What the habits of geniuses remind us

Not long ago a good friend recommended a book about the habits of the greatest creatives, called Daily Rituals, written by Mason Currey.

The short book is fairly popular among artist and writing circles. For a seemingly fair reason: who wouldn’t want to learn how to be more like Charles Dickens, Andy Warhol, Twyla Tharp, Benjamin Franklin, or Jane Austen? If we can learn the habits that may have led to their success, will that increase the likelihood of us being successful?

Unequivocally no. The habits of someone else will not make you more or less likely to follow their path to ideas or success. No more than living in the same city that Picasso lived in will make you a great artist. You cannot become Elon Musk by eating the same breakfast as he does. Studying the habits of Einstein will not make you a genius.

Without any doubt there is something to the habits of others that is fascinating and possibly insightful. If we can peek into trends in habits, or observe possible behaviors we may not have considered or been cognizant of in the past, we unlock new doors for our own habits.

What books like Daily Rituals teach us is less about which habits lead to success and more about which artists or inventors were capable of shaping their habits to better fulfill their personal needs and processes. Einstein slept few hours because he simply didn’t need the sleep. Benjamin Franklin would wake around 5 every morning to ask himself “What good shall I do this day?” and that worked wonders for him.

But in each case what these examples tell us is the same wisdom we must focus on in our daily explorations and practices: read of other’s habits, yes, but don’t expect their solutions to be yours too. Instead: find what works for you. Be diligent about trying new things and being open to change or opportunities. You may find those opportunities in books like Daily Rituals or Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans, but you may also simply need to go out and explore on your own.

There’s no way around it: mastering creativity takes time

In his book “Mastery” George Leonard explains the psychology behind what it takes to mater any endeavor: persistent and deliberate practice.

Leonard uncovers how mastery is something anyone can achieve in any area of focus, creative or otherwise. Whether you’re someone who dabbles with painting, or someone who wants to try her hand at producing a blockbuster movie, to do it, Leonard explains, what you need more than talent and intelligence is time and grit.

That shouldn’t deter you.

Our entire lives are filled with examples of our ability to master what we set our mind to–learning to walk or speak, for example.

In the book, Leonard describes how mastery is a lot like touching your hand to your head.

When you were a baby you would struggle to touch your head on command. It took many months of learning to get the act right; to not only understand what your hand is and your head is and how the muscles between the two connect and move by thought, but also to understand the language behind the prompt and what each sound meant and the definition of the words themselves. There was a lot baby-you didn’t know how to do when it comes to touching your hand to your head, but today it is something you know and understand and—assuming you are of good health—can do without challenge.

This approach to mastery is just as true for creativity as it is for understanding language and learning the motor controls of your body.

Being able to identify what makes some ideas good and some ideas bad requires years of experience, otherwise you won’t know what indicators to look for. It also requires that you’re able to effectively utilize the creative thinking system within the brain.

You can read all of the research you want on how to go about this but ultimately what works for you is something only you can learn. What you read in books and online should only stand as referencing points for where you can explore on your own.

It’s not enough to read about how to be creative, creativity is an active process, it requires thinking and experimentation. You can’t read your way through invention.

And that, Leonard explains, is what makes any attempt at mastery so difficult.

But if you persist, if you are diligent with your practice and try to learn a little and experiment every day, you will undoubtedly succeed because you’ll be learning how the complex system of creative thinking works.

I’m reminded of a favorite quote of mine, this time from Craig Lambert in his book, Mind Over Water, where Lambert writes:

“Success is no big thing: it is every little thing, achieved on a daily basis.”

And one other relevant quote from blogger Jason Kottke:

“Shit just takes time, and creative people make time.”

Which attributes really matter for creative success?


How does anyone become successful at thinking creatively, of generating novel and valuable ideas?

In evaluating what causes creativity, research and anecdotes indicate that there are several important attributes, including: curiosity and openness to new experiencesresourcefulness, ability to be observant, personal drive to take initiativegrit or perseveranceconfidence, among others (including some level of luck as well as natural talent).

But which of these traits actually matter for creative success?

Let’s look at the research.

In an article published on, author James Clear argues that grit is the number one defining element of geniuses:

“How do creative geniuses come up with great ideas? They work and edit and rewrite and retry and pull out their genius through sheer force of will and perseverance. They earn the chance to be lucky because they keep showing up…No single act will uncover more creative powers than forcing yourself to create consistently…”

Grit, Clear explains, is what allows creative geniuses to keep pressing on through failures and bad ideas in order to uncover truly valuable concepts.

We see evidence of the value grit – or persistence – plays in any form of success: from sports and academia, to business and relationships. But grit’s particular appeal for creative success has long been spotlighted, most notably from Thomas Edison, who famously quipped: “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”

Creativity, it appears, absolutely requires diligent work.

Neuroscience researcher and creativity author Jonah Lehrer echoes this sentiment in his 2012 talk at the 99u conference for creatives. Lehrer explains why grit is the most important attribute for creatives to have if they want to be successful:

“Grit is not just about stubborn persistence. It’s also about choosing the right goal in the first place. … The unfortunate reality is that it’s not all going to happen. How can we make sure all our struggle and sacrifice will be worth it? Make sure it passes the underwear test.”

Lehrer tells us the underwear test works like this: think about your underwear for a minute…

“Do you feel it? Are you conscious of it? Of course not. That’s because you’ve adapted to the feel of underwear, habituated to the touch of cotton on your bum…What does this have to do with grit and long-term goals? Well, the only dreams worth pursuing are those that pass the underwear test. These are the pursuits that don’t bore us, even after we put in 10,000 hours of practice.”

No matter what your endeavor may be: if you aren’t invested to make it through the work until the end, you don’t stand a chance at succeeding. Grit matters.

This is especially true for creativity, which regularly entails the act of encountering false positives or discouraging results. For example: Thomas Edison and his team of inventors tested some thousand or more variations of filament for their lightbulb before ending up with the unique carbon version.

Many inventors worked on their own versions of the lightbulb, but it was Edison and his team who stuck through countless experiments in order to wind-up at the most promising (at the time) conclusion.

Edison’s belief in the 99% of having a good idea entailing diligent work would seem appropriate.

But what exactly is grit, and what is the role it plays in creative ability?

MacArthur Genius grant receiver and psychologist Angela Duckworth – whose work is the primary focus in the book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character – explains:

“Grit is the disposition to pursue very long-term goals with passion and perseverance. And I want to emphasize the stamina quality of grit. Grit is sticking with things over the long term and then working very hard at it.”

Duckworth continues to explain how understanding the changing structure of both our minds and the problems we work on impacts grit:

“So far, the best idea I’ve heard about building grit in kids is something called growth mindset. This is an idea developed at Stanford University by Carol Dweck, and it is the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed. That it can change with your effort. Dr. Dweck has shown that when kids read and learn about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to challenge, they’re much more likely to persevere when they fail because they don’t believe that failure is a permanent condition.”

This is a crucial point: grit matters when it’s aligned with the understanding that our abilities – our talents and efforts – are continuously changing.

When the ability to keep working, even in the face of failure, is paired with the understanding that concepts, opinions, and processes can change, creative likelihood increases.

Then we encounter arguments against the value of grit in creative success, such as that from associate director of the Center for Values in Medicine, Science, and Technology at the University of Texas at Dallas, Magdalena G. Grohman. Grohman explains that grit doesn’t come into play until after the creative work has already started. How can grit matter, Grohman argues, if no action has taken place to begin with? “Creative achievement and grit, intellectual creativity and grit, everyday creativity and grit: no effects whatsoever.”

The problem, Grohman explains, is that the role grit plays in creative success is defined by a person’s ability to take action in the first place. To Grohman, openness to new experiences is the defining trait that makes creative successes possible.

There’s undoubtedly truth to this (seemingly counter) belief as well: being open to try new things – one of the big five personality traits – allows creativity to thrive. Without new experiences, without being open to new possibilities in our work, our brains have limited information upon which to build and explore.

What is openness to experiences?

Over at the 99u website, psychologist Art Markman defines it as: “the degree to which a person is willing to consider new ideas and opportunities.”

In his book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, Scott Barry Kaufman explains how openness is one of the single most common attributes in creative geniuses.

On, Drake Baer discusses the implications with Kaufman:

“Openness is about ‘valuing information,’ he says. 'People with high openness show high dopamine projections at the potential of acquiring information.’ In other words, the higher you score on the 'openness’ trait, the better it feels to learn new things.”

Baer and Kaufman then dive into research to connect openness to experience with creativity:

“One theory is that it has to do with “latent inhibition,” or your mind’s tendency to filter out information as irrelevant. In one study, Harvard psychologist Shelley Carson found that college students who were high creative achievers were seven times more likely to have reduced instead of enhanced latent inhibition. People with high openness tend to have low latent inhibition, and thus more original ideas, or so the argument goes.”

To be creative you need to be open to new experiences, which leave you open to imaginative and occasionally complex possibilities. Kaufman goes as far as to break down openness into four individual factors, including:

  1. Explicit Cognitive Ability, viewed as traditional IQ intelligence. 2. Intellectual Engagement, a natural drive to engage ideas. 3. Affective Engagement, using emotions to drive decisions. And 4. Aesthetic Engagement, a preference for aesthetics.

How engaged you are using each of these factors reflects how open you are to new experiences.

In research conducted by researchers Paul Silvia, Emily Nusbaum, Christopher Berg, Christopher Martin, and Alejandra O’Connor, an individual’s placidity to thinking correlated high with their ability to generate creative ideas.

The more flexible your thoughts – your ability to be open to new experiences – the more creative you are likely to be.

But how does openness relate to grit?

What really matters most for creative success?

A better question might be: what about the other critical elements of creativity, like play, flow, curiosity, ability to take initiative, resourcefulness, etc.? Which of those matter the most?

The answer is this: it depends.

To be more precise: the elements of creative thinking that link directly to creative success depend on which part of the process you’re in exactly. One does not trump the other or vice-versa.

Those who have many of the primary attributes of creative capability – openness to experience, curiosity, observant, of average or higher intelligence, initiative, grit, confidence, and resourcefulness – will be most likely to experience creative success.

We can see ample examples of this throughout history: think of any of the creative greats and you’ll undoubtedly be able to identify nearly all of the traits (if not all) in them.

There may be no better example of this point than the great Michelangelo.

Michelangelo is best known for his paintings, but he was also an avid inventor, architect, poet, and engineer. He rarely moved beyond artistic endeavors, but was very open to receiving inspiration in any form. He had remarkable grit, working 40 years on The Pope’s Tomb, never satisfied with the result. While he was highly an introvert, he was amiable and confident.

How is this the case? How is it that one attribute of creative success does not fully overshadow the other, but all work in-sync to produce the most promising results?

You can look at it like a timeline of attributes.

The Timeline of Necessary Creative Attributes

On on end, at the beginning of a project or phase, there are attributes which lead to insights. At this end of the timeline we would see these attributes:

  • Openness to experience
  • Imagination
  • Curiosity
  • Intelligence

Without one or more of these attributes, the rest of the timeline cannot exist. These matter. But in terms of success, what attribute is required next is universal:

  • Initiative, or drive

The ability to take initiative – to tinker and explore an idea, or to play with imaginary solutions – is the keystone of creativity.

You must first be open to experiences and be curious about the world around you, once you’ve encountered something that captures your attention, you must take initiative to explore it in detail. Without initiative or drive, all of the openness and exploration in the world won’t matter.

Moving further on the timeline we reach the additional attributes:

  • Grit
  • Confidence
  • Resourcefulness

At this point in the timeline we have encountered something that has peaked our interest, we have compiled enough information about it and the world to generate ideas, we have taken action in the form of thinking or experimenting, and now we must persevere to explore the idea fully.

This means we must have confidence in our ability to resolve the issue or fully explore the concept. We must be resourceful, utilizing what information and tools we have around us. And most importantly: we must have grit. We must persevere to keep exploring until we are satisfied (or deceased, in the case of Michelangelo.

This timeline of attributes makes sense on nearly all levels of creativity. When many of the elements are missing, we cannot have creative success.

You cannot be successful if you have grit but aren’t open to experiences. Similarly: you cannot be creatively successful if you are curious but do not take initiative.

What matters for creativity is that you have each of these attributes – in some form or another.

The good news is that each of these are attributes you can develop, they are not innate traits like the color of your hair or the size of your feet.

To be creatively successful is to develop these necessary attributes, then utilize them as you progress through your work or career.

Read this next: What causes creativity

More reading on the subject:

If your idea doesn’t pass the underwear test, you probably won’t be successful

Grit and the secret of success

Grit May Not Spur Creative Success, Scholars Say

Which Traits Predict Success? (The Importance of Grit)

This Personality Trait Is The Most Important Driver Of Creative Achievement

One of the most powerful tools in the creative toolbox today


It’s attention.

Consider who we, as a global civilization, are moving faster and faster into a type of “Imagination Age”. A time where technical skills and a informational knowledge are not enough to provide value in the society. Instead, we each need to have the ability to generate creative ideas on-the-fly and do something with them.

Whether or not you believe an Imagination Age is truly coming, what is evident in the modern world of instant information, robotic progress (including AI), and technological breakthroughs, is that we – as creatives – have to be better equipped for managing our own creativity.

More than any other time in history, it’s not enough to simply have good ideas. We have to know how ideas work together, and be able to formulate possibilities instantly.

What that means is that simply maintaining our creativity isn’t enough.

In his book, Focus, New York Times Science reporter and Pulitzer Prize nominee Daniel Goleman explains what traits we need as creatives in the coming years:

  1. We have to pay attention to ourselves, how we feel, what inspires and motivates us, and how we prefer to work
  2. Other people, what motives our peers, what problems are they encountering in their lives and what solutions might we offer them
  3. And the world, what problems are at-large in the world as a whole, who is doing what to solve those problems, and where in the world are interesting things happen.

To benefit from these traits, we need just one thing, undoubtedly the most powerful tool in a creative’s toolbox today. What is it?


The ability to not only pay attention to our own creativity and abilities, but also to those we might be able to collaborate with or solve problems for, opens up a vast world of possibilities. Far more is possible when we pay close attention to ourselves and our local – as well as broader – communities.

In her article “The Creative Adult is the Child that Survived” Rita King exclaimed this truth elegantly:

“The only thing stronger than your imagination is yours connected to the billions of others all over the world.”

Of course, the only way we’ll be able to benefit from collaborating with the imagination of others is to pay attention.

It’s true of our own creative passions as well. Without the ability to pay attention to what we’re focusing on now (and asking whether it’s the best thing or the thing that matters), how will we know what to work on?

Where is your attention lately? Is it on the type of creative work you want to be doing, or is it time to adjust your focus?

If you feel completely unsure, simply remind yourself of what you want to achieve.

Photo via Deb Nystrom.

What about after you’re a success?

Do you think Picasso ever sat down in front of a canvas and thought it would be his greatest work ever? That once it was finished he would never have to worry about the price of painting supplies ever again?

I just can’t see any of the historically great artists or writers sitting down to work and thinking to themselves: “This is it. This is the work that’s going to change my life.”

Even if that idea you’re working on now does change your life – maybe it makes you unbelievably rich, gets you 15 minutes of fame, or makes you known as an established and wildly successful artist – what then?

Say you make it big and that one idea turns you into an instant artist celebrity. Are you going to not work on your art anymore? Will you suddenly have some other grand purpose in life? If that’s the case, why even work on your art now anyway? Go do that other stuff instead.

Generally, creative work certainly isn’t going to make you money.

I think it’s important to regularly remind ourselves of why we do what we do. That each project or idea we undertake has nothing to do with making it big and everything to do with exploration and expression.

We do artistic work because it fulfills something deeper in us. Not a desire to become rich or famous. Not to see one of our pieces hung in the Louvre or to have our book number one on every best sellers list. Those things are nice, and undoubtedly any creative person would love to have those things.

But what then? The work doesn’t stop. The idea keep coming. The need to explore our thoughts and express our ideas, to solve problems and to make things, will always be there.

Enjoy the ride.