The Genius in Me

Author: Eric Zorn

Ideally you’d be thrilled to be reading this. What a treat!” you’d be thinking. “The internationally renowned novelist, philosopher and songwriter Eric Zorn has written a magazine article. And I am about to savor each brilliant mot, each crackling association, each penetrating insight.”

In reality, you’re not thrilled. You probably skipped past the byline above with, at best, a mild twinge of recognition. If my name is familiar at all it’s because I’ve previously contributed articles to this magazine, and I write a column for the Chicago Tribune. My momentous novels, pensees and ballads have yet to be written, much less published, much less greeted by the public with the weepy gratitude I’ve always felt they’d occasion.

And the question that concerns me is, why not?

Why is it that I’m not hailed as one of the great creative geniuses of the turn of the millennium? What’s with me that I’m not painting the celebrated paintings, designing the breathtaking buildings or starting the profitable businesses?

It’s a question that has long absorbed many scholars and consultants, though, I admit, they have framed it in more general terms: Why are some people more creative than others? How can people make themselves more creative?

I consider attacking the subject of creativity in a muscular fashion, sprinkling lots of impressive if intimidatingly abstruse quotes from academic articles (“Adaptive regression, the primary process, refers to the intrusion of unmodulated thoughts in consciousness,” to wit). To avoid that route, I thought I’d suit form to function and write this in pig Latin: Reativity-cay is among the ost-may omplex-cay of uman-hay ehaviors-bay.” That would be different. Inventive. An original conceptual combination. Imaginative, even.

But creative? I could argue yes. As impenetrable as 4,000 words of untranslated pig Latin would be for the reader, presenting it in these pages would be a creative act. After all, in 1964 Andy Warhol made a movie of the Empire State Building just sitting there for eight hours. He was hailed as a creative genius. So why shouldn’t critics purr over me and compose ruminant analyses of my bold preference for pig Latin over, say, ubbi-dubbi or some other kiddie-code language?

Yet most experts in the field would argue no, novelty is not enough. To qualify as creative, they’d say, a new idea or an act must be relevant and appropriate to the task at hand and, ultimately, useful and valued. Otherwise creativity would be a vacuous concept encompassing everything from the delusions of prattling schizophrenics to the sonnets of William Shakespeare.

Who’s to say that an article in pig Latin would be of no value to the readers of this magazine? Remember, Van Gogh’s paintings and Emily Dickinson’s poems were not valued when they were alive. Dozens of editors rejected John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces before it was published to high acclaim. Were those works uncreative until critics validated them?

Well. You see the problem. You see, perhaps, how it is that Andrei Aleinikov, author of Mega Creator: From Creativity to Mega-Giga- and Infi-Creativity, has been able to collect more than 100 different definitions of creativity in the course of his research, each one trying to include that which we intuitively recognize as creative and exclude that which is banal or bizarre.

Consider: A famous rock artist knocks over a bottle of ink, and a collector, unaware of the origin of the stained paper, offers to buy the paper for $10,000. A craftsman in a totally isolated island culture develops the zipper, unaware that zippers have been around for a century. A software engineer writes a computer program that takes a simple melodic theme and generates dozens of jazzy improvisations that come noodling out of a synthesizer. We recognize the engineer and his program as creative, but what about the music?

So, rather than getting bogged down here among the theories, contradictions and conjectures, it’s safest simply to say that, for practical purposes, creativity is a somewhat mysterious and somewhat ill-defined purposeful human process that aims at but may not fully realize unique and useful results.

Many of us think of creativity as an esoteric concept that rarely applies in daily life. But it’s the main element that shapes every culture on Earth: “The world would be a very different place if it were not for creativity,” writes psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. “We would still act according to the few clear instructions our genes contain, and anything learned in the course of our lives would be forgotten after our death. There would be no speech, no songs, no tools, no ideas such as love, freedom or democracy. It would be an existence so mechanical and impoverished that none of us would want any part of it.”

In this light, creativity is the engine for all human progress. More than intelligence, more than skill, more than perseverance, luck or beauty, it is creativity (which includes these other attributes and more) that’s recognized as the essential attribute of success.

Check out the titles now in bookstores: Double Your Creative Power; Optimize the Magic of Your Mind; Quantum Creativity: Nine Principles for a Life of Possibility; What a Great Idea!: The Key Steps Creative People Take; Thinkertoys; Creative Problem Solver’s Toolbox; Sparks of Genius, and so on and on and on.

They’re very similar to diet books. Scores of upbeat titles, dozens of theories and approached from the wacky to the scholarly, but one central theme: You can do it! It does not require special gifts to (have a nice body/be creative) and (feel better about yourself/unleash your potential).

If I don’t stop to congratulate myself here, then I fear no one will. That last analogy was quite creative- explaining one concept by finding in it illustrative similarities to another but more generally familiar concept. Making the useful connection, don’t you know, like in the 15th century when Johann Gutenberg watched a wine press at work and saw in it a principle by which inked letters could be printed onto paper. Well, kind of like that, anyway. To this tragic gap between me and such creative eminences as the inventor of the printing press I will return shortly.

But because creativity is a much more elusive concept than avoirdupois, the creativity consultant is actually in the enviable position of a weight-loss guru in a world without particularly accurate scales. To judge from a sampling of the available materials, they always come at their audiences with some variation on this old saw: “If you always do what you always did, then you’ll always get what you always got.”

Leave that rut. Think outside the box. Dare to fail. Free associate. Reframe. Explore. Incubate. Play. Dream. Visualize. Relax. Reflect. Apply these principles to generate ideas, then to criticize and refine them, then, at each step along the way, to implement them.

Does it work?

Researchers have devised a number of tests to measure creativity. For example, simple work association and idea generation tests measure subjects’ abilities to produce broad and novel responses. But since real world creativity is so much more subtle, complicated and situational than a lab test, it’s proven nearly impossible to do the sort of cause and effect educational studies one could do if, say, the phenomenon being measured were grade-point averages or SAT scores.

So some experts prefer to look at the question from the other side. They look at extremely creative, successful people and try to figure out what they have in common, how they differ from the rest of us.

When you assemble enough life stories (Csikszentmihalyi interviewed 91 subjects he deemed highly creative for his book; other researchers have painstakingly compared the biographies of long-dead luminaries and rifled history trying to identify the seeds of famous inventions) certain patterns emerge. Those patterns, along with the observations of experienced practitioners and lab scientists, can begin to lead us toward answers to the question that animates this article: Why not me?

I mean, that’s the question for most of us about ourselves, isn’t it? What combination of attributes, circumstances and efforts have put me in the societal position I’m in now instead of that position way up there? Or, for that matter, that one way down there? And which, if any of them, can I change for the better?

My abbreviated and speculative list, the Dirty Dozen Reasons I’m Not A Creative Superstar, will help you make your own:

1. I don’t work hard enough at it.

In preparation for writing this article I contacted two of the most creative people I know — best-selling novelist and lawyer Scott Turow and public-radio host Ira Glass, producer of the dazzlingly inventive This American Life syndicated program. Both were quick to deny that there was anything special about them.

“The distinction between art and work is overrated,” says Turow. “In point of fact, I use most of the same skills in writing fiction and writing a brief — I make the same demands of myself for verbal precision, and I work to be rigorously logical, whether it’s in character development or legal deduction. A rewrite, which I regard as intrinsic to the writing process, is largely drudgery. . . . The only difference between the work that everybody does and creative enterprises is in starting points — the ‘creative’ person is choosing his or her own point of departure, whereas those who ‘work’ tend to be assigned to their task. This is the most — perhaps the only — creative part of creativity.”

Glass, whose unusual documentary style program originates from WBEZ-FM Chicago, says, “As soon as you get called ‘creative,’ it’s like you’re being called ‘wacky.’ You’re being put into a smaller box, and no good can come out of that. The truth is that I’m running a business here.”

Systematically, Glass says, he and his staff read, listen and talk about certain general subject areas. “We first have to fill our heads with lots of old ideas. Only then do we start to see interesting connections between seemingly unrelated thoughts. Those are new ideas. We’ll come up with maybe 20 for each show.” Eventually, four get on the air.

“The good news about creativity is that you can absolutely will it to happen through hard work, but that’s also the bad news: It takes very hard work,” he says.

These reports match up with common sense. Creative output requires sustained and focused effort at a particular task — what we often call as “drudgery.” For every reported exception —Jack Kerouac, who is said to have been in such an inspired writing frenzy writing On The Road that he typed on rolls of teletype paper so as not to have to stop to change sheets; Mozart and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, rumored to have created masterworks as though taking divine dictation — there are thousands of brilliant creators who’ve worked like dogs, often to the detriment of normal human relations.

“The higher reaches of abstraction demand long periods of solitude and intense concentration,” writes British psychologist Anthony Storr in Solitude: A Return to the Self. Such periods “are hard to find if a man is subject to the emotional demands of a spouse and children.” And Csikszentmihalyi advises would-be creators to “erect barriers against distractions.”

Me, I’ve got three kids I enjoy spending time with and a wife I adore. Very distracting. Damn.

2. I haven’t learned enough.

The most destructive myth about creativity is that it springs from nowhere, whispered in one’s ear by a muse or breathed into one by God, and it’s either going to happen to you or it’s not.

In truth, creativity begins just as Ira Glass says — with an ingenious combination of old, established ideas. Learn those — and, like Henry Ford, Picasso, Edison and Bill Gates, you can stand on the shoulders of giants. Take it kind of easy in school, like I did, and you’ll forever be grabbing at the hems of giants, unable to tell new ideas from old, good ideas from bad.

3. I’ve learned too much.

Paradoxically, too much immersion in a specific field — too much knowledge — seems to dampen the creative impulse just like ignorance does. Study hard, absorb all ideas, conventions and rules and you’re likely to find yourself in a mental straitjacket.

This is the main hindrance to creativity in corporate America and the point of attack for the American Creativity Association and the Creative Education Foundations — national organizations promoting so-called divergent and lateral thinking strategies and other problem-solving techniques designed to de-Babbitize businesses, schools and other institutions. The credited founder of this movement is the late Alex Osborn, an ad agency director who pioneered brainstorming techniques in the early 1950s.

Creativity researchers would look at my 20 year career at the same newspaper and see that, despite my efforts to put new wrinkles in my column, I’m by now so imbued with the Tribune culture, so influenced by all the mainstream journalism punditry I’ve digested nearly every day for years, that I am very likely to transform the genre.

4. I may not be intelligent enough.

The rough consensus in the research is that an I.Q. of 120 is optimal for the performance
of creative work. Any higher than that doesn’t seem to make much of a difference, but below that, creativity seems to fall off. I’ve yet to have my I.Q. measured, in part because I want this as my fall-back excuse down the line.

5. I’m young yet.

Many writers have published brilliant, landmark works before they were my age, 42. Heck, lots of them — Byron, Poe, all the Brontes — never even made it to 42. But in the humanities, where life experience is so much part of the basic knowledge, it’s quite common for those on in years to produce masterpieces.

In the harder sciences, though, the comparatively young make most of the real breakthroughs. Writes Csikszentmihalyi, “The most likely explanation for these differences lies in the different ways these domains are structured. The symbolic system of mathematics is organized relatively tightly; the internal logic is strict; the system maximizes clarity and lack of redundancy. Therefore, it is easy for a young person to assimilate the rule quickly and jump to the cutting edge of the domain in a few years.”

6. I’m cautious.

Taking chances, risking looking stupid or naïve and daring to fall flat on your face are all integral to the creative process. Me, I’m kind of timid. I mean, you’ll note how quickly I bailed out on pig Latin.

7. I don’t smoke, do illegal drugs or drink alcohol to excess.

All of these vices are positively correlated with creativity and the lifestyles of creative people. Researchers have had a hard time sorting out cause from effect in this area (though it’s obvious that heavy use of drugs and alcohol are incompatible with the performance of the creative acts), but Colin Martindale, a psychologist at the University of Maine whose paper on biology and creativity appears in the Handbook of Creativity, says low doses of marijuana and other substances that depress brain stimulation seem to improve performance on controlled tests of creativity.

Which makes sense. Remember some of those imperatives of the creativity instructors? Think outside the box. Play. Visualize. Relax. Not to come on like Timothy Leary or anything, but isn’t that what drugs help you do? Isn’t it possible that one day we’ll have a creativity pill to help unleash the Einstein within?

“That’s a reasonable question,” Martindale responds when I put it to him. “Doctors and the government hate anything that makes people feel good, so it would be very difficult to do a study of effects of things such as Valium on creativity. But remember, one needs a number of traits to be creative — e.g., the quirky way of thinking, very high self-confidence, obsession with ideas, perseverance, non-conformity, fairly high I.Q. If any of these is missing, one multiplies by zero and gets zero.”

8. I’m not a manic depressive.

“Many of the changes in mood, thinking and perception that characterize the mildly manic state — restlessness, ebullience, expansiveness, irritability, grandiosity, quickened and more finely tuned sense, intensity of emotional experiences, diversity of though and rapidity of associational processes — are highly characteristic of creative thought as well,” writes Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Touched With Fire, her study of the link between artistic creation and mental illness.

“Melancholy, on the other hand, tends to force a slower pace, cools the ardor and puts into perspective the thoughts, observations and feelings generated during more enthusiastic moments,” Jamison writes. “Mild depression can act as a ballast; it can also serve a critical editorial role for work produced in more fevered states.”

These mild states are, sadly, often just transitional periods on the way to the highly unfocused, psychotic agitation of mania and the paralyzing darkness of profound depression, neither of which are conducive to useful achievement. But the numerous comparatives cited by Jamison are highly suggestive: Artists commit suicide from 5 to 18 times more often than general population control groups, they are involuntarily committed to psychiatric institutions 20 times more often.

Temple University professor Robert Weisberg is among those who caution that such correlations may be misleading: “Being creative might make on pathological,” he writes. “For example, an individual who is successful could be pushed to extremes of mood by success and adulation from others, as well as by positive or negative criticism.”

But the idea that a brain functioning in extraordinary ways will tend to produce extraordinary thoughts and ideas makes perfect sense. So does the inverse proposition, that a guy with an apparently ordinary mental-health profile (I suffer only from bouts of crankiness) will tend to generate fairly ordinary thoughts and ideas.

9. I was popular as a teen.

Though not the homecoming king, I maintained an active social life during adolescence and studied only enough to get good grades, not to master any particular field or build the strong intellectual foundation from which truly creative leaps are made.

“Teenagers who cannot stand being alone tend not to develop their skill because practicing music or studying math requires a solitude they dread,” Csikszentmihalyi observes. Further, “popularity, or even the strong ties to friends so common in adolescence, tends to make a young person conform to peer culture. . . . None of the creative people we interviewed remembers being popular in adolescence.”

10. My father is alive.

Csikszentmihalyi found that “many creative people lost their fathers early in life,” a

pattern “especially true for creative men.” By what means such a trauma would foster creativity later in life is one of the many mysteries in the field, but it may prompt a certain protective, emotional withdrawal that in turn leads to an aptitude for perseverance.

11. I’m trashy.

Though I love what I do for a living, I’m preoccupied with its external rewards — money,
prizes, a certain local degree of celebrity. I don’t take on new projects without a decent assurance of some shallow reward at the end, like a check. But director of research Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School has shown that those driven by intrinsic motivation (love of a task for its own sake) do far more creative work that those motivated by such extrinsic considerations as money, prestige or lunches paid for by the editors of Notre Dame Magazine.

12. I’m unlucky.

Of all the great unquantifiable factors that lead to creativity, luck is the most elusive. A great idea presented at the wrong time or to the wrong people is a bagatelle. A so-so idea presented at just the right time to a receptive audience is a stroke of genius. Though there appears in retrospect to be some inevitability to the great creations and the lives of the creators behind them, circumstance always plays a significant role. Had Robert Frost been abandoned as a baby and reared in a different household, he might not ever have written a line of verse. And if just one publishing house had recognized the brilliance of A Confederacy of Dunces, a despondent John Kennedy Toole might not have killed himself at age 31, and we might all be reading his subsequent masterpieces today.

Similarly, had the right editor or agent come along, read some of my columns and insisted I take a generous advance on a novel, you, dear reader, might still at this point be in a dazzled thrall to be reading an actual magazine article by the actual me.

“The majority of the people we interviewed mentioned luck most frequently as the reason they had been successful,” wrote Csikszentmihalyi.

And I should also mention it. I, too, have been lucky. Lucky to have stumbled into the opportunities I’ve had. Lucky to have held your attention this long. Lucky to have been handed an assignment that has given me the most excuses I could ever need for not being an internationally renowned novelist, philosopher and songwriter, and, at the same time, the motivation to overcome them.

Eric Zorn is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.