by Elana Varon

Being Creative is Hard Work

Sep 06, 20073 mins

Thomas Edison is credited with saying that genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. If there’s a corollary, it’s this: creativity is the product of passion and preparation.

That’s the lesson I took from a talk by Dewitt Jones, the renowned photojournalist and filmmaker. Jones is probably best known for his work with National Geographic, though he’s also shot advertisements for Dewar’s and other companies. Chances are, you’ve seen his work. Jones spoke at our CIO 100 Symposium last month about his creative process. The presentation included a gorgeous slide show (here’s his home page for a few examples) that he used to deconstruct how he gets the perfect shot. In every case, the successful execution of his assignments demanded his deep, active engagement with the problem at hand.

The creative idea, the innovative way of seeing a flower, a flock of sheep or an old man’s face did not come to Jones while he was just sitting around or spending his time doing something else. He found the answers he needed only by putting himself in the right place, getting out his camera, getting close to his subject and starting to shoot.

Before that, however, Jones gets prepared. There’s the research about his subject matter. And, critically, the best practices he has developed over years using the tools of his trade. Jones made much of the need to frame a solution using the right lens. Yes, it’s a metaphor for considering a problem from multiple points of view before you can find the right answer. But Jones is also referring to the expertise that informs his choice of equipment, locations and subject matter, as well as his vision of the end result.

Jones describes this process as marrying vision to technique. “When you’re there in the place of most potential with your technique down, the right answer starts coming,” he says. “Intellect starts listening to intuition.”

There’s no magic here. No mystery either. Just a lot of hard work. But there is a matter of attitude. All bets are off if you’re not passionate about what you’re doing (really, you’re not going to be motivated to put all that work into something you don’t really like doing). You also have to be open to making mistakes, and to trying new ways of doing things.

Part of me thinks that a lot of this is obvious, perhaps because I spend my life among writers, artists, inventors—people who are generally obsessive about what they do for work and for fun. But then again, an awful lot of people are stuck in jobs they don’t like, constrained by environments where risk taking is frowned upon. What’s going to motivate management to change that?