Rivers, Tides, Constraints

A client of mine told me that he’s experiencing some difficulty in working in a disciplined, focussed manner … except that “some difficulty” means he’s like a housefly on crack, far away from his ideal: an ideal clockwork, ticking off one task after the other.

That in itself is not much of a problem; he is a highly creative, intelligent and gentle person, an artist who does get his stuff done—eventually.

“You see,” he told me on the phone yesterday, “whenever I want to sit down and get work done, I just … pause … can’t! I’m like a river ready to burst its banks, but I can’t! It’s driving me mad! Why can’t I be more disciplined?”

HA! PROCRASTINATION! goes the crowd. But there was more to it: He was trapped in a black-and-white scenario, torn between the ideal clockwork and the overflowing river, one canceling out the other.

You see,” I said, “before the nile’s banks were straightened, its ebb and flow made the land fertile. But not only was overflowing the prerequisite for fertile land; without river banks there would’ve been no overflowing.”

Banks define the river and the river itself, when not artificially straightened, defines its banks by burrowing into the land and refining its path. It can only burst its banks because they exist, and it can make the land fertile only because there is a distinction between river and non-river, between land and non-land.

Constraints are not a straitjacket. They are the riverbanks of an organic whole. Productivity systems, when used sensibly, are like unstraightened rivers, defining what’s inside and what’s out, and providing ample space to fluctuate.

Rivers and Tides is a fabulous movie by and about British artist Andy Goldsworthy. Go watch it.