How to be creative – the short honest truth

I’ve spent a decade studying how creatives do what they do and its simple: they work. Creativity is best thought of as a kind of effort, not an abstract thing – it’s what goes on when you are trying to solve a problem. The problem could be writing a poem, making a song, designing a website, anything. But no creative person in history was creative independent of working on some kind of project.

The biggest difference between you and Picasso, or Einstein, or whoever your heroes are is that they out work(ed) you. They spend more time in front of a canvas, or guitar, or computer, working away at applying their minds and souls to specific things.

Want to be more creative? Pick a problem you care about and get to work.  If you don’t care about anything, your problem isn’t creativity, it’s apathy. If you start things and give up, your problem isn’t creativity, it’s dedication.

Few people in history that we call creatives today read books or took courses on creativity. Instead they apprenticed with masters in a craft and worked with them. They did the grunt work until they had the skills needed to do more sophisticated work. They learned how to develop ideas and deliver finished work by working. There is no other way.

Don’t believe me? Pick any creative hero, and any creative work they’re famous for, and investigate how many sketches, or drafts, or attempts they had to make to get it right. They may have had flashes of insight here and there, but those came while they were working their asses off. Ideas are cheap, it’s the passion to make ideas real that’s rare.

Also see: My video on Creative Thinking Hacks

(Note: originally posted on Quora)

29 Responses to “How to be creative – the short honest truth”

  1. Dave Malouf

    I really, really like this and it speaks to what Jonah Lehrer has been referring to as “grit” in his recent talks and writings.

    But what is interesting for me is that it is not that simple. I don’t want to sound like I’m taking away from the “hard work” and “grit” aspect of it, but I also like Jonah’s juxtaposition of grit to reflection. That answers seem to come at moments when we aren’t looking for them. When we are at rest. When our mind is in an alpha-wave state.

    The paradox of hard work & doing nothing as the formula for success is really interesting.

    The other thing I think missing from both stories is experience. Experience in craft (which could seen as hard work) is part of some aspects of creativity, but experience in subject(s) is also important. Degas w/o the Dancer(s) for inspiration wouldn’t be a lot, eh?

    What I definitely agree w/ is that there are no epiphanies. There are only moments of clarification towards articulability to self as much as to other.

    Reply
    • Scott Berkun

      I agree with you. I also think most observations about the value of reflection and making connections become self-evident to most people who actually work. Only by working do you learn to observe your own thought processes and behavior. And only then can you get value from studying the process and behavior of other creators. Reading 1000 books on creativity is useless compared to actually making things of any kind. You’ll learn many of the lessosn from those books all on your own, and they are lessons that will stay with you since you arrived at them from your own efforts. They will be personal lessons.

      We know reading 1000 books on playing guitar won’t make you a better guitar player until you pick one up and start practicing every day, but yet someone we think reading and talking about ideas makes you better at being creative.

      Reply
      • Phil Simon

        The guys from Rush continue to churn out interesting music. True story: about 14 years ago, Neil Peart (widely regarded as one of the best drummers on the planet) took drumming lessons.

        That says quite a bit about his work ethic.

        Perspiration trumps inspiration, I suppose. Of course, far too many of us are looking for 10-point checklists and other shortcuts.

        Reply
  2. Sean Crawford

    As for apathy, I think the cure is to jump into life; as for dedication:
    Learning to have dedication has been a learned skill for me… I think what I did to get the skill was set easy doable action-tasks, avoiding the temptation to make them too hard, and then be (almost) as reliable to myself as I am to others.

    By easy I especially mean a short time frame. As a young man my problem would be picking a task that was too hard for my motivation level, which came partly from not having answered the questions from Babylon-5: Who are you? What do you want? (in that order!)

    As a middle aged man having dedication is as natural as having focus, integrity and a work ethic, but it was not always so. I thought I would comment to encourage young readers.

    Reply
  3. Paul Burton

    It’s also worth noting that the vast majority of people we revere as heroes in the art world, were independently wealthy. Matisse, Picasso the list is endless … would have never been who they were if not for familial wealth and familial connections.

    Dedication requires countless hours of time and/or sacrifice. But the one thing the vast majority of wannabe artists don’t have is the money to eschew work to pursue their dreams.

    That’s the harsh reality. Take stock of the current art scene and you’ll find that most of the gallery schlock is being produced by rich kids with all sorts of time on their hands.

    Nonetheless, your basic argument is spot on. There are precious few people who have the perseverance to make their ideas real.

    Reply
    • Patrick Vlaskovits (@Pv)

      It is common knowledge that Picasso came from humble beginnings. He became wealthy once he found success. Do you have evidence that suggests otherwise?

      Reply
  4. Todd Zazelenchuk

    Nice and concise advice Scott…as always. I think people today are always looking for the shortcut, the silver bullet, the workaround to success. I believe there is a direct analogy to all the ‘ab workout’ tools on the market and the miracle diets and pills that people so desperately want to believe in:) Keep up the good work!!

    Reply
  5. Patrick Vlaskovits (@Pv)

    Hey Scott,

    Love your stuff — however, I have to take issue with:

    The biggest difference between you and Picasso, or Einstein, or whoever your heroes are is that they out work you. They spend more time in front of a canvas, or guitar, or computer, working away at applying their minds and souls to specific things.

    No f*ckin’ way. That is not the biggest difference. The biggest difference is talent. And unfortunately, talent is unfairly and unequally distributed.

    The so-called 10,000 hour rule is actually tyranny in disguise because it is fundamentally untrue — not all of us can be superstars at whatever we put our minds too. I wish it weren’t so, but it is.

    Lest I be misunderstood: Of course, hard work IS important.

    Reply
    • Scott Berkun

      No worries – I hope you respect me enough to know I benefit from thoughtful disagreements with anything I say or write.

      We don’t disagree. Of course talent is important (although trying to define what talent means is always disappointing).

      All I’d add is many people don’t know how much talent they have because they don’t put enough work in to find out. If we can agree that you have to put in some time before you can evaluate how much talent you have, then work ethic is *the first* big difference. Talent is irrelevant until you are willing to put the work in.

      Einstein is an odd example. But Picasso, Beethoven, Van Gogh, Edison – these were all people who were basically workaholics. Most people at the top in their field are.

      I have a personal bias about discipline and being willing to out work people. Full commitment to an idea is the the scarcest thing there is – more scarce than talent.

      Reply
      • Patrick Vlaskovits (@Pv)

        No worries – I hope you respect me enough to know I benefit from thoughtful disagreements with anything I say or write.

        Absolutely!

        All I’d add is many people don’t know how much talent they have because they don’t put enough work in to find out. If we can agree that you have to put in some time before you can evaluate how much talent you have, then work ethic is *the first* big difference.

        I think that is generally true. That said, in many cases, it is painfully obvious where we lack talent. In my case, I cannot draw at all. Sure, I can improve my drawing skills, but unlike my sister, who at an early age was drawing beautifully, I will never reach her capabilities.

        Talent is irrelevant until you are willing to put the work in.

        At the highest levels, agreed.

        Einstein is an odd example. But Picasso, Beethoven, Van Gogh, Edison – these were all people who were basically workaholics. Most people at the top in their field are.

        My sense is those people you list were workaholics + supremely talented.

        Reply
    • Kevin

      I think you are way off-base, especially in regard to Picasso. The man drew relentlessly as a child and young adult. There are literally thousands of examples of him imitating other’s work before moving on to develop his own style.

      Talent may be important for the long tail, but there many studies (forget about Gladwell for a moment) that suggest that practice overwhelms talent.

      Reply
      • Patrick Vlaskovits (@Pv)

        Hi Kevin,

        Actually, I am quite on-point when it comes to Picasso – and you are conflating his professional success with his raw talent.

        Picasso’s raw talent, like many artistic geniuses, was evident at an early age. This doesn’t mean it is deterministic and will cause greatness.

        A typical pattern shared by Picasso, Beethoven, Liszt, Mozart and others looks like this:

        Child shows unnatural talent at very young age. This talent is cultivated actively by the father, who usually works in the industry and is attuned to talent. (Picasso’s father was an artist, and the others I mentioned were in music).

        At adolescence, father throws up hands and says, “You have surpassed my knowledge, time to get you professional tutelage from masters.”

        Then child hopefully goes onto great things. But without hard work, usually doesn’t happen.

        In Picasso’s case, I reiterate, it was evident at a painfully young age that he had huge talent.

        Picasso is most well-known for his pioneering Cubism, but before he became internationally famous for Cubism, it was well-established in the art community (and others that knew him well) that Picasso had prodigy-level technical gifts and could paint
        photo-realistic paintings such as:

        http://www.artchive.com/artchive/p/picasso/self1.jpg

        http://www.nga.gov/images/noncol/torsofs.htm

        http://www.nga.gov/images/noncol/fisherfs.htm

        But it was Daniel Kahnweiler
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Kahnweiler#cite_note-JR-0 who
        first appreciated Picasso’s innovation with Cubism.

        Kahnweiler and Picasso’s collaboration fueled the pivot that transitioned Picasso from starving artist to 20th Century icon.

        As Picasso wrote of him; “What would have become of us if Kahnweiler hadn’t had a business sense?”

        Reply
  6. Kerry

    On NPR this morning, they had a spot about “How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning.” Researchers found that Eastern cultures encouraged students to get through the experience of struggling intellectually. In one experiment, American students gave up after on average 30 seconds of working on an impossible math problem, but Japanese students took an hour. American, they said, tend to see struggle as a sign that you’re not smart enough, and that sign of low ability means you should move onto other things. Whereas in Eastern cultures, the struggle is part of the process, and kids are encouraged to got through it.

    Later in the broadcast, they characterized the Americans as worrying their kids won’t be able to compete with Asian kids in science and math. Educators in Asian countries worried their students aren’t as creative as American students. Then they discussed whether the two countries could learn from one another – embrace the struggle, as well as foster creativity.

    Well, it seems like you’ve got something for them!

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/11/12/164793058/struggle-for-smarts-how-eastern-and-western-cultures-tackle-learning

    Reply
  7. MStokely

    Thanks for the great article. Agree 100%. Anyone in history who is great at anything was completely dedicated, with a mix of imagination and that great unknown….raw talent.

    One of the things Ive noticed about the culture we enjoyed in say the 1980’s or pre-digital age compared to now, is a completely different view of creativity and innovation.

    In the 1980’s I remember long hours in libraries researching and reading and building resources of information then writing
    Creatively at night in a chair and desk.

    Now it feels like we dont have time to research or learn or train when the Internet gives us all that instantly. The result? Creativity and innovative imagination is stunted in our younger generations.

    Why write anything when you can read something online then cut and paste?

    The key to creativity is long hours and hard work and research and learning. The Internet destroys that. Yes, more information but less creativity and true innovation in many areas. Who now can turn off their phones long enough to enjoy the stars, to reflect on a poem, to sleep in the green grass alone and feel the sun on their skin? We can now read what that feels like online between fast food hamburgers and movies on iPads. Sad.

    I recently dug up my writing from 30 years ago and it was exciting to see what thoughts flowed from hundreds of hours of hard worl and practice and exploration. I fear for the future of generations to come who want fast food writing or cut and paste creativity.

    Reply

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