Appreciating Structure and Freedom

How do you travel to the grocery store?

Consider your mode of transportation, route, pace, time of day, choice of clothes and anything else related to getting from point A to point B.

Consider which of these variables remain fixed for each trip, and which are flexible. For example, you may always walk to the grocery store but take different routes. Or maybe you always take the shortest, quickest route but always travel at different times of day. And do you always travel to the same grocery store?

If you observe say, the last 10 times you traveled to the grocery store, you’ll probably notice some general patterns. Those patterns make up a framework or structure. Further, you’ll also notice factors that are generally inconsistent, without pattern and structure. I think of these things as being free and spontaneous.

This is what interests me: Structure and Freedom!

‎”The choosiness of human beings in picking their mates has driven the human mind into a history of frenzied expansion for no reason except that wit, virtuosity, inventiveness, and individuality turn other people on. It is a somewhat less uplifting perspective on the purpose of humanity than the religious one, but it is also rather liberating. Be different” – Matt Ridley, The Red Queen

I’m becoming more convinced that finding the right balance between structure and freedom is an individual’s key to leading a fulfilling, creative life. As Matt Ridley suggests, it may even be the meaning of life!

The grocery store illustrates the concept of structure and freedom. As you can imagine though, structure can be observed everywhere and in everything.

Consider the layout of a grocery store, its location, and the organization required to mange it. Consider jazz music: spontaneity is a much-celebrated characteristic in jazz, but at the core of jazz tunes, jazz bands and jazz venues are common patterns, frameworks and structures. Consider the practice habits of a jazz pianist: how she practices, what she practices, and every minuscule movement of her fingers.

All of these things are governed by a balance between structure and freedom. Further, changes to any of these things can be interpreted simply as a realignment of structure and freedom.

Suppose the jazz pianist wants to improve her finger technique. She’ll have to impose more structure on her fingers and practice routine. Suppose the grocery store is suffering from poor worker morale. The manager will have to introduce new policies to motivate workers. Maybe this means imposing new rules and loosening old rules. Maybe this means replacing the manager with someone who balances the workplace differently.

Having an optimal balance between structure and freedom is extremely important and may be responsible for learning, inspiration and creativity. Here’s one of my favourite quotes from Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music:

“I experience a sort of terror when, at the moment of setting to work and finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities that present themselves, I have the feeling that everything is permissible to me. If everything is permissible to me, the best and the worst; if nothing offers me any resistance, then any effort is inconceivable, and I cannot use anything as a basis, and consequently every undertaking becomes futile.”

This idea fascinates me because it’s one of those universal, all encompassing, foundational, concepts. It applies to running a business and dating as much as it applies to learning and music making.

My reflections here are only scratching the surface, and you can expect the relationship between structure and freedom to be a major theme in my writing over the next while!

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