When the free-blowing winds of the North Atlantic finally hit American soil, their first stop is Provincetown, on the northeastern tip of Cape Cod. There, gust and gale hammer at beachheads, while sand whips violently against the window glass and shingles of the beach’s wooden shacks. It is not uncommon for a shack to be buried one season, only to be disentombed the next.
Despite the primitive conditions, Provincetown has housed some of America’s most famous artists, including Norman Mailer, Jackson Pollock, E.E. Cummings, and Willem de Kooning. Jack Kerouac wrote some of On The Road during a stay there in the 1950s, while a 23 year-old Marlon Brando landed his first major role (in A Streetcar Named Desire) after hitchhiking to Provincetown for a reading inside of Tennessee William’s “clapboard house”.
There is no running water, no plumbing, and no electricity in the beach shacks of Provincetown. Water is wrung out of wells, and at night, mice skitter so loudly in the rafters that you have to wear earplugs.
And yet, despite being light on amenities, Provincetown exacted some of the best art ever produced in the United States. Why is that?
Richard Hamming was not an artist. He was a mathematician, and a damned good one, too. After a yearlong stint in Los Alamos working on the Manhattan Project, Hamming moved to Bell Labs, where he performed groundbreaking computer research alongside scientists like Feynman, Fermi, Teller, Oppenheimer, Shannon and Bethe. His contributions to science are manifold: Hamming code, Hamming bound, Hamming window, Hamming numbers, and Hamming distance all bear his name.
Hamming was an earth-shaking force in mathematics, however, his magnum opus contained no equations at all — it was a speech: You and Your Research, delivered in 1986.
Hamming’s lecture sought to answer a single question: How do world-class creators produce world-class work?
Drawing on 40 years of professional experience (having worked with many Nobel Prize winners) and his extensive reading of scientific biographies, Hamming outlined the factors that separated great scientists from merely average ones, and summed up his findings in a spectacular 44-minute performance.
How do I get the opportunity to do great work? What is the importance of luck? How do I know if an idea is worth pursuing? When do I know it’s time to move on from a bad idea? Why do so many smart people fail to produce meaningful work? Who should I eat lunch with?
Beyond the usual aphorisms like start young or work hard, Hamming pulls back the curtains on the “Nobel Prize factory” at Bell Labs, and explains how scientific progress was actually made: no words are minced, no topic is overlooked, and a couple of Hamming’s less-apt colleagues are thrown under the bus. It’s a glorious lecture, and its lessons extend far beyond careers in science.
But by far the strangest suggestion that Hamming makes is about where we work:
“One of the better times of the Cambridge Physical Laboratories was when they had practically shacks… they did some of the best physics ever.”
Today, cash-flush companies (especially in the technology sector) are known for filling their offices with playful indulgences like ball pits, yoga studios, playground slides, ping pong tables and even helicopter meeting rooms. Sure, they enhance the playfulness of the workplace — but do they actually enhance worker creativity?
Hamming says no.
In fact, Hamming argues, a more comfortable workplace might contribute to impaired creativity. Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, a luxurious, all-expenses-paid resort for Nobel Prize winners (like Einstein and Gödel) was responsible for less groundbreaking scientific papers than any dingy Swiss patent office ever was.
“The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, in my opinion, has ruined more good scientists than any institution has created, judged by what they did before they came and judged by what they did after. Not that they weren’t good afterwards, but they were superb before they got there and were only good afterwards.”
While Einstein’s move from Berlin to Princeton had been lauded for bringing “the pope of physics … to the United States, [which] will now become the center of the natural sciences”, Einstein failed to publish a single significant paper during his twenty-year tenure at the IAS.
His cozy New Jersey corner-office was to no avail.
A Shack of One’s Own
If you’re looking to write your magnum opus, there’s no denying the effectiveness of shacks: — they’ve been used by Provincetown dune artists, Cambridge Lab physicists, as well as writers as far-ranging as Dylan Thomas, Roald Dahl, Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, and George Bernard Shaw.
The shacks are rarely sexy, but as biography after biography will attest, it doesn’t really matter. Whether it’s a garden shack, a bike shed, or a dusty garage, you can still produce world-class work in absolute squalor. On the contrary, you can work in architectural paradise and end up producing derivative drivel.
What made the Provincetown dune shacks special wasn’t the shacks themselves, but the fact that over dinner, you could trade ideas for novels, plays and paintings with some of the best artistic minds in America.
The same principle applies for scientists. When Richard Hamming was made a generous offer to leave Bell Labs (for a nicer office, higher salary, and more support staff) — he refused, because the community wouldn’t have been as good.
“I could go to the West Coast and get a job with the airplane companies without any trouble, but the exciting people were at Bell Labs and the fellows out there in the airplane companies were not.”
Study the life of any successful person, and you’ll notice a recurring pattern: they always worked with great people. The work itself might have been produced in solitude, but it was always inspired by conversations with peers over lunch, dinner, and drinks.
Consider the poets who gathered at Pfaf’s beer cellar. Or the musicians of Studio 54. Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Picasso exchanging barbs at the Stein Salon; comics congregating at the Algonquin Round Table; rappers at Magic City; Impressionist painters living together at Giverny; or scientists and mathematicians sharing lunch together at Bell Labs. Even “reclusive” artists spend a great deal of time socializing with others.
When given the opportunity to congregate (and debate), great ideas collide. And the results are often spectacular.
The science of collaboration
We’re often quick to credit the ‘creative genius’ who’s able to produce things of cultural significance. We heap accolades on the great men or women whose personal ingenuity is able to flip paradigms, trump convention, and erase long-held dogmas in the arts and sciences. But we give too little credit to the collaborative environment that enables their individual achievement.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a celebrated figure in creativity research, has found that the most groundbreaking creative feats almost always follow the same pattern:
- a group of individuals who share a common interest (say, poetry or nuclear physics) begin to associate with one another
- the existence of the group reassures its members that their shared cause is noble
- the group adopts common benchmarks for ‘originality’ and ‘goodness’
- the desire to impress the group encourages innovation (and criticism of others’ efforts)
- the peer group helps judge which works are significant or exemplary, which it promotes to the general public
Thus, argues Csikszentmihalyi:
“Creativity is not the product of single individuals, but of social systems making judgements about individual’s products”.
Creative genius is inseparable from the community that nurtures it: A community of similarly-obsessed peers, helping, attacking, and promoting each other.
Famed poet Allen Ginsberg phrases it nicely:
“The social organization which is most true of itself to the artist is the boy gang.”
So, what do you do if you look around your office, classroom, or friend-circle, and find it wanting of similarly-motivated peers? Is it still possible to create great works of art in isolation? Csikszentmihalyi thinks that it’s terribly tricky:
“If a historical period is stagnant, it is probably not because there were no potentially creative individuals around, but because of the ineptitude of the relevant fields.”
Even creative ‘geniuses’ need the support of peers. But if you’re not surrounded by them already, it’s still very much possible to seek them out.
Consider Paul Erdős: One of the most prolific (and consistent) mathematicians ever, Erdős wrote thousands of papers over his lifetime, with more than 500 collaborators.
A mathematics faculty at a university might house a dozen or so mathematicians, so Erdős’ hundreds of collaborations (which spanned a vast number of mathematical subfields) would have been impossible had he not abandoned his normal life in order to become a mathematical nomad.
Singularly devoted, Erdős lived most of his career out of a suitcase, travelling from campus to campus, couchsurfing at the homes of other mathematicians so he could stay up late writing proofs and theorems with them. (It clearly worked, as unpublished Erdős papers continue to come out on a regular basis, 30 years after his death).
Similar nomadic behaviour is exhibited by many great artists, like da Vinci, who who flit between Florence, Milan, Rome, and France, to chase new creative opportunities.
Great artists and scientists are rarely beholden to where they work from — but they all tend to work in places with strong creative communities. If that means they have to live out of a mice-ridden beach shack, a cramped New York apartment, or a beat-up old suitcase, so be it.
Wherever you chose to work from, base your choice on the people, not the perks. Look for legacy — not location.
Great minds are made all the more greater when they’re brought together.