In 1787, one of history’s most prolific and influential music composers had just arrived in Prague for a second time.
Over the next few days, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would oversee the rehearsals of the first performance of his new opera — Don Giovanni.
As the final rehearsals were coming to a close, Mozart and the orchestral conductor —Johann Baptist Kucharz, exchanged words in a brief conversation.
During their conversation, Mozart made a distinct comment:
“I have spared neither care nor labor to produce something excellent for Prague. Moreover, It is a mistake to think that the practice of my art has become easy to me. I assure you, dear friend, no one has given so much care to the study of composition as I. There is scarcely a famous master in music whose works I have not frequently and diligently studied.” (1)
The premiere of Don Giovanni – then titled Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni took place at the National Theatre — in Prague on October 29 1787.
The opera was extremely well received by the audience—Mozart’s many years of deliberate practice on his craft was finally beginning to pay off.
Don Giovanni had such a profound impact —that up till today—this piece of work has been widely regarded as the greatest opera ever composed.
During his rehearsal conversation, Mozart acknowledged that his great work was simply a by-product of diligent and consistent hard-work on his craft for many years. It had taken Mozart more than a decade of developing his creative ‘talent’ to finally create this groundbreaking piece of work.
In this article, we’ll explore further into what we can learn from this and how you can unlock your inner creative genius.
There is a destructive myth that the ‘creative genius’ is born with an innate, godlike ability to create extraordinary work at the snap of their finger.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
In a study into elite performance, researchers asked expert violinists from the Music Academy in West Berlin to keep detailed recordings of their daily practice regime for a week. (2)
At the end of the week, they analysed the results — comparing the different forms of deliberate practice between the elite violinists and the less accomplished performers.
What they discovered was astonishing.
On average, the violinists spent the same amount of time on music related activities—But, the elite performing violinist spent more than twice the time (25 hours) on deliberate practice than the other violinists (10 hours).
To further reaffirm their findings, the researchers conducted additional research into the violinists’ practice habits.
This time, they estimated how many hours of deliberate practice each violinist had accumulated over their lifetime.
Once again the results were staggering.
“…the most elite violinists accumulated about the same number of hours of deliberate practice (about 7,410 hours) by the age of 18 as professional middle-aged violinists belonging to international-level orchestras (about 7,336 hours)! By the age of 20, the most accomplished musicians estimated they spent over 10,000 hours in deliberate practice, which is 2,500 and 5,000 hours more than two less accomplished groups of expert musicians or 8,000 hours more than amateur pianists of the same age.” (3)
The best violinists had exceeded the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice required to become world-class in any field. This has been well noted by Malcolm Gladwell’s work in his book Outliers (audiobook).
10,000 hours isn’t necessarily the exact threshold —but it does highlight a very important factor in creating genius level work—great work requires a great amount of hours in deliberate practice on your craft.
Now that this is out-of-the-way, let’s get back to that ‘creative genius’—Mozart.
From the first day of his birth, Mozart was surrounded by music and exceptional musicians.
His sister was a pianist and violinist and “His father, Leopold Mozart, was an intensely ambitious Austrian musician, composer, and teacher who had gained wide acclaim with the publication of the instruction book A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing. For a while, Leopold had dreamed of being a great composer himself. But on becoming a father, he began to shift his ambitions away from his own unsatisfying career and onto his children.“
So we can see that from a very young age, Mozart received professional training from his father, performed in concerts and deliberately practiced daily.
By the time of his death, the 35-year-old Mozart had created an impressive body of works. Approximately 600 works of music in every form imaginable (operas, symphonies, sonatas, duets and more) , some of which have been considered the most iconic and influential compositions in history.
So the question then is this—was Mozart a Creative Genius from birth?
The answer most likely is probably not.
Anybody that commits to deliberate and consistent practice on a skill or craft for decades is capable of creating extraordinary work at some point in their career— Off-course, with the right training, guidance and support system.
Now that we’ve tackled this myth, let’s discuss in more detail on what you can do to unlock your inner creative genius and create extraordinary work.
In his book, ‘The War Of Art’, Steven Pressfield notes a clear difference between those who push through their inner creative ‘resistance’ —to create extraordinary work—versus those who don’t.
The professional versus The Amateur.
In his words:
‘Turning Pro’ is a crucial identity shift from working on your craft only when you feel like it—into working on your craft because it is a part of who you are.
When you begin to treat your work like a pro, feelings no longer dictate your actions—You simply show up everyday and stick to your schedule.
In his book ‘On Writing’(audiobook), Stephen King, a prolific writer with 350 million+ in book sales attributes his success to his daily deliberate practice of writing 2,000 words a day— Yes, even on his birthdays and holidays.
“I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning,” he explained. “I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places”.
(Source:Lisa Rogak’s Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King)
By showing up everyday and working diligently, you will begin to create consistent work and accumulate many hours of deliberate practice. This will naturally give room for your best ideas to breakthrough into extraordinary work.
“The problem is that you can’t have good ideas unless you’re willing to generate a lot of bad ones…..Someone asked me where I get all my good ideas, explaining that it takes him a month or two to come up with one and I seem to have more than that. I asked him how many bad ideas he has every month. He paused and said, “none”.And there, you see, is the problem.”
– Seth Godin
Showing up everyday is half the battle—getting the rubbish ideas out-of-the-way is the other.
American hedge fund manager, entrepreneur, and bestselling author, James Altucher, recommends the following idea generation exercise:
Yes you read that correctly— twenty.
The idea behind Step 1 of this exercise is to workout your creative muscles and push them till failure, just like your body muscles.
Step 2 may appear counter-intuitive, but it’s where the magic happens—it forces you to get the bad ideas out-of-the-way.
Whether you produce five awful music tracks or write ten bad paragraphs, keep going —because your most creative work will eventually show up.
In 1970, Marvin Gaye was going through a very painful period in his life.
His duet partner, Tammi Terrell had just died with a brain tumor— while his marriage to Anna Gordy, sister of Motown founder Berry, was falling apart.
When Marvin’s brother returned from the Vietnam war and shared the horror war stories with him—his outlook on life drastically changed.
Marvin fell into a depression, stopped his live performances and withdrew into seclusion from the public eye.
He spent the next three years still writing music but spending much of his time reflecting on the injustices of the war.
During his hiatus, Marvin began working on a new record in which he would freely express his pain, frustration and anger. The new record was simply called— ‘What’s Going On.’
Little did Marvin know, that the expression of his pain would create a record that would go down in history —as one of the most influential R&B and music albums of all time.
In the process of creating your work, allow your raw emotions to drive your creative process and ideas—even If they happen to be negative emotions like pain, anger or frustration.
“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants
– Isaac Newton
Moments of creative inspiration may come from solitude, but collaboration and sharing our work can also be powerful—think Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak creating Apple or Larry Page and Sergey Brin creating Google.
“First and foremost is that creativity is a collaborative process. Innovation comes from teams more often than from the lightbulb moments of lone geniuses”.
By collaborating with and bouncing ideas off like-minded people, you can further challenge yourself to generate and execute on great ideas.
Be patient with yourself. Self-growth is tender; it’s holy ground. There’s no greater investment.
— Stephen Covey
Research shows that self-judgement and criticism may result in lower levels of creative potential. Conversely, higher levels of self-compassion have been linked with higher levels of creativity. (4)
We have a natural tendency to judge and criticise our work — even though it’s a self-sabotaging habit.
The truth is the quality of our work has nothing to do with our self-identity or self-worth. It’s okay to make mistakes and create work less than perfect. By practicing self-compassion, you will naturally give room for the imperfections and failures required on the path to expressing your creative genius.
Just like a mothers’ birth pains before giving birth to a child, we will also experience many struggles before creating something great.
It is this struggle that makes all the hard-work well worth it.
Unlocking your inner creative genius can be achieved by following these steps:
And most importantly, be patient with yourself. It may take many years to see the rewards of your hard-work—your moments of creative genius will soon show up at the right time.
In the meantime, what can you do today to take that first step?—Do it.
Mayo Oshin writes at MayoOshin.com, where he shares practical self-improvement tips backed by proven science for better habits.
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1. Mozart: The Man and the Artist, as Revealed in his own Words by Friedrich Kerst, trans. Henry Edward Krehbiel (1906).
4. Research on self-compassion can be read here.