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Narrow and broad thinking, part 1

19 March 2021 | practice notes patterns

We are all comprised of multiple skills and interests; multiple personas to entertain and nourish.

Even knowing that, though, we still sometimes we get so focused on what we should be doing that we miss chances to do what we want or need to be doing.

So I’m curious: how do your multiplicities support and nurture you at different times? How can a closer examination of the timing that you most benefit from key skills or interests give you deeper insights into your rhythms?

What does closer examination of these phases tell you about yourself?


Here’s a theory of mine. I’ve found that certain activities with crisp, more-or-less objective solutions can be a soothing way to engage my deeper peripheral creative concerns when those concerns need space or unconscious percolation time.

Creative thinking is never just sitting there, doing it. Or if it is for you, let me know: I want to know how this could be possible.

Creative thinking is so many different activities, customized to each person’s temperament and situation. Having a single label for it, even a slightly fancy one—creative thinking—obfuscates how truly complex a thing it is.

What are the seasons, cycles, phases of your creativity or growth?

Part of my generative thinking process, I’ve noticed, has a certain movement between two poles that I call “narrow” and “broad” thinking.

Let me tell you a bit about what I call narrow thinking.


Long ago, when I began college, everyone was allotted a website domain and server space for free. I found that puttering in HTML, making goofy Photoshop images and pulling that all together into a simple website was one the most gratifying things I could imagine doing. It was silly, indulgent, magical, consuming, and led me to a surprisingly useful career.

I still enjoy that kind of puttering. It’s creative but it’s focused. It’s narrow in that the outcomes have some pretty firm constraints. There are many micro-options, but the end result stays pretty simple: static website.


Maybe HMTL gives you the shudders. No problem. What doesn’t, though? Printing your film photographs? Cooking? Memorizing poetry? Weeding? (Weeding is a lovely narrow task.)


This website that you’re looking at, I made it—the content, obviously, but also the shell that all the content lives inside. It’s built on Jekyll, a blog-generating snip of Ruby code.

As a hobbyist, it has taken me a bit to learn how to make it all work together and I’ve enjoyed learning the ins and outs of simple web development. There are lots of bits that I don’t really understand (installing installers through Terminal, omg what a crapshoot), but actually making the templates and the styling that plug into this site’s pages has felt quite satisfying in the end.

Like a hug

All of these web development bits, they aren’t simple, but I find them collectively to be narrow. Narrow thinking. I need a navigation or a homepage or a footer, there are only so many ways I can make that happen in website code. Yes, blah blah, there’s lots of creativity in coding, but to make the thing work there are Things You Must Do. Narrow thinking.

When I am poisoned by anxiety, which these days has been frequently, tinkering with development stuff helps: it feels like expression, and a release from the long slog of worry or sadness. It’s movement, it has solid answers when the crafting of broad new ideas and pinning down of nebulous feeling-thought-moodtones feels much more confusing or daunting or inaccessible. Or anxiety-summoning.

Release into broad

And when the sun is shining, or I have some long peaceful time on my hands, or better still when the venom of anxiety has run through my system, I start to want to turn to broad thoughts.

Broad thoughts are not exactly the opposite of narrow thoughts, but they are blurry, broad, gut-centered, sometimes ephemeral or non-verbal. Sometimes they ride by on a smell. I’m going to wax on a bit about broad thoughts next time, but I wanted to introduce to you what I see as the distinction.

Chicken / egg

There also is broadness in narrow thoughts—the possibilities that come with mastery—and there is narrowness in broad thoughts—a vision, a beacon, a North Star.

I’m still working on what to say fully there. Thus, this is part 1.

And so

I’m curious, though, so I’ll ask it again: what “narrow” activities do you do that soothe or focus or re-align you to your calm and stable center? Maybe it’s not website development, but rather running or washing dishes or knitting. What about that thing makes it narrow, supportive, healthy, safe?

When you’ve gotten your fill of that narrow thinking space, where do you go after that?

If you’re interested in more, one place to start is reading Rollo May’s collection of essays, Courage to Create. He discusses creative thinking in an accessible and human way.

Creative thinking is a life process—strange, varied, befuddling. Self-examination and reading or discussion with others can help us put language (and thus, some clarity) to forces that otherwise may feel like powerful and unpredictable ocean currents.

If you have other sources you’ve read that felt useful, I’d love hear about them, and if you want more recommendations for reading, let me know.

peace be with you

May you have calm creative moments and peaceful stretches of gazing out the window.

Diagram of an equinox