A year ago, when I first watched these video essays by Adam Westbook via Maria Popova’s brilliant site Brainpickings, I was floored. For starters, they are well-produced and just plain fun to watch. But it was these critical messages that caused me to completely reconsider some of my beliefs about creativity:
1. Since success and ah-ha moments make for more exciting reading, most stories about great achievers in history leave out what Westbook calls “The Difficult Years”: the largely unremarkable yet critical 5-10 years of apprenticeship, practice, and experimentation that lead to huge breakthroughs.
2. Most of these “geniuses” did not breakthrough until their forties.
I think I watched the videos three times in succession that day. The message of delayed achievement was proving to be sticky, holding just as fast to my heart as my brain. I was precisely one of the impatient, connected yet disconnected, distracted Millennials that Westbook is essentially addressing in these videos. I had spent most of my twenties thrashing about in a whirlpool of misguided ambition that leads to comparing one's self to Terri Gross’ guests on Fresh Air and then promptly feeling like a waste of space. Why wasn’t I a thought leader or extremely-young-but-highly-relevant member of the culturati? Never mind that most of these people were middle-aged and/or had devoted a lot of time to their craft.
This kind of self-demoralizing thinking set me three huge steps back with every step forward. These videos were a wake-up call about what it really takes to live a creative life, and reminders about what creativity is not:
1. Creativity is not a quality some have and others lack. Truly, everyone is creative; some are just using their creativity more actively and deliberately than others.
2. Creativity is not the ah-ha moment that gets written up in history books. It is an on-going process and moreover, a way of existing in the world. This means we can achieve and re-ignite creativity at any age.
Unfortunately, the culture we live in transmits to us some problematic ideas about success. We tell and circulate success stories that completely omit the part leading up to the epiphany. However, “The Difficult Years” lay the groundwork for the breakthroughs that come later. Here, process-oriented thinking is key, both for pushing creative projects forward and maintaining sanity. The second video ends with the haunting and pointed question:
“This celebration of youth, coupled with technology, has distorted our perception of time — the world moves faster, and so do our expectations. Today, we want success in seventeen levels, or seventeen minutes, seventeen seconds — and when the promise of something new and better is just a click away, who wants to wait seventeen years? But that’s the thing that connects all of these great people — they played the long game.
All of us have the brain, and the talent, and the creativity to join them. But now, right when it matters, do any of us have the patience?"