Wednesday, January 7, 2009

My Lunch with Malcolm Gladwell and Charles Schulz

I recently had the odd sensation of finishing two wildly different books at the same time: the audiobook of Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers," and the massive 500+-page epic biography of Charles Schulz by David Michaelis.

"Outliers" is typical addicting Gladwell, who is a human intellectual synthesizer. This time, he forms a hypothesis on the real factors behind "success" (as traditionally defined, as in Einstein and Bill Gates). "Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography" is an exhaustive look at a single creative individual and how his life and his craft were fused until the day he died.

When I closed the book on Schulz at 11:15 last night, I felt like I had just had lunch with these two men, and they were both trying to tell me the same thing. Both books are about success and creativity, but both point to a truth that is traditional, unsexy and completely liberating all at the same time: creative success is about work.

One of Gladwell's biggest points is that highly successful people aren't touched by God, as we imagine Mozart and Michael Jordan to be. They have talent, sure, but they work their asses off. In fact, you can even point to a magic number of sorts: It takes 10,000 hours of focused practice for even a highly gifted person to achieve true expertise. Talent isn't what separates the mildly successful from the wildly successful. It's having the opportunity to work really hard, and actually doing it.

Schulz was talented and single-minded for sure, but his story is a reminder that creativity is messy. Charlie Brown didn't just fall from the sky. Schulz didn't wake up one day with these perfectly drawn characters in his head and say, "I'm going to do a cartoon strip about kids!" He didn't even want to draw kids. He fell into it. The early cartoons don't look like what we know as Peanuts. The strip wasn't as minimal. Snoopy was skinny and peripheral to the story. Charlie Brown looked younger. Lucy wasn't yet a firebrand. Schulz's ultimate creation came out of sitting at the drawing board every day for almost his entire life. It's a story of constant work and refinement.

This is personally instructive to me. I've struggled for years with wondering what I should be focused on creatively, and I've been plagued by the idea that I have threads of talent in different areas, but not enough in any one area to do anything great. I can write a decent song, but I can't sing it. My right hand is fast enough for solid rhythm guitar, but my left is too slow to play great leads. I can see a clear image in my head, but I can't draw or paint it. I can devise a clever movie idea and structure it well, but developing character is an absolute chore. I can write a blog or a travel journal, but not a novel or a poem.

One night in a graduate writing class, I was asked to look at a pencil sketch of a fellow classmate (someone I had never met) and write a story about who she is. I did so easily. I decided that she was two different people. She had been a traditional housewife, and then one day, she woke up and realized that she had to leave her family and start a new life out west. After class, the actual woman cornered me in the hallway, a look of astonishment on her face. "I did leave my husband and my family and move out west. How did you know that?" she asked.

(I could do this. But to this day, I can't sit down and develop a fully fleshed-out fictional character to save my life. Good grief...)

I've continually doubted my creative self-perception, and I've thought repeatedly, particularly over the last three years, "I wish I could just take a survey of everyone I know, and they could tell me what they think I'm best at, and be honest about what I'm bad at, and I'll just do what they say and forget the rest." When I should be grateful for having options--for being able to do anything creative when some people would kill for that ability--I've usually sunk into self-pity about not being good enough in any one thing, and imagining that the people I admire were touched by something I don't have. Always the Salieri, never the Mozart.

My lunch with Gladwell and Schulz opened a new door. Genius be damned. You can't think in a top-down way. You just have to work and work and work and see where your work takes you. And it might be that what you're really working on isn't any one thing in particular. It might be that you're just trying to be a balanced human being--a craftsman, a husband, a father. And that's something that takes serious practice.


Mike said...

Now you have it! :-)

m.f. said...

As I've suggested on this blog, and in print, in the past, our cultural notion of creativity is a myth. Glad to hear Gladwell agrees, though I've read negative reviews of this book. BTW, this blog is continually compelling, and on a diverse range of topics--so that's something.

Anonymous said...

Let's chat about this one when you are in IC. LOTS to discuss. In a nutshell, I think you are spot on. You have to work hard, find your sources of inspiration and skill, and then let your own trajectory emerge.

The genius of personal development!

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