Take your goddamn time with creativity

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is a groundbreaking work of the young Pablo Picasso (he was 25 at the time) completed more than a century ago, in 1907. But despite its rough and seemingly improvised appearance, the painting has not been conceived in a jolt of inspired spontaneity.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

To the contrary, Demoiselles is a product of months of tireless preparation, spanning over hundreds of exploratory sketches and preliminary studies. Even once Picasso decided to put his, typically unshakable, brush to canvas he continued to make changes and alterations. It wasn’t until six months after the initial work had begun when the young artist settled on the final form of his masterpiece.

Art historians today point out that this amount of preparation was unusual for Picasso and is an outlier throughout art history. In spite of this assertion, however, the idea of “protracted creativity”, whereupon the artist takes time with his / her work rather than rush to completion, comes back up time and time again.

One direct account of this phenomenon comes from John Cleese’s presentation on creativity. In it Cleese shares a fascinating insight into how his original ideas during his time at Monty Python came to be:

I was always intrigued that one of my Monty Python colleagues who seemed to be (to me) more talented than I was [but] did never produce scripts as original as mine. And I watched for some time and then I began to see why. If he was faced with a problem, and fairly soon saw a solution, he was inclined to take it. Even though (I think) he knew the solution was not very original.
Whereas if I was in the same situation, although I was sorely tempted to take the easy way out, and finish by 5 o’clock, I just couldn’t. I’d sit there with the problem for another hour-and-a-quarter, and by sticking at it would, in the end, almost always come up with something more original.

Cleese’s message couldn’t be clearer — in order to get to more original ideas you have to be willing to plough through the initial, more ordinary ones. And it takes time.

While Cleese’s experience was only that — his own personal experience, we now have more broad-based evidence to support his thesis. One story in particular, an analysis by Mike Sall titled When is the best time to publish? Wrong Question is particularly telling.

In his investigation of the best time to publish on Medium, Sall found that timing of posts on its own did not influence their popularity. Instead, he discovered that the authors of the most popular stories spent more time, per word, writing:

Not only are the peak-time posts longer, but the authors also spend more time writing each word. This further supports the idea that these posts are higher quality.

Sall was therefore able to substantiate what Cleese intuitively induced from his own creative experience: the longer you spend on your work the more likely it will do well with your audience (all other things being equal).

This is in stark contrast to the popular, romanticised idea of creativity being a product of sudden inspiration. We think of creative geniuses coming up with groundbreaking ideas in an instant rather than through a laborious, concentrated effort (supplemented by an endless stream of coffee of course).

Some of it this is undoubtedly true. We all have experienced a sudden rush of creativity in our lives at one point or another. And for some, achieving this state may be easier than for others. But this point of view overlooks a significant, if not essential part of the creative process—experimentation, trial and error, trying things out. A part that by definition takes time.

While it’s tempting to think that creativity comes in sudden bursts of inspiration, reality is probably less romantic. Whether it’s the masters of the past or the stars of the digital age, it’s clear creativity simply takes time. There is no way around it. So do not dispair if you are struggling with your own creative output. The idea you are looking for might be around the corner.