What does it take to produce your best work, your magnum opus, your proudest creation?
Dean Keith Simonton is one of those who spent more than three decades looking to answer this question. He and his colleagues published some of the most comprehensive studies on people who did exceptional work in arts, science, business, engineering, and other areas.
“Is the thinking that leads to exceptional performance the same in music as in science or business?” Simonton wondered. After all, an engineer’s way of thinking has little, if anything, in common with a painter. To answer this question and more, Simonton and other human development researchers went all in. They used historical data, computer simulations, mathematical models and case studies to investigate high achievers. They studied the thinking behind elite productivity and whether it changes from one field to another.
Their findings suggest a common creative system may exist, regardless of the type of work you wish to accomplish. The steps that make up this system are accessible to all of us, even if they are far from easy.
1 — Backtrack
Simonton makes something very clear: expertise, advanced problem-solving, and specialisation are not enough to deliver work that lands in history books. Something else is needed. This extra ingredient is the ability to backtrack to an older strategy or try new ways when things are slow or not moving at all.
Angel investor, Naval Ravikant, says backtracking is what separates high achievers from those who plateaued. “You have to have the willingness to start over, even if you’re two-thirds of the way up,” He says. Most people spend three, five, ten years going in the same direction, refusing to backtrack or change course. This is known as the sunk-cost bias: a tendency to continue a losing endeavour once money, effort or time has been invested. For a breakthrough to happen, sometimes the only way is to bring your strategy back to level one and try a different approach.
One of the best illustrations of backtracking is in the sketches of the Guernica, painted by Pablo Picasso — probably one of the most emotionally charged paintings of modern art, depicting the bombing of Gernika in Spain in World War Two. To create this masterpiece, Picasso started with a human head on a bull’s body, soon discovered this is a dead-end and backtracked to an earlier drawing, from which he backtracked yet again. Before reaching the last sketch, Picasso reversed himself again to a much earlier idea, which shares the most features with the final version.
Simonton argues that Picasso’s way of working perfectly illustrates how backtracking leads to elite performance, regardless of the domain you’re trying to master. Hermann von Helmholtz, one of the most prolific physicists of the nineteenth century, beautifully captures this process in a quote:
“Like a mountain explorer, who, not knowing the way, ascends slowly and with toil, I am often compelled to retrace my steps because progress has stopped. Sometimes by reasoning, and sometimes by accident, I uncover a fresh path, which again leads me a little further. And when finally I reach my goal, I find to my annoyance the perfect path I could have taken if I had been clever enough to see it from the start.”
When you plateau or progress is not as fast as you want it to be, maybe it’s time to try a new style, a different approach, an older idea. Going back a few steps is sometimes the best way to move further than you ever did before.
2 — Explore
Robert Berstein and his colleagues tracked achievers from different areas for twenty years. Their study showed a clear pattern: those involved in hobbies achieved more outstanding results in their careers — such as winning Nobel Prizes — than those who didn’t have ones.
Why are hobbies such a big deal? Bernstein argues that high achievers see hobbies as part of their creative process. Doing unfamiliar things give them more inspiration to produce elite work. Simonton reflects on these findings in Scientific American, “Creative achievement is strongly associated with openness to new experiences. Such openness brings that extra stimulation that is necessary to breakthrough ideas.” He says.
Members of the U.S. national academy of sciences — a position only a select few get — are more likely to have an artistic hobby compared to an average person. The British Royal Society members are twice as likely, and Nobel Prize winners are almost three times as likely.
The impact of a hobby on the quality of our work is stronger than most of us realise. Composing a poem about a lost friendship is not so different from scribbling formulas to understand subatomic particles. Both activities require the ability to look beyond sensory experiences into a deeper, more profound world of abstract ideas.
Newton was a painter; Galileo was a poet. Maybe a hobby that opens the mind to new experiences is what you need to produce your greatest creations.
3 — Subtract
To solve a problem, people would rather add more features instead of subtracting one. That’s what behavioural psychologist Gabrielle Adams and her colleagues found in their groundbreaking study published in Nature.
Adams asked participants to stabilise a lego structure. The structure was made of a square suspended at the corner with one pillar. Most participants solved the problem by adding three pillars to each corner (like a building structure). But an easier way is to remove the existing pillar and rest the square on the floor.
Testing people with lego and grids seem rudimentary. Still, Adams and her colleagues say this tendency of adding instead of subtracting permeates across the whole spectrum of our lives, and it polarises our decision making. Whether it’s government policies, reforming education, or launching a new product, we tend to add more features rather than take them out.
Yet, subtraction can take you a long way. Consider Space X, which is one of the most innovative companies in the world. The key feature that separates this company from other space agencies is its ability to reuse rockets. Before Space X, every satellite that went into orbit required a rocket that was used once — a huge waste of money and resources. Then, instead of making more, Space X thought of doing less. They launched as many satellites into orbit as possible with one reusable rocket. Such a breakthrough is a big display of subtractive thinking.
Subtraction can lead to more breakthroughs because it doesn’t require imagining something that isn’t already there. Next time you’re building a product, drafting a new policy, or working on your next big idea, pause and ask yourself: “Can I make this better if I take out one or two features?”
A scientist seeks different expertise than an artist or a politician. Still, all extraordinary work depends on the same general process:
- The ability to backtrack from dead ends.
- Openness to new experiences.
- Sometimes doing less instead of more.
To produce exceptional work, it turns out, you, me, and all dreamers need to stand on common ground as we launch our arrows into the unknown.