Can We Demystify Creativity?

 

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Fanny Elssler in dem Divertissement: “Des Malers Traumbild.”. 1843. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

Our world is brimming with many mysteries. One of which has continued to enchant us is the quest to unravel the source of creative inspiration. When we talk about creative inspiration, it’s hard not to bring up its famous myth. There are some people who still believe that creative inspiration comes from a “divine” invisible creature from an unknown place who will assist the artist to shape the form of his or her work.

In her engaging 2009 Ted Talk, the novelist Elizabeth Gilbert, believes that everything that we hear about this myth of creative inspiration, to the historical evidence, can be traced back to ancient Greece. She says that Socrates used to have a demon who would speak philosophical ideas to him. Socrates was not the only example of an historical figure who had a mystical encounter with creative inspiration. In his recent book titled The River of Consciousness (Amazon), Oliver Sacks explains that Mendeleev, the great Russian chemist, once remarked that he discovered his periodic table in a dream. Feeling inspired and a sense of urgency, he woke up immediately and wrote it down on an envelope. In Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From (Amazon), he writes that when the French mathematician, Henri Poincare floundered about arithmetical questions for days, he decided to spend a few days at the seaside to relax. One day when he was out walking and thinking about something unrelated to math, the solution came to him. These are the stories of creative inspiration that have been perpetuating in our culture. We adore these stories because they suggest that the inception of any creative project is easy. We don’t do the work, creative inspiration will do it for us.

Is it true that inspiration alone will do the work for us? There’s another way to investigate the source of creative inspiration by observing the quantity of the work that an artist has produced. In his book Originals: How Nonconformists Move the World (Amazon), Adam Grant, an industrial psychologist and a professor of business at University of Pennsylvania, shatters the common myth of creativity that comes from a mystical and divine inspiration. Drawing inspiration from Dean Keith Simonton’s intensive research on creativity titledCreative Productivity: A Predictive and Explanatory model of Career Trajectories and Landmarks,” Grant argues that what Simonton finds is, when a creator produces a lot of outputs, his or her chance to create a masterpiece is more attainable. Grant continues to say that when someone is producing a lot of work, he or she is more likely to stumble upon some variations that can enrich their work and will bring their work closer to originality. Grant says, “Many people fail to achieve originality because they generate a few ideas and then obsess about refining them to perfection.” Then Grant describes the abundant creative output of Picasso and Maya Angelou. In his life, he says that Picasso has produced more than 1,800 paintings, 1,200 sculptures, 2,800 ceramics, 12,000 drawings, and many more tapestries, rugs, and prints. Then one of the greatest poets of our time, Maya Angelou, though she’s widely known for her poem “Still I Rise,” people often overlook her 165 other poems.

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Thomas Edison. 1906. © Museum of the City of New York. Via: (Artstor)

 

In his paper, observing Thomas Edison’s creative career, Dean Keith Simonton talks about Edison’s prodigious work output. “His 1,093 patents notwithstanding, the number of truly superlative creative achievements can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.” He also argues that the diversity of the projects that Edison did had helped him to channel his energy whenever he faced a long series of trials followed by consecutive errors. This method, when he moved from one project to the other, according to Simonton, awakened his mind with some neglected solutions for his unfinished projects. Simonton goes on to say, “Those periods in which the most minor products appear tend to be the same periods in which the most major works appear.” Grant and Simonton seem to agree that quantity is a better stimulant than quality to invite inspiration.

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Ginevra King Pirie. Via: (FindaGrave)

 

There is another source of creative inspiration that we can try to investigate other than the quantity of artist’s work. Inspired by the book titledThe Lives of the Muses by Francine Prose, Maureen Corrigan for the Boston Globe wrote that there are people in the writers’ personal lives that have played an enormous role in supplying inspiration for their work. When Fitzgerald met Ginevra King on January 4, 1915 at a party over Christmas break in St. Paul Minnesota, the two instantly attracted to each other. King was only sixteen and Fitzgerald was nineteen. They started to correspond and their letters to each other were full of passion, flirtation. They stayed in touch only for two years. King eventually married a wealthy young businessman from Chicago and Fitzgerald married Zelda. Though King and Fitzgerald did not stay together, King was an enormous source of Fitzgerald’s fictional characters in his literary career. Corrigan argues that King is Judy Jones in his short story “Winter Dreams.” She is also Isabella Borges in Fitzgerald “This Side of Paradise” and Daisy Buchanan in his memorable work of fiction “The Great Gatsby.”

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Portrait of Agnes von Kurowsky in her American Red Cross nurse uniform, Milan, Italy.  1918. Via: (JFKLibrary)

 

Corrigan also mentions that one of Hemingway’s fictional characters was also inspired by someone that he had met. It was Agnes von Kurowsky, a nurse that helped Hemingway regain his sense of vitality after he was wounded during World War 1. Hemingway was madly in love with her and they had planned to marry, but by the time Kurowsky went to the U.S, she sent a letter to Hemingway that she had engaged to an Italian officer. Hemingway’s early love life was a hapless event in his life, but he turned Von Kurowsky into a fictional character in “A Farewell to Arms” as Catherine Barkley.

All of the examples I have presented above seem to suggest that the myth of creative inspiration that we always carry is just a myth. In fact, if we look deeper into Mendeleev’s life, though his idea of periodic table seems to appear out of the blue, his work ethic to solve this chemical mystery doesn’t enter our conversation whenever we talk about creative inspiration. For almost nine years, he was constantly pondering this subject, consciously and unconsciously. So did Poincare who refused to succumb to this myth and chose to work hard to solve the mathematical problems. Only when he disengaged himself from his work for days at the seaside and let his ideas simmer, while he was thinking of something else, the solution came to him.

Rex Jung, a prominent neuroscientist who studies creativity for more than a decade knows why the solution came to Poincare when he stopped working. In conversation with Krista Tippett, Jung argues that “eureka” moment usually comes after someone has consciously absorbed ideas and then let them simmer for a while in his or her mind to interact with other ideas. Jung says, “You have to have the raw materials in place to put together, but you also have to have the time to put them together.”

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The creative inspirations that catapulted Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Edison, Mendeleev, and Poincare into public consciousness are missing our romantic idea of artistry that must come from magic. Their dogged determination was the path that granted them the creative inspiration. Even from a scientific perspective, Jung arrives to remind us that when we deliberately make a space for our ideas to simmer and interact to other ideas after countless hours of working, inspiration is more likely to come to us.

To believe that good ideas must come from a mystical place is to believe that work ethic is a useless ingredient to achieve mastery. This is a dangerous belief that needs to be clarified. Understanding a craft of writing, for instance, is not something that can be done in a night by magic. It takes years or even decades to be able to present language that can tell stories and evoke emotions to readers. There is no shortcut for the conquest of mastery because “Everything worthwhile takes a long time.

Ryan Holiday Reflects on How to Handle Rejections

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Ryan Holiday. Via: (Wikimedia.org)

 

Any inception of a creative project is physically and mentally laborious. There is often a gap between the initial idea and the final product. This sometimes makes us vulnerable, but there is nothing that makes us more vulnerable than being criticized, rejected, and misunderstood for the projects that we have created, despite our best efforts. When our projects have reached the audience, they are no longer ours. Instead, they now belong to the public. They will be judged and acted on by other people.

We cannot control what people think about our projects, but we can control how we want to perceive their criticisms. This is exactly the hard-earned wisdom that Ryan Holidays offers in his, heavily-researched, self-help book titled “Ego is The Enemy,” (Public Library) especially in one of the essays, The Effort is Enough.

In our world, which is addicted to glorifying the concept of success, Holiday lends us his sobering perspectives on seeing success as merely a reward and criticisms as something that falls beyond our control. What he preaches in this book is his argument on how to detach ourselves from the notion of success and move towards the work that we are called to do with an immense sense of vitality. Simply, this means to work hard. Once the work that we do is “leaving” our hands, it is up to the public to praise or reject.

This essay started off with a story of Belisarius, a man which Holiday considers as “one of the greatest yet unknown military generals in all of history.” Belisarius was an extraordinary man because of his ability to save Rome after the barbarians had taken it. Some of his major accomplishments were winning the wars at Dara, Carthage, Naples, Sicily, and Constantinople. He usually did not have a lot of men behind him and he often had to go to war against a riotous crowd of tens of thousands. His persistence and military strategy were impeccable.

However, that’s not the most significant characteristic in Belisarius that impresses Holiday. What makes him stand apart from any other historical figure is the way he gracefully handled extreme criticisms and mistreatment from his public after all the victories that he brought. Not only was he not rewarded for the good that he did, but he was often punished for it. Belisarius realized that public criticisms did not matter much, as long as he did his job well. He focused on what he could control, his energy, and ignored what he could not control, public criticisms.

Holiday writes:

“He was not given public triumphs. Instead, he was repeatedly placed under suspicion by the paranoid emperor he served, Justinian. His victories and sacrifices were undone with foolish treaties and bad faith. His personal historian, Procopius, was corrupted by Justinian to tarnish the man’s image and legacy. Later, he was relieved of command. His only remaining title was the deliberately humiliating “Commander of the Royal Stable.” Oh, and at the end of his illustrious career, Belisarius was stripped of his wealth, and according to the legend, blinded, and forced to beg in the streets to survive.

[…]

The person we don’t hear complaining about any of this? Not at the time, not at the end of his life, not even in private letters: Belisarius himself.

[…]

In his eyes, he was just doing his job–one he believed was his sacred duty. He knew that he did it well. He knew he had done what was right. That was enough.”

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Belisarius Begging For Alms, 1781 – Jacques-Louis David. © Web Gallery of Art. Via: (Wikiart.org)

 

For Belisarius, doing his job was more than enough. This attitude is something that we need to cultivate. We need to focus on what matters, our effort and forget the public acclamation and criticisms.

Holiday goes on to write that our lives will be much enjoyable if we are not attached to outcomes. He writes:

“It’s far better when doing good work is sufficient. In other words, the less attached we are to outcomes the better. When fulfilling our own standards is what fills with pride and self-respect. When the effort–not the results, good or bad–is enough.

For some people, this art of practicing material non-attachment is not easy, especially for people whose ego always dictates their lives. The substance of this book is about how ego can ruin our paths of becoming who we want to be. Holiday sees the danger of ego:

“With ego, this is not nearly sufficient. No, we need to be recognized. We need to be compensated. Especially problematic is the fact that, often, we get that. We are praised, we are paid, and we start to assume that the two things always go together. The ‘expectation hangover’ inevitably ensues.”

Holiday, once again, admonishes us to not use external reinforcement to motivate us.

“Maybe your parents will never be impressed. Maybe your girlfriend won’t care. Maybe the investor won’t see the numbers. Maybe the audience won’t clap. But we have to be able to push through. We can’t let that be what motivates us.”

Drawing inspiration from the legendary basketball coach John Wooden and one of the greatest Roman Stoics Marcus Aurelius on this topic, Holiday writes:

“How do you carry on then? How do you take pride in yourself and your work? John Wooden’s advice to his players says it: Change the definition of success. ‘Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.’ ‘Ambition,’ Marcus Aurelius reminded himself, ‘means trying your well-being to what other people say or do. . . Sanity means trying it to your own actions.'”

At the end of this essay, Holidays offers us one of the hardest reality truths that we need to embrace:

“The world is, after all, indifferent to what we humans ‘want.’ If we persist in wanting, in needing, we are simply setting ourselves up for resentment or worse.”

After everything that we have invested into our work–the countless nights of sleeplessness, vitality, love, thoughts–all we need to remind ourselves and each other is essentially coming back to this sentence, “Doing the work is enough.”