Here are SIX things I learned, thought were interesting, or found useful.
The Incentive To Be Creative Reduces Creativity
Psychologist Theresa Amabile has devoted a distinguished career to studying creativity. In a typical experiment, she has a group of participants do a creative task—paint a picture, write a poem, make a collage—within a certain period of time. Each experiment includes some kind of manipulation to some of the participants’ motivation. She would tell some but not others that their finished product would be evaluated and ranked for creativity, or that it would be entered into a contest, or that could receive a reward for creative work. Then she would have the work evaluated by a panel of judges who did not know about the experimental manipulations. “The overriding result of the experiments,” Peter Gray writes in Free to Learn, “was this: any intervention that increased the incentive to be creative had the effect of reducing creativity. In experiment after experiment, the most creative products were made by those who were in the non-incentive condition—the ones who worked under the impression that their products would not be evaluated or entered into contests and who were not offered any prizes. They thought they were just creating the product for fun.” In the terminology Gray uses throughout his book, they were just playing.
Quantity Leads To Quality
There’s a parable about a ceramics teacher in David Bayles and Ted Orland’s book, Art & Fear. On the first of class, the ceramics teacher divides the class into two groups. “All those on the left side of the studio,” the ceramics teacher said, “would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.” On the final day of class, the quantity group piled all of their work on a scale—fifty pounds of pots was an “A”, forty pounds a “B,” etc. The quality group had to produce only one pot, but it had to be perfect to get an “A”. When the grading day arrived, a curious fact emerged: “the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity.” This story (and in Atomic Habits, James Clear adapts it into a story about a photography teacher) is often told before the takeaway: quantity leads to quality. But I wonder if, like the subjects in Amabile’s experiments, the “quantity” ceramics group was really benefitting from the non-incentive condition.
Don’t Aim At Success
47 years after publishing Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote about the book’s paradoxical success. In 1945, he wrote the book in nine days with a conviction that it would be published anonymously. The first printing didn’t have his name on the cover. He wanted the book to “gain a hearing,” not to “build up any reputation on the part of the author.” That’s not to say he didn’t want to build up a reputation as an author—he published dozens of other books with his name on the cover. “And so it is both strange and remarkable to me,” Frankl wrote, that Man’s Search For Meaning became the book he’s known for. For the rest of his life, Frankl would share what that taught him: “Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication…In the long run—in the long run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.”
Who’s The Success? Who’s The Failure?
George R.R. Martin has observed that failed writers didn’t fail, they gave up. The sad part about that, he says, is that the line between success and failure is so blurry. Herman Melville had a couple of successful books and then he wrote Moby Dick—a colossal commercial failure. “He died thinking, ‘well, I’m a failed writer,’” Martin said. Then Moby Dick went on to become one of the books that defines American literature. The Great Gatsby—a commercial failure. Animal Farm—a commercial failure. Leaves of Grass—a commercial failure, so bad Walt Whitman was fired from his job. Of course, there were contemporaries of Melville and Fitzgerald and Orwell and Whitman who wrote instant bestsellers we’ve never heard of. So Martin asks, who’s the success? Who’s the failure?
Love It For The Sake Of It
Rodney Mullen started skateboarding in 1974. He turned pro in 1980 and over the next ten years, invented most of the tricks used today—the flatground ollie, the kickflip, the heelflip, and some thirty others—as he won thirty-four of the thirty-five freestyle contests he entered. In 1989, he started World Industries, the first ever skateboarder-owned company. He sold it in 2003 for $46 million. The same year, he was voted the all-time greatest action sports athlete. The following year, he started Almost Skateboards, which is today one of the most successful companies in skateboarding. Rodney’s in his fifties now and still skateboards everyday. He was asked to what he owes his success, how he got to the top of his profession and has stayed there for over four decades. “It’s such a gift to be able to look at something and to love it for the sake of it,” Rodney said. “I have that. I’ve nurtured it in my life. Talent is around. I see a lot of people with talent, but the one thing they don’t have is that just love of doing it for the sake of it. So the trick is to always peel back and ask, why am I doing this in the first place? I’m still that kid skating in the garage on the farm, you know? And I cling to that.”
Take Most of the Rewards From The Process
Whether it’s the semester those ceramic students spent making pots or the years Melville spent writing Moby Dick—it doesn’t matter what it is, the rewards and acknowledgements are fractional compared to the time spend doing the thing. “The thing I’ve learned,” Ryan Holiday has said, “from writing all of these books—some have worked, some haven’t—is: you control the effort, you don’t control the results. You control what you put in, you don’t control how it’s received. And so ultimately, you have to love doing it…You have to have taken out most of what you’re going to get from the experience before launch day.” And, as Amabile’s research finds, when you aren’t doing it for the rewards, you get the rewards.
There’s a line in The Book of Awakening: “the closer we get to the core of all being, the more synonymous the effort and its reward.”