The Tyranny of Plans

Rather than making specific plans, have general ideas about where you are going and what you may find. Have intentions, have possibilities, but always be prepared to change them

Time and again I find that once a certain level of technical competence is accomplished, progress in any creative pursuit has less to do with changes in equipment, technique or practice, and more to do with the adoption of new attitudes and ways of thinking, setting aside former convictions that are no longer productive and a willingness to experiment even at the risk of failure. Among such things, our tendency to plan ahead and the resistance to straying from our plans, useful as they are in other aspects of life, often are detrimental to creativity.

For some people, going out into the world without a detailed plan and measurable outcomes to judge success by is akin to walking a tightrope without a safety net. So ingrained in us is the idea that such things as success, productivity and responsibility ensue out of careful planning, that the thought of allowing random, unexpected factors into our lives may seem daunting or even foolish. And yet, by insisting on knowing too much in advance, we also handicap ourselves creatively, at times to such an extent that creativity – the production of novel things – becomes an impossibility.

The science of creativity is still relatively young, and there are many questions that we are still unable to answer, but among the findings highlighted in recent studies is the fact that creativity correlates with what may be considered idle states of mind: daydreaming, wandering aimlessly, partaking in activities such as walking, eating or showering and paying no conscious attention to specific problems we seek to solve. In fact, some studies even show that creativity requires temporarily shutting down parts of the brain tied to planning. In 2008, researchers at Johns Hopkins examined the brains of accomplished Jazz musicians as they improvised music never before played, heard or rehearsed. They found that, ‘a region of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex … showed a slowdown in activity during improvisation. This area has been linked to planned actions and self-censoring, such as carefully deciding what words you might say at a job interview.’

This seems an especially important topic for photographers who travel to remote locations, often planning exactly where they will be and when, what they will see, and what they will photograph so as to ‘make the most’ of their time. Ironically, such an attitude means photographing things already discovered and photographed by others, leaving little time for personal contemplations, impressions and ideas.

Certainly planning is an important, sometimes vital, part of many formidable tasks, but a balance must be struck so as to not also unwittingly rob yourself of the potential for far greater rewards arising from discovery, originality and random epiphanies. Painter Darby Bannard offers perhaps the most succinct and useful advice: ‘Don’t plan, prepare.’ Rather than making specific plans, have general ideas about where you are going and what you may find, have intentions, have possibilities, but always be prepared to change them as you learn more, feel more, become aware of more and experience more.

Read this and many more articles in High Definition inside Issue 47 of Landscape Photography Magazine.

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About Author


I am a full-time photographer, writer, and naturalist living and working in the Colorado Plateau – a scenic and diverse desert region of the western United States spanning an area larger than most countries and states.


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    What timing. I am currently planning my annual Autumn trip into an unfamiliar location. I find myself getting almost stressed out with making sure I have everything planned just right. I believe now I know the cause of the stress. So I am going to take these words to heart. I will no longer plan everything but instead, prepare for an enjoyable time.

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