The Helsinki Bus Theory — When to stick it out

Stay on the bus…

Photo by Mads Thomsen from Pexels

Have you ever started a new job, project or hobby with great enthusiasm, excited to be breaking new ground. Yet you find when the going starts to get tough that your unique journey is actually identical to thousands of others (as proved by the youtube uploads!). Despondent you think maybe this path is not for you, you won’t be able to share your unique talents with so much competition and so you start again on a new track.

Exploring this week the Helsinki Bus station theory, which I first heard about on the TMBA podcast. Outlined in a 2004 graduation speech by Finnish-American photographer Arno Minkkinen, the theory claims, in short, that the secret to a creatively fulfilling career lies in understanding the operations of Helsinki’s main bus station.

There are two dozen platforms, Minkkinen explains, from each of which several different bus lines depart. Thereafter, for a kilometre or more, all the lines leaving from any one platform take the same route out of the city, making identical stops.

It is only after several stops that the buses start to diverge and even then, many of the routes have twists and turns that would leave a novice to the bus line unsure about the final direction. Up in the mountains, off to the city or down to the coast? From the first half dozen stops you would never know. Also you notice that the patronage of the bus quickly falls away after the first few stops, leaving few on the bus by the end of the route — a trail head where you can branch out on your own.

There are two really great aspects to this metaphor; first that in order to get good at a career or craft of any sort you will need to follow along the same path as those before you — it is ok to copy and learn from the work of others initially, and in fact it is the only path to take. Secondly, whilst all routes can start off looking the same, it is only through sticking with it till you reach the edge of experience in your area that you can develop our own voice.This is what Steven Johnson calls the adjacent possible.

Seth Godin talks about this concept in his book “The Dip”:

Quitting when you hit the Dip is a bad idea. If the journey you started was worth doing, then quitting when you hit the Dip just wastes the time you’ve already invested. Quit in the Dip often enough and you’ll find yourself becoming a serial quitter, starting many things but accomplishing little. Simple: If you can’t make it through the Dip, don’t start.If you can embrace that simple rule, you’ll be a lot choosier about which journeys you start

If you’re going to quit, quit before you start. Reject the system. Don’t play the game if you realize you can’t be the best in the world

Maria Popovo in Brainpickings highlights how the concept is explored by two famous thinkers. Firstly Oliver Sacks

…. All young artists seek models in their apprentice years, models whose style, technical mastery, and innovations can teach them. Young painters may haunt the galleries of the Met or the Louvre; young composers may go to concerts or study scores. All art, in this sense, starts out as “derivative,” highly influenced by, if not a direct imitation or paraphrase of, the admired and emulated models…or most artists, perhaps, these stages or processes overlap a good deal, but imitation and mastery of form or skills must come before major creativity.

In other words, stay on the bus.

Writes Alan Lightman:

I’ve read the accounts of other writers, musicians, and actors, and I think that the sensation and process are almost identical in all creative activities. The pattern seems universal: The study and hard work. The prepared mind. The being stuck. The sudden shift. The letting go of control. The letting go of self.

Austin Kleon has several pieces on the creative journey looking at influence and how the way we look at it is backward:

…in the true craftsman model you apprentice under somebody for a significant period of time — showing up daily learning the basics of the craft through copying and lots of repetition training. It is only after many hours that you slowly begin to master it and and the edges of this maser you begin to develop your own voice and style and systems and skills that set you apart in this world — there is a long period of being like someone else before you get there and in this world where plagerising and copying is so looked down upon it is hard to publicly work through this phase without being called a fake or a imitation or a cheat. All these things might be true in the moment but they are critical steps that everyone has to go through in becoming an original genius….

Leaving the last work with Minkkinen

“This goes on all your creative life: always showing new work, always being compared to others.” What’s the answer? “It’s simple. Stay on the bus. Stay on the fucking bus.”

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