Taking the Mystery Out of Creativity: Encountering Genius


This is the first post in a series on creativity where I will present strategies, resources, and examples about how to nurture creative thinking.

Drawing by Juliana Fagan

Drawing by Juliana Fagan

In her TED talk on creativity, Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, explains the origins of creative genius that I find fascinating. During Greek and Roman times, creativity was not thought about in the same way as it is today. They believed that inspiration was not something that came from people, but that humans were simply a conduit for that inspiration that originated in a spiritual realm. The Greeks called these spirits daemons and the Romans called them geniuses. The idea was that if you created or performed or invented something particularly brilliant then you had a really good daemon or genius that used you as a conduit to bring that idea or creation into the world. You, human, still had to practice and be open to hearing and executing the idea, but — and here’s the part I really like—if you did something particularly brilliant, you couldn’t take all the credit because you must have a great genius. And conversely, if what you did was an epic fail, you had an out because your genius or daemon must not be doing their job. This takes a tremendous amount of pressure off of the mere mortal to be brilliant all of the time. Nothing that is produced, whether superior or abominable, is truly the full responsibility of the maker. That responsibility is shared with your genius. (This all changes in the Renaissance when people went from having a genius to being a genius.) If you are interested in more about this, and a more specific explanation of why this puts so much pressure on creative types, then I encourage you to watch Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk because it is thought-provoking and inspiring.

I liked to show this talk to my advanced high school art students around the middle of the school year when their enthusiasm for art making wanes. Students, challenged with sustaining their creative energy, found it easier chat about their college applications, or the winter formal than to produce meaningful work. However, after we watched Elizabeth Gilbert, it often alleviated the performance pressure and encouraged them to find the divine inspiration waiting if they could be still, show up to the work, and listen for that inner voice.

The thinking necessary to ruminate and solve problems is the same creativity in any discipline. It’s nearly impossible to encounter unique solutions if the work is not approached with sincerity, diligence, and openness. There’s a quote attributed to Thomas Edison. “Genius is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration.” I think that sums it up!

How do you approach problem solving? How do you find unique solutions or inspire others? I look forward to your comments.

Stop back in a week for the next installment!


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