Monday, September 20, 2010

The Terror of the Blank Page

Paul Graham:
When you can do whatever you want, you get a variant of the terror induced by the proverbial blank page. There are a lot of people who think the thing stopping them from writing that great novel they plan to write is the fact that their job takes up all their time. In fact what's stopping 99% of them is that writing novels is hard. When the job goes away, they see how hard.
I firmly believe that constraint creates. Constraint doesn't make us more creative, rather it makes it easier to create. That this should be the case is counterintuitive - the blank page has the highest number of possibilites so it seems as though it should be from that starting point that it's easiest to create. In practice, it isn't. To explain why, we should look to the fact that we are cognitive misers, a common theme that runs through any exploration of human behavior.

The human brain looks for the easiest path to an end so the more that is laid out for us, the better. While we all strive to rid ourselves of the barriers that stand in front of us, the blank page terrorizes us. Faced with infinite possibilities combined with the idea that any one of them is available to us (called "the choice effect") the brain has to do heavy lifting to compare all of the different possible paths. Having a certain degree, a certain job, anything that guides your life relieves the stress of thinking about what the best thing to do is when one gets up in the morning. Whether it's optimal or not, it gives us security and certainty, which are two things that we all crave.

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