Elizabeth Gilbert on the Creative Genius You Have

If it's true that as Dan Pink said in To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others:

Today, about 1 in 9 American workers earns a living selling products or services. But new evidence suggests that the other 8 in 9 are spending a huge portion of their time selling in a broader sense – persuading, influencing, and moving others.”

And I believe it is because it captures the types of activities we engage in as modern workers and the new reality of work itself as the backdrop — more freelancers, collaborations among peers, and loosely bound group — then it is also true that the nature of our work requires more creativity. Creativity is a learned process, with steps, requiring cognitive stages, and built on existing ideas. 

We copy, combine, collaborate our way into creativity. When we keep pushing, it is possible to find something that has not been done before.  Regardless of where we are on the creative as process path, creative work is hard because we invest ourselves deeply in the doing and in how the product will be received.

Elizabeth Gilbert met with global success in her first book Eat, Pray, Love, the story of a transformational journey searching for pleasure and devotion through Italy, India, and Bali (likely you have seen the movie, starring Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem) suggests that we separate ourselves from our work:

“upon a lot of reflection, that the way that I have to work now, in order to continue writing, is that I have to create some sort of protective psychological construct, right? I have to sort of find some way to have a safe distance between me, as I am writing, and my very natural anxiety about what the reaction to that writing is going to be, from now on.


The Greeks famously called these divine attendant spirits of creativity "daemons." Socrates, famously, believed that he had a daemon who spoke wisdom to him from afar.

The Romans had the same idea, but they called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a genius. Which is great, because the Romans did not actually think that a genius was a particularly clever individual. They believed that a genius was this, sort of magical divine entity, who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist's studio, kind of like Dobby the house elf, and who would come out and sort of invisibly assist the artist with their work and would shape the outcome of that work.

[…] If your work was brilliant, you couldn't take all the credit for it, everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know? Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame. And this is how people thought about creativity in the West for a really long time.

Gilbert is not the only writer and creative who has found a construct to separate the personal emotional investment from the act of creation. Choreographer Twyla Tharp talks about naming your Muse and so does writer Steven Pressfield.

We vest ourselves of the outcome, we pay less attention to the process — and likely to doing the work — and more to what Pressfield calls Resistance. The problem is history in not on our side:

the Renaissance came and everything changed, and we had this big idea, and the big idea was, let's put the individual human being at the center of the universe above all gods and mysteries, and there's no more room for mystical creatures who take dictation from the divine. And it's the beginning of rational humanism, and people started to believe that creativity came completely from the self of the individual. And for the first time in history, you start to hear people referring to this or that artist as being a genius, rather than having a genius.


It's like asking somebody to swallow the sun.

It is bad for the ego — as in make the ego bigger, a problem in many modern creative endeavors — and for the end product. We end up working for the wrong reasons — awards, accolades, etc. — and performance suffers.

Being attached to the process, to doing the work, is a good attitude to have. Because external validation may or may not come. You could do the most brilliant work and if it is not timed right for the taste or the market, or the organization and people around you, well then. Gilbert has a way out of that. Her dialogue with the open air, the creative genius, is worth considering:

Listen you, thing, you and I both know that if this book isn't brilliant that is not entirely my fault, right? Because you can see that I am putting everything I have into this, I don't have any more than this. If you want it to be better, you've got to show up and do your part of the deal.

But if you don't do that, you know what, the hell with it. I'm going to keep writing anyway because that's my job. And I would please like the record to reflect today that I showed up for my part of the job.

Watch the full talk below.


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