By Sarah Virk
If you knew me in college, you’d probably recall me walking around campus carrying around just about any book I can get my hands on by Malcolm Gladwell. I wrote notes on every page and had post-its sticking out of the side in every color imaginable. I even spent the majority of winter break sitting on the dock by the Ferry Building in San Francisco reading “The Tipping Point” with my posse of pigeons while drinking my Blue Bottle Coffee.
I was sitting in our mid-Wilshire office a couple weeks ago trying to find come up with some new marketing techniques. I decided to stalk Gladwell to see if he was writing anything new for The New Yorker. Sadly, there was nothing new as of December of last year, but something else caught my eye:
“Welcome to Revisionist History, a new podcast from Malcolm Gladwell and Panoply Media”
I immediately subscribed, and I only recently resurfaced. Needless to say, it’s been an addiction… a healthy one to say the least.
In “Hallelujah”, the 7th Episode of Revisionist History, Gladwell starts off by introducing his love for music by talking about the likes of Elvis Costello, Leonard Cohen, and Jeff Buckley. Costello transformed the song “The Deportees Club” from what is considered his worst record to one of his most memorable achievements by re-recording and re-releasing the same song 9 years later as “Deportees”.
Leonard Cohen took years to write 80 verses for the song “Hallelujah” before Jeff Buckley stumbled upon on the song by chance 10 years later. Buckley quickly narrowed down his favorite verses and sang a cover spontaneously at an open mic one night which took the song from obscurity to one of the most notable songs in pop culture history.
Gladwell shines some light on this genius phenomena “...when mediocre hasn’t become genius yet…”.
Which left me thinking...
How and why do people find a sense of accomplishment at different points in their lives?
Why do some creators feel the need to reiterate their work more than others?
Gladwell introduces us to a man named David W. Glenson who is an outstanding economist with a great interest in human creativity. Glenson’s study (“Understanding Creativity) produces the idea that innovators are likely to take one of two trajectories which are broken down like so:
One one side you have The Conceptual Innovator.
A Conceptual Innovator is one who uses art to express their ideas or emotions. Glenson describes their work as “conspicuous, transgressive, and often irreverent” Their goals are defined thus they are able to precisely plan their work and execute accordingly. In Glenson’s study he mentions, “These innovations appear suddenly, as a new idea produces a result different not only from other artists’ work, but also from the artist’s own previous work.”
Glenson’s example: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), one of the most influential artists of the 20th century also credited for co-founding the avant-garde Cubism movement. The majority of his work was characterized by a single dominant approach, and he found most of his success in his 20’s onward. There’s significant transparency in Picasso’s work that distinguishes him as a Conceptual Innovator.
On the other side you have The Experimental Innovator
Experimental Innovator typically seeks record their perceptions. Working tentatively through trial and error, they often wish to make new discoveries in the course of working, thus making the process of making art more of a search process. Glenson notes, “...the imprecision of their goals rarely allows them to feel they have succeeded, so they often have trouble finishing individual works, and generally spend their careers pursuing a single objective....”
Glenson’s example: Paul Cézanne (1889-1906) who paved way for modern artists by pioneering the Post-Impressionist style. His work is known for his repetitive and exploratory brushstrokes that form complex dimensions in his paintings. Cézanne had most of his success in his late 60’s and 70’s.
Each innovator has a genius concept cooking. For some it may take less time to execute while for others it may take longer. Despite the different trajectories each innovator takes, without implementing passion, self-discipline, and perseverance there’s a chance that greatness and things we now have become accustomed to may not have come to existence.
Had Costello not visited and rewritten his work 10 years later, the song “Deportees” would not exist. The collaboration between Leonard Cohen as an Experimental Innovator and Jeff Buckley as a Conceptual Innovator is what ultimately made the song “Hallelujah” what it is today. The phenomena of genius is constantly encountered by chance. There’s always a significant chance of greatness occurring or not occurring based on what trajectories are taken by the innovator based on who he/she is as a person.
Regardless of if you’re a “Picasso” or a “Cézanne” invest in your craft and remember that not all innovators grow and succeed in the same way. Do you.
Glenson, D.W. (2009). Understanding Creativity (Working Paper No. 16024). Retrieved from
National Bureau of Economic Research website: http://www.nber.org/papers/w16024
Sarah Virk is the co-founder and Director of Business Development for BEGIN. A lover of learning with a thirst for knowledge, she enjoys sharing personal stories to inspire creatives and entrepreneurs to discover and grow.
Tweet her @sarahvirk
The BEGIN Blog features posts about branding, social media, entrepreneurship, and other topics relevant to young professionals.