The Unusual Habits Of 8 Famous Creative Minds

From Jay-Z to de Balzac, these famous creative minds have developed some odd habits on the path to genius.

There is no secret formula for innovation, and a lot of great minds arrive at their creativity in many different ways.


Though we’d all like to crack the code for reaching our creative breakthrough, it’s likely that emulating the habits prescribed by one famous person or another won’t be the cure-all to your stagnated creativity. Though, there’s probably no harm in giving it a try.

So to satiate your voyeuristic curiosity, compiled here are some of the least orthodox, but still effective creative processes of eight great minds.

Salvador Dali napped with a key in his hands.

He was a champion of the power nap, using his “slumber with key” method to wake him as soon as he fell asleep. Sitting in a chair, Dali would hold a metal key in his hand over a metal plate, and the moment sleep began to overcome him, the key would slip from his fingers and clang noisily on the plate below, waking him from the brief moments he had barely lost consciousness.


“Not a second more is needed for your physical and psychic being to be revivified by just the necessary amount of repose,” Dali wrote in 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship.

His practice took advantage of hypnagogia, the transitional state between when you’re fully conscious and asleep. During this time, people can experience visual and auditory hallucinations (have you ever thought someone was calling your name just as you were drifting off to sleep?), sleep paralysis, synesthesia, and feelings of out-of-body-experiences. Andreas Mavromatis explains in his book Hypnagogia that when we are in this state, our ego boundaries loosen up and we are more open to a fluid association of ideas.

Jay-Z commits his rhymes to memory.

In his book Decoded, he writes about working hard on the streets as a teenage drug dealer, not having the time or resources to put pen to paper when rhymes would come to him. “So I created little corners in my head where I stored rhymes,” he wrote. Jay-Z believes the process of storing his creative bursts daily built up his memory “muscle,” and to this day he “writes” his lyrics and flow in his head before entering the recording booth.


Dan Harmon draws a bunch of embryos.

No, not the kind that eventually turns into a baby–at least not a human baby. Harmon’s embryo is actually a story circle divided into the eight steps he deems necessary to birth a satisfying story. Harmon, the creator and writer of NBC’s Community, revealed in an interview with Wired that every plot, gag, and season he creates has to come full circle by following the eight steps, and if not, he scraps everything and starts over.

He came up with the process in the late ’90s while he was stuck on a screenplay. By watching a lot of Die Hard, among other things, he came up with algorithm to explain all great storytelling, ever.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone encourage last-minute panic.

While working under a tight deadline is nothing new, especially for creative people, South Park is just about the only animated show with the entire production, including writing, animation, voice acting, sound and editing, and communicating with standards and practices, carried out the week leading up to the show’s airing.


Unlike other shows that plan everything out months in advance, South Park’s just-completed episodes are often sent to Comedy Central mere hours before airtime. Even Parker acknowledged they’ve been “tempting fate” with their unconventional production schedule for years after a power outage prevented the show from meeting its deadline in October last year.

Parker and Stone reveal in the TV documentary 6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park that the panic is actually all part of the process, which leads to more spontaneous brainstorming, topical satire of current events, and the inability to second guess themselves and rewrite episodes.

Ancient Greek Orator Demosthenes gave himself bad haircuts and spoke with stones in his mouth.

According to the Greek historian Plutarch, Demosthenes was not always great at public speaking, and the first time he gave a speech in public the crowd laughed at him and his friends discouraged him from continuing down this path.


But after receiving some encouragement from a family friend and actor, he took practicing his oratory skills very seriously, to the point where he would practice speaking with stones in his mouth and even retreat to an underground practice room every day. It is said he would stay there for months at a time, and he shaved one side of his head to prevent himself from leaving from fear of being mocked.

Composer Igor Stravinksy stood on his head.

In Conversations With Igor Stravinsky, the Russian-American composer, most notable for his ballets, admitted that he began each day with exercises taught to him by a Hungarian gymnast, and then he stood on his head. Mason Currey explains in his book Daily Rituals that Stravinsky did this to “clear the brain.” It turns out, there are several benefits associated with the inverted pose including improved circulation and detoxification of the adrenal glands.

Novelist Honore de Balzac drank a “brutal” amount of coffee.

In , the French novelist and playwright recommended a “brutal” method for consuming coffee only “to men of excessive vigor” that involves drinking extremely strong coffee on an empty stomach. The result?


Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination’s orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink – for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.

It is rumored Balzac himself drank 50 cups of coffee a day to stimulate his writing, often consuming two or three cups at a time.

Inventor Yoshiro Nakamatsu almost drowns.

The inventor of the floppy disk has more than 3,000 patents to his name, and he says that the closer he is to death, the more creative he gets.

He claims to underwater dive to come up with new ideas, and he says he remains under the surface until he attains his flash of genius, which could happen “just 0.5 seconds before death.”


About the author

Rachel Gillett is a former editorial assistant for’s Leadership section. Her work has been featured on,, and elsewhere