Creative Tension: How Masters Turn Stalemates into Creative Breakthroughs
After ten long years of incessant thinking on the problem of general relativity, Albert Einstein decided one evening to simply give up. He had had enough. It was beyond him. He went to bed early, and when he awoke the solution suddenly came to him.
The composer Richard Wagner had worked so hard on his opera Das Rheingold that he became completely blocked. Beyond frustration, he took a long walk in the woods, lay down, and fell asleep. In a sort of half dream, he felt himself sinking in swiftly flowing water. The rushing sounds formed into musical chords. He awoke, terrified by a feeling of drowning. He hurried home and noted down the chords of his dream, which seemed to perfectly conjure up the sound of rushing water. These chords became the prelude of the opera, a leitmotif that runs throughout it, and one of the most astonishing pieces he had ever written.
These stories are so common as to indicate something essential about the brain and how it reaches certain peaks of creativity. We can explain this pattern in the following way: If we remained as excited as we were in the beginning of our project, maintaining that intuitive feel that sparked it all, we would never be able to take the necessary distance to look at our work objectively and improve upon it.
Losing that initial verve causes us to work and rework the idea. It forces us to not settle too early on an easy solution. The mounting frustration and tiredness that comes from single minded devotion to one problem or idea will naturally lead to a breaking point. We realize we are getting nowhere. Such moments are signals from the brain to let go, for however long a period necessary, and most creative people consciously or unconsciously accept this.
In the creative lives of almost all Masters, we hear of the following pattern: They begin a project with an initial intuition and an excitement about its potential success. Their project is deeply connected to something personal and primal, and seems very much alive to them. As their initial nervous excitement inspires them in certain directions, they begin to give their concept shape, narrowing down its possibilities, and channeling their energies into ideas that grow more and more distinct. They enter a phase of heightened focus. But as they progress, they begin to detect flaws and difficulties in their original idea that they had not foreseen.
As the process begins to become more conscious and less intuitive, that idea once so alive in them starts to seem somewhat dead or stale. This is a difficult feeling to endure and so they work even harder, trying to force a solution. The harder they try, the more inner tension and frustration they create
At certain points in this process, lesser types would simply give up or settle for what they have—a mediocre and half realized project. But Masters are stronger. They have been through this before, and on an unconscious level they understand that they must plow forward, and that the frustration, or the feeling of being blocked, has a purpose.
At a particular high point of tension, they let go for a moment. This could be as simple as stopping work and going to sleep; or it could mean deciding to take a break, or to temporarily work on something else. What almost inevitably happens in such moments is that the solution, the perfect idea for completing the work comes to them.
When we let go, we are not aware that below the surface of consciousness the ideas and the associations we had built up continue to bubble and incubate. With the feeling of tightness gone, the brain can momentarily return to that initial feeling of excitement and aliveness, which by now has been greatly enhanced by all of our hard work. The brain can now find the proper synthesis to the work, the one that was eluding us because we had become too tight in our approach.
Perhaps the idea for the watery sounds in Das Rheingold had stirred before in different forms in Wagner’s brain as he strained to find the right opening. Only by giving up the chase and falling asleep in the woods was he able to access his unconscious mind, and allow an idea that had been brewing there to surface by way of a dream.
The key is to be aware of this process and to encourage yourself to go as far as you can with your doubts, your reworkings, and your strained efforts, knowing the value and purpose of the frustration and creative blocks you are facing. Think of yourself as your own Zen Master. Such Masters would often beat their pupils and deliberately lead them to points of maximum doubt and inner tension, knowing such moments often precede enlightenment.
Among the thousands of stories of great insights and discoveries, perhaps the strangest one of all is that of Evariste Galois, a promising student of mathematics in France who in his teens revealed exceptional brilliance in algebra. In 1831, at the age of twenty, he became embroiled in a quarrel over a woman, which resulted in his being challenged to a duel. The night before the duel, certain he was going to die, Galois sat down and tried to summarize all of the ideas on algebraic equations that had been troubling him for several years. Suddenly, the ideas flowed, and even new ones came to him. He wrote all night at a feverish pitch. The next day, as he had foreseen, he died in the duel, but in the ensuing years his notes were read and published, leading to a complete revolution in higher algebra. Some of his scribbled notes indicated directions in mathematics that were so far ahead of his time, it is hard to fathom where they came from.
This is a somewhat extreme example, but the story reveals something elemental about the need for tension. The feeling that we have endless time to complete our work has an insidious and debilitating effect on our minds. Our attention and thoughts become diffused. Our lack of intensity makes it hard for the brain to jolt into a higher gear. The connections do not occur.
For this purpose you must always try to work with deadlines, whether real or manufactured. Faced with the slenderest amount of time to reach the end, the mind rises to the level you require. Ideas crowd upon one another. You don’t have the luxury of feeling frustrated. Every day represents an intense challenge, and every morning you wake up with original ideas and associations to push you along.
If you don’t have such deadlines, manufacture them for yourself. The inventor Thomas Edison understood how much better he worked under pressure. He would deliberately talk to the press about an idea before it was ready. This would create some publicity and excitement in the public as to the possibilities of the proposed invention. If he dropped the ball or let too much time pass, his reputation would suffer, and so his mind would spark into high gear and he would make it happen. In such cases your mind is like the army that is now backed up against the sea or a mountain and cannot retreat. Sensing the proximity of death, it will fight harder than ever.
Although it involves much pain, the pleasure that comes from the overall process of creativity is of an intensity that makes us want to repeat it. That is why creative people return again and again to such endeavors, despite all of the anxiety and doubt they stir up. It is nature’s way of rewarding us for the effort; if we had no such rewards, people would not engage in such activity, and mankind would suffer irreparably from this loss. This pleasure will be your reward as well, to whatever degree you pursue the process.
What you’ve just read comes from the #1 New York Times Bestseller, Mastery by Robert Greene. In it, Robert Greene studies the lives of current and historical masters—from Napoleon to entrepreneur Paul Graham, Temple Grandin to Charles Darwin—and reveals their secrets. Will you follow the path to mastery?