Goethe: “One can be instructed in society, one is inspired only in solitude.”
Creativity is a nebulous, murky topic that fascinates me endlessly — how does it work? What habits to creative people do that makes them so successful at creativity?
I’ve reflected on my own creative habits, but decided I’d look at the habits that others consider important to their creativity. I picked a handful of creatives, almost at random — there are so many that picking the best would be impossible, so I just picked some that I admire, who came to mind when I thought of the word “creative”.
This was going to be a list of their creative habits … but in reviewing their lists, and my own habits, I found one that stood out. And it stands out if you review the habits and quotes from great creative people in history.
It’s the Most Important Habit when it comes to creativity.
After you read the No. 1 habit, please scroll down and read the No. 2 habit — they might seem contradictory but in my experience, you can’t really hit your creative stride until you find a way to balance both habits.
In a word: solitude.
Creativity flourishes in solitude. With quiet, you can hear your thoughts, you can reach deep within yourself, you can focus.
Of course, there are lots of ways to find this solitude. Let’s listen to a few of the creative people I talked to or researched:
I was thrilled when she replied to my email asking about her creative habits. One of the things she said: she makes “sure to be creative first thing in the morning, before doing anything for the outside world, really sets the day up for me. It makes it feel that CREATING is my job, not answering emails.”
Ali Edwards – an author, designer, and leading authority on scrapbooking.
I was honored with a response from Ali as well. One of her top habits wasn’t exactly solitude, but is related: “Do nothing. I have a habit of welcoming time away from my creative work. For me this is serious life-recharging time where my only responsibility is to just be Mom & Wife & Me. Doing nothing has a way of synthesizing what is really important in my life and in my work and inspires me beyond measure. When I come back to work I am better equipped to weed out the non-essential stuff and focus on the things I most want to express creatively.”
Chase Jarvis – an award-winning photographer.
Chase also kindly responded with several of his key creativity habits — see more great ones at the bottom of this post. But here’s one that I loved: “Find Quiet. Creativity sometimes washes over me during times of intense focus and craziness of work, but more often I get whacked by the creative stick when I’ve got time in my schedule. And since my schedule is a crazy one and almost always fills up if I’m just “living”, I tend to carve out little retreats for myself. I get some good thinking and re-charge time during vacations, or on airplanes, but the retreats are more focused on thinking about creative problems that I’m wanting to solve. That’s why I intentionally carve time out. I make room for creativity. Intentionally. The best example of what I mean by a retreat is a weekend at my family’s cabin. It’s a 90 minute drive from my house on the coast. There are few distractions. Just a rocky beach and a cabin from the 60′s with wood paneling and shag carpet. I go for walks, hikes, naps. I read. I did get an internet signal put in there to stay connected if I need it. But the gist is QUIET. Let there be space for creativity to fill your brain.”
Maciej Cegłowski – painter, programmer, excellent writer.
Maciej is one of my favorite bloggers, and responded to my email with a classically short answer that to me, embodies a beautiful way to find solitude.
What habit helps his creativity?
Maciej replied: “Running up hills!”
Leo Babauta: OK, I wasn’t going to talk about myself in this post, but I thought I should share some of my previous thoughts.
The best art is created in solitude, for good reason: it’s only when we are alone that we can reach into ourselves and find truth, beauty, soul. Some of the most famous philosophers took daily walks, and it was on these walks that they found their deepest thoughts.
My best writing, and in fact the best of anything I’ve done, was created in solitude.
Just a few of the benefits I’ve found from solitude:
Read more: the lost art of solitude.
Of course, many other creative people have believed in the habit of solitude. I’ve collected a small but influential sample here. There are many more examples.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – prolific and influential composer of the Classical era. He composed over 600 works, many acknowledged as pinnacles of symphonic, concertante, chamber, piano, operatic, and choral music. He is among the most enduringly popular of classical composers.
Mozart: “When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer–say, traveling in a carriage or walking after a good meal or during the night when I cannot sleep–it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly.”
Albert Einstein – theoretical physicist, philosopher and author who is widely regarded as one of the most influential and best known scientists and intellectuals of all time. He is often regarded as the father of modern physics.
Einstein: “On the other hand, although I have a regular work schedule, I take time to go for long walks on the beach so that I can listen to what is going on inside my head. If my work isn’t going well, I lie down in the middle of a workday and gaze at the ceiling while I listen and visualize what goes on in my imagination.”
Franz Kafka – one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. Novelist and writer of short stories whose works came to be regarded as one of the major achievements of 20th century literature.
Kafka: “You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, simply wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
Nikola Tesla – inventor, one of the most important contributors to the birth of commercial electricity, best known for his many revolutionary developments in the field of electromagnetism.
Tesla: “The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone—that is the secret of invention: be alone, that is when ideas are born.”
Joseph Haydn: A life-long resident of Austria, Haydn spent much of his career as a court musician for the wealthy Hungarian aristocratic Esterházy family on their remote estate. Isolated from other composers and trends in music until the later part of his long life, he was, as he put it, “forced to become original”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – German writer and polymath. Goethe’s works span the fields of poetry, drama, literature, theology, philosophy, and science.
His magnum opus, lauded as one of the peaks of world literature, is the two-part drama Faust.
Goethe: “One can be instructed in society, one is inspired only in solitude.”
Pablo Picasso – Spanish painter best known for co-founding the Cubist movement and for the wide variety of styles embodied in his work. His revolutionary artistic accomplishments brought him universal renown and immense fortunes throughout his life, making him one of the best-known figures in twentieth century art.
Picasso: “Without great solitude no serious work is possible.”
Carl Sandburg – American writer and editor, best known for his poetry.
He won three Pulitzer Prizes, two for his poetry and another for a biography of Abraham Lincoln. H. L. Mencken called Carl Sandburg “indubitably an American in every pulse-beat.”
Sandburg: “One of the greatest necessities in America is to discover creative solitude.”
Thomas Mann – German novelist, short story writer, social critic, philanthropist, essayist, and 1929 Nobel Prize laureate, known for his series of highly symbolic and ironic epic novels and novellas, noted for their insight into the psychology of the artist and the intellectual.
Mann: “Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous — to poetry.”
While it might seem contradictory, the No. 2 habit when it comes to nurturing creativity: participation. This can come in many forms, but it requires connecting with others, being inspired by others, reading others, collaborating with others.
But how can you have both solitude and participation? They obviously have to come at different times. Finding the balance is key, of course, but it takes a conscious effort: this time is for solitude, and this time is for participation.
Why are they both important? We need inspiration from without, but we need creation from within.
A couple of the people I interviewed had habits that relate to this:
Chase Jarvis: “Devour Popular Culture. Consuming the works of others inspires me. And it’s not just museums and the “establishment”. I devour magazines, books, street art, performances, music, etc. All things that make me think critically (and whimsically) about the world. You get the picture. Inspiration can come from anywhere.”
Ali Edwards: “Participate. My creative spirit is interested in documenting the wonderful everyday details of our lives. To really get to the heart of the matter I need to be fully participating in my life, in the interactions with my kids and husband and family and friends. If I am just going through the motions or wishing away the present moment for “the next thing” I am missing the blessing of right now. My creativity requires the habit of active participation and daily attention to detail.”
There are other habits than those top two, of course, that can nourish creativity. Some other good ones:
Felicia Day: “When I am most productive I am the most ruthless with my schedule. I will literally make a daily checklist with, “one hour gym”, “30 minutes of internet research,” and “drink 3 glasses of water” on it. For some reason being that disciplined creates a sense of control that I wouldn’t have otherwise, as a self-employed person, and I get the most out of the scheduled hours that I have for writing.”
Ali Edwards: “Take notes. I am a really good note-taker. It’s essential for me to write down my ideas when they come to mind…otherwise, poof, they disappear way too quickly as I move on to the next task (diaper changes, wiping noses, tending to the stuff of life). I use my phone, my computer, and a moleskine notebook to jot down thoughts and ideas and then I move them into Things every week or so.”
Chase Jarvis had a few more:
For more on creativity, read my Little But Useful Guide to Creativity.
“Creativity is essentially a lonely art. An even lonelier struggle. To some a blessing. To others a curse. It is in reality the ability to reach inside yourself and drag forth from your very soul an idea.” ~Lou Dorfsman
“In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for contructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone.” ~Rollo May