rational analysis for a problematic world: Problem structuring methods for complexity, uncertainty and conflict.

The Value Of Making Questions Specific


Sunday, 8.25pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution. – Igor Stravinsky

Terry Pratchett wrote that if time equals money then money must also equal time. One thing consumes the other – and what matters is who or what is doing the consuming and who or what is being consumed. For instance, if you hire a professional that’s paid by the hour, like a lawyer or consultant, don’t be surprised if they try and spend as much time as possible on your project. Their time consumes money. On the other hand, if you want something done fast you can offer an incentive for it – double the amount to get it done when you want it done, buying in the extra person-hours needed. In this situation money consumes time.

Work, creative or otherwise, has the same ability to consume time, as does entertainment. We’re constantly making decisions on how to allocate time and others are constantly constructing situations designed to consume our time.

This is where constraints start to help us.

Imagine you’re on a road and you come to a fork. One way narrows, taking you down a single path. The other widens, allowing you to go anywhere you choose, in any way you want. In both cases you will end up spending time travelling, but what’s the destination going to look like? In the first instance you’re going to get somewhere. With the other you’d do well to remember the saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going any road will get you there.”

Good questions act like constraints. Your choice of tools create constraints. The combination of the two make your path for you.

Let’s digress for a minute. Yuval Noah Harari is a historian and wrote 21 lessons for the 21st century. I’ve only just started the book but one idea jumped out at me. Harari says that three big ideas competed for hearts and minds during the last century. You had fascism, which believed that one group was superior to another and should rule by force. You had communism that believed that workers should be in control. And you had liberalism, which believed in the freedom of people, ideas and trade in things. Fascism lost early on, communism hangs on and liberalism took the lead.

Harari’s point is that the communist-liberal conflict has to do with labour and exploitation. A group fighting for workers has as its aim their protection and welfare. But what happens in a society where labour becomes not a question of exploitation but is increasingly irrelevant. Harari asks whether it’s worse to be exploited or to be ignored – deemed unnecessary?

Many people are coming to terms that the world doesn’t need what they do. Who would join a profession where they’re treated as a bridging solution to eventual automation? Jobs imply specialisation in the service of a larger entity, but what if that entity is in the business of getting rid of jobs. What do you do then?

You have to ask good questions. Questions like what sort of jobs are going to be needed in the future. We have an idea already. We need high skilled, high technology workers that can engineer the systems of tomorrow and we need dexterous manual workers that can do the things that robots can’t do well.

Of course, this isn’t the case everywhere in the world. Labour is still cheap and machines are expensive and break down quickly and spare parts are hard to find in some places. History matters – it has created the conditions for the present after all. Wherever you are you have choices – good ones or bad ones, but ones constrained by your history and present. You can choose what to do, what skills to work towards, what tools to use. But how do you decide, make that choice about the path to go down?

There isn’t a right or wrong answer – just nudges. But it comes down to time. What kind of skills and technologies will help you get more out of time. If you trade your time now for knowledge that means you can do more with your time later, that sounds like a good exchange. If you do less but that helps you work faster that’s a tradeoff that may be worth taking too. It’s like a craftsperson making a jig that lets them do a frequent task faster.

Perhaps the one thing to keep in mind is that once upon a time the constraints were put upon you – by your employer, your circumstances, your history. Your job today is to select the constraints that will help you achieve what’s best for you.


Karthik Suresh

How To Get Others To Do Things The Way You Want


Friday, 8.36pm

Sheffield, U.K.

For quality procedures to be effective, they must be simple and practical enough to be used every day by the people doing the work. – Jeffrey Liker

I’ve been reading a few papers on how there is a plethora of methods in Soft Operational Research but they don’t get used very often by people other than the originators. This is a problem that’s not limited just to the OR field. Every time someone invents a new approach – a machine, a software program, a procedure – its success is measured by how many people go on to use it. So what makes the difference between success and failure?

One theory is set out in the quote that starts this post. If you want people to use a method or do something in a particular way make it simple to do – design it so they can use it every day. The canonical example of this in knowledge work is the notebook and a pen. If you have a notebook you can get to work – that’s what you need to get started.

This does lead to a paradox. There are often better ways of doing something but you end up doing things less effectively because of the skills that people have. This is acutely obvious with software. Most people don’t know how to use software well – they are given their computers, only allowed to use certain products and don’t have the skills needed to get the most out of their machines. Computers can help you be more productive but for many people they prevent you from getting work done.

What this suggests is that success is not merely a matter of numbers. Just because everyone uses it doesn’t mean it’s good. You need to get clear on what you want. The author Robert Kiyosaki told a story of how he was once questioned by a reporter who was annoyed at how successful his books were despite their lack of literary quality. Kiyosaki pointed out that his book covers said “best-selling author”, not “best-writing author”.

The other thing we have to remember is that successful things teach us very little about success. We don’t know how much luck was involved in the process. Timing is often everything when it comes to a product. Unless it isn’t. You might argue that YouTube was lucky and created a video sharing service at a time when the Internet was ready for one rather than a few years previously when it might have been victim to the dot com boom. But you could equally well argue that Steve Jobs’ perfectionism led to the creation of a handheld computing device that he had been working towards for decades – a device that changed everything and brought us the smartphone centered world of today.

Things that catch on are things that people want to use. Many of us like using paper and pen. Many of us like the way Apple’s computers work. Some of us are fans of GNU/Linux. Many of us will try recommendations – from diet plans to daily routines. We’re an open, experimental species. But we don’t like being told what to do, or having to follow complicated rituals that don’t seem to make sense.

Let’s bring this back to tools – and specifically thinking tools. Why do tools like Mind Maps, invented by Tony Buzan, take off while other tools like Concept Maps are relatively unheard of in most organisations? Why are tools like SWOT so popular while others that are perhaps more useful are never used? Why did the Business Model Canvas get worldwide attention while hundreds of other models languish in the literature?

As I think about this I realize don’t know the answer. Maybe it’s good marketing. It’s certainly all about good timing. Maybe its about charisma. It’s quite possible that there is no formula you can follow other than to follow Einstein’s dictum: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”


Karthik Suresh

How To Think About Approaching A Problem


Wednesday, 7.54pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Good management is the art of making problems so interesting and their solutions so constructive that everyone wants to get to work and deal with them. – Paul Hawken

You cannot solve all the problems out there. In fact, by the time you’re aware there is a problem by, for example, seeing it on the news, it’s too late to do anything about it. The people that did know saw it building up weeks, months before and they either did something or failed to convince people with power that they had to do something.

Of course, if they did something and everything was fine you wouldn’t have seen it on the news anyway. It’s the failures that pop up and get everyone’s attention. But we digress.

The point is that there are problems that you understand and that you’re in a position to deal with. So how should you go about doing that?

You could start by thinking about what’s going on along two axes – the nature of the situation and the nature of your approach to the problem.

First, what kind of situation are you facing? Is it simple or complex? A simple situation is one where there is only one decision maker, there’s no power and politics involved and you need to figure out what to do one way or another. A complex situation is one that involves more people, has power relationships and the inevitable politics that come with those and twisted, interdependent decision pathways.

Second, what sort of approach are you going to take. Is it a simple one or a complicated one? A complicated one is easier to explain, oddly enough. A complicated solution involves lots of elements – many parts. You have many pieces that you need to juggle. A simple solution is a complete solution – a whole – even if it’s made up of parts.

This needs to be unpacked a little bit.

Say you have a simple situation – you’re sitting an exam in three weeks. What kind of approach are you going to take? A complicated approach may involve various elements: doing some cramming; taking some brain pills; trying to get notes off others; seeing if you can buy the questions from the underground market; or seeing if you can get out of it by being sick.

A simple approach would be to get into a routine. Set a time each day for a couple of hours and work through the material. And prepare for the exam. The simple approach will get you there. The complicated one may work, but you’ll be praying it does when the time comes around to put pen to paper.

How do these approaches work when you enter a complex situation? The complicated approach is the one that most people seemed doomed to follow. Take any project you’ve been part of. You might have had to work with engineers, with finance, with sales, with marketing, with operations – and they all have their own little bits of the organisation and their own ways of working – and somehow all of that gets the job done but also creates a great deal of stress. It never seems like the job is done right – customers keep complaining. Yes we get stuff out of the door and shipped but the boss is shouting and everyone is under pressure.

The thing that’s missing is how the pieces are connected together to work as a whole. That’s hard to do in organisations that are designed to work in pieces. The thing we need to remember is that the reason organisations are designed the way they are is because it’s more efficient to do things in that way – it makes sense for some people to focus on finance and some people to focus on engineering. But for the organisation to work the finance people and the engineering people have to figure out how to work together. And this isn’t simple – it’s complex. And you need to connect things up so that they can cope with this complexity. This relates to something called requisite variety – the ability to have a working structure that is able to match the complexity of the situation – so you can deliver what needs to be done without the stress that comes with the complicated but disconnected approach.

So how do you create an organisation that works that way – that has requisite variety? And the answer is that it’s difficult – it needs skills and practice and expertise. That’s why most organisations are and will remain complicated ways to deal with complex situations. Which is a bit of a shame.

Maybe someone should write a book on how to do better.


Karthik Suresh

Understanding Methodology and Method In Creative Work


Sunday, 7.08pm

Sheffield, U.K.

My methodology is not knowing what I’m doing and making that work for me. – Stone Gossard

All work, arguably, is creative. The process of putting together flat-pack furniture, we are reminded by Robert Pirsig, has its roots in the art of sculpture separated by a few centuries of intellectual wrong turns.

Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club explains his approach to writing in Consider this: Moments in my writing life after which everything was different. The books is full of suggestions and pointers and ideas that you have to read again and again to get. But there are two images, both borrowed, that stuck with me.

As artists – and I include writers and programmers and business people and everyone else who wants to do good work in that category – we are obsessed by method. We like to know how successful people did their work so that we can try their way and see if it works for us as well. Roald Dahl wrote on yellow legal pads with yellow Tixon Diconderoga #2 pencils. Neil Gaiman writes with a fountain pen in a bound notebook. And you will find hundreds of websites listing the habits and routines of famous people. And more than a few books.

Palahnuik is told a story by another writer about a man with a very long beard. Nothing bothers him until one day someone asks him whether he sleeps with his beard above the covers or below them. He’s never thought about this before – and that night he tries it above and tries it below and nothing works. And he never sleeps again.

Sometimes the breaking down of something, looking for process and method destroys the thing itself that you’re looking for. Mark Twain wrote about this – about how once he had learned how to pilot the Mississippi he lost the ability to see its beauty. But still we try because we hope that there is a secret that will get us to the end faster – something that means we don’t need to put in the work.

To do good work, unfortunately, there is no shortcut. Because you aren’t really working on the work – you’re working on yourself and until you’re ready the work isn’t ready. That’s why, if you’re lucky, you’ll find what you want to do early in life. Because it’s going to take you decades to develop yourself – ten years to learn your craft and another ten to master yourself. And there aren’t enough lifetimes to do it all so you have to decide what you want to do and get on with doing it.

The other point Palanhuik remembers is about a Buddhist monk who says, “If you cannot be happy doing the dishes, you cannot be happy.” Many people write about how some of the unhappiest people they know are also the wealthiest. There’s a book I never finished called Affluenza that starts with this premise. It’s like the phrase “first you own stuff, and then stuff owns you.”

Still, even with all that, we will still remain fascinated with how other people work. We jump at the chance to look behind the curtain and see what goes on. And if doing that helps you work out your own process and start to create your own work – perhaps that’s good too.


Karthik Suresh

Is This The Most Important Mental Model For Success?


Saturday, 8.52pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus. – Alexander Graham Bell

An old proverb tells us that if we chase two hares we will catch neither one. Your efforts have to be focused on one thing at a time if you want to succeed.

My PhD supervisor described the process of working towards an award like this. You probably have a large wardrobe with lots of clothes – different wear for different weather, shoes and boots and trainers. Shorts and jeans, jumpers and jackets.

If you’re packing for a trip, however, you don’t take the whole wardrobe with you. You pack a small suitcase with just what you need. The things that are right for the place you’re going to. And that’s what a PhD is. You select from the collection of research and interests that you have a small, specific problem where you can make a contribution and write that up.

This is a model that works well for life in general, especially now. Most of us don’t have simple goals. If you’re a sportsperson the aim is simple – get to number one in whatever you’re doing. But outside of that narrow space where competition is everything and you have clear winners and losers life is more complicated. There is no dream job, great promotion or wildly successful startup model that is going to work if you just apply yourself and work hard. You need a different approach.

Take starting a business, for example. If you want to go from zero to one the most important thing is to create a customer. You have to do something or make something that people want. You don’t need a product range or a massive list of services when you’re starting out. You need a small suitcase filled with the essential elements with which you create value. In a consulting business, for example, you can go far with just a spreadsheet and office software. For the first five to ten years you can do everything from sales prospecting, proposal writing, project delivery and invoicing with very few tools. But you can’t do anything without a product or service that obviously creates value for a customer, making or saving them money.

So, there’s more to focus when you want to achieve something than having a goal and a daily routine. It’s more like getting to a particular point, a milestone. Making a journey to a particular place. That’s the way to think about the next decision in your life. Where could you go – what are the options – one, two and three? What are the outcomes, what could happen – and knowing that, what direction are you going to take? And finally, what do you need for the journey – what are the essentials you are going to pack for this trip – leaving the rest behind for another time?

The secret to success, then, is thinking small. Small steps, one after the other, will get you anywhere.


Karthik Suresh

Learning About Writing Good Description


The advantage of writing from experience is that it often provides you with details that you would never think of yourself, no matter how rich your imagination. And specificity in description is something every writer should strive for. – Christopher Paolini

Geography is a subject I never connected with at school, although you could say that for most of my other subjects as well. Memorize the text, ace the test was my approach. And then forget it all.

I do remember drawing on and colouring in a sheet of paper with a border and symbols that represented things. Trees, roads, rivers, bridges. And contours – those lines that said you had come across a slope and the closer the lines the steeper the scramble.

Maps seem important to people. A book on the war in Burma described how a General would draw a map by hand of the terrain so he could understand where things were. O.G.S Crawford, in his book Said and done: The autobiography of an archaeologist writes about how “maps are an alternative mode of expression, a method of conveying information that cannot be conveyed by any other means.” In our world of global positioning we rarely use maps as they were intended – when did you buy your last map?

Perhaps having a map helps you find your way but making a map helps you see. I started reading the Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S Beagle which, if you recall, was published in 1846 by Charles Darwin.

Have a read of the following extract:

“The neighbourhood of Porto Praya, viewed from the sea, wears a desolate aspect. The volcanic fires of a past age, and the scorching heat of a tropical sun, have in most places rendered the soil unfit for vegetation. The country rises in successive steps of table-land, interspersed with some truncate conical hills, and the horizon is bounded by an irregular chain of more lofty mountains. The scene, as beheld through the hazy atmosphere of this climate, is one of great interest if, indeed, a person, fresh from sea, and who has just walked, for the first time, in a grove of cocoa-nut trees, can be a judge of anything but his own happiness.”

That is a map in words, and Darwin’s descriptions continue, intricate and detailed, using the right word in the right place to the right effect. Reading Darwin, one wonders whether modern writing will ever read this way – it’s hard to imagine anyone dedicating the time that’s needed to describe what they see to this level of detail.

They don’t need to, you might think. In those days all that people had were the words they put down and the drawings they made. Now we have photographs and video and everything is recorded. But although we have it this media we also have nothing at all. If you stood where Darwin stood on the 16th of January 1832 and took a picture of Porto Praya would anything in that picture have conjured up the image that the extract above brought to mind? Do we need the description, the map, to really see what is in front of us? Do we need to draw it for ourselves to really pay attention?

Good description is about attention. About seeing what is really there rather than what you assume is there. I walked up my road the other day and looked around and up and realized I had no words to describe the things I saw. There were gates – but what kind of gate, what sort of design, and what do you call those spiky spear like things they have? There are trees, but what kind of trees.

Of course, you don’t need to know. Google will tell you that pickets are the vertical rods, and finial tips are the spear points on the top. And there’s an app to find out what that plant is. But is being able to find out anything the same as seeing what’s around you and really appreciating it? Is the capacity to do something enough? Don’t you need the experience as well?

Learning how to describe what is around you is a process that starts with just looking and collecting data – noting down what you see, making sketches. No tools or devices other than pen and paper. And perhaps one should start even without that – just with what I’ve heard called a Mk I Eyeball. And from there it’s a matter of drawing, map making and vocabulary building. Draw what you see, draw maps that relate the features you observe and write word pictures. This skill is not just for explorers but for all of us in our daily lives.

Living is an exploration. Learning how to see what’s around you will help in the journey.


Karthik Suresh

What Does It Mean To Be Creative?


Wednesday, 8.27pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Creativity is not just for artists. It’s for businesspeople looking for a new way to close a sale; it’s for engineers trying to solve a problem; it’s for parents who want their children to see the world in more than one way. – Twyla Tharp

Do you remember what it was like seeing something for the first time as a child? Perhaps it’s easier to remember seeing a child see something. There’s a sense of wonder, something fresh and exciting and living. We were like that too. At one time, we see what is there – and then as we grow up and know more we start to see what we expect to see. And that changes everything.

Maybe it’s because we don’t have time – we do everything so quickly these days and want to get everything so fast that we miss out on the value of being slow, about immersing ourselves in the experiences, the detail, the richness of reality.

Let’s take a step back. What are the mental processes that go into being creative? What can we learn from, for example, the way in which children create.

In the book, Understanding children: Essays in honour of Margaret Donaldson [1, p154], the writers quote Johnson-Laird as suggesting that there are three things that go into being creative. You work with a set of building blocks, you work within a set of constraints or a genre and you surprise yourself, finding something novel. The last point is especially important. Creativity is NOT like pulling a rabbit out of a hat – the rabbit was in the hat all along and you knew that. It’s discovering something new that you didn’t know before and that’s where the value lies.

This idea makes a lot of sense and helps explain the way in which different disciplines work the way they do. It also explains why they find it hard to talk to each other.

In her book, Analyzing Children’s Art, Rhoda Kellogg says that she finds “a person responds to my findings according the implications they hold for his profession”. An artist is interested in her view that basic artistic talent is innate, a psychologist looks at her idea of a whole or Gestalt while a Jungian psychologist is attracted to the concept of pre-existing patterns or archetypes. We look at things for what they mean to us.

Children do that too. They make meaning through their art, engaging with the medium and material and making something happen. Splodges and shapes and lines may mean nothing to you but they tell an intricate and interwoven story to the creator.

This is what makes it hard when you look at a child’s work and ask them questions. Suddenly they stop doing what they do and have to think about your asking them about what they do. And it appears that they often answer in the way they think you want to be answered – the act of observing and questioning them doing something changes the doing and telling of what is done.

In other words the act of observing something has an effect on the observed thing – unless you are very careful. In Lynda Barry’s classes, as set out in her book Syllabus, one of the rules is that “we don’t give advice or opinions on the work of our classmates.”

What does that mean for creativity, then? Margaret Donaldson knew that “human beings, no matter what their ages, respond to the world according to how they define the situation in which they find themselves” [1. ix]. You’re in a place, a space, with conventions and rules and preferences. You have tools – the building blocks you need. And then you have to make, spend time making things and looking at them and wondering what you’ve done and making some more. Maybe breaking some of the rules, the conventions. If you have the opportunity you can go into other spaces and see how they do things there and bring that back into your own practice.

If you want to be creative you must be ready to not-know and to just do – where you are and with what you have. Just get on with it.


Karthik Suresh


  1. Grieve, R and Hughes, M. (Editors), 1990, “Understanding children: Essays in honour of Margaret Donaldson”, Blackwell.
  2. Kellog, R., 1969, “Analyzing Children’s Art”, National Press Books
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