The Creativity Delusion: There is no Genius


Copy-Me is back, with a three-part mini series of episodes! This time we’re trying a psychological and anthropological approach to copyright. The Creativity Delusion will be a multi-part video essay on how our misconceptions about ideas and the way brains work impact our views about creation. These also extend to intellectual property.

It’s been 2 years and 3 months since our last episode. In the meantime, we switched our look, updated our research and hopefully made a better product overall. Enjoy Part 1! Part 2 drops June 1!

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Creativity toes a blurry line between magic and genius. Ideas seem to happen in the flash of an instant, works appear to be born whole, discovery only works with “eureka!” moments, and, to us, the only real creator is the misunderstood genius enveloped in a powerful aura of originality.

But these nearly magical properties have steadily grown out of proportion. We have come to idealize the genius, vilify all “unoriginal” works, and even misunderstand our own brains.

See, the idea of… the idea — is a myth. And it all starts with what we’ve come to know as… genius.

We’re led to believe that magic happens to a few select geniuses to whom creation comes as easy as… chewing gum. But are genius brains really that far superior?

Stanford’s Lewis Terman sought to answer this very question by testing 168,000 children. He placed them on a scale “from idiocy […] to genius” and identified 1,500 ‘child prodigies’. He tracked their accomplishments for the rest of their lives. Some sought creative outlets, but others found more ordinary work. But the most interesting thing is what happened to the non-creative non-geniuses who, according to theory, shouldn’t have ever done anything creative. Two of them, William Shockley and Luis Alvarez, won Nobel Prizes.

In the end, Terman’s study failed to prove that some are ‘born geniuses’. And no other attempts or follow-ups could ever prove genius was related to creative abilities.

Still, popular culture constantly reminds us that geniuses must have sudden bursts of inspiration!

  • We still quote Mozart saying “my subject stands almost complete in my mind”. Even though this has been proven to be forged as early as 1856. Mozart did sketch his compositions, revised them, and sometimes even got stuck.
  • Archimedes almost certainly did not shout “Eureka!”. The story of him jumping out of the bathtub was written by Vitruvius, two centuries later.
  • Even culture’s most beloved genius, Einstein himself, did not come up with the special theory of relativity in a burst of inspiration. He refused the notion that discovery comes in a sudden moment of enlightenment and actually wrote: “I was led to it by steps.”

Stories of aha moments are just that: anecdotal, romanticized myths that make tremendous work seem… almost spiritual. We rarely ever know all the steps taken behind the finished work, so we come to idealize accomplishments. We see creation as magic, when, in fact, it’s about work

And speaking of idealization…

It’s no coincidence that the light-bulb has become synonymous with inspiration. Like a flipped switch, sudden illumination brings fully formed ideas into our mind. Much like Edison’s wizardry brought light to people’s homes. 

Edison was viewed as a prolific inventor, so the lightbulb quickly became the iconic symbol for new ideas. Only Edison didn’t invent the lightbulb—he only improved on dozens of previous versions, each one a little better than the one before.

Pop culture is full of references to genius:

  • the genius who works alone in a cave or a laboratory;
  • he needs nothing else but his own research;
  • the work he puts in is highly original and based on his ideas alone;
  • and, in sudden sparks of inspiration….
  • he somehow manages to pull off great achievements.

Now what about the word genius?

This is Francis Galton, the guy who coined it. This seems in line with our modern description. So who are those “special few” he was referring to? Whites, who, at the time, were the opposite of the “negro race”. Galton’s 1869 study, “Hereditary Genius”, gave centuries of prejudice a façade of reason and “science”. A century and a half of actual science has debunked any notion of eugenics, but some people still think of Galton’s theories as “real science”.

The myth of the genius and even eugenics exist because of what we want to see. We like simple stories that explain our complex and scary world. We like to be told there’s simple solutions to everything, even to previously uncharted areas such as our complex brains. But the downside is… we only see the destination.

When something appears out of nothing, we think there must be something mystical in the mix. The story sweeps us off our feet with its dizzying array of promises. And so, we refuse to see the road that each creator takes. But the truth is you don’t have to be superhuman to create. It’s all based in ordinary thinking. Every beautiful thing ever created was born out of effort and error. Each maker is flawed, but all it takes is putting one foot in front of the other. Little steps that move you incrementally forward. Sometimes you run off course, sometimes you come to a completely unexpected conclusion.

Yet our romantic prejudice about creation lingers on. Ideas are so elusive and our minds so complex that surely there must be something unconscious, magical, even, about it. Even if everyone can do it!

Which brings us to…

[part 2 coming June 1st 2018]

  • Illustrations: Anna Florea
  • Sound Design: Ștefan Teodorescu
  • Edit & Animation: Alex Lungu
  • Voice Over: Ioana Pelehatăi
  • Script: Alex Lungu & Ioana Pelehatăi