The rituals of geniuses: how creative professionals work and excel

From 2012 to 2014, I wrote a blog called The UnStudent in which I explored issues related to academic life and finding meaning in work. It was an experiment in working through my career anxiety by writing. I’ve now migrated some of those thought pieces and edited them for Medium. This post was originally published June 5, 2013.

Photo Credit: Dave Stokes

I’ve been reading much about daily rituals. And it seems that I’m not the only one. Popular blogs like Bakadesuyo and Farnam Street have been discussing it lately (here and here). In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains the feedback loops that lead to the formation of habits and how they influence our success. BJ Fogg runs Tiny Habits because he knows the power of small wins (flossing just one tooth) and how they can snowball into major positive lifestyle changes.

Genius is crafted

We also know that talent is not really genetic, but really something that needs to be crafted and cultivated for months and years. Research suggests 10,000 hours to reach expert-level performance, an idea that Malcolm Gladwell popularized in Outliers.

Successful creative professionals, knowledge workers, intellectuals, and academics, then, are usually those who have cultivated habits that allow them produce the artefacts of their trade (art, knowledge, science) at a pace that is sustainable, while still meeting the other demands of their lives.

By studying how geniuses work, we can learn a lot about human intellectual performance…

I’m a PhD student interested in how top performers achieve their goals. I recently finished reading a book called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey, that offered some insights. Each chapter reads like a blog post on the life and lifestyle of a different artist, writer, or thinker. From reading the 100+ entries, I arrived a few observations about the lives of creative professionals.

The book cover for “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work” by Mason Currey.

There are no rules (caveat: see below)

Everyone seems to do that which seems to work for them. Some rise at 5am while others sleep until noon. Some finish their most important work before lunch, saving the afternoon for their correspondences and perambulations, while others begin the day with such activities. There does not appear to be a final verdict as to which time of day is best for working, best for sleeping, or best for any other activity. Each person needs to discover these times for themselves.

Drugs!

I was shocked by the unthinkable volume of drugs consumed by some artists.

[Jean-Paul Sartre] turned to Corydrane, a mix of amphetamine and aspirin then fashionable among Parisian students, intellectuals, and artists (and legal in France until 1971, when it was declared toxic and taken off the market). The prescribed dose was one or two tables in the morning and at noon. Sartre took twenty a day, beginning with his morning coffee and slowly chewing one pill after another as he worked.

But Sartre’s habits were ultimately self-destructive. It was sad to read about how many artists resorted to barbiturates just to get some sleep. Others drank large quantities of tea or black coffee. Still others chain smoked through the day.

Many, though, lived perfectly “clean” lives and found their own imaginations sufficiently stimulating.

Rituals matter

There were only a few artists that seemed to thrive on complete chaos. Many had chaotic lives, or had children, but were usually able to carve out blocks of time for creative work around the chaos in their lives. For some, this meant getting up extremely early before everyone else or staying up late. For others, they were extremely good at using the interstitial moments of the day to do creative work. There was usually a pattern present and a deliberate effort made to establish working blocks of time.

Photo Credit: Susan NYC

Inspiration vs. perspiration

The majority of artists profiled in the book described having to force themselves to create. The muse was unreliable; she had to be hunted down and made to work. Only a few artists (notably Goethe) wouldn’t work at all unless inspiration struck. They felt it worthless to try writing unless inspired. But most, especially the prolific writers, felt that they needed to cultivate their creativity by working every day. Perhaps they only produced a single sentence. Or perhaps they tore up all their pages at the end of the day. But this was all part of the process.

Work and rest

I don’t believe good work can happen without good rest. Paul Erdős might have disagreed with me, but I also don’t consume vast quantities of amphetamines and ritalin. I wrote about the importance of rest here.

There were almost zero intellectuals who never rested from their intellectual labors. One example was Stephen Jay Gould, who claimed to work all the time, even on weekends and holidays. But most of the others profiled took one day off per week, usually Sunday.

Here it seems I took a different reading Eric Barker over at Bakadesuyo. He seemed really impressed with those profiled artists who worked the most compulsively and intensively. Workaholics like this make it seem like the only avenue to success is success at all costs. They do not inspire me to work harder. Afternoons, it seems to me, were a time for reading, napping, and walking, for many artists. They usually worked in two or three spurts of several hours, and filled the intervening times with recreation, rest, and the company of others. Poincaré, the legendary mathematician, was claimed only to work about four hours a day.

Finally, there were some who found it best to work with extreme intensity for short periods of time while working on a project, and then resting for weeks or months afterward until the start of the next project. This mimics the working style of Tim Ferriss, as well as many top athletes. (For a book on how athletes and professionals manage their energy, see The Power of Full Engagement).

Side gigs

Few artists had the support of wealthy patrons. They had to pay the bills by other means. Some had to write pulp fiction that they knew would sell in order to feed their families, while toiling away on their magnum opus. The young Mozart could not find a patron to support him, and so he moved back to Vienna to be a freelance composer, but gave piano lessons on the side to help pay the bills. In fact, composing was something Mozart had to squeeze in between other activities. Would-be entrepreneurs are often cautioned to work on their passion projects in the evenings and weekends, validating their ideas and finding a niche before quitting their day jobs.

Final thoughts and a caveat

I am now reading Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind (ed. Jocelyn Glei), which is a similar book, but collects insights from some modern experts. In it, Seth Godin distinguishes between “tactics” and “strategies”. Some people want tactics (“Six Ways to be More Creative!”), but top performers have strategies.

Book cover for “Manage Your Day-to-Day”, edited by Jocelyn K. Glei.
There is no evidence that setting up your easel like Van Gogh makes you paint better. Tactics are idiosyncratic. But strategies are universal, and there are a lot of talented folks who are not succeeding the way they want to because their strategies are broken. — Seth Godin

You can read a book like Daily Rituals and incorrectly conclude that there are no rules, since every creative professional does it differently. Virtually every creative professional has developed tactics that work for them, and although these tactics are all highly dissimilar, they all have a common strategy: manage distractions, develop focus, and find your rhythm.

My own tactics

I’ve written about my own tactics, the ways I try to track my performance and log my activity. All of these tactics are just my own attempts that organizing the chaos of my life and producing something worthwhile. I adjust them from time to time, and I go through periods of drought, where all my rituals fall apart and I need to rebuild them.

I admire those whose lives are more complicated than my own, who have children, who take care of ailing family members, who have other obligations that make even thinking about “elite performance” seem inappropriate. When reading books like the ones I’ve mentioned, I’m tempted to believe that my output determines my value to society. Indeed, I think many of those profiled in these books believed this about themselves and lived exhausting, tortured, and lonely lives. This is no way to live, regardless of how much you produce. People should live for more than just their own glory. I try to remember this in balancing the desires of my own life.

If you have a minute, share one thing you do to keep a balanced life while finding time to be creative.

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