Adapted from Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire, available today.
It’s a great myth that creative geniuses consistently produce great works.
They don’t. In fact, systematic analyses of the career trajectories of people labeled geniuses show that their output tends to be highly uneven, with a few good ideas mixed in with many more false starts. While consistency may be the key to expertise, the secret to creative greatness appears to be doing things differently—even when that means failing.
According to Dean Keith Simonton, true innovation requires that creators engage in a sort of Darwinian process in which they try out many possibilities without fully knowing what their eventual public reception will be. Especially during the idea-generation stage, trial and error is essential for innovation. Simonton’s theory does not mean that creators are working completely in the dark; ideas are not generated in complete ignorance of their ultimate value to society. Instead, new ideas just aren’t guaranteed to be fruitful.
So how are creative masterminds so successful, if they don’t really know what they’re doing? Simonton’s extensive analysis of geniuses found two major factors to be critical in explaining the creative process of geniuses. First, creative geniuses simultaneously immerse themselves in many diverse ideas and projects. Second, and perhaps even more important, they also have extraordinary productivity. Creators create. Again and again and again. In fact, Simonton has found that the quality of creative ideas is a positive function of quantity: The more ideas creators generate (regardless of the quality of each idea), the greater the chances they would produce an eventual masterpiece.
Thomas Edison—one of the greatest inventors of all time—had roughly a one-third rejection rate for all the patents he led. Even among the 1,093 patents he did get accepted, most went nowhere. In fact, the number of truly extraordinary creative feats he achieved can probably be counted on one hand. As Simonton points out, a look at Edison’s entire body of patents might not reflect his creative genius as much as his creative failures.
During the peak years of Edison’s career, between the ages of thirty-five and thirty-nine, the inventor was working on the electric light and power distribution system. As part of this process, he attempted to develop fuel cells to power the lightbulbs. However, these efforts faced repeated difficulties, including one experiment in which the windows were blown out of his lab.
Edison was unlucky—he failed to invent fuel cells. The first comercially successful fuel cells were developed in the mid-twentieth century, long after Edison moved on to pursuing other ideas. Edison accepted the inevitable frustrations of the creative process and turned his attention to other projects that would eventually lead to the invention of the electric lightbulb—the source of his recognition as a genius today.
Such frequent shifts among projects may have primed Edison’s mind to consider options he might have otherwise ignored. By taking on a range of projects, Simonton notes, “Edison always had somewhere to channel his efforts whenever he ran into temporary obstacles—especially any long series of trials followed only by consecutive errors.” Despite having failed more than he succeeded, Edison’s few successes were so great that they surpassed all of the other inventors in the history of technology.
A very similar pattern can be found within Shakespeare’s creative output. The variability in quality of his large body of work is in itself impressive! Simonton computed a popularity score for each of Shakespeare’s thirty-seven plays and found that the most popular plays were created around mid-career (age thirty-eight). At this time, he composed his masterpiece Hamlet, which received a popularity rating of 100 percent.
However, right before and after Hamlet, Shakespeare produced a few duds. For instance, soon after Hamlet, the Bard wrote Troilus and Cressida, which has a popularity rating of just 23 percent. But after Troilus and Cressida, he produced his three greatest tragedies since Hamlet—Othello (rating of 74 percent), Lear (rating of 78 percent), and Macbeth (rating of 83 percent). Then, once again, he fell well below expectations with Timon of Athens (rating of 3 percent) and Pericles (rating of 8 percent).
Even Beethoven left a trail of musical failures in his wake. While none of Beethoven’s compositions could be considered worthless, they aren’t all masterpieces either. Beethoven sometimes composed inferior works around the same time he was working on a major masterpiece. One analysis found that even a computer could tell that his even-numbered symphonies were of a markedly different quality than his odd-numbered symphonies. Beethoven himself recognized this, referring to some of his nine symphonies as “little.”
One reason for variable quality is the need to innovate. All creators—whether inventors, actors, or choreographers—are under constant pressure to avoid doing things the exact same way. In this quest for originality, creative geniuses fail and fail often. Indeed, the creative act is often described as a process of failing repeatedly until something sticks, and highly creative people learn to see failure as simply a stepping-stone to success. Doing things differently sometimes involves doing things badly or wrong.
Even today’s most successful innovators—including Steve Jobs, who was fired from his own company at age thirty—tend to have as many stories of failure as they do of success. Or take J. K. Rowling— likely one of the only authors who holds a claim to making billions as an author—who has become an outspoken advocate for the importance of creative failure. As many Harry Potter fans know, the first book in Rowling’s series was rejected by twelve publishers before being accepted by Bloomsbury—and only then because the chairman’s eight-year-old daughter insisted on it.
Rowling later said, “Some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.”