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.

It’s possible that he was what Linda Martinez calls a high achieving narcissist. Or what Michael Maccoby refers to as a productive narcissist.

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.

Nov 25, 2011

22 comments · Add Yours

So, who’s the bigger genius the guy or gal that comes up with an inovation or the person that knows what to do with it?
I’m going to sugest point 4 is more of a bell curve, must be earned and based on merit.
At one side of the bell curve are those that don’t feel worthy, so they don’t put any effort into getting the things they want in life.
On the other side are those that feel entitled that things should just begiven to them, so they are not going to put any work into getting the things they want.
At the top are those that feel eorthy of the things they worked hard for.


eorthy = worthy


Also to point 5 this might help: the ability to seperate fact from fiction.



justine musk post recipe:

1. several gallons barely-veiled jabs at ex-husband, his way of life, his choices, and his past behaviors
2. half-baked cathartic philosophizing about self-help and gender roles
3. draw 2-4 subjective conclusions, based on wikipedia research, about famous leaders or cultural icons, present authoritatively
4. sprinkle in ridiculous, superfluous descriptive phrases in an attempt to show that you are, in fact, a fiction writer (e.g. “naked blazing ball of totally obscene ambition.”)
5. stir until scent of deep personal unhappiness and schoolgirl angst fills the website

serve tepid


There is another issue that has to be considered. We don’t know how many of these characters fail. I always remember Erlich, who hit on the idea of chemicals that might target bacteria, I think the one that worked was number 606 Whatnif he had given up or died at about number 500, he’d be regarded as an obsessive idiot committed to a daft idea, rather than be remembered as a genius. Whilst the successful tell us something, they don’t always tell us how to be successful, there is probably some luck in being at the right place a with the right idea at the right time.
What is remarkable about Jobs, I think, is that he kept doing it, and he did it in quite different ways at Pixar, compared to what he did at Apple.


I like the idea of looking at the qualities and shortcomings of these personalities and gleaning what works.
I do a little speaking in rural high schools (Alabama) and your point — Get truly excellent at something that I’ve been advocating for some time. It’s a message that I think is important, especially for students that often start off at a disadvantage.
Great post Justine.


“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
“If we all did the things we are capable of, we would astound ourselves.”
“When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this – you haven’t.”
“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is to try just one more time.”
“There are no rules here — we’re trying to accomplish something.”
“Vision without execution is hallucination.”
― Thomas A. Edison


“I swear — by my life and my love for it — that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”
“Man’s mind is his basic tool of survival. Life is given to him, survival is not. His body is given to him, its sustenance is not. His mind is given to him, its content is not. To remain alive, he must act, and before he can act he must know the nature and purpose of his action. He cannot obtain his food without a knowledge of food and of the way to obtain it. He cannot dig a ditch — or build a cyclotron — without a knowledge of his aim and the means to achieve it. To remain alive, he must think.”
“We are on strike against those who believe that one man must exist for the sake of another … our terms are a moral code which holds that man is an end in himself and not the means to any end of others … The mind is evil? We have withdrawn the works of our minds from society … Ability is a selfish evil that leaves no chance to those who are less able? We have withdrawn from the competition and left all chances open to incompetents. The pursuit of wealth is greed, the root of all evil? We do not seek to make fortunes any longer.”
― John Galt (or Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or the 1%-ers)

Self-first is not Selfish and all to often gets labled as narcissism. If I don’t compromise my dreams and vision, as to make those around me feel included and valued, I’m labled a bully and a meanie?


Sorry, I seem to be hogging all the comment space.
Everyone feel free to ignore me.


@Josh A. Kruschke Josh — no, you get labeled a bully and a meanie by being a bully and a meanie. :) By that I mean being verbally and emotionally abusive, which is very different from refusing to hold somebody’s hand.

Also, referring to your point about who is the genius, the guy who comes up with the technology or the guy who figures how to best implement it — I don’t think it’s either/or. Nothing happens in isolation. Brilliance, genius, visionary creative insight, whatever you want to call it — it’s all part of an ongoing conversation, different ideas hooking into each other or riffing off each other until boom, something amazing happens.


@Me Ah, try to put the female in her place by undercutting her intellect (“wikipedia research”) and trivializing her motives “(jabs at the ex”, “schoolgirl angst”, cathartic blah gender blah blah) and reducing her to stereotype (unhappy embittered ex). Done anonymously, of course. Damn you, you made me cry! (Kidding.) I actually have huge respect for my ex, at least in certain areas (and trust me, I know him better than you.) And hey, if you don’t like my cooking, feel free to get the fuck out of my kitchen. :)


In my somewhat informal study of “great people” it seems that they had in varying degrees a kind of go for the jugular quality that enable them to make the kill or whatever the task was at hand. I surmise, because tamer personalities assume it can’t be done and look for the nearest exit. Lack of vision, or fear, laziness and host of other ills are no doubt responsible.

That said, the most timid man has another man living inside. It’s the one that wants to succeed and bring home the bacon, it must be wired in.

In any event, someone is going to get hurt. I’m not sure you can change that, it’s human nature but we can be aware of the narcissist and adjust accordingly.

Without all the different personality components I doubt we would have come this far.


I’m partially a narcissist. Sadly, the only skill that I don’t have is flare and salesmanship.
I wonder if there are ways to work on this other than drowning people in statements about how great my ideas are.


Too bad there isn’t a way to “like” a comment Justine, ’cause I really liked yours!
I forward your blog to my daughters all the time, in the mist of all the media noise it is nice to have someone else say, hey, this is how a grown up behaves!


I loved the “Give yourself an A” from The Art of Possibilities. And this was a great article Justine. I love your cooking. ;)

P.S. I’m also fascinated by Coco Chanel and I think it’s cool you put her in with other game changing people like Ford and Churchill.


“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.”

This isn’t so much the case now as it was fifty or sixty years ago. The rise of the knowledge economy, accompanied by the shift in production methods from a Fordist economic approach to Post-Fordist (information based) economic approach has placed a higher premium on the creative team rather than the mundane assembly line worker. It’s also been working quite hard to undermine the 19th Century Romantic (rehashed Platonic) notion of the creative genius. It suggests that creativity isn’t so much a matter of birth, genes and other forms of a-priori traits, but a learned set of behaviours.
Regardless, I remember reading this in one of my textbooks and thought of you (and a few others who’ve stated similar facts). Even such, however, good post. Very thought provoking.


@J.M. I agree — things have changed — and notions of creativity and ‘creative genius’ have definitely (and thankfully) been upended. I also think the culture is changing so rapidly that the public education system is now educating and training kids for jobs that might not even *exist* by the time they graduate. Anything linear, logical, ‘professional’ is now in danger of being outsourced or automated. To ensure career security now, you have to be remarkable at what you do, and you have to be unique. I believe in that William Gibson quote — “the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed” — and I believe that we are already out of the Information Age and into the Creative Age (or the Conceptual Age), but some of us know this a lot better than others. And I do not believe that (most) public schools are adequately preparing kids for this “adapt or die, create or die” kind of culture, partly because that requires cultivating a holistic, visual, intuitive way of thinking that, among other things, would be incredibly difficult to grade or teach “to the test”.

On a related note, this shift in the culture is a reason why women are still at a major disadvantage in the public world *even though* they are equal to or outpacing men when it comes to performing well in school, collecting degrees, etc. The source of real wealth and power has moved to the realm of ideas and technology — a sign of *real* status, now, is getting into Harvard — and then dropping out to form your own start-up.


@Liz K Zook Oh, most of us fall somewhere on the narcissistic scale — narcissism is a spectrum, not an absolute. I was talking about people with narcissism so extreme that it qualifies as a personality disorder, which is a tiny percentage of the population. Interestingly, though, the percentage of extreme or malignant narcissists (or sociopaths, since a lot of people don’t really distinguish between the two) in the *corporate* world is considerably higher than it is in the general population (see the books SNAKES IN SUITS and THE PSYCHOPATH TEST). Which has some interesting ramifications for the rest of us (can we say “Enron”? Or “BP oil spill?”).


Josh’s 10 Principles of Education

Tests are to evaluate where the student is at! They are not a measure of how smart the student is! Two types of testing.

The first is a “test of progression,” and will be given periodically to the student to determine which subjects to focus on.
The second is to test for “subject of study” level advancement and can be taken at anytime the student feels ready. Once you pass you move forward. Each “subject of study” is separate and will not hold the student back from advancing in another “subject of study.” Except where proficiency in one subject is need for another.

Everyone is different in learning style and in learning speed. Age and time limits will not be set in stone. Teachers will insure that students progress in there studies and do not neglect areas of disinterest.
Use of the  book “The 5th Discipline The Art & Practices of The Learning Organization” by author Peter M. Senge, and the works of Edward de Bono to be used to re-engage our youth with the ability to think for themselves and build institutions that last.
Basics…. Basics…. Basics…. and emphasize organizational & research skills. You don’t have to memorize everything if you know where to find the info you need. Keep It Simple Silly (KISS) Teachers will keep this in mind and not over complicate the subjects being taught.
Emphasize how the “subjects of study” are relevant and used in the real world; also, teach the students that there is a reason, a “Why,” a method to the madness if you will.
Students need to be given a strong understanding of Social and Life Skills. It does the student no good to know lots of facts and information if the student doesn’t have the social skills to productively interact with society or the life skills to take care of them selves.
A healthy lifestyle will be emphasized with stress management, meditation, nutrition and physical fitness.
The Goal of the School system should be to turn students into life long learners: Not to make them think that when they graduate that they will have learned everything and no longer need to study.
Parents and guardians should have a leading roll in their children’s education, so schools should be set up as a learning hub, and organized like a Community/Learning Center, with many different clubs, sports and physical activities; along with a Mentor/Tutor program. Teachers are there to provide structure and to point students toward answers, not to hold their hands and just tell them what is right. Along with a formal class room setting there should be support for homeschooling and access to physical labs and shop areas. To support all this learning software (will be developed) will be used keep track of progress; also, down-loadable text books to be used with Smart-Phones. This way the student can learn at anytime and from any situation.
NO CENSORSHIP and NO ADVOCACY!!! Students will be given the tools to evaluate and decided for themselves. Teachers will not support or condemn any position, but deal in facts. Teachers will give both sides of any position, the good and bad. Students will have freedom of choice, and the ability to support or refute all forms of thought and be able to debate both sides of any position. Students will then be able to deal with new ideas by them selves and not have to rely on someone to tell them what is right and wrong. 


For whatever reason, I never strayed from Twitter over to this blog. Really happy I finally found it. Terrific insights.


Love this post! Aren’t we all a bit of a creative narcissist or at least striving for creative genius?


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