You Don’t Have to Be a Genius to Be Creative
Author Allen Gannett on the surprising science of achievement
Are you a creative person? Chances are, you said you aren’t. We’ve been conditioned to believe that creativity is the sole domain of geniuses, a kind of divine inspiration that is beyond the reach of ordinary people.
But the common perception of creativity is largely based on myth and legend. Allen Gannett, CEO of TrackMaven and author of “The Creative Curve: How to Develop the Right Idea at the Right Time,” dug into the science and history of creative achievement and found a surprising pattern. According to Allen, it’s not about genius at all. Hard work, good timing, and strong feedback matter a lot more, and those are skills which can be learned, practiced, and repeated.
We sat down with Allen to explore this concept in the latest episode of Taking Note: Conversations with Evernote. Listen below or read on for some highlights from our conversation.
We tend to think of creativity as specifically referring to art. But there are all sorts of creative acts. A scientific breakthrough that you arrive at through your intellect, that’s a creative act. A new business venture is a creative act. So what in your view is creativity? How do we define a piece of work as being creative?
It’s actually one of the most challenging questions. If I paint something and I throw a bunch of paint on a canvas, you wouldn’t say it’s creative. But if Picasso did the same thing, you’d probably say it’s creative. So what does creativity mean? It’s kind of like that famous Supreme Court case about pornography. How do you know what’s obscene or not obscene? They said, “Well, you know it when you see it.”
And creativity is much the same. But there’s actually a really great definition that academics have come to. When you’re talking about creativity, what you’re really talking about is the ability to make things that are both novel and valuable. Novel and valuable.
When I throw paint on a canvas it’s certainly novel but it’s not valuable. I recently learned how to do conditional color formatting in Excel. That’s certainly valuable, but it’s definitely not novel and it’s certainly not creative. So what creativity really is, is the ability to create things that are both novel and valuable. Now, the challenge that leaves for people who want to be creative is that value is a subjective statement. For something to be valuable, we all have to agree it’s valuable. And so, as a result, creativity is actually a social construct.
If you created a novel and no-one ever read it, are you creative? It’s actually impossible to prove that you are, because lots of people create novels that aren’t creative. And the only way we know whether or not it’s creative is whether or not other people deem it creative. There’s a circular logic that falls into place.
The book is called “The Creative Curve: How to Develop the Right Idea, at the Right Time.” The creative curve is a concept in the book about the interplay between novelty, familiarity, and timing. Can you explain that briefly?
It really boils down at a foundational level to the fact that we have these two contradictory urges. We have this one urge which is that we’re always looking for things that are familiar. And the reason why is that we crave safety. So if you were a prehistoric cave dweller, if you saw two different caves and one cave is a cave that you sleep in every night, and the other cave is a cave you’ve never been in before, your body goes, “Oh, that cave is unfamiliar. It doesn’t feel safe. This one that I’ve seen lots and lots of times, that’s a safe cave. I’m going to go and sleep there.”
But we also have this other desire. We also have this part of us that’s novelty-seeking. And that’s because we’re also wired to find new sources of reward, new sources of energy, new sources of food. So if you were a forager, you’re also constantly looking for where the next meal is going to come from.
Now, what’s interesting about these two urges is that they’re an inherent contradiction. We like things that are both familiar and we like things that are novel. Where it starts to make sense is when you realize that this is your brain’s really elegant way of balancing risk and reward. It turns out that as consumers and as humans, we like things that are at this balance of familiarity and novel. They’re familiar with a novel twist.
Your job as a creator is to create ideas that have that right blend of familiarity and novelty.
Basically what that means is that when you first see something you might not like it very much. And the more you see it, the more you like it. Up until a point. At a certain point, your novelty-seeking wins out and then you like it less and less each additional time you’re exposed to it. You get bored.
Think about the new Drake song. Maybe the first you heard it you’re like, “Ah, this is not good.” The fifth time, “Well, this is nice. It’s hard to tell really if I like this, but maybe I’m getting bored.” And the twentieth time you’re like, “Please, never play this song again.”
And so you see this bell curve relationship between exposure and preference. And for the book, I call that concept the creative curve because I think it’s a little easier to say. And it really underlies what your task as a creator is. Your job as a creator is to create ideas that have that right blend of familiarity and novelty.
I get what you’re saying, but if we are relying on the acceptance of the masses to tell us whether or not we’re being creative, is that really a good measure of creativity? I look at the TV ratings or the Top 40 and I think maybe it isn’t a good measure.
Great question. One of the things I talk about in the book is that this creative curve phenomenon, it happens at an individual level, a group level, and a population level. And so what this means is when we talk about things being labeled creative, it doesn’t have to be labeled so by mainstream culture. For something to be labeled creative it has to be accepted. But it doesn’t matter the group size.
I would personally argue, and this is a more esoteric discussion, that obviously the fine artists who art critics say are creative, they are creative. But I would also argue a lot of musicians that create these things that are loved by many people are also creative. And I think that’s very hard to sometimes acknowledge in the present. But when we look to the past, a lot of us would say, well, Led Zeppelin was creative or the Beatles were creative. They were pop musicians at the time, right? Your grandparents said the Beatles weren’t creative.
That’s a really good point, I think. You know, with every new musical movement there’s some group of people who says, “That’s not music.” Not just “that’s not creative” but that’s not even music.
So we’re all familiar with this inspiration theory of creativity. The flash of genius, the eureka moment. But one of the central arguments that you make in the book is that this is a myth, specifically the notion that creativity is confined to genius. So where did that notion come from?
In the book I spend a chapter breaking down the history of creativity and genius over time, and how they interplay and how they’re intertwined. What makes a poet? What makes an artist? Are artists special? Are they not? And it’s changed over time. So, for example, in the medieval era artists weren’t actually viewed as valuable. They were viewed as lowly craftspeople who merely created basic works of art that were used as symbols in churches and this kind of thing.
A lot of the changes around how creativity is viewed are intertwined with economics. So in periods of great riches, we tend to raise the social capital of creatives. As their work becomes something more people can afford and more people pursue, there’s a supply and demand thing that comes in.
Genius has become correlated with creativity, but it’s not always been in a good way. So, for example, in the 1800s genius was actually viewed as a negative thing. The person with the most social capital was the so-called average man. […] Right now, we’re on this entrepreneur kick where we’re putting Elon Musk on covers of magazines. Elon Musk literally has thousands and thousands of rocket scientists and car R&D people who work for him. He’s not going off in a cabin by himself. But right now that’s our media perception of creativity. Elon Musk is Iron Man, he’s Tony Stark, he’s doing all these things by himself. And it’s just so comically untrue. This notion of the individual, solo genius is sort of the most prominent part of the creativity story. And it’s also wrong.
So many of the historical figures who we now consider to be geniuses were underappreciated in their own time. And now it seems like we’re trying to overcompensate by actively searching out people who we can proclaim to be geniuses.
I think it actually has a lot to do with capitalism, especially in America where we all like the idea that certain people are able to go from nothing to something. That notion is appealing to us, the idea that’s there this sort of individual hero. And I think it’s unfortunate, because one of the things I talk about in the book is that since creativity is a social phenomenon, there’s actually a huge role that other people play in your creative process. And I break down four different types of people that all the creative geniuses I interviewed had in that role. One of them is what I call the Prominent Promoter. All these creatives had someone more senior than them, more well-known than them, who lent them credibility.
In academics you see this with senior researchers giving credit to junior researchers. With music, you see that bands have opening acts. Over and over again in all creative fields you see this passing on of credibility. And that’s so important because if creativity is a social phenomenon you need people to give you the time of day. And one of the ways to get that is to borrow it from someone else.
In the book, you deconstruct some of the mythology that has grown up around some of the creative geniuses that we adore. Mozart, Michelangelo, and Darwin are three. And you point out how the stories that we have received about these people are largely incorrect. But even if the stories that we think we know about these people aren’t true, they have left us legacies that are so rich that they’re household names after centuries. So where did those superlative outputs come from, if not from genius?
It really tells us the power of the media and storytelling. Mozart is perhaps the most interesting example. A lot of our current narrative around Mozart can trace back to two things. More recently, the movie Amadeus in 1985 won eight Academy Awards including Best Picture. It made over $200 million in the box office, over $600 million when you adjust it for inflation. This was a popular movie.
And in the movie, Mozart is portrayed as literally a little kid, blindfolded, playing piano for the Pope. They say things like, you know, he wrote his first concerto at four, opera at six, something else at eight, blah, blah, blah. And here’s the problem. That is nowhere near true.
[W]e all want to believe in this idea of the god-like hero. It’s a compelling idea but it’s just not true.
The real story of Mozart is when he was three years old he had what we would now consider a helicopter dad who told him, “I love you but you need to become the world’s greatest musician. And to do that, I’m going to hire the best music teachers in all of Europe to teach you music.” He wrote his first original music, not when he was four. When he was 17. Now, you may say, well, that’s still pretty impressive. But that’s after 14 years of practicing three hours every single day with some of the best music teachers in all of Europe.
Then, what’s even crazier to me, one of the big, strong myths around Mozart is this idea that he would compose music in his head, away from a piano. He would only go to a piece of paper to write the finished piece of music and it would have no mistakes, no edits. And this traces back to a letter supposedly written by Mozart that was published in the early 1800s. The problem is this letter was forged. A music magazine publisher named Johann Rochlitz, who basically wanted to sell magazines and wanted to prop up Mozart ’cause he was a fan, he literally forged this letter.
You see this again and again when you start deconstructing these stories, because we all want to believe in this idea of the god-like hero. It’s a compelling idea but it’s just not true.
If we dial a bit down from absolute genius, do you believe that there’s a creative type?
I believe that there are learnable, nurturable personality traits that help creativity. When you look at studies around what’s correlated to creative potential, the things which often come up are things like openness. Openness is not hereditary. It’s nurtured. You can learn to be more open, you can practice becoming more open, you can change the type of people you have around you. These are not fixed things.
There’s also all these really fascinating studies that look at the relationship between IQ and creativity. And over and over again what you find is that IQ really has no bearing on creative potential. And so then the question for us is, well, if that’s true how do we unlock it? That’s what the second half of the book goes into.
So when people make that complaint that we talked about at the beginning, “Oh, I’m not creative,” do you think they’re comparing themselves to this genius archetype or are they thinking about talent or aptitude?
They’re comparing themselves to the genius archetype but they’re using it as an excuse. When we look at how easy we think it is for Mozart, and we think how hard it is for us, we go, “Well, it’s not easy for me so I just must not be creative.” And we forget, partly because of this mythology that has been created, that it wasn’t easy for Mozart either.
And the other thing is that we really underestimate our ability to become talented at things. If you want to have a really big epiphany at your laptop, go on YouTube and search for videos before and after voice lessons. There’s this whole genre on YouTube of people singing and then 12 months later singing after they took voice lessons. And it’s amazing. I mean, people go from having like the worst voices ever to having these beautiful voices.
When you talk about something like the story of Mozart, or when I think about someone like John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins practicing the saxophone hour after hour after hour, I know there are people out there listening to this and the first that is popping into their head is, “ah, 10,000 hours.” But as you point out in the book, that is also not quite true.
Oh, God. Yeah. So the 10,000 hours principle has become this sort of mantra in self-help. There’s lots of articles written about the 10,000 hours principle and how if you just practice, practice, practice, you can create anything. It’s based on the research by a researcher named K. Anders Ericsson who is one of the foremost researchers on it. But what his paper actually says is not that if you practice 10,000 hours at anything you’ll get better at it. It says something different. One, it says that 10,000 hours is the average across people and across skills. Different people take different amounts of time so, yes, anyone can get better at anything but it takes different people different amounts of time. And it also depends on the skills. There’s not some magical thing in your brain which when you hit 10,000 hours it goes, “Great job.”
Here’s the second issue: the paper says that it’s 10,000 hours on average of something called deliberate practice. And deliberate practice is a very specific type of practice that’s outlined in pedagogy. It’s breaking down a skill into very, very small increments and practicing that small piece of skill over and over again.
So let me give you an example. Probably everyone listening to the podcast drives. And you’ve probably driven 10,000 hours. But I can promise you, you’re not a NASCAR driver. And the reason why is that as we do something more and more, it starts becoming automatic. It’s becoming subconscious. It’s why when you’re commuting you just sort of lose track of time and all of a sudden you’re at your location. You’re not actually thinking about what you’re doing.
if you wanted to become a NASCAR driver, what you would do is you would take the skill of driving and you’d break it down into these tiny little tasks. You’d say, “Okay, I’m going to practice high speed left turns over and over and over again. And only once I get great at that will I then practice high speed right turns.” You see this with basketball players. Basketball players will practice mid-court, left-handed dribbling over and over and over and over again. So if you want to become great at something, it turns out it’s not about practice. Rote practice actually will just make you keep doing whatever you’re doing more and more subconsciously.
Okay, so now that we have hopefully demolished some notions that people can’t be creative, or that you, that you have to be some sort of amazing genius demigod to, to have creative thoughts, how do we generate fresh ideas and how do we judge if they’re any good?
In the back half of the book I explain four things you can do to nurture and be really intentional about your creativity. And one of the things that I found that was surprising to me was all these creatives I interviewed had very systematic processes for getting feedback.
For example, Ben & Jerry’s, the ice cream company. I had the fun experience of spending a day with the Ben & Jerry’s flavor team, and really digging into understanding how they come up with a new flavor. These are people who spend literally their entire career thinking about ice cream. And what they don’t do is come up with ideas and say, “Great, we have it.”
Every year they come up with a list of 200 ideas. And they send an email survey to their customers. And for each of these ideas they ask two questions. One, how likely are you to buy this flavor? And two, how unique is this flavor? Or, basically, how familiar is it and how novel is it?
The truth is that all these creatives spend a huge amount of time listening. That’s one of the most important things you can do if you want to be successful at creative tasks.
And what they’ve found is they have to find a balance of those two things. Because if it’s just how likely are you to buy it, well, you’ll end up with all these very familiar flavors and all of a sudden, every Ben & Jerry’s ice cream will be the same thing. And if they only focused on how unique it is, they’d end up with all these weird flavors no one wants to buy. So they use data, pretty lo-fi data, to learn what their audience will like, where these ideas fall on the creative curve. Because they want to get ideas that are the right blend.
But there’s even more subtle ways. I had this meta-experience writing the book. And I know a lot of Evernote users are writers, so I’m sure you can relate. You’re writing these words and then you have external readers, maybe your agents reading it, your editors reading it, your copy editors reading it, your proofreaders reading it. All these people are giving you feedback and you’re iterating it. And that’s what makes it go from okay to good to hopefully great. That feedback is so important.
So, yes, we mythologize the idea of a creative genius who just creates things from their own brain, and then they’re done. But the truth is that all these creatives spend a huge amount of time listening. That’s one of the most important things you can do if you want to be successful at creative tasks.
So what’s one thing that someone can do today, right at this minute, to start unlocking their own creative potential?
One of the things I found from the creatives that I interviewed is that all of them went very, very, very deep in their information consumption on a very, very narrow band of information. They weren’t reading all of Twitter, they weren’t reading all of Facebook, they’re not generalists. In fact, from a count and consumption perspective, you’d say they’re maladjusted. But if you want to become really great at something specific, you have to consume that much information about it because it lets you understand what is familiar and what is overexposed.
In the book, I tell the story of Ted Sarandos, who’s the chief content officer of Netflix. Been there for 18 years, overseen their entire successful strategy of getting into original programming. And he started his career as literally a video store clerk who decided he would watch every single movie in the store. And that’s what gave him the ability to have taste. By understanding the corpus, what’s out there, what would be familiar, you understand what’s going to be too new, too familiar and just right. And that’s something that you can start doing today. And usually it doesn’t cost anything.
Allen Gannett is CEO of TrackMaven, a leading marketing analytics firm. His book, The Creative Curve: How to Develop the Right Idea at the Right Time is published by Currency / Penguin Random House.
Written by Forrest Dylan Bryant on June 6, 2018. Originally published on the Evernote blog.