Uncommon Genius: A book review by Bob Morris

Uncommon GeniusUncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born
Denise Shekerjian
Penguin Books

Forty unique perspectives on “the idea of creativity itself, the spark of creative impulse”

I envy Denise Shekerjian because she had the opportunity to interview 40 recipients of MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. Her purpose was to obtain their thoughts about how great ideas are born, then share the responses with those who read this book. I especially appreciate her somewhat unorthodox but immensely effective approach of weaving portions of the material generated by the interviews within the fabric of the book’s thematic framework. These themes include taking on risk, learning through doing, sustaining concentration and drive, and building resiliency.

According to Shekerjian, “What harnesses the idea of vision to the creative impulse is the notion that dreams unleash the imagination. And taking this one step further, where the dream addresses some greater good, there is an even stronger tendency to take risks and make the innovative leaps necessary to accomplish its goals. Limit yourself to your own private world and you’ve limited your creativity by worrying about how to protect what you’ve got and how to get what you’re missing. Get yourself out of the way in pursuit of some greater good, in response to a strong pull of mission, and you’ve liberated the mind.” (Page 96)

In collaboration with those interviewed, Shekerjian explores with her reader a perilous process through which a vision or insight is developed and refined until becoming a creative achievement, one that reveals “a new measure of human dignity.” This process somewhat resembles medieval alchemy. That said, she offers this reminder: “Whether in science or in art, then, the ability to judge that a work is finished is more an act of commitment to the consciousness of the creative process than it is a sign of having expressed the last word.” She is an active participant, sometimes resembling (to me, at least) a symphony conductor, other times a choreographer or an anthropologist, organizing and correlating contributions by the uncommon 40 to what becomes a substantial contribution to our understanding of a never-ending process.

Here’s my own take on lessons to be learned from Shekerjian and those she interviewed:

o Identify and cultivate strengths to create a “safe haven” for creativity
o Realize that idea generation will be a long engagement
o Challenge risk to overcome fear but pick your spots
o Loosen up, open doors and windows, and be receptive to possibilities
o Share creations with as many other people as possible
o When creating anything, use what’s essential, not everything available
o When serving a greater good, what you create is not about you
o Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right.” It’s all about perspective.
o Expand horizons and see more, see further, and what’s possible increases
o Whatever else the motivation may be, creativity is not driven by ambition for success
o Whatever is created may have a final form but the process doesn’t
o Outliers are orphans and aliens who threaten what James O’Toole characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom”
o As Kipling suggests, treat “those twin imposters” — success and failure — the same

As I concluded reading Denise Shekerjian’s book, I was reminded of an incident that occurred decades ago when I was in graduate school. One of my professors was discussing a French Romantic poet (I think it was Baudelaire) who had been asked for advice on how to write a poem. Long pause. Finally, reluctantly, he replied, “Draw a birdcage and leave the door open. Then wait and wait and wait. Eventually, if you very fortunate, a small bird will fly in…then erase the cage.” Some of those interviewed create works of art. Others perform works of art. And still others (they are several in this book) whose lives have enriched humanity with decency and compassion, lives I view as works of art. However different all of them may be in most respects, however, they share this in common: Their creative achievement reveals “a new measure of human dignity.”

Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out David Shenk’s The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent and IQ, Bruce Nussbaum’s Creative Intelligence: Harnessing the Power to Create, Connect, and Inspire, and Keith Sawyer’s Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. If you really want to put some white caps on your gray matter, read Gerald Edelman’s Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On The Matter of The Mind.

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