Chaos: The Ground of Creation

It’s easy to like the idea of chaos from a distance. It’s way harder to tolerate it close up. The human nervous system is set up for homeostasis — we look for order and hang on to it. This is currently a very real issue. It seems that today we’re experiencing too much chaos. Anxiety is the  emotional pathology of our times, on the scale of a pandemic, especially for the young. There could be many explanations: economic forces, climate, digital overload… Whatever the causes, we’re a worried population. The antithesis of anxiety is control: a study of people with panic attacks found their condition was mitigated by an illusion of control — turning a dial that actually did nothing. Simply having something to control made them less bothered. In our current situation, the hunger for control, which is natural to the brain, has been aggravated to an extreme degree. A (devastating) poll of young people across the globe indicates that 42% of those aged 18 to 35 prefer the idea military government to democracy.


Control has its place, of course, but too much of it is bad for creativity. If you’re pursuing innovation, whether in business, art or life, the first step is to loosen your grip. That’s difficult to do when you’re plagued with anxiety. A popular solution is exhortation: those preachy voices that tell you to “be OK with uncertainty” and “get out of your comfort zone.” Easy slogans to throw at other people, but when you apply them to yourself you’ll likely end up feeling like a failure. A more fruitful approach is to understand why a touch of chaos helps us create — and then make chaos as safe as possible. Instead of getting out of your comfort zone, enlarge it.

So first the why. Our universe is set up paradoxically: it tends to drift towards chaos (entropy), but it keeps generating order out of that very chaos. Think of life, for one spectacular example. Random genetic mutations lead to natural selection, which leads to evolutionary development. Without the random part at the beginning, the rest wouldn’t work. Another, very different case: The Startup Owner’s Manual, a masterpiece on entrepreneurship, teaches the impossibility of following a set plan to success. When you launch a business, there’s so much you don’t know, you have to keeping testing hypotheses and pivoting in response to feedback. Likewise, every artist knows that when you set out on a new piece, you may begin with a vague jumble of possibilities. This is probably the root of writer’s block: paralysis in front of that blank page where anything could happen. Artists also understand that if you force too much control too soon, you’ll kill the little sapling of creativity. So, how can we navigate all those tumbling undefined potentials? How can we make chaos feel safe?


This very question led to the creation of Braincat. If you look at most “knowledge management” tools, they force you to organize information as you input it. That seems like a trivial distinction, but it isn’t. Premature organization imposes too much control too soon. When you’re creating something new, you want to let ideas flow, just as they come. The problem is, if you just brainstorm and pour out a stream of random thoughts, you risk the feeling of scary overwhelm. The solution is rather simple. Pour everything out, knowing for certain that you have an immediate next step. In other words, use a process that leads directly from chaos to order.

There are probably many ways to achieve this. With Braincat, it’s done by categorizing. (Hence “Braincat”). That simply means you sort the random material into buckets. It doesn’t matter very much what the buckets are. Of course there are categories that are more or less useful, and the skill of sorting grows with practice. But the benefit of the process is the calming effect of reducing a mountain of bits and pieces to a handful of key ideas. Your brain especially likes this reduction of many to few. No matter how smart you are, your “working memory” (the brain function that lets you think about stuff and make decisions) can only hold four or five items in mind at the same time. Presented with more, it begins to seize up.


The sense of relief that comes from bringing order to chaos makes it easier to start the next time around. You make friends with the process, and you get better at it with every iteration. Take note: the feeling level is as important as the cognitive operation. A sense of confidence is the golden key that unlocks your creative powers.

Here are just some of the projects people have used the Braincat process for:

  • Writing a sermon
  • Planning a documentary
  • Completing a thesis
  • Building a brand strategy
  • Thinking through a personal problem
  • Preparing a college application
  • Outlining a webinar

The list goes on. What all these projects have in common is a starting point of disorganized ideas and random possibilities, and the end point of a tightly structured solution. But whether or not you use Braincat, it’s clear you need to find some way to navigate disorder if you’re going to create anything worthwhile.

So, here are the key takeaways:

  1. Creativity requires an early stage of chaotic or random thinking.
  2. It’s better to feel safe with chaos than force yourself to like it.
  3. Safety comes from knowing you have a process.
  4. Reducing the number of elements to think about relaxes your working memory.
  5. When your brain feels safe and relaxed, you can unleash your full creativity.
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