Creativity secret from the masters: dare to be unremarkable

betty ming liu Art, Inspiration 8 Comments

Until recently, I looked for inspiration in great work by great writers and artists. Do my best! Unleash my uniqueness! Be a star! But creativity’s flip side might be even more helpful. In reality, geniuses fail to be genius all the time. If anything, they spend most of their lives churning out stuff that’s forgettable.

This is true whether we’re talking about Maya Angelou or Mozart — or contemporary types like “black-ish” creator Kenya Barris. The aha! moment for me is understanding that the genius work that I admire most represents only a sliver of each artist’s total output.

Geniuses are only genius once in a while

For instance, Angelou’s “Still I Rise” can make me weep. But not so much with most of her 165 other poems. Her famed “I Know When the Caged Bird Sings” blew me away with its story of her troubled girlhood. But how many of us realize that she wrote six other autobiographies?

As for Mozart and other classical music legends:

  • Beethoven (died at age 56) — composed 650 pieces.
  • Mozart (died at age 35) — composed more than 600 pieces.
  • Bach (died at 65) — wrote more than 1,000 pieces.

Adam Grant, an outside-the-box thinker and author, gathers these stats and much more in “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.” So far, I’m only a few chapters in. And despite some reservations (more on that later), Grant is already helping me so much that it’s worth sharing from his Chapter 2.

Some of his fun facts:

  • Top creators in every field churn out tons of work “that’s technically sound but considered unremarkable by experts and audiences,” Grant explains.
  • This fact is important because QUANTITY counts. “Many people fail to achieve originality because they generate a few ideas and then obsess about refining them,” he adds.

From here, Grant goes for a myth-busting observation: “It’s widely assumed that there’s a tradeoff between quantity and quality — if you want to do better work, you have to do less of it — but quantity is the most predictable path to quality.”


For instance:

  • During his lifetime, Pablo Picasso created 1,800 paintings, 1,200 sculptures, 2,800 ceramics and 12,000 drawings. But the artist is celebrated for only a fraction of what he made.
  • William Shakespeare is best known for about half a dozen plays. But over two decades, he actually wrote 37 plays and 154 sonnets.




How to be more original & creative  

Grant, who teaches management and psychology at University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School, shows tremendous skill in sifting through research studies for useful information.

I laughed over one paper he shares, which cites the importance of “kissing frogs.” As a single woman who survived years of dating frogs before finding a prince, I get the point. True originality involves perseverance.  :)

Other research findings:

  • The most prolific people do their finest and most original work during periods of peak output. E.g., The late, great Thomas Edison holds 1,093 patents, including hundreds he secured between the ages of 30 and 35. During this glorious period, he invented the lightbulb, the phonograph and the carbon telephone.
  • We often fall victim to inflated views of ourselves and our projects, which takes us down creative dead-ends. On the flip side, we often fail to realize when we have a real hit on our hands. There’s also the dreaded tendency to overthink, working and reworking in endless detail before realizing what we had at the beginning was the best.
  • Creativity draws on broad and deep personal experience. Exposure to foreign and diverse cultures is especially important. In fact, the more time creative types spend working abroad, the more creative they become. As a citizen of the world, teacher and single mom, this point stands out. Diversity and depth matters!

Is the “Originals” book truly original?

Grant weaves tons of research throughout his storytelling. While I love his approach, most of his book is about White folks, with more examples of White men than anyone else. Of course, if studies are important to his method, we are dealing with the reality that in this country, scholars on the White experience dominate, especially those who focus on the straight White guy perspective.

To balance the picture, the book includes lessons from the lives of historic Black figures. In addition to mention of Maya Angelou in Chapter 2, Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks and Chris Rock make guest appearances in Chapter 6.

For more diversity, Chapter 3 offers an in-depth, fascinating look at retired CIA crimefighter Carmen Medina, who is Puerto Rican. As for Asian Americans, the closest I came to seeing myself is the mention of Gandhi’s name on a page somewhere. There’s also a passage about issues facing women in the workplace.

It’s possible that much of the stuff that interests Grant might be color blind. For instance, check out his TED Talk, “The surprising habits of original thinkers.”  He makes the interesting case that the browser you’re using right now to read this post says something about your success rate as an employee. Maybe race and gender are irrelevant.

There’s also Grant’s New York Times opinion piece, “How to Raise a Creative Child.” In it, he explains why we don’t want to raise child prodigies (they follow the rules, and rarely change the world). He also points out that parents of ordinary kids impose an average of six rules while parents of super-creative kids usually held their little ones to an average of less than one rule. These observations might be color-blind too, I dunno.

Practicing originality today  

What I DO know is that Grant’s material is useful. I showed the TED Talk in my communications class at Westchester Community College. I also discussed the Times article and read a section from the book. My students, who come in every color of the rainbow, were mostly inspired. Only one or two said they found Grant “too white” to be relatable.

On balance, all of us (including me) felt better about not being child prodigies. At least one of the several single moms in my class went on to read the Times piece on her own. The message that we can achieve our potential as originals became a running theme for us during the semester.

Now that I’m exploring this issue of originality, I see signs of it everywhere. Do you read The New Yorker? I was riveted by the April 25 profile of Kenya Barris. He created “black-ish,” the breakthrough ABC family sitcom about an upscale Obama-era Black family. The semi-autobiographical weekly show represents his success after many years of toiling in television.

Consider this observation from The New Yorker article: “Barris wrote pilot after pilot, trying to crack the formula that would put him in charge. ‘Black-ish’ was his nineteenth attempt. Three got produced but didn’t make it to air.”

The number NINETEEN jumped out at me. Oh. My. Goodness. This is what it takes to be original.

Now, I’m looking for more examples of originality in our diverse world. A more diverse picture would inspire me more. So if you have stories to share about your experiences or can link us to information about other original experiences, please comment!


Comments 8

    1. Post

      Charlotte, you read my mind. The blogging helps me so much. Although, I often sit at my desk, paralyzed. :)

      But definitely, the constant blogging keeps me engaged with myself. It helps me figure out what I really want to say.

      During the Spring semester, I also taught an online creative writing course at The New School. For the first time in a course, I asked my students to write daily for an entire week. All they needed was to spend 10 minutes of free writing. The goal was not to craft a piece or even anything readable.

      The goal was to simply unclutter and articulate whatever rattled in their heads. The exercise apparently had a positive impact on their work. The quality of their writing improved tremendously.

  1. I don’t recall anything being stated as a “rule” when I was a child (perhaps except never wear brown shoes with a blue or black suit.) Of course “the way things are done” constitutes a large body of implied rules, never exactly stated as such but absorbed by cultural osmosis. For example, we dressed for dinner when I was a child. No one ever said it was a rule. It was just what one did. WASPs are really good at that kind of rule-that-isn’t-a-rule-but- don’t-dare-to-break it kind of thing. It’s the primary way of distinguishing between the tribe and the outlanders.
    As for creativity, I think perhaps the most important element is perseverance. Most “over-night” successes are the result of many years of work. The two best selling fictional works of the 20th Century, The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series, were both rejected by numerous publishers – Harry Potter by every publisher in England and LOTR by 7 publishers before Rayner & Unwin decided to take a chance on it. The authors believed in themselves and kept at it.

    1. Post

      Toby, even though I’m not WASP, I totally identify with the concept of unspoken rules. Hadn’t really thought about that while reading Grant’s opinion piece. But you are so, so spot-on with this point!

      Thanks too, for the reminder on perseverance via publishing our stories. Well said. :)

    2. Yeah, quantity… Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours is just a start.
      And YES Tobias! I was thinking of The Cider House Rules when I read Betty’s post. Even when there ARE explicit rules, they’re usually the ones that are made to be broken. Kids figure out the inviolable rules on their own. More embedded obstacles in the quest to loosen up.
      Thanks Betty – thought provoking stuff. And motivating!
      p.s. Robert Ludlum went to 17 publishers with his first book.

      1. Post

        Amen, Sister! I’ve never read the Tobias book, but need to put it on my list. As for Ludlum, I don’t know how some authors manage to persevere. The rejection is so awful. And Jean, thanks for the encouragement. I miss you!

      2. You are right – kids do sense the truly inviolable rules. I remember my grandmother quoting Aunt Betsy Trotwood from David Copperfield: “Never be mean in anything, never be false, never be cruel. Avoid these three vices and I can always be hopeful of you.” She didn’t say they were rules per se, but I knew immediately they were sacred principals – on an entirely different plateau from…say…the rule at school to not run in the halls or even to not smoke in the boys room. For one thing – one big thing – I wanted grandmother to “be hopeful” of me.

        1. Post

          Yeah, as kids, we know the rules. What made me nuts were the rules that kept me from stretching and taking chances. What’s interesting is that your granny wanted you to do these things to please her — not to please yourself! That’s my constant battle: Breaking out of the people-pleasing mode.

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