Elizabeth Gilbert got a standing ovation when she spoke at TED 2009 about genius, the process of creativity, sources of inspiration, and the pressures on people who earn their living through creative works. Her talk was moving and poignant, at times wryly witty.
Elizabeth is troubled by the fear of what if, in her 30’s, she has already done her life’s best work; what if her next 4 decades’ worth of creative outputs don’t live up to “the freakish success” of her best-selling book, Eat, Pray, Love.
Acknowledging the many creative geniuses who have lived tormented lives (or committed suicide) after failing to surpass their earlier work, Elizabeth says she’s looking for ways to manage her own demons before they take over.
She finds comfort in the notion that genius may have an external component: that the creator is not entirely responsible for the creative work. (She wryly identified multiple possibilities: the divine within, the divine without; a fairy; a voice from on high; a genie living in the wall or the corner of your office.)
Elizabeth told stories of what she and others, including a famous poet and a musician, have experienced in their own work. They point to genius externalized — inspiration coming from some source outside of themselves — as a fully formed concept or poem, the core melodic phrase for a new song, an image trapped within the canvas. Or something that they reveal by working hard, day after day, at their art or their craft. Wasn’t it Michelangelo who described his artistic process as revealing the shapes that had been concealed within the stone?
Her talk has provoked a raging online conversation, with people attacking each other and her, disagreeing vehemently on the viewpoints she espoused. The comments reveal a surprising number of detractors (people who disliked her best-selling book Eat, Pray, Love and who are taking this opportunity to attack her writings in general?). The people who most fervently oppose her proposition are those who are self-styled rationalists…
This argument strikes me as one of those vexing Mars versus Venus disputes — a symptom of left-brain versus right-brain polarization, versus synthesis. What if Daniel Pink is right, when he states in A Whole New Mind,
The last few decades have belonged to a certain kind of person with a certain kind of mind — computer programmers who could crank code, lawyers who could craft contracts, MBAs who could crunch numbers. But the keys to the kingdom are changing hands. The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a different kind of mind — creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers. These people — artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers — will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.
Based on the crises the world is now confronting, we’ve seen the problems that can occur when left-brain thinkers rule the world (or at least its financial markets) unchecked by any other value systems or moral codes. Whatever the source of genius and creativity, the time has come for more balance (and more respect) between the proponents of rationalism and creativity.