The contractor is behind schedule. “How about those samples boards for the master bathroom?” he asks. I assure him I’m working on them. “Time is money!” He doesn’t actually say it, but I can see that’s what he’s thinking.
The truth is I’m not actually “working” on the sample boards—at least, not in a way he would recognize as work. I’m at a standstill, trying to figure my way around a roadblock the homeowner has put in front of me. Despite the master plan to achieve a historically accurate restoration of this Victorian home, some of the choices she makes stray from that guideline.
This bathroom, for instance. She has chosen a formal Laura Ashley tile for the bottom half of the wall. But then, in a fit of madness—though she would call it ‘whimsy’—she insists the top half be finished with an Old World rough-textured plaster. A Victorian marriage between these unlikely bedfellows is left for me to achieve.
I make several trips to the residence to study the space. I mull it over in my mind while running errands. In my studio, I stare at a sample of the border tile with its floral-and-vine motif. I avoid the designer. I go back to my studio and stare some more.
For a couple of days, I just give up, wondering if maybe I’m in the wrong profession. Then, suddenly, an epiphany. As I’m staring at the border tile leaning against my plas-ter sample board, I suddenly see the relief lines of the textured plas-ter look like vines! The marriage I seek lies in echoing this floral-and-vine motif in a color wash-based, semi-relief impression embedded in the plaster.
The homeowner is pleased. But the contractor is practically standing over me with a stopwatch. He complains about the complexity of the finish, saying he would have preferred I just “slap on a color wash and be done with it.” I spend too much time customizing my finishes, he says. I should simplify my portfolio, establishing a stock set of effects which I should only alter for my most discriminating customer.
Different Time Zones Obviously, he doesn’t understand. But then, from his perspective, I don’t understand. We’re not on the same wavelength. In fact, we’re not even in the same time zone! While he’s operating in the zone of Production Time, I’ve set my pace according to Creative Time. In his time zone, “time is money.” In my zone, “we sell no wine before its time.”
If time is money—that is, if the price of work is somewhat dependent upon the time it takes to do the work—we are still left with the question, “What kind of time?” Not every experience in life moves at the same pace. For example, think about the difference between the “quality time” we like to spend with friends and family and the “crunch time” we move into when a deadline looms over our heads. Different experiences establish different orientations toward time. Each activity dictates its own pace.
But when it comes to work, our culture has almost an exclusive preference for one kind of time— production time. All tasks must submit to the cookie-cutter effi-ciency of a production-oriented pace. When we say “time is money” what we mean is “Produce! Produce!”
This obsession with production presents a problem for the decorative finisher. While some decorative finishing tasks are well-suited for production time, the fundamental value of the decorative finish derives from the range of creativity they afford. Understanding the difference between productive and creative time can help the decorative finisher in the following ways:
- Determine accurate pricing which takes into account the time spent in the creative phases of any given project.
- Understand, respect, and defend the necessity for creative time in the face of opposing voices which press for a production orientation toward all tasks.
- Help the artisan who spends too much time in one zone or the other to establish a healthy balance between originality and getting the job done.
- More easily identify which kind of activity (creative or productive) one is faced with at any given time so as to adopt the proper pace.
First, we need to differentiate between productive and creative time. The goal of production is to achieve maximum output in the shortest amount of time. Efficiency of method and repetition of operation are central features which facilitate this goal. Skill is perfected so as to economize on movement and increase speed of operations. Uniformity of design facilitates these features.
The goal of creativity, on the other hand, is to achieve maximum ap-propriateness and distinction of output. To reach this goal, creative time relies on exploration rather than efficiency. Skill is also useful in creative time, but it’s power is not directed toward economy of performance; rather, skill becomes the power whereby the grip of the conventional path is loosened so new patterns can be established which explore uncharted territory.
Clearly, both the pace and the content of work differs in creative and productive time—so much so that they may seem incompatible. From the perspective of the contractor on the job I have described above, I wasn’t working at all during the time I was staring at the border tile and my sample board. To his productive way of thinking, I was simply wasting time. But from the perspective of creativity, the point at which I was accomplishing nothing and had seemed to give up in despair was the time when I was working the hardest!
Stephen Nachmanovitch, author of a meditation on creativity titled Free Play: The Art of Improvisation in Life and the Arts, calls it “creative despair.” In describing his own despair as a musician, he says this:
“Sometimes I feel that I have wasted a whole day trying one tactic after another to make my tools work, to make a single paragraph come out, to play a single authentic sounding musical stroke. At a later time, the problem solves itself easily. Feeling the fool, feeling obsessed with something that can’t turn out, is simply a stage in solving the problem. Creative despair feels rotten when it overtakes us, but it is necessary—it is a symptom that we are throwing our whole being into the problem.” (p. 154.)1
With all the pressure our culture places on us to maintain a machine-like pace of production, how many of us have the courage to get bogged down in this kind of despair, wasting a whole day (or even a few hours) trying to discover a new technique? Yet it is precisely this kind of time that is necessary if our work is to remain fresh. Understanding and accepting the experience of “getting stuck” as a normal part of creative work is essential to the achievement of inspiration.
The Importance of “Seed-Time” But still, the job has got to get done. Some limitations need to be placed on the seemingly unlimited creative potential which the decorative artist afford if the walls are ever to be paint- ed. What principle, then, might enable us to coordinate both creative and productive paces in any given project?
I find such a principle in an aphorism Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s, was fond of quoting: “When you’re green, you’re growing. When you’re ripe, you’re beginning to rot.” While Kroc invoked this aphorism to emphasize the need for continuous growth, the principle is more complex than I think he recognized. The image in this aphorism embodies a principie that is applicable to the task of coordinating creative and productive paces in the faux finishing project.
The image draws on our culture’s agricultural heritage to make a point about the “proper time” for different kinds of activities. Before fruit can become green, it has to be planted. And so, there is seed-time. This is the time for inspiration. The beginning stage of any given project is the proper time for concentration on creative time. This takes courage and confidence.
The rush to get started, as was the case with the contractor I mentioned, can force premature decisions which don’t allow for the development of inspiration. Once the seed has been planted, it must grow to maturity. This ripening time blends together both productivity and creativity. As preparatory tasks are accomplished in productive time, the original insight becomes refined in less intense shifts back toward creative time. During this ripening time, the ideas takes shape and the pace picks up.
Finally, the fruit reaches maturity. Maturation signals a sudden shift to a new phase—harvest-time. Why is it a sudden shift? Because, as the aphorism says, ripeness is just one stage from rot. More than once, I have ruined a project because I failed to recognize it had matured to its great-est level of ripeness. Instead of harvesting, though, I tried to press it toward further ripeness. And I got what I deserved—rotten fruit! Harvest-time is production time. At this stage, one has to resist the creative urge and, instead, focus almost exclusively on the task of executing the design.
When the Seed Bears Fruit What this aphorism demonstrates is that each season has its own “proper time.” Generally speaking, the progression of these seasons is from a slow pace, during which growth is hidden underground, toward a fast pace at the point of maturation, at which time the seed has born fruit. There is, then, a natural progression from creative time to productive time. What kind of time is money? Since money is nothing more than a symbolic representation of value, the question could be restated as “What kind of time is valuable?” At least with respect to work (though I think the principle holds true for all of life), it depends upon the task. But what is most valuable is not the pace itself; rather, it is the ability to work at a variety of paces and being in possession of the necessary discernment to match the proper pace with the activity at hand.
My perception of this skill, however, didn’t help me negotiate my re-lationship with the contractor. We ended up parting company prema- turely. But then, more than a month later, I happened to meet one of the homeowners in a store. Without any prompting on my part, he turned to me and said, “Jeff, I’ve just got to tell you how much we love all the work you did for us. It’s the best I’ve ever seen. We enjoy it every day. If you ever need a reference, feel free to call.” Creative time may slow down the project, but just as with wine, it deepens the appreciation (and that means referrals).
Copyright 2012 Jeffrey Ediger