We have been spoon-fed the notion that creativity is the province of genius of those favored, brilliant few whose moments of insight arrive in unpredictable flashes of divine inspiration. And if we are not a genius, we might as well pack it in and give up. Either we have that gift, or we don’t. But Allen shows that simply isn’t true. Recent research has shown that there is a predictable science behind achieving commercial success in any creative endeavor, from writing a popular novel to starting up a successful company to creating an effective marketing campaign.
As the world’s most creative people have discovered, we are enticed by the novel and the familiar. By understanding the mechanics of what Gannett calls “the creative curve” – the point of optimal tension between the novel and the familiar – everyone can better engineer mainstream success.
In a thoroughly entertaining book that describes the stories and insights of everyone from the Broadway team behind Dear Evan Hansen, to the founder of Reddit, from the Chief Content Officer of Netflix to Michelin star chefs, Gannett reveals the four laws of creative success and identifies the common patterns behind their achievement.
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The Making of a Dream
It was November 1963.
Paul McCartney woke up obsessed with a melody he had heard while dreaming. The twenty-one-year-old pop star stumbled over to the small piano nestled in his room on the top floor of 57 Wimpole Street in central London.
What was that melody?
He sat at the piano, trying to re-create the notes he had heard in his sleep.
It felt so familiar.
He finally put it together: G, F-sharp minor 7th, B, E minor, and E. He played it again and again. He loved the way it sounded but was certain the melody must come from some half-forgotten song he had heard before. Like many musicians, he fretted that he might be borrowing the melody of another song. Too familiar, he thought. Where have I heard this before?
The melody McCartney heard in his dream would ultimately become “Yesterday,” the most recorded song in music history with three thousand different versions. It has been played more than seven million times on American television and radio and is the fourth-highest-grossing song of all time.
McCartney himself once said of his famous song, “It is possibly the smash of this century.” Indeed, “Yesterday” may well have been one of the twentieth century’s biggest hits, and, apparently, it was the result of a dream. He told an interviewer for The Beatles Anthology that the experience had a profound impact on how he viewed creativity: “It’s amazing that it just came to me in a dream. That’s why I don’t profess to know anything; I think music is all very mystical.”
For creativity researchers, Paul McCartney’s sudden melodic epiphany is a classic example of creativity coming to an artist unplanned, in a flash of genius: a “moment of inspiration,” in which an idea suddenly rises to one’s conscious awareness. It is the unexpected nature of these bursts of inspiration, with no apparent origin, that gives them a supernatural quality. Anyone who has had a great idea in the shower or on a run or walk has experienced some version of these moments.
Whether it is J. K. Rowling being struck with the idea for Harry Potter on a train to London, or Mozart being able to compose songs without effort, these accounts have become modern-day staples of what I call the inspiration theory of creativity: the idea that creative success results from a mysterious internal process punctuated by unpredictable flashes of genius. And our culture has embraced the idea that a self-reliant person, born with the right innate talents, can produce hits out of sheer inspiration.
What’s more, this view is not confined to the traditional arts, like music and literature. Steve Jobs, the prototypical genius of the digital age, explained, in an often-repeated quote, that creativity is an organic process: “When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.”
The inspiration theory of creativity dominates how most people think about creative greatness today. But why do these sudden moments of inspiration occur? Is sheer IQ genius the only explanation? If we studied the settings of these creative moments, would they verify or disprove the inspiration theory?
Name That Tune
The morning the melody for “Yesterday” came to McCartney was a typical lazy day. As was his routine, he awoke around noon. He and his girlfriend Jane would often stay out late at London’s restaurants and clubs.
McCartney worried about why the melody he woke up with was so clear, so concise. It seemed too finished, too complete. He assumed he had accidently plagiarized it. Was it from one of the classics he had heard his father play so often? “Stairway to Paradise”? “Chicago”? “Lullaby of the Leaves”?
The Beatles were thoughtful about creating their hits. Lennon once described to an interviewer how intentional the band had been when writing their first number-one single, “Please Please Me”: “We tried to make it as simple as possible . . . we aimed this one straight at the hit parade. It was my attempt at writing a Roy Orbison song.”
For McCartney, “Yesterday” was an explicit exception to his typical methodical songwriting process. The tune of “Yesterday” was like “a jazz melody,” McCartney later said. “My dad used to know a lot of old jazz tunes. I thought maybe I’d just remembered it from the past.”
He went to his friends and asked if they recognized the song.
First, he asked his songwriting partner, John Lennon. Lennon told him he had never heard it before. Still skeptical, McCartney tried his friend Lionel Bart, who had composed numerous hit songs. When McCartney hummed the melody, Bart drew a blank. It seemed as if the song might be original.
Still not convinced, McCartney pressed on. He tried to think of someone older and more experienced, someone who might be able to clear his conscience.
A few days later, McCartney visited Alma Cogan, a British singer known for the song “Dreamboat” and sixteen other hits. If anyone could recognize the song, she could.
He sat down at the piano and played the melody for Cogan and her sister. “It’s lovely,” Cogan said when he was done.
Had she heard it before? McCartney asked. Was it someone else’s song?
Cogan said, “No. It’s original. Nice song.”
Finally, McCartney was persuaded. He had seemingly dreamed a masterful melody, following the mystical nature of the inspiration theory of creativity.
We can interpret the inspiration theory in one of two ways.
The positive view is that a flash of genius can strike anyone. “Yesterday” came to McCartney in a dream, outside of his control. It’s possible that all of us can dream a chart-topping melody.
On the other hand, most of us believe that if we lack the raw talent or innate genius, these moments will never strike. The inspiration theory of creativity is only relevant for those born with so-called genius.
As a result, many of us are tempted to put aside any ambition to become the next great musician, novelist, or entrepreneur, settling instead to be a consumer or patron of the arts. Meanwhile, the optimistic ones are just waiting, hoping for a sudden flash of inspiration to visit them.
The inspiration theory is supported by countless anecdotes from the creative artists of our time. Authors talk of waiting for creative inspiration. Entrepreneurs talk of waiting for a great idea to strike. Musicians talk of falling into a creative groove.
There are countless books and blog posts on creativity, offering suggestions on how we can push through writer’s block or discover our “flow.” Biopics of great artists amplify the inevitability of their creativity, as well as suggesting it is the domain of mad geniuses.
Meanwhile, the rest of us are left on the sidelines.
But what if this entire theory is wrong? What if you don’t have to wait for lightning to strike?
The Road to “Yesterday”
While the sudden creation story of “Yesterday” is relatively well known, what is less known is how McCartney went from the original melody to crafting the full song.
The notion that this song came to McCartney in an instant is wrong.
All that had come to him in the dream was a simple chord progression. When McCartney awoke with a melody in his head, it was a long way from a completed song. For one thing, the tune had no words. He knew he needed to come up with placeholder lyrics while he continued working on the song’s structure.
As he was playing the melody to Alma Cogan, her mother walked into the room, asking, “Anyone like some scrambled eggs?”
This gave McCartney the temporary lyric he needed: Scrambled Eggs.
The initial lyrics he came up with were:
Oh, my baby, how I love your legs
I believe in scrambled eggs.
From there, it took almost twenty months of grueling work to complete the song. McCartney became obsessed. While he worked on it, the people around McCartney became sick of hearing about his ever-changing song in progress.
As George Harrison told an interviewer about that period, “He’s always talking about that song. You’d think he was Beethoven or somebody . . .”
Even when the Beatles started filming their second movie, Help!, McCartney didn’t waver. He worked on the song during breaks. At one point, the film’s producer, Dick Lester, was so fed up that he said, “If you play that bloody song any longer, I’ll have the piano taken offstage. Either finish it, or give it up!”
Later, on their first tour through France, Paul had a piano placed in their hotel room so that he could continue working on “Yesterday.” It paid off. When producer George Martin first heard the song, he was mesmerized. It was different. In fact, it was so original that he was worried that it wouldn’t fit into a Beatles album.
McCartney realized that the song needed melancholy lyrics (scrambled eggs were not a valid topic for a brooding song). “I remember thinking that people liked sad tunes; they like to wallow a bit when they’re alone, to put a record on and go, ‘Ahh.’ ” He finally finished the song, sketching out the final lyrics, on a trip to Portugal in May 1965.
A month later he went to the studio with George Martin to record “Yesterday.” According to Martin, McCartney came into Studio Two at EMI and played “Yesterday” on an acoustic guitar. The only change Martin could think of adding was orchestral strings. Paul, however, thought that was too much. In response, Martin suggested a quartet, and with that melodic but dark addition, “Yesterday” was born.
The iconic song that is remembered as the result of a flash of genius was, in fact, a nearly two-year odyssey—one that at times wore McCartney (and his friends) down. While the mythology behind the Beatles celebrates the story of “Yesterday” as one of sudden creative genius, as we’ve seen it was hardly a linear path from dream to recording. “Yesterday” was not a pure product of a light-bulb moment. It was hard, grueling work.
But couldn’t you argue that it began with an initial moment of divine inspiration? How do we account for that?
There is a cottage industry of researchers who are fascinated by the origin story of “Yesterday”: academics interested in creativity, music historians, and avid Beatles fans. All have worked to answer the question of where the melody really came from.
The most enlightening theory of the origin of “Yesterday” comes from Beatles expert Ian Hammond, who points out that the song “is a direct evolution of the melody from the Ray Charles version of ‘Georgia on My Mind.’ Not only does ‘Yesterday’ share a chord progression with the earlier song, but it also mirrors the bass lines of ‘Georgia on My Mind.’ ”
True enough, the Beatles and Paul McCartney were big admirers of Ray Charles. They kicked off their career playing his covers in the bars and clubs of Hamburg, Germany. John Lennon said that when they started playing their own songs, it was a “quite traumatic thing because we were doing such great numbers of other people’s, of Ray Charles and [Little] Richard and all of them.”
For Paul McCartney, what looked like divine inspiration was in fact likely the result of subconscious processing of music he loved. Like most music, it was an evolution of the chord progressions that already existed. In fact, as Hammond points out, Ray Charles’s version of “Georgia on My Mind” was an evolution of Hoagy Carmichael’s original version of the song. This type of ingestion, reinvention, and influence is common in stories of creative success.
When McCartney reflects on how he wrote “Yesterday,” he tends to focus on his sudden inspiration for the tune. But, in at least one interview, he acknowledged that there was something more mechanical at work: “If you’re very spiritual then God sent me a melody, I’m a mere vehicle. If you wanna be a bit more cynical, then I was loading my computer for millions of years listening to all the stuff I listened to through my dad and through my musical tastes, including people like Fred Astaire, Gershwin, and finally my computer printed out one morning what it thought was a good tune.”
The things we view as unexplainable genius often have a genesis of some sort.
The inspiration theory of creativity has been around for thousands of years, since the era of ancient Greece. While the theory is still breathlessly recounted in the press, modern research that I’ll discuss demonstrates that creative potential is within all of us.
However, if our perception of McCartney and other creative artists is flawed—if they are more accurately described as tireless and intensely focused—that still does not explain how they achieved commercial success. Plenty of artists toil away for years at their craft without recognition or acclaim. An endless procession of novelists has labored tirelessly for years writing novels that never sell a copy. Many painters, sculptors, choreographers, and musicians work for years without ever tasting critical or commercial success. Clearly, popular success is not just a matter of sweat equity.
Could it be possible to identify the true causes of creative success?
Learning a Lie
As I said earlier, I have always been addicted to recognizing patterns. Much of the phenomena we observe that seem organic or unique are actually the result of repeating processes and systems. By decoding the right patterns, I believe you can achieve goals ranging from the frivolous to the meaningful.
When I was eighteen, I set my sights on getting on a game show. It seemed like an unusual challenge, yet one that offered a potentially fun and lucrative reward. So, I applied to all the shows I had heard of (and some I hadn’t known existed).
Some asked for essays. Others, like Jeopardy, asked you to take online tests. Still others, like Wheel of Fortune, simply requested you fill out a form.
I sent away e-mails and filled out web forms, and then I waited.
After months of not hearing anything, one day an e-mail appeared asking me to audition for Wheel of Fortune. Rather than study the puzzles, I decided I would spend the weeks before my audition trying to figure out what the producers wanted. I watched dozens of episodes, looking for common elements in the contestants’ behavior. I delved through message boards about how the game worked, and read blog posts about other peoples’ experiences auditioning. After hours of research, I found a pattern: the casting team wasn’t looking for expert puzzle-solvers. They were seeking contestants who could enunciate (and really loudly, too), were willing to embarrass themselves, and who came across to a home audience as over-the-top and energetic.
That’s why instead of studying vocab words, I came up with various ways I could embarrass myself. I worked on an Elmo impression that I thought might make the audience laugh—or cringe—and on the morning of my audition, I drank two shots of espresso. A lack of energy would not be an obstacle.
Excerpted from "The Creative Curve"
Copyright © 2018 Allen Gannett.
Excerpted by permission of The Crown Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part I Overturning the Mythology of Creativity
1 The Making of a Dream 3
2 Learning a Lie 11
3 The Origin of the Myth 21
4 What Is Talent? 39
5 What Is a Genius? 59
6 The Creative Curve 73
Part II The Four Laws of the Creative Curve
7 Law I: Consumption 103
8 Law II: Imitation 133
9 Law III: Creative Communities 155
10 Law IV: Iterations 185
A Note on Sourcing and Methods 227