20 years ago twelve American academics published a collection of studies tracing the intellectual development of giants like Einstein, Darwin, Faraday, Lavoisier, Beethoven and Wordsworth. This intense study of creative people yields rich leanings. At the core of creativity is a heavy duty memory, a multiplicity of projects, stimulating company and a willingness to work at perfecting your craft for decades on end.
“…it is a truism to say that the creative person is unique, since that is true for every human being. But the key point is that the student of creative work makes the understanding of that uniqueness the central goal of the investigation. If there is to be a scientific understanding of creative people, it cannot be limited to those few things we may find that some creative people have in common. Instead, we must search for a general approach to the description and understanding of unique, creative people.” – Doris Wallace & Howard Gruber in ‘Creative People at Work’ (1989)
Learnings from experts’ study of creativity
Whatever our abilities might be, the British neuroscientist, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore has shown that we can improve regardless of our age because of the trainability, the plasticity of the human brain: https://marcellus.in/blogs/marcellus-your-all-powerful-plastic-brain/. An especially exciting area of learning is around enhancing our creativity and improving our ability to think originally. American academic, Adam Grant’s exceptional book on this subject ‘Originals: How Non-Conformists Change the World’ (2016) has been a rich source of learning for us. We learnt from Grant that “original thinkers – in investing and beyond – have wide ranging interests beyond their profession, have a yearning to alter the status quo and a high rate of idea generation.” (You can find our blog on this subject here: https://marcellus.in/blogs/marcellus-non-conformism-underpins-original-thought/)
Adam Grant’s book refers to an older, more detailed study of creativity conducted by a dozen American academics in 1989. ‘Creative People at Work: Twelve Cognitive Case Studies’ is an engrossing study of the greatest minds of the last 500 years. Edited by Doris Wallace & Howard Gruber, the book traces in detail the education and step-by-step intellectual development of giants like Alfred Einstein, Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday, Antoine Lavoisier, Hans Krebs, Beethoven and William Wordsworth. What did they study? For how long? Who were their friends and their sounding boards? How did they juggle multiple projects? How did they deal with setbacks?
Both ‘Originals’ and ‘Creative People at Work’ say that there is no cut & dried recipe for creativity. Nor is there is a fixed set of personality traits which indicate whether one person will be more or less creative than her neighbour. Both books stress that creativity is the result of purposeful, determined & sustained effort rather than being the result – as the popular preconception goes – of a lightbulb going off in the head of a genius. So what then are the most reliable methods to juice up creativity? Here are our learnings from ‘Creative People at Work’ (CPW).
Five methods to enhance creativity
Memory: One of the most fascinating aspects of creativity is how dependent it is on memory. Beethoven wrote that “I carry my thoughts about with me for a very long time, often for a very long time before writing them down. I can…be sure that…I shall not forget [a theme] even years later. I change many things, discard others and try again and again until I am satisfied; then in my head I begin to elaborate the work…the underlying idea never deserts me. It rises, it grows. I hear and see the image in front of me from every angle…” (Source: ‘Beethoven: Letters and Journals and Conversations’ (1952) by M.Hamburger).
In our 10th December 2018 blog we have elaborated upon how psychologists have demonstrated that memory is a type of intelligence; in fact, intelligence is nothing more than a specialised bank of memories (see “https://marcellus.in/blogs/your-memory-will-determine-how-much-money-you-make/). In his landmark book ‘Thinking, Fast & Slow’ (2011) Danny Kahneman famously says, “Intelligence is not only the ability to reason; it is also the ability to find the relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed.” That in turn leads us to delve into how creative people enhance their memories so that their recall is richer and deeper than that of the average person.
Henry Roediger, who runs the Memory Lab at the University of Washington at St Louis, has found that “memory champions” have high cognitive ability. “We found that one of the biggest differences between memory athletes and the rest of us is in a cognitive ability that’s not a direct measure of memory at all but of attention”.
Simply put, people who have developed their memories to a very high level have highly developed “attentional control”, i.e. the ability to maintain heightened focus on essential information for long periods of time. In other words, a side effect of the effort that these champions put into memorising stuff is that they learn to concentrate for extended periods of time. This ability can be then usefully applied to any task requiring deep concentration.
Wide reading alongside deep education: If just reading around widely was all that it took to be creative then we would have millions of newspaper readers and social media junkies bursting with fresh ideas. Instead, creativity it would appears arises from gaining mastery of one’s discipline by using a very specific style of reading/education. We call it the “T-shaped” model of brain development i.e. the creative masters read around extensively whilst educating/training themselves intensively in a specific field. Chapter 9 of CPW explains how Albert Einstein used this model of mastery to generate the insight which ultimately led to his “special theory of relativity, a monumental achievement…[for] a single scientist working alone and out of the academic mainstream”. Experts who have sought to understand how Einstein cracked this puzzle have broken his problem-solving into two parts.
Step 1 was a thought experiment that Einstein conducted when he was just 16 years old. This thought experiment contained the seeds to cracking the problem of special relativity. In Einstein’s own words from his ‘Autobiographical Notes’: “…a paradox upon which I had already hit at the age of sixteen: If I pursue a beam of light with the velocity c (velocity of light in a vacuum), I should observe such a beam of light as an electromagnetic field at rest though spatially oscillating. There seems to be no such thing, however, neither on the basis of experience nor according to Maxwell’s equations. From the very beginning it appeared to me intuitively clear that, judged from the standpoint of such an observer, everything would have to happen according to the same laws as for an observer who, relative to the earth, was at rest. For how should the first observer know or be able to determine, that he is in a state of fast uniform motion? One sees in this paradox the germ of the special relativity theory is already contained.” [For an illustrated account what Einstein is saying, read https://www.pitt.edu/~jdnorton/Goodies/Chasing_the_light/]
Einstein’s thought experiment highlighted a paradox with utmost simplicity: either I am moving with the beam of light with velocity c or I am at rest. I cannot be in both states at the same time.
Step 2 is Einstein proceeding to crack this paradox over the next 11 years and helping the world understand how light travels and more generally, how objects – including celestial bodies – move in a world where gravitational effects are negligible.
CPW contends that Einstein’s ability to hit upon the novel thought experiment in Step 1 was greatly helped not just by by his (fairly conventional) schooling in Germany and then Italy but also by: (a) his extensive discussions with his uncle, Caesar Koch, who would spend hours discussing complex maths problems with his teenage nephew; and (b) his special schooling in Switzerland in a Kantonsschule which specialised in Anschauung i.e. intuition or ‘apprehension or immediate perception that involves fewest elements of rational insight’.
Einstein’s success in Step 2 was also underpinned not just by his conventional university education in Zurich Polytechnic but also the inputs he received on his scientific papers from his uncle. Furthermore, through his teenage years Einstein absorbed the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, the father of Anschauung, who propounded that all of us possess not just intellect but also intuition. Kant famously argued that the objects we see around us are just “mere representations and not as things in themselves”. Kant’s exhortation to think about the world in abstract terms and nail down truths which are independent of what we have experienced in our day-to-day life had a direct influence, say the authors of CPW, on Einstein’s intellectual development.
To see an alternative illustration of the T-shaped model of creative mastery in the martial arts, see our blog on Bruce Lee: https://marcellus.in/blogs/Bruce-lee-and-the-rise-of-the-generalist/
A multiplicity of projects pursed with patience & purpose: As Wallace & Grubber say in CPW, “We use the term enterprise to stand for a group of related projects and activities broadly enough defined so that
(1) the enterprise may continue when the creative person finds one path blocked but another open toward the same goal and
(2) when success is achieved the enterprise does not come to an end but generates new tasks and projects that continue it.
Enterprises rarely come singly. The creative person differentiates a number of main lines of activity. This has the advantage that when enterprise grinds to a halt, productive work does not cease. The person has an agenda, some measure of control over the rhythm and sequence with which different enterprises are activated. This control can be used to deal with needs for variety, with obstacles encountered…
A second outstanding characteristic of enterprises is their longevity and durability. To take only one example, Milton began the work that led to ‘Paradise Lost’ in 1640 but did not complete it until 1667. It was the major project within the enterprise of writing epic poems; that enterprise was one among several – politics, prose pamphlets, and the shorter poems.”
How does pursuing a bunch of projects help creativity? Firstly, these projects give structure to the creative person’s life which might otherwise – to the outsider – look disorganised. Secondly, this range of projects ‘allows the person to choose tasks that fit different moods and needs.’ Thirdly, pursuing a portfolio of projects allows for cross fertilization of ideas. For example, “Darwin was a pigeon fancier, but he had no need to strive to be a great breeder. For him, consorting with pigeon breeders was a way of steeping himself in the art and lore of breeding, knowledge that he could turn to good account in other enterprises, in the zone of his greatness.”
Purposeful repetition & revision: One of the great ironies of creativity is that great works of art or literature that are commonly perceived to be the result of a burst of creativity are usually the result of endless practice, repetition and rehearsal. Take, for example, the poems of William Butler Yeats: “Lest it be thought that liberation “from the pressure of will” produced outpourings of untrammeled spontaneity, be it noted that Yeats was an extremely deliberate writer. He “followed a pattern of composition which was to vary very little for the rest of his life: prose draft, rough verse drafts, fair copy, magazine publication and then further revisions for the first printing in book form.”…one of his biographers stresses “the tremendous organisation that informs the poems and the poet; every crisis is mastered and every poem comes out of years of preparation.”
Collaboration & interaction with others: It is extremely rare for creative people to work in a void. Such people have a range of associates around them to provide emotional support (especially encouragement in the face of setbacks), intellectual support (especially thoughts on how to see the same idea differently) and practical help (money, meals, etc). CPW has a riveting chapter on how the English poet, William Wordsworth, wrote his poems and the role that others – particularly his sister, Dorothy, and the poet Coleridge – played in the composition of one of Wordsworth’s most famous poems, ‘The Daffodils’ aka ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45521/i-wandered-lonely-as-a-cloud):
“Wordsworth’s living arrangements facilitated bringing others into the process of reworking [his poems]. This was true of his collaborative relationship with Coleridge and more pervasive and long lived in his relationship with his sister Dorothy.
Dorothy was an extremely sensitive observer and recorder of the Lake District’s landscape scenes where she and her brother lived and walked. Wordsworth’s famous poem ‘The Daffodils’, composed in 1804, finds its source in the vocabulary and images of Dorothy’s ‘Journal’ where she describes the daffodils she and her brother had seen on a walk together…Wordsworth’s poem begins:
‘I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils-
Along the lake, beneath the trees,
Ten thousand dancing in the breeze…’
Dorothy had described the scene in her ‘Journal’ in in April 1802: ‘I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew upon mossy stones and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as a on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them…’
Thus one of the best known poems in English begins with a joint experience, a scene observed by William and Dorothy…” (Source: ‘Creative People at Work’ (1989) by Doris Wallace & Howard Gruber)
The five bullet points listed above are obviously related. For example, it is difficult for a creative person to pursue repetition & revision if her memory is not highly developed. The causality also flows in the opposite direction: it is not easy to have a highly developed memory if one does not repeatedly practice one’s art. Furthermore, it is difficult to find the motivation for prolonged and repetitive revisions if one does not have an underlying sense of purpose of drive. That in turn raises the question why it is that some people are more driven and more motivated than others. We have tried to address this issue in our 5th April 2019 blog: https://marcellus.in/blogs/marcellus-the-foundations-of-self-belief/.
When we began building Marcellus a little over a year ago, we consciously looked around not just for the smartest people we knew in the investment profession but also for people who love to read extensively, to discuss ideas for hours on end and – at the same time – know how to work hard (knowing full well that ‘hard work’ in our profession can come in a multitude of forms ranging from forensic financial analysis to meeting a dozen undergarment dealers in four different cities over two days). In fact, for most of us the very decision to leave behind the world of broking, investment banking and wealth management in order to build Marcellus hinged around such considerations i.e. we wanted to spend lots of time reading and discussing ideas rather than chasing targets, budgets, deadlines and other such ephemera from the conventional business world. We remain keen to work with people who enjoy reading at length and in-depth whilst having the maturity to bounce half-formed ideas off colleagues. We have learnt over time that from the seeds of such protean ideas are great investments born.
We seek to work with people whose core purpose in life is purposeful, deep inquiry into companies with the aim of generating healthy returns with compressed levels of risk for our 800 clients. We believe that the reason our two recent books – ‘The Unusual Billionaires’ (2016) and ‘Coffee Can Investing: The Low Risk Route to Stupendous Wealth’ (2018) – have become national bestsellers is inherently linked to why our portfolio is delivering decent results i.e. we put our minds together to create a novel construct for investing in a highly conservative manner amidst the chaos of India. You can see here how we are doing: https://marcellus.in/newsletter/consistent-compounders-benefit-disproportionately-from-tax-rate-cuts/
Needless to say, we intend to continue learning from people who are more creative than us. Marcellus Investment Managers wishes all its clients, friends and well wishers a very Happy Diwali.
To read our other published material, please visit https://marcellus.in/blog/
Saurabh Mukherjea is the author of “The Unusual Billionaires” and “Coffee Can Investing: the Low Risk Route to Stupendous Wealth”.
Note: the above material is neither investment research, nor investment advice. Marcellus does not seek payment for or business from this email in any shape or form. Marcellus Investment Managers is regulated by the Securities and Exchange Board of India as a provider of Portfolio Management Services and as an Investment Advisor.