I have often wondered if creativity is a function of discipline or insanity. My personal experience has been a conflicted one. There are people I know of who have the discipline to create prodigious output. Then there are others who come up with strokes of genius that seemingly emerge out of nowhere—say, after binge drinking or indulging in some such seemingly insane act.
But after many conversations and observations, and poring over much literature, I am convinced there are no “mad geniuses” at work. I suspect I may have some answers as well to the thin line that separates creative thinkers who are productive and insane creative thinkers.
A word of caution here. I use the word “insane” here in the negative to suggest that this is creativity of the kind that leads nowhere. To anybody watching a creator of this kind at work, though, what they will witness is huge output that seemingly emerges out of nowhere. Let’s park that thought for a moment and come back to it in a little bit.
On the back of personal experience, I believe productive creativity is a function of discipline. For instance, after I have managed some decent sleep, spent time in the early hours of the morning talking to myself in the third person and articulating clearly what needs to be done, how and why, and taking a break at scheduled intervals, when it’s time to call it a day, I accomplish satisfaction.
This works best when I stick to a routine. There is no rocket science here. Apparently, the whys of this have been documented in many research papers—for instance, a blog post on the Harvard Business Review titled “The Daily Routines of Geniuses” documents some of these findings.
In the post, dated 19 March 2014, Sarah Green Carmichael starts by talking of her experiences:
“Juan Ponce de León spent his life searching for the fountain of youth. I have spent mine searching for the ideal daily routine. But as years of color-coded paper calendars have given way to cloud-based scheduling apps, routine has continued to elude me; each day is a new day, as unpredictable as a ride on a rodeo bull and over seemingly as quickly.
“Naturally, I was fascinated by the recent book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Author Mason Currey examines the schedules of 161 painters, writers, and composers, as well as philosophers, scientists, and other exceptional thinkers.
“As I read, I became convinced that for these geniuses, a routine was more than a luxury — it was essential to their work. As Currey puts it, ‘A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.’ And although the book itself is a delightful hodgepodge of trivia, not a how-to manual, I began to notice several common elements in the lives of the healthier geniuses (the ones who relied more on discipline than on, say, booze and Benzedrine) that allowed them to pursue the luxury of a productivity-enhancing routine.”
That out of the way, let’s go back to the archetypal mad genius. My mind went back to some material I had filed to be read for later that I had stumbled across in The Atlantic, with the provocative headline “Secrets of the Creative Genius”. The piece does not seem to be available on the website any longer. But the sum and substance of it was there are fallacies in the “insanity” argument.
In the writer Kurt Vonnegut’s case for instance, on closer examination, the author of the article, Nancy C. Andreasen, a neuroscientist by training, discovered a genetic predisposition towards mental illness.
“As a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who studies creativity, I’ve had the pleasure of working with many gifted and high-profile subjects over the years, but Kurt Vonnegut—dear, funny, eccentric, lovable, tormented Kurt Vonnegut—will always be one of my favorites. Kurt was a faculty member at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1960s, and participated in the first big study I did as a member of the university’s psychiatry department. I was examining the anecdotal link between creativity and mental illness, and Kurt was an excellent case study.
“He was intermittently depressed, but that was only the beginning. His mother had suffered from depression and committed suicide on Mother’s Day, when Kurt was 21 and home on military leave during World War II. His son, Mark, was originally diagnosed with schizophrenia but may actually have bipolar disorder...
“While mental illness clearly runs in the Vonnegut family, so, I found, does creativity. Kurt’s father was a gifted architect, and his older brother Bernard was a talented physical chemist and inventor who possessed 28 patents. Mark is a writer, and both of Kurt’s daughters are visual artists. Kurt’s work, of course, needs no introduction. For many of my subjects from that first study—all writers associated with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—mental illness and creativity went hand in hand. This link is not surprising.”
It got her curious and when she examined most great writers, she figured as personality types go, a large number of writers are insular and introspective. It aids the task of writing.
Andreasen found similar patterns in different professions. When she took scientists as a group, she figured the ones who came up with path breaking ideas are not the ones wedded to their discipline; but have multi-disciplinary interests and are curious about the larger questions around them. The nitty-gritty of daily existence bores them, and when confronted, they react with exasperation or anger.
But to people watching a writer in the flow, what they see is an introverted, shy creature withdrawn from the world; a scientist at work on a problem appears as someone absent-minded and easily infuriated. They are not “insane”. They are simply functioning more efficiently.
That out of the way, there is another twist in the tale that got my attention for an altogether different reason. How do you sift good ideas from bad ideas? Because Andreasen goes on to argue, “Having too many ideas can be dangerous. Part of what comes with seeing connections no one else sees is that not all of these connections actually exist.”
The reason this got my attention was because I was poring over all of this material around the time the Mumbai civic elections were unfolding, I was riveted. Between the BJP and the Shiv Sena, allies until the run-up to the polls and rivals during the campaign, it was as compelling a political story as it gets.
On the back of some computing, based on a few variables on my spreadsheets, I thought I could see a clear pattern around candidate selection, voting trends and which way the political winds were blowing. My only problem was, the harder I tried to articulate it, the more incomprehensible it sounded to everyone around. But I was wedded to the idea. “There is a story in here to be told,” I kept screaming. I was obsessed and had lost track of a larger project on hand.
But then, a close friend and colleague pulled me up and put it to me in no uncertain terms: “It may be a great idea. And you can see what none of us can see. But can you answer one question honestly? In the longer term, will it make any difference to your personal life or to us whether the answer to this question matters?”
The reality of it was that, personally, the outcome of the Mumbai civic elections mattered to me to the extent that my vote counts and the infrastructure of the city I live in improve. Professionally, if I get it right, it doesn’t make a difference to my career or the stated purpose of my work.
“In which case,” he said, “I’m sorry to have to tell it to you as it is then. You’re wasting your time and ours.”
When he dug deeper into the answer on what constitutes meaningful and productively creative work, Cal Newport, author or the best-selling book Deep Work, offers some pointers in an altogether different context on his blog, on how to use technology wisely. But the lessons the post contains can be extrapolated here. I modified it mildly to suit my purpose.
1. That task you are attempting right now, what purpose does it serve? If you do not do it right now, what happens? Will the consequences be debilitating in the long-term for your organization and your personal growth?
2. If it is not important for the long term, what medium- or short-term purpose does it serve?
3. Assuming it serves a purpose in the medium or short term, is it coming in the way of what is good for the long term?
4. If it is, then is it worth expending time and energy on?
5. And finally, if it serves no long-, medium- or short-term purpose, why even consider it? Why aren’t you spending that time on activities that may broaden your mind?
When I put the questions this way, short-termism made no sense. Every win has to have a long-term objective.
That said, answering these questions were also incredibly difficult. I kept putting it off, until I stumbled across a set of three questions that appears in an essay on procrastination by the legendary computer scientist Paul Graham. I’ve paraphrased his questions mildly, once again, to meet this context.
1. What are the most important things you have to be at work on right now?
2. Are you at work on any of them?
3. Why not?
I know the answers. I know what is the most important thing I ought to be working on right now from a long-term perspective. But I am not. And why not? Because to be honest, it does not make me look busy.
In the medium and short term, though, it does make me look busy. There are no pay-offs that will come right away either. It lies in a future I can see. But I see the merit and wisdom in Cal Newport’s and Paul Graham’s questions as well.
To draw an analogy, there’s a monkey in my head that gets a high each time it snorts cocaine. Feels awfully good in the short term. The monkey feels conflicted in the medium term about how good the past was and how he’s going to get busted in the long run. And he knows in the future his epitaph will read: “There lies a monkey that could have.” But the monkey is hooked to cocaine.
Clearly, creativity is hard work. It doesn’t come easy. There are no shortcuts. You’re in it for the long haul. And there is heck of a lot of hard work to be done.
Charles Assisi is co-founder of Founding Fuel Publishing.
His Twitter handle is @c_assisi
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org