Creativity is nothing more than emergence. Whether it’s producing a divergent mathematical system to ground a new approach to physics or simply making a new dish for the guests you have coming over for dinner, the product — the art, the formula, the technology — is a whole that is generated out of a set of existing, disparate parts.
Before a poem is a poem, it is a strange but familiar smell you recognized on your walk in the park, a near-effable description of the ineffable you read in a book, a motion you witnessed when you watched your son play a sport. These things have nothing to do with each other until the poet comes along and combines them into a poem. The poet himself is a gap where raw ingredients can simmer to create something grander, something more, something unique. The output is what creates culture, what allows us to connect and interact with each other on scale — a stark reminder of both our commonalities and our differences in this dance we do to the beat of our planet.
In a way, we are all poets — we all do this, participate in this creative process, and we do it most obviously when we work and when we build, but we also do it when we talk, when shape our daily environments, and when we plan our lives. It’s not absurd to think of humans as a mysterious gap for the Universe to project itself into so that it can do more with less, so that it can create order out of disorder. Everything we see around us in civilization is a product of this mysterious gap where creativity lives. Without it, there would be no philosophy, or government, or Hollywood, or medicine. We would be mere apes in the animal kingdom, some raw mix between chimp and bonobo.
But what exactly distinguishes this gap in, say, a renowned poet and the average person? We are all creative, yes, and while we will likely never be able to objectively argue that what is produced by one kind of creativity in one person is better than another kind of creativity in another person, we can all intuitively recognize and mostly agree with the fact that some people can do more with their gap than others. A poet like Walt Whitman writing Leaves of Grass has much more to offer our collective culture than the special dish made by the amateur chef that I call my neighbor — even accounting for the fact that they produce for different target markets, in different realms, in different contexts. Whitman is a genius; my neighbor is a hobbyist.
In 2009, during a four-part interview on story-telling, the popular radio host Ira Glass shared some interesting thoughts about this difference in quality between people, particularly as it pertains to becoming a serious creator in the early days. In his own words:
“Nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish somebody had told this to me — is that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?”
He later goes on to argue that the most important thing that, say, hobbyists like my neighbor can do to create serious quality is simply to stick with it — to produce a great volume of work until their skill-set is refined enough to match the ambition of their taste. And this is, of course, good advice. Nobody we admire, not Whitman, not the great scientists of past generations, not the great technologists of today — no one of consequence — produced anything of significant value without putting in long hours of menial and often boring work that preceded the final output. Practice and the skill-set that it builds are non-negotiable when it comes to reaching towards genius.
That said, the difference between Whitman and my neighbor is more than just the time they have put into their craft. In his monologue, Glass seems to have a natural understanding of this, but he takes it for granted while making a different point. Practice and volume and skill-set may provide the necessary momentum for genius to manifest down the road, but the real bottleneck to producing work that qualifies as genius is, in fact, taste itself. Taste is the invisible substrate that is held in that mysterious gap that gels individual ingredients together to produce something emergent, something creative. And the truth is that most people haven’t done the work to develop it.
It’s one thing to have a favorite band or to make a list of books that you think are great, but it’s another to understand them in a way that they were meant to be understood. When the majority of us like or dislike something like a great piece of art, or a particular brand of information, or indeed, a dish of food, it’s rarely a matter of taste; more so, it’s a matter of judgment. We have our lived experience, and that lived experience has taught us to see some things as good and some things as bad, things we are deeply attached to because they relate to our sense of self, and it is this self that judges something as good or bad, generally in a black or white manner. My favorite band, in this sense, is great to me not because my taste tells me so, but it’s great because I can relate to in a very personal way. It’s something that I have an emotional connection to.
Taste has some elements of this, of course, but broadly speaking, it’s different. Even when it takes a preference for one thing over another, it doesn’t work with the good-bad dichotomy. The core driver of taste is whether or not the critic can understand where the product came from, whether or not it can follow the path that the creator themselves followed to get to where they ended. When it comes to taste, it’s fine not to like a strange, experimental sound in the middle of a new song by some new band, but it’s not fine to judge it prematurely — to dismiss it without having done the work to first understand why it was placed in that song to begin with. Before something is dismissed, taste at least works to see the other side — it follows the path.
People who create genius don’t just produce a huge volume of work, but they also consume a huge volume of work. And not blind consumption as in mass media products that everybody else is consuming just so that they can keep up, but rather, they consume anything and everything that their inner itch draws them towards — from lived experience in day to day life to information beyond the confines of any particular genre. Their core motivation isn’t to judge, but it’s to understand. Judgment is driven by personal biases, whereas taste is driven by pure, unadulterated, and child-like curiosity.
In that mysterious gap within each of us, the gap that takes some mix of raw ingredients and shapes them into a coherent form, there is a voice of individuality that has some complex relationship with taste, a relationship that allows it to create in the specific way that only a personal voice can. Everyone has some part of the truth that they have figured out in their own way and that, by default, gives them good taste that they can use to figure out the truths shared by other people. Except, most of us have far more judgments clouding our minds and our thoughts than we would like to admit, and these judgments do the opposite of developing the kind of taste that makes history or creates the kind of genius that leaves both ourselves and others in awe.
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said:
“Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.”
The skill-sets we build and the natural abilities we are born with can guide us to produce a large volume of work that iteratively improves with time. That’s how we hit targets that most people miss — through sheer work, mingled with a little bit of luck. That said, genius is the only thing capable of finding something that others didn’t even know they were looking for, and the only way to unlock that genius in ourselves is to let our inner curiosities guide us towards the kind of taste that lies beyond mere judgment — taste that transcends both linguistic and physical boundaries to reach towards a deeper intuition that can then mix the ingredients of life in a more meaningful way.
I’ve talked about this mostly as a thing to cultivate to channel into work, but the truth is that taste is more than that. It’s a way of living and experiencing and seeing. It’s the flavor we don’t realize life has until we start paying attention to it. It’s thinking and feeling, doing and being — first, separately, and then, at the same time.
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