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What Makes an Original: Psychologist Adam Grant on the Paradox of Achievement and How Motivated Dissatisfaction Fuels Creativity

“The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists.”

What Makes an Original: Psychologist Adam Grant on the Paradox of Achievement and How Motivated Dissatisfaction Fuels Creativity

“To be perfectly original,” Lord Byron famously quipped, “one should think much and read little, and this is impossible, for one must have read before one has learnt to think.”

In Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (public library), organizational psychologist Adam Grant — who has spent years studying the counterintuitive psychology of success — brings contemporary social science to the timeless validity of Byron’s words, examining the contextual nature of creative genius and demonstrating that the most groundbreaking innovations aren’t spurred by arbitrary sparks of mystical epiphany but by intelligent and informed dissatisfaction with cultural defaults, translated into a radical and purposeful desire to upend those defaults.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep
Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep

Grant — an immensely pleasurable writer who interpolates elegantly between T.S. Eliot allusions and Silicon Valley startup lore — echoes Mark Twain’s assertion that all ideas are essentially second-hand, but he offers a useful working definition of originality:

Originality involves introducing and advancing an idea that’s relatively unusual within a particular domain, and that has the potential to improve it. Originality itself starts with creativity: generating a concept that is both novel and useful. But it doesn’t stop there. Originals are people who take the initiative to make their visions a reality.

[…]

The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists.

This conception of originality calls to mind legendary choreographer Martha Graham’s notion of “divine dissatisfaction” — and it affirms the idea a creative breakthrough isn’t something generated entirely outside its cultural context but a motivated response to a discontented immersion in context. Grant calls this vuja de:

The starting point [of originality] is curiosity: pondering why the default exists in the first place. We’re driven to question defaults when we experience vuja de, the opposite of déjà vu. Déjà vu occurs when we encounter something new, but it feels as if we’ve seen it before. Vuja de is the reverse — we face something familiar, but we see it with a fresh perspective that enables us to gain new insights into old problems.

[…]

When we become curious about the dissatisfying defaults in our world, we begin to recognize that most of them have social origins: Rules and systems were created by people. And that awareness gives us the courage to contemplate how we can change them.

Therein lies the paradox of achievement — Grant points out that the people we celebrate as prodigies are actually not innovators, for they outperform along an existing axis of excellence rather than weaving an entirely new thread into the fabric of society. In a sense, a prodigy is an outlier, whereas an original is an aberration.

Grant writes:

Although child prodigies are often rich in both talent and ambition, what holds them back from moving the world forward is that they don’t learn to be original. As they perform in Carnegie Hall, win the science Olympics, and become chess champions, something tragic happens: Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new. The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies and beautiful Beethoven symphonies, but never compose their own original scores. They focus their energy on consuming existing scientific knowledge, not producing new insights. They conform to the codified rules of established games, rather than inventing their own rules or their own games.

This observation calls to mind psychologist Carol Dweck’s trailblazing work on the difference between the “fixed” and “growth” mindsets — one of the most important and far-reaching findings in psychology in the past century. Prodigies, as Grant describes them, represent the fixed mindset and are animated by a hunger for approval according to accepted standards; originals, on the other hand, embody the growth mindset and are driven by curiosity and a desire for improvement. Lest we forget: Even the supremest success, if it is success by someone else’s standards, is still an act of conformity — just ask Thoreau.

Art from How to Be a Nonconformist, a vintage satirical take on conformity written and illustrated by a high school girl named Elissa Jane Karg

Half a century after the great social scientist John Gardner contemplated what children can teach us about taking risks and being unperturbed by failure, Grant reminds us that the word entrepreneur, which was coined by the economist Richard Cantillon, is literally translated as “bearer of risk.” The radical risks that define originals, however, aren’t foolish risks but considered ones — successful people distribute their risks in a kind of portfolio, ensuring stability in some areas of their lives in order to have the flexibility to fail in others.

How to master the art-science of taking radical risks — including how to procrastinate strategically, why it’s easier to translate fear and anxiety into excitement than to calm yourself down, and how to harness the positive power of negative thinking — is what Grant goes on to explore in the remainder of Originals, a fine counterpart to his earlier work on the behavioral styles that predict success. Complement it with pioneering psychologist Jerome Bruner on the six essential conditions for creative breakthrough and André Gide on what it really means to be original.

For more of Grant’s insight into human behavior, devour his fascinating On Being conversation with Krista Tippett:

BP

Lou Andreas-Salomé, the World’s First Woman Psychoanalyst, on Creativity and the Relationship Between the Mind and the Body, in Letters to Rilke

“All art begins [as] a calling forth of life in its still concealed mysteriousness.”

Lou Andreas-Salomé, the World’s First Woman Psychoanalyst, on Creativity and the Relationship Between the Mind and the Body, in Letters to Rilke

In an era when the self-actualization opportunities for women of genius amounted to little more than becoming wives of geniuses, the Russian-born writer and intellectual Lou Andreas-Salomé (February 12, 1861–February 5, 1937) realized a life commensurate with her brilliance. At the age of fifty, already an established poet and philosopher, she trained with Freud and became the world’s first female psychoanalyst. Her extraordinary intellectual gravity and creative grace made her a muse to some of Europe’s most celebrated minds. Nietzsche, whose masterwork Thus Spoke Zarathustra was largely inspired by Andreas-Salomé, set down his ten rules for writers in a letter to her. Young Rilke became besotted with her, wrote her exquisite love letters, and dedicated his Book of Hours to her. It was at her urging that he changed his first name from “René” to “Rainer,” which she found more virile and Germanic. Even after their romance ended in 1900, she remained Rilke’s closest confidante and, in many ways, his most important influence.

Nowhere does Andreas-Salomé’s uncommon insight into the human spirit come more fully abloom than in their prolific correspondence, published as Rilke and Andreas-Salomé: A Love Story in Letters (public library) and spanning a quarter century of intellectual intercourse well after the end of their affair.

In June of 1914, shortly after her correspondence with Freud about human nature, she writes to assuage Rilke’s frustration with the creative block that had befallen him:

[When] a creative period [is] about to begin in response to [one’s] new human experiences … a terrible danger is as close as a great victory. Life is easy for those people who are granted a very small portion of creativity to go along with their strong experiences and can expend the former entirely on the latter; and now and then those others, the ones who are creative by nature, succeed the other way around; but much more often the two as it were meet somewhere in the middle and die there, since they collide on their one path rather than proceed along it together.

A few days later, Rilke breaks through his creative block and sends her a newly written poem titled “Turning,” containing the following verse:

For gazing, you see, has its limits.
And the more gazed-upon world
wants to prosper in love.

Work of the eyes is done,
begin heart-work now
on those images in you, those captive ones;
for you conquered them: but you still don’t know them.

In her response, poured out of her dual identity of muse and analyst, Andreas-Salomé offers a beautiful testament to the embodied experience of creative revelation and to what John Dewey would later term the vital “live creature” aspect of the artist. She writes of Rilke’s creative breakthrough:

It has been on its way for so long, has been prepared for, indeed has already almost arrived. Your body knew of its coming, as it were, before you yourself did, yet in the way that only bodies know of things, — with such infinite innocence and directness that in the end this knowledge could temporarily create for it a new misunderstanding with the mind. Do you know by what sign this revealed itself? By the eyes, — those gazing ones… But they, these eyes, left only to themselves in their arduous searchings, beyond the bounds of that which, in their normal function, they needed only to convey to the mind, — they could in their gazing only become ever more corporeal and — confusing, as it were, the more subterranean processes with those consummated at the visibly open and observable body surface — lead only to strange forms of torment; for the “heart-work” to be done on what had previously been only artistically gazed upon would have to occur in some innermost region were it to succeed.

That success, she argues, hinges on “the great love that transforms outside and inside into a completely new,” of which she writes:

What love does in this union is dark and difficult and glorious — and stands on the side of life; who would dare or even want to guess more about it than that; and indeed, you will experience it. Certainly not without interruptions and doubts.

Three days later, having lived with the poem and let it work its slow-burning magic, Andreas-Salomé writes to Rilke again, further reflecting on the poem’s power. Embedded in her words is a meditation on what all transcendent works of art accomplish in our interiority:

There is something in it as of a newly conquered domain, one whose boundaries are still out beyond one’s ken, its compass extending farther than one could walk: one senses more terrain; senses many trails and long wanderings along paths that until now had always been shrouded in fog. And adding a little daylight, just enough so that one can see where to take the next step, would be, from one poem to the next poem, like a real advance of footsteps, one never as yet achieved, on grounds where (in contrast to “mere” art) illumination and action are still as one; this domain can indeed only be made into poetry insofar and to the extent that one has conquered it and thus made it part of a new experience. Somewhere in this realm, deep down, all art begins again with renewed force, arises as from its primordial origin, where it was magic formula, incantation, — a calling forth of life in its still concealed mysteriousness, — yes, where it was at once prayer and the most intense breaking-forth of power.

The calling forth of life that is art, Andreas-Salomé points out, happens not only in the mind but also in the body, the integration of the two being the seedbed of our selfhood and the supreme mark of the creative person:

This running up against our body … is yet the outermost outside in its most intimate sense, the first partition that differentiates us from ourselves, makes us the “inner being” lodged in it like the face in a hedgehog; and yet: our very body, with its hands, feet, eyes, ears, all the parts we enumerate as “us”; this perplexing tangle generally unfurls only in response to the loving comportment of an other, who alone legitimates, in a manner we can bear, our body as “us.” In a “creative person,” though, these components perpetually loosen and renew their ties: which is why, instead of repetition, new reality emanates from him.

Rilke and Andreas-Salomé is an immeasurably rich read in its entirety. Complement it with Georgia O’Keeffe’s magnificent letter to Sherwood Anderson on what it really means to be an artist and pioneering psychologist Jerome Bruner on the six essential conditions for creativity, then revisit Rilke on how difficulty can fuel creativity and the symbiosis between the body and the soul.

BP

Maurice Sendak on Storytelling, Creativity, and the Eternal Child in Each of Us: His Marvelous Forgotten 1970 Conversation with Studs Terkel

On the lifelong pleasure of “having your child self intact and alive and something to be proud of.”

Maurice Sendak on Storytelling, Creativity, and the Eternal Child in Each of Us: His Marvelous Forgotten 1970 Conversation with Studs Terkel

“One of the most powerful men in the United States is a dark-haired young bachelor with a mobile face, who was born in Brooklyn in 1928.” So wrote Brian O’Doherty in his 1963 New York Times profile of Maurice Sendak (June 10, 1928–May 8, 2012), a storyteller whose work “springs from his earliest self, from the vagrant child that lurks in the heart of all of us.” (Beautifully true as the rest may be, one claim was an ugliness of the era’s pre-DOMA bigotry: Sendak wasn’t a bachelor at all — by that point, he already lived with Dr. Eugene Glynn, who would be his spouse for the remaining half-century of Glynn’s life.)

But the most timeless truth about Sendak’s genius lies in how his books granted and continue to grant validity to children’s imagination — not only in its boundless light but in its deepest darkness, too. For the latter he offered solace not through escapism but through solidarity: Yes, he seems to say, life is difficult and scary — but if we spend half of it in darkness, we might as well find rays of hope in the shadows and befriend the monsters lurking there as indelible companions in our conquest of the luminous half.

Illustration from Kenny’s Window, Sendak’s deeply philosophical first book

In 1970, 42-year-old Sendak sat down with Pulitzer-winning oral historian and interviewer extraordinaire Studs Terkel (May 16, 1912–October 31, 2008) for a wide-ranging conversation about his creative evolution as a storyteller; about his influences and the inspiration behind his most celebrated books; about starting out as an illustrator of other writers’ stories — most notably, his early collaborations with Ruth Krauss — and then becoming a writer himself with the 1957 publication of his first solo book, the forgotten and wonderfully philosophical gem Kenny’s Window. “If you’re an illustrator,” he tells Terkel, “you’re almost a writer — or you want to be a writer. You sort of hug words when you illustrate a book, and eventually do think you’re going to be a writer — and then, hopefully, you become a writer.”

The conversation became the sincerest and most creatively revealing interview Sendak ever gave.Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy:

On why William Blake became his great lifelong influence:

I love … Blake’s adoration of the child self as being the best part of the human self. How sad that as adults, we just drop it along the way — or are embarrassed by it, often. There are so many adults who enjoy a book for children but are vaguely embarrassed at enjoying it, as though only their children should enjoy it and there’s something strange about them enjoying it — which is such an odd twisting and distortion of the pleasure of having your child self intact and alive and something to be proud of.

One of Sendak’s rare 1967 illustrations for Blake’s Songs of Innocence

On how ideas are born:

It’s an emotional quality — and they come up, they really well up, like when I wrote In the Night Kitchen… As the book grew, you’re just never so happy… You’re living two lives — you’re a 42-year-old man, and you’re a four-year-old boy. And it’s a little confusing, but it’s memorable. It’s a stupendous feeling — it’s the greatest joy in the world. And you know the validity of it because it comes pouring into your head.

On the artificiality of designating something as a “children’s book,” against which Tolkien too admonished and which Sendak repeated in his last on-camera interview shortly before his death:

I don’t set out to write for children. I don’t consciously set out to write a book for some imaginary child. I just write the book because I have to… I don’t have any audience in mind except my own pleasure.

One of Sendak’s 1973 illustrations for the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

On the secret to illustration as a storytelling medium and the relationship between text and image:

What I love [about] illustrating a book is that words and pictures do things for each other. To just illustrate a word is pointless — you’re just laying down a picture. But if you have the picture doing something other than what the word is doing, then something marvelous might be happening… You get a dimension in a book.

[…]

That’s the beauty of book writing and illustrating. There’s nothing so dull as translating books that are beautifully written into a picture — the author’s already done that, so you as an illustrator must contribute something else: adorn the word, or go inside the word, or go around the word, but extend it in some marvelous way to make it a beautiful thing. And that’s the great fun.

On the fragmentary nature of creativity, which David Lynch echoed decades later, and the incubation period of ideas, which T.S. Eliot extolled decades earlier:

There are always ideas that sit in your head… A stray sentence from ’58 sits in my head, a stray sentence from ’62 sits in my head; I have a title for the past eight years now, which I just love, but I don’t have the story to go with it; I even have a subtitle, but don’t have a story to go with it… You get these little hunks of fragments [and] you just wait, and you’ve got to be very patient. Eventually, if they’re good enough, they come together. If they stink, they fall away.

One of Sendak’s little-known and lovely posters celebrating libraries and reading

On honoring children’s inherent Baloney Detection Kit:

Be as foolish and as silly and whatever as you want, but you tell the truth in some way… Kids know instantly when you’re not, and how awful to not tell the truth — what’s the point, really?

Complement with Sendak’s darkest yet most truthful and optimistic book, his rare and formative illustrations for Blake’s Songs of Innocence, and his posthumous love letter to the world, then join me in supporting the Studs Terkel Radio Archive digital conservation initiative.

BP

Eternal Echoes: Irish Poet and Philosopher John O’Donohue on Belonging and How Our Restlessness Fuels Our Creativity

“There is a huge abyss within every mind. When we belong, we have an outside mooring to prevent us from falling into ourselves.”

Eternal Echoes: Irish Poet and Philosopher John O’Donohue on Belonging and How Our Restlessness Fuels Our Creativity

“Longing is the transfiguration of aloneness,” David Whyte wrote. To master the art of being alone — which is perhaps the most challenging and anxiety-producing art of our time — is to acknowledge our longing for connection, for a sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves, and to orient ourselves differently toward that core yearning, to envelop it with more gentleness and less judgment.

The alchemy of that transfiguration is what the great Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue (January 1, 1956–January 4, 2008) explores in Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong (public library) — an immensely insightful lens on the timeless turbulences of the human heart, informed by ancient wisdom and addressed to the modern experience of life.

johnodonohue

O’Donohue writes:

We live in a world that responds to our longing; it is a place where the echoes always return, even if sometimes slowly… The hunger to belong is at the heart of our nature. Cut off from others, we atrophy and turn in on ourselves. The sense of belonging is the natural balance of our lives… There is some innocent childlike side to the human heart that is always deeply hurt when we are excluded… When we become isolated, we are prone to being damaged; our minds lose their flexibility and natural kindness; we become vulnerable to fear and negativity.

[…]

The ancient and eternal values of human life — truth, unity, goodness, justice, beauty, and love — are all statements of true belonging; they are the also the secret intention and dream of human longing.

And yet, although we long for integration, we are fundamentally fragmentary. The dynamic interaction between these two poles, O’Donohue argues, is a central animating force of the human experience:

No thing is ultimately at one with itself. Everything that is alive holds distance within itself. This is especially true of the human self. It is the deepest intimacy which is nevertheless infused with infinite distance. There is some strange sense in which distance and closeness are sisters, the two sides of the one experience. Distance awakens longing; closeness is belonging. Yet they are always in a dynamic interflow with each other.

[…]

Our hunger to belong is the longing to find a bridge across the distance from isolation to intimacy.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger from a rare edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Art by Lisbeth Zwerger from a rare edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Much like our neediness maps out our incompleteness and, in doing so, provides the essential emotional intelligence necessary for true human connection, our longing to belong brings us closer both to ourselves and to one another. O’Donohue writes:

There is a huge abyss within every mind. When we belong, we have an outside mooring to prevent us from falling into ourselves.

[…]

There is a lovely balance at the heart of our nature: each of us is utterly unique and yet we live in the most intimate kinship with everyone and everything else… Our hunger to belong is the desire to awaken this hidden affinity.

swan

And yet belonging is always and invariably incomplete. The subtle sense of homelessness that this incompleteness seeds in us is the root of the creative impulse — something the great choreographer Martha Graham captured in her wonderful notion of “divine dissatisfaction.” O’Donohue considers how we interpolate between our longing for connection and the solitary urgency that gives rise to the creative impulse:

There is a divine restlessness in the human heart. Though our bodies maintain an outer stability and consistency, the heart is an eternal nomad. No circle of belonging can ever contain all the longings of the human heart. As Shakespeare said, we have “immortal longings.” All human creativity issues from the urgency of longing.

[…]

The restlessness in the human heart will never be finally stilled by any person, project, or place. The longing is eternal. This is what constantly qualifies and enlarges our circles of belonging. There is a constant and vital tension between longing and belonging. Without the shelter of belonging, our longings would lack direction, focus, and context; they would be aimless and haunted, constantly tugging the heart in a myriad of opposing directions. Without belonging, our longing would be demented. As memory gathers and anchors time, so does belonging shelter longing.

[…]

When longing dies, creativity ceases. The arduous task of being a human is to balance longing and belonging so that they work with and against each other to ensure that all the potential and gifts that sleep in the clay of the heart may be awakened and realized in this one life.

How to awaken these gifts is what O’Donohue goes on to examine in the remainder of Eternal Echoes. Complement it with psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on why frustration is essential for satisfaction, Tove Jansson’s philosophical Moomin parable of belonging, and David Whyte on how to belong with yourself, then revisit O’Donohue on beauty and desire and the essence of true friendship.

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