The Creative Will, Part 1: The Grit In Your Inventive Shell

To fully commit to creative tasks where knowing the outcome is impossible, you need a special form of faith.

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Creativity requires a special, enhanced kind of discipline. Discuss. Or rather, let me explain.

Success in any field is usually dependent, perhaps more than talent, intelligence or any other trait, on what psychologist Angela Duckworth calls grit. Give or take a nuance, this quality used to be referred to as will, human will or willpower. To attain your goals you need to possess focus, determination, self-control – in essence, the sheer will to make it happen.

Now we don’t tend to associate a strong will with unconventional types like creative thinkers. Usually, they are thought of as disorganised, unreliable, even irresponsible. The tortured poet, the head-in-the-clouds dreamer, the mercurial genius, the unstable diva.

Such artful snowflakes stand in apparent opposition to the more numerous by-the-book thinkers. You know, the grown-ups in the room who get stuff done. Military men. Managers and analysts. Consummate professionals. People with discipline.

There’s no doubt some truth in this. But I think it’s clear that creative endeavours in a sense require a higher level of discipline and willpower than most non-creative tasks, for one important reason: you can never be sure of the outcome, so must have a kind of “faith” in the process.

Think of challenges normally associated with requiring a strong will. Quitting booze or cigarettes, eating better or getting fit, overcoming procrastination, or more trivial things like wishing you’d tidy your house more regularly. What’s always required is intentional action experienced as difficult or unpleasant with the aim of achieving a beneficial outcome.

In each of these cases, that outcome is clear. It’s also pretty much guaranteed if you carry out the necessary actions. Stop drinking and smoking and no alcohol or cigarettes are consumed. Eat better food and, what do you know, you’re eating better food and will now be, by definitive medical metrics, healthier. If you dedicate a few minutes to tidying your home, you can bet it won’t end up messier than when you started. Here, the process and the payoff are clear, easy to grasp and sure to succeed if done right. (And yet we still are very often too weak-willed to make it happen.)

Now consider creativity. The process and payoff are far from clear. There is virtually zero guarantee it will result in a creative idea or product. In fact, it’s usually destined to end in failure, if by that we mean trying to arrive at a truly creative outcome. (Let’s use the standard scientific definition of creativity as ideas which are both new or novel and valuable, useful or adaptive.)

That must take one hell of a lot of will power. And so it does. For a start, just producing a great idea in the first place can prove enormously taxing. While the initial eureka moment may take place in an instant, many creative products, whether tangible or intangible, can take days, weeks, months or even years to be developed to their conclusion. Charles Darwin’s famous voyage on the Beagle, during which time his theory of evolution by natural selection formed, took five years – all without having any certainty that anything serious would come of it. Worse, much-worked concepts routinely end up not really coming to anything. John Logie Baird may be known as the man who invented television in the 1920s, which itself took years to develop, but he had spent enormous time and (experimental) effort on numerous failed ideas, including an air-soled shoe, a process for the manufacture of industrial diamonds, a haemorrhoid cream and a non-rusting glass razor (with which he cut himself with badly before abandoning the project).

Second, even when a truly creative idea has been successfully hatched and completed, its success and that of its hatcher-completer is far from certain, from a cultural or commercial point of view. History is littered with stories of inventors of brilliant products struggling for years to commercialise them. Sometimes they eventually triumph – think James Dyson. Very often, they don’t. Charles Goodyear, inventor of vulcanised rubber, took years to perfect it, and despite being granted a patent in 1844 he barely managed to make any money from what became a major technological breakthrough.

The point is that in all cases the creator cannot have known whether he or she would succeed and yet pushed on. It’s like wanting to be the first person to climb a mountain not knowing whether you’ll find someone’s flag planted at the summit – but climbing anyway. That takes something akin to faith. I call it the Creative Will.

In my experience, those driven by a passion for being creative are actually some of the most disciplined people you’ll ever met, when it comes to their field of interest – or rather, obsession. From entrepreneurs to musicians, inventors to writers, the Creative Will can drive people to remarkable feats of energetic investment.

Willpower cannot be a fixed quality. It changes within a person from year to year and context to context. And it diverges between people – some seem to have little or none, some a lot. So one big question is: how do you increase it? (That is, your willpower generally and your Creative Will in particular.) Actually there is a reliable, scientifically validated mechanism that can do the trick. Familiar as a concept to most yet not widely understood, it’s something anthropologists like me learn about in Anthropology 101. In Part 2, we’ll see what it is and how you could use it to increase your Creative Will.

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