“You’ll become known for doing what you do. It’s a simple saying, but it’s true. When you do something, you will become known as the kind of person who does that particular thing. The only way to start being asked to do something you want to do is to start doing that thing on your own. Eventually, if you do it well, and long enough, people will start asking you to do it for them.”
There’s an iconic photograph of Steve Jobs, taken during the very early, successful days of the company he helped start: Apple.
In the photo you can see Steve sitting in his home, only a lamp, a sitting pad, a few vinyl records, a record player, and a notebook sitting in the room with him. Apart from those few items, the hardwood floor and walls are bare. There’s no couch, no television or radio, no coffee table, nothing like that.
The photo is iconic because it makes Steve look so powerful, so all-knowing and wise. His position, upright with legs crossed, makes it appear as though Steve has obtained some level of higher enlightenment.
This is an important photo. Not because it’s of the brilliant Steve Jobs, but because it symbolizes countless other photos and images of historical, creative geniuses throughout time. And there’s a huge problem with that.
How often do we imagine these genius creatives, sitting in their home or studio, contemplating the next big thing? If you think of nearly any creative great, this is likely how you’re going to imagine them.
It’s not difficult to imagine the likes of Walt Disney, Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe, or Thomas Edison in these moments of deep insight or masterful work. It’s also easy to imagine these masters in these moments entirely alone. They are, after-all, the major masters of their craft, the geniuses behind the glass.
When we imagine these thinkers like this – sitting or working by themselves – we create a scenario around creativity that isn’t entirely true. This belief can hurt our own ability to achieve creative mastery.
The greatest creatives hardly ever work alone. If you think you can go alone on the path to ideas that matter, it’s time to think again.
One of the most notably stories around the myth of the lone genius comes from Thomas Edison, best known for his work on the first, practical light bulb. Notably, Edison is quoted as having said: “I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” Images of Edison spending countless days or weeks working at his desk on the light bulb readily come to mind. Yet, it wasn’t Edison alone who made all reportedly 10,000 attempts.
In his book, The Myths of Creativity David Burkus shares with us the truth on the matter:
“Edison was no lone inventor, but rather he compiled a team of engineers, machinists, and physicists who worked together on many of the inventions we now attribute to Edison alone….As their work progressed, the team quickly realized the power behind Edison’s name….according to Francis Jehl, Edison’s long-time assistant, those inside knew that ‘Edison [was] in reality a collective noun and [meant] the work of many men.’”
In their 1995 report titled “Deconstructing the Lone Genius Myth,” researchers Alfonso Montuori and Ronald Purser explored the psychological and social-economical reasons why the myth of the lone genius persists, and what matters for generating truly great ideas.
The researchers explains:
“The romantic myth of the lone genius still prevails… This may be due to the fact that the image of the creative genius is closely tied to hyper-individualism… There is a fear, for instance, that learning to play another musician’s solos by heart, as the great innovator Charlie Parker did…might somehow weaken or contaminate one’s creative ‘purity’ with the possibility that one could turn into a carbon copy of the role model.”
As creatives, we want to believe that our work is entirely original and groundbreaking. The more unique and valuable our ideas are, the more likely we are to be associated with their impending success and fame.
We like the story of lone geniuses because we want to believe that great ideas are spawned from some deeper source of genius itself. If anybody can have great ideas, who will we have to celebrate as creative geniuses? If great ideas don’t come from within ourselves, how do we know they are worthwhile or not?
Of course, we know that creativity is not a gift bestowed on a lucky few. We know from ample research and psychology that creativity is a trait each of us are born with and carry through-out our lives. Believing that the lone genius is reality gives us a hero to worship or, more importantly, an excuse for when we are struggling to come up with ideas ourselves.
Montuori and Purser continue:
“Creativity takes place in groups, organizations, and societies…and can be sparked by interactions…we believe this does not diminish the role of the individual in the least, but rather addresses more fully the concern of individuals and the contexts in which they have to operate–contexts that are, after all, also composed to a large extent of other individuals.”
I’m all-too-familiar with the trap of believing in the lone genius.
Most of the independent work I do, I do alone. This blog, for example, I write entirely on my own. I designed the blog and programmed the template on my own. Many of the ideas for the posts are my own.
Except that’s not entirely true.
Without realizing it, much of the inspiration for this blog has come as a result of speaking with other creatives. The discussions I have – and the questions I’m asked ” spark the insights that keep this blog going.
With nearly all of the work I do, there’s someone behind the scenes inspiring me. Whether it’s a conversation I have with a friend or family member, or a piece of design work I see somewhere on the web. I am not doing this work on my own, it’s actually the result of hundreds of people throughout history each inspiring me in some way.
You, too, do not work alone. You may sit in a studio or room alone, you may solely be responsible for pushing the brush across the canvas or the keys on the keyboard, but it’s through your interactions with others that your ideas flow.
To truly be a creative genius, then, we must embrace working alongside others. Not all the time, but often. It’s through our interactions that our best ideas swell.
“The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to.”
Richard Feynman’s advice on what problems to solve
The process behind creating something beautiful is often ugly itself.
As a creative worker, you can’t let that notion prevent you from working on the things that matter, though it will sometimes make it hard to do so.
Imagine an amateur artist sitting in her studio, as an example. She arranges her easel and brushes and starts out on an endeavor to turn the images in her mind into a tangible work of art.
After two or three hours of work, the canvas is a wreck. There are odd shapes scattered across the white background. Ugly colors blend and drip and droop all over the place. Lines aren’t where they were supposed to be.
Two or three more hours of work and the canvas doesn’t look any better, in-fact, it appears to be in arguably worse shape.
At this point, the artist has two decisions to make. With each decision, the first option is always rational, the second more irrational but worthwhile.
First decision: to scrap the painting or not. To throw away what’s been made and simply start over with a fresh set of brushes and a spotlessly clean canvas. Or to keep painting, repeatedly, over the marks that currently sit on the canvas, using them as a guiding foundation for what strokes to paint next.
The second decision the artist has to make is whether to scrap the idea itself or not. If the canvas isn’t turning out how it was envisioned to be in the first place, maybe it’s a poor idea after-all, right? Or keep playing with the idea, seeing if there’s a way to make it work.
Whether you’re an artist or not, you have to make these same decisions any time you start a new project. You’ve made these decisions one way or the other many times in your career already (whether you’re a student, amateur, or expert). Can you think of a time when you did?
Throw away the work and start over. Or keep the work and build from it, improve it and see what it can become.
Throw away the idea and wait for a new one. Or keep playing with this one, discover what it was meant to be all-along.
To get the most value from our ideas and our work as creatives, I’d argue that the later decision is always the best one. Without building from what you’ve got in front of you now (and without holding onto an idea until you can at least see its true potential), you’ll never know what you’re fully capable of.
If you look at any creative work near the beginning, it’s ugly. But come back to the work when it’s truly complete (or, at least, closer to being complete), and you’ll see something worthwhile.
In a 1974 interview, Ray Bradbury articulates the importance of building on the founding, ugly work in order to build something worthwhile. He did so by pointing to the artistic process of famed painter Henri Matisse. Bradbury shared in the interview:
“Matisse does a drawing, then he recopies it. He recopies it five times, ten times, each time with cleaner lines. He is persuaded that the last one, the most spare, is the best, the purest, the definitive one; and yet, usually it’s the first. When it comes to drawing, nothing is better than the first sketch.”
In 2010, MoMA curators set out to uncover Matisse’s process by taking an x-ray scanner to one of his most prominent works: 'Bathers by a River'.
What the curators discovered was line after line of work that Matisse had drawn, painted, then covered up with other lines or paint. To Matisse, the original work was ugly enough to be covered but important enough to be used as a foundation (both literally and figuratively) for the final product.
For Matisse, this process took eight years, from 1909 to 1917.
If you had looked at that first work in 1909 you would have wondered why Matisse even bothered to paint it. Compared to the 1917 work, though, you can see clearly the importance of those first, ugly strokes.
When you first set out to work on a project, know that the process will be ugly at first. You may not like what you see, or hear, or feel.
But take the time to build from the first iteration, to tinker and explore what’s possible with the idea itself, and you’ll find that you not only grow as a creative, but that the work itself grows.
The work grows into exactly what it needs to be.
Illustration work by Troy Wandzel.
Busy is a very interesting thing to be.
Being overwhelmed by how busy you are doesn’t mean you’re actually creating or doing the work. Busy simply means you’re unfocused on what you should be doing, so you feel busy.
To the creative worker, busy is a familiar feeling. There’s never not enough to do or explore.
But to be busy means you simply aren’t focusing your efforts on the work that needs the most attention. If you were focused then you wouldn’t feel as busy, you’d feel another word: productive.
Yet we live in a day-and-age where being busy is praised, almost worshipped. The hard-working individual who is in the office or studio before sunrise and leaves only well-after the sun has set is looked at as someone to idolize.
We feel the burden to do more, make more, work more and as a result we confuse the hours spent sitting in front of a canvas, or keyboard, with actually doing quality work.
Author Scott Berkun recently summed up this confusion nicely on his blog:
“This means people who are always busy are time poor. They have a time shortage. They have time debt. They are either trying to do too much, or they aren’t doing what they’re doing very well. They are failing to either a) be effective with their time b) don’t know what they’re trying to effect, so they scramble away at trying to optimize for everything, which leads to optimizing nothing.”
Being busy (or, at least, appearing to be) is becoming a huge phenomenon, particularly in the United States where innovation is flailing and creativity is becoming a cultural flagpole.
Recently in Slate, Hanna Rosin uncovered research into how busy we all claim we are, even when we’re not:
“The art of busyness is to convey genuine alarm at the pace of your life and a helpless resignation, as if someone else is setting the clock, and yet simultaneously make it clear that you are completely on top of your game. These are not exactly humble brags. They are more like fretful brags, and they are increasingly becoming the idiom of our age.”
In her article, Hanna goes on to explore the writing and research of Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte, who says that playing the “busy” card has become the norm for many of us. She quotes Tim Kreider, author of a great NYTimes piece titled: “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” who writes: “Busyness is a virtue, so people are terrified of hearing they may have empty time.”
How do we escape this illusion and get back to producing better quality and more meaningful work?
There are a number of ways, thankfully. One which I have recently found to be the most beneficial is simply focusing our attention. Look at all you have to do, all that you want to do, and pick the most important things to work on now and into the near future.
Little things will certainly pile-up around you, but if you’re not willing to focus your attention you’re wasting your time and capabilities anyway.
Scott Berkun gives us advice on escaping the busy-ness culture on his blog as well:
“I deliberately try not to fill my calendar. I choose not to say Yes to everything. For to do so would make me too busy, and I think, less effective at what my goals are. I always want to have some margin of my time in reserve, time I’m free to spend in any way I choose, including doing almost nothing at all.”
Back to Hanna Rosin’s Slate article, she found that silently reminding yourself that you’re really just not that busy worked for her:
“The way I did this was by silently repeating, ‘You’re not that busy.’ Doing this did actually stop the tape in my head of what had to get done that day. I just calmly did one thing after another.”
If you find yourself feeling overwhelmingly busy lately, take a step back and remind yourself that the feeling is a signal to focus your attention and make time for what matters most.
To really get back to the grove of things, remind yourself that you’re not actually as busy as you think you are.
Photo via Flickr.
“So creativity for me is a way that we link our ambitions with what consequences they have. It has a force around it…The word ‘creative’ actually means something. It’s not just adding a little quality to your life. It is the question, ‘What is life altogether?’”
GOOD interviews Danish-Icelandic experience architect, Olafur Eliasson