Sunday, August 3, 2014

Zeno's Paradox... "You can't get there from here"

 When I create something, I often feel as if I am creating for a moving target.  Whether making something for me personally or for someone else, sometimes it feels as if the goal steadily moves away from me, as I complete a seemingly infinite series of  small steps toward completion.  Having overcome my creative block... (Hooray! I am even afraid to say it aloud, for fear it will return!), I have been steadily been working toward the completion of three major garments promised to others, with a pile of personal projects that truly excite me on the horizon immediately behind them.

As I create, the wearer (whether me or someone else) gains or loses weight, gains or loses confidence about wearing it, the timeframe, personal design choices, or ruminates on the color of the fabric or trims, while the weather changes, and the general fashion mosaic continues to change around us... And I pursue new additional things, have new challenges, gain and lose mojo, and so on. This is always true, but I have discovered that the quick, decisive, SCHEDULED completion of a project is the only answer to this problem.  

For me, that is the eternal challenge. I have periods of outrageously productive creation (usually in the Fall), and what I find is that most of the things I eventually create lived in my head for a long time before they finally became real.

About 2500 years ago, Zeno, an ancient Greek philosopher, offered a series of interesting mind puzzles, known as paradoxes. I am particularly intrigued by Zeno's paradox of the tortoise and Achilles.

If you have never heard it, the paradox is basically described this way:

Achilles, the fleet-footed hero of the Trojan War, is engaged in a race with a lowly tortoise, which has been granted a head start. Achilles’ task initially seems easy, but he has a problem. Before he can overtake the tortoise, he must first catch up with it. While Achilles is covering the gap between himself and the tortoise that existed at the start of the race, however, the tortoise creates a new gap. The new gap is smaller than the first, but it is still a finite distance that Achilles must cover to catch up with the animal. Achilles then races across the new gap. To Achilles’ frustration, while he was scampering across the second gap, the tortoise was establishing a third. The upshot is that Achilles can never overtake the tortoise. No matter how quickly Achilles closes each gap, the slow-but-steady tortoise will always open new, smaller ones and remain just ahead of the Greek hero.

Achilles concedes the race, deciding that the tortoise was correct.  But is he?  Of course not.  Life has taught us differently.  If I can work quickly enough, I will eventually catch up - unless I stop, right?

The paradox breaks the race down into infinitely small steps - so many, in fact, that the series of tiny steps in infinite, and there is no FINAL step.  

So, the thought this leads me to is this:  Is there actually a "there"? If so, where is it? Does it need redefining?

Let's say you are making a pair of pants, a shirt, building a design career, launching a product... Do you have an actual goal in mind? If we make our goal to simply overtake the tortoise, with no actual finish line, are we missing the point? Should we redefine the goal?  Is there a level of completion that is actually "complete"?  I looked for evidence online that creative people were finding Zeno's paradox relevant to their own creative lives, and there are others who have written quite beautifully on this topic.  Among knitters, it can be called the "second sock" syndrome.  Among painters, the infinite  combination of colors, brush strokes, ways to convey the work are endless, and that is what confounds us.  Isn't it?

I made a particular convertible wedding dress (one of many I have converted in this way) for one particular client some tears ago.  This idea turns one dress into two, for the bride who wants to "let loose" at the reception without changing dresses.  She was a creative - an actress and dancer, with whom I had an excellent rapport.  During our process, however, we made what seemed like an impossibly long series of tiny incremental changes to the separating zipper I'd installed, the tulle and lining of the short version of her dress... until the deadline (wedding date) loomed ominously. Caught in a spiral of infinite creativity, we were eventually forced to stop, due to the timeframe.  Clearly, we all (creatives) need a bit of that in our lives.

Bride immediately following ceremony (before)

Let the dancing begin! (After)

Strangely enough, that is the beauty of business.  Business puts a definite period on things.  It makes us stop at some point to meet a goal. If we don't, the business will meet its own demise.  Plenty of them do. Happily, business deadlines serve as great practice for actually getting things done.

The next store-bought dress I converted, was significantly easier.  One fitting, and I was DONE. 


As an aside, this is an alteration/redesign I love to do, because it is really such a "costuming" decision, it fuels conversation, and it amazes the guests!

Business, has for me, been a significant boost to my productivity, because it puts a period at the end of every garment... whether I like it or not!

Related posts:

Are you starting a fashion business? What is stopping you? Let's poke where you're tender...

The challenges and joys of design thinking

Overcoming a creative block

Hope this is helpful! Please comment if it is!


  1. Interesting. I never start a project without first asking the client what is their due date. The one and only time I unto ok a garment without a firm due date it dragged on for over a year and ultimately I lost a ton of money because of the procrastinating. Coming from a theatrical costuming background my life has always revolved around deadlines. Without them there is no focus.

    1. Great point, Cindy. So, do you set deadlines for personal projects, too?

    2. Now that's a good question. It completely depends on the project. Usually I don't have a firm completion date as my personal projects are my chance to experiment and "play".

  2. So from a mathematical perspective, this is why Zeno's paradox is fallacious-- you can add up an infinite sequence to be a finite amount. For example you can take 1 inch and divide it into infinitely smaller pieces-- 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16.... Etc-- but it will still always add up to 1 inch, a finite amount.
    So to relate it tithe sewing analogy, dividing a project up into infinitely small steps may be self imposed. Perhaps we can focus on the minimum amount of steps at first and then break it down more as time permits?

    1. Hmmm..., that is serious food for thought! What I have come to realize since writing this post, is that my goals must include the word. " finish" in them; finish a hem, finish choosing buttons, etc. if I want to achieve completion.


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