Ernie Schenck
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Do Not Open. Mystery Inside.

What J.J. Abrams taught me about imagination.

I’ve always been interested in creative people that have some kind of guiding principle, some belief system that fuels how they see life and therefore their work.

I’m a big J.J. Abrams fan. I don’t mind saying I think the guy is one of the biggest entertainment talents of our time. Anyone who saw his lecture at the 2007 TED Conference will understand exactly what I’m talking about. Because J.J. most certainly has a guiding principle and it is this:

Mystery is the catalyst for imagination.

J.J. tells the story of Lou Tannen’s Magic, a funky little magic store he used to go to with his grandfather when he was a kid in New York. One time, he spotted a box. Nothing special. On the outside, it said, “Tannen’s Mystery Magic Box.” That’s all. He had no idea what was inside. Magic tricks, he supposed. He didn’t know. He didn’t care. You pay your money and you take your chance. He did.

Most kids would have ripped the thing open before they were halfway out the door. Most of us would do that, wouldn’t we? I think I might have. Not J.J. Instead, he took the box home and put it on a shelf in his room. And didn’t open it. Not then. Not the following day. Or the following week. In fact, to this very day, that same box sits in his office, unopened, its contents, whatever they might be, still unknown. Still a mystery.

“I realize that I haven’t opened it because it represents something important to me. It represents infinite possibility. It represents hope. It represents potential. And what I love about this box, and what I realize I sort of do in whatever it is that I do, is I find myself drawn to infinite possibility, that sense of potential. And I realize that mystery is the catalyst for imagination.”

Mystery. Not other TV shows. Not some obscure Philip K. Dick short story. Not old sci-fi flicks. Not something he saw in Cannes or Sundance or Tribeca. Or overheard some film student talking about on the subway. Not in some award annual. None of the places where so many creative people turn for inspiration, knowingly or otherwise. And there’s a reason for that: To build upon another idea necessarily means that you know something. A plot line. A story arc. A character here. A setting there. And as Abrams says, sometimes knowing nothing is better than knowing anything.

“I started to think that maybe there are times where mystery is more important than knowledge. I started getting interested in this. And so I started thinking about Lost and I realized — Oh my god, like, mystery boxes are everywhere in what I do! We had eleven-and-a-half weeks to write it, cast it, crew it, shoot it, cut it, post it, turn in a two-hour pilot. So it was not a lot of time. And that sense of possibility — what could this thing be? There was no time to develop it. I’m sure you’re all familiar with those people who tell you what you can’t do, and what you should change, and there was no time for that, which is kind of amazing.”

But at some point, maybe we have to blank all the white noise out. Maybe we just have to take it all into the folds and fissures of our brains and let it settle in somewhere, be there, yet not. Aware of it, but not governed by it. Then maybe we have to find our own magic store, our mystery box. Let it tease us. Poke at us. Drive us to sweet creative lunacy.

Someone once said, what you don’t know won’t hurt you. It certainly hasn’t hurt J.J. Abrams. And if you can resist the temptation to open the box, if you can be content to not open it, to not know, it might do the same for you.

Ernie Schenck

I'm an advertising creative director, writer and content producer. I'm also contributing editor for Communication Arts magazine and the author of "The Houdini Solution: Put Creativity And Innovation To Work By Thinking Inside The Box".

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