On Planning

Sometimes, the only way to discover who you are or what life you should lead is to do less planning and more living—to burst the double bubble of comfort and convention and just do stuff, even if you don’t know precisely where it’s going to lead, because you don’t know precisely where it’s going to lead. This might sound risky—and you know what? It is. It’s really risky. But the greater risk is to choose false certainty over genuine ambiguity. The greater risk is to fear failure more than mediocrity. The greater risk is to pursue a path only because it’s the first path you decided to pursue.

~Daniel Pink

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted in-person meetings for many camera clubs and photographic events but also created new opportunities for virtual gatherings. It has been my privilege to be a guest speaker on several such gatherings recently. Other than welcome opportunities to present my work and thoughts, these meetings also proved very insightful to me, allowing me to hear from fellow photographers about their pursuits and the kinds of questions they struggle with. Several photographers asked about whether or how I plan my photographs. More than one person (presumably taking for granted that I plan my photographs) inquired about what apps I use for planning.

I never plan my photographs. As for apps, I use them for tasks that would otherwise be tedious or impossible. Conceiving photographs is, for me, neither of these things. I aspire to be self-expressive and creative in my work. Planning conflicts with both these aspirations.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “self-expression” as “the expression of one’s feelings, thoughts, or ideas.” It’s easy to see why planning is not just incompatible with this definition, but outright antithetical to it. There is no way I can know in advance how I might feel, what I might think, or what ideas may come to my mind until these feelings, thoughts, and ideas occur. Certainly I can’t know in advance whether these feelings, thoughts, and ideas may seem worth expressing and inspire me to create photographs.

Planning is not only antithetical to making photographs that express real (rather than contrived or preconceived) experiences. Planning may in fact prevent me from experiencing the sort of things that inspire me to photograph. This is because when my mind is concerned with carrying out a plan, my conscious attention focuses on the tasks at hand rather than being free to wander, to recognize and to respond to serendipitous circumstances, or to become conscious of random epiphanies that often originate when the brain’s Default Mode Network is active, which only occurs when the brain is not consciously working on any task. Put another way, when following some stepwise plan (a mode known as convergent thinking), I may literally not even know what I’m missing.

The phenomenon of missing things because one’s attention is consumed by something else—perhaps the details of plan, distracting thoughts, or some preconception—is known as inattentional blindness. The American Psychological Association defines “inattentional blindness” as, “a failure to notice unexpected but perceptible stimuli in a visual scene while one’s attention is focused on something else in the scene.” It’s worth considering that inattentional blindness doesn’t just limit the range of possible photographs one might make on a given outing, it also limits how much one notices in general when out in the world, and thus diminishes the richness of one’s living experience. Why would I want to do that to myself?

Planning is detrimental not only to self-expression but also to creativity. The primary reason this is so, is that creative ideas often ensue from divergent thinking. In nutshell, divergent thinking involves going into a situation with no known or preconceived outcome. At any point when decisions or choices need to be made, a good divergent thinker will spontaneously come up with a broad range of possible options, solutions, or ideas, then choose in real time the most favorable one. It’s only once a solution is chosen by divergent thinking that one switches to convergent thinking (perhaps a plan) to implement this idea. Divergent thinking requires, by definition, not following any plan, or at least being willing to deviate from a plan to pursue fortuitous and unexpected opportunities.

Willingness to deviate from plans is a characteristic of people who score high in a personality trait known as Openness to Experience. Not surprisingly, studies show a significant correlation between openness to experience and creative accomplishment.

It is the nature of planning that one can only plan for things known or anticipated in advance. When such things are not only known but have already been done many times by others, one is obviously more likely to be successful, which may be useful in many contexts where creativity is of no benefit; but it is a very poor strategy for anyone aspiring to creative expression. Put another way, while planning may lead to success in some pursuits; in other pursuits (such as art) planning may lead one to becoming, not so much successful but more a victim of success.

Definitions of creativity all involve novelty. Novelty cannot be planned for. As Dorothea Lange put it, “to know ahead of time what you’re looking for means you’re then only photographing your preconceptions, which is very limiting.” Why would I choose to limit myself?

Cross Section

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4 thoughts on “On Planning

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  1. I am relieved to read that planning impedes the creative process. My past work life was all about executing the plan. Today with my photography and poetry, I find my projects evolving month by month, year by year. I am growing accustomed to it. I don’t find myself at all productive but I like it better, much better and am surprising myself. Your post was both encouraging and affirming. Take good care.

  2. Another great read, Guy. I recently picked up ‘More than a Rock’ and I have been fascinated by your thought process which complements your art. Your words have been forcing me ask so many (perhaps a little uncomfortable) questions of myself and my own work. I have shared a few passages with people on my social media platforms and it seems to be a common theme.
    Keep up the great work.

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