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Correcting Creativity: The Struggle for Eminence

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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By the time he put the finishing touches on the Rite of Spring in November of 1912 in the Châtelard Hotel in Clarens, Switzerland, Stravinsky had spent three years studying Russian pagan rituals, Lithuanian folk songs and crafting the dissonant sacre chord, in which an F-flat major combines with an E-flat major with added minor seventh. The rehearsal process wasn’t easy either. Stravinsky fired the German pianist and the orchestra and performers only had a few opportunities to practice at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, where the Rite debuted in May 1913. But the Russian born composer pulled it off, and his composition now stands as a 20th century masterpiece.

Stravinsky is one of seven eminent creators of the 20st century profiled by Harvard professor Howard Gardner in his 1993 book Creating Minds. The others are Pablo Picasso, Sigmund Freud, T.S. Eliot, Martha Graham, Mahatma Gandhi and Albert Einstein. One can debate the list but Gardner’s foremost conclusion is uncontroversial: creative breakthroughs in any domain require strenuous work and a willingness to challenge the establishment.

The psychology of creativity–both empirical research and popular literature for the lay audience–misses this. It reduces creativity to warm showers and blue rooms, forgetting that the life of the eminent creator is not soothing; it is a struggle–a grossly uneven wrestling match with the muses.

For Gardner, eminent creators are locked into a Faustian bargain, in which fulfilling their vision comes at the cost of an otherwise fulfilling personal life:

…the creators were so caught up in the pursuit of their work mission that they sacrificed all, especially the possibility of a rounded personal existence… unless this bargain has been compulsively adhered to, the talent may be compromised or even irretrievably lost. And, indeed, at times when the bargain is relaxed, there may well be negative consequences for the individual’s creative output.

And so it was for Nietzsche, who believed that creativity is not about solving puzzles, divergent thinking or making remote associations but destroying old systems of thought and breaking from the status quo. Doing so doesn’t require a relaxed state of mind or a few shots of alcohol but enough courage to break out of the herd mentality. As Nietzsche states in various ways throughout his writings, few possess the strength to accomplish this, and those who do are usually rejected at first only to resurface later in time as truly original thinkers.

This is the story of Gardner’s subjects. From Stravinsky’s dissonance to Eliot’s obscure prose to Einstein’s treatment of time and space, each new idea succeeded by standing in contrast to the standards that dictated each domain. The process was not pleasant. As Gardner makes clear, his subjects triumphed only after experiencing prolonged isolation from their fields. They wandered into uncharted waters working mostly on their own while everyone else–the herd–remained either unable or unwilling to see norms as the problem.

In contrast, creativity in the 21st century has become a buzzword for pseudo-intellectuals, pseudo-entrepreneurs, and pseudo-artists who like to label themselves as “creative types” even though their level of commitment to their craft and their willingness to break from the herd is flimsy. TED and similar knowledge-hungry websites might be making it worse by attracting these individuals who, if it weren’t for the easy-to-digest science, wouldn’t care about their elusive creative genius. Or perhaps it is the Internet in general, where someone publishes an article about the “secrets to creativity” every hour.

What’s important is that for decades researchers like Gardner and Dean Keith Simonton have distinguished between “little c” and “big C” creativity, in which the latter more closely aligns with what Nietzsche had in mind. We should return to the uppercased version of the word. Generating a good idea isn’t reading a “top-ten ways to boost your creativity” article. Nor is it cherry picking from the latest cognitive psychology research. As Nietzsche described in The Gay Science, it is like delivering and nurturing a child. “We must constantly give birth to our thoughts out of our pain and maternally endow them with all we have of blood, heart, fire, pleasure, passion, agony, conscience, fate, and disaster.”

Of course, it is difficult to describe “big c” creativity without sounding like a clichéd commencement speaker. For one, it is nearly impossible to convey the “embrace failure” message without coming across banal. Indeed, failure is inevitable and important. But pointing out that “mistakes are simply the portals of discovery” is hindsight babel that loses touch with the reality that failure is horrible–even nauseating–and that most creative projects never see the light of day.

Second, 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is not something you “put in.” Think, for a moment, what such a grueling practice regiment entails. It’s not just practicing for six hours every day for nearly five years; it’s a state of bondage where creators are at the mercy of their domains–moments of total exasperation in which they teeter at the edge of defeat while fearing disapproval far outweigh moments of insight and joyful productivity.

This is the paradox of researching creativity and writing about it. On one hand we should strive to accurately capture the life of eminent creators and their breakthroughs as well as cognitive strategies that contribute to “little c” creativity. At the same time, it is difficult to accomplish this without drawing trite conclusions. For instance, though writing about the Rite provides good insights, I fear it paints an unrealistic picture of creativity in the same way Nora Ephron created an unrealistic account of love. As the late philosopher and art critic Denis Dutton once wrote of Stravinsky’s masterpiece, it’s the creative-type’s enduring tale: what once was so outrageous, so unintelligible, that it could cause a riot, came eventually, through knowledge and familiarity, to be accepted as a masterpiece. In other words, we cannot help but squeeze stories of eminent creation into crisp commoditized narratives with heart-warming proverbs.

So my concern is twofold. First, the cognitive science of creativity and the public’s obsession with it promotes a fringe version of creativity and second, we are reducing eminent creations and their creators into cliché stories. Both distort “big c” creativity, which is central when it comes to genuine innovation and original thinking.

Moving forward, let’s remember that creativity is a struggle and that even though studying creative geniuses helps us understand what Nietzsche held as the greatest expression of the human spirit, being creative is about paving your own path – one that leads you away from the herd so you can draw your own conclusions.

• Thanks Milena Z. Fisher for the helpful comments.

• Image of Stravinsky by Picasso, in public domain, via Wikipedia Commons, by Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Samuel McNerney About the Author: Sam McNerney graduated from the greatest school on Earth, Hamilton College, where he earned a bachelors in Philosophy. After reading too much Descartes and Nietzsche, he realized that his true passion is reading and writing about cognitive science. Now, he is working as a science journalist writing about philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. He has a column at and a blog at called "Moments of Genius". He spends his free time listening to Lady Gaga, dreaming about writing bestsellers, and tweeting @SamMcNerney. Follow on Twitter @SamMcNerney.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 9 Comments

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  1. 1. JMBBB 10:39 pm 09/10/2012

    The following may seem off-topic to some people, but to me, it is relevant to all articles involving psychology and psychiatry.

    Psychiatry is not a real science. Having been a survivor of psychiatry’s forced institutionalizations, I have found absolutely no objectivity to the entire field. They make up medical-sounding words to classify certain “mental disorders” that are really just eccentric behaviors. The government has given psychiatry the right to lock people up merely for not conforming to societal norms. It’s a social control system and it has to be stopped.

    About the above article? I say don’t even read it. I only got halfway through and I saw not a shred of science.

    Spread the word. Psychiatry has to be brought down.

    Link to this
  2. 2. powerfulpoint 4:49 pm 09/12/2012


    This is an interesting post. I haven’t read the Gardner book, but it’s on the list.

    My 2 cents about Creativity, particularly your point about the passion, pain and struggle involved, and the difference between little ‘c’ and big ‘C’ creative. I have worked over the past few years with many creative types. Some self-styled, some actually Creative. What I have noticed is this.

    1. There is friction in Creativity. Usually the bigger the rub, the better the outcome. That’s one of the axioms people are taking away in observations of Steve Jobs as a creative genius. But, while Creative people are usually a**holes, (or have that side to them) not all a**holes are creative people. There’s a lesson there. I’ve seen very creative endeavors where people learn to harness and manage the creative tension, not sublimate to it.
    2.Every Creative person I have come across has a process, although most of them aren’t aware of it. It’s that process, that way of turning things on their head, pulling things apart and putting them back again, a way not of wandering into uncharted waters but navigating them, that gets them there.

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  3. 3. BipedalJoe 8:56 am 09/13/2012

    Do you know of any infoverse on the underlying creative drive, and why it´s so strong in some people that they are unable to conform to the current truth/norm? The psychological/neurotypical/genotypical factors? What drives some to instinctively choose “experiencing prolonged isolation from their fields. They wandered into uncharted waters working mostly on their own while everyone else–the herd–remained either unable or unwilling to see norms as the problem.”?

    Why is it so painful for some to conform while others do it with such ease? I thought perhaps some have a stronger creative drive, like a hunger, and that this specialization has aided cultural evolution. I kind of see some patterns, Do you have the missing pieces, or other connections, that will complete my idea?

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  4. 4. smcnerne 12:29 pm 09/13/2012


    I’m really not sure. The best answer I could give you is there’s likely a strong genetic component. That’s not to suggest that there is a gene for an underlying creative drive. But it’s possible that intrinsic interests in any domain might have a genetic component. I wrote about this about two months ago. If you’re interested:


    1) The bigger the rub the bigger the outcome: Yes. Right now, I’m craving for ideas that “have a big rub.” It’s fun to challenge the status quo.

    2) A lot of “little C” creativity is researching “the process”. As I said in the post, there really is some great research going on even though I think it misses the point. I’m sure I have a process, but as you point out, I might not be aware of it.


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  5. 5. sandygautam 12:32 pm 09/13/2012

    This was too small a space to put all my thoughts together, so I have written a blog post as a response. Looking forward to a healthy discussion.

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  6. 6. nokware 11:18 am 09/15/2012

    Hey PowerfulPoint,

    I saw the following comment and couldn’t help but respond. And please note, I respond a mere mortal, not a scientist, statistician, psychiatrist, psychologist, creative, or what have you:

    “Every Creative person I have come across has a process, although most of them aren’t aware of it. It’s that process, that way of turning things on their head, pulling things apart and putting them back again, a way not of wandering into uncharted waters but navigating them, that gets them there.”

    Two things come to mind when I see this. One, the age old conflict between correlation and causality. Two, generational differences.

    At a previous job I worked (one that relied heavily on the analysis of financial, business, economic information) with two different managers. Manager A would pretty much tell what needs to be done and we’d meet at different points of the day. Things went along pretty smoothly. Progress was exponential. Things take longer in the beginning as we explored ways to frame the problem based on information that was available. As the project went on more information was considered, and insights became more nuanced. The information kind of created an amorphous process (if you could call it a process at all), not the other way around.

    I worked on a second project with Manager B. He was very much process oriented. And while we often came up with similar answers, he would always ask where the process was. I eventually had to come up with something that I knew I neither used or would refer to in the future, in part because I felt when dealing with uncertainties using pre-established processes was an easy way to miss a lot about the unique nature of said problem and get caught op in one’s own bias(and the group only dealt with unsolved problems, uncertainties).

    I find Manager A to be more like today’s younger generation and Manager B to be like more older generations. In older days I think lack of information and resources meant you needed some sort of process or principles to guide you at all times when you didn’t have immediate access to things that could show you the way. Today, you can find a quick answer on Google, or something that will give you a more reliable source you can follow up with (library, an academic who spent his life covering said subject). So you don’t necessarily need to spend time on all steps of a so-called process. You may very well spend much more time on different points on a process. But it will look more like a spiderweb or avant garde art than a straight line or a linear function. The information leads itself. This, I think is probably more common to Manager A types (or much of the younger generation).

    Manager B types (and I think, older generations)may be very well more linear and process oriented. It’s the process that gives direction when none else is available. Not only would I think this might be more common to older generations who didn’t have more info they could manage at the snap of a finger when they were younger. It would make sense if this were more common to certain professions. Academics, statisticians, operations managers, quantitative-based professions, and anyone else who needs to break down complex, repetitive functions into things laymen need to understand probably need to communicate these things in a process just to be time-efficient. It would take a God of a professor to be able to break things down, every class, into the way each of their individual students think. Process becomes a practical necessity.

    Please don’t think me some stuck-up pseudo intellectual trying to prove a point. This is just what is going on through my head.

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  7. 7. powerfulpoint 1:17 pm 09/15/2012

    Hi Nokware,

    I find your comments very interesting and for the most part, completely agree.

    Maybe this comes down to the interpretation of the word process.

    When I hear process, I think of a way of doing things. That way may be intentional, it may be conscious, it may be that the individual is completely unaware of it. This encompasses both your manager A and manager B types.

    For example, I was helping my 13-yr old daughter with a writing assignment last week. I suggested that a good way for her to write was to “empty her head” of all the things that she wanted to say. Just type it out, don’t worry about how well it’s written or phrased, ignore typos, spelling, just get it down. Once that’s done, she can look at the garbled mess that (hopefully) contains some pearls of wisdom, and start dissecting and massaging it, putting phrases up there and rewriting. To me – that’s a process. It helps her get her writing assignments done. Others may describe that as a routine, a heuristic, a rule of thumb.

    As I said earlier, every successful person, especially creative people have hundreds of these little routines that they have in their mental inventory. The really good ones have figured out a way to stitch them together and include other people, collaborate around them on wider projects. They’ve also brought in the social and relationship tools that get others working in their favor rather than relying on command and control. In your example, that’s manager A.

    I think (and I could be wrong here) that most people interpret process much more in the manager B way. That is process is linear, documented, perhaps even regimented. This makes process procedure, and usually undermines what process is for. process is a tool to help you get there. Procedure very often becomes something that may get you there but will at the very least slow you down.

    If you take the first definition as a more useful one, it means that process is effective if it helps people get to their outcome better, faster or more painlessly. I don’t think that’s generational, although it is generally true that different generations are generally taught different routines and ways of working through problems, given the broader context. A big part of life is figuring out what those processes are that work for you. As you say, there aren’t many classes that break things down to that level, but university and work are mechanisms which sort out the people who are able to do that.

    Sam’s little c creative articles are collections and recollections of these small creative routines.

    Maybe the difference between little c and big C is just how well people have been able to stitch those collections of routines together?

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  8. 8. lnaiman 1:52 pm 09/17/2012

    Thank you for a thought-provoking article. When creativity consultants/speakers/writers over-simplify the creative process, they trivialize creativity. Artistry, the highest form of creativity in any domain, can never be commoditized.

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  9. 9. RalfLippold 9:22 am 09/18/2012

    Drawing your own conclusions aside from the herd only comes up, when you either feel comfortable being on the edge, or through one or the other form have been pushed outside.

    Many thanks for this thoughtprovoking article, which raises the question, “What was the state of the artist when he/she created such art?” – you never know enough until you are one of them.

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