Friday, March 22, 2019

Why Hacks Think They're Geniuses

I write a lot about commitment. The degree of dedication, focus, obsession - whatever you want to call it - required to create something with some magic to it is not just extremely high, but downright repulsive to view from up-close. I like to remind people that Beethoven composed in a diaper (that expression of revulsion that just crossed your face says it all. Hold that thought!).

As I keep saying, magic is messy...even though we innately expect our magicians to be suave David Copperfields. If people knew what truly went into the magic tricks of creativity - the demented level of over-the-top caring - they'd cross the street to avoid the pathetic, kicked-in wretches who traffic in such work.

I offered this quote a few months ago which gave away the formula:
"When you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely." - Zen dude Shunryu Suzuki
Burn victims aren't real suave. A pile of ashes is in no position to impress you.

Practical example. I once challenged a chef friend to try something difficult - it was a playful, informal thing, with no stakes at all - and two hours later I glimpsed him in his kitchen throwing ingredients at the wall and sobbing uncontrollably (and he was a tough-assed, unfussy sort of dude). You might imagine that I dashed, ashamed and alarmed, into the kitchen to call off the challenge. On the contrary, I felt immense satisfaction. Not because I'm a sadist, but because I knew I'd inspired him to create, and this is what real creativity looks like. It's a dirty job that breaks you if you do it right. (P.S.: his final result totally killed.)
My thoughts on this seldom seem to land for people. It's impossible to drive any of this home to uninspired, uncreative creators (the ones who churn out the usual crap, leaning on formula and emulation, and who are constitutionally incapable of a good sob). And I just realized why.

It's super hard to write a lousy book, compose a lousy symphony, direct a lousy film, or paint a lousy mural. It takes 10 years of instrumental training plus another decade of improvisation experience to even begin to call oneself a jazz musician - far longer than med school! - so it's little wonder that every unexceptional player considers himself some sort of genius.

Every purveyor of crap feels - with good reason! - like they've made the Big Sacrifice. They've tasted commitment and suffered for their art. Every one of them. That's why uninspired hacks nod along in weary agreement when you discuss "commitment". Just getting to square one, assembling and presenting something with some minimal degree of competence, is inhumanly difficult. They all believe they've done the thing because they've done the thing!

Here's what I'd say to such people: Remember how hard it was just to generate and organize that material and have it be coherent? Well, what if some impossible-to-please tyrant loomed constantly over your shoulder, screaming at you to demolish perfectly adequate chunks and rework them for a result that's far better than it needs to be; far better than audiences will likely even notice, much less appreciate?

What if that belligerent asshole required you to treat every trivial decision like a matter of life or death?

What if every facile choice and easy cliché stabbed at him like a dagger to the heart?

What if, amid the overall death march, he compelled you to weigh yourself down further with seemingly unnecessary extra compulsions and requirements?

What if he demanded perpetual self-questioning, leaving you perpetually unsure whether you've committed the sin of settling for "good enough" rather than riding the curve of diminishing results all the way to brilliance (100,000 times harder...when it's already so, so hard)?

What if you needed to spend time soothing collaborators who might otherwise feel smothered by the intensity of the demands he compels you to satisfy?

And what if you could never, ever evade this person, because it was you?


And what if you - broken, bedraggled, and having been entirely (per the Zen quotation above) consumed by the task - needed to put on a tuxedo and go out there and feign ease, because people won't even notice magic unless it's conjured/marketed by some shiny, toothy, theatrically effortless David Copperfield?


See also "The Times Everything Worked Out" - especially the footer - and "The Most Helpful Insight About Creativity"

6 comments:

jeff davidson said...

My number one indicator that a person is not a genius: calling themselves a genius. Worrying about who is and who's not a genius is, IMO, a waste of time. I do my thing, if someone calls it genius, so be it.

also, Unfortunately, no amount of soul-crushing hard work can substitute for talent. Everyone hits the wall of diminishing returns on effort, it takes talent to crash through to the next level(s).

Jim Leff said...


“no amount of soul-crushing hard work can substitute for talent”

Maybe. But proper quantity of correct intent (ie framing) combined with crushing hard work beats talent. Some of my best stuff is in realms where I have no natural talent. Much of this Slog (including this very posting) is an attempt to explain the trick. Reading beyond the title helps.

jeff davidson said...

"Maybe. But proper quantity of correct intent (ie framing) combined with crushing hard work beats talent"

sure, but that doesn't equal genius. Here's my general observation:
- crushing hard work + zero talent = mastery
- crushing hard work + strong talent = genius

Jim Leff said...

You're hung up on "genius". I'm not. If you'll read the post rather than read-the-title-and quickly-scan-the-post, you'll see that that's not my thrust here.

This serves as an all-purpose reply to nearly every comment on this Slog: it's not that I'm missing the obvious, normal perception you're pointing me toward. It's that I see something non-obvious, which is why I 1. took time to write and 2. figure it's worth people's time to read. So one option would be to actually read it, and maybe even marinate in it for a brief moment before seizing on some random keyword (most often in the title) which happens to trigger some position statement on an unrelated point.

Or not. Everyone's free, including to air their position statements. I claim no control; can only meekly suggest. Carry on! :)

jeff davidson said...

yeah, I read your post the first time. I agree with your post, the point I'm making (poorly) is that a hack (to borrow your term), by way of probability, will remain a hack even if they put in all that work because true talent is so rare. And that's a sad reality.

Jim Leff said...

FWIW I don't think talent is a static metric. I think talent is simply a way of spinning the doing by inhibiting the natural flow less. Talent doesn't exist except in the dynamic execution. It is not itself a thing. I know this because I'm "talented" (i.e. don't inhibit my flow) in some realms where I'm untalented. I've hacked the spinning, the framing, the outlook. See this: http://jimleff.blogspot.com/2011/10/times-everything-worked-out.html ...and this: https://jimleff.blogspot.com/2019/01/soothing-baby.html

But one thing that's undeniable is that great work and commitment are necessary to create quality. Can you work hard and produce a turd? Sure. That's assumed in this posting, so you don't need to convince me. I'm trying to explain the psychology behind this confusion.

Turd production looks surprisingly similar to gem production, so at least some turd-producers feel like geniuses without any conceit or assholery. They truly have labored greatly and sincerely. So I'm trying to analyze the delta and attempt the difficult feat of explaining it in a way that might nudge a turd producer out of his/her complacency.

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