Conversations For Transformation: Essays Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

Conversations For Transformation

Essays By Laurence Platt

Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

And More

With Nothing Going On II

Cliff Lede, Yountville, California, USA

May 2, 2014

"Here we are with nothing going on."  ... 
This essay, With Nothing Going On II, is the fifteenth in a group of sixteen on Nothing: It is also the prequel to With Nothing Going On although it was written after it.

One of the best jobs I've ever had was with the largest life insurance company in Africa: Old Mutual, headquartered in Pinelands near Cape Town in South Africa. Old Mutual had a world class data center driven by mainframe computers. In mainframe data centers, computer tasks are either run in batch  mode (programs are run by an operator for users) or in interactive  mode (programs are run by users who have access to the mainframe via a screen). Old Mutual, making the transition from solely batch processing, to batch processing plus interactive processing, hired me to prepare programs for the transition, an endeavor we called The Interactive Project.

The Interactive Project would involve many, many months of programming. At first I sat at a desk in an open office for a traditional nine to five work day. Soon I realized I would get a lot  more work done if I could work at night when I wasn't distracted or disturbed. Fortunately, both for me as well as for Old Mutual, I was able to convince my manager to allow me to work my usual eight hours a day and also determine at what time during the day I would schedule those eight hours. It could work. Old Mutual's data center was a 24 / 7 / 365 operation.

My manager, to his credit, agreed to give it a try. I came in to the data center from 11:00pm through 7:00am during which time I did the equivalent of two or more normal days' work. I then went home to my apartment, St Mungo on the sands of pristine Clifton Beach, surfed the waves outside my front door on my paddleski, then slept from 1:00pm through 8:00pm, turning my day around through twelve hours.

It was all very nice. No, it was awesome  surfing by day, programming one of the world's most powerful computers by night. But that's only my introduction to this conversation. It's not what I want to share. What I want to share is what I experienced in Old Mutual's data center working alone from 11:00pm through 7:00am.

The first thing I did on arriving at work was rearrange the tables, on each of which stood a computer screen and a keyboard. I moved twelve tables into a horseshoe formation, placing a wheeled office chair in the middle so I could easily slide from one screen to the next. One of the constraints I had working regular hours was I had only one desk, only one screen, and only one keyboard to work with. Running any particular task on the computer meant waiting for the task on the screen to complete before starting the next one - time consuming indeed.

Time consuming, yes, and also enormously frustrating for me since the speed of my thoughts way exceeded the speed of the computer's response time. Working with twelve screens and twelve keyboards simultaneously gave me the ability to start one task, then slide over to the next screen to start another task while the first one executed, then slide over to the third screen to start another task while the first task and the second task executed, then slide back to the first screen when its task completed, then slide over to the fourth screen etc. I could get an unimaginable  amount of work done this way in a very short timeframe. And this way, the combined speed of the twelve screens' response times exceeded the speed of my thoughts, driving me to think deeper, more creatively, more intently, more detailed-ly, more efficiently, more tersely.

My actions during such intense sessions, were a good fit for the phrases "juggling many balls in the air" and "having many irons in the fire" simultaneously. But "many" as in "more than one at any particular time", doesn't quite cut it. It was more like hundreds  of developing ideas at any one particular time. And if I dropped any one of those juggled balls, if I lost track of any one of those fired irons, if I couldn't set aside an idea to pursue another emerging one then get back to develop the original idea later, or (worse) if I set aside one of those ideas intending to get back to it to develop it later and then lost track of it entirely  in the melee of everything I was tracking at the time, it could spell total disaster, a complete fiasco with everything tumbling down like a house of cards.

It was a crucial training for me. During these sessions I really learned to think.

Programming through twelve screens simultaneously, my attention was fully focused on the tasks at hand. There was no focus on anything else ie there was nothing going on  with me personally. It was during these most intense sessions with literally hundreds of ideas going on at once, all of which had to dovetail and mesh eventually, when it was the most quiet. And in the context  of this quiet, in the context of this nothing going on with me personally, what showed up was creativity, creativity like I'd never experienced it before in my life.

In this ultra-quiet, ultra-creative time with nothing going on when (for all intents and purposes) I was completely empty while the most prolific creativity was occurring, I started watching where my thoughts and creativity were coming from. What I saw, I couldn't grasp. I couldn't grasp what I saw because it didn't make any sense. It didn't make any sense because I couldn't explain what I saw.

When I finally stopped trying to explain what I saw, when I finally stopped trying to figure it out  and instead simply got  what I saw, it became quite evident my thoughts come from nothing. They're not here (nothing) ... and then they're here  (thinking). It also became quite evident my creativity comes from nothing. It's not here (nothing) ... and then it's here  (creating).

That's preposterous - but it's true: thoughts and creativity come from nothing. It doesn't work when I communicate this by explaining it or by arguing it or by debating it or by analyzing it or by intellectualizing it - and believe me: I've tried. You, however, can get it for yourself as an experience. Being clear about it as an experience is crucial for real thought and for true creativity. Before you can really think, before you can truly create, before you can truly invent  anything, you have to be able to get nothing  - which is to say you have to be able to create  nothing.

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