I recently came across Helsinki bus theory, an interesting metaphor by the photographer Arno Minkinnen which is usually applied to creativity. Being a big fan of bus metaphors, I started using it with my coaching clients and it resonates, so let me explain:
In Helsinki all buses follow the same route at the start of their journey. For at least 1 km all buses take the same route and make the same stops, irrespective of their number and eventual destination.
After this they diverge and the differently numbered buses start to separate into more distant and less familiar parts of Helsinki.
Let’s imagine that in the metaphor you are a new artist who wants to create innovative art. Each bus stop represents one year of your life, so the third bus stop represents 3 years of learning your craft and trying new things out.
After 3 years people begin to notice your work but they start by comparing it to people who have done similar work before. Being driven to do something unique, you feel discouraged at finding you’re following someone else’s path. So what do you do?
You get off the bus, go back to the terminus and try another route.
This time you take a different number bus in the hope that it will lead to something different.
But the same thing happens. You had the intention of changing to something new, but you get compared to others and feel discouraged. So back to the terminus you go. As Minkinnen says “This goes on all your creative life: always showing new work, always being compared to others.”
So what’s the answer?
Well the advice offered by Minkinnen is simple:
Stay on the fucking bus.
Exactly! Stay on the bus! And this is true not just for creative endeavours, but for anything that requires persistence, including career, life or behaviour change. As this HBR article makes clear, it is long term commitment to a direction which is often the key to success.
The Problem with Staying on the Bus
Unfortunately, most of us find staying on the bus very difficult, mainly because we are directed by our short term thoughts and feelings. Just as in the case of the artist, we feel as though nothing has really changed, that this is just the same as before, that maybe we should have taken a different route.
This is where we all need help to understand how to stay on the bus.
How to Stay on the Bus
But next we need to learn how to deal with the thoughts and emotions that come from staying on the bus.
Let’s be clear that it is not the feelings themselves that force us off the bus. It is our interpretation of those feelings – our relationship to them – which leads us to get off early.
The Role of Psychological Flexibility
Psychological flexibility is the ability to see our immediate experience from different perspectives. For example, instead of thinking about our immediate thoughts and emotions, we can consider our longer term values. Instead of seeing emotions as reliable guides to behaviour, we can place them in a different context as the flipside of what really matters. Instead of running away automatically from certain thoughts, we can see them as just learned behaviour and not something we necessarily need to listen to or struggle with.
With practice, we can become less influenced by our short term impulses (‘this is just the same as last time!’) and more by our long term values.
This can help us to stay on the bus, and to persist even when our immediate thoughts and emotions make persisting difficult.