Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Of mouses and men

with 8 comments

Quality is a probabilistic function of quantity.
Dean Simonton

Malcolm Gladwell’s nifty article on the evolution of the computer mouse in this week’s New Yorker is a terrific read—nobody, but nobody, is better at this sort of thing than Gladwell, which has made him deservedly rich and famous. It’s also, somewhat surprisingly, the most valuable take on the creative process I’ve seen in a long time. I’ve always been interested in the affinities between the artistic process and the work of scientists and engineers, and Gladwell makes the useful point that what most creative geniuses in both fields have in common is their extraordinary productivity. His primary example is Gary Starkweather, the legendary Xerox PARC engineer and inventor of the laser printer, whose creativity was directly linked to the sheer number of his ideas. And in a paragraph that I want to clip out and put in my wallet, Gladwell writes:

The difference between Bach and his forgotten peers isn’t necessarily that he had a better ratio of hits to misses. The difference is that the mediocre might have a dozen ideas, while Bach, in his lifetime, created more than a thousand full-fledged musical compositions. A genius is a genius, [Dean] Simonton maintains, because he can put together such a staggering number of insights, ideas, theories, random observations, and unexpected connections that he almost inevitably ends up with something great.

Gladwell concludes with the Simonton quotation cited at the start of this post, which qualifies, to my mind, as one of the great aphorisms—that is, as a startling reminder of something that should be blindingly obvious. Simonton, incidentally, is a professor of psychology at UC Davis and the author of Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity, the subtitle of which refers not to the struggles of genius against genius, as one might think, but to the natural selection of ideas. In nature, natural selection is the result of a Malthusian competition within a large population for limited resources, and it stands to reason that the fittest ideas might arise in a similar fashion. As Simonton says:

Even the greatest creators possess no direct and secure path to truth or beauty. They cannot guarantee that every published idea will survive further evaluation and testing at the hands of audiences or colleagues. The best the creative genius can do is to be as prolific as possible in generating products in the hope that at least some subset will survive the test of time. [Italics mine.]

Which seems obvious enough: most of our greatest artists, from Shakespeare to Picasso, were monsters of productivity, as were nearly all of our great scientists, like Newton. But even more interesting is the point to which Gladwell alludes above, and what Simonton elsewhere calls the “equal odds” rule—that the ratio of total hits to total attempts “tends to stay more or less constant across creators.” Which is to say that if a creative individual of any kind wants to generate more good ideas, the solution isn’t to improve one’s hit rate, but to produce more ideas overall. Productivity is the mother of creativity, by providing the necessary conditions for lasting ideas to emerge. Which is something, I think, that most artists already intuitively grasp. Thanks to Simonton and Gladwell, we’re a little closer to understanding why.

Written by nevalalee

May 16, 2011 at 9:52 am

8 Responses

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  1. You need a better Darwin portrait! Like this one:


    May 16, 2011 at 12:15 pm

  2. I was hoping that you’d weigh in on this! This sort of thing seems right up your alley.


    May 16, 2011 at 12:28 pm

  3. I don’t want to be centrist but…

    I’ll have to tell you what I think about this…(after dinner)


    May 16, 2011 at 7:16 pm

  4. ahem! (cough)

    It would be like arriving at a pool table and saying “I have six extra white balls, I hope you don’t mind if I use them…I plan to win!”

    Isn’t it a little inefficient?


    May 16, 2011 at 9:40 pm

  5. As I see it, most creative acts are fairly inefficient. So is evolution. The trick (at least if you’re trying to make a living out of it) is finding the least inefficient approach.


    May 16, 2011 at 9:57 pm

  6. “…most creative acts are fairly inefficient. So is evolution. The trick…is finding the least inefficient approach”

    no, no, no,
    nein, nein, nein!


    May 16, 2011 at 11:03 pm

  7. I know that word “nein” because I had a herd of German women yelling it at me as I leaned over looking into the Rhine on a verrry fast moving boat.

    Kinder, nein, nein, nein.!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


    May 16, 2011 at 11:06 pm

  8. Anyway….

    Oh my god, no!


    May 16, 2011 at 11:07 pm

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