Last weekend, I watched a video of Elizabeth Gilbert’s presentation at this month’s TED conference. The title seemed promising: “A different way to think about creative genius“.
Her speech began with a common reaction to the success of her book “Eat Pray Love”:
“Everywhere I go now people treat me like I’m doomed.”
Many of the people she encounters sound that familiar post-victory refrain: “How are you going to top that?” She seems to have let that atmosphere of doom permeate her thinking:
“I should just put it bluntly, because we’re all sort of friends here now: It’s exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me.”
Her chief method of coping with the pressure to repeat the success of her last book is to seek what she calls a “protective psychological construct”. Looking to ancient Greece and Rome, she claims that ideas and creative efforts are not our own but come from “distant” and “unknowable” sources. In other words, we are the transcriptionists of spirits and elves and demi-gods, and can’t be held responsible for our creative output.
In her telling of it, this pure understanding of creativity held for centuries in the West, until:
“…the Renaissance came and everything changed and we had this big idea, and the big idea was ‘Let’s put the individual human being at the center of the universe’, right? Above all gods and mysteries, and there’s no more room for, like, mystical creatures who take dictation from the divine. And it’s the beginning of Rational Humanism, and people started to believe that creativity came completely from the self of the individual. And for the first time in history, you start to hear people referring to this or that artist as *being* a genius rather than *having* a genius. And I gotta tell ya, I think that was a huge error.”
I was just about to turn it off when I heard that part. She goes on to say that this shift put all the weight and expectation of creativity on the shoulders of a single person, and thus was born the archetype of the tortured artist, doomed to a life of suffering:
“And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years…”
Where to begin…
I agree: it is an error to see a single individual as the sole source of his or her creative output. The notion that ideas originate either from supernatural beings whispering into our ears and guiding our hands, or from the mind of a single individual is a false choice. It’s not either/or.
Ideas and creative abilities don’t come from gods or djinns or fairies, nor do they come from individuals. Ideas emerge from the global conversation of culture, from the interaction of minds and the artifacts that other minds have left for future generations: cave paintings, sculpture, drawings, pottery, engravings, poems, symphonies, letters, recipes, books, etc. The source of creativity is us. The Big Us. The global human We.
When I have a creative idea, whether it turns out to be insightful or banal, I don’t think of the source as simply, only me. It also comes from the poet I was reading this morning, and the music that was on while I was making breakfast, and the book I read last night, and an email from a friend, and someone’s photo gallery on Flickr that I was looking at three days ago, and on and on. Don’t tell the copyright lawyers, but every creative thought is, to some extent, a derivative work.
A slight tangent: Rationalism and science did not put human beings at the center of the universe. Quite the opposite, as I wrote about in my Darwin piece last week. Also, Humanism does not put the emphasis on the individual. If it did, it would be called “Selfism” or “Individualism”.
I didn’t write this merely to be obstinate or contrary — there are practical implications. Take a look at all those people around you who contribute to your ideas and your creativity, thank them, and support them in any way you can. Buy music from a local band you like or a painting directly from the artist or an e-book from an emerging author, encourage a young girl to go into science, or a young boy to learn to sculpt. Invest in your creative colleagues, and the creators of tomorrow, out of appreciation to all those in the past who have spent their own lives creating work and crafting ideas that have enriched your your world.
Returning to the fear that sent Ms. Gilbert on her quest back through the ages: lining up a scapegoat prior to the test of the marketplace, or demurely giving credit to intangible beings doesn’t seem like the healthiest ways of managing creative anxieties.
What if her next book sells 10% as many as the last one? What if it gets a terrible review in the New York Times? What if Oprah doesn’t choose it as a book of the month? Well, her publisher won’t be happy.
But, so what? What if the book has a more profound impact on a smaller audience than her last book did on a larger one?
The question I would ask Ms. Gilbert is this: “As well as your last book has done, I doubt that it is money that motivates you to to sit down and wrestle with words and ideas every day. What does?”
When we are scared that our next project won’t measure up to our last, maybe we should look at the way we measure success. By reflecting on what motivates us to put time and energy into our work in the first place, we can develop ways to evaluate what we do that have personal meaning.
I also question the idea that creative output has a single peak, after which it’s all downhill. Does one great success preclude future accomplishments of the same kind, or — more importantly — success of an entirely different and unimagined kind? If you’ve had success, why would you limit yourself to inventing elaborate coping mechanisms to cushion the bumpy ride down the mountain? Instead, while still at the top, scan the horizon for other peaks to climb — or even unknown valleys to explore.
You can never know if your best work is behind you. Actually, there is one way to know with certainty: let that fear keep you from working.
The attitude of another TED 2009 speaker provides a helpful contrast.
Having affected the way hundreds of millions of people work each day, Bill Gates could have wandered off to some private golf course for the rest of his life, or sequestered himself in an isolated mansion building play forts out of platinum bars to protect himself from the specter of failure. He hasn’t.
Despite controversial business practices and the number of hours of human life lost to “blue screens of death“, by many measures, the creation of Microsoft was an astounding success. Was it the success of a lifetime? Maybe.
Mr. Gates doesn’t seem to be spending too much time fretting about whether his next act will top the last one. The wealth and position he gained through Microsoft might some day be seen as merely a stepping stone on his path towards achieving far bigger and more ambitious projects. The eradication of malaria, and the increase in economic activity and quality of life that could engender in the developing world, for example. There are no guarantees, but it is certainly possible that his work with the Gates foundation could positively impact far more lives than Windows XP ever has.
There’s another point here: When Bill Gates left Harvard to begin his career in software in 1975, he couldn’t have imagined — for many reasons — that in 2009 he would be spending “lots of time” asking AIDS researchers “what the bottlenecks are and understanding how we can make faster progress.” Or that he would be traveling to Nigeria in hopes of convincing community leaders of the safety of polio vaccines.
We don’t know where our work will lead. We don’t control all the factors that determine its success.
But we keep working and learning, learning and working, not shying away from the responsibility for our mistakes — or our accomplishments.
The results fall where they may. But we don’t have to fall with them.
We pick ourselves up and carry on, always ready to take the stage for the next act, with a commitment that we — that big, global We, again — will make this act better than the last.