When Winston Churchill retired from politics he took up painting.
He’d already chosen the view.
He’d been thinking about painting for years.
He set up his easel in his garden.
He got just the right size canvas.
He organised all his paints and brushes.
He’d chosen a perfectly comfortable stool.
He made sure everything was absolutely right.
Then he tried to decide where to start on the painting.
He stared at the pristine, white canvas.
Should he start in one area and work his way across?
Or should he sketch in the rough outline first?
Should he try to include the whole landscape?
Or should he pick one particular part to concentrate on?
How to begin exactly?
Two hours later his wife came out with a cup of tea.
He hadn’t painted a thing.
He was still sitting there thinking.
The canvas was still perfectly white.
His wife asked him why he hadn’t painted anything.
He said he couldn’t decide where to start.
So she picked up one of his brushes and painted a huge squiggle in the middle of the canvas.
Churchill went ballistic.
“What are you doing, you’ve ruined a perfectly good canvas.”
She said, “Well now you’ll just have to fix it won’t you.”
And he started to fix the mess.
Scraping off the paint, and painting over it.
And pretty soon he’d painted his first landscape.
See what was stopping Churchill was knowing how to start.
What his wife did was take the start-point away.
She gave him a problem to fix instead.
The man who could lead Britain in a world war didn’t know what to do with a blank canvas.
Give him a problem to fix, a massive mess that no one else could sort out.
But how do you start when there is no problem?
Creative people are good at fixing problems.
Good at responding.
Not so good at creating from nothing.
With no brief, no direction, no ideas, nothing to get hold of.
There’s one thing I remember from physics lessons at school.
If you have a piece of metal, and you want to magnetise it, just keep bashing it with a hammer.
Eventually all the molecules will line up with little North and South poles.
So the whole piece of metal will have a single North and South Pole, like a magnet.
Just by banging away at it, everything will arrange itself in the right direction.
Just by shaking things up.
That’s a lot of what creativity is.
Shaking things up.
Creating things, situations, opinions for people to respond to.
Alan Parker, the film director, once gave me a piece of advice.
He said, “When you’re directing a film and you can’t decide which way to go, the worst thing you can do is stop and think about it.
Because, while you’re thinking, nothing’s happening.
And all the crew, and the actors, the studio, the lights, the camera, everything you’ve hired, is just sitting there doing nothing.
While you stop and think.
So the best thing you can do is just pick a direction and go for it.
You’ll find out very fast if it’s the right way to go.
If it is, carry on.
If it isn’t, at least you’ll know what you should be doing.
And you’ll get the answer a lot quicker than thinking about it.”
Isn’t that great advice, whenever we’re stuck on something?
Don’t sit and stare into space thinking about it.
Get it moving, get unstuck.
As Edward de Bono says, “The purpose of thinking isn’t conclusions, it’s movement.”
Which is why he coined the term ‘lateral thinking’.
To challenge conventional thinking.
To find a way to jolt us out of our rut, to get us unstuck.
And that’s why creative people are often provocative.
To provoke a reaction.
As Tony Benn says, “Democracy isn’t about crushing the opposition. It’s about the vitality of the debate.”
Shaking things up.