How to Find Your Hidden Creative Genius

There is a interesting story about how Pablo Picasso, the famous Spanish artist, developed the ability to produce remarkable work in just minutes.

As the story goes, Picasso was walking though the market one day when a woman spotted him. She stopped the artist, pulled out a piece of paper and said, “Mr. Picasso, I am a fan of your work. Please, could you do a little drawing for me?”

Picasso smiled and quickly drew a small, but beautiful piece of art on the paper. Then, he handed the paper back to her saying, “That will be one million dollars.”

“But Mr. Picasso,” the woman said. “It only took you thirty seconds to draw this little masterpiece.”

“My good woman,” Picasso said, “It took me thirty years to draw that masterpiece in thirty seconds.” [1]

Picasso isn’t the only brilliant creative who worked for decades to master his craft. His journey is typical of many creative geniuses. Even people of considerable talent rarely produce incredible work before decades of practice.

Let’s talk about why that is, and even more important, how you can reveal your own creative genius.

The Age of Most Nobel Prize Winners

A recent study tracked the ages of Nobel Prize winners, great inventors, and scientists. As you can see in the graph below, the researchers found that most groundbreaking work peaked during the late thirties — at least a full decade into any individual career. Even in the fields of science and math, creative breakthroughs often require ten years or more or work. [2]

Average age nobel prize winners

These findings match the work done by previous researchers as well.

For example, a study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University by cognitive psychology professor John Hayes found that out of 500 famous musical pieces, nearly all of them were created after year 10 of the composer’s career. In later studies, Hayes found similar patterns with poets and painters. He began referring to this period hard work and little recognition as the “ten years of silence.”

Whether you are a composer or a scientist, creativity is not a quality you are born with or without. It is something that is discovered, honed, and improved through real work.

Which brings us to an important question: How can you do your best work and discover your hidden creative genius?

Permission to Create Junk

People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts… For me and most other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. If fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.
—Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

In any creative endeavor you have to give yourself permission to create junk. There is no way around it. Sometimes you have to write 4 terrible pages just to discover that you wrote one good sentence in the second paragraph of the third page.

Creating something useful and compelling is like being a gold miner. You have to sift through pounds of dirt and rock and silt just to find a speck of gold in the middle of it all. Bits and pieces of genius will find their way to you, if you give yourself permission to let the muse flow.

Create on a Schedule

Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.
—Chuck Close

Amateurs create when they feel inspired. Professionals create on a schedule.

No single act will uncover more creative genius than forcing yourself to create consistently. Practicing your craft over and over is the only way to become decent at it. The person who sits around theorizing about what a best-selling book looks like will never write it. Meanwhile, the writer who shows up every day and puts their butt in the chair and their hands on the keyboard — they are learning how to do the work.

Ira Glass is the host of the popular radio show This American Life, which is broadcast to 1.7 million listeners each week. This is the advice Glass gives to anyone looking to interesting, creative work: “The most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that … the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.”

If you want to do your best creative work, then don’t leave it up to choice. Don’t wake up in the morning and think, “I hope I feel inspired to create something today.” You need to take the decision-making out of it. Set a schedule for your work. Genius arrives when you show up enough times to get the average ideas out of the way.

Finish Something

Steven Pressfield’s most famous work, The Legend of Bagger Vance, was a best-selling novel that became a major motion picture starring Matt Damon, Will Smith, and Charlize Theron. But if you ask Pressfield, he will say that his most important book is one that you never heard of: the first book he finished.

Here’s how Pressfield describes finishing his first novel…

I never did find a buyer for the book. Or the next one, either. It was ten years before I got the first check for something I had written and ten more before a novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance, was actually published. But that moment when I first hit the keys to spell out THE END was so epochal. I remember rolling the last page out and adding it to the stack that was the finished manuscript. Nobody knew I was done. Nobody cared. But I knew. I felt like a dragon I’d been fighting all my life had just dropped dead at my feet and gasped out its last sulfuric breath.” [3]

Finish something. Anything. Stop researching, planning, and preparing to do the work and just do the work. It doesn’t matter how good or how bad it is. You don’t need to set the world on fire with your first try. You just need to prove to yourself that you have what it takes to produce something.

There are no artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, or scientists who became great by half-finishing their work. Stop debating what you should make and just make something.

Practice Self-Compassion

When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in my mouth.
—Kurt Vonnegut

Everyone struggles to create great art. Even great artists.

Anyone who creates something on a consistent basis will begin to judge their own work. I write new articles every Monday and Thursday. After sticking to that publishing schedule for three months, I began to judge everything I created. I was convinced that I had gone through every decent idea I had available. My most popular article came 8 months later.

It is natural to judge your work. It is natural to feel disappointed that your creation isn’t as wonderful as you hoped it would be, or that you’re not getting any better at your craft. But the key is to not let your discontent prevent you from continuing to do the work.

You have to practice enough self-compassion to not let self-judgement take over. Sure, you care about your work, but don’t get so serious about it that you can’t laugh off your mistakes and continue to produce the thing you love. Don’t let judgment prevent delivery.

Share Your Work

When it comes to ideas, most people overestimate the risk of piracy, and underestimate the price of obscurity.
—Mike Trap

Share your work publicly. It will hold you accountable to creating your best work. It will provide feedback for doing better work. And when you see others connect with what you create, it will inspire you and make you care more.

Sometime sharing your work means you have to deal with haters and critics. But more often than not, the only thing that happens is that you rally the people who believe the same things you believe, are excited about the same things you are excited about, or who support the work that you believe in — who wouldn’t want that? [4]

The world needs people who put creative work out into the world. What seems simple to you is often brilliant to someone else. But you’ll never know that unless you choose to share.

How to Find Your Creative Genius

Finding your creative genius is easy: do the work, finish something, get feedback, find ways to improve, show up again tomorrow. Repeat for ten years. Or twenty. Or thirty.

Inspiration only reveals itself after perspiration.

Click here to leave a comment.

Sources:

  1. I couldn’t find the original source for this Picasso story and I’m not sure if it’s true. The point remains just as strong and compelling either way, but if you know the original source please share.
  2. Working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, which can be read here.
  3. Quote from The War of Art. You’ll also notice that it took Pressfield nearly 20 years before he published The Legend of Bagger Vance. He put in his ten years of silence, just like every other great artist.
  4. If you look for it, you will also find a huge hidden benefit of sharing your work publicly: the gut reaction. Whenever you share something with someone else — a business idea, an article you wrote, a painting, a picture — there will be a split second when they first process your work that you get their true response. In my experience, you will either have genuine excitement (which is an indication that you are onto something good) or any other emotion (which is an indication that it’s average at best).

65 Comments

  1. Hi, I just subscribed to your newsletter and downloaded your book about habits. I’m amazed! It’s great! You showed up in my life at the perfect time! I’m writing a book and your ideas match my plan and improve it in so many ways.
    Thank you so very much!

  2. Wow, James, this article is so powerful, I love reading all of your articles without exception.

    It’s 6 a.m., I was finishing my breakfast after my morning workout when I read it, I will start any creative activity today, thank you so much for your inspiration and keep up the good work.

    Young

  3. Thanks, James. Your articles have been a tremendous help to me. Actually, I am trying to write a book on my own. I have some writings I have written until now. But I feel a little disappointed with my works. That’s why I’ve hesitated to keep doing my work. After reading your posts, I will keep going on my own books. I will let you know when I finish my first book. Thank you so much, James. Have a good day! :-)

  4. I am trying to teach this to my piano students. I remind them that they are the artist and therefore there are no mistakes when composing a song!

    Most are first afraid to try and think that they are not capable of writing a song!

  5. Hey James, thank you for sharing this powerful article! It is a very motivating one. Have a great day full of joy and creation!

  6. Reminded me of the musician (Chris de Burgh I think ) who said after writing the hit song “Lady in Red” that he’d become “…an overnight success after twenty years”.

    Dan Blank writes about these issues every week over at http://wegrowmedia.com/

  7. Just like the Picasso story, there is the quote from Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter: “Timing, perseverance, and ten years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success.”

    Great article!

  8. Hi James,

    This dropped in my mailbox at the perfect time, just finished my first book and done nothing but worry it is not good enough.

    Time to continue with writing rather than sitting back and waiting for judgement.

    Again, thank you.

  9. Just joined your list and am happy to have done so! Great reminders for a writer needing to be reminded about showing up for herself. Thanks, JB

    • Welcome to the community, Jill! It’s great to have you here. I’ll do my best to keep useful ideas coming your way.

      Good luck with your writing!

  10. How about Saturdays?

    Just kidding. I enjoy and look forward to your articles. Thanks.

  11. Hi James, I subscribed to your newsletter a few months ago and I have to say they have really helped me as I start my own business so thank you for the effort it takes to stay disciplined every week and bringing awesome ideas and concepts in new and fresh ways.

    Kind regards,
    Karla

  12. Hi James, allow me to join with the others thanking you for a very timely and inspirational article. Several points said I found struck a cord with me, especially this point ” Amateurs create when they feel inspired. Professionals create on a schedule.” I think this statement is exactly what I needed to hear at this point in my artist entrepreneur journey (struggling with time management and making the transition from serious hobby to purposeful way of living vocation). Thank you!

  13. Great blog. Reminds me of the 10,000 hours theory at becoming proficient/expert at some thing. As a mother, this really strikes a chord with me regarding children, who can be so easily deflated at failure. It can be difficult for them, with their limited life experience, to understand the big picture, and how failing is just the path that can eventually lead to success. Our human egos are so fragile, and often accepting or pushing past failure, or just looking at it as a non-meaningful event, feels like the hardest thing to do. We are the ones attaching meaning to everything. We learn early on that success is rewarded and failure is bad. Something to think about in our educational system and even in our daily and family lives. If we can learn to look at things differently, without assigning a label to things: (loser/failure/non-success) then it might feel easier to keep moving down the road to actually having that “true” success. “If at first you don’t succeed….” I think we all know the ending to that one.

    • Yes, I was thinking of the 10,000 hours too, Debbie. That is so true about children. I am a mother too and can totally relate! Thanks Debbie. :)

      • Thanks for the link to the article on Failing as Science, and I also read the one you referenced above regarding professionals vs. amateurs. Really good stuff. I have shared already, and have sent an email to my daughter (who is 12 going on 21) with links to all 3. I think I’ve got to subscribe here, for more good stuff! Thanks for your contributions! They are very valuable… as are you.

  14. This has to be my favorite article so far, James! I have always loved your work but this one feels different… very soulful. I just noticed I used the word “feel” – somehow, you tapped into a new emotional component in your work for this article and I feel deeply moved by it. Thanks so much, James!

  15. James,
    Thanks so much for this article! Lately, I noticed I was spending so much time on Facebook and playing games, I wasn’t doing what I claimed I wanted to do: writing. This came exactly when I needed it the most: going on a Facebook hiatus, forgetting about games, and stripping my email contacts. Today, I am going to stick to refining my craft and actually writing something besides FB statuses and commenting on memes.
    Love and Light,
    Lauren

  16. Awesome article. It gives so much valuable information and inspiration. Thank you James, sir.

  17. James, I read your articles weekly and enjoy them very much. This week was great as well. Thanks.

  18. You have addressed all of the obstacles I face when attempting to write something magical. Starting today I am giving myself permission to create junk. Thank you.

  19. Very nice article. Truly inspiring. It’s a treasure chest of great advice.

    Keep up the good work.

  20. I’ve probably read this at exactly the right time in my life. I’m one of those suffering creative types and unfortunately I feel like my self-esteem is taking a hit every time I produce something that I’m not happy with. The thing is, I’m a perfectionist so I find it really difficult to judge how good my work actually is when all I can see are the flaws. I enjoy lots of different creative pursuits such as photography, drawing and game design. I also recently signed up for a creative writing course just for fun despite the fact that I’m not really a natural writer. The course encourages people to share their work, to which my first reaction was the lurching of my stomach. I suffer from some anxiety issues and the idea of sharing can seem quiet scary at times (especially because my work in some ways feels like an essence of myself.) I braved it and have even set up a blog to share some of my work as I do realize the importance of getting it out there. When I was a lot younger before my anxiety issues kicked in I remember having a lot of fun uploading my art to show others even though I was still developing and a lot of it wasn’t brilliant. The fact that I had an audience to share my efforts with encouraged me to finish more pieces of work than I would have if I was just doing it for myself. I hope to one day re-create that wonderful, playful feeling I had back then.

  21. Inspiring article, James. That Ira Glass quote is one of my favorites for creatives.

  22. James, your all articles are awesome. It’s time that your customers are looking for more articles. :-) Why not write thrice a week going forward.

    Congrats and well deserved one, James.

  23. Definitely sifting, working, and digging more. Always remembering to dig steps out of the whole when the end has arrived so I can show the world the hidden gem.

    Thanks for this…amazing and the timing is perfect (for me.)

  24. Today I read the article to my son Jalal and explained it to him. He is 13 years old and he wants to write stories. I told him how to create junk and make a schedule for him to work. Your posts are great!

  25. James Sir , Your article keeps on inspiring me every time, keep up the good work.

  26. Mental resilience, again and again, seems to be a common theme among successful creators and entrepreneurs.

    I guess that’s all I can really say. :)

  27. Great article, James. Thank you.

    “Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.” -Life’s Little Instruction Book, compiled by H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

  28. This is the first article I’ve read on your site – and certainly not the last. Loved it! Thank you.

    I certainly agree with your comment about scheduling time for creativity rather than waiting for inspiration. I heard that Ernest Hemingway would sit and write 500 words every single morning, come hell or high water.

    Thanks again.

  29. James,

    you really have a gift of putting stories into your posts. This inspires me to follow in the footsteps of those you describe and make their example and tactics a blueprint for the steps I want to take.

  30. That’s the best motivational article I’ve read in a long time. I’m inspired and grateful.

  31. Other than my bible, I can’t tell you the last time I read anything more vital than this article! I need to frame it! Seriously!!!

  32. Hello, thank you for this very insightful article. I am a painter and so relate to the content — I needed to hear these words again — and just show up in my practice every day.

  33. Hi James,

    This concept is so true- just finish the work! I am a quilter and now I make myslef finish all my quilts, right to the end, as otherwise it’s just a scrap of fabric! And I loved the comment at the end regarding showing people your work, as in that split second before they comment, you have your answer if you look. I’m going to study that further!

    -Suzy

  34. Thanks a ton my dear friend. You may not know this but you have impacted my life in ways I never imagined. Love you for all your advice and awesomeness. Keep it going. The world needs more of you.