Why You Don’t Need to Be a Genius to Achieve Creative Success

Sistine Chapel - the creation of Adam

Photo by Sebastian Bergmann

On a cold winter’s day shortly before his death, the artist Michelangelo Buonarroti gathered a large sheaf of drawings from his studio and carried them outside. As he stepped through the doorway he caught his breath – first at the frosty Roman air, then at a gust of smoke from a bonfire burning in the yard. Approaching the fire with the breeze at his back, the artist bent over and started feeding it with the drawings – single sheets at first, for fear of choking the flames, then more and more as the blaze took hold, finally dumping the whole pile into the heart of the conflagration. Reaching for a pitchfork, he scooped up stray sheets and scraps, folding them back into the flames.

An outstretched arm shrivelled and blackened before his eyes. A woman with the face of an angel flickered out in an instant. A cathedral facade burst into flames and collapsed. A fury screamed silently in its miniature hell. Without a second glance, the artist went back into the house for another load. Then another. As the morning progressed, the column of smoke grew thicker and rose higher, visible across the city in the clear winter sunshine. Michelangelo did not stop until he had emptied the studio, until every last scrap was safely gathered in to the fire. Until there was nothing to show for his years of toil with chalk and ink but a heap of embers and ashes.

Why?

What on earth possessed Michelangelo to destroy his own drawings, on which he had worked so hard? Why did he deprive the world of so many precious masterpieces?

Even in his own lifetime, Michelangelo was revered as a divine genius, and his sketches were valued accordingly. He was the first artist to have his biography written while he was still alive. His biographer, Giorgio Vasari, wrote that he treasured a drawing by Michelangelo ‘as a relic’ – i.e. a physical object with miraculous qualities. A 16th century Italian Catholic would not use such a term lightly.

Perfectionism was Vasari’s explanation for the burning: ‘Michelangelo’s imagination was so perfect that, not being able to express with his hands his great and terrible conceptions, he often abandoned his works and destroyed many of them.’

Craftsman and author Roger Coleman offers another interpretation:

Michelangelo was, if anything, ashamed of his drawings. In his thinking the ‘art’ stage of creative production, which he identified with the careful procedure of making studies, sketches and working drawings, was the menial and mundane side of the business, whereas true merit was to him displayed in the rapid and apparently effortless execution of a painting or sculpture.
The Art of Work

By burning his drawings, Michelangelo was destroying the evidence of the ‘menial and mundane’ work that constituted his creative process. His aim was to leave behind only finished masterpieces, bolstering his image as a creator of sublime genius. With the drawings gone, the public would be reduced to gaping at his paintings, sculptures and buildings, shaking their heads and asking themselves ‘How did he do it?’.

Michelangelo was a notoriously proud individual, yet there was more to this attempted deception than vanity. Coleman points out that Michelangelo was living at a time when the whole concept of art was in transition.

The world of the medieval guilds was coming to an end. In this tradition, there had been no concept of an individual ‘artist’ in the modern sense. ‘Art’ simply meant ‘skill’ or ‘labour’, and artists were essentially craftsmen. They were hired labourers, paid according to the hours they worked. Most projects were collaborations, making it hard to single out any individual and credit him as ‘the artist’. Skill and knowledge were highly prized, handed down from master to apprentice and guarded closely as trade secrets within the guilds. Drawings were functional, containing important knowledge and ‘working out’ necessary to create the finished artefact. They would not have been seen as artworks in their own right, any more than the scaffolding used in the construction of a building.

The brave new world of the Renaissance brought with it a very different concept of the artist – as a solitary, divinely inspired ‘genius’ capable of feats of creation that ordinary mortals could not aspire to, but only marvel at:

Michelangelo was actually working within the context of a tradition in which art was synonymous with skilled work and, as any skilled worker knows, the preparatory stages of any job of work are of fundamental importance and determine absolutely the quality of the finished product. But Michelangelo’s work was appreciated and commissioned by class of patrons which was already attached to the idea of genius: individuals who advertised their social status by surrounding themselves with the works of ‘genius’.
The Art of Work

Among this class of patrons was Giovanni Rucellai, a wealthy Florentine who was the first art collector to catalogue paintings by the name of the artist instead of the subject. Michelangelo was keenly aware of the economic benefits of being perceived as a lofty genius instead of a lowly craftsman. Destroying the evidence of his labours was part of a calculated strategy of projecting the image of genius.

As time went by, artists ceased to be paid for mere labour, and were instead rewarded in proportion to their perceived level of genius. The modern art market evolved through the mutually reinforcing benefits that accrue to artists and collectors: the former increased their status and earnings exponentially; the latter enjoyed healthy returns on their investments while basking in the reflected glory of genius.

The Myth of Genius

Far from being divinely inspired, it looks as though the modern concept of genius originated in market forces and naked ambition.

So what?

If you aspire to high level creative work, and/or depend on your creativity for a living, then the myth of genius could seriously damage your work and your career. Here’s why.

Firstly, it’s all too easy to place the ‘geniuses’ in your field on lofty pedestals, and tell yourself you have no hope of emulating them. Not only is this discouraging, but it also deprives you of the opportunity to learn from their example. In a way, it’s a form of laziness – it takes a lot less effort to gawp at Michelangelo’s David than it does to carefully study his surviving drawings (he missed a few) and apply the lessons to your own practice. It’s all very well to swoon at Mozart melodies, but if you’re a professional composer then it’s your business to study his technique and learn from it.

I sometimes encounter a subtle variation on the genius myth when working with coaching clients. Some of them get stuck worrying about whether they are ‘a real writer’ or ‘a genuine artist’. They mistake the image for the process. My answer is always the same: ‘Forget about “being a writer”, let’s focus on “doing the writing”‘. Once they do this it becomes much easier, as we can usually find the point in the process where they get stuck, and come up with new options for working through it.

Secondly, although genius is a myth, it’s a very popular and persistent one. Canny marketers will tell you that perception is reality as far as the market is concerned. If you understand the genius myth, you can learn a thing or two from Michelangelo about how to exploit it to your advantage. Otherwise you risk being cast in the shade by self-proclaimed ‘geniuses’ – just as Michelangelo intended.

Robert Weisberg is a psychology professor who has devoted two books to demolishing the myth of genius. In the popular view, he writes, genius has two main attributes:

  1. Extraordinary thought processes - such as leaps of insight, unconscious incubation, remote associations and lateral thinking.
  2. Special psychological characteristics - the ‘genius personality’, made up of extraordinary sensitivity, flexibility and other admirable traits.

His central argument is that there is no evidence for either of these attributes: high-level creativity does not involve special ‘creative thinking’ techniques, but results from ordinary thought processes; and that genius cannot be reduced to a set of personality characteristics. Creativity – Beyond the Myth of Genius is a provocative and stimulating book that will give you a very unconventional take on creativity. You may not agree with everything Weisberg says, but he will make you question some of your fundamental assumptions about creativity. And if you’ve ever worried that your thinking isn’t sufficiently ‘lateral’ or ‘outside the box’, or that you’re simply ‘not mad enough’ to be a real creative genius, you may even find it an encouraging read.

So What DO You Need for Creative Success?

Robert Weisberg lists the following factors as essential for creative achievement: talent and skill; motivation and productivity; and knowledge of your chosen field.

Talent

My brother is a musician. He’s forever humming, tapping, running through tunes in his mind. If his guitar is nearby his fingers start itching to pick it up. If I bought a guitar tomorrow and practised with every day for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t get half the music out of it that he does. I don’t have the talent. Words, on the other hand are a different matter. My friends are sometimes amazed that I can remember whole poems by heart or repeat back exactly what they said several years ago. But to me it comes naturally, I can’t help it. Words are in my blood.

Skill

Raw talent will only get you so far – skill and mastery come from practice. Each time I hear Paul play, sometimes at intervals of several months, I can swear he’s better than the last time. Which he is, of course. Because he’s always playing. Just as I’m always writing – I start most working days by writing for several hours. When I look at something I wrote years ago it’s easy to cringe – any improvement in the meanwhile has come from all those hours of practice.

Motivation

I even find myself writing at weekends, when I don’t really have to. But if an idea for a piece gets into me, it won’t leave me alone, so work is more enjoyable than lying in bed. It doesn’t even feel like work. According to Weisberg, I’m not alone, since ‘a strong desire to succeed and a high level of commitment to one’s chosen field’ – in other words powerful extrinsic and intrinsic motivations – are typical of creative people.

Productivity

Motivation and practice lead to productivity:

one particularly impressive characteristic of the most esteemed individuals (and presumably the most creative) in any field is that they are almost always extremely productive. In addition to possessing talent, then, one must be willing to work, sometimes to the exclusion of everything else.
Creativity – Beyond the Myth of Genius

Knowledge

One of the root causes of the Florentine Renaissance was the excavation of Roman ruins and rediscovery of ancient forms of sculpture and architecture, which had been lost for centuries. Without this knowledge, the great Renaissance artists could not have produced such an extraordinary flowering of sculpture, painting and building, no matter how talented they were. Weisberg argues that ‘one must become immersed in the field and develop a deep expertise before one becomes capable of going beyond what has already been produced’.

Bearing in mind Michelangelo’s example, I would add the following factors to Weisberg’s list:

Collaboration

Art historian Ernst Gombrich was evidently under the spell of the genius myth when he wrote The Story of Art:

it is very difficult for any ordinary mortals to imagine how it could be possible for one human being to achieve what Michelangelo achieved in four lonely years of work on the scaffoldings of the papal chapel.

In fact, historian William E. Wallace has shown that Michelangelo collaborated with no less than 13 people on the Sistine Chapel, and with around 200 on the Laurentian Library in Florence. So much for loneliness. As Michael Michalko points out, ‘Michelangelo was not only a great artist, he was a CEO of other talent that collaboratively made the art that bore his name’. As we’ve seen elsewhere, collaboration is critical to success and creative rock stars love to work with other cool creative dudes.

Marketing

Gombrich was writing 400 hundred years after the death of Michelangelo, and is still far from alone in his veneration of the artist’s divine genius. So it looks like Michelangelo did a great job of his marketing – if we define marketing as projecting the right image to the people who matter. Genius may be a myth, but as Seth Godin reminds us, all marketers are liars – they understand that nothing sells like a good story.

A business model

Economist Tyler Cowen is pretty blunt in his description of Michelangelo:

Beethoven and Michelangelo, who sold their artworks for profit, were entrepreneurs and capitalists. Rembrandt, who ran a studio and employed other artists, fits the designation as well.
In Praise of Commercial Culture

Michelangelo’s art and business were inextricably intertwined – his materials were expensive, and he was ambitious to have his work on display in the most prominent places – so he depended on his ability to win lucrative contracts from wealthy clients, beating off stiff competition from the likes of Raphael and Leonardo. If you want to make a living from your creativity then you’ll need a similarly sound business model. Even if you’re content to pursue your art as a hobby in your spare time, you still need to pay the bills and buy materials in the mean time. Remember, artistic self-expression is fairly near the top of Maslow’s pyramid.

Genius and You

Do you agree that genius is a myth?

Are there people in your creative field (alive or dead) that you would class as geniuses? Do you find their example inspiring or discouraging?

What difference does it make to your creativity when you forget about being (‘a genius’, ‘a great artist’, ‘a good writer’ etc) and concentrate on doing (actions, routines, processes)?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

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Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. I think the most important thing to remember is that at it’s heart, creativity is based on risk taking. On being willing to make some “mistakes.”

    And here’s a point about mistakes and failure: Many who claim they aren’t creative say this simply because they tried once — and failed.

    But interestingly, creative genius may actually go hand-in-hand with failure. Consider the great creative genius Edison. He held over 1,000 patents. But most of them are forgotten, because they weren’t worth much to begin with.

  2. Great insights,

    Thanks

  3. Good post, Mark. By all means, I believe that genius is a myth that ought to be put to rest.

    I like what you say here, though if anything I would give a separate heading to “Unstinting Hard Work.” You talk about it all through the piece — and Michelangelo was a notoriously hard worker — but I’m afraid that without its own boldface heading, skimmers might miss the point. You know how blog readers can be . . . ;)

  4. I definitely agree with many of the sentiments raised by this article. One thing I have learned time and time again…that you should not be scared off to learn from and to include “geniuses” in your creative thought process. I always look for the best idea, and freely share credit and collaborate with those that help me out…if it gets you the best product…why step on people’s throats?

  5. I believe that joy is the major contributor to building talent, skill, motivation and productivity. Maybe things like ‘in my blood’, ‘it comes naturally’ and ‘I can’t help it’ are just different ways of saying ‘I enjoy what I do’. I don’t think you can become successful at anything that you don’t enjoy doing. Maybe talent is just the manifestation of really loving what you do. And not the other way around.

  6. I wouldn’t want anyone seeing the first drafts of my writings either, only the beautiful, polished, finished product. Don’t we all want to be perceived and judged by the finished results of our efforts, rather than the less than glamorous process of creating them? We all want to foster that myth in a way.

    The humble process of creating creative work is the same for the genius and the talentless alike. In that sense everyone is equal, but people like Michelangelo really were geniuses because of the quality of their inspirations.

  7. Valeria — one of the points Weisberg makes in his book is that the proportion of major to minor works in an artist’s output is usually fairly constant, which means the more you create, the more mistakes/minor works you’re likely to come up with — but you will also produce more important/major works.

    Tim, Chris — I think you’re both right. Creativity does involve a lot of hard work, and it’s also very enjoyable. Yeats called this ‘the fascination of what’s difficult’. I call it The Joy of Work. :-)

    Brian — you should have seen the first draft of this post! ;-)

  8. Lovely article.

    I find it interesting that genius is described as a myth here, when the first thing on the list of what is needed for creativity is ‘talent’. What if you’re really, really talented? Can’t that be described as genius? I haven’t read Beyond The Myth of Genius, and maybe there are some good points made, but what are they? It sounds as if it might just be another of these pathological attempts at demystification that are so popular these days, made to drag everything down to what might be called a ‘secular’ level.

    Having said that, I’m not especially elitist about talent or genius – interestingly, now that fewer people perhaps believe in genius, the word is obscenely overused, so that even people like Madonna are described as possessing genius – and think that in theory everyone has access to it. It’s just that we’re usually trained away from our native genius. Or that’s my opinion, anyway.

    Hmmm. I kind of wish that some modern artists would have the sense of shame/pride that Michelangelo had, but they seem to be all too confident of the worth of their every thought and doodle. I doubt you’d see them burning any of their own work.

  9. I worked with a genius. One of my mentors. And even before he won the MacArthur Award, John was just one of those people/ artists who had the spark. The aura was unmistakable. And he spelled art this way, W-O-R-K.

    There is a depth to real genius and yes, I firmly believe in the concept, there is also breadth. And yet very pragmatic problem solving. It’s a whole cluster of skills as you say. But that spark has to be there in the first place. I have seen it first hand. It is real. I think it also has something to do with the ability to synthesize seemingly disparate concepts.

    Michangelo had the church and the Medici’s don’t forget.. that’s some very powerful backing. It would be like being picked up by the majors and letting their PR team work it’s magic.

    Loved this article. Now I want to read the books. Thanks.

  10. Brilliant post! You’re a genius! Just kidding. :)

    No really, I really loved your article. You inspire me to keep on creating.

  11. First of all, I would like to thank you for letting me know about Michelangelo. I knew he was a great artist alright, but never knew he destroyed his own work to seek perfection. A wanna be writer, I am awed by your piece of advice about the “action” part. Sadly, most people brag about doing things and forget the most important part of actually doing those. Frankly speaking, I am a procrastinator who badly wants to let go of the evil quality. I have been trying very hard and still am. Great, inspiring articles like yours are helping me out!Well, i agree with your point that people don’t have to be geniuses to achieve success. sadly, most geniuses who are truly creative are not being recognised and acclaimed.

  12. This is a great post. I especially agree with the emphasis on motivation, productivity and collaboration.

    Working and connecting with others on a regular basis is essential for success, and maintaining a motivated approach to anything will eventually put you where you want to be.

  13. “Weisberg argues that ‘one must become immersed in the field and develop a deep expertise before one becomes capable of going beyond what has already been produced’.”

    This reminds me of the old adage: you have to learn the rules before you can break them. And this one: practice makes perfect. To use the image of a guitarist, you’re not going to get up on stage and bust out a face-melting jazz solo unless you understand the “rules” of the guitar. If you don’t know chords and scales, you can’t do anything with a guitar.

    I think you’re right about creativity and “genius.” It’s an easy way out to say that someone is a genius and that’s how they achieved what they did. But rarely do you see or think about all the work and lonely hours spent honing skills and making mistakes “behind the scenes.”

    Time and time again you see that the people who work the hardest at “learning the rules” at honing skills and who actually get out there and “do,” make great things happen. People are quick to forget all the hundreds of things you did wrong when you create that one thing that blows their minds.

  14. “Face melting”… that is the kind of jazz that makes all that behind the scenes so worth it. Smiling here. So well said.

  15. Thanks everyone for the great comments.

    Quentin – I think he sees talent as the raw potential, skill is what you get when you hone it with practice. It’s a worthwhile read. Some of it is a bit reductive (the analysis of creators’ subjective accounts of their process is pretty crude) but he also punctures a lot of myths that are ripe for – well, puncturing.

    Todd – I didn’t say I had any objection to people calling ME a genius! :-)

    Rampantheart – yep, it boils down to action, you’ve probably noticed that’s a theme round here…

    Chris – ‘you have to learn the rules before you can break them’. Exactly. I like Banksy’s take on it: ‘these days artists are prepared to make any sacrifice for art – except learn to draw.’

  16. Its about time someone wrote on this topic, as its been burning inside my chest for many years, KUDOS to MARK!

    The crux for me is focus on “doing the writing”…….

    Amazing stuff man!

    Cheers

  17. Thank you sir!

  18. Hey guys! A little off-topic here, but I just wrote up a post on Chinese Democracy that linked to your “Creative Burnout” peace. Thought you guys or the other readers might be interested. It definitely has to do with the aim of this site, plus I’m just so freakin’ excited to finally hear this music!

    Anyway, here it is. It’s called “Chinese Democracy & The Quest For a Great Rock Album.”

    http://jaypcross.wordpress.com/2008/11/22/chinese-democracy/

  19. Danni Coxon says:

    I think I agree with Quentin here – if genius is a myth, surely talent is as well. Where exactly does talent come from? It is a bit sad to think there may be peope who are just born with ‘it’, so those without can never be as good.

    But I do also think, as you say, that when we talk about genius we need to focus on the work behind it, and the team rather than the person. We have a very Western individualised view of creativity and genius in particular, forgetting that there are people behind those we view as geniuses (where would Madonna be now without Timberland on her album!).

  20. Crikey. I’ve just discovered that the notifications of all the replies to my comment were going into my spam folder.

    “But I do also think, as you say, that when we talk about genius we need to focus on the work behind it, and the team rather than the person. We have a very Western individualised view of creativity and genius in particular, forgetting that there are people behind those we view as geniuses.”

    Actually, that’s one thing I didn’t mention in my original response that perhaps I should have – collaboration is great! When I was younger I think I might have been more obsessed with the idea of a work having to belong to an individual in order to be authentic or something, no it matters much less to me who the work ‘belongs’ to, as long as the work is great.

  21. I meant replies to this thread, I think – not sure quite how it works.

  22. Fascinating factoid about Michelangelo….puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?

  23. Danni/Quentin — completely agree with you about collaborative creativity. Show me a lone genius and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t credit his sources! :-)

    Re ‘talent’ — if you mean a fixed quality that you either have or you don’t, then I agree with you that it’s no more helpful a term than ‘genius’.

    But that’s not what I’m talking about — it’s more like an innate potential, something that needs work to develop. And I don’t believe that excludes anybody from particular fields of creative work — I think people tend to be most motivated to do things that they are good at, and vice versa. E.g. it doesn’t bother me that I’m not particularly musical, but I don’t have any burning desire to be a musician. Desire and talent may well be two sides of the same coin.

  24. This dovetails nicely with Gladwell’s new book and the idea of spending 10,000 hours to master your craft whether it’s being the Beatles or Bill Gates.

    I need to read the book but this does presuppose that one finds the Beatles or Microsoft that interesting. Successful certainly but some might argue that the less polished music of the Velvets or the social commentary of the Kinks are more enduring artefacts from the 60s.

    Marketing and image is key – the Beatles and Stones had the best management to promote them and therefore they are ingrained in the popular consciousness in a way that Arthur Lee or Lou Reed are sadly not.

  25. Peter @24 — In my view, it doesn’t “presuppose that one finds the Beatles or Microsoft that interesting.” The Beatles were and are the most successful and most influential band of the 1960s by any objective measure. Bill Gates built what is demonstrably the most successful and influential software company in the world. That makes them interesting for Gladwell’s purposes, QED.

    Yes, certainly, the Velvet Underground and the Kinks please the conoisseurs (and me!), and they’ve enjoyed influence far beyond their (substantial) record sales. They might be “better” than the Beatles by a given critic’s measure of skill. But they aren’t — not even arguably — more influential than the Beatles.

  26. I find the Velvet Underground/Kinks and the Beatles/Microsoft interesting in different ways. I’m not a huge fan of the Beatles music and actively dislike Microsoftware, but they are interesting as business/cultural phenomena.

    But I’d rather spend an evening listening to the Velvet Underground.

  27. Thank you

    I needed that, concentrate on doing (actions, routines, processes)

  28. “This dovetails nicely with Gladwell’s new book and the idea of spending 10,000 hours to master your craft whether it’s being the Beatles or Bill Gates. ”

    It certainly does, but that is not a good thing.

    For those who disbelieve that there are highly creative individuals–indeed, geniuses– who simply have a different sensibility from others, I have two words for you: William Blake. I really doubt that Blake’s, or even Coleridge’s, creative work arose merely from simple hard work, knowledge of their fields, and rumination and revision.

    For the rest: Weisberg simply has an axe to grind, in my view, and is just another in that long, boring procession of authors (like Gladwell) who make their reputations (and money*) from being “daringly contrarian” and puncturing received wisdom–which usually turns out to be their straw man caricature of the latter. De Bono, for example, in no way downplays the need for fundamental knowledge of a given field, nor do I recall his saying (and I’ve read plenty of his work) that lateral thinking is *required* for creativity; merely that one needs to pay attention to the way one organizes information via one’s perceptions.

    My intention is not to convince the pro-Weisberg faction one way or the other, except that an honest representation of de Bono’s ideas would be a good start.

    *It’s funny how, in the other thread on lateral thinking, where we read caustic comments about de Bono’s skill at self-marketing, no one raises the issue of how lucrative “contrarianism” has become. Sauce for the goose, anyone?

  29. Cobalamin says:

    1. Extraordinary thought processes – such as leaps of insight, unconscious incubation, remote associations and lateral thinking.
    2. Special psychological characteristics – the ‘genius personality’, made up of extraordinary sensitivity, flexibility and other admirable traits.

    Correct.

    This post is an insult. In reality. The whole education system is built on rewarding those who can memorize the most information and scorning those with selective memory and analytical minds. The reason why we aren’t noticed by the public is because the system is built for regurgitating parrots. We chose to remain autonomous and not to get “conditioned” to think like everyone else thinks.

    Geniuses are both born and made. We are born with analytical mental energy which we develop by using it.

    Accept who you are and stop being jealous of us. Think about how we feel living in a world of people driven by their inflated egos.

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