Our entire construct of the world depends on language. What we see isn’t necessarily what the laws of the universe have defined, but what our cognitive brains have learned to label.
These labels are important. They’re not perfect, but they allow us to differentiate between the different aspects of our reality. Categorization helps us make sense of things.
With a scientist, we picture something to do with research, while in an artist we see a painter or a writer. We define in terms of tasks and actions and not by the core definition of the words.
Almost anyone can consume. Our brains are pretty good at that. There are many smart and knowledgeable scientists. Rarely, however, are they capable of producing work that shifts our entire understanding of the world. That requires an entirely new way of looking at things.
• Don’t wait for inspiration to get moving
• Are willing to produce a large volume of work
Don’t Wait for Inspiration to Get Moving
There are many misconceptions about how breakthroughs are made. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that they’re suddenly inspired and that all great creations in history have come out of a direct moment in time that changed everything. The moment the fall of an apple led Newton to discover gravity or the moment that pushed a great writer to finally finish her book.
Dr. Mark Beeman leads the Creative Brain Lab at Northwestern University. He uses brain scanners to conduct research studies to understand the creative process. In his own words:
In other words, the reason eureka moments occur is because of the work leading up to them.
In 1902, Einstein got a job at a Swiss patent office. He had searched for a teaching position in the preceding two years with little luck. This forced him into an inopportune and rather uninspiring place, at least relative to his interest in physics.
He was deliberate in his commitment to creation, and the fruits of his labor led to the Annus Mirabilis papers. Scientists call it the miracle year. It would inspire the formulation of the two fundamental theories in physics: the theory of general relativity and quantum mechanics.2These insights are primarily sourced from Walter Isaacson’s fantastic biography: Einstein: His Life and Universe.
The more you work, the more likely you’re to be inspired, and the more likely that inspiration is to fuel something of real value. If you’re sitting around and waiting for a catalyst, you’re not putting in nearly enough time to nurture the conditions under which creativity thrives.
Seek Relationships Between Existing Ideas
Creativity is often used synonymously with originality, and that’s why most people fail to ever come to terms with their capacity for it. They can’t image coming up with something from nothing. It’s a daunting prospect no matter who you are. Luckily, it’s also completely off-base.
In 1945, Einstein wrote a letter in response to a survey by a French mathematician who was trying to understand the thinking patterns of famous scientists. It can be found in Ideas and Opinions, a collection Einstein’s writings, and in it, he speaks about his process.
It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above-mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought — before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others.”3For more on this, this article at Brainpickings is great.
If you think about creativity as the ability to develop meaningful connections between existing parts of your reality, you can start to realize that creativity isn’t just reserved for the likes of Mozart and Picasso. It’s something that impacts all of our lives. It’s something we all practice.
Be Willing to Produce a Large Volume of Work
Like anything else in life, the only true way to master creativity is to put in the work.
One way to challenge this difficulty is to realize that we’re not the only ones that produce bad work. When we see a great creation by a genius, it’s useful to remember that they worked on more than just one piece. They produced a lot of really unsexy work that no one talks about.
He narrowed it down to 500 masterpieces by 76 composers. By mapping out a timeline for each individual, he looked at when each piece was produced. Outside of only three artists, each composition was written at least a decade after they started to take their work seriously.
In Einstein’s case, over the course of his career, he published over 300 scientific papers and more than 150 non-scientific papers. An archive of his non-published work contained more than 30,000 unique documents, and he wasn’t always right.
The myth of the creative genius that wakes up and always produces a masterpiece holds little truth, especially not in the beginning. Getting to a stage of mastery often takes years of unrewarded and mediocre work, and even then, the result isn’t always a masterpiece.
All You Need to Know
Creativity is one of the most valuable life skills, and yet, few concepts are more poorly understood. It’s not limited to just writers, musicians, and painters. It’s something we all make use of in one way or another, and it makes most of us better off in life.
If an artist is someone who produces something fresh and novel, then few people in history fit the definition like Einstein. Artistry was the source of his genius.
I. Don’t wait for inspiration to get moving. Creativity is a process. Even the seemingly sporadic insights – like the ones we get in the shower – rely on what came before them. Inspiration doesn’t just strike for no reason. It relies on a consistent pattern of work that sometimes manifests itself in the form of those rare moments. To truly practice creativity, commit to a schedule, show up, and get to work, whether you want to or not.
III. Produce a large volume of work. Creativity doesn’t work unless you do. Produce in the face of failure, and produce in the face of subpar results. It’s easy to forget that not every piece of work created by a genius was all that great. A lot of it wasn’t. It’s just not talked about. Creating bad work is necessary in order to uncover great work.
Mastering creativity is in some ways itself an art, and like any art, it can empower you.
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