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Creativity Is Really Just Persistence, And Science Can Prove It

We already knew that, as Woody Allen has pointed out, success is overwhelmingly about showing up. Now fresh studies help us understand why that is.

If we want to be super creative, we have to learn to be super dedicated. It's a hardworking thing, as War of Art scribe Steven Pressfield has insisted:

When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.

His exhortations have been echoed elsewhere: As Brain Pickings' Maria Popova arranges, artists have long known that the muse loves a working stiff:

  • Writer E. B. White: "A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper."
  • Painter Chuck Close: "Inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work."
  • Composer Peter Tchaikovsky: "A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood."
Hesiod and the Muse, Gustave Moreau

What's amazing is that advances in science have allowed us to get a better idea as to why better ideas come after jumping into our workflow, rather than waiting for sudden inspiration to strike.

Think, concentrate, and ideas will come.

There's a lot more happening in your mind than what's immediately observable—as in, lots of your thoughts happen without your active thinking. Writer and neuroscientist David Eagleman wrote the book on how so much of our mental lives are incognito. And as he told NPR, it's pretty wild in there:

"All of our lives—our cognition, our thoughts, our beliefs—all of these are underpinned by these massive lightning storms of [electrical] activity [in our brains,] and yet we don't have any awareness of it," he says. "What we find is that our brains have colossal things happening in them all the time."

The question, then, is how to work a little more deftly with these lightning storms and better awaken our inner mental meterologist. Consciously or not, it seems that the slow, disciplined effort of concentration helps work with that weather.

The aha moment isn't always so all of a sudden.

When insights seem to come out of nowhere—for instance, say, while you suds up in the shower—they, in fact, come from somewhere. An oft-cited paper by John Kounios of Drexel University and Mark Beeman of Northwestern University contends that "although the experience of insight is sudden and can seem disconnected from the immediately preceding thought, these studies show that insight is the culmination of a series of brain states and processes operating at different time scales."

Expressed in plain English, this means that a single moment of insight is the result of thinking that happens before it—often, the authors state, due to reorganizing or restructuring the elements of a situation or problem. This echoes the favored Fast Company definition of creativity, that it's finding the connections between seemingly unrelated things.

In your life: How showing up—and keeping focused—enables creative insight

Working memory is the psychology-like term for all the stuff that you're paying attention to right now and what you can readily recall. If you lost your keys this morning, it's likely that you weren't paying attention to that automatic action, so that act never entered into your working memory—, at least if you're a Fast Company staffer. You've got a finite amount of attention stuff—and the way you invest it kinda decides your life.

Researchers at a group of Dutch universities studied the productive effects of a finely tuned working memory, saying that it "enables persistent, focused, and systematic combining of elements and possibilities"—right in line with how we define creativity.

They call that getting-there ethic persistence. We call it getting to know the Muse.

Hat tip: Brain Pickings

[Image: Flickr user Geraint Rowland]

Add New Comment


  • Nice article Drake! Inspiration seems to come suddenly from nowhere, but actually if we think about it, we will find out that the statement made by John Kounios and Mark Beeman is true. Sometimes we think about something or we are influenced by the things we see around us and our minds start working. As we keep thinking about it, the thoughts become more perfect and complex at the same time; and suddenly: Bingo! a great idea has come and we think it came from nowhere.

  • Nice article, great subect, thank you for sharing. I believe that that our human trend to wait for insipiration like an illumination coming down on us like a ray of sunlight hides a certain, say, laziness as it would be so cool and easy to have it appearing like that. Personnaly my best ideas and projects were never the ones I had at the begining but something that emerged from researches, sharing, discussions and precisous inputs from others. The first idea was just a starting point.

  • Stephen Bounds

    I'm going to file this next to all the articles that exhort organizations about the "Importance of innovation".

  • Tek

    It's proven by someone who freely admits they don't understand creativity as our greatest artists have. Are we perhaps missing some portion of perspective? I would recomend reading Sigmund Freud's lecture Creativing Writing and Daydreaming (alternatively The Poet and Daydreaming). Hard work is vital, certainly, but not the whole.

  • rameshraghuvanshi

    Sigmund Freud is out of date in era of neuroscience, our all activities of conscious mind governed by our unconscious mind.How our unconscious mind developed is till mystery so how creativity arises in our unconscious mind it require persistence or inspiration discuss on it is futile

  • dhjashdjas

    Of course, but this doesn't fit into the American "YOU ARE SPECIAL" way of life.

  • A. Person

    Interesting article.

    Too bad it is completely incorrect.

    But people void of creativity sure like the idea that if you "work hard enough for long enough", if you punish yourself enough you will "prove" you really "deserve" it.. and then poof like a Genie pops out of your ass and BAM! "here ya go buddy, you earned it."

    LOL @ such faulty reasoning.

    "The lion, the king, does not toil all the day long, "persistently" seeking after that which he desires."

    The truly wise conserve their kinetic energies, until the auspicious time arrives for intense activity.

    This is how BIG changes happen.

    This is observable natural law.

    Think of a volcano.

    The pressure, heat, and the earth just building and building until...BOOOOOM!!

    It's the big bang.

    It's orgasm.

    THIS is how things get created.

    The only people who say "persistence" is the path to inspiration of creativity, are those who were once creative or "had the muse" but do no longer.

    They DO have to be persistent, bang away to even have a chance at staying relevant and continuing to cash in on what they DID do while they. were creative.

    Nothing wrong with that, but at least be honest about it.

    But let's talk a bit about this "muse".

    Well really she is just the collective unconscious.

    In the last few generations, Man has discovered two invisible forces: electricity and electromagnetic (radio) waves.

    No one believed they existed a few hundred years ago.

    In your generation, you are going to confirm another invisible force that called the collective unconscious mind.

    It is the force of nature, or part of the force of nature, that gives you continuity from one life to another.

    Without it, there could be no evolution.

    The collective unconscious is not alive.

    It is just a part of our minds, an extension of our minds, not a separate life form.

    The collective unconscious is something like gravity that connects all of us.

    Religions call it the Holy Spirit.

    “Every extension of knowledge arises from making the unconscious conscious.” ~Friedrich Nietzsche


    In other words, when you get your mind out of the way, you become conscious of what you were not conscious of before.

    You become conscious of something beyond the mind.

    You can make contact with the universal mind of life.

    “The intellect has little to do on the road to discovery. There comes a leap in consciousness, call it intuition or what you will, the solution comes to you and you don't know how or why. The truly valuable thing is the intuition.”

    ~Albert Einstein



    The word means “breath of God.”

    It is where ideas, art, poetry, movies, philosophy, music, inventions, revelations and all new creative things come from.

    It manifests in many ways, such as talent, intuition and insight.

Intuition and inspiration come from the same place.

    They are both manifestations of the collective unconscious.

    When asked where we got the idea for something, AUTHENTIC creative people will tell you how we were inspired, we just saw it clearly, it just came to us like a flash, etc.

    All new, creative things come from outside your own mind.

    By definition, they have to come from outside your mind to be truly new.

    Paul McCartney was once asked where his songs come from.

    He answered: “I don't know; they seem to come out of the air.”

    John Lennon said: “When real music comes to me - the music of the spheres, the music that surpasses understanding - that has nothing to do with me, cause I'm just the channel. The only joy for me is for it to be given to me, and to transcribe it like a medium... those moments are what I live for.”

    There MUST be an outside influence, because ideas can come to many people at about the same time.

    For example: language developed at about the same time everywhere on the planet.

    Religions from different times and places have many things in common.

    Inventions and styles of music and art come to people at about the same time.

    It is not coincidence.

    You can know that all great or inspired music comes from the collective unconscious, because if it did not, the musicians that wrote the classic songs in the past would still be writing classic songs now.

    VERY few are, but most are not.

    Great inspirations come when they come, and when they quit coming, there is no way for the musicians to do it on their own.

    How well you play has nothing to do with it.

    The older musicians get, the better they get on their instruments, but they often have their great songs when they were young and could not play as well.

    It is the same with books, art and inventions.

    Every once in a great while, you get a Newton, a Beethoven, an Edison or an Einstein.

    These people were just more connected to the collective unconscious, thus they received more inspirations.

    “My brain is only a receiver, in the Universe there is a core from which we obtain knowledge, strength and inspiration. I have not penetrated into the secrets of this core, but I know that it exists.”

    ~Nikola Tesla

    Mozart, Tesla, and Einstein were just more inspired than most people.


Einstein had all his great ideas in one year when he was a patent clerk in his twenties.

    He called it his magic year.

    It was a year of great inspirations.

    He spent the rest of his life working on those ideas and did not have any more BIG inspirations.

    His life makes it clear that the great ideas come in inspirations.

    This power of inspiration comes and goes.

    Italians are not Romans.

    Persistence does not breed creativity.

    Greeks are not as inspired as they were when Socrates and Plato lived.

    If you study history, you can literally see the inspiration moving around through different people at different times and places.

    It comes and goes, and a person’s or people's power and greatness comes and goes with it.

Inspiration can come and stay if you learn the truth and life. 

    Being connected mentally by gravity and/or the earth’s magnetic field or something like it is not so far-fetched.

    Your minds is just bio-electrical activity in our brains.

    Gravity and electromagnetic fields are passing through our brains at all times.

    It would be more surprising if they did not affect you.

    Gravity is connected to everything in the infinite universe, and in much the same way, your minds are connected, more or less, on a subconscious level to all living things.

    “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.”
~Albert Einstein

  • Sojourner

    I agree with you that this article portrays a false meaning of creativity.

    You can't say that the act of creation is just a matter of persistence, but apparently most people here have bought into that lie. Just another example of a zombified culture. Yes just drink the koolaid and you'll feel better.

    So you're getting nowhere? Just work a little harder. So you've haven't got any inspiration? Just keep at it. So you've lost your sight, and can't see the perils before you? Just keep walking.

    We live in world where vision is a privilege, and wisdom is an unnecessary comodity. People keep moving, never stopping to ask if they're even moving in the right direction.

    Those who seek wisdom must break free from society. They must search elsewhere.

    It is not in man to direct his own steps. True inspiration is the breath of God and without it, man in all his glory, is just dust.

  • wootendw

    "...disciplined effort of concentration..."

    This, of course, depends on what is meant by 'disciplined'. If you are really interested in something, you do not need 'discipline' to make you concentrate on it. You will think and wonder about it naturally and 'effortlessly', as well as related things that can give new insights, and good ideas should come to you naturally. That is the way it has always worked for me although, at 62, the ideas don't nearly as often as when I was 26.

  • Bernard A.T. Tan

    Creativity is persistent concentration and hard work digging into the unconscious level of our mind to think out of the box and come out with something new

  • Rick Marro

    I think this is 100% true, if you are not persistent no amount of creativity will help you --- if you cant get it to market :-) 

  • rameshraghuvanshi

    I fully agree with you. sit down in chair and start to work  originality  it self emerge in your work.One condition is here you must have inborn creativity.if that is not there no use of persistence.

  • Peter Cook

    Wallas (1926) knew that creativity was an incremental process and that it required incubation.

    We also need a special kind of persistence.  Not just try, try again, but try something different.

    And I echo Keith Sawyer's remarks below.

    My books "Best Practice Creativity", "Sex, Leadership and Rock'n'Roll" and "The Music of Business" offer complementary insights into the creative process.

    Peter Cook

  • Nathaniell Brenes

    I've always known this to be true, but never seen it put into writing. I know that when I start thinking about a problem, if I don't have a solution, the best method of solving that problem is sustained thought over a period of time. What seems impossible in the beginning, often comes together piece by piece, or in a 'aha moment'. Either way, it ends up being not-so-impossible after all. After seeing that process play out a few times and becoming aware of it, one can really become aware of one's own ability to be creative and find solutions to whatever life dumps in front of us.

  • keithsawyer

    I am a creativity researcher, and I love this article because the creativity research is very clear: Creativity comes from sustained effort and hard work. The mystery largely disappears when you're up close and watching the hard work that takes place every day of a creative life. But it matters HOW you work, and there are techniques that can help you be more consistently creative. Check out ZIG ZAG: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity for over 100 of these research-based techniques.