On Cotton Candy, Discovery and Practice
Discovery isn’t a concept that gets thrown around too often in the work we do — save as a name for an introductory information gathering session. We talk more about innovation and while the two concepts are related there’s an important distinction. Whether by definition or by context, innovation comes with an air of necessity to it. There is pressure involved — “innovate or die.” Discovery intimates that there is something in existence which is as of yet unknown. The focus shifts to process — how might we go about looking for this undiscovered thing?
Growing up I was only allowed to have cotton candy once a year — an occasion that nearly always coincided with the circus. I remember trying to be patient in the concession line, buzzing with anticipatory excitement, and rehearsing my order carefully. My favorite part of the whole experience was watching the grown up take hold of the white paper cone and dip it into a large stainless steel drum of swirling air and sugar. After patiently coaxing the wispy strands of sugar air together from where there appeared to be nothing more than a few straggly cobwebs, I would watch in awe as that very same white paper cone emerged now topped with a cloud puff of pink sugar.
We spend a lot of time thinking about where ideas come from, how they arise and how they can be generated predictably. Recently it struck me that discovering an idea is a bit like making cotton candy.
As with cotton candy, there is a practice to discovery. In cotton candy making, one must circle the cone through the sugars, moving predictably through a space so that the elements may be pulled together into a cohesive whole. There are knowable steps that lead to discovery and human beings have the opportunity to architect processes that point us towards unearthing the new.
Still, the process of discovery is accompanied by an air of mystery. We describe pulling ideas “from the ether,” noting the mysterious nature of their origin. The proposition of a small motor affixed to a metal bowl “convert[ing] ordinary granulated sugar into finely-attenuated threads”
was so intriguing that visitors to the World’s Fair in 1904 (where cotton candy made its debut) were willing to pay half the price of admission for a chance to try the treat (source).
The fantastical nature of an imagined outcome can quickly hamstring the process of discovery. When we calculate the likelihood of coming up with something truly novel and then decide whether or not to begin, we’ve raised the stakes too high. Instead, we have much to learn from the candy maker. Sometimes her finished product is a fluffy, symmetrical pink orb. Other times it’s sticky and a bit misshapen. Every now and again the sugar burns and the cotton candy is thrown away. Still, she continues to spin. As Steven Pressfield says, “the Muse favors working stiffs” and so our work is to pull together the component pieces and diligently undertake the practices that point us towards discovery.
When asked if he wrote when feeling inspired or according to a schedule, W. Somerset Maugham replied:
I write only when inspiration strikes.
Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.
Of course there is a difference between circus treats and the work that we all do, but the opportunity remains for us cultivate the practices that might lead us towards that which is as of yet unknown — that which waits on us to be discovered.