Creativity is Overrated
“Genius is 1 percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” –Thomas Edison
Creativity is overrated. I say this not as an expert in the fields of psychology, cognitive sciences, philosophy, or any number of other disciplines that have made a particular study of creativity (see handy Wikipedia entry on creativity). Instead, I say it as one who has been “creative” and considered “creative” for nearly all of my life, and experienced first-hand the various traps one can fall into while trying to manifest that creativity.
I came to the above conclusion after reading a few too many posts and articles that seem to equate creativity with a chorus of angels–divinely inspired, the goal of goals, a delicate and precious thing that must be nurtured and cherished because it was so special. At the same time these writers seem to find the creative state elusive, or to be struggling with feeling worthy enough for that creativity. Their entire self-esteem threatens to collapse if the “high” of inspiration is not frequent or there on demand.
This irritation is balanced by recognition, because I, too, once spent far too much time agonizing over the creative process, with an ego so fragile that I would literally stop creating because I did not feel confident or worthy enough to stand up to criticism or to take a chance on myself (a.k.a. losing the day job). My Work Ethic background was another hurdle to overcome, as I couldn’t get past the deep-seated notion that writing and art were hobbies, and not a way to make a living unless you were a genius. The implication was that if I followed my heart’s desire to write or paint, I therefore considered myself a genius–more special than thou. Heaven forbid that I would do that!
Creativity is often interchanged with inspiration, and wrongly so. Mix that with the self-esteem issues, and you get a lot of pep talk posts where the blogger seems to be talking him or herself into believing they are capable of greatness, of doing wonderful work if only they wouldn’t lose faith in themselves. They aspire to an almost religious level of belief in themselves and inevitably never achieve their goals because such loftiness is not a natural part of the human condition.
Being awestruck by the creation of other creatives is a memorable experience. The problem comes in thinking that the way somebody’s music or painting makes you feel is the way they felt when composing or painting their work. It ain’t so. Even Beethoven, as sublime as his music is, was noted for his crankiness and decidedly uninspired behavior, even before his deafness and ill health became a problem. He worked in spite of distracting family problems and pride-crushing romantic failures.
Creations exist because the creators showed up at the easel, the piano, the barre, the laboratory, the computer, and the weaving looms. That’s it–they just showed up and did the work, regardless of whether inspiration hit them that day or not. There were good days and there were bad days, and the creators worked through them. All the genius in the world wouldn’t have done any good if they sat there and navel-gazed or waited only until inspiration struck, or worked only when all their ducks were lined up.
Creative coaches can help with flow techniques and a sense of supportive community, but when you think about it, they also capitalize on a vulnerable and needy market, particularly the ones who themselves angelicize the creative process and use gentle pep-talk language to make would-be creatives feel more confident and better about themselves. American culture seems rife with this sort of coaching. I have trouble with the language they use, which seems to validate the insecuries instead of shrinking them. It keeps the insecure creators insecure, and as long as they are insecure, the coaches are in demand.
So I say to would-be creatives: get over yourselves. Your creativity means nothing unless you show up to do the work. It’s not sublime, it’s just the way you’re wired, to express yourself creatively in whatever field or medium that speaks to you. You don’t need anyone’s permission to do it, only your own. It doesn’t matter how good you are right off the bat, because practice makes perfect, and you’ll need as much practice as you need. Don’t aspire to a lofty notion of being an artist or a groundbreaker in your chosen field–just show up and do the work, and do it in the manner that feels most “right” to you. Over time, your uniqueness and the medium will coalesce, and become your signature output.
Whether or not your work is genius-level is not for you to decide, so don’t go there. Sometimes the most remarkable creations aren’t realized as such in the creator’s lifetime. This was true for Beethoven, whose Late String Quartets seemed bizarre to audiences of his time, but which inspired early modernist composers such as Stravinsky and Bartok, and are now considered some of the greatest music ever written.
The biggest favor I ever did for myself was to pull my head out of the clouds and get myself down as low as I could go, which for me was to say: If I don’t do this, I will regret it when I am old and dying. I am going to create what is honestly me, and not worry about how it will be received. I will be humble enough to learn the craft and to just show up, without psychological fanfare, and do the work.
The artificial concept of sublime inspiration had no place in this mindset, but–and this was the best part–after a while I would often get into a “zone,” where I would be absorbed by the flow of the work, a feeling so real and rewarding, that inspiration couldn’t begin to compare. And it was real, not some state of mind I had to talk myself into or be coached into believing.