how to be a creative genius (or just look like one)
I’m not surprised that the recent biography of Steve Jobs turned out to be controversial, revealing – as Malcolm Gladwell put it – “a man with a nasty edge.”
Apparently Jobs had a mean streak. He could be a bully. He played fast and loose with reality – otherwise known as his “reality distortion field” – and took credit for ideas not his own.
If so, he’s in great company. Maccoby identifies creative and cultural forces such as Picasso, Henry Ford, Richard Wagner, Coco Chanel, Winston Churchill, as ‘productive narcissists.’
I am fascinated by Coco Chanel, and it’s not because I carry her handbags (too ladylike for me) or wear her clothes (wrong body type). Style is the story you tell about yourself to the world, and here’s a woman who told a story that was so radically different from everything around her it challenged the very idea of what it meant to be ‘feminine’ (and caged in bustles and corsets).
Chanel was tiny, slender, flat-chested, spirited, independent: big, torturous clothes (involving whalebone*) that pushed up your breasts, clamped your waist, severely limited your movements, caused fainting spells, squashed your internal organs into odd positions, threatened to knock over people when you turned sideways, and required help putting on, were no good to her.
She dressed the way she damn well pleased, then turned her style into a business – in an age, remember, that was not exactly a hotbed of professional opportunity for women.
She should have been booed off the stage. (“Taking menswear and turning it into womenswear? Taking a cheap ugly hard-to-manage fabric like jersey and turning it into a chic dress? Is this woman smoking crack?”) Instead, she managed to revolutionize an entire industry. (Last time I checked, I had three jersey dresses hanging in my closet. Maybe four. Long cardigans? Little black dresses? Yep, got those too. Thank you, Coco.) Her look is so focused and singular that you can practically recognize it in the dark.
The woman had vision, she never let other people talk her out of it, and she communicated it to the world in a way that resonates today.
That is awesome.
The more I learn about creativity, the more I think about how our culture stamps it out of most of us, starting when we’re young. Our public educational system is a relic of the Industrial Age, founded by tycoons who needed to stock their factories with competent and literate employees. The last thing they wanted to cultivate among this future workforce was the ability to “think different” . If ‘genius’ is about achieving unprecedented levels of creative insight, conventional schooling does not provide the conditions conducive for this. If anything, it provides the exact opposite. It’s a genius killer.
Unless, perhaps, you’re an extreme narcissist.
Human beings are social animals. We form our self-images according to the feedback, the reflections, we get from the people around us. If people think well of us, then we tend to think well of ourselves (and form our ambitions accordingly). The more positive attention we get, the more powerful we tend to be – or become.
(Unless, of course, it’s sexual attention, which is transitory and uncertain.)
At the same time, studies show – as Jonathan Fields discusses in his book UNCERTAINTY– that we do our most creative and risk-taking work when we don’t think that anyone is watching. If we know we have an audience — or that our work will be judged and evaluated — we’re more inclined to play it safe. We color inside the lines. We don’t want to fail or make mistakes or look stupid. We want, instead, to get the top prize.
We want the A.
There are two kinds of motivation: extrinsic vs intrinsic. When we engage in creative work with one eye on the possible outcome – the grade, the prize, the money, the fame, or any other external reward– we do not make the kind of truly cool, epic shit as when we take joy and satisfaction in the process itself. Doing the activity for the sake of the activity (aka intrinsic motivation) appears to be the key to flow and creative achievement.
So even as our sense of self evolves through the ongoing process of social feedback, our innate creativity suffers for it. As kids, we start out with grandiose ambitions: a vision of the future that we can create, a sense of the self that we can become. As we grow older, and interact with the people around us, that vision gets tempered and compromised. Some would say we turn ‘realistic’. Others might say that we trade in that vision, as well as the guidance it gives us, in exchange for approval from others. In the quest to get along, and to belong — and avoid social exile, which our primitive brain equates with death – we smooth away the freaky edges of our personality. We lose track of our true inner knowing. Instead of going for greatness, we go for the A.
This doesn’t seem to happen with narcissists.
What characterizes extreme narcissism – and makes it dangerous to be in relationship with it – is a pronounced lack of empathy. So if most of us tune into other people in order to establish and navigate a shared reality, the narcissists’ reality starts – and ends – with themselves. It’s possible they never lose faith in their quote-unquote crazy dreams because they define their own reality – which could be known as a “reality distortion field” , and is sometimes known as pathological lying. But the best and brightest and most charismatic manage to seduce other people into that reality along with them — and help flesh it out into actual, factual being for the rest of us.
If not for the fact that extreme narcissists tend to end up alienated, embittered, alone – and confused as to why, exactly, their loved ones can’t stand them – you might think that it’s great to actually be one. (Going through life without the burden of worrying about other people? Sign me up!) Instead, it might be worthwhile to look at what works for them and how the rest of us can apply some of those tactics to our own lives.
Develop an authentic and compelling point of view.
An authentic point of view is a singular point of view because it’s unique to you. It combines your tastes, beliefs, ideas and personality with the skillset needed to express that point of view in the most powerful way possible.
Sometimes we refer to it as your “voice”.
A great creative voice develops over time. It feeds off a diversity of influences, so you want to seek out and soak up as many ideas as possible. As Steve Jobs pointed out, creativity is little more than “connecting the dots”: through combining and recombining different, pre-existing ideas, you arrive at something fresh. But you can’t connect the dots if you don’t give yourself all that many to work with in the first place.
To be compelling, a point of view has to be relevant to others. If it has some scope to it, and inspires a sense of awe, so much the better.
Note that Steve Jobs’ stated vision was never to “make a gajillion dollars” or “build a powerful company” or “become so revered that people leave flowers outside Apple stores when I die.” His vision was to challenge the status quo, to put a dent in the universe, to change the world, by giving people the tools that would democratize creativity. That is pretty amazing. Not to mention, it’s a vision that lots of other people could regard as personally meaningful for themselves, even as it connects them to something bigger than themselves.
Get truly excellent at something.
We value what is rare, so if you master the difficult, learn the tough stuff, do what other people are not willing to do, you can create your own niche and dominate the outcome. If you are heeding your inner voice then you probably love what you’re doing — which makes those ten or fifteen or twenty thousand hours of deliberate practice slip by a lot faster.
Give yourself an A.
I took this idea from a book called THE ART OF POSSIBILITY. Since we all, on some level, are working for the A, give it to yourself right at the beginning of the process (“Boom. Done. The ‘A’ is mine, dammit!”). This frees you up to focus on the process. When you know you already have the A, you are willing to take more creative risk, try new things, make the mistakes that serve as learning experiences on the path to the kind of achievement that lives beyond the A.
Be a naked blazing ball of totally obscene ambition.
We think of time as linear – the past is done, the present is now, the future hasn’t happened yet. But if you shift to a non-linear, holistic, visual way of thinking, you can see it all at once: pastpresentfuture. Your past – or rather, how you tell the story of your past to yourself – influences your actions in the present, which shapes the way you conceive of the future. At the same time, the ambitions you have for your future can provide a context for your present, one that inspires you to action…or not.
Books that explore narcissistic personality disorder will talk about the narcissist’s sense of time. The extreme narcissist lives solely in the present. They act according to how they feel and what they want from you in this particular moment, which is why they can eviscerate you, leave you in tears – and then ask if you want to go to a movie (and wonder why you’re so upset). The narcissist will also create and recreate their story of the past so that it supports whatever they need to believe about the present – which is one of the reasons why, if you happen to have shared that particular past, dealing with a narcissist can be frustrating and crazy-making.
Although playing fast and loose with the actual facts of your life is probably a bad idea, the way that you choose to interpret those facts and tell them as a story is up to you. Facts are facts, but story is what gives them meaning. Story acts as a unifying thread that links your past to your future. Why not reverse-engineer it? Think of the future that you would like to have, then “re-truth your past”: think of a way to re-tell your past so that it sets you up to achieve that future.
Learn to sell it.
Productive narcissists tend to be great communicators. What a narcissist requires above all else is attention, and from a young age they figure out strategies to get as much attention as possible. They tend to be outgoing, charming and persuasive in person – at least when they want to be, or deem you important enough to expend that kind of effort.
(A recent study demonstrated that, on first impression, people tend to like narcissists more than non-narcissists. As time goes on, though, people tend to like narcissists less and less, until about four months into the study people rate the non-narcissists higher in likeability than the narcissists. )
The lesson here? Put ‘becoming a great communicator’ at the very top of your to-do list. Steve Jobs was famous for the compelling, theatrical flair with which he staged presentations. Narcissists seem to instinctively know what the rest of us don’t always learn: in one way or another, we are always selling something, whether it’s our work, our ideas, or ourselves. You can force yourself on people – which, in the end, leads to resentment, subterfuge, rebellion. Or you can communicate yourself in such a way that other people want to be part of your bigger picture and help bring your great dream into being.
Which might be the ultimate creative act.
*Let’s think about that for a moment. Freaking whalebone.