Review: The Path of Least Resistance

Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.

pathThe premise of this book is quite intriguing to me, a person who spends much of his time engaged in creative work. The Path of Least Resistance argues that creativity functions best when you put as little resistance against it as you can. In other words, if you take away obstacles and open as many creative channels as you can, you’ll maximize your creative potential.

I understand this premise deeply – it’s why I often write in the middle of the night with nothing on but some light instrumental music while my children and my wife are in bed. I’m not worried about work or any deadlines and I can just open the floodgates – that’s when the ideas happen. I think it also explains why many people come up with great ideas in the shower – the opportunity to use a shower to slow down, enjoy the warm water and cleanliness, and let some stress pass out of us opens up the creative channels.

Robert Fritz’s idea is certainly intriguing, but how is it useful? The Path of Least Resistance is basically a guide for creative people on how to minimize creative obstacles and open creative channels in our everyday life, which is invaluable if you buy into the central idea that this is a big key for creative thought (which I do). Admittedly, there is a bit of what I like to describe as “New Age language” in this book – words that don’t relate to concrete action – but there’s also a lot of compelling thought and action within these covers.

Digging Into The Path of Least Resistance

Chapter 1: The Path of Least Resistance
Fritz opens the book by identifying the three basic underlying principles of the book. First, you go through life taking the path of least resistance. In other words, we spend our lives trying to find the path to our goals that involves the smallest number of obstacles. Second, the underlying structure of your life determines the path of least resistance. This includes your predispositions, ethics, and thought patterns, as well as external pieces like your job, your personal life, and so on. Third, you can change the underlying structures of your life. You can change jobs. You can seek out therapy. You can rearrange your living room. The trick is to find the structures in your life that can create a path with less resistance than the one you’re following right now. I think that’s a pretty sensible philosophy for life, actually.

Chapter 2: The Reactive-Responsive Orientation
Most people go through life merely going with the flow of the events around them, reacting (negatively) or responding (positively) to these events. Rather than looking for things that can be changed, their path of least resistance involves just floating along until an external event forces them to change paths. They either react by fighting it or they respond by trying to solve the problem, and when it’s fixed, they go back to drifting. Some people execute preemptive strikes against potential problems they see coming, but it’s still just a way to get back to the act of drifting. The problem is that it’s hard to be truly creative when you’re constantly having to leap out of your flow to react or respond to things – think about sitting at your desk and trying to think about something when the phone rings. Usually, your creative flow is shot while you deal with the phone call – and that’s a bad thing for people who work creatively.

Chapter 3: Creating Is No Problem – Problem Solving Is Not Creating
Here, Fritz distinguishes between problem solving and creating, a distinction I hadn’t really thought about. Problem solving is merely an extension of the reactive-responsive orientation in the last chapter – a problem comes along, you bring your mind to bear on solving it, and the problem is reduced or goes away. Creating, on the other hand, is the process of bringing something new into the world. I like to think of it in terms of writing – the core germ of the idea just seems to appear out of nowhere, but once I’ve captured it, the art of honing it is sometimes much like problem solving. Yet the two processes are so completely different as to be like night and day.

Chapter 4: Creating
The creative process itself is very hard to write about in tangible terms, and most written accounts usually come off as sounding nonsensical. Fritz tries very hard here to avoid falling into that trap and only partially succeeds. He tries to break it down into pieces, which works on some levels but doesn’t work on others. I think he’s right, though, on some key aspects: practice the fundamental skills needed, know what other people are doing, throw things against the wall to see what works, develop the themes that do work, and use the more finished pieces to seed other creative pieces. That’s basically how I work in developing ideas and concepts – I read a lot of personal finance material and what other bloggers are writing, I write a lot to keep the skills flowing, and when I have an idea, I gradually flesh it out and it often bears seeds for other, later ideas.

Chapter 5: The Orientation of the Creative
Fritz argues that the creative process is results-oriented, in contrast to the reactive-responsive orientation which is problem-oriented. Although a creative person may be interested in the process itself and seek to refine it by working on their skills and so on, the real crux of the creative orientation is in the results you achieve. What do you want to make? Once you’ve defined that as clearly as you can, you can follow your own process to that result, either your own self-defined process or processes borrowed from others and modified a bit to fit you. Things like practicing your notes or your painting or your writing merely seek to strengthen the process that goes from nothing to the result you desire. Also, in this orientation (as compared to reactive-responsive), you can define your desired result at any time instead of waiting for a problem to come along. It’s very much self-driven.

Chapter 6: Tension Seeks Resolution
This chapter discusses a pretty important point in a lot of words. First of all, whenever we’re tense, it’s because there’s some sort of unresolved issue in our life. Obviously, the best solution is to resolve it so that the tension goes away, but often we don’t. Why? There’s often some tension in the solution as well, something completely different. Here’s an example: say there’s someone in your workplace that harasses you, creating tension. Your solution to that problem would probably involve confronting the person or talking to a supervisor, but the thought of both of those solutions is also tense. So you’re being effectively pulled in two directions at once – the tension of the situation, plus the tension of thinking about talking to a supervisor. Now, you might be able to overcome this by just getting up the courage to talk to a supervisor, but what if the supervisor is the harasser? You’re stuck.

Chapter 7: Compensating Strategies
Fritz makes the argument here that most of the solutions for compensating for this tension really don’t work. Positive thinking just stretches out the problem. Most self-help groups, particularly those for shaking addictions, end in relapse. That’s because these solutions often don’t deal with the problem directly – instead, they deal with avoiding the problem. So, the obvious question becomes “how do I deal with this problem?” The best solution is to change the underlying structure. If you have a drinking problem, find friends that don’t drink and engage in a daily routine that doesn’t take you near the bar. If you’re stressed out about work, find a new job or request a significant change in your workplace. In other words, take action that changes the playing field – don’t just think about it. That’s awesome advice.

Chapter 8: Structural Tension
Our lives are full of tension. For some people, this is nothing but a raw negative – it makes them tense and brings them down with stress. For others, it can be a positive – they use that tension to push themselves towards better solutions. The creative process, for example, is just using that tension to create something new. The book offers up two pieces to that puzzle.

Chapter 9: Vision
The first piece is vision, or an idea of what you want to create or accomplish. A true vision is something tangible that can clearly be accomplished, even if the path to get there isn’t clear. It is not a mission statement-type thing: if you’re talking about “creating something great,” that’s not tangible nor useful. If I wrote “I want to create a great blog,” that has no real meaning because I don’t know what “great” is – I need to work more on the idea until it’s tangible. What I really like about this book is that it effectively criticizes “empty” solutions, like the power of positive thinking and empty mission statements.

Chapter 10: Current Reality
Most people don’t face reality as it really exists. They’re often loaded down with excuses and false reasons for why things are the way they are – it’s a basic defense mechanism that we spend our whole lives building up. We learn it as children when we find it’s easier to lie about something we did wrong (and avoid punishment) than to tell the truth (and get punished for a bad deed). That perspective argues for a pretty significant difference in parenting style, doesn’t it? It carries on through adulthood in various ways, disguising the reality of our actions and our lives. Fritz merely argues that the more honest we are about our lives, the clearer a better path in life becomes. Instead of convincing ourselves that our job is good or bad, we look at it for what it really is and make a choice based on that – and so on. Eventually, it becomes much easier to see the real obstacles to creativity – and to understand what needs to be done to change them.

Chapter 11: The Creative Cycle
At this point, the book shifts a bit into a deeper study of the actual process of creating something. Fritz argues that the creation of anything breaks down into three pieces: germination (the initial spark of the idea), assimilation (where you stew on the idea and allow it to develop), and completion (where you actually finish up the idea, creating something new). It’s pretty easy to see these three steps at work when I write: I get the basic idea for a post (germination), let it sit in my mind for a while to grow (assimilation), and then I draft and polish it a bit (completion).

Chapter 12: Germination and Choice
The Path of Least Resistance argues here that the biggest part of germination of an idea is choice. We make choices about what to create, discarding ideas that don’t work in an effort to find one that does. Ideally, this process leads us to the best idea, the one that’s worth assimilation and, eventually, completion. The biggest challenge, though, is that we sometimes use faulty criteria to make that choice – we’ll discard great ideas because they’re too hard and they may stress us too much. I’m guilty of this, too – I’ve came up with great ideas for The Simple Dollar, but discarded them because I could quickly tell that proper execution of the idea would be a ton of work.

I found that revelation to be one of the best parts of the book, the piece that really ties everything together. These criteria that one uses to discard great ideas and instead select merely good ones are the obstacles in your life that really stymie the creative process. For me, the biggest one is time – and I know that. Thus, I need to seek ways to find more time to develop the truly great ideas. There are other obstacles, too – I’ve discarded great ideas because I knew they would be emotionally demanding or they might reveal more about myself or about others than I feel comfortable talking about on The Simple Dollar. These all have solutions – facing my fears – and they all would result in some changes in my life and the way I think about things.

Chapter 13: Primary, Secondary, and Fundamental Choice
Fritz carries on that idea here, arguing that most choices in life are either primary, secondary, or fundamental. The best way to show the difference is in an example. A person who desires to stop smoking may make a primary choice to try a particular package to help stop smoking, and may make a secondary choice not to light up. However, their fundamental choice is to choose to be a nonsmoker. If they’ve not made that choice, the primary and secondary choices won’t help. Now, once that fundamental choice is made, there are obviously some primary choices that are easier than others – a nicotine gum, for example, might be easier than cold turkey, but that choice really doesn’t matter if you’ve not made the choice to stop smoking. The same idea applies to anything in one’s life – you might choose to write a great novel, but if you haven’t made the fundamental choice to be a writer – and take on the commitments that the choice involves – you will never be a great writer.

Chapter 14: Assimilation
Here, The Path of Least Resistance argues that assimilation – or the carrying of an idea inside of you and letting it grow and develop – is a major key to the process. It can involve thinking about the idea, practicing fundamental skills, or just letting it rest in the subconscious. It is that assimilation that creates something distinct and unique – the combination of an idea along with the internal struggles and conflicts and desires within you. In other words, keeping an idea inside for a while often creates something truly great.

Chapter 15: Momentum
Fritz describes something I’ve felt and seen over and over again. As an idea grows within you, it starts to build momentum – there’s really no other way to describe it. The pieces start to fall into place and it begins to grow into something truly compelling in your mind – and eventually, it wants out. It demands to be made. This can take a lot of different forms. Maybe you start executing a bit at a time, and each step is successful, pushing you along to more success. Maybe you just store it up and keep tinkering with it until it’s right – and then you create in a giant rush. Often, what I do is create a basic structure in my mind, set that basic structure down, then start creating and filling in pieces.

Chapter 16: Strategic Moments
At various points along the way, it can seem like you’re not making any real progress. Perhaps you’ve made the fundamental choice to become a healthy person by preparing your own healthy food, but after a week you’re not seeing much difference in the mirror. The best solution to this is to really look carefully at the reality of the situation. You simply are putting healthy stuff into your body, and sometimes it takes a while for natural processes to occur. Small milestones really help during this process – if you can get through a single day of eating healthy, then get through another one, then another one, eventually you will begin seeing larger effects, like a healthier body.

Chapter 17: Completion
When a project is completed, it can create a rush of emotions: exhiliration, sadness, a strong sense of accomplishment, and a desire for recognition. The most important piece, though, is discovering what you learned from the project as a whole – and seeing that the seeds of germination for future projects are found and put into place. Ideally, this is what a project’s “post mortem” should be about, but quite often it dissolves into slaps on the back and self-congratulation.

Chapter 18: Signs of the Future, Signs of the Times
The Path of Least Resistance begins to wind down the book here with a chapter that would seem to almost fit perfectly into Atlas Shrugged. Fritz basically argues that as long as creative people exist, the world will be in good shape, and calls for society to recognize the value of people who are strong creators – those who create strong ideas and those who can build those ideas into something useful for all.

Chapter 19: The Power of Transcendence
The book ends with a few notes on transcendence, the idea that making fundamental choices in your life can literally transform you as a person and carry you past what you believed were your limitations before. This is usually the result of a number of fundamental choices along with recognizing what the obstacles in your life are and working to change them. For example, if I were to make the fundamental choice to be a healthy person and also seek more uninterrupted time to develop my creative writing ideas, I’d likely experience some transcendence in my own life.

Buy or Don’t Buy?

The Path of Least Resistance, quite simply, was one of the best books I’ve read in a long while. It made me think deeply about the creative process I use for The Simple Dollar, as well as the other creative endeavors in my life. It also made me think a lot about how I handle problems and challenges in my own life. I’ve consistently failed at committing to a healthier life, and I didn’t really realize why until I read this book. I made the primary choice to eat healthier or to exercise, but I didn’t make that fundamental choice because some part of me did not want to really commit to it – it was not a fundamental choice I really wanted to make. I didn’t really want to give up the giant cheeseburgers, in essence. This book, more than anything else I’ve ever read, teased out these thoughts.

One caveat: there are pieces of this book that are somewhat weighted down with jargon, but unlike a lot of books that have this problem, there is a valuable message underneath the language if you try to piece it out (which I did in this review). I think that Fritz could actually rewrite some pieces and make them less jargon-oriented in a future edition and it would make the book a bit more accessible to readers.

Having said that, anyone that is involved in a creative process in their life should read this book. Just stop by the library, check it out, give it a slow read-through, and think about it. There are some really worthwhile revelations in this one.

In fact, I’ll give it the highest recommendation I can give a book: it’s found a coveted place on my personal bookshelf. Why? Because I intend to read it again – and perhaps multiple times. It is rare that a book leaves me feeling that way.

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