Old myths die hard.
And in the hero-worship world of entrepreneurial storytelling, one of those myths is the legend of the lone genius. Not an hour goes by, it seems, without a new encomium devoted to Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, or Mark Zuckerberg. Of course, some of this is endemic to storytelling itself. Tales flow more smoothly (and predictably) when there’s a main character to focus on, with a goal to achieve and hurdles in his path.Disney knows it. Pixar knows it. And for most intents and purposes, it’s become Storytelling 101.
But that doesn’t mean it’s accurate.
Challenging the Great Man Theory of entrepreneurship can be an uphill task. For every story praising Steve Wozniak’s role as Apple’s co-founder, you’ll find hundreds crediting Jobs as if he personally put the phone in your palm and the song in your ear. “For centuries, the myth of the lone genius has towered over us, its shadow obscuring the way creative work really gets done,” notes author Joshua Wolf Shenk inThe Atlantic.
Shenk’s comment leads to a larger question: What, then, is the way creative work really gets done?
In a recent post on Quartz, creativity expert James Clear provides several answers. And just as authors like Shenk (in his book, Powers of Two, and elsewhere) have debunked the myth of the lone genius, Clear debunks a related myth stemming from the reductive tropes of storytelling: the eureka moment, the so-called “light bulb” moment, the singular flash of genius.
Clear cites the most iconic eureka moment in the history of scientific storytelling: When Sir Isaac Newton saw an apple fall to the ground in 1666. “What most people forget,” Clear writes, “is that Newton worked on his ideas about gravity for nearly twenty years until, in 1687, he published his groundbreaking book, The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. The falling apple was merely the beginning of a train of thought that continued for decades.”
In a nifty counterintuitive twist, Newton’s story does not represent the genius moment he has come to be known for; instead, it represents the actual truth about creativity: It’s a long-term process you’ll have to wrestle with for years. “Being in the top 1% of intelligence has no correlation with being fantastically creative,” writes Clear. “Instead, you simply have to be smart (not a genius) and then work hard, practice deliberately and put in your reps.”
In other words, creativity is in your reach if you can cultivate the proper habits. Here are two of the habits Clear mentions:
1. Adopt a growth mindset.
To explain the difference, Clear cites Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
A fixed mindset is exactly what it sounds like: A belief that your talent level cannot change, no matter how much you practice. By contrast, a growth mindset is the belief that practice can help you improve.
If you’d like to cultivate more of a growth mindset, but there’s a stubborn inner voice telling you you’ll never be good enough, don’t worry–there are proven methods to get over this hump. They are based on the way you talk about your own efforts, and the praise you receive for those efforts.
The key is praising the effort itself, not necessarily the results of the efforts or the abilities of the person making the efforts. In her book, Dweck provides a list of the traits worthy of praise, in order to cultivate a growth mindset: “The effort, the strategies, the doggedness and persistence, the grit people show, the resilience that they show in the face of obstacles, that bouncing back when things go wrong and knowing what to try next.”
2. Don’t be afraid to embarrass yourself.
It’s one thing to embrace the concept of praising effort (heedless of results) in principle. It’s harder to do in reality. “Most people don’t want to deal with the accompanying embarrassment or shame that is often required to learn a new skill,” Clear writes.
How can you learn to be comfortable with embarrassment? One way is to simply think about what it would be like–and whether it would really be as embarrassing as you think it would be. In most cases, you’re worried about things that aren’t humiliating or enduring. Clear writes:
The list of mistakes that you can never recover from is very short. I think most of us realize this on some level. We know that our lives will not be destroyed if that book we write doesn’t sell or if we get turned down by a potential date or if we forget someone’s name when we introduce them. It’s not necessarily what comes after the event that worries us. It’s the possibility of looking stupid, feeling humiliated, or dealing with embarrassment along the way that prevents us from getting started at all.
To cultivate a growth mindset, you simply have to get over these concerns. “You need to be willing to take action,” Clear writes, “in the face of these feelings which so often deter us.”