1. What is the relationship between craft and creativity?
Creative people are craftspeople. Technique is learned and applied on a particular craft. It’s the same for a pianist as it is for an animator. The techniques and knowledge acquired are repeatable by others. They have a structure and order. In that sense they are scientific.
2. Yet, scientific isn’t how one would usually describe creativity.
So what is creativity? Let’s come back to this. In musical producer Rick Rubin’s book The Creative Act: A Way of Being, he says:
If you have an idea you’re excited about and you don’t bring it to life, it’s not uncommon for the idea to find its voice through another maker. This isn’t because the other artist stole your idea, but because the idea’s time has come.
Creativity is illusive. In an interview on 60 Minutes, Bob Dylan shares he can no longer write songs like he could during his prime.
I don’t know how I got to write those songs. Those early songs were almost magically written.
Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
A handmade blade
A child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon,
To understand you know too soon
There’s no sense in trying
Well, try to sit down and write something like that. There’s a magic to that. And it’s not Siegfried and Roy kind of magic. It’s a different kind of a penetrating magic. And I did it at one time.
You can’t do something forever. I did it once, and I can do other things now. But I can’t do that.
3. Does exposure give us a creative edge?
In the book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein lays out the case that generalists with a wide exposure to multiple fields and ideas have a creative edge. He cites Vincent Van Gogh as a former school teacher, failed art dealer, and even a pastor, who lacked deep knowledge in any particular field became one of the greatest painters in history. Generalists bring an outsiders knowledge before they finally choose something to specialize in. Epstein argues that outsider knowledge gives them an ultimate creative edge.
4. Should we just follow our curiosities?
In Steve Jobs’s famed Stanford commencement speech he says we can’t see the path of our lives going forward, but when looking back, we see how the dots connect. His random calligraphy class at Reed College ended up playing a pivotal role in the first Macintosh computer nearly a decade later. He made it an emphasis to design beautiful typography on these computer interfaces.
Apple, from the start, differentiated itself by bringing quality design to computers. In those days, all the best industrial designers were working on cars and other industrial products at places like Sony. They were nowhere near computers. A random college course set the foundation for Apple and literally changed the face of a whole industry.
5. Maybe, it’s just about getting to work and harnessing our craft.
In Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle, he says:
This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.
Pressfield doesn’t see a separation between craft and creativity, but also acknowledges the mysterious nature of the creative force.
The professional respects his craft. He does not consider himself superior to it. He recognizes the contributions of those who have gone before him. He apprentices himself to them. The professional dedicates himself to mastering technique not because he believes technique is a substitute for inspiration but because he wants to be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration does come. The professional is sly. He knows that by toiling beside the front door of technique, he leaves room for genius to enter by the back.
6. Creativity comes through us, not from us
On The Daily Stoic Podcast, Ryan Holiday shared that at the beginning you are not good at being bad at the thing. It’s a powerful statement for any creative professional.
I remember the early days of my UX design career and being so timid with what I shared and fearful of the feedback. I would make adjustments after feedback, but I hated it when I missed things that should’ve been obvious. There was always this insecurity of whether or not I was any good. And when the best ideas came of feedback, I felt like a fraud claiming these ideas when all I did was incorporate feedback from others.
Overtime, I learned that’s just the process. Sometimes the ideas are there from the beginning and the work just needs some tweaking. Other times, the strong ideas surface partway through or don’t come together until the end.
We don’t own or generate the ideas. They come through us and we incorporate them into our work.
7. Through the repetitive process developing craft, we inevitably reinforce patterns and create limitations.
Some artists employ randomness to break away from this cycle.
William S. Burroughs popularized a process referred to as the cut up method, where he cuts up pieces of prose written by himself and others and paste them together at random. It’s a powerful way to overcome the self-imposed limitations of our thinking reinforced through own repetitive processes.
David Bowie employed the cut up method for his own songwriting process. He was known to keep a board of random words and phrases around when making music.