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Why Creativity Is a Numbers Game

date Nov 23, 2019
authors Scott Barry Kaufman
reading time 2 mins
category article

Consistency + trying different things > Greatness

It’s a great myth that creative geniuses consistently produce great work. Whereas consistency may be the key to expertise, the secret to creative greatness appears to be doing things differently — even when that means failing

Always try out new ideas

true innovation requires that creators engage in a sort of Darwinian process in which they try out many possibilities without fully knowing what their eventual public reception will be. Especially during the idea- generation stage, trial and error is essential for innovation. Simonton’s theory does not mean that creators are working completely in the dark; ideas are not generated in complete ignorance of their ultimate value to society. Instead, new ideas just aren’t guaranteed to be fruitful.

Variety of projects and extraordinary productivity

First, creative geniuses simultaneously immerse themselves in many diverse ideas and projects. Second, and perhaps even more important, they also have extraordinary productivity. Creators create. Again and again and again. In fact, Simonton has found that the quality of creative ideas is a positive function of quantity: The more ideas creators generate (regardless of the quality of each idea), the greater the chances they would produce an eventual masterpiece.

Variable quality is inevitable for innovation

One reason for variable quality is the need to innovate. All creators—whether inventors, actors, or choreographers—are under constant pressure to avoid doing things the exact same way. In this quest for originality, creative geniuses fail and fail often. Indeed, the creative act is often described as a process of failing repeatedly until something sticks, and highly creative people learn to see failure as simply a stepping-stone to success. Doing things differently sometimes involves doing things badly or wrong.

Examples of many failures

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison—one of the greatest inventors of all time—had roughly a one-third rejection rate for all the patents he led. Even among the 1,093 patents he did get accepted, most went nowhere.

Edison’s few massive successes were built on top of many failures

By taking on a range of projects, Simonton notes, “Edison always had somewhere to channel his efforts whenever he ran into temporary obstacles—especially any long series of trials followed only by consecutive errors.” Despite having failed more than he succeeded, Edison’s few successes were so great that they surpassed all of the other inventors in the history of technology.


However, right before and after Hamlet, Shakespeare produced a few duds. For instance, soon after Hamlet, the Bard wrote Troilus and Cressida, which has a popularity rating of just 23 percent. But after Troilus and Cressida, he produced his three greatest tragedies since Hamlet—Othello (rating of 74 percent), Lear (rating of 78 percent), and Macbeth (rating of 83 percent). Then, once again, he fell well below expectations with Timon of Athens (rating of 3 percent) and Pericles (rating of 8 percent).


Even Beethoven left a trail of musical failures in his wake. While none of Beethoven’s compositions could be considered worthless, they aren’t all masterpieces either. Beethoven sometimes composed inferior works around the same time he was working on a major masterpiece.