In the early 1960’s, a comic book writer named Stan Lee was asked to create a new series of superheroes for a small publisher called Timely Comics. Stan was inspired by the writings of Sir Conan Arthur Doyle and Jules Verne and wanted to break the mold of the standard American superhero. Within his first five years, Lee created The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, X-Men, and Iron Man. Timely Comics soon became Marvel, and the small comic publisher grew into a billion-dollar media behemoth. One of Stan’s most beloved characters, however, almost never saw the light of day.
It was still the early days of Marvel and Stan was sitting at his kitchen table trying to think up a new super-hero. He saw a fly crawling up the wall and thought, wouldn’t it be great if there was a hero who could crawl up walls? “Fly-Man?” he mumbled to himself. No, that wouldn’t work. “Insect-Man?” Stan went down the list of possible creatures until landing on the one you already know.
“That’s it,” he said. “I’ll call him Spider-Man.”
Stan wanted Spider-Man to be different. First, he wanted him to be a teenager. He wanted a teenage hero dealing with teenage problems. Stan was born in 1921 to Romanian immigrants during the Great Depression and knew what it felt like to be poor and out-of-place. He wanted Spider-Man to be the relatable hero that young readers with the same issues could look up to.
So, Stan wrote Spider-Man a backstory, gave him some superpowers, and ran to tell his publisher. Here’s what the publisher had to say:
“Stan, that is the worst idea I have ever heard. First of all, people hate spiders, so you can’t call a hero Spider-Man. You want him to be a teenager? Teenagers can only be sidekicks. You want him to have personal problems? Stan, don’t you know what a superhero is? They don’t have personal problems.”
Stan had no choice but to listen and agree, but he couldn’t get Spider-Man out of his head. This all happened while Marvel was putting out a comic called, Amazing Fantasy, which was a weekly collection of random stories by various creators. The series never took off, and when Stan heard it was slated for cancellation, he saw it as an opportunity. Stan wanted to get Spider-Man out of his head and into the world. Begrudgingly, his publisher agreed to give Spider-Man a few pages in the final issue.
We’ve all had those aha! moments. That feeling in our gut that says, this way, this way. In fact, “most of human behavior happens automatically, guided by genetics and habit rather than conscious deliberation,” as explained by Psychology Today. And yet, there’s an unfortunate habit among humans to follow this intuition only until we can no longer justify it with logic. Whether it’s for an actual editor or an inner critic, we crave explanation for why our ideas are worthwhile. And all too often, it’s this need for certainty that results in watered-down versions of original ideas.
There’s a time and place for objectivity, but at the forefront of creativity, there is the need to surrender. It’s what the comedian Dave Chappelle describes as letting ideas drive. He tells Jerry Seinfeld in an episode of Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee:
CHAPPELLE: Sometimes the offering drives. If I [have] an idea, it should drive. It’s like the idea says, “Get in the car.” And I’m like, “Where am I going?” And the idea says, “Don’t worry, I’m driving.” And then you just get there.
SEINFELD: The idea’s driving.
CHAPPELLE: Sometimes I’m shotgun. Sometimes I’m in the f — ing trunk. The idea takes you where it wants to go.
It’s natural to try and corral inspiration with logic and reason. You can’t swing at every pitch. However, just as we can improve our conscious decision-making through experience, we can improve our ability to tune in and follow our intuition. It begins with accepting the fact that our instincts can take us where we want to go — even if we don’t recognize the route.
There will be times when these instincts drive us into a wall or over a cliff, but trusting our gut isn’t about striking gold every time. It’s about giving ideas oxygen before drowning them in expectation. Leonard Cohen — one of the most prolific poets and songwriters of all time — used this principle in his own work, never discarding a verse before a song was finished. In his most commercially successful song, “Hallelujah,” he wrote no fewer than 80 verses before editing it down to six for the recording. In an interview, he explained his process by saying, “The cutting of a gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.”
A month after Spider-Man made his comic book debut in the soon-to-be-canceled Amazing Adventures issue, Stan Lee’s publisher called him into his office. The results were in: People loved Spider-Man. The publisher said, “Stan! Stan! You remember that character we both loved so much, Spider-Man? Let’s do him as a series!”
Recalling this story decades later, Stan Lee gave this advice to creators everywhere:
“If you have an idea that you genuinely think is good, don’t let anyone talk you out of it. This doesn’t mean that every wild notion you come up with is going to be genius, but if there is something that you feel is good. Something you want to do. Something that means something to you, try to do it. Because I think you can only do your best work if you’re doing what you want to do and if you’re doing it the way you think it should be done. And if you can take pride in it after you’ve done it, you can look at it and say, ‘I did that and I think it’s pretty damn good.’ That’s a great feeling.”
There’s a great line, credited to the German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer that goes, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.” Our creative potential is tied to our ability to see the things no one else can see. Yet, strangely enough, we often have to aim and release before we can see it ourselves.
Intuition, creative or otherwise, plays a key role in being human. Just as it urges us forward in certain directions, it also warns us when it’s time to turn around. We can all think of a time where that feeling in our gut wasn’t saying this way, but rather, “run!” People talk about business deals gone wrong, disaster vacations, coffee dates that lasted an eternity. They say, “I had a feeling…”
Part of being human means being surprised. No matter how finely tuned our intuition is, we’re bound to be wrong on occasion. To some degree, intuition is really just pattern recognition. And when we have to make decisions around things that we have little to no experience with, intuition becomes less reliable. This is why intuition should remain a compass and not a map. Creativity is a tool that calibrates the compass. So that when the map leads to a dead end, we’re capable of finding an escape route.
On the path to doing meaningful work, remember to give temporary surrender to intuition. Follow your spidey-sense. Let your ideas drive before grabbing the wheel. There will be time for logic and formulas later.
For now, cut the gem. See if it shines.