When most people struggle with procrastination, they struggle with perfectionism. The piece of art, writing, or music has to be remarkable or it isn’t worth presenting. That notion is propagated in our culture as though society’s winners are these amazing and almost untouchable human-beings. Yet, few things are farther from the truth. This morning, I watched a TedTalk given by one of my favorite intellectuals, Seth Godin. In it, he discussed the manners in which ideas are spread, beginning with the creation of “remarkable” ones. Seth noted that the bad ones, or the ones that don’t make it, are ordinary and the good ones are exceptional. But, I respectfully disagree.
The great ideas aren’t remarkable in the sense that they completely turn the old ones on their heads; they’re actually just upgraded versions of prior conceptions. Providing his audience with some examples, Seth mentioned cows that were partially black and partially purple; giant, dog-shaped bushes; and chocolate milk: to him these ideas was extraordinary because of how dissimilar they were to their counterparts. But are they? Is adding chocolate to milk really that remarkable, or even painting a cow purple? I get his sentiment, but it’s also the reason why so many people struggle with creativity. His understanding, when perceived through the lens of black and white thinking, is exaggerated. Adding on and/or taking away an element doesn’t make something amazing; it just makes it better (sometimes, even worse). And I believe that all of us are capable of creating objects of beauty and utility, if we accept that the standards placed upon us (usually only by ourselves) are fairly ludicrous.
Several months ago, I wrote an article (which I’ll add below) about how to better understand cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Rather than pitting reason against intuition, or what some call their gut feeling, I sought to conceive of both in harmony for the maintenance of one’s mental health. The problem I kept seeing was that my client’s were stuck in black and white thinking when reframing their negative automatic thoughts, redirecting their gazes to the more positive aspects of reality. An example is going from the irrational thought of “My friends secretly hate me” to “My friends love me.” Another is going from “I’m a failure” to “I’m a success.” While the rational reframe is more grounded in reality, the intuition eventually returns because there’s some kernel of truth in it; your friends may not hate you, but (if you repudiate your morals) there’s a possibility they someday will, thus your worry of discovering that they do is at least somewhat rational. And, you may not be a failure, but you aren’t wholly successful, either. So, there’s usually some truth in the negative automatic thoughts, which CBT seeks to dispel, and they can often be as useful as they are harmful: you’ll likely become a better friend if you, to some extent, worry that your friends will stop speaking to you.
But my addition to the process of cognitive restructuring isn’t that new, as it’s founded in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (which focuses on helping the client form a nuanced understand of herself and her life) and an idea taught to me by the stoic philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, who asserted that the healthy mind is one that’s well-integrated; reason and emotion ought to be in agreement. I wish I could say that my form of CBT was created in some vacuum, but no creation ever is.
We glamorize the genius of creation, yet each creation is simply a new way of piecing together old ideas, sometimes not even that new, like my therapeutic method. The example I often use is of Freud’s Oedipus Complex. The psychological construct of the unconscious and the myth of Oedipus Rex were around before Freud’s claim to fame. He took a story that seemed absurd and made it less so by integrating it with contemporary psychology: Oedipus, according to him, was simply motivated by biologically innate unconscious drives, remaining unaware of the motives, and secret knowledge, behind his actions. While his theory seems amazing, in reality it’s merely clever.
And this is what most, if not all, genius amounts to. Based in the history of others’ ideas and accomplishments, genius doesn’t create miracles; it simply builds on some foundation. It’s cultivated by criticism, praise, and learning and, most of the time, doesn’t exist outside of collaboration. However, so many of us continue to hold ourselves up to absurd standards, thinking that the ordinary is bad and the remarkable is good. Really, the distance between both isn’t that wide. All you should be searching for is some minor alteration in some existing series of minor alterations. If you achieve that, you’ll enter the apparently exclusive club.