Accidental Genius

Everybody wants to be a genius. But creativity is so hard to predict.  Most creative ideas seem to happen by accident.

So… how can we have more creative accidents?

The key is to create a dangerous environment.

I’m not talking about physical danger, although that might get your creative juices flowing. I mean artistic risk.

Personally, I need a space where I can play around with my creative ideas, where I’m not afraid to crash and burn. For me, this is usually a music studio. For you, it could be a laboratory or a gymnasium or a library or even a cubicle. Any space where you can approach your project with a bold sense of adventure.

Geniuses don’t play it safe. The most creative people I know are pretty comfortable with risk.

My brother-in-law has a fairly exciting brain. Rocket science isn’t terribly challenging for him. Even in college, he was able to imagine and produce projects of staggering creativity, but he usually injured himself in the process! This led his Harvard friends to call him a “genius of sorts,” and the nickname stuck.

This fearlessness is just as important in music as it in science. The best jazz musicians I know are great improvisers because they are not afraid. They invent great music on the spot because a) they’re good musicians and b) they’re not afraid to fail.

Creative minds maintain a curious balance between discipline and playfulness. In a recent article for the Wall Street Journal, Jonah Lehrer reports that while most great thinkers work grueling hours, the “incandescent flash” of inspiration usually happens when they finally relax and take a hot shower.

For some reason, creativity requires both work and play. The best thinking happens in the space between the two. That’s where the insight lives.

The practice room is probably the least glamorous location in an opera singer’s life. But that’s where we spend a big chunk of our time. And that’s where a lot of the magic happens.

Say it’s Tuesday night at midnight in New York City. You’re alone in your sound proofed practice room. You are singing along as you bang out some chords on the piano and suddenly — unexpectedly! — something amazing happens. Music pours out of you, more vibrant than ever before.

Then two weeks later, you’re on stage in New Haven, singing the same music, and you are flooded with fresh creative energy.  Why? Because you practiced. You actually practiced getting inspired.

It’s not really an accident.  Not really. But it feels that way.

Inspiration is completely unpredictable. You can’t know if and when it’s going to happen. But it’s much more likely to happen if you’re ready and waiting.

So if you need a creative boost, just find an “accident-rich” environment and spend a lot of time there. Somewhere down the line, you might have a stroke of genius.