In 1916 President Woodrow Wilson called a Cabinet meeting to discuss shark attacks. Great whites claimed the lives of four people along New Jersey shores that summer. The first two occurred at beaches, one near Beach Haven in southern Jersey and the other near Spring Lake in the north. The other two occurred in a creek about two miles from open water in the town of Matawan.
The attacks reversed a busy tourist season fueled, in part, by a deadly heat wave. After the bloodshed New Jersey beaches emptied and some resorts experienced 75 percent vacancy rates. Richard Fernicola documented the string of shark attacks in Twelve Days of Terror and estimated that businesses lost as much as $1 million, a substantial amount in 1916.
The consequences went beyond the private sector and into politics. 1916 was an election year. Wilson was in the middle of a campaign against the Republican candidate Charles Hughes. The President was also dealing with Pancho Villa who was threatening US Troops in New Mexico and Texas and World War I, which he pledged to stay out of. Concerned swimmers and business owners in New Jersey only added to Wilson’s insecurities.
We live in an era where readers of science books on the human condition expect clever psychological studies to explain every nook and cranny of our complex nature. They expect specifics, what happens in the brain when musicians improvise or when we experience a-ha moments, and they expect generalities, how friendships form or how decision-making works.
Readers also want surprise. A good author declares how a commonly held intuition about human nature is, after all these years, untrue in the face of overwhelming empirical evidence. Gladwell did it beautifully in Blink. “We live in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it,” he states in the introduction. “[But] decision made very quickly can be every bit as good as decision made cautiously and deliberately.”
The human brain is fickle when it comes to commitments. Between 60 and 80 percent of people don’t use their gym memberships. Most diets work at first but backfire in the long run. According to a 2007 survey conducted by the British psychologist Richard Wiseman, about 88 percent of New Year’s resolutions end in failure.
Given how widespread our broken pledges are, it’s no surprise that psychologists study human willpower. Florida State University Professor of Psychology Roy Baumeister is one of the main figures in this area of study. His research on willpower began in the late 1990s with a few papers demonstrating that when people exert willpower, self-control, persistence and rationality founder. Willpower, he discovered, was a limited resource easily drained by everyday activity.
In 1993, Harvard professor Howard Gardner published the book Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity. Three years later, in 1996, the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi followed suit with Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (see my reading list on the left). Around the same time, research by the Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson outlined the important role deliberate practice plays in eminent performance.
Emerging from this research was a new portrait of creativity. The Mozart myth was replaced by a sobering reality: expertise in any domain requires a willingness to challenge the establishment and a lifetime dedication to one’s craft. This is why Csikszentmihalyi says that, “creativity is any act, idea, or product that changes an existing domain, or that transforms an existing domain into a new one… [and that] much hard work is necessary to bring a novel idea to completion and to surmount the obstacles a creative person inevitably encounters.”
Earlier this week I published an article on ScientificAmerican.com arguing that we’ve lost touch with this portrait at the expense of some recent empirical research that focuses on how cognitive and external conditions affect creative output. For example, does alcohol boost creativity? Does a relaxed mind affect creativity? And how does the color of the room influence creativity? These are “small C” questions, popular in some psychology labs and a plethora of literature for the lay audience.
By the time he put the finishing touches on the Rite of Spring in November of 1912 in the Châtelard Hotel in Clarens, Switzerland, Stravinsky had spent three years studying Russian pagan rituals, Lithuanian folk songs and crafting the dissonant sacre chord, in which an F-flat major combines with an E-flat major with added minor seventh. The rehearsal process wasn’t easy either. Stravinsky fired the German pianist and the orchestra and performers only had a few opportunities to practice at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, where the Rite debuted in May 1913. But the Russian born composer pulled it off, and his composition now stands as a 20th century masterpiece.
Stravinsky is one of seven eminent creators of the 20st century profiled by Harvard professor Howard Gardner in his 1993 book Creating Minds. The others are Pablo Picasso, Sigmund Freud, T.S. Eliot, Martha Graham, Mahatma Gandhi and Albert Einstein. One can debate the list but Gardner’s foremost conclusion is uncontroversial: creative breakthroughs in any domain require strenuous work and a willingness to challenge the establishment.
The psychology of creativity–both empirical research and popular literature for the lay audience–misses this. It reduces creativity to warm showers and blue rooms, forgetting that the life of the eminent creator is not soothing; it is a struggle–a grossly uneven wrestling match with the muses.