Confucius said: “Perhaps there are some people who can create something new without really understanding what they’re doing, but I’m not one of them. I listen a lot, pick the best of it, and follow it; I observe a lot and take note of it. This is the best way for me to learn.”
There are a lot of myths surrounding creativity, not to mention a thriving publishing and consulting industry eager to deliver magical insights that will inspire our imaginations to ever greater heights.
The truth is, however, that creativity is a process that you have to work hard on to develop and hone and even then it is not necessarily guaranteed to deliver immediate results. Even after spending decades of rigorous study, teaching, and debating, including 14 years traipsing from state to state in search of a job, Confucius received only muted acclaim for his accomplishments before he died. The groundbreaking ideas he introduced, such as his advocacy of universal education and his reinvention of the concept of a leader (君子/jūnzǐ), were only recognized long after he was around to pick up any plaudits and — arguably — haven’t been fully appreciated even today.
Steve Jobs had a similar approach to the one adopted by Confucius, unashamedly picking up the best ideas he saw and heard about and putting his unique spin on them. Similar to the sage, he even spent a few years in the Silicon Valley wilderness after being kicked out of Apple before he made his triumphant return. He just happened to be much luckier than the ancient philosopher in being able to see his ideas come to fruition before passing away.
If there’s no particular secret to the process of creativity, why do so few individuals come out with truly original ideas? Even possessing innate talent or genius is not sufficient in of itself. Perhaps the personalities of Confucius and Jobs can provide a clue for us. Both of them were extremely enthusiastic, hard-working, and genuinely passionate about what they were doing. They were also very courageous and determined, refusing to give up when many people around them thought they were crazy. Perhaps most important of all they had such great self-belief that they were able to create a “reality distortion field” around themselves that drove them to keep on pursuing their dreams when most of us would have long given up on them.
It’s a great idea to attend come courses and read extensively on the process of creativity. But be sure to remember that this is just the first step on a long but rewarding journey that will require you to develop many other qualities along the way.
This article features a translation of Chapter 27 of Book 7 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 7 here.
I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Changhua, Taiwan.