Apr 152013

“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” – Thomas Edison

From a young age Thomas Edison had a significant hearing loss. Legend says he took advantage of the impairment to isolate himself from social and educational experiences in pursuit of his experiments and speculations. Perhaps he came across as arrogant or unpleasant if he didn’t socialize much, but it’s obvious that his contributions to technology, science, and commerce have been immeasurable in the past few generations. The light bulb and the gramophone have changed our world’s history, and those are just two examples of Edison’s inventions.

I think of the creative person as having two minds–the inspired mind and the industrious mind.

When time is on your hands and you’re looking for the next project to start, turn on the inspired mind. Take in lots of inputs, take long walks, read, listen to music, wonder and speculate. Cast a wide net, open up, and let your right-brain imagination make unexpected connections. One definition of inspiration is when your brain makes odd connections between things that you and other people wouldn’t usually think to connect. Love is like a playground, a politician is a cat sleeping in the sun, and a hopeless heart needs a box of tools and a trip to the grocery store.

The industrious mind is very different. You’re deep in a project, so you need to put your head down and work. You don’t want your mind wandering around in many meandering trails. The industrious mind needs you to create a little world in your work, and to live deeply in that world. You close the door behind you and work. Emotions about your work are very distracting. Thinking about the whys of yourself, your work, and your little created world will disrupt your progress. The industrious mind relies on steady effort and immersion, closing yourself off from the world to get work done.

Sometimes all you need is inspiration. If you’re writing limericks or cute little poems like Ogden Nash wrote, the sixty-second intuitive burst is more likely your approach. I actually don’t know how much time or effort were required for Nash to complete one of his poems, but he wrote hundreds and hundreds of them so basic math says he must have cranked them out pretty quick.

On the other hand, writing a novel requires the industrious, meticulous approach stacking inspiration upon inspiration. As Walter Mosley points out in his book This Year You Write Your Novel, the complexities and innumerable connections in a good novel require hundreds of days to build. A writer cannot hope to hold an entire novel in her head at one time, let alone create the whole thing in a single, spontaneous bang of creativity.

In The Music Lover’s Handbook by Elie Sigmeister, the work of Schubert and Beethoven are contrasted along these lines. Schubert wrote songs, small pieces of fine music. His work operated on spontaneity and inspiration. Beethoven, on the other hand, created vast stretches of sound in longer forms such as the symphony and the concerto. Beethoven worked over his manuscripts and notebooks time and again. Scholars today study his notebooks to analyze the progress of his works from raw inspiration stepwise to the finished work.

What if Edison had spent more time asking if his work was worthwhile? What if he succumbed to feelings of boredom and discouragement? Part of creative work is being a little selfish, a little aloof, a little arrogant. You’d have to be playing deity to even intend on creating characters, scenes, and plots, let alone entire worlds.

Some people can turn off the speculative thoughts and turn on the industrious mind quite easily, while many others struggle to tame their unruly minds. This is where breath, thought, and meditation exercises can help strengthen your ability to intentionally focus on some things while pushing aside others.

Maybe you are in a place where you need to open up, play, expand, and imagine in order to fuel your inspired mind. If so, then turn off your industrious mind, don’t be too logical and serious. Don’t confine yourself to a little world, whether that rigid compartment is your artistic work, your family, your job, your sense of self, or your discouraged gloominess.

On the other hand, turn off the inspired mind and turn on the industrious when you have a piece of work underway. Enter the little world of that creation, and limit your mind’s wanderings. Less time thinking and feeling, more time creating. Don’t predict or expect, just work and sweat and see what the work brings you.

“Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits.” – Thomas Edison

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