Ability, Opportunity, Capability, Expression, Excellence

Last week I had a conversation about opportunity and excellence in creativity on Twitter and I’ve continued to think about the issue. The conversation started between Matt Searles and Larry Lawfer. Matt’s a media artist and Larry’s the president and founder of YouStorys – both are smart, creative and cool guys.

Matt’s basic argument boiled down to this

“Cheap tools will eventually lead to a new level of master-hood bad ass-dom.”

Beyond the fact that “master-hood bad ass-dom” might be one of the best terms ever I agree with Matt.

Larry’s was essentially this:

“Master-hood-bad-assdom? because of cheap tools? No, just like having a football does not make U Tom Brady”

I can’t really disagree with this point either – because simply owning a tool doesn’t make you adept at putting it to work.

The relationship between opportunity and excellence is worth thinking about though and here’s where I’m at for the moment. There are basically five elements to think about – ability, opportunity, capability, expression and excellence.

Ability is innate. Some people have an eye for images, others an ear for language, etc. It’s unlikely that the ability to imagine persistent moving visual representations of life has only existed for the last century – or that it has been concentrated in specific cities. If you look at production though it has largely been limited in terms of time and space. Does that mean people elsewhen or elsewhere haven’t had the ability to tell a persistent moving visual story? No, it means they haven’t had the opportunity.

Opportunity is not innate. Opportunity are the external factors that determine whether someone can tap their abilities. These can be historical (the tools or technology simply didn’t exist during a person’s lifetime), geographical (the tools or technology aren’t available in a person’s lifespace), economic (the tools or technology are beyond a persons means), educational (use of the tools or technology requires skills a person may not possess) or institutional (access to the tools or technology is closed, limited or controlled).

Imagine the number of people over the course of time whose abilities have been stymied because of lack of opportunity. Imagine the number of thoughts, ideas, abstractions and expressions that simply passed away because the people having them didn’t have access to the tools or technology to share them. Imagine how many unrealized talents exist right now because people don’t have the tools (or the drive to discover or create the tools) for expression.

Does giving everyone access to tools mean everyone is going to become a great creator? Of course not – but without opportunity no one can be sure. That requires some basic capabilities.

Capabilities are learned. Putting a camera in a person’s hands doesn’t make them a photographer. Watching people using a high-end digital SLR as a point-and-click camera drives me nuts. They’re not taking the time to explore their capabilities or the capabilities of their tool. Capabilities need to be learned and explored – but that takes time and effort. That relationship between time and effort is the “suck curve” – and it’s when many people realize that either a) they’re really not as good as they thought and drop things or b) they’re on the cusp of master-hood bad ass-dom and forge ahead to use their tools to really express their ideas.

Expression is the combination of technical capability with innate ability enabled by opportunity and mediated by tools. Technically excellent expression can still suck, but it sucks in a more proficient way. There are tons of examples of this (think boy bands, endless sequels, etc.). (This gets into another area – intent: is content being created or is it being produced – but that’ another story . . .) Expression is the process of exploring and extending capabilities – and of sharing content. Quality is determined by evaluating the expression.

Excellence is subjective. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. How we determine the quality of creative output is personal and doesn’t abide by a specific set of rules or norms. Like pornography, it’s something we recognize when we see it. This was an issue I had with Larry’s premise that “having a football does not make U Tom Brady.”

Just as there are endless arguments about the merits of players in sports – and room for disagreement (not that anyone can really argue that Tom Brady isn’t among the most awesome and exalted players ever to walk the earth) – so there can be arguments about what quality and excellence mean in creativity.

An ardent amateur can create content that is incredibly moving and valuable even without attaining “excellence.” By the same token, conventional “excellence” can result in totally dismal content.

At the end of the day, without opportunity there can be no excellence and everyone has abilities that can find creative expression. Given the opportunity to explore and experiment is more likely to lead to “master-hood bad ass-dom” then not having those opportunities. I am an advocate for cheap tools that fuel experimentation, expression and creativity.