Rex Jung, a scholar who has spent more than a decade studying the nature of creativity, said in an interview with Krista Tippett that one of the best ways to become creative at our chosen field is by doing a lot of practice or getting a lot of experience in that field. Jung wholeheartedly agrees with the notion of 10,000 hours coined by Malcolm Gladwell. Jung says:
“I think there are some strategies to cultivating creativity. In thinking about Dr. Davidson’s work in neuroplasticity, you need to get some stuff in you head, some raw materials, in order to be with which to be creative.
You practice, practice, practice. That 10,000-hour thing is probably right, not 10 years. But it takes a lot of time to change the structure of your brain and there are several studies out there now. You know, the famous juggling study where they have novices who don’t know how to juggle. They image them, then they juggle for three months, they image them again and they see that literally a portion of their brain, a small chunk, but a portion of their brain is beefed up like a muscle in service of that concerted thing that they’re doing with their brain. And that is the thing. The important thing is they’re doing a very new thing in a concerted way. And their brain says, hey, if we’re going to be doing this thing in the environment over and over and over, I’m going to build tissue to do that so that we can do it easier and more efficiently.
So if you’re going to be creative, pick one thing, get a lot of experience in that one thing, and do it over and over and over.”
He also touches on the necessity of down time that can spark one’s creative fire:
“That playfulness is a second aspect where you can have down time basically and play with ideas, whether that’s the long walk or the recess or whatever we talked about. This downtime is incredibly important to allow that raw material to come together in novel and useful ways as transient hypofrontality. This persistence is–perseverance is incredibly important because, once you find a good idea, pushing it forward into the world is going to be difficult and a lot of rejection is usually the matter of course for people who are creative.”
Then Jung goes on to explain that some of the greatest artists in the world achieve mastery because they’re willing to produce a greater volume of work than their peers, which later gave them more variation to shape their work and a higher chance of originality (Dean Keith Simonton of UC Davis wrote a paper about this issue of creative productivity among artists)
“We haven’t touched upon this, but research almost invariably shows that highly creative people put out lots and lots of ideas. And they’re not all brilliant. You have a lot of failures and it’s not the one-hit wonders that win the day. It’s thousands and thousands of ideas. Picasso put out, you know, 20,000 individual pieces of art, and I can guarantee you they’re not all good.”
When I heard this conversation, I was instantly reminded of a book titled Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant that I had read exactly a year ago. I think if I could gather Rex Jung and Adam Grant to sit down and discuss the notion of 10,000 hours as a way to hone our creative skill, Grant would have disagreed with Jung. In the book, Grant openly debunks the myth that the notion of 10,000 hours is an important ingredient to create creative geniuses. He writes that while aspiring creators must hone their craft through an intense and continuous practice, too much practice won’t propel them to become revolutionary creators.
Of course, this is intriguing because how is too much practice being perceived as useless? To answer this question, Grant focuses his attention on the lives of child prodigies, a group of people that we always consider who will grow up and make a massive dent in the universe. Although child prodigies never seem to lose their talent and ambition, they, according to Grant, rarely go on to change the world.
This is what Grant says (Emphasis is mine):
“Although child prodigies are often rich in both talent and ambition, what holds them back from moving the world forward is that they don’t learn to be original. As they perform in Carnegie Hall, win the science Olympics, and become chess champions, something tragic happens: Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new. The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies and beautiful Beethoven symphonies, but never compose their own original scores. They focus their energy on consuming existing scientific knowledge, not producing new insights. They conform to the codified rules of established games, rather than inventing their own rules or their own games. All along the way, they strive to earn the approval of their parents and the admiration of their teachers.
In adulthood, many child prodigies become experts in their fields and leaders in their organizations. Yet ‘only a fraction of gifted children eventually become revolutionary adult creators,’ laments psychologist Ellen Winner. ‘Those who do must make a painful transition’ from a child who ‘learns rapidly and effortlessly in an established domain’ to an adult who ‘ultimately remakes a domain.’ “
Grant continues to write that many child prodigies feel too comfortable with their abilities and achievements that they feel reluctant to question and to challenge the ideas that they have been told. This resistance to reflect on what they have learned is the reason why some child prodigies never make the leap to become revolutionary creators.
“Most prodigies never make that leap. They apply their extraordinary abilities in ordinary ways, mastering their jobs without questioning defaults and without making waves. In every domain they enter, they play it safe by following the conventional paths to success. They become doctors who heal their patients without fighting to fix the broken systems that prevent many patients from affording health care in the first place. They become lawyers who defend clients for violating outdated laws without trying to transform the laws themselves. They become teachers who plan engaging algebra lessons without questioning whether algebra is what their students need to learn. Although we rely on them to keep the world running smoothly, they keep us running on a treadmill.”
Though Grant finds a “hole” in the theory of 10,000 hours, I still think that, just like what Jung believes about the power of practice, it is one of the most necessary ingredients to become excellent at what we aspire to do. When we invest time and energy to hone our skill, we’re fifty steps further than people who are just passively sitting, doing nothing, and still wishing to be creative. Practice still counts and will always give you a firm foundation to help you to become creative. But, another important point to ponder: once we start to feel comfortable with the skill that we have, it’s time to explore other domains/skills/ideas that we have never explored before. The more we step out of our comfort zone, the richer our life experiences will be. Those life experiences that we slowly accumulate over time can stretch our minds and imaginations wider, and this is the best way to get creative.