16 Aug 2009
Creativity and Adaptation
Where art thou, Muse, that thou forget’st so long
To speak of that which gives thee all thy might?
Spend’st thou thy fury on some worthless song,
Darkening thy power to lend base subjects light?
Return, forgetful Muse, and straight redeem
In gentle numbers time so idly spent;
Sing to the ear that doth thy lays esteem
And gives thy pen both skill and argument.
Rise, resty Muse, my love’s sweet face survey,
If Time have any wrinkle graven there;
If any, be a satire to decay,
And make Time’s spoils despised every where.
Give my love fame faster than Time wastes life;
So thou prevent’st his scythe and crooked knife.
-Shakespeare Sonnet 100
The Muses in Greek mythology, poetry, and literature are the goddesses or spirits who inspire the production of creative content. Some creative people have obviously better relationships with the muses than others, and often older, more experienced people produce better works than younger ones, although the younger are sometimes a little more creative. Why does a composer, writer or artist become better and better during his life? Do we have to be special in order to be creative? The ordinary earlier works of J.S. Bach, Will Shakespeare and W.A. Mozart were less spectacular and significant than their late masterworks. This is true for all authors and composers. Why does their creativity increase so dramatically?
There are two aspects, the performance and the composition aspect. The first is the performance aspect. The classic authors and composers were also performers of their own compositions. Bach, Mozart and Shakespeare performed their own works, and they knew their market: they knew what people wanted to hear. Shakespeare was a great actor, Mozart was a great pianist, and Bach a great organ player. It is well known that a musician becomes better only through practice, constant exercise and disciplined training. A better performer is obviously a better composer, because he can create, test and perform more complex creations and compositions. During the skill acquisition process, the performers learn to “speak” the language of a specific domain very well. They learn how to use and exploit the symbolic content of the cultural domain.
Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton argue in their book “Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense” that exceptional performance depends heavily on experience and effort, and describe the 10-year rule for exceptional performance:
Exceptional performance doesn’t happen without exceptional effort, and even allegedly inherited abilities — like IQ and other “smartness” measures — improve markedly and continuously when people work hard, have good coaching, and believe they will keep getting better. The nature versus nurture debate persists in academia and society. But natural gifts are useless without lots of practice. People, teams, and organizations that are novices at something almost always do it badly at first; brilliant or at least competent performance is achieved through raw persistence, coupled with the belief that improvement will happen. What people are able to do as beginners is far less important than whether they try hard and keep learning every day. Research in dozens of domains reveals a similar story — exceptional performance doesn’t happen without approximately 10 years of nearly daily, deliberate practice, for about four hours a day, by people who somehow (e.g. coaching, skilled peers or competitors, or books) have access to the best techniques. This 10-year rule holds in every domain — chess, medicine, auditing, programming, bridge, physics, juggling, dance, and music. And once achieved, exceptional performance can’t be maintained without relentless effort.”
– “Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense” by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton, Harvard Business School Press; (2006)
Exceptional performance is not possible without exceptional effort. Dean Keith Simonton writes in his book “Greatness: Who makes history and why” (The Guilford Press, 1994) to become a star or a genius you must “organize your whole life around a single enterprise […] You must start early, labor continuously, and never give up the cause.”
The second aspect is the composition aspect. The composer does not only speak the domain specific language, he invents new sentences and stories. Besides the spark of inspiration, the composition process requires a variety of techniques, materials, experiences, impressions and memories which are used in the process. The skills of a composer rely on these resources, which are mainly acquired by practice and learning. The memories and experiences form the voices of the “muses”, which inspire the creative person. The most important thing to feed creativity is experiencing new things, exploring new areas and perspectives, expanding your vocabulary, widening your horizon, and trying something really new. You must have enough dots to connect. Of course you need enough freedom, independence and artistic license to collect and use the dots.
It is very important for a creative person to see and hear what others have done and how they have done it. And a great composer must learn all the rules, guidelines, maxims of the field in order to break them. Creative people like composers, designers, writers and artists learn how to create better pieces of art during their lifetime. They learn how to weave the threads of their domain to make beautiful patterns. They adapt themselves to their specific domain of art (composing, painting, writing,..) and to a certain world of culture (the world of music, the world of graphics, the world of books, etc.)
Compare for example the early symphonies and string quartets from Mozart with his late ones. Or take a look at the early work of Shakespeare, and compare this passage from “Two Gentlemen of Verona” (Act 3, Scene I) known from the film “Shakespeare in Love”..
“What light is light, if Silvia be not seen?
What joy is joy, if Silvia be not by?
Unless it be to think that she is by
And feed upon the shadow of perfection
Except I be by Silvia in the night,
There is no music in the nightingale;
Unless I look on Silvia in the day,
There is no day for me to look upon;
She is my essence, and I leave to be,
If I be not by her fair influence
Foster’d, illumined, cherish’d, kept alive.”
..with a well-known late work from Shakespeare named “Romeo and Juliet” (Act 1, Scene 5)
“O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows,
As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand,
And, touching hers, make blessed my rude hand.
Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.”
According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, creativity is a process by which a symbolic domain in the culture is occupied. To achieve true creativity, it is important to have enough freedom, and to keep the right balance of curiosity or playfulness which keeps you looking for new information (to explore a domain) and commitment or discipline which keeps you going when others have doubts (to exploit a domain). And it is necessary to be at the right place at the right time. Then you may have the luck to belong to those especially creative people who have made a name for themselves by exploring a cultural domain for the first time – Shakespeare explored the domain of the theater and English poetry, Mozart the domain of the orchestra and classical music, etc.
To sum it up, although creativity itself is not directly related to adaptive process – it is more related to mixing, (re-)combination and inspiration – the potential for creativity increases by adaptation, experience and learning. During learning, the (cap)abilities of the creator are optimized, and optimization is form of adaptation. A creative person has the ability to be really good if he loves what he is doing and if he knows his field well. Shakespeare has studied the works of Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe and many other contemporary and classic writers, Mozart has studied Haydn, Haendel and many other composers (including J.S. Bach and his sons). By studying their works, they learned new motives, schemes, styles and techniques. Edward O. Wilson said “Genius is the summed production of the many with the names of the few attached for easy recall.” Shakespeare’s life was the theater, as a playwright he was adapted to the theater of Elizabethan era. His plays embodied and incorporated the spirit of this era. Similarly, Mozart’s life was the orchestra and the opera, as a composer he was adapted to the concert rooms of the European royalty and incorporated the spirit of the classical era. Both were outstanding creative people who were perfectly adapted to their worlds. They started early, worked continuously very hard, and never gave up their love to the theater (Shakespeare) or classical music (Mozart). Only a few have reached their level of creativity. The wish or belief to be good is not enough in a creative endeavor, but if passion meets endurance, then anything is possible. In Shakespeare’s words:
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
– Shakespeare Sonnet 29