Creativity, Inspiration, and Persistence

I am once again thinking about the value of persistence.

My students had to hand in papers today. Although I encouraged them to hand in drafts—I’ve never had much success in requiring drafts—and tried to scare them into taking me up on my offer, a minority gave me a draft. As a result, I fielded a number of panicked conversations yesterday. In most cases, students doggedly maintained that they do their best work under a deadline or when inspired. While I was gently chastising them, I was thinking of my colleagues and all too often myself. The trope of inspiration or creativity seems incredibly powerful, almost paralyzing.

Inspiration and creativity don’t materialize out of thin air. They don’t arrive just in time to help finish that project whose deadline is looming (or has just passed). They don’t have any agency at all. Creativity and inspiration are not the motive forces behind something but the product of persistence and diligence. This is true in all creative activities—writing, drawing, painting, building, etc.

Austin Madison’s letter on persistence.

A few examples help make this point. First, the letter at left was written by a Pixar animator Austin Madison (Thanks to Notorious Ph.D. and her post “Persist”for drawing my attention to this letter). He makes the point that most of your creative life and energy is spent in the “frustrated, struggling, office-corner-full-of-crumpled-up-paper mode.” That is to say, producing anything is often an exercise in combatting despair. The more often you win that battle the more creative you are.

Similar examples abound from the world of writing. Anthony Trollope claimed to write every morning from 5:30-8:30 A.M., before going to work. Many of the most prolific and often creative authors wrote according to a persistent schedule, before the invention of writer’s block (see Joan Acocella’s “Blocked” in The New Yorker from a few years back). Looking to the history of science we find additional examples from such “geniuses” as Isaac Newton. Newton is famous for such statements as:
“I keep the subject of my inquiry constantly before me, and wait till the first dawning opens gradually, by little and little, into a full and clear light.”
“If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient attention, than to any other talent.”

Every semester I find myself struggling to instill in students habits that generate creative thought and inquiry. That struggle motivated my efforts to structure the research papers in my courses the last couple years. See, for example, How to Teach Curiosity in the History of Science and Modeling Curiosity in the History of Science and Formulating Questions in the History of Science and Explaining Good Questions in the History of Science or previous posts here on last semester’s mapping project.

But I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that persistence applies equally to me and my colleagues. Students often reflect what they see their mentors doing. If we wait for inspiration or claim to work best under deadlines, we shouldn’t be surprised if students do the same.