Creative Tension – The Energy to Do the Work

There are some other ideas that are important to talk about along with shared vision and aspiration. These other ideas are important because I recognize that in the prior post about the value of talking about shared vision* I basically just asserted that vision,if approached in the right way, can be connected to and can influence what we do and how we do it.

I made that claim, but I didn’t back it up.  I didn’t actually make the connection between the abstract, academic idea and the concrete, practical world of getting stuff done.  I want to try and connect those dots because I understand that talk of vision can still seem irrelevant to the concerns of real life.

One idea that helps make this connection is something referred to as “creative tension” in The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge.

Here’s the short version:

We always want something.  When we decide that we want something at Point B and we realize that we’re at Point A, that creates a gap.  The existence of that gap creates tension.  That tension is uncomfortable.

We have a couple options when faced with the gap.  We can give up our desire for Point B and surrender to apathy.  We can deceive ourselves and try to believe that we’ve already achieved Point B.  Either of these may help reeducate tension for a time.

Alternatively, the tension can be a source of energy and creativity and motivation to help us do the work required to move towards Point B. That’s the value of creative tension.  Without explicitly articulating the aspiration for Point B, we may not have experienced the tension and may not have had the energy to do that work.

Here’s the longer version:

There’s a problem that we get into when we head down this road of aspiring towards something better.  The problem is illustrated in one of Aesop’s fables, The Fox and the Grapes.  In the fable, the fox comes walking down a road (let’s assume he’s walking on his back legs and wearing human clothes, including pants, like any respectable story book animal).  During his walk (maybe it’s a saunter) he comes across a bunch of grapes hanging from a vine over his head.  He’s hungry, and he can see that these are excellent grapes.  They’re plump and juicy and the perfect ripeness for picking.  He can imagine (in his strangely human-like fox brain with a neo cortex) how delicious they’ll taste.  They’re beyond his reach standing on the ground, so he jumps to grab the bunch . . . and misses.  He jumps again and misses again.  The grapes are father away and harder to get to than he first realized.  So he takes a few steps back, gets a running start, and jumps again.  No matter how hard he tries, the grapes are just out of reach of his little fox paws.  Eventually he tires himself out from all his jumping and gives up.  As he walks off, he tells himself that those grapes were probably sour and that he didn’t want them anyhow.

After the fox aspired to get his paws on a bunch of ripe, delicious grapes to ease his intense, gnawing hunger (he skipped breakfast), he learned that there was a gap.  There was a gap between the height of the grapes he wanted and how high his nimble yet diminutive fox legs were able to jump.

That’s the situation we find ourselves in whenever we entertain any kind of aspiration in any area of life.  The nature of an aspiration is that it’s something that we don’t now have or some quality or state that we haven’t achieved.  So in any vision or aspiration there is always a gap between the current reality and what we want.  And the presence of that gap always sucks or, as we’ll refer to it here, it creates tension.

We can picture the gap as a rubber band stretched between two poles.  One pole is our current reality–where we are right now.  The other pole is our desired end state (who we want to be, where we want to be, how we want to perform, etc.).  The farther apart the two poles are, the more the rubber band is going to be stretched, and the more tension there’s going to be in the system.

In our lives, that tension is a form of cognitive dissonance, and it’s not comfortable.  In fact, it can be intensely uncomfortable.  It can be awkward.  It can feel yucky.  It can taste like the bitterness of failure.  It actually shows up as feelings of physical discomfort and mental anxiety.  We feel uncertain and vulnerable.  It can trigger our fight or flight response and all the physiological stuff that goes along with that.

Going back to the rubber band analogy, we also need to recognize that the rubber band that’s stretched contains potential energy that wasn’t there when it was just sitting limp on the table.  The same goes for the tension in our gaps.  We call it creative tension because there’s energy and power in the gap between current reality and what we aspire to.  That energy is what helps us do what’s necessary to create what we’re shooting for.

Like the fox, in the face of the gap and the discomfort we experience when we recognize how far we are from what we want, we can give up, and we can claim that we didn’t really want that goal and that it probably wouldn’t have been that good anyhow.  We can also try to fool ourselves into thinking that we’re better than we really are.

With that in mind, it’s also helpful to look at what happens when there’s no creative tension.  Without the tension, either because we aren’t aspiring to anything different or better or because we don’t accurately understand where we are, there’s just satisfaction with the status quo.  With no motivation to change or to work for improvement, there’s stagnation.  When we abandon our aspiration, we’re left with apathy, disinterest, and disengagement.  And deceiving ourselves into thinking we’ve achieved something that we haven’t produces an off-putting smugness.

The alternative is to expect and even welcome the discomfort.  We can come to recognize that the discomfort is ok, to see it as something positive because it’s a sign of energy in the system.  And to then remember that we can use that energy as a creative force to help us do the work that will get us closer to what we want.

The fox had options.  There were ways to be creative (story book foxes are clever, after all).  He could have found a stick to knock down those grapes or found a fox ladder (that’s what anthropomorphized foxes use) or found some climbing friend (perhaps a tree sloth) or taller friend (like a bear) to help him, but he didn’t.  He couldn’t hold the tension, and he couldn’t cope with it effectively.  And he didn’t get what he wanted.

That’s why we say that it’s not what the vision is, it’s what the vision does.  If the vision is going to actually do something, we have to let it produce creative tension; we have to tolerate the discomfort of that tension; and we work with the energy in that creative tension to figure out how to get closer to what we say we want and then actually do the work.

Going back to the earlier post about shared vision, I think part of the problem with a lot of vision exercises is that they don’t actually produce much creative tension.  Or, if they do initially, then we don’t hold it and don’t use it, and it disappears.  That could be because people don’t fully understand current reality and don’t see the gap.  It could be because they don’t actually invest in wanting what they say they aspire to–maybe in reality it’s just a bunch of fancy words that we use to make us feel good about ourselves but don’t really want that badly.  Maybe we don’t believe it’s achievable.  Whatever the cause, it’s clear that there’s no creative tension in the system, so there’s no energy, so the vision doesn’t actually “do” anything, in spite of what the words say.

Does this help you make the connection between the abstract idea of vision and the concrete of daily work?  What’s your experience with creative tension?  How does that gap feel?  How do you deal with the tension?

*Again, feel free to use goal, objective, ambition, target, destination, desire, target, etc.–something reflecting a desired future state.

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