How creativity works

Uncommon GeniusThere’s no use in trying to deny it: a conscious application of raw talent, far more than luck or accident, is at the core of every creative moment.

This fundamental truth is right at the beginning of Denise Shekerjian’s Uncommon Genius – How Great Ideas are Born, just to remind us that there is no shortcut to creativity. The book is a guided tour of the creative impulse, based on interviews with forty winners of the coveted MacArthur Award; an award that could see you living out your years comfortably with a fat paycheck each month, if you have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in your creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.

Even though there is no easy way to being creative, it is comforting to know that everyone else is struggling with the same difficulties.Book summary:

  1. Find your talent and stick with it.
  2. Don’t be afraid of risk. You may fail, but use it as a learning opportunity.
  3. Stay loose in the beginning, so you can explore all solutions instead of committing to the first one that may be wrong. Quick solutions hardly ever work.
  4. Get to know yourself; understand your needs and the specific conditions you favour.
  5. Don’t worry about money, just focus on your creative work and the money will follow, or you’ll find a way to get along without it (and hopefully you’ll win a MacArthur Award).
  6. Learn to communicate, because a creative act depends on the reciever just as much as the sender.
  7. Respect your culture, because it will be the ultimate judge of your work. (Update: Some people missed the your here. Your culture means your targeted audience, the culture you’re a part of, not necessarily your entire country’s superficial pop-culture. If your work doesn’t appeal to a sub-culture or at least an individual, what’s the point?)
  8. Don’t delay. You can spend a lifetime learning from books without having anything to show for it when you die. Rather spend your time learning by doing, even if your work is at first amateurish you’ll have something to show for your time.
  9. You need vision. Without a broad, long-term vision you’ll find obstacles much harder to overcome and failures more difficult to justify. If you focus on the short-term exclusively you’ll get bogged down in the details, and forget why you wanted to spend your life this way in the first place.
  10. Change your perspective often. There are thousands of books and websites on imagination techniques such as visualisation, metaphorical thinking, hypothetical questioning, and right-brain thinking. Pick one at random and try it when you’re stuck.
  11. Travel more. We get stuck in routine and habit, which helps us brush our teeth in two minutes instead of stabbing ourselves in the eye when we have to re-learn the technique each morning, but too much routine leads to habituation, where you stop noticing the details of the world around you. So get out, travel to a new city where everything is strange, and you’ll be forced to notice the details again.
  12. Sustaining concentration and drive. This is a personal thing. Some of us manage by focusing on the imagined feeling of crossing that finish line, others just enjoy the creative process for it’s own sake. Try both and see what fits. Drive shouldn’t be mistaken for a rigid march to the end, sometimes you do need to change direction.
  13. Encourage luck by keeping your eyes and mind open for opportunities others miss; by following your curiousity round a few blind-corners, and by turning your work into play.
  14. Finding the balance between instinct and judgement. You should be able to follow your instinct in the face of harsh criticism from others, but you have to listen to your own judgement of when you’ve taken a wrong turn.
  15. Despair and isolation, madness and meanness.The dark side of creativity. Most geniuses are seen as nutters or depressives, but it is not a prerequisite. Creativity necessarily makes you deviate from the main-stream, which may lead to isolation if you’re not good at handling criticism or get upset when you’re misunderstood. People tend to equate you with your work, so don’t take everything as a personal attack even when it sounds like one.
  16. Building resiliency, or how to keep going. Maintain a variety of projects to switch between when you’re sick of one; choose your friends wisely; embrace your errors and disappointments to see what you can learn; when a problem seems intractable, leave it, come back to it, leave it again, and again return; invest yourself in the vision, focusing not just on the goal but on the process; be accepting of the rhythms of pleasure and pain; retain a plasticity and curiosity about the potential of your field; learn to see the advantage in a hardship; develop a philosophy that allows you to accept defeat on the same terms as you would welcome a victory; make an effort to know yourself and determine what works for you.
  17. For the love of it. The easiest way to encourage creativity. Do it for love. Love of the work, the finished product, the people.

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2007.05.02