Meet Jack. He knows he will never be a creative genius. He learned that in fifth grade during his weekly trumpet lessons when he sat next to Wynton Marsalis. He learned it again in ninth grade when we played on his junior high basketball with Magic Johnson. He learned it yet again in college when Timothy Berners-Lee was his computer lab partner. The difference in talent or good fortune didn't seem fair or democratic to Jack, but he knew it was real. Jack knows the truth about creative genius because he has seen it in action and has the good sense to realize that he will never possess it.
Let's leave the hype about how "you too can be talented, rich and famous" to the P.T. Barnums of our world and the "everyone is creative in their own way" consolation for your Sunday school lesson. You have known that some people are just naturally more creative than others from the first time you created anything and compared it to the work of those around you. Yes, I know, you should never compare your artistic abilities but you know that everyone does and you know that it matters. Just like Jack.
So, let's get real for just a moment and discuss a few of the possible origins of creative genius:
- Talent: Violin virtuosos need extraordinary psychomotor skills, poets need an inventive facility with language and theoretical physicists need an incisive mathematical prowess. It turns out that while practice does play a part in elite creative performance it's actually much less than previously thought. A recent New York Times article "How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? Talent" explored the latest research on innate versus developed creative abilities. Though nurture graduates with honors, once again nature is the valedictorian. Talent matters most.
- Groupings: Why does creative genius show up in pairs? The songwriting team of John Lennon and Paul McCartney famously competed with each other and fought their way through the most prolific musical collaboration since Gilbert and Sullivan. Constructive conflict and positive tension are commonly associated with creative genius. Two or more talented people push each other's ideas into hybrid solutions that neither can accomplish on their own. Consider the astounding amount of Nobel Laureates like Francis Crick and James Watson that have received their honors as a tandem. When Lennon and McCartney left the Beatles so did their creative genius.
- Situations: Winston Churchill was a creative genius in some situations and utterly inept in others. He had a sterling reputation for the victories achieved during his long military service and was celebrated for his ingenious and aggressive strategies until they backfired at the Battle of Gallipoli where his Allied Forces incurred 250,000 casualties. A disgraced aristocrat, Churchill took on several administrative roles with little success until the outbreak of the Second World War when he was elevated to Prime Minister and brilliantly led Britain in its darkest hour. It's the situation that makes someone the right person at the right time. When the situation changes, so does what we take to be creative genius.
So what ever happened to Jack? He learned to put his personal puzzle together and use what he had to the best of his abilities. He learned that what he lacked as a singularly extraordinary person could be offset by what he could achieve as an exceptionally whole person. He understood that creativity was as much about his own evolution as it was about any organizational revolution. Jack's genius was wrought in the fiery furnaces of failure, the redemptive journey of self-discovery, and disciplined practice that brings mastery. Creative genius: no. Fully creative: yes.
So, how do you make a creative genius? You don't. You can be born with creative genius, you can be a creative genius when accompanied by others with complementary skills or you can be in the right place and right time to be a considered a creative genius. But if you think you can make yourself a creative genius on your own, well, you don't know Jack.
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JEFF DEGRAFF is a professor, author, speaker and advisor to hundreds of the top organizations in the world. He is called the Dean of Innovation because of his influence on the field. You can follow Jeff on Twitter @JeffDeGraff and LinkedIn.