We call it a flash of genius or sudden inspiration. But does inspiration come fast or slow?
Beethoven’s notebooks demonstrate that he spent months reworking single musical phrases and measures. We have hundreds of Picasso’s interim drawings of ‘Guernica’ and some 50 studies (that's one of them on the left). All of which demonstrate the development of his approach as he painted his anti-fascism masterwork now hanging in the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid.
Contrast that with a 50-something friend… very creative… who for more than 25 years has specialized in corporate events. He’s won every award available to people in his field and the appreciation and respect of dozens upon dozens of clients nationwide.
His muse, he says, really does prompt great ideas that come to him in minutes rather than days or months or years. Not all his immediate ideas are great, of course. But after 25 years, he knows the difference between the good ideas and the stinkers.
The challenge and the work for him isn’t in getting the ideas. It’s in committing them to paper and then, ultimately, delivering the finished goods.
For my perspective, my writing gets better the longer I spend polishing it. But do my central ideas ripen with time? Hmm.
The software developers at Facebook and Google take a never-finished approach to their work. Gmail was in beta for years, for instance. Facebook's hackers are always tinkering with the social network.
Likewise the ‘Agile’ methodology of software development is iterative. The emphasis is on getting a product, sometimes even a partially-developed one, in front of customers as soon as possible, then improving it over time based in part on their reactions and suggestions.
But there’s not a really good way for a painting to be iterative. (Although da Vinci fussed around with the Mona Lisa for some 3 years and spent another three years on the Last Supper. Both experiences, it should be noted, frustrated his patrons endlessly.) Picasso’s hundreds of sketches notwithstanding, at some point Guernica was actually finished.
Another kind of art IS iterative, namely animation. Woody had dozens of looks before Pixar landed on the one that we know from the Toy Story movies.
Twain reworked Huckleberry Finn so many times the end product could hardly be recognized from the beginning.
By contrast, because Dickens sold so much of his work in serialized form, he had deadlines that da Vinci could have scarcely imagined. And yet somehow Dickens, whose bicentennial we celebrate in 2012, routinely turned out the most splendid characters, plots, and dialogue this side of Shakespeare; himself a quick and ready writer.
Is it just genius then that spins out these marvels of human imagination? Probably not. Beethoven and Picasso would surely land on anyone’s list of the world’s greatest-ever geniuses.
Is it just writers who can turn out their art because of the deadline pressures of modern publishing? It’s doubtful. Dmitri Mendeleev always maintained that the periodical table of elements came to him one night in a dream.
Given the fleeting nature of dreams, it’s possible that Mendeleev dreamed up the modern periodic table of elements… which predicted three then still-undiscovered elements… in a half-hour or less!
What does all this mean to cause marketers?
However your muse works you have to be prepared to capture inspiration as it comes to you. Mendeleev had a notebook by his bed. Beethoven kept a notebook. da Vinci’s notebooks… now worth millions… inspired them both.
You can think like Agile software developers and seek to continually improve your campaign. The essential nature of TOMS Shoes’ buy one give one (BOGO) effort is basically unchanged. But the company has made numerous iterative changes over the last several years.
Finally, if your muse requires it, you have to be prepared to blow up everything and start over again almost from scratch, like Twain did in his pursuit of the Great American Novel.
Labels: Beethoven, BOGO, Buy One Give One, Charles Dickens, Dmitri Mendeleev, Leonardo da Vinci, Mark Twain, Mona Lisa, Pablo Picasso, Pixar, Shakespeare, The Last Supper, TOMS Shoes