Friday, May 3, 2013

The Work Habits of Great Minds

Many young people want to do creative work because they have been led to believe that it will free them from the maddening routines that define the world of gainful employment.

That being their belief, it is useful to remind them again of the immortal words of Harvard psychiatrist, Richard Mollica: “the best anti-depressant is a job.”

Of course, not all jobs are created equal. Most involve collaborating with other people, but a few jobs can only be performed in solitude.

To be clear, these are jobs you do because you have to, not because you want to. The notion that we should undertake a career because it’s our heart’s desire is largely overrated.

These reflections are occasioned by Mason Currey’s new book:  Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.

One tends to call those who work alone artists, but since Currey includes Nikola Tesla and Charles Darwin in his group of “artists” it is more accurate to see his book as a compendium of the work habits of people who possess exceptional talent, even genius.
John Wilwol sketches out some of the cases for NPR:

Nikola Tesla typically worked from noon until midnight, breaking at 8:00 p.m. for dinner every night at the Waldorf-Astoria. Among the many peculiarities of this ritualized repast was his practice of not starting the meal until he had computed his dinner's cubic volume, "a compulsion he had developed in his childhood." Truman Capote, who wrote lying down in bed or on a couch, refused to let more than two cigarette butts pile up in an ashtray and "couldn't begin or end anything on a Friday."

Continuing, he identifies the favorite drug of creative people:

The prolific Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos believed that "a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems." And indeed, if there's a drug the artists in Daily Rituals can agree on, it's caffeine. Soren Kierkegaard preferred his coffee with sugar, or perhaps it was vice versa: "Delightedly he seized hold of the bag containing the sugar and poured sugar into the coffee cup until it was piled above the rim," his biographer observed. "Next came the incredibly strong, black coffee, which slowly dissolved the white pyramid."

And adds some more examples:

James Joyce, we learn, woke daily around 10:00 a.m. He'd lie in bed for about an hour, then get up, shave and sit down at his piano, where he'd play and sing before writing in the afternoon and then hitting the cafes later that evening. John Updike, meanwhile, worked mornings, preferring to "put the creative project first," as he put it. Of his discipline, he said, "I've never believed that one should wait until one is inspired because I think that the pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again."

Then, he describes a great scientist, Charles Darwin:

Charles Darwin boasts one of the book's strictest schedules. After a stroll and breakfast alone, Darwin would begin a 90-minute work session around 8:00 a.m. He'd break to read mail with his wife and then return to his study around 10:30 a.m. for a second session. By noon or so, he'd have completed what he considered his workday, but the rest of his waking hours were no less regimented. He responded to letters, read and rested at regular intervals until bedtime, which arrived daily around 10:30 p.m. "Thus his days went for forty years," Currey writes, "with few exceptions."

Great minds, working alone go about their creative work as though they were going to a job. They organize their days in perfectly predictable segments, because they do not want to be distracted by having to decide what to do when. This allows them to devote the entirety of their intelligence to their work.

It is worth noting that they are following an extremely strict schedule. They are not following their bliss.

Why so strict? Because, most often, they do not have to answer to anyone and are not being observed by anyone. When it is you and you alone, the risk of allowing yourself to deviate into frivolity is so strong that one must, like Odysseus anticipating his encounter with the Sirens, have oneself tied to the mast.

Writing on Slate, Currey himself explains that great creative minds tend to do everything in their power to avoid being interrupted and/or distracted:

Proust had his famous cork-lined bedroom. Nathaniel Hawthorne had his "solitary years," the period between his college graduation and the publication of his first collection of short stories, during which he basically just stayed in his bedroom from morning until sunset, reading and writing (although he destroyed much of what he wrote). This went on for 12 years. A century later, Samuel Beckett followed a similar routine during "the siege in the room," a period of intense creative activity that produced some of his finest work.

These routines are usually not shared with others, but, human beings being what they are, they sometimes require the cooperation of other people.

Currey writes:

Freud's wife not only took care of all the household and child-rearing duties, but she laid out his clothes, chose his handkerchiefs, and even put toothpaste on his toothbrush.

I find it difficult to understand why Freud’s concentration would have been compromised by putting toothpaste on a toothbrush. Was he afraid that if she did not do it, he would forget?

It seems more likely that he felt some psychological need to impose his will on his wife, thus to oppress her by treating her like a servant.


Dennis said...

Talent only takes one so far. The words discipline, personal responsibility, hard word and dedication are the primary focus of any true artist. If one is not putting in the time and effort require one can rest assured that someone else is.
The differences between people who are trying to be successful in the Arts is very small. Invariably the ones who make it have worked hard and lived by the words discipline, responsibility and dedication. In fact it never stops.

Dennis said...

Dizzy Gillespie was credited with saying something like this: "You wake up in the morning and you play real well and you win. The next day you play and it does not go well and the trumpet wins. You die and the trumpet wins."

Jeff Dorsai said...

unfettered creativity sounds great but seems to lead to depression and suicide for many ...

art for the sake of art is unfulfilling ...

look at the creativity and satisfaction of engineers who are focused on solving a problem ...

we forget that we are surrounded by art everyday in the mundane things we use without thinking about the incredible creativity that went into designing and building things like the power grid or cell phones or the coffee service machines in every office in America.

Anyone that thinks that it doesn't take an enormous amount of creative thought and energy to make products for sale are simply ignorant of the process.

Creating solutions without a defined problem is simply intellectual ranting with no purpose and frankly is one definition of insanity ...

humans need a purpose ...

Frank said...

I recently saw a young man wearing a t-shirt that proudly proclaimed "Lazy but Talented". My immediate thought was that he will be extremely disappointed later in life and will assuredly blame anyone/everyone other than himself.

Anonymous said...

Meh.. most people's day involves a 2 hr commute, a small cubicle...lesser pay...greater bullshit...

Anonymous said...

I just started reading Currey's book. It's excellent. Thank you.

Frank: that "Lazy but Talented" t-shirt summarizes everything that is wrong with America today.