Getting Lost in The Forest

Aug 3, 2016 / Day Job & the Practical / spreadsheets

This post is part II of How to Improve Your Spreadsheets Using Art Principles. You can read Part I here.

You’ve turned off the grid. So what do you now?

Well, it depends on what type of spreadsheet analysis you need to do. Is it typical or new? There’s no point in recreating the wheel if someone has already done it before. But if it’s new, then It’s time to enter the forest. It’s time to get lost.

Artists, from Dante to Robert Frost, have talked about getting lost in the forest. More recently, Jessica Alba talked about it in her book, Out on A Wire, The New Voices of Radio. It’s a book about the creative process of radio producers. At some point in their creative work, they get lost in the forest.

If you need to analyze something that’s new, think of the process as entering the German forest. It’s ok to be lost. It’s ok to feel that you don’t know what you are doing. Be comfortable with discomfort. It’s part of the creative process. One of my mentors once said that if you are not lost at some point when creating a new body of work, then you are simply implementing, not creating. I’ll say the same thing with spreadsheet analysis. If you are not lost at some point in your process, then delegate it to someone else who can grow from the experience. You should not be doing it.

Getting lost in a spreadsheet means

  • looking at your data to see if there are correlations and relationships that you could use
  • asking questions as to what the data columns mean in your raw data downloads
  • asking for help to find data that you don’t already have in your download
  • mentally walking through possible methods of creating your analysis. Try different approaches and see which one fails in your head immediately.

By doing the exploratory, research, and experimentation process, I get clearer in what I need to do and what I don’t need to to do. It’s like creating photographs. As I shoot more and more images, the meaning of the work and its future direction gets clearer and clearer.

Take A Walk

What if you’re stuck? Well then take a walk. I’m always surprised that this works. My commute to/from work includes a 12 minute walk between Farragut North subway station to L/21st street in Washington DC. At the end of the day (it usually happens at the end of the day), as I’m walking back to the subway station, ideas will pop-up in my mind:

äóìYou should do this. This will solve your problem in this part of your analysis.äóù
äóìIt’s better to do this approach because you will get -this- and you will get -that-.äóù

Some of my best solutions at work and in my artwork have come during my walk to the subway.

Go Small

If walking doesn’t give you some type of breakthrough, then try approaching your analysis by going small. Instead of thinking how to complete the entire analysis, think of the smallest next step you can take. If you need a specific calculation, then enter a formula into one column. Then go to the next step. äóìBird by Birdäóù as Anne Lamott’s father would say.

I do this with my photographic collages. When I feel the image is not working and I’m stuck, I will continue doing the next smallest thing. At some point, it will click, and you’ll realize that you’ve gone past the roadblock without consciously knowing it.

And it’s at that moment, that you start walking out of the forest towards the light.

How To Improve Your Spreadsheet Using Art Principles, Part I

Denotation in Photographs and Spreadsheets

What Picasso Can Teach Us About Spreadsheets
Let Your Spreadsheet Speak, Without Speaking
Stop Using Color In Your Spreadsheets

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