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.

Creativity Is Really Just Persistence, And Science Can Prove It

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]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.