How to be a creative genius

How to be a creative genius OMD

‘Genius is 1% talent and 99% hard work’ – Albert Einstein

Are you or aren’t you?

The question of creativity comes up a lot in the workshops and training programmes that we run as Ignition. Who’s got it? Who hasn’t? Are we born with it? Can you learn to be creative?

It seems we’re not the only ones wrestling with these questions.

The School of Life

The broader question of attaining genius – whether that be creative genius, sporting genius or any other kind of genius, came up at a brilliant School of Life Sermon we had the joy of attending one Sunday last month.

For those not in on the secret, The School of Life is a fascinating enterprise in London’s Marylebone run by social commentator Alain de Botton. They run all sorts of wonderful training courses, lectures and events designed to tackle fundamental life questions such as ‘How to realise your potential’, ‘How to worry about money less’ and ‘How to think more about sex’.

Find out more here.

Their Sermons are monthly gatherings in a town hall where maverick cultural figures are invited to speak about “virtues to live by and vices to be wary of.”

Happily for some of you, the religious content only extends as far as the name, although we did sing a hymn of sorts – in this instance ‘Clever Bastards’ by Ian Dury and The Blockheads!

At this particular sermon, the American author and Contributing Editor of Wired magazine, Jonah Lehrer, was ministering to the assembled flock on genius. He shares our view that creative genius isn’t a singular gift possessed by the lucky few; it’s actually something we can all strive for.

Jonah talked us through a handful of principles that he believes provide the building blocks to genius. I’ll describe them here…

True grit

It may disappoint you to know that there are no shortcuts to genius, according to Lehrer. Being born with an unusually high IQ or identifying with a particular Myers Briggs type is no guarantee of creative genius.

The fundamental ingredient in the attainment of genius is true grit. A stubborn, tenacious refusal to give up. Single-mindedness that borders on the obsessive. A lot of time dedicated to the goal. Taking obstacles and challenges in one’s stride.

As Woody Allen said “80% of success is just showing up.”

This idea of total dedication chimes with Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion in The Outliers: The Story of Success, that those individuals who achieve greatness in their chosen pursuit, do so typically as a result of practising for around 10,000 hours.

Who said it would be easy?

The underwear test

It’s all very well setting off enthusiastically towards attainment of genius, but if you’re going to dedicate time (10,000 hours) and effort to achieving it, Lehrer argues you’ve got to make sure your dream is worth pursuing.

But how to tell? By putting it through ‘the underwear test’ of course!

We don’t usually notice or feel our underwear because we have become habituated to the feel of cotton. A feature of the human mind is that we quickly take things for granted and become numb to anything vaguely predictable. That’s why the first bite of chocolate cake always tastes better than the second and the third.

Similarly, the dreams that we go after need to be sufficiently inspiring and motivating that they don’t bore us before we’ve put in all the necessary practise or ‘true grit’. They need to contain the kinds of subtle thrills that keep us motivated and don’t grow old.

Feelings of knowing

We’ve all experienced ‘feelings of knowing’. These are the moments when we feel like we’re really close to the answer or a creative breakthrough but just can’t quite attain it.

A simple example would be those ‘tip of the tongue’ encounters where we’re excruciatingly close to remembering that person’s name, but it continues to elude us.

When you’re having a ‘feeling of knowing’ moment, Lehrer recommends sticking with it. Staying focused on the problem.  This is an important part of the creative process and you’ll usually be rewarded with the answer with just that little bit of extra effort and concentration.

Being stuck

At the other end of the scale from ‘feelings of knowing’, being stuck is a common, healthy milestone in the pursuit of genius. Those moments when no matter how hard you try, you just can’t seem to make any progress. When the well has run dry. When you’re wading through treacle.

Lehrer’s advice is to then step away from the challenge altogether. Ignore it. Put it away. Do something else.

The chances are that your brain will continue beavering away at the challenge subconsciously while you are otherwise engaged. Then when the time feels right you can return to the subject feeling newly inspired and unstuck.

Apparently Bob Dylan was firmly stuck after an intense few months of touring in 1965 and almost retired altogether from song writing. But a period of time spent holed up alone with no access to music of any kind in Woodstock, upstate New York, was followed by one of the most creative periods of his career with the writing and recording of his masterpiece ‘Like a Rolling Stone’.

What are you waiting for?

So there you have it. Genius the Jonah Lehrer way.

We in Ignition would subscribe to much of his thinking. We’re certainly of the view that everyone has a reserve of creativity waiting to be mined. Armed with the right tools, techniques and attitude, genius could be within reach of every one of us.

…providing you have 10,000 hours to spare.

What do you think?


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