Uncommon Genius – Tracing the Creative Impulse

Uncommon Genius – Tracing the Creative Impulse

I was in my local public library last month to pick up one particular book and found myself browsing the call number 153.xx section, an entire four shelves on thinking, memory, imagination, and creativity.  The title Uncommon Genius: Tracing the Creative Impulse with Forty Winners of the MacArthur Award caught my eye and, upon reading it cover to cover in the space of a week, caught my interest, imagination and “truth sense” about the discoveries presented there.  Published in 1990, it might never have come to my attention except for the serendipitous wandering through titles in the library’s “family” of books on creativity, itself a small venture in creativity.

May these tools and reflections be useful to you and yours.


The MacArthur “genius” awards are rather well known.  At the time of the writing of Uncommon Genius, 250 artists and craftsmen, journalists, psychologists, conservationists, research scientists, professors, etc., had been granted from $30,000 to $70,000 a year for five years, a few “geniuses” supported for the rest of their lives.  (The grants now average $125,000 a year for five years; there have been 1,000 recipients as of 2013.)  MacArthur Fellows are researched and recommend by 100 anonymous nominators around the United States and selected by a committee of the board of directors.  There is no way to apply directly; there is no subsequent reporting, accountability, follow-up of any kind.  Fellows are free to pursue their passions free of financial strain.

At the time of his death in 1978 at the age of 80, John D. MacArthur was the second richest man in America and had established the second largest foundation in America with no particular instructions on how to give the $2.5 billion away.  By 1981 the board had established the MacArthur Fellowship to support risk taking, forward thinking, social consciousness, and “exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.”

With the help of Dr. Kenneth Hope, Director of the MacArthur Fellows program at the time, the author of Uncommon Genius, lawyer Denise Shekerjian narrowed her quest down to 40 Fellows, some well-known like Robert Coles, Stephen Jay Gould, Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, John Sayles, Derek Walcott, others not well known at all.  (See Resources below for the full list of interviewees.)

The beauty of Uncommon Genius is that Shekerjian really sifted through the interviewees’ responses and brought her own creativity to the presentation of her data.  The book is witty, substantive, highly readable and deeply rewarding.  She de-bunks some myths about creativity (you do not have to be mad to be a genius) and reinforces some hard-won truths:  creativity depends a lot on passion, purpose, and perseverance.

At the end of Part One, Shekerjian summarizes her findings in a “grocery list that can be itemized and contain things as fundamental as milk, eggs, leafy greens”:

  1. Find your talent.
  2. Commit to it and make it shine.
  3. Don’t be afraid of risk.  Or even failure, which is seen it is proper light, brings insight and opportunity.
  4. Find courage by looking to something stronger and better than your puny vulnerable self.
  5. No lusting after quick resolutions.  Relax.  Stay loose.
  6. Get to know yourself; understand your needs and the specific conditions you favor.
  7. Respect, too, your culture.  We can’t, any of us, escape the twentieth century.  It’s tucked up around our collective chin as snugly and as firmly as the bedsheet.
  8. Then, finally, break free from the seductive pull of book learning and research and the million other preparatory steps that could delay you for the entire span of a life, and immerse yourself in the doing.

She illustrates each of those points with snippets of interviews.  Stephen JaGould, paleontologist, essayist, Harvard professor in Chapter 1 – Talent and the Long Haul:

“If I have any insight at all to contribute, it is this: find out what you’re really good at and stick to it.  Look at some of the real creative geniuses.  Look at Bach.  He wrote a cantata every week.  Some weeks he was tired and others he was sick.  But every week he wrote a cantata.  Sometimes he didn’t have much time so he copied stuff he wrote before.  And they’re not all as good as the others, but the point is this:  he put it out.

“Any human being is really good at certain things.  The problem is that the things you’re good at come naturally.  And since most people are pretty modest instead of an arrogant s.o.b. like me, what comes naturally, you don’t see as a special skill.  It’s just you.  It’s what you’ve always done.

“My talent is making connections.  That’s why I’m an essayist.  It’s also why my technical work is structured the way it is.  How do the parts of the snail shell interact?  What are the rates of growth?  Can you see a pattern?  I’m always trying to see a pattern in this forest and I’m tickled that I can do that.

“When I wrote Ontogeny and Phylogeny I had no trouble reading eight hundred articles and bringing them together into a single thread.  That’s how it went together.  There’s only one way it goes together, one best taxonomy, and I knew what it was.

“It took me years to realize that was a skill.  I could never understand why everybody just didn’t do that  People kept telling me these essays were good and I thought, All right, I can write, but surely what I’m doing is not special.  And then I found out that it’s not true.  Most people don’t do it.  They just don’t see the connections.  I’ve never had any trouble with it.  But I never knew it was a skill until a few years ago.  I bet that’s true of everyone.  I hardly even recognize what I do well.  I just do it.”

Creativity is connecting two unrelated things in an effective way, and hanging in there for the long haul.  For most MacArthur Fellows a lifetime of intense and prolonged concentration.  MacArthur Fellow Andy McGuire spent decades organizing support for flame-resistant sleepwear.  Ian Graham has spent decades deciphering Mayan hieroglyphics. Joan Abrahamson has spent decades creating organizations that serve the community such as Kids Place and the Franco-American AIDS Foundation.  Shekerjian picks up this theme again in Chapter 9: Sustaining Concentration and Drive.

Being creative certainly involves the courage and strength to take risks.  In Chapter 2:Taking on Risk, Shekerjian interviews, among others, Debbie Meier, an elementary school teacher who risked creating an alternative public school in East Harlem.  Within five years, Meier achieved staggering results in the failing New York City public school system: above average test scores, way below average drop-out rates, excellent levels of graduations and college entrance.

“If you ask me, taking on risk and being more daring is a real important part of creativity,” says Meier.  “I’m willing to take on a number of risks at one time.  I even put myself in situations where half the time I don’t even know what the risks are likely to be.   On different days I say it in different ways.  Largely my ideas about teaching and learning focus on small-d democratic values, by which I mean a respect for diversity, a respect for the possibilities of what every person is capable of, a respect for another person’s point of view, a respect for considerable intellectual rigor.  My concern is with how students become critical things and problem solvers, which is what a democratic society needs.  If we believe that our schools are failing us and that children can’t or refuse to learn the basic educational skills, then what we are saying is that democracy is a utopian idea, an impossibility, and I just don’t believe that.  There is nothing in the nature of being human, to my knowledge, that makes democracy an impossibility.”

Staying Loose (Chapter 3) means a tremendous capacity for floating free in a period of uncertainty, a high tolerance for ambiguity, extraordinary curiosity and a lightness of experience tempered by the sweat of exhaustion later on.    Staying loose, allowing yourself the freedom to ramble, opening yourself up to outside influences, keeping a flexible mind willing to entertain all sorts of notions and avenues – this is the attitude that is more appropriate for the start of any project where the aim is to generate something new.  One reason is that a loose, uncensored approach increases the amount of material you have to work with.  Volume alone produces options.  (As my modest example of stumbling upon this book while roaming the library illustrates.)

Setting Up the Conditions (Chapter 4) puts forward the idea that creative ideas and connections do not, by and large, come only out of the blue.  Each “genius” has discovered for him or herself the physical environment, the solitude or stimulation of colleagues, even the right foods, the right clothes to support sustained periods of creativity.  Shekerjian gave examples from history:

“Katherine Porter credits her time in Mexico as essential in cultivating her literary gifts.  Kipling insisted on obsidian black ink.  Kant wrote in bed, at the same time every day, staring at a tower out his window.  When the trees grew to block the view, he had them sliced down.  Dickens turned his bed north, believing himself to be enabled by the magnetic forces.  Schiller favored the sweet scent of fermenting apples.  Balzac swilled rivers of coffee.  Proust had his cork-lined room.  Beethoven stimulated his mind by pouring ice-cold water over his head.”

These conditions include dancing with the times and culture you are born into, or choose to migrate to, to create more appropriate conditions.  All creative work is influenced by the context the creator is navigating.  And, of course, the MacArthur award provides one tremendously helpful condition of financial support – the proverbial room of one’s own and 500 pounds a year.

Though used in a later part of the book, the interview with Robert Coles could easily be used to illustrate Chapter 5 in the book: Learning by Doing and point 8 on the “grocery list” –  break free from the seductive pull of book learning and research and the million other preparatory steps that could delay you for the entire span of a life and immerse yourself in the doing.

Robert Coles is a well-respected child psychiatrist and professor at Harvard best known for his insistence on breaking free of the norms of research and his own particular way of learning by doing.  He traveled the world – South Africa, Northern Ireland, northern Canada, Brazil, Nicaragua, Poland, Southeast Asia, interviewing children, hearing their stories, developing “a version of documentary child psychiatry: to record how a historical crisis (school integration) or a social and economic crisis (the trials of Appalachia’s mountain families and of migrant farm families), or a long-standing racial impasse (the conditions of Indians in the Southwest or of Eskimos in coastal Alaska) bears upon the mental life of young people.  I tried to uncover a psychology of everyday life; a psychology of turmoil and response to turmoil; a psychology of hope against hope with plenty of interludes of doubt and fear.”

Coles didn’t think of these children or their parents as “patients” or “cases” but as people with serious problems on their minds, caught, through no fault of their own, in the backwash of poverty and ignorance.  He didn’t think of the information he was collecting as “material” or “data” but as chronicles and narratives.

Coles won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for his series Children in Crisis.  “I didn’t listen to the criticism nor to the people who were trying to classify me as a sociologist or an anthropologist or something other than a doctor.  I exercised my own judgment.  I rejected some of the teachings of my training, especially all that awful reductionist rhetoric and those neat labels that medicine clings to and forces on students.  But I kept the aspects of my education that fit the task, and I developed the other skills necessary to do this work.    I knew how to go to these neighborhoods.  I knew how to talk to these children and how to draw pictures with them.  I knew how to talk with their parents and how to drink and eat with them.  I was stunned at the things I was learning.  I was fascinated.  And here’s pride coming I, but I’ll just say it: I had a sense of competence and that I’ve learned how to do this work and that I loved this work.”

Shekerjian continues her investigation into creativity in Part Two, pursuing the “dangling threads” with more MacArthur Fellows.

Investing Your Work with Vision (Chapter 6) explores the role that visions for tomorrowshape the decisions we make today.  Les Brown, for instance, founded the World Watch Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C. to scrunch together data about the loss of forests, the rising of oceans, the hole in the ozone, the contamination of groundwater, the effect of ultraviolet radiation, the crop yields in Third World economies.  He raises questions, gathers information, sees linkages, assesses consequences, and disseminates information through books, journal articles, and newsletters to a complacent and sometimes hostile world. [See Stories to Learn From below to learn more about Les Brown’s remarkable story.]

Across town, Shekerjian interviews another visionary, Patrick Noonan of the Conservation Fund.

“I get frustrated by the way we treat our lands and waters as commodities to be bartered or sold with no regard for the carrying limits of how much pollution a river can handle, the amount of pesticide the soil can tolerate, or what this will do to the wildlife, or how it will affect the groundwater.  And I get especially frustrated here, inside the Beltway, where it seems that people who work on the top of these big glass buildings simply don’t have their feet on the ground and can’t feel the pulse of concern.  They don’t know what’s wrong, and the few that do can’t think of effective ways to fix it.  There are so many tightly focused people who can’t make two and two equal seven if seven’s the number you need.

“I believe in the free-enterprise system and in harnessing the free-enterprise motive to benefit conservation.  Establishing partnerships with the business community is a nifty way to leverage our conservation purpose.  We just keep hammering away at our very simple focus to protect, preserve, and manage the very best of America’ natural terrain, and we provide people with the incentives to help us.  To do this, we have created a team of interdisciplinary thinkers who can devise creative ways to fix our problems.  And I take pride in our teams of workers who function not as specialists who can’t see the big picture, but who operate from a many-sided perspective. Bringing together a diverse set of talents to work out a problem from varying perspectives is how we will get creative solutions.”

A Change in Perspective (Chapter 7) is another essential ingredient in creativity.

A story about Picasso tells of how when he was a schoolboy he was terrible at math because whenever the teacher had him write the number 4 on the blackboard, it looked like a nose to him and he’d keep doodling to fill in the rest of the face.  Everyone else in the class saw a number on the black board; Picasso perceived a face.

Shekerjian notes:

“A shift in perspective is a break with habit, a departure from cliché, a deviation from convention.  A shift in perspective opens you up to something new, something you haven’t considered before, something startling, something important.  The realizations that flow from a fresh frame of mind are fuel for the creative impulse, the firecracker explosions of new ideas.  She quotes MacArthur Fellow and director of opera and theater Peter Sellars, “What we face in America is a crisis in culture that has never previously existed.  In terms of the daily image bank, what we are handed every day in movies, in television, and in advertising is packaging that is devoid of meaning.  Our wrapper has superseded the contents.  Just to get an image to mean something again and to have power and resonance, and to provoke a genuine reaction from people instead of the pre-fabricated reactions they have been trained to have, is very hard work.”

Chapter 8 expands A Change of Perspective to A Shift in the Scenery.  Shekerjian notes, “Travel is one way, and apparently a common way, that creative people make the familiar strange again.  Trying to get around in a strange culture, to feed yourself, to make sense of the news, to buy toothpaste, to manage a local bus, to express discontent, to profess love, to operate a vending machine or a telephone – all are familiar gestures made highly peculiar again, as they were when you were a child.  In addition to all the personal and professional reasons to venture forth, leaving home is a way of retaining a kind of plasticity of response that keeps the eye unveiled, the mind sharp.”

Indeed fully one quarter of the MacArthur Fellows interviewed used travel abroad as a way to expand their horizons, their views, their perspectives.

In Sustaining Concentration and Drive (Chapter 9), Shekerjian suggests, “What carries creative people through from the conception to the completion of a project is drive and concentration born from a sense of purpose.  Purpose is what dictates the entire range of the enterprise.  Through intention, goals are shaped and ideas generated to fulfill them.  Through relentlessness come the cultivation of skills and the perfection of technique. Thorough motive come the decisions as to which projects to pursue and in what order.  Through resolve, resources are marshaled and the necessary strength mustered to overcome obstacles rather than to be overcome by them. Through tenacity, friends and collaborators are selected.  And through will comes the wisdom to know when to part paths and influences one has outgrown.”

One of the interviewees, Shirley Brice Heath, anthropological linguist and professor at Stanford University, states rather forcefully:

“If there is a key to my progression, I think it is in the fact that I never accepted any sort of constraint but immediately moved out beyond it.  For me ‘can’t’ simply isn’t acceptable, and I urge my students to get it out of their vocabulary.  I want them to kick against any boundaries that are setup and to figure out how they can shift resources to move beyond them.  It takes imagination and hard work because, as far as I’m concerned, there have been no good solutions to problems that haven’t demanded a lot of hard work.”

The urgency of sustaining concentration and drive is somewhat balanced by the principle ofEncouraging Luck (Chapter 10).  Shekerjian quotes Louis Pasteur to begin her exploration:  “Chance favors the prepared mind.”  Shekerjian suggests three ways to “make enough room in our lives for accidents to happen and exercising wisdom in our selection among them affords us the room to try to encourage our luck: 1) being attentive, so you notice the nuances in daily life, 2) being curious and inquisitive enough to follow your curiosity around a blind corner, and 2) being able to relax and have a good time.

MacArthur Fellow and archaeologist Ian Graham says, “if you ask me, what is helpful to creativity is training the eye to notice things, to observe closely and precisely, being careful not to make a muddle of it.”  Shekerjian continues, “If you do that, it is likely you will discover things other people call luck, but, in fact, you’ve simply noticed something that has escaped the hurried man’s attention.  Often in creative work it is not the manipulation of high-flown theoretical abstractions that matters so much as one’s ability to notice the concrete, the precise, and the particular details.”

Then, “Noticing has a cousin: curiosity.  You can tell they share the same bloodlines because one is usually shadowing the other.  Curiosity leads, noticing follows.  Or perhaps it’s the other way around, noticing coming first, spotting some wrinkle and insisting on a closer look; curiosity wondering how the wrinkle affects half a dozen other things.  In time, a connection is made, and a revelation discovered.  If you didn’t know any better, you’d call it blind luck.”

She then cites psychologist Edward de Bono, “If the purpose of change in generating new ideas is to provide one with something to look at which one would not have looked for, then there may be methods of encouraging this process.  Play is probably the ideal method.  It must, however, be purposeless play without design and direction.  Just as a carefully designed experiment is an attempt to hurry nature along the path of logical investigation, so play is an attempt to encourage the chance appearance of phenomena which would not be sought out.  Playing around is an experiment with chance.”

The last chapter of Part Two explores The Harmony of Instinct and Judgment necessary to all creative endeavors: balancing imagination and productivity, intuition and reason, right hemisphere of the brain with the left.  “The answer is not to choose between them but to harmonize the competing tensions, because each is valuable, each a version of the truth.  Creativity, indeed survival itself, depends upon the ability to perceive the synergy of opposites and harmonize the extremes.”

This harmonizing and integrating is one of the most consistent qualities Shekerjian found in her MacArthur Fellows.  “Instinct would lead filmmaker Fred Wiseman to film this, film that, and then go over there and film some more.  Judgment is how he edits ninety hours of film into two. Instinct is what caused self-taught art historian Henry Kraus to doubt the prevailing scholarly wisdom about the correct interpretation of a panel in Notre Dame Cathedral.  Judgment is how he assembled the evidence to prove he was right.

“With respect to instinct, the best advice culled from the MacArthur Fellows is to learn to recognize it and to trust it, even though it can’t be explained in nice, neat, tidy terms.  With respect to judgment, however, the advice is more specific and turns on the question of timing.  Judge too soon and a new, imperfect, and fragile thought born from instinct or from some hazier impetus may be cut off before it has a chance to mature and withstand scrutiny.

“It’s sound advice, but the trouble in following it is that Western culture deeply prizes the ability to judge.  As parents, right and wrong dictate much of what we drill into our children.  In the workplace, unshakable leadership is a much rewarded trait.  Time spent wavering in the middle is interpreted as weakness.  Indecisiveness isn’t valued.

“It is hard to know when the time has come to judge the merits and possibilities of one’s work.  Still, there is one small way of easing this difficulty, which came to light during the course of conversations with the Fellows.  It  is to think about one’s effort as a “work-in-progress,” that is, a temporary resting place in a continuous creative process.  Whether in science or in art, the ability to judge that a work is finished is more an act of commitment to the continuousness of the creative process that it is a sign of having expressed the last word.”

The almost final chapter in Uncommon Genius is Building Resiliency (Chapter 13).

“The MacArthur Fellows are not quitters.  Even in the face of insult.  Or when confronted with defeat.  Or when up against humiliation, despondency, hostility, boredom, or indifference.  They find a way to make adjustments, to keep at it, to stay buoyant, to believe in themselves.  There is a sense of the carpenter about them, of making things work and of turning mistakes to good account.  There is a smoothness of attitude and a sense of endurance, and of continuity.”

Shekerjian finds the clues for building resilience everywhere.  Her summary in the chapter is:

  • Maintain a variety of projects
  • Choose your friends wisely
  • Embrace your errors and disappointments to see what you can learn
  • When a problem seems intractable, leave it, come back to it, leave it again, and again return
  • Invest yourself in the vision, focusing not just on the goal but on the process;
  • Be accepting of the rhythms of pleasure and pain
  • Retain a plasticity and curiosity about the potential of your field;
  • Learn to see the advantage in a hardship
  • Develop a philosophy that allows you to accept defeat on the same terms as you would welcome a victory
  • Make an effort to know yourself and determine what works for you.

Because I’m so passionate about resilience, I’m going to unpack these suggestions a bit.

Maintain a variety of projects

MacArthur Fellow and poet/novelist/essayist Brad Leithauser spoke to the first suggestion: “When I can’t bear to look at my poetry, I turn to my novel in progress.  When the novel makes me ill, I draft the book review I promised someone. If the book review eludes me, I may sketch out an essay that I’ve been thinking of writing.  There is always something on my desk that I can turn to, always something to work on.”

Shekerjian comments: “One of the many keys to building your recuperative powers, then, is to arrange your affairs in such a way that you always have a variety of things to turn to.  Not only does it help to ease the disappointment of criticism or failure, but there is an added benefit: the tendency of one project to inform another, the surprising connections that surface from one thing to the next.  It is not uncommon, for example for something in one of Leithauser’s essays to provide a clue to a voice he is struggling with in a poem.”

Choose your friends wisely

Shekerjian:  “Time and again I heard the poignant accolades and the urgent testimonials of thanks owed to spouses, mentors, confidants.  Time and again I heard about quality, not quantity.  Rolodex friends, the excessively charming, the pretty, the decorative, the popular, the hip, and the hot – these people aren’t the ones who count when it comes to building resilience.  What counts are a few sustaining words at the right time from the true friend – the one who knows you, the one who cares, the one whose opinion matters, the one who tells the truth and delivers it with perspective.  With a true friend the bruises fade, the wounds heal, and work at last can continue.”

Embrace your errors and disappointments to see what you can learn

Shekerjian:  “Confidence comes from success, to be sure, but it can also come from recognizing that a lot of carefully examined failures are themselves one path to success.

When a problem seems intractable, leave it, come back to it, leave it again, and again return

MacArthur Fellow and research psychologist Howard Gardner: “If you keep trying something and you keep failing, I think it’s very foolish to keep trying to do the same thing in the same way unless you’re sure that nothing else will work.  I think you have to be more pragmatic.  Instead of stupidly insisting and pushing in an area that hasn’t proven to be useful, you ought to put it aside and look at a different problem for awhile and then return to it.  The mind continues to work at it even when you’re not focused on it and sometimes discovers a new angle when the spotlight has been turned off.  Then when you revisit the problem, you may be in a better position to re-conceptualize it and perhaps solve it.  I’ve been very pragmatic in that way and haven’t let closed doors or defeats irritate me – very much.”

Invest yourself in the vision, focusing not just on the goal but on the process;

In citing the accomplishments of MacArthur Fellow and lawyer/community activist Joan Abrahamson (developer of Fort Mason Center for community arts and learning in San Francisco, Kids Place, the Mayor’s Institute, The Franco-American AIDS Foundation, the Security Project, the Economic Club, the Center for the Study of Creativity) Shekerjian says, “By focusing on process – bringing together the resources, meeting with people, learning from them, and seeing how their ideas improve her own – even if she never reaches her goal – she has succeeded.  Her satisfaction comes from the doing, a fulfillment not experienced by people who focus only in winning or losing.  Ignoring or undervaluing the process and lusting after victory makes it very hard to feel that your time has been well spent if you lose; focusing only on the goal makes it very hard to retrench and regroup and be resilient if you fail.”

Develop a philosophy that allows you to accept defeat on the same terms as you would welcome a victory

From MacArthur Fellow and founder of Commonweal Michael Lerner:  “I am deeply grateful for all the good things in my life, but at the same time I recognize that if you make your peace of mind depended on good fortune, you’re not going to be in good shape.  In yoga, there is the idea of samtosha, which is Sanskrit for acceptance, contentment, or satisfaction, the quality of learning how to be satisfied with what you’ve been given.  I work very hard at that.  And you know Shakespeare talks about it in one of his sonnets – a man with satisfaction has something greater than the kings.  So if something difficult happens to me, I try to welcome it, accept it, work with it.  I treat it as what is happening now.  I don’t’ get too excited by my victories or too disappointed by my defeats, and in that way I come closer to peace of mind and that deep inner place that creativity comes from.”

Make an effort to know yourself and determine what works for you.

[See Stories to Learn From for Les Brown’s story of knowing yourself and determining what works for you.]

The very last chapter in the book, For the Love of It, is a brilliant commentary on MacArthur Fellow Ellen Stewart’s huge capacity for love and creativity.  I can’t begin to do justice to it.  I hope you find the time to treat yourself to it.


In every field, things get so specialized.  The generalist – and artists are often, by necessity, generalists – winds up feeling a sense of futility.  At the moment I’m trying for example to write about Kobo Abe, the Japanese novelist.  I’m reading him, as I have to, in English.  There are Japanese souls who have spent the last few decades pondering him.  Am I going to come up with anything new or special?  Well, my hope is yes.  I cling to the optimistic belief that the haphazard and the hopscotch, the creature that sips among many flowers, may actually come up with something.  It’s finally an irrational belief, in most cases, an unrealistic goal.  But one holds to the sense that just sipping broadly enough, from enough flowers, strange and fruitful pollinations will arise.

– Brad Leithauser, MacArthur Fellow

I take a perverse approach to anything that is offered as simplistic or finished or universal.  My tendency to any of that is to turn it upside down.  Or go at it sideways.  Or break it apart.  I’m very leery of anything which is presented as being simple, neat, finished. I have strong doubts about any of those things.  The human condition defies simple, neat, finished.  I think part of our destine as human is to proved that those three things are not productive, are not appropriate for creative growth.

– Shirley Brice Heath, MacArthur Fellow

I think if you’re going to write something about creativity for the public, one of the main points is to disabuse them of the nonsense you see advertised: “Come for a weekend, learn to brainstorm, learn to free-associate, we’ll make you a creative individual.”  I mean, that just doesn’t work.  It’s a serious business for serious people.  Creative work requires, I think, being a certain kind of person, which includes being able to work on things for years, a drive not likely to come to people who paid five hundred dollars for a weekend under a tent.

– Howard Gardner, MacArthur Fellow


[from Chapter  13, Building Resiliency, and knowing yourself and determining what works for you.]

Today it’s fair to say that Les Brown, founder of Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C., is easily one of the most influential people in the field of world conservation.  He receives some three hundred applications for every opening in his organization.  He culls information from sources as diverse as the United Nations and some dusty back alley in some forgotten Asian town.  Analyzing and synthesizing what he learns, he produces publications that serve as policy-making tools in Eastern and Western Bloc nations alike, as well as in the Third World. He is a much sought-after keynote speaker.  Reporters, students, congressmen, legislators, Fortune 500 CEO’s, and all of Ted Turner’s three hundred senior editors on staff in his Cable News Network read Brown’s reports.  Tread lightly, he tells them, lest we trample the earth.  Good planets are hard to find….

That’s the Lester R. Brown of today.  The Les Brown of yesterday grew up on a tomato farm near the Delaware River.  There were no books in his house; neither parent graduated from elementary school.  He had planned to farm for the rest of his life, but two things changed that.  First a teacher introduced him to biography, and in reading about the lives of Abe Lincoln, Kit Carson, Andrew Jackson, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Brown realized that a single person could accomplish a lot.  The second determining factor was a trip to India in 1956, the year after his graduation from what is now Cook College, arranged by the National 4-H club Foundation’s International Farm Youth Exchange Program.  He stayed in India nearly six months.  The poverty was overwhelming, and it occurred to him that the world food problem was of greater importance than the fertility of his family’s tomato fields.

Biography and India set him to wondering about his own limits.  And so, as a young boy, he started to pay attention and stopped letting things slide, as life is apt to do if we look away for a minute.  As he met challenges, he examined all the angles.  He asked himself how he felt about this or that, and why he was afraid in certain situations, and how much risk he thought he could handle, and how he felt about competition, and how much could be accomplished in the space of an hour, and how a decision about this would affect something else….the seeds of his extraordinary capacity for integrated thinking.  It takes a secure person to climb to a high vantage point and to look squarely below at his mistakes and how he very neatly rationalized them in the past.  In a lesser man this inquiry might cause him to despise himself or confirm his feelings of embarrassment or inadequacy.  Not so with Brown.  He was interested in seeing what he was made of.

“I know what works for me and what doesn’t work for me and that helps a lot when it comes to handling mistakes and avoiding disappointments.  I know how much pressure I can take and what to do to try and keep that manageable.  I know how much interruption I can tolerate, and so I’ve arranged my office conditions and working times to limit it to acceptable levels.  I know it clears my mind to work out, and so I walk to and from work and play ball on the weekends.  I know what kind of work really provides me with joy and satisfaction.  If I have to have a paper ready by a certain date, I know how much I need to have done at the end of three months and six months and eight months.  I rarely miss a deadline because I know that about how I work.  I know that I need to read a lot to stay current with the information flow in my field, and so I’ve developed ways of making sure I get that reading done.  I’ve tested myself a lot, maybe more than most people are inclined to do, and I’ve paid attention to the results.”

He started testing and probing and he never stopped.  The result is that he knows himself very well, and that inner knowledge is what he relies on in trying to avoid mistakes and in managing defeats.  The integrated self is a powerful thing.


Shekerjian describes four exercises in Chapter 7: A Change in Perspective:

  1. Playing with hypotheticals
  2. Sharpening the eye
  3. Experimenting with metaphors
  4. Experimenting with visualization

Here is her description of #1: playing with hypotheticals:

Hypothetical questions are meant to shake up our ideas about how we define a problem and where we look for the answer.  When we are trying, for example, to resolve a particularly obstinate issue, the teaching of this exercise is to stop a minute and ask ourselves: Can this problem be phrased more broadly?  More narrowly?  More abstractly?  Using other verbs?  Other nouns?  Other adjectives?  Can it be broken in half?  Can its various pieces be consolidated?  Is it possible to relate it to something I might have done in the past.  Can it be diagrammed?

[for a new invention:] Can we change the color? The material? The texture? The smell?  The density?  Can it be turned inside out? Made larger? Smaller? Stretched? Divided? Rearranged? Can it be made more durable? More expendable? More efficient? More economical? More beautiful?

Anyone of these hypothetical questions hold the potential of nudging a stale perspective in the direction of something new, something more imaginative.


Uncommon Genius: Tracing the Creative Impulse with Forty Winners of the MacArthur Award by Denise Shekerjian.    New York: Penguin Books, 1990.

The forty MacArthur Fellows interviewed for Uncommon Genius:

JOAN ABRAHAMSON: Lawyer, artist, songwriter, catalyst for community action

JOHN ASHBERY: Poet, Pulitzer Prize winner

ROBERT AXELROD:  Political scientist

JOSEPH BRODSKY: Poet, translator, essayist, Nobel Prize winner

LESTER BROWN:  Ecologist, President and Founder of Worldwatch Institute

ROBERT COLES: Psychiatrist, teacher, writer, Pulitzer Prize winner


RICHARD CRITCHFIELD: Journalist, former war correspondent

SHELLY ERRINGTON:  Cultural anthropologist, writer, teacher

HOWARD GARDNER: Research psychologist, writer, teacher

HENRY LOUIS GATES: Literary critic, writer, teacher

STEPHEN JAY GOULD:  Paleontologist, teacher, essayist

IAN GRAHAM: Archaeologist, assistant curator of Maya hieroglyphics

SHIRLEY BLACK HEATH:  Anthropological linguist, writer, teacher

BILL IRWIN: Actor, clown, writer

ROBERT IRWIN: Visual artist

DAVID KEIGHTLEY: Sinologist, teacher, writer

HENRY KRAUS:  Art historian, writer, independent scholar

SYLVIA LAW: Lawyer, teacher, writer

BRAD LEITHAUSER: poet, novelist, essayist

MICHAEL LERNER: Social scientist, President and Founder of Commonweal

SARA LAWRENCE LIGHTFOOT:  Sociologist of education, teacher, writer

ANDREW McGUIRE: Catalyst for community action in public health and safety issues, filmmaker

SAM MALOOF:  Woodworker



DEBORAH MEIER: East Harlem public school teacher and principal

PATRICK NOONAN:  Conservationist

ROGER PAYNE: Whale conservationist and research scientist


JOHN SAYLES: Filmmaker, novelist, playwright, short story writer

PETER SELLARS:  Theater and opera director

RALPH SHAPEY: Composer, conductor, teacher

ROBERT SHAPLEY: Visual neurophysiologist

ELLEN STEWART:  Theater arts

DAVID STUART:  Mayan epigraphist

ALAR TOOMRE:  Mathematician, astronomer, physicist, teacher

K. KIRK T. VARNEDOE: Curator, art historian, writer

DEREK WALCOTT: Poet, playwright, teacher


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