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We love stories about flashes of sudden inspiration. Archimedes famously shouted eureka — translated loosely to I’ve got it! — after stepping into a bath and seeing the water rise. This gave him insight into a question about volume and density he’d been struggling over for days.
But contrary to how it might seem, Archimedes’ eureka moment wasn’t an out-of-the-blue epiphany. A brilliant physicist, mathematician, engineer and inventor, Archimedes had spent his life laying the groundwork for that bath time revelation.
The problem with our fixation on creative genius is that it ignores the effort that goes into cultivating it. Another example is a famous, possibly apocryphal, tale about Pablo Picasso. Picasso was sitting in a cafe when a man approached him with a napkin. “Can you draw something on this napkin for me?” the man asked. “I’ll pay you whatever you want for it.”
Picasso acquiesced, took the napkin and quickly sketched an image of a goat. “That will be $100,000,” he told the man as he handed it back.
“$100,000!” the man replied, outraged. “It only took you 30 seconds!”
“You’re wrong,” Picasso said, crumpling his work and putting it in his pocket. “It took me 40 years.”
There’s no doubt that both Archimedes and Picasso were deeply creative thinkers. But that quality alone would not have been enough to imprint them in the annals of history. Creativity is important — even necessary — for those who want to do great things. But even the most creative mind in the world won’t amount to much without hard work.
Creativity and hard work
Entrepreneurship is a balancing act, and one of the questions that comes up again and again is which is more important: Creativity or hard work? Frustrating as it may be to hear, the answer is both.
Hard work on its own produces diminishing returns. You can begin each day at five am and end it at eight pm, but grinding away won’t necessarily lead you to success. More likely, it will lead to exhaustion, frustration and burnout. Jobs that almost anyone can perform can be tedious, back-breaking and exhausting, but they aren’t usually very profitable either.
Creativity, on the other hand, can lead to great ideas. And more great ideas. And even more great ideas. But unless you also work hard, those ideas won’t become reality — they’ll simply stay ideas forever.
Seek inspiration far and wide
We tend to think of creativity as something a person either has or they don’t. This isn’t actually true. Creativity does seem to come to some of us more easily than others. But sometimes it’s just a matter of getting the juices flowing.
At my company, we do what we call hack weeks. The idea for hack weeks — in which our teams get five interruption-free days to focus completely on one knotty problem — actually came about after we tried our hand at hackathons. The problem was that our hackathons were only meant to be day-long events. But they kept spilling over — often into the weekend. Hackathons were always meant to be enjoyable, but not at the expense of employees’ personal time. Instead, I initiated Monday through Friday hack weeks that allow everyone plenty of time to let their creativity bloom without eating into their lives.
Clearly, this was the right choice: Our hack weeks have yielded some of our most important innovations. It’s amazing what your brain is capable of coming up with once the anxieties of the daily grind are cleared away. We’ve even done hack weeks that include not just developers, but all teams across the company. This allows employees with different insights and backgrounds to learn from each other. Creativity, after all, rarely happens in a vacuum.
You don’t have to hold week-long hackathons to tap into your own creativity. Giving yourself time and space to think, talking with people in and outside your industry, reading from a diverse range of books and articles are all great ways to stretch your mind.
The role of self-discipline…
“Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” — Chuck Close
Since ancient times, writers and artists of all stripes have been appealing to their muses for inspiration. How else to explain why creativity sometimes flows unabated, only to dry up when we seem to need it most?
The reality is that nobody who has ever made anything feels like sitting down to work one hundred percent of the time. As William Faulkner once cheekily put it, “I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately, I am inspired at nine o’clock every morning.”
One of the hardest parts of creating when you don’t feel like it is the fear that you may not be doing your best work. Those fears may not be unfounded. James Clear likens This to being a gold miner: “You have to sift through pounds of dirt and rock and silt just to find a speck of gold in the middle of it all.”
Viewed through this lens, it’s clear that the question isn’t creativity vs. hard work. Creativity is hard work.
We don’t usually like to think of luck as being a factor in our achievements. If you’re creative enough and hard-working enough, shouldn’t success be guaranteed?
Anyone who’s ever had a start-up fail — which, statistically, is the most start-up founders — understands that even the most brilliantly laid-out plans don’t always pan out. Where you were born, who your parents were and the environment in which we were raised inevitably puts some of us further ahead than others, writes Michael Shermer in Scientific American. Even the era in which you live can play a role: “Would Google’s co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin be among the richest and most successful people in the world had they been born in 1873 instead of 1973?” Shermer asks. Because both are brilliant and hard-working, the answer is probably yes — luck favors the prepared mind, after all. But would they have been two of the most influential people on the planet? It’s impossible to know for sure.
If there’s a recipe for success, it’s probably hard work plus creativity plus luck. How much of each varies from person to person, and situation to situation. Each on their own is good. Taken together, they’re unstoppable.