The Drudgery of Genius

How to fly a horseI’m traveling around Scotland lately, and being away from home and office routines has meant I have some time to read. Right now, I’m making my way through, “How To Fly a Horse,” by Keven Ashton. The subtitle is: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery.

I’m enjoying the heck out of this book, even though it’s not a romance–it’s not even fiction, but the author is concerned with certain fairy tales that most of us buy into early in life. These fairy tales contend that creativity happens when geniuses like Einstein and Mozart take long walks in the woods, and then the Good Fairy of Inspiration taps them on the shoulder with her magic wand, and gifts them with a Big Bright Idea.

better mouse trapWe believe, says Ashton, that the person with the better mousetrap is going to clean up on the stock market and be long and fondly remembered for their contribution.

We believe that two heads are better than one, and brainstorming will result in more ideas, and better ideas for how to tackle a problem than we can come up with on our own.

Turns out… not so much. Ashton cites one peer-reviewed, replicated study after another to show that everybody has the ability to create. Creativity does not rely on having a high IQ or on bolts from the blue; and rather than being lauded and celebrated, dyson vaccuumthe person with the better mousetrap is often resented and ridiculed. Ashton also demonstrates that brainstorming is a pretty non-productive way to tackle a problem. We generate more and better solutions (at least initially) working individually, NOT in a group.

People come with differing levels of ability certainly, but the factor Ashton points to that distinguishes those who contribute new ideas and inventions from those who do not is, for the most part, persistence in the face of doubt, and an ability to view setbacks or failed experiments as a source of insight.

James Dyson, who invented those spiffy, bagless vacuum cleaners, tried more than 5000 prototypes before he hit on a cost-effective model. Judah Folkman, who figured out that cutting

Judah Folkman, MD

Judah Folkman, MD

off a tumor’s blood supply can kill the tumor, labored for more than 30 years before his contribution was recognized. For most of that 30 years, he was ridiculed and disrespected by the surgery-chemo-radiation “experts,” whose treatments come with devastating side effects.

I’m getting a lot of inspiration from acornthis book, about the value of persistence and solitude, about the myth of a creative elite. Einstein and Mozart were geniuses in their fields (also complete doofs in other regards), but most of their achievements came from persistence and hard work.

I can persist, I can work hard. Whew!

When has your persistence in the face of adversity paid off? When have you wished you threw in the towel sooner? To one commenter, I’ll send a copy of “How To Fly A Horse.”

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8 comments on “The Drudgery of Genius

  1. Persistence was the career. The towel, not ditching the career and taking one of the many other career opportunities presented to me. Safety over Risk…

  2. Persistence in my job
    Went through a tough time a year or so with a coworker.
    I stuck it out and tried to work it through.
    Thrown in the towel…..I was working so hard to fix it that I didn’t see her end run. My bad.

  3. I founded a chamber choir 9 years ago. I decided after I resigned from a church-job-from-hell, which left me gasping and wondering what I was doing, to try something that spoke to me and maybe others would like to work with me. Turns out, I’m a good musician with plenty of ideas and talent, I just wasn’t working with the right people. The chamber choir is finally doing well, but there were times I wanted to throw in the towel and forget it. So happy I didn’t. And I work with the BEST people!

  4. Both answers are my health. In persisting for an accurate diagnosis, not a pill & pat on the head; throwing in the towel by ending a hectic career sooner. Now I need to gain persistence in my daily health maintenance activities when it is much easier to read in a cat pile.

  5. I have been trying for seven years to get into graduate school. I have taken the GRE five times. I have applied to graduate school three times. I am currently taking an undergraduate class to get a letter of recommendation. I have two letters. I will take a third class in the summer. I will apply to graduate school for the fourth time in Fall 2015. I guess if something is importnat. I refuse to give up.