The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Your Responsibility for Insight, Understanding, and Creative Work

Regular readers will know I’ve written about the logic of markets and capitalism many times. It’s one of my ongoing interests: How they work, what they do well, and where they fail.

And why.

Yesterday, at the supermarket buying a rainbow trout fillet, a thought popped up about one of the ways in which markets fail, giving people power outside their area of expertise; past where they can do good and turn to evil. It was a simple insight, though at the end of a chain of logic.

I was both very pleased and chagrined, it seemed to me that after spending 30 years on this subject I ought to have had this insight already, but I was happy it had shown up.

And then I thought something else, which was “It’s not my responsibility anyway, I get the insights I get when I get them.”

This is one of the fundamental truths of all non-mechanical creative and intellectual inquiry: You do the work, but you don’t control when you reap the results, or even what they will be.

You do the reading, you practice (I’ve written all those “logic of capitalism articles” in part as practice), you contemplate what you know, running through the links. You ask questions (and even the questions are more given than something you control) and the results are out of your hands beyond that.

You control the preparatory work. Reading, thought, conversation; you don’t control the crop.

This is even more true of creative work: You could study the great masters of painting, learn how to do all the brush strokes, spend endless hours contemplating how light, perspective, and symbolism work, but you can’t guarantee what work will come from it.

This is the great curse of such endeavors: You can put in all the work and not get a great deal as a result. The less mechanical the discipline, the less determined the results are.

But it is also a blessing: Your job is just to show up and do the work. Because you can’t control what happens after that, or what your body, heart, and spirit are doing with the material, there is no point in worrying about it; no point in self-blame. What shows up after you’ve mixed in the materials is not your responsibility.

You can relax and enjoy the process, the pleasure of ideas or aesthetics, the joy of a great idea or inspiration popping up.

Indeed, relaxation is necessary. You select a seed, plant it in the right soil, water it, ensure it gets enough sunshine, and weed it. Then, you leave it alone. The breaks, the times you don’t think about your art or area of inquiry are just as necessary as anything else. (In fact I recommend any creative workers or thinkers also be nappers.)

Generally, the more relaxed you are, the more you trust the process, the better the results.

This doesn’t mean you don’t turn your critical intellect or aesthetic sense on whatever pops into your mind. Not all ideas or inspirations are great or even good. But if you self-flagellate, you make the process slower, the results weaker. Treat every sprouted idea and impulse with joy, and you’ll get more of them, even if not all of them are as pretty or useful as you hoped.

That moment when inspiration strikes, those ah-hah moments, are one of life’s great joys. Treat them as such, nourish them, and understand you have no direct control, and you’ll have more of them.

They come when they come, their frequency and quality is not up to you–but nurturing them, evaluating them, and loving them is. They are all your children, all loved, but not all equal.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.


The Cycle of Civilization and the Twilight of Neoliberalism


Open Thread


  1. sbt42

    Steven Pressfield discusses this topic, and has similar sentiments, in his book: “The War of Art.” I highly recommend it, particularly so if you find yourself encountering wavering motivation or insecurities about embarking on new projects, creative or otherwise.

  2. Zachary Smith

    You control the preparatory work. Reading, thought, conversation: you don’t control the crop.

    Sometimes the conditions just aren’t right for germination of the ‘seeds’. Reminds me of something I read years ago – “You buy ’em books and you buy ’em books, and they just chew on the covers”. A search for that sort of thing turned up this from the Urban Dictionary:

    Moron American
    An enormous minority group in the U.S. of people who loudly demand that everyone respect and adopt their fact-less, xenophobic, opinionated backwards values.

    Guess part of the reason I’m in such a foul mood is on account of a story from California I just saw:

    A revolt against wearing masks creates a new coronavirus danger as California reopens

    Suicidal Moron Americans!

    An unrelated issue: is there any particular reason the normal font size on this site is so tiny? After opening several windows featuring lots of other blogs, I found only one of them with a comparable type size. On this and the other one I must activate the Firefox Reader View just to get them into something like “normal” readablility.

  3. Lex

    Excellent and true. I think a failing of many who become competent at something is to close themselves off to moments of insight. They’ve put in the work for competency in something and they’re done. Everything becomes a matter of fitting the world into their particular competency. The one’s who don’t are, IMO, driven by curiosity. We usually categorize curiosity as a willful act but for some curiosity is a state of being, essentially compulsive. When it is and it’s cultivated, insight comes while picking out a rainbow trout fillet or anywhere. And the curious person will follow the trail of that insight to where it leads rather than turn it off or perform mental gymnastics to force into a pre-determined world view.

  4. Zachary Smith

    We USAians love our fantasy worlds:

    Fired scientist Rebekah Jones’ site shows thousands more people with the coronavirus, and hundreds of thousands fewer who have been tested, than the site run by the Florida Health Department.

    These days I pay little attention to “the numbers”, for I’ve no idea who is lying, and to what degree. It’s not like people can’t afford the masks – on a grocery run Wednesday I saw two local stores selling masks. Affordable ones.

    Denial is more than a river in Egypt.

  5. Ian Welsh

    Not sure what’s causing the size/font/readability issues.

    Changed the font and size, let me know if it reads better by default.

  6. Zachary Smith

    Your Responsibility For Insight, Understanding and Creative Work

    There is a stark difference between this essay and the next one. So far as I’m concerned, a huge improvement. 🙂

    While I’m here, a remark about the Pat Lang site. It’s no longer in my bookmarks, but every now and then I follow a link to a story there. One such was The labyrinth known as Libya – TTG, and the recommendation was justified – it was a very good read. A person there made this comment about it:

    Thanks, TTG, for a magnificent and lucid article.

    Great to see SST getting back to what it used to be about – military matters, especially in the Middle East.

    (I’d also welcome an expert piece on the effect Covid 19 is having on various ME battlefields. In The Yemen it looks catastrophic.

    What was the site owner’s response?

    If you don’t like my editorial policy you can go to … Actually I am going to ban you for bitching about my policy.

    Posted by: turcopolier | 11 June 2020 at 10:17 AM

    Only 100% toadies allowed. I’ve not double checked the story, but Wikileaks seems to have released some of Hillary’s old stuff where Mr. Lang was sucking up to her. But he’s now a dyed-in-the-wool tRump Kisser. And yes, he still dearly loves all the Confederate Symbols. Even the gentlest of disagreements are Not Allowed by this 80-year-old tin-pot tyrant.

    (rant over)

  7. Dmitry Plotsynopsis

    The mask is now a political statement, a facial bumper sticker.I fully expect el repugno and Biden to have them by November. As regards the font size, I noticed it had changed. Today’s post is a different font altogether, very readable. may I suggest that you switch to that one if possible?

  8. Gaianne

    ; D



  9. Zachary Smith

    (This remark properly belongs in an Open Thread, but by the next time one of those roll around I’ll have forgotten all about the incident.)


    Today was rather warm, and I had some outside work which involved working up a bit of a sweat. So when I came inside I was in the mood of something besides water to wet my whistle. Some Gatorade from the last grocery trip looked inviting, but in buying it I’d forgotten my rule about drinks in ultra-cheap plastic bottles when I threw the bundle into the shopping cart. What To Do!

    Would high-quality coffee filter paper remove the microplastics? Probably the process got most of the contaminants, but in any event I found myself enjoying the Gatorade-in-a-big-mug a LOT more than if I’d taken it straight from the bottle. Peace of mind is worth something, and microplastics can’t be any better for people than they are for other critters.

  10. Charlie

    That moment when inspiration strikes, those ah-hah moments, are one of life’s great joys. Treat them as such, nourish them, and understand you have no direct control, and you’ll have more of them.

    Truer words have never been spoken. They don’t happen as often as I’d like these days, but when they do.

  11. Stirling S Newberry

    Da 5 Bloods

    brutally hectic
    Black with tendrils
    Need time
    Generous scathing
    Comprises three deaths
    Rage regret
    Befell companionship
    Ho Chi Minh ulterior
    Repatriated remains homage cornucopia
    fringes frame
    prosthetics wrinkles
    Ancient ruins?

  12. Willy

    I remember the tale of the Texas oil well frog. A kid lost his pet frog down an abandoned pipe about twenty feet down. The adult neighbors gathered, and the men mostly, tried to top each other with ideas about how to get the frog out. Nooses, grabbing tools, nothing worked. Then a five year old who’d been repeating the same idea over and over again, finally got the men’s attention. Simply fill the well full of water and the frog will float out the top.

    I’m dealing with a client who continuously comes up with really bad ideas, and having a really big ego, he feels strongly about them and it’s hard for me to not hurt his feelings when I explain why it won’t work, implying that he’s an idiot. But he’s the type who gotten rich in real estate by sheer force of will. Sometimes fortune favors the dumbass bold if they never quit trying, and of course don’t kill themselves in the process.

    I try to remember both these lessons, that good ideas can come from anywhere and that even the most fearless chuzpah barbarian can achieve his goals. But my nature often gets the best of me.

  13. dbk

    Oh dear, I raced through Ian’s post to learn what the sudden realization was in the midst of shopping for trout fillets. I was hoping against hope that he might share it with your readers.

    Having been trained in a humanistic discipline, I have experienced such moments a couple times over the past 40 years – both quite early on, actually. In one case (44 years ago), I still recall where I was standing when the realization came to me, it’s that impressed in my memory.

    The other case was an after-the-fact realization in the wake of my MA thesis.

    Neither idea ever received any acknowledgement or traction, although the first was eventually published in a little-read journal. Nonetheless, I remain persuaded of the correctness of both sudden insights.

    I think what Ian has been practicing for many years – reading widely in various disciplines, trying to see connections and draw conclusions – is conducive to such moments. There really is a role for the generalist intellectual in society, who may function both as society’s conscience and its healer.

    As a relatively new blogger but one who’d tried to stay au courant with political developments over the course of many decades as an expatriate, when I began blogging a few years ago I “instinctively” choose health/care, the environment, education and the justice system to focus on, feeling that these were the key areas where social justice – and social cohesion – were most threatened by policy decisions and implements the past 40 years.

    These last three months – well, yeah. I’ve been able to practically predict what has happened, because I had somehow sensed what was coming.

    Still extremely curious about that trout-fillet-inspired realization, though.

  14. Gunther Behn

    … so, what *was* the realization you had, standing in line while grasping your Rainbow Trout Filet?

  15. Randall CC

    Okay okay okay, but what was the thought??

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