Have you heard of the name Matt Groening? Do you know him? Maybe you don't recognize the name, but I assure you: you've seen and enjoyed his work! He is an interesting individual when it comes the topic of creativity. His unparalleled achievements have changed the world of entertainment. And the story of how he came to accomplish that is a marvelous one.
"I understood the series of stages I was supposed to go through- you go to high school, you go to college, you get a credential, and then you go out and get a good job." Said Groening in his interview with the creativity guru Dr. Ken Robinson. "I knew it wasn't gonna work for me. I knew I was gonna be drawing cartoons forever."
Groening said that he and his friends, when were kids, shared a passion for drawings. "But gradually they peeled off and they got more serious." But for Groening, it was all about drawing. And in persuade of that passion, he traveled to Los Angles, and after several shots, he located a job with Fox Broadcasting Company and started a little animation show that developed with time. That show is famously known as the Simpsons.
Why did I tell the story of this artist? Because, in a sense, Groening defines creativity. His works over two decades have been transformed into movies, comics books, toy figures and translated to languages all over the world.
But to tell the story of Matt Groening this way is misleading. I deliberately hid essential parts of his story. Why? Because I needed to reintroduce the concept of creativity in different lights before we read the rest of Groening story so we can appreciate the small elements that led to his success and to point them out, so we don't take them for granted, and we lose their value.
So what's creativity?
To most people's understanding, creativity is an innate talent, a "born with" gift, that lucky individuals inherit them in their genes and excel in their carriers by capitalizing on those gifts. I'm assuming this is how most of us define and view this enigmatic notion of creativity. You either have it or you don't.
I believe that's just not true. Allow me to confer my argument. I consider this notion of creativity is despondent for two reasons: the first one, it gives us an excuse not to venture new things. We say: Oh well, I wasn't born with it, but my friend was, so he can utilize it. Lucky bastard!
The other risk is, it leaves us frustrated, because we think we can't and we're limited. And we start throwing statements like: she has it and I don't. It's not fair, God didn't create us equal.
Luckily, that's not true. And those are not some optimistic words I'm throwing around. It's a fact. And both historical and psychological accounts support my argument.
If we were to study a wide verity of creative innovators we will find an almost consistent pattern common among them. Whether we are discussing the realms of music, communications and technology, movies, novels… What are those commonalities?
First element of creativity: Copying! This contradicts our understanding of creativity, doesn't it? We tend to think of creativity as a divine inspiration. We usually associate it with terms like "a light bulb went on in my head" or "it stork me suddenly." But those the consequences of conventional wisdom. I believe the case is quite the opposite.
"It happens (meaning creativity) by applying ordinary tools of thought to existing materials." Says Kirby Ferguson.
If we study a wide range of popular creative innovations, like communication tools, cars, movies, stand up comedies… we will discover a pattern of copying and innovating.Those "innovators" tend to derive their work from existing materials.
But everyone can copy, right? So why isn't everyone creative? Well, It's about the touches we add to them, the wider knowledge we collect in various fields and artistically mix them, and about customizing the touches to our environment, it's about the needs we copy for. In an exponentially developing era, we constantly thrive for innovation to keep up. Those who copy blindly are bound to fail.
Most creative innovators are operating under the famous statement of Pablo Picasso "a good artist creates, great artist steals."
A quick example of modern creative innovation is Twitter. A sub-blog that allows to type in 140 characters, thus share what you're doing with the world. But in its original creation, Twitter is a mimic of cell phones SMS, "daylong brainstorming session" held by board members of the podcasting company Odeo. And eventually, this system evolved to foster over 200 million users around the world. All it needs is a keen observing eye, and the determination to believe you can make an impact, and the world will comply to your desires.
And why Twitter limits us to only 140 characters? I believe it's a tradition the founders kept, which is adopted from the fact that for some telecommunication companies, exceeding 140 characters qualifies as a new text message.
Copying is an inevitable mean for creativity. At least in this case.
So what's the other element of creativity?
Simply: hard work! Practice! As Malcolm Gladwell so eloquently put it: "Practice isn't the thing you do once you're good. It's the thing you do that makes you good."
And we can observe the importance of this "taken for granted" notion when we study the works of great achievers like Tiger Woods, Mozart, Steve Jobs, and countless others. They all share a common factor known as deliberate practice, a term coined by psychologist Anders Ericsson. Deliberate practice is working methodically and patiently on what we are passionate about. And with time we aggregate enough knowledge and techniques that allow us to master that craft, sociologists like to call it “accumulative advantage."
Creativity is not talent, nor giftedness. Just pure passion, wide accumulated knowledge, patience and loads of hard work.
The story of Matt Groening success is a beautiful illustration of how both elements of creativity work in rhythm: copying and hard work. As a kid in school Groening was attracted to drawing. In high school, during art class, he used to produce close to 30 paintings per class.
"There was the thrill of making something that didn't exist before." Groening says. As he got bored with meaningless drawings, he shifted his attention to another direction. "I started concentrating on stories and jokes. I thought that was more entertaining."
Groening was blessed with parents and teachers who were cartoonists; I'd assume he had someone to copy from and innovate materials out of. He had friends with mutual interest, they used to gather and draw comics for hours. And as they grew older, their ambitious curved up, and started making movies. "I made a decision that I was going to live by my wits." Groening stated.
And when he moved to Los Angeles, he drew comics for the L.A Weekly, where he begun making a name for himself, and eventually ended up working for Fox Broadcasting Company, where he created the Simpsons.
After all these strokes of luck, opportunities and hard work, is there a wonder about Groening success? A man who believed and followed his dream? I guess not.
By now I hope we can understand the origins of creativity and talent. And the fact that if we can employ them, we will be happy in abundance. There is a creative genius in all of us, we just need to keep looking. Creativity, in a nutshell, is the outcome of curiosity, hard work, and a growing thrust for knowledge.