Last week, driving into work, I heard an old interview on Fresh Air with Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. And later in the day, I came across an interview with Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
And in both cases I was struck by the relatively mundane events the authors managed to turn into best-selling books. They’re both history books, but not the kind of history we’re used to reading. No big wars, no kings or queens or dictators of note. They both took two unremarkable events and through their persistence and passion, found an epic story.
The Swerve tells the tale of how one man sparked the beginning of the Renaissance by finding Lucretius’ 1000 year old manuscript, De Rerum Natura. The other describes how a poor black woman’s cancer cells, taken without her knowledge, became the source of some of the most important tools in medicine tools, including the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and in vitro fertilization.
The discovery of Lucretius’ manuscript was not a major event. It wasn’t recorded in the annals of history. The story of Henrietta Lack’s cells that revolutionized science and the impact it had on her progeny was not a story until Skloot made it one.
What made these into best-sellers?
Both authors saw something significant in seemingly mundane events. And they believed in that significance. They made connections and saw the meaning of those events for our everyday life.
That is creativity.
We’ve come to equate creativity with the lightning bolt, the aha experience, and with thinking outside the box.
But creativity is not about having ideas. It’s about being able to see the significance of an idea.
Significance is difficult. It’s requires a certain ruthlessness. In Csikszentmihalyi’s work on creativity, one of the toughest parts of the creative process is deciding whether an insight or idea is valuable and worth pursuing. It is easy to know if your idea is novel, but more difficult to know what it contributes and why it’s important. That means understanding what it connects to, how it relates to the current field, and what it has to offer so people can relate to it, and recognize it as something vital, beautiful, or important.
The telephone was a brilliant idea. Or so we think now. But at the time, it was nothing more than a novelty, a parlor game. Until there was a use for it, it didn’t mean anything. It wasn’t significant.
Imagine. Inventing the telephone was easy. Inventing a use for it was the hard part. It took Alexander Graham Bell and his backers months to invent the concept of a two-way conversation. And several more years to convince people there was a reason for it.
In fact, the significance of the phone was so lost on people, that the president of Western Union, William Orton, when approached with the possibility of buying Bell’s patents, refused, saying, “What use could this company make of an electric toy?” Orton just couldn’t understand what the telephone offered that the telegraph didn’t.
This is what impresses me most about people who invent and create – not the stroke of genius, but their persistence, believing there’s something in it, and then finding the use and meaning of it. That is the hard work of idea development. Writing my book these past few months have been a work out in this skill. It’s something I wished I had developed earlier, but grateful I’m learning about it now.
To paraphrase Seinfeld (in the rental car episode!) “Anyone can have an idea. that’s easy. It’s the holding of the idea that’s the hard part.”