A lightbulb goes off.
A great idea hits you.
If you think of the idealized and romanticized creative experience, you probably picture a flash of brilliance that propels you across the creative finish line. This fantasy fails to take account of the full creative process, something which can often take time and painstaking effort.
In reality, many of the most famous novels, technological breakthroughs, and artistic developments took years to reach fruition. Many creators, inventors, and entrepreneurs only found success later in life. It’s important to recognize the vital role that time, persistence, and patience play in creativity.
Let’s take a quick look at why ideas sometimes take a while to develop and the importance of devoting time to the creative process.
The Pace of Ideation
“It grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mold of the mind” – J. R. R. Tolkien
J. R. R. Tolkien began dreaming up the mythology of Middle Earth as far back as 1914. After publishing The Hobbit in 1937, it took him a further 12 years to finish The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was constantly changing and expanding different parts and weaving in the elaborate mythology he’d been developing for decades.
Of course, it’s also worth noting that the Lord of the Rings was over nine hundred pages once finished.
Even then, he didn’t feel his efforts with Middle Earth were done; His life’s work, the Silmarillion, remained incomplete when he died.
Ideas can take a while to fully mature as your brain forms connections and expands on them. Being creative involves drawing from personal experiences. If you rush through ideation, you may well miss alternative approaches that could have yielded stronger results.
No matter the medium, the physical act of creation often has a natural pace of its own. If you embrace that, it can give you a chance to further refine your ideas as you work.
Trial and Error
“A very common trope in the history of technology is that it takes decades to create an overnight success.” – Tom Standage
Many scientists, entrepreneurs, and artists know that the true secret to their success is trial and error: adopting approach after approach until you find the best. This is especially true in the scientific world, where testing a hypothesis almost always demands many failed attempts to prove a theory.
One of the most famous quotes on this topic, “I have not failed, I’ve just found ten thousand ways that don’t work,’” comes from Thomas Edison. He was referring to testing thousands of prototypes in his search for the optimal design for an incandescent light bulb.
This is an experience shared by fellow inventor James Dyson, who went through 5,126 prototypes before finding the design for his revolutionary vacuum cleaner. Well, maybe less revolutionary and more evolutionary.
As a fascinating mental exercise, consider that your trial-and-error process doesn’t only include your errors, but the trial and errors of the many others who’ve contributed to your idea in some way (even if it’s indirectly, such as by creating the materials).
Your trial and error is a micro-evolution of all the evolutions of all the ideas that have come previously.
Embracing Creative Failure
As well as being a key part of the iterative approach, failure is a natural and inevitable part of creativity that can lengthen the creative process. However, we tend to shy away from failure when thinking about the ideal journey.
Many people believe this is because we have been conditioned to view failure as something final that we need to avoid at all costs, rather than an inevitable and even valuable stage of the journey.
If you don’t succeed the first time, it’s easy to get discouraged and believe it means you lack creative ability. However, history is littered with examples of failures by people who went on to have huge creative success:
- Bill Gates’ first company went bankrupt.
- Steve Jobs was fired from Apple.
- Walt Disney was fired from his job at a newspaper due to a ‘lack of imagination’.
- Oprah Winfrey got fired from her first TV job as an anchor.
Failed projects aren’t just the bane of the beginner, though. Celebrated novelists like Stephen King and John Updike have abandoned books they considered total failures. As King put it: “Look, writing a novel is like paddling from Boston to London in a bathtub: sometimes the damn tub sinks. It’s a wonder that most of them don’t.”
King’s Carrie was incidentally rejected 30 times and thrown into the trash. Luckily it was pulled out by King’s wife and went on to define the horror genre.
Accepting and not dwelling too deeply on failed ideas is much easier said than done though. Failure is feared and avoided for good reason: it hurts and it’s frustrating to think that you’ve wasted your time. That’s why it’s important to arm yourself with strategies that will enable you to approach a failed project as one part of your creative journey, rather than the endpoint.
Here are just a few to try:
- Focus on what you learned. Were there any parts of the project that went well that you can apply to your next one? How about things to avoid?
- Remember that it’s the idea that has failed, rather than you as an individual. A failed project doesn’t mean that something else you try won’t succeed.
- Discuss your failure openly with people who have been in the same position.
Remember not to focus on what people might think of your failure. Chances are they don’t care about it anywhere near as much as you think they do.
It’s Never Too Late
“I was an overnight success alright, but 30 years is a long, long night.” – Ray Kroc
Another myth surrounding our view of rapid creative success is that creativity is time limited.
Stories of Mozart composing at 5-years-old, Mary Shelly publishing Frankenstein at 21, or Albert Einstein publishing 4 influential papers at 26 make it seem like your creative potential has a shelf life. If you don’t succeed early on, then you’ve missed your chance.
However, there is evidence that people are increasingly making scientific breakthroughs later on in life. The average age of a Pulitzer Prize winner is 49 years old. There are also many striking cases of people who didn’t create the work for which they became famous until the latter stages of their careers.
Paul Cézanne, for example, didn’t have his first one-man show in Paris until he was 56, after over 3 decades of being shunned by the artistic community.
Spending time perfecting your skills and building your experience is never time wasted. While starting out early is certainly admirable, it’s by no means the only path to creative success.
Lots of creatives are well known for a project which they only came to later in life, after years of doing other things:
- Richard Addams didn’t begin work on his haunting children’s book, Watership Down, until he was 52.
- At 40, Vera Wang left her editorial job at Vogue to become a world renowned fashion designer.
- Popular folk painter Grandma Moses only began creating artworks when she was 77.
Detail of painting by Grandma Moses
Failure as the Path to Creative Accomplishment
While the idea of being struck by an idea suddenly and finding overnight success is certainly appealing, viewing it as the path to creative accomplishment will almost certainly keep you from your best work.
It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that having to spend a while on something means you are “failing”, and not committed or creative enough. However, if you prioritize patience and persistence in your creative process, your best ideas will have the space and time to reach their full potential.