Mastering creativity through repetition

In college, there was a class on advanced painting, where students who had pursued a life in professional artistry or design came to set their path in stone with the help of a world renown painter.

Most of those in the class were already making a living off of their artwork. They had procured full-time jobs as artists, or had opened studios in nearby cities, and were only attending this class to gain a small scrap of paper that said they were masters.

Every day, at the beginning of every class, the professor would instruct the class to be in their seats precisely on time (not a minute earlier or later) and then go through a series of very basic painting strokes. Each student was armed with a fairly large brush, the type of brush used to quickly fill a canvas with color and little else.

Up, down, left to right, upper right to lower left, the strokes seemed almost ridiculous. There was nothing said during this time except for the flat instructions from the teacher. “A circle,” she would shout to the class. Everyone would paint their circle.

Then, I remember, one day a student interrupted this daily ritual of the class by asking, quite loudly: “Why are we doing this rather than actually learning painting forms?”

Calmly the teacher put her brush aside and stood up to address the class with an answer. She said: “There is nothing more important that you could do right now than learning to truly master the brush as an attachment of yourself. The only way to do that is to go through the motions, again and again and again.” Then she sat back down and we got back to making our strokes.

To outsiders or beginners, practices like this can be silly. Yet, the power of subtle repetition, of rituals that cover the basics of any approach – to thinking, to a sport, to your day – are undeniable.

David Foster Wallace beautifully describes this importance in his captivating article Federer as Religious Experience, outlining the training regimens of junior tennis players:

The training here is both muscular and neurological. Hitting thousands of strokes, day after day, develops the ability to do by ‘feel’ what cannot be done by regular conscious thought. Repetitive practice like this often looks tedious or even cruel to an outsider, but the outsider can’t feel what’s going on inside the player – tiny adjustments, over and over, and a sense of each change’s effects that gets more and more acute even as it recedes from normal consciousness.

Creativity is the same. Until you can feel your way through the process, you best be practicing every single day. Use puzzles, investigate small problems you can solve creatively, try something new, anything to practice creative thinking.

Photo by Steven Snodgrass.