How to shake off the demon of convention

In this extract from his new book, Creative ­Demons and How to Slay Them, Richard Holman examines the lure of convention and how to summon original thought

Man stands confused at a sign
Illustrations: Al Murphy

What sound does a dog make? If, like me, English is your first language, then your answer is probably ‘woof-woof’. But if you’re Albanian, you’d say ‘ham-ham’; or Balinese, ‘kongkong’; or Greek, ‘ghav-ghav’; or Thai, ‘hong-hong’; or Welsh, ‘wff-wff’. There are almost as many different ways for describing the bark of a dog as there are languages in the world. And none of them is right.

It may be that you come across the odd pooch who does indeed ‘ghav-ghav’ or ‘hong-hong’, but most of our canine friends sound quite different from one another. Yet because we’re taught when we’re young that a dog makes a certain sound, according to the lexicon of our mother tongue, over time that is how we come to hear it. We no longer hear the sound of a bark as it actually is.

This isn’t only true of barking dogs. The longer we shuffle along this mortal coil, the more cognitive baggage we accumulate; the more rigid our perceptions become and the harder it is to respond to things as they actually are. We become ever more susceptible to the wiles of the demon of convention, who would ­always much rather we walk the road more travelled than dare to try something new.

It is convention that most often stands in the way between good and great. You can enjoy a perfectly adequate creative career with the demon of convention ambling along by your side. Knock out half-decent versions of whatever the status quo is in your genre and you’ll probably do just fine.

Yet each of us has between our ears the most complex biological instrument on the planet, with almost as many neurons as there are stars in the Milky Way. The brain is an organ with the potential to deliver boundless creativity. So why, when the demon of convention sidles up to us, do we so readily don the blinkers he holds in his hands?

There are two reasons: the first neurological, the second social.

The first time we encounter a new experience, we’re alive to detail and all our senses are alert. Yet very soon the shock of the new is replaced by the dull thrum of the familiar. When it comes to daily life, this is a helpful attribute. If, with every waking moment, we engaged with the world afresh, as if experiencing it for the first time, it would be extremely difficult to get anything done. Imagine if every time you went to make a coffee you were – like a tripped-out acid casualty – wide-eyed and mesmerised by the steam coming out of the kettle.

So our brain’s operating system constantly refreshes, setting those programs we use most often to launch automatically, with little, if any, conscious thought required. The way we usually do things becomes neurologically hardwired; our default setting is autopilot. This is a great way of making sure we’re all set to function within our normal environment with the minimum energy cost, but it can leave us at a loss when it comes to original thinking.

The second reason the demon of convention finds us such a soft touch is that we are social creatures, conditioned to behave as the rest of the pack does. We are viscerally afraid of shame or embarrassment.

Given this double-whammy of having a brain that would rather take the easy path and do things the way we’ve always done them, and living in a society that regards rule-breakers as dangerous outlaws to be shunned, how on earth are we to cast off the shackles wrought by convention?

An important first step is to acknowledge the bias we have towards conventional problem-solving strategies. When it comes to creativity, a good example is our inclination towards solutions that are additive. A research paper published in Nature in 2021 explored this phenomenon: when people are faced with a problem, they tend to solve it by adding new elements rather than taking existing components away, even when the latter is quicker, simpler and more effective. For decades kids learned to ride a bike by having ­stabilisers added: fine to get you ­going, but not so good once those extra wheels come off. Learning to ride these days is effortless: kids learn on balance bikes – bikes with the ­pedals removed.

Why, when the demon of convention sidles up to us, do we so readily don the blinkers he holds in his hands?

Our sheep-like tendency to follow well-worn paths is often exacerbated by education. At school we learn facts and formulae; we’re taught that there is a right way of doing things and a wrong way, even if both give the same answer. Following established patterns is encouraged over experimentation, which perhaps ­explains why children’s performance in creativity tests tends to drop as they get older. It’s no coincidence that some of our greatest innovators are autodidacts. If, heaven forbid, ­Silicon Valley ever had its own Mount Rushmore, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg would be the faces carved in stone. All of them were college dropouts.

Being able to escape conceptual mores isn’t just a good way to produce innovative, creative work, it’s an evolutionary necessity. There’s a fascinating theory about why there are so many instances of animals apparently seeking intoxication – not just the well-documented cases of elephants or birds becoming drunk on fermented fruit, or cats getting whacked out on catnip, but also wallabies munching poppies, birds chewing marijuana seeds and even dolphins getting high on the emissions from a panicked pufferfish. According to the theory, animals often become stuck in behavioural ruts, and if their environmental circumstances change they become vulnerable. Imbibing narcotics encourages them to ‘depattern’, to push beyond the boundaries of established behaviour and to make discoveries – of, say, a new food source or mating ground – which could have an evolutionary benefit for the species as a whole.

In a similar vein, microdosing hallucinogens has become à la mode for tech executives looking to enhance their creative thinking. But if you’re not inclined to head to the dark web and exchange your hard-won Bitcoins for a vacuum-sealed packet of psychedelics, what other strategies can you employ to free yourself of the manacles of convention?

One technique is oppositional thinking. Most creative categories come with a set of widely accepted principles that are taken as fundamental to the medium in question. For instance, a work of art should be crafted by the hand of the artist, or music should be a series of intentionally produced sounds. Oppositional thinking requires that you first identify these conventions and then see what happens if you do the opposite.

Any paradigm shift requires this kind of thinking. In his diary, Brian Eno records his friend, the artist ­Peter Schmidt, talking about “not doing the things that nobody had ever thought of not doing”. And once you’ve wrapped your head round this conundrum, it’s a great place to start. You can apply the principle to your own particular practice. What are the things you do when you’re working that you, or indeed others, always tend to do? And what would happen if you didn’t do them?

The demon of convention likes nothing more than routine. He’s most comfortable with the familiar. To send him packing sometimes you just need to, well, get packing. Matthew Syed has written about the positive impact of travel on creativity in his brilliant book, Rebel Ideas. In one study he cites, students were given a test of creative word association. Before the test, half were asked just to think about living abroad and imagine what life would be like in another country; the other half were asked to think about life in their home town. The former group were judged to be 75% more creative in their responses than the latter.

Travel across borders isn’t the only path to original ideas. Travel across genres can be too. ­Constantly exposing yourself to new work, in fields other than your own, will often lead to an unpredictable and bountiful cross-pollination.

Constantly exposing yourself to new work, in fields other than your own, will often lead to an unpredictable and bountiful cross-pollination

Examine the career of any artist or creative who has successfully stayed at the top of their game for an extended period of time and you’ll discover they have their own way of keeping the demon of convention at bay. For the musician and performer David Bowie, it was about not becoming comfortable: “If you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the ­water…. Go a little out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”

In recent years there have been anxious discussions among creative communities about the rise of artificial intelligence and the fearful prospect of computers replacing humans in the arts. Code that can write ­stories, compose music, paint portraits, design logos and ­develop screenplays has already been written. If you depend upon your creativity for a living, this can be a chilling thought, but it needn’t be. Programs like these are reliant on being fed thousands of examples of a given genre from which they identify patterns. Using these patterns or algorithms, they create their own versions. However, this kind of ‘creativity’ is by definition derivative. A computer can only ever emulate what has gone before, it cannot break new ground. A computer is bound by the demon of convention in everything it does. You, on the other hand, are not.

This is an extract from Creative ­Demons and How to Slay Them, by Richard ­Holman, published by Thames & Hudson;