TED's 31 days of Ideas - Day 17: Your elusive creative genius

Your elusive creative genius

By Adam Savage

You probably know about Elizabeth Gilbert because her non-fiction book about traveling around the world to find herself after divorce, Eat, Pray, Love, was an international bestseller, and then a movie starring Julia Roberts. I knew that the book existed, like nearly everyone with a pulse, but I hadn't read it, nor did I have plans to. To be honest, I'd arrogantly filed it away in my brain under "self-help-How-Stella-Got-Her-Groove-Back-type-books-I'll-probably-never-read."

What an idiot. It was idiotic to judge Gilbert by her cover story -- because in late 2014 she rocked my world. I was on a 32-city tour with my stage show and looking for stuff to read. I can't remember who recommended it, but I picked up Gilbert's 2010 novel, The Signature of All Things, and promptly had my world rocked. The book KILLED me, and I found myself transported every time I picked it up and often openly weeping at its amazing chronicle of the development of a natural scientist in the 19th century. It's a masterpiece.

I mentioned this to a friend (thank you, Hodgman!) who promptly told me that Gilbert was a friend and had also given a great TED Talk, "Your elusive creative genius." I discovered in fact that she gave given two talks. But really, they're two halves of one talk, and indeed one of the best ever given, in my humble opinion.

Gilbert gave her first talk right after the success of Eat, Pray, Love. She speaks eloquently and confidently about creativity and success. From the vantage point of achieving international acclaim after two decades of struggle, she begins her talk reminding the crowd that, as she put it, "It's exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me." She continues to talk about where the successful creative process comes from. She fears it might not happen to her again, decides to see how others coped with success and, in her investigation, discovers that the concept of a "creator" as the singular source for ideas is fairly recent -- and that ancient tribes, the Greeks and the Romans all had a concept of genius as an "other." Something outside ourselves. It floats on the wind or down a river. And if we're quiet enough, and attentive enough, and quick enough, we might be able to catch it and be stewards of its light, for awhile. 

She mentions that her follow-up book will tackle this subject. That book is the selfsame The Signature of All Things, the book that so cracked me open from the inside and poured its heady ichor of grace, loss and purpose into me.

Ultimately, my takeaway is that success and failure are two sides of a river, a bandwidth, and that our job as creators is to stay as close to the center as possible: the center of ourselves. Keeping our ass in the seat, doing our work, waiting to see if a poem or a song or a book or painting or dance is going to let us bring it into being.