Milton Glaser on the Problem with New Ideas, Overcoming Creative Block, and Doing Good Work as an Artist

 

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Milton Glaser. Via: (FLICKR)

 

Milton Glaser is one of the most celebrated and revered Graphic Designers in the world. If you have not seen any of his work,  check out his iconic I ♥ NY logo and Bob Dylan poster for Columbia record, to name a few. In a recent interview with Creative Boom, an online art magazine based in Manchester, UK, Glaser sat down with Katy Cowan and he generously shared what he has learned throughout his life about his intense and passionate engagement with the world of graphic design. The conversation covers so many insightful topics but I decided to highlight some of my favorites such as: the impracticality of new ideas, overcoming creative block, and the best advice he’s ever received.

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I Love NY Campaign by Milton Glaser. Via: (MiltonGlaser.com)

 

On the problem with finding new ideas:

“The problem really is that there are too many ideas. The question is how do you avoid new ideas as well as deal with the ones you know and make them deeper and more penetrating and more significant. The new is not always the most beneficial realm although in many areas of communication the new is useful because it engages people or surprises people or compels them to ask, what was that question? In any case, the question of finding new ideas is irrelevant.”

When he was asked, “Do you ever suffer from creative block? And if so, what do you do to overcome it?” Glaser says that we need to embrace creative block as a natural part of creative process, because, at the end, it can lead us to a place that can fuel our work.

He says:

“I embrace it. When you are blocked, you know you have something to do. And also it is not a permanent condition. A block basically leads you elsewhere and very frequently that is precisely what is needed. A block comes from doing the same thing too many times and running out of gas. As I frequently quote Picasso, ‘once you’ve mastered something, you can abandon it.'”

In consonance with Patti Smith’s advice to any aspiring artist, the best advice Glaser has ever received came from his junior high school teacher. It’s about doing good work, exerting oneself devotedly to one’s own work and forgetting the result because, at the end, as one wise man said, “Doing the work is enough.

“Do good work. It’s advice my junior high school teacher once told me after he understood that I was not going to be a scientist. I had chosen the road of art. Nevertheless, he gave me a box of contact crayons and told me ‘do good work.’ Those words have never diminished in my mind.”

The whole conversation is fantastic! As I was doing research on his life for my blog, I came upon this video about him created by Hilman Curtis.

 

The most poignant lines:

“I think the most interesting thing that one can say about one’s later life is that if you can sustain your interest in what you’re doing, you’re an extremely fortunate person. What you see very frequently in people’s professional lives, and perhaps in their emotional life as well, is that they lose interest in the third act. You sort of get tired, and indifferent, and sometimes, defensive, and you kind of lose your capacity for astonishment. And it’s a great loss because the world is a very astonishing place. So I think what I feel fortunate about is that I am still astonished that things still amaze me and I think that the great benefit of being in the arts where the possibility for learning never disappears us, where you basically have to admit you never learn it. “

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.

How to Have Original Ideas: Adam Grant on Originality and Creativity

 

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Adam Grant. Via: (Inc.com)

 

In a consolation letter that Mark Twain sent to Hellen Keller after she was being accused of plagiarizing, Twain wrote, “For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources […],” he continued, “when a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men — but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his.”

If all ideas are second-hand, why are we obsessed with originality? There is nothing in this world that is completely original. All of our ideas have been influenced by other ideas, big or small, significant or superficial. In other funky words: everything is a remix.

When it comes to deconstructing the mystery of originality, no one can better explain it than Adam Grant, one of the most influential organizational psychologists. Through his second book titled Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (Public Library), Grant unearths some of the most powerful and surprising findings about what does it mean to be an original and to have original ideas.

On the definition of originality, Grant writes:

“Originality is taking the road less traveled, championing a set of novel ideas that go against the grain but ultimately make things better.

[…]

Originality itself starts with creativity: generating a concept that is both novel and useful. But it doesn’t stop there. Originals are people who take the initiative to make their visions a reality.”

This process to make our “visions a reality” is a circuitous and complex process. However, one of the steps that we can do to ignite our creative minds is “finding the faults in defaults”. 

Grant writes:

“The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists.

[…]

The starting point is curiosity: pondering why the default exists in the first place. We’re driven to question defaults when we experience Vuja de, the opposite of Deja vu. Deja vu occurs when we encounter something new, but it feels as if we have seen it before. Vuja de is the reverse–we face something familiar, but we see it with a fresh perspective that enables us to gain new insights into old problems.

[…]

When we become curious about the dissatisfying defaults in our world, we begin to recognize that most of them have social origins: Rules and systems were created by people. And that awareness gives us the courage to contemplate how we can change them.”

This notion of Vuja de is the engine that fuels the conception of Warby Parker–an online eyeglasses company (A worth to read interview with one of the founders–Neil Blumenthal). In the book, Grant shares the story of Warby Parker’s creation. Initially, it started when the four founders were enraged with the price of eyeglasses. As one of them stood in line at the Apple store to buy an iPhone, he wondered why a pair of eye-glasses could cost more than an iPhone. Everything started to change after they realized that an European company named Luxottica dominated the eye industry business and was taking advantage of its monopoly status by “charging twenty times the cost”. Understanding that there was a monopoly was an “eureka” moment for them. They realized that they had never questioned the origin of the price of eyeglasses before. Looking with a new perspective to “the thing” that they had always taken for granted, Warby Parker eventually came to existence.

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George Washington’s spectacles. “Silver-rimmed spactacles, worn by George Washington. Washington commenced to wear eye-glasses in the year 1778. This pair is said to have been used by him on the occasion of his reading his Newburg address./ Presented by Captain Henry N. Marsh. S. 45,001.” Via: (NYPL Digital collections)

 

Prior to reading this book, I used to think that we lived in the age of ideas scarcity. Grant shattered my false assumption by explaining that the real issue in our world was not the absence of ideas, but the ideas selection.

He writes:

“But in reality, the biggest barrier to originality is not ideas generation–it’s idea selection. In one analysis, when over two hundred people dreamed up more than a thousand ideas for new ventures and products, 87 percent were completely unique. Our companies, communities, and countries don’t necessarily suffer from a shortage of novel ideas. They are constrained by a shortage of people who excel at choosing the right novel ideas.”

To recognize ideas that are not only novel, but also have a potential to make our world a better place is a difficult practice. Grant presents two theories that capture our weakness to recognize original ideas from conventional ones. First, is a false positive, expecting something to be a transformative idea, but it turns out to be a miss. Second, is a false negative, which means believing an idea will fail but it turns out blossoming. All of these are very common. One of the greatest TV series in America, Seinfeld, was a false negative. So was J.K Rowling’s Harry potter series.

Originality conjures up images of Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs for the most of us. These extraordinary figures have dominated our world with their staggering and novel inventions. We feel their success is unattainable. One of the most hopeful things that Grant writes in the book is originality can be exercised like a muscle, a concept that reminds me of Carol Dweck’s research on the difference between “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. The more we exercise “it”, the stronger “it” becomes. The seed to be an original thinker is found in everyone of us, if only we nurture it and let it grow.

“Originality is not a fixed trait. It is a free choice. Lincoln wasn’t born with an original personality. Taking on controversy wasn’t programmed into his DNA; it was an act of conscious will. As the great thinker W. E. B. DuBois wrote, ‘He was one of you and yet he became Abraham Lincoln.’ “

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Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1865. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

The twentieth century is the golden age of entrepreneurship, a term that was coined by Richard Cantillon, which means “bearer of risk”. The media loves to share entrepreneurs’ success stories by highlighting the bold risks that they have conquered. This media framing tricks us into thinking that all entrepreneurs are not risk-averse. To make it worse, there’s a lot of motivational quotes scattered around the internet that encourage people to be fearless when taking risks. Though, I agree that we need to have a certain degree of risk-taking attitude to achieve our goals, according to Grant, blind risk-taking is a very dangerous strategy for entrepreneurs.

He writes:

“Economists find that as teenagers, successful entrepreneurs were nearly three times as likely as their peers to break rules and engage in illicit activities. Yet when you take a closer look at the specific behaviors involved, the adolescents who went on to start productive companies were only taking calculated risks.

[…]

To become original, you have to try something new, which means accepting some measure of risk. But the most successful originals are not the daredevils who leap before they look. They are the ones who reluctantly tiptoe to the edge of a cliff, calculate the rate of descent, triple check their parachutes, and set up a safety net at the bottom just in case. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the New Yorker, “Many entrepreneurs take plenty of risks–but those are generally the failed entrepreneurs, not the success stories.”

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Marie Curie. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

This notion of “calculated risk” is in fact not new at all. Half a century ago, a theory called “an innovative theory of risk” was developed by University of Michigan psychologist Clyde Coombs (Another research done by Coombs and Bowen titled “Additivity of Risk in Porfolios”). This theory can be understood as embracing risk in one area and exercising safety in another. 

One might think that entrepreneurs or creative people who practice this concept of “risk portfolio” don’t take their business seriously because they are playing it safe and not fully immersing themselves in it. However, this strategy is in fact benefiting them.

Grant writes:

“Common sense suggests that creative accomplishments can’t flourish without big windows of time and energy, and companies can’t thrive without intensive effort. Those assumptions overlook the central benefit of a balanced risk portfolio: Having a sense of security in one realm gives us the freedom to be original in another.”

Then Grant cites a captivating study by two management researchers Joseph Raffiee and Jie Feng in which “from 1994 until 2008, they carefully tracked a nationally representative group of over five thousand Americans in their twenties until fifties who became entrepreneurs.” In the research, Raffiee and Feng asked a question: when people start a business, are they better off keeping or quitting their day jobs?

Combining the research from Raffiee and Feng, Grant deduces:

“Entrepreneurs who kept their day job had 33 percent lower odds of failure than those who quit.

[…]

After inventing the original Apple 1 computer, Steve Wozniak started the company with Steve Jobs in 1976 but continued working full-time in his engineering job at Hewlett-Packard until 1977. And although Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin figured out how to dramatically improve internet searches in 1996, they didn’t go on leave from their graduate studies at Stanford until 1998.”

[…]

This habit of keeping one’s day job isn’t limited to successful entrepreneurs. Many influential creative minds have stayed in full-time employment or education even after earning income from major projects.

[…]

Grammy winner John Legend released his first album in 2000, preparing PowerPoint presentations by day while performing at night. Thriller master Stephen King worked as a teacher, janitor, and gas station attendant for seven years after writing his first story, only quitting a year after his first novel, Carrie, was published. “

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Artwork by Austin Kleon. Via: (Austin Kleon’s Tumblr)

 

Einstein once said, “Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.” In this book, Grant shares the same idea on creativity with Einstein. He argues that creativity doesn’t necessarily spring from a single profound expertise, but it emerges when one is actively connecting one’s mind with ideas outside of one’s expertise. As he said, “A unique combination of broad and deep experience” is necessary for the nourishment of creative thinking. In order to understand the effects of  “combinatory play”, Grant turns his attention to Nobel-Prize winning scientists, in which he argues:

In a recent study comparing every Nobel Prize-winning scientist from 1901 to 2005 with typical scientists of the same era, both groups attained deep expertise in their respective fields of study. But the Nobel Prize winners were dramatically more likely to be involved in the arts than less accomplished scientists. “

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This picture was taken from page 47 of the book

 

How does this hunger in the arts help them to spark their creative insights?

Grant answers:

“Interest in the arts among entrepreneurs, investors, and eminent scientists obviously reflects their curiosity and aptitude. People who are open to new ways of looking at science and business also tend to be fascinated by the expression of ideas and emotions through images, sounds, and words. But it’s not just that a certain kind of original person seeks out to exposure to the arts. The arts also serve in turn as a powerful force of creative insight.”

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Painter at His Studio with Guests. Artist: Bundrone, G. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

Reading Originals has altered the way I view creativity, the world, and myself. Though this book is brimming with scientific information, the way Grant weaves together scientific findings and personal narratives in this book is enchanting and digestible. The rest of the book, Grant explores creativity in the workplace, family, school, and truly reveals every layer of creativity that we have never seen before.

Adam Grant’s Ted-Talk on this topic is a worth to watch:

 

And, if you always find yourself hesitant to share your ideas because you think they are insignificant or “too obvious to you”, Derek Sivers has something to say: