Monthly Archives: November 2014

The Characteristics of Creative People: What We Learn from Writers, Artists, Dancers, Musicians, and Actors

Artists Starting The Day

fountain-pen-297440_640A novelist sits down at the computer to begin the day with an idea in mind, and a painter organizes her brushes before she begins. An actor is in a theater lobby trying to understand how she will play a complicated new role, and a ballet dancer is on a bus on his way to ten o’clock practice. He has worked so hard so long—since childhood—that his feet throb day and night.

They might be anyone, but they’re not. They are artists and they are different and they know they are, and have always known. They have different points of view, habits, values, routines, and preoccupations than even the people closest to them, and as they perform their art today, carrying out their chosen roles, they will exercise talents that not everyone possesses. All the skills they’ve struggled to develop, and all the hopes and ambitions guiding them, and their entire being, will be brought to bear today.

 To Be an Artist

Artists possess traits and qualities that equip them for the artist’s creative life. Whether you find them in big cities or remote jungles or on farms or in desert tents, in any of the four hemispheres, you will also find them generally to be quite similar: to have varied interests and to be persistent in the face of obstacles and disappointments. They are dogged, determined, resourceful, open-minded, undeviating, tolerant of ambiguity and novelty, tenacious, and tremendously independent and self-reliant. And they are also self-confident, resilient risk-takers with good memories, and the hardest workers on this globe and almost as self-sacrificing and self-demanding as Saint Francis of Assisi. They are complex thinking and feeling people who seek out complexity and who:

ballerina-534356_640_copy2Possess extraordinary energy and an addiction to work (A characteristic of artists that distinguish them from others is their capacity for hard sustained effort. No outstanding creative achievement has ever been produced without a great deal of conscious work on the part of the creator. When artists are fully functioning they work at white heat for an hour, a day, a week, or months or years.)

Can produce tremendous volumes of work (Balzac wrote 95 novels before his death at 51. Picasso produced a quarter million works of art. Novelist Thomas Wolfe sometimes wrote 5,000 words in a night. Not always, but usually, the greatest artists are also the most prolific.)

Are willing to sacrifice for the sake of their art without hesitation (American Impressionist Mary Cassatt, possibly the greatest woman painter of the nineteenth century, kept royalty waiting until she had finished her day’s work. Hemingway said he had to ease off making love when he was writing hard because the two things were “run by the same motor.” Nobel Prize novelist Toni Morrison said, “The important thing is that I don’t do anything else.” Another Nobel novelist, Saul Bellow, said writing was more important to him than anything, including his family.)

Value authenticity, integrity, and sincerity (How many other occupations involve a quest for truth?)

wells-theatre-210914_640Are oriented to the fullest development of their skills (You must never lose the belief that you have the ability to carry out skills needed to produce quality art successfully. Developing skills leads to competency, then to expertise, then excellence, then greatness. If you feel you have the skills you are less likely to be haunted by self-doubt, and your art flows more freely. If you ask yourself “Do I have the skill?” and you answer “No I don’t,” you’ll have to learn the skill. There are any number of ways to accomplish that.)

 Are preoccupied with technique and style (The public isn’t meant to notice an artist’s technique, but other artists are aware of it immediately. The first thing you notice about a great artist is a distinctive style.)

Are ambitious and competitive (Art is as competitive as a Yankees-Red Sox game.)

Are resilient and able to overcome obstacles and persevere (Artists persist doggedly, however difficult or frustrating the physical and mental effort of pursuing their goal might be. After a success, your expectations of future success rise. When you see you are overcoming obstacles and making steady progress and reaching your goals, your confidence increases, sometimes phenomenally.)

Value originality (A work must be original if it’s to be considered artistic.)

Must have the ability to establish rapport with and hold an audience (To succeed, all works of art need a theatrical element.)

Must have a business sense (Artists have a career to manage, and responsibilities and expenses, and intangible rewards are not the only rewards. When you receive rewards your sense of well-being and hopefulness rise. All arts involve salesmanship.)

violin-374096_640Have a practical, problem-solving intelligence (Each day every artist on earth solves a hundred complex problems. Artists do not spend their days working on easy problems; they work on problems that are hard for them. That’s how they create work that has never been seen before and continue to expand their abilities at the same time.)

Have an artistic vision and heightened perception (To the artist the world is inexhaustibly rich with aesthetic potential. To painters and photographers a leaf is much more than a leaf; an actor’s frown signifies more than a frown; a single word, a single syllable, holds untold riches for a poet.)

Have a capacity for self-criticism and objectivity about their work and their abilities (Artists learn to lay their egos aside as they would any other impediment.)

Are sensitive to life and open to experience (Curious, they plumb what is outside them in the world and their own thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Whatever happens to them, they never forget it.)

Strive for competence and constant improvement (An artist is never content very long.)

Value independence (All artists must be allowed to move in their own direction under their own power.)

Are more self-confident, rebellious, bold, and daring than the vast majority of people (If you lose those things, you lose your talent as well.)

Have the ability to focus (Artists are capable of ferocious concentration, losing all sense of time and place, conscious only of the work before them.)

Are playful and value the simple and the unaffected (Artists are in love with simplicity.)

Have an abundance of physical strength and stamina (Architect Buckminster Fuller was often unable to stop working until he dropped from exhaustion. Work poured out of Da Vinci in a torrent. Often it is the end of the artist’s endurance that stops his working day.)

Are far more self-disciplined in matters concerning work than most people in other fields

vincent-van-gogh-86742_640(1)Are able to adapt and make adjustments (An experienced artist has learned when to stop and begin again when something isn’t working.)

Are studious in the sense of studying to develop their craft (All artists study and all are self-taught to a greater or lesser degree.)

Take luck, the breaks, and good or bad fortune into account (Good luck often follows persistence. A failure or wrong direction or bad luck may lead to something fruitful later on. A “wrong” word in a sentence may prove to be the perfect word.)

Must be patient, because all artists who reach high excellence will have done so via a long period of learning and application while pushing themselves upward to it.

Have a strong belief in, and respect and enthusiasm for their art

Are deep-feeling, emotionally rich

The writer at the computer, the painter sorting brushes, the actor in the lobby, and the dancer with sore feet needn’t feel lonely as they start the day because possibly very near are others who lead similar lives and are very much like them.

© 2014 David J. Rogers

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Filed under Actors and Directors, Artists, Becoming an Artist, Creativity Self-Improvement, Dancers, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Expectations, Goals and Purposes, Motivation, Writers

Writers, Dancers, Actors, and Artists: How to Excel

The information in this post is applicable not only to artists, but to people working in any occupation.

 A Friend Was in Town

lavender-21357_640A friend was in town and we went out and had a few laughs, and told a few lies, and he reflected on his career. He said, “I knew when I started out there were an awful lot of writers who were more gifted and more intelligent and went to fancier schools and got better grades. So I decided then and there that to survive competitively I had no choice: I would have to buckle down and out-work the others, and that’s what I’ve done. Now I’m a popular author and I’ve never heard anything more about them.”

Every artist, every person, who reaches high expertise in a field—a “domain”—will have done so via a long period of learning and application while pushing themselves upward to excellence.

Lengthy training is nearly always the reason for superior performance.

The best way to improve your abilities is to deliberately practice, even if you have no interest in becoming one of the greats, or any more proficient in your art than being excellent, or “pretty good,” or “not bad.”

One sign of prodigies is that you can’t keep them from practicing. That’s all they want to do and they find it exciting. But many people, I’m told, find practicing drudgery. I’ve never found drudgery a problem. I don’t mind drudgery. But drudgery or not, if you want to excel, it’s got to be done.

Good artists manufacture themselves.

The enlightened artist begins with the knowledge that an art is a learnable performance made up of a number of separate skills, each of which can be learned, developed, refined, and put together with others.

Dancers who practice until their feet bleed so their performance is all it could be are developing and increasing talent. Writers, actors, composers, and artists who go over and over and over their work until it is as perfect as they want are developing and increasing talent.

You don’t have to be born exceptional to achieve exceptional things as an adult.

 The Deliberate Practice (DP) School of Development

While looking closely at the superior achievements of great artists like Faulkner, Shakespeare, or Picasso, we are strongly tempted to believe that the rules and principles determining the development of abilities simply don’t apply to rare individuals the way they do to us who have not written The Sound and the Fury, or Hamlet, or painted Guernica.

But according to what I call the Deliberate Practice (DP) School of expertise development the ways in which famous artists develop exceptional capabilities are quite similar to how everyone else develops their abilities; that if certain procedures are followed high artistic performance is a more realistic goal than might be expected.

Every artist, every person, who reaches high expertise in a field—the “domain”—will have done so via a long period of learning and application while pushing themselves upward to excellence. Lengthy training is nearly always the reason for superior performance.

The Amount of Time Devoted to Deliberate Practice is the Best Predictor of Your Attainments

ernest-hemingway-401493_640It is generally believed now according to “The 10 Year Rule of Necessary Preparation” that to reach peak performance in most domains ten years and 10,000 hours of application are required, a sizable portion of that time devoted to sustained, focused “deliberate practice.” Ten years and 10,000 hours sounds intimidating, but if you stop to think about your own artistic career, you’ll see it’s not so intimidating after all. And there are many exceptions to the ten-year rule.

Studies of piano students show a very precise correlation between the number of practice hours and the student’s proficiency. The best students practice substantially more hours than students at a mid-level of proficiency, who in turn, practice considerably more hours than poorer performers.

When I was an 800 meter runner on the track team, a few of us spent more hours than others on the team practicing and even sent away for information on the world’s most innovative training methods, and trained year round. Our goal was to develop our abilities as high as we could so that we might win races. We consistently lowered our times and won more often than not. But some of our teammates were satisfied to come in third, fourth, or fifth, and left practice well before we did, didn’t study training methods, and worked out only during track season.

I notice the same in writing groups. It’s obvious that certain hard workers really want to write a better poem this time than they did last time, want eventually to write supremely well, and that others in the group have much lower ambitions. They reach a certain level of ability they’re satisfied with, and there they stay.

If your ambitions for your art are high, practice more hours; if not high, you needn’t spend as much time practicing.

The Rule Is Not A Rule

More recently, research has shown that the ten year rule is not a “rule” after all. Some artists require even more time. Generally the number of years from a pianist’s first lesson to a major concert performance is seventeen years. And some artists require less than ten years and 10,000 hours. In fact, the people who will become the best in a domain ordinarily require less time than others to reach high expertise. They get there quicker and they are better. They also produce more volume of work and more high quality work in their career than others in the domain. Very tall professional basketball player—seven feet—become very proficient after six or seven years.

What is Deliberate Practice?

The best way to improve your abilities is to deliberately practice, even if you have no interest in becoming one of the greats, or any more proficient in your art than being excellent, or “pretty good,” or “not bad.”

To deliberately practice is to set out and conscientiously follow a specific program to improve your performance, including increasing your knowledge because a major way of leaping up in performance–and possibly the most significant way–is through the acquisition of knowledge about your domain.

Being intelligent explains many successes, but the best chess player, the best athlete, the best creative artist, the best business person, is not necessarily the most intelligent, but has acquired more sheer knowledge of the domain than others in the field. He or she has a higher number of patterns–“chunks” of knowledge–in their memories to draw on and apply to solving the problems at hand—possibly a few million chunks.

Acquiring more and more chunks is what you’re doing all the time you’re working at your craft, talking about your craft, studying it, and practicing. Major artists are immersed in their art—they breathe it; they dream of it.

The knowledge of the domain you possess also depends on your motivation to learn. Some artists—some people in general–have an insatiable appetite for new information; others have virtually no appetite. (Research show that more than 50% of college graduates never read a book again after graduation.) But since the best artists are also the most knowledgeable, it’s clear that studiousness is a characteristic of the best.

One sign of prodigies is that you can’t keep them from practicing. That’s all they want to do and they find it exciting. But many people, I’m told, find practicing drudgery. I’ve never found drudgery a problem. I don’t mind drudgery. But drudgery or not, if you want to excel, it’s got to be done.

A Useful DP Program

ballet-335493_640(1)DP should really be called “Sustained, Private Deliberate Practice” because to be maximally effective it should continue over time and is usually carried out in private. A violinist who practices four hours every morning needn’t have a teacher with him all the time. (Though children taking music lessons are more likely to want to continue practicing if parents stay with them.)

Deliberate efforts to improve performance beyond its current level require concentration, problem-solving, and a continuous striving to find better methods for performing the artist’s tasks. The primary prerequisite is always bearing in mind and never forgetting what the goal is—concentrating on improving some specific aspect of performance.

For example, in practicing a piece, a less experienced pianist will play the entire piece, but the more experienced pianist will concentrate repeatedly on a particular passage or small set of notes that she is weak on and needs to play better. You stunt your artistic growth when you practice what you’re already good at and neglect what needs more work.

The enlightened artist begins with the knowledge that an art is a learnable performance made up of a number of separate skills, each of which can be learned, developed, refined, and put together with others. He analyzes his performance as objectively as possible, particularly strengths and weaknesses, and sets realistic (not unrealistic) performance-improvement goals, sets aside specific and regular practice hours (when and where it will be done), practices conscientiously and hard (but takes regular breaks, gets sufficient sleep and rest, and takes naps), coordinates practice with instruction (which may be self-instruction), seeks feedback, seeks help when needed (consulting, mentoring, advising), focuses more on weaknesses than strengths (that’s important to do), and keeps track of and evaluates improvements over time.

Focus on a Small Set of Crucial Tasks

It is important to identify and focus on developing expertise in the most crucial tasks in your art (and your style and technique)—those tasks that occur often and that capture the essence of high performance in your domain. Very important to me are the rhythm, the “sound,” the “flow” of the words, and refining that ability is important to me.

All artists are trying to establish a relationship with an audience. Poets are particularly interested in doing so through imagery, size and scope of vocabulary, particularly concrete language, fluency, and succinctness; dramatists in crisp dialogue; non-fiction writers in conveying complex information clearly and simply; dancers in physical preparation, strength, balance, elevation, control, and the ability to imitate movements; actors in improving their ability to memorize lines and to assimilate information quickly; fine artists to convey in colors, shapes, and perspectives a very direct form of self-expression.

Right now, what would you say are the crucial tasks you should focus on?

List them: 1,2,3,4 and set up your goals and your schedule.

Is Talent Important? Does it Even Exist?

The DP School doesn’t buy the notion that people, in our case, artists, are born with innate talents that are the causes of one artist being a better artist than another one, or that explains why artists seem naturally equipped for artistic performances. They would reject the notion that Hemingway was born with more “creative stuff” than the other writers of his era. The Talent (T) School agrees that practice is essential, but believes that if you don’t have the sheer talent—that “creative stuff”– you’re at a serious disadvantage.

THE DT School points to other causes than innate talent to explain remarkability, particularly effort and the amount of time spent on improvement. The T School maintains that some people will never become experts no matter how hard they apply themselves because they lack the necessary talents that would equip them to excel. A well-known acting teacher wrote, “the overwhelming majority of trained actors who have more than fulfilled the 10-year/10,000- requirement proposed by the strict deliberate practice view” seem to be missing the ability to rise above the competition, but “superior talent does eventually get noticed”

An orchestral violinist said on hearing a brilliant eleven year old violin prodigy: “I was so overcome by what she did in rehearsal…If I practiced for three thousand years I couldn’t play like that. None of us could.”

The Middle Way

drama-312318_640My Middle Way philosophy which avoids extremes tells me that innate talent and basic abilities do exist and that to disbelieve that is contrary to everyday experience. You know that from your own life. Since your earliest days you were always the best writer, or best painter or dancer, and you knew that even as a child and everyone knew that and you didn’t know how you got that way: you just were. Deliberate Practice is not the only cause of excellence in the arts or any other domain.

My friend, the late composer/performer/conductor Marvin Hamlisch, was a creative genius who showed exceptional musical ability at three and auditioned for and was accepted into the Julliard School of Music, the world’s finest music school, at seven. Marvin went on to win many awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, and was a tremendously hard worker. But unlike Marvin, most prodigies are not exceptional as adults. Other people who were not as advantaged in childhood surpassed them just as you and I have surpassed others who were born with more talent.

Artist’s life after artist’s life show us that talent is not a hard and fast commodity that some people possess and will always possess, but that talent is malleable and changeable, and something you develop through devoted effort and persistence. Good artists manufacture themselves. You don’t have to be born exceptional to achieve exceptional things as an adult.

Dancers who practice until their feet bleed so their performance is all it could be are developing and increasing talent. Writers, actors, composers, and artists who go over and over and over their work until it is as perfect as they want are developing and increasing talent. Self-taught autodidacts like poet Walt Whitman who begin their careers with no discernible talent at all and become the most talented artists of their age intrigue me very much.

Long hours of hard work painting, writing, dancing, and acting, combined with a sustained schedule of deliberate practice and deepening of knowledge, and the talent you know you possess and have known for a long time you do will go a long way, and can lead to undreamed of satisfaction, rich experiences, new talents, meaningful friendships, and success, profit, and recognition.

© 2014 David J. Rogers

Order Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life eBook by David J. Rogers

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Filed under Actors and Directors, Artists, Becoming an Artist, Creativity Self-Improvement, Dancers, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Goals and Purposes, Motivation, Writers