Thursday, May 13, 2010

Swimming with Canoes by John McPhee, Part II

Last Thursday (May 6) I talked a little about an essay by John McPhee called Swimming with Canoes. I hope you’ve had a chance to read it, but if not here’s the link again:

In addition to being beautifully written, I think John McPhee embeds an idea in his work that we need to re-embrace—the value of play. When the canoe overturns and McPhee is trapped beneath it, he knows just what to do. Not because he’s trained for that particular event, but because he’s spent hours playing with the canoe. He’s stood up in it (surely someone has told you never to stand up in a canoe!), he’s fallen out of it, he’s spun it around and around and swam underneath it.

The canoe in all its capacities is familiar to him. That isn’t something you learn by formal training. Sure, if you want to go fast in a canoe, then you need to spend your time practicing and perfecting your stroke (right, brother?), but if you want to know everything a canoe can do, then you need to play with it; use it in unconventional ways; stretch the limits of the possible.

The same principle applies to most things. The best way to learn to use a computer or a cell phone is to play with it. You can find out all, or at many, of the things it can do by playing with it. You don’t need to worry about making mistakes, because in play there are no mistakes. You aren’t trying to go anywhere or do anything in particular. You are just playing.

When we become adults, we often lose the ability to play. When we do, we lose the ability to be creative. You can play with ideas, just as you can with things.

For me, many of my ideas—like the concepts that led to CityWalk@Akard--begin as play. In my mind I spin the building around; cut it into layers; combine uses; combine different funding mechanisms; draw sketches and trials of numbers. All this activity is usually dressed up with fancier terms—brainstorming or something—but it is just play.

Here’s a thing or an idea. What are all the things we can do with it? Most of those things turn out to be silly, like standing up in a canoe. Sometimes though, you discover a way to use an idea that opens new and different possibilities.

The more we open our minds to look at all the possibilities, the better is the chance that we will find something new.

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