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What Rituals Tell Us About Creativity

December 2013 / February 2014

December 2013 / February 2014

I’ve been doing a lot of research on creativity and talent. The cultural language surrounding these topics are simply filled with self-undermining and untrue beliefs. I taught myself how to draw in December 2013, and many of the responses were, “I can’t draw a straight line!,” or “I could never do that.” The worst: “You are really talented!”

There is a gray area about that last statement: I did indeed discover an inclination that I never pursued. Whereas drawing came very easily for me, music or math may not. Above all, I worked at it for months, 2-3 sometimes 4 hours a day, relentlessly watching videos, taking online courses, skimming through books, and asking questions whenever I could.

What makes this so incredibly depressing—and reflective of what traditional education does—is that there is a wealth of information that dispels these delusions about talent and genius. The gap between what culture believes and what science proves is unfortunately on opposite ends of the spectrum. From brain plasticity, decades of research on talent and creativity, the answers are clear: learning to draw is the same as learning a new language, learning to read, write, or do math. What makes it so difficult to develop a new skill at the age of 25 or 35 or 45 are the deeply rooted, inaccurate beliefs about what talent and creativity are and how we can nurture it in our lives.

So let’s talk about the basic element, one that we all engage in daily: a ritual. It is what sustains creativity and enables us to show up for work. It is a combination of habits, personality, and lifestyle. It is, in essence, the very foundation of who we become. Ever play a sport? Before game time did your team have a ritual? Slap the poster before heading out of the locker room? Do a chant or a motivational speech? Or what about your mornings? Do you wake up in a certain way to elicit certain behaviors? That’s a ritual.

Seth Godin explains it best in Manage Your Day-to-Day [emphasis by me]:

“Everybody who does creative work has figured out how to deal with their own demons to get their work done. There is no evidence that setting up your easel like Van Gogh makes you paint better. Tactics are idiosyncratic. But strategies are universal, and there are a lot of talented folks who are not succeeding the way they want to because their strategies are broken.

The strategy is simple, I think. The strategy is to have a practice, and what it means to have a practice is to regularly and reliably do the work in a habitual way.

There are many ways you can signify to yourself that you are doing your practice. For example, some people wear a white lab coat or a particular pair of glasses, or always work in a specific place — in doing these things, they are professionalizing their art.

Can you write out, in explicit detail, how you begin your mornings? What you do in the evenings? During lunch?

This is an area of our lives that easy to overlook because we habituate to it. We don’t think about which foot to lift up when we put on our pants. This is natural, of course, a function of our brains and the work of habituation. But being mindful of our rituals can provide awareness to the areas in our lives that could be tinkered. For example, instead of checking email and Facebook in the mornings, why not write or read for 2 hours? That simple shift can have profound effects on your life.

In Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey provides a plethora of insight into the rituals of histories most celebrated artists including composers, authors, musicians, scientists, choreographers, and more. My favorite example of a true professional is of Twyla Tharp, a choreographer and author of The Creative Habit. She says in her book:

“I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5:30 a.m., put on workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirt, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.”

That is pro.

She’s a pro because she knows that the hardest part isn’t weight training—it’s showing up. And her version of showing up is hailing that taxi cab. Speaking for myself, sitting at my desk after eating breakfast is my telltale sign that work is about to begin. The door is closed, the phone is on silent, faced down and out of sight, and there’s the blank document that I’ve learned to enjoy seeing regularly. I write for 3-4 hours until my brain fizzles. Then my second habit kicks in: exercise. I exercise for 1 to 2 hours, eat lunch, and resume work. I do this until my brain fizzles again.

When it comes to rituals, it’s vital that you tailor it to your personality and lifestyle. For example, a common theme in this book is that most of these famous artists had day jobs, rose early (between 5:30 a.m. and 8:00 a.m.), drank coffee, went for walks or exercised, and took naps. But there are also the strange ones, like Mark Twain, who stood up while writing. Or B.F. Skinner who used a timer and plotted on graphs his daily word output and time spent.

William Faulkner, author of As I Lay Dying, wrote in the mornings and at night worked as a supervisor at a university power plant. Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, worked in the advertising departments of Time and Look, but also spent 2 to 3 hours a night writing for 8 years. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote This Side Of Paradise during study events while he was enlisted in the army. He wrote 120,000 words in three months. Do the math: That’s roughly 1,300 words a day, everyday. Gertrude Stein admits that she could never write for more than half an hour a day. But she admits, “If you write a half hour a day, it makes a lot of writing year by year.”

Our rituals define who we are and who we become; they are about patterns. But we don’t have to be slaves to them. We can tinker them accordingly while still paying our dues and fulfilling our obligations. It takes some self-scrutiny and self-awareness. It helps to write it down so that you can visualize your patterns throughout the day. You can start tailoring your ritual to fit who you want to become. Twyla Tharp is a pro because she begins with her day with exercise—a difficult obligation indeed. My guess is that she can’t work out at 4:00 p.m.; neither could I.

The purpose of reading—and sharing—Daily Rituals is not so we can mimic or steal rituals from history’s great artists. It’s to provide a perspective on what these individuals did to bring their creative work to life. Many of these names are relentlessly glorified throughout books and media, but at the heart of their “genius” or “talent” is something very simple: a work routine, a ritual, that allows them to show up and get to work. Removing these delusions are  helpful so we can stop gawking at “geniuses,” and to realize that their productivity and output is something that we’re all in control of: showing up, practicing deeply, persisting, learning, adapting, and finding our own rhythm.