What do the Greatest Creators in History Have in Common?
The secret of the world’s greatest creative minds likely isn't what you think. Yes, it's true that such geniuses have outrageous talent. And yes, their work ethic is legendary. But elite producers' (artists, entrepreneurs, inventors, writers, etc.) are most of all prolific and iterative.
This is easy to understand. But most don't realize that the majority of prolific creators' work are substandard. They may have a lot of visionary, world-class work as well. But the public never sees their dustbin.
They give themselves freedom to suck early in the process, then iterate. This runs counter to the narrative that great creatives rely on inspiration. And while the muses (which you can find in the float tank) no doubt help, it's only one part of the creative equation. The greats churn through work and then select and meld the finest of those works.
One of the most prolific artists of all time was the great Pablo Picasso, producing more than 50,000 works. It's the equivalent of producing one piece of art every day for 137 years. Picasso died at 92, which means he produced nearly 1.5 works of art every day for his entire life.
But only a small handful, perhaps 5, are known to casual art admirers. Art lovers with deeper knowledge might know and love another 15 on top of the original 5. A trained art critic or historian might know as many as 150. And there are likely only a handful of Picasso specialists who know and appreciate more than 150 of Picasso's works. This means that only 0.0003% of Picasso's works are regularly appreciated.
But the other 49,850 weren't merely a waste of time. Picasso's sketches and early paintings were studies for creating the few masterpieces. Mostly everything is practice for the greatest creators in the world. Selecting the finest from amongst the brush and key strokes is the creator's real task.
Hemingway's Iteration Method
In 1934, a young admirer of the great novelist Earnest Hemingway traveled to Key West, Florida, where Hemingway then made his home. His name was Arnold Samuelson, and he would become fishing boat deck hand to the great novelist. In exchange, he received unfettered access and great advice. It was then that Hemingway gave him a remarkable insight:
"Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself."
One line stands out amongst the many great lines. And this line has become a common expression amongst those seeking to creative: "The first draft of anything is shit."
Much has been made of Hemingway's worldliness. He lived life rather than hiding amongst a pile of books. He didn't want to merely have high-minded thoughts. He wanted to see and feel the world as it was. This led him to (for example) drive an ambulance in WW1 and report on the frontline of the Spanish Civil War. These adventures resulted in two of his greatest books A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls.
His adventurism is well-known, but his productivity and iteration focus is less so. Hemingway didn't just spend his time on foreign adventures. He didn't only fish in Spain or live on a beach in Cuba. He wrote and rewrote, and never assumed that the first thing his mind churned up was the best choice. For creators seeking insight, it's vital to understand this method.
The best example of Hemingway's iteration method may be in how created book titles. To a genius like him, surely these arrived kissed by the gods in full form, right? Wrong. Instead, he first wrote the whole book. Then he'd spent hours writing titles, often 50 to 100 versions before choosing the best.
Prolific creation and iteration. The muses and inspiration are only valuable when combined with this method.
Developing the Aesthetic Sense
Screenwriting teacher, Robert McKee, says only 10% of a writer's work is worthy. Our minds are a jumble of ideas. We remember phrases we heard, words we read. But over time, the ideas we ingest mix together.
Years after reading a pivotal book, often only one or two insights remain. And these insights are regularly cliché by then. By scooping up the first ideas that come to mind, we often remain on the well-trodden path. This is no place for a creator to be. We may have great ideas, but we'll never find them without digging deeper into our psyche. This means producing more -- much more -- work than what will eventually be published or disseminated.
And in producing an abundance of work, great creators learn to select only the best of their own work. This is using the aesthetic sense to create. It's taking the internal ability to discern beauty in others' work and applying it to one's own.
Ira Glass said it best:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
In other words, create prolifically. Then iterate. Then select only your finest work.
Following the Golden Thread
In Greek mythology, the great hero Theseus defeats the monstrous Minotaur. But, killing the beast was only one part of his task. King Minos of Crete, the owner of the Minotaur, had constructed a labyrinth so complex that nobody could escape.
Lucky for Theseus, King Minos's daughter, Ariadne, fell in love with him the night before he entered the labyrinth. Knowing that nobody has ever escaped, she offered him a ball of golden thread. Theseus then strung out the thread so that he could follow it to safely escape the labyrinth after killing the Minotaur.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell has claimed that the golden thread is symbolic. When we sense something that excites us and lights us up, we must follow our own 'golden thread.' Or, put differently, we don't need to understand the whole journey in advance. We can simply follow our curiosity. Create a shitty first draft then reiterate.
This is true whether creating art or a commercial product. Consider, for example, one of the most humans ever, Elon Musk.
Musk took his first $100 Million dollars (from the sale of PayPal) and invested in golden threads. Sure, he could have bought slow maturing bonds and retired to an island somewhere. But instead, he followed the path of visionaries throughout time.
His story is already legendary, and we won't recount it all here. But suffice to say one of those threads led to what would become SpaceX. But his original idea wasn't to create a rocket company. In the beginning he had much simpler aims.
In an anecdote that demonstrates his naivéte at the time, Musk tells about going on the NASA website. There he looked for the Mars plans and found nothing. In his big-thinking brain, he knew that traveling and colonizing Mars was the coolest thing since... well... ever. How is it possible, he wondered, that nobody has a plan to do this?
This led him to conceive of a symbolic mission to send a rocket to Mars. He thought such a campaign might raise awareness to support the idea of colonizing Mars. But as he continued to learn more and follow the golden thread, he began to understand rocketry. He learned that rockets are insanely expensive, mostly due to the fact that they're single use.
This made him realize that sending a single rocket to Mars wouldn't result in movement towards Mars colonization. Someone had to solve the reusability problem. He further realized that the space travel companies acted like a monopoly. They had government contracts and had no incentive to innovate.
From then on, he took this as his own personal challenge. And he's built SpaceX around solving this problem. He discovered a major branch of his life's work by following the golden thread where it led him.
You might say that Musk's 'first draft' was shit. But with each iteration, it got better and better.
What about you? Do you have creative ambition? If so, you might believe in things like creative inspiration, the muses, and flow states. Yes, these phenomenon may all be true (at least symbolically). But alone, they never result in creating the artifact we are seeking to create. The more practical aspect of creation involves prolific creation, shitty first drafts, and iteration.