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Posted on: Saturday, 25 December 2010 by Rajiv Popat

Creativity, quite literally probably means the art of  building things, or services or thoughts that have not been thought of before. When you are trying to be creative, you are in unchartered territories because, umm, well, the territory hasn't been chartered before. This means that you have no clue about what works and what does not. You are what doing what Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes in his book as, looking for the black swan.

The problem with being in this unchartered territory also means that you are going to be spending most of your time being, lost, clueless and failing. A process that can be rather psychologically taxing. If you are in the business that involves constant long term creativity, social gatherings around friends and acquaintances or discussions around what you do, or how successful you are, given the mainstream definition of success, can be rather painful.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes this Artist's Dilemma in his book the Black Sawn rather articulately. He explains:

Every morning you leave your cramped apartment in Manhattan's East Village to go to your laboratory at the Rockefeller University in the East Sixties. You return in the late evening, and people in your social network ask you if you had a good day, just to be polite. At the laboratory, people are more tactful. Of course you did not have a good day; you found nothing. You are not a watch repairman. Your finding nothing is very valuable, since it is part of the process of discovery—hey, you know where not to look. Other researchers, knowing your results, would avoid trying your special experiment, provided a journal is thoughtful enough to consider your "found nothing" as information and publish it.

Meanwhile your brother-in-law is a salesman for a Wall Street firm, and keeps getting large commissions—large and steady commissions. "He is doing very well," you hear, particularly from your father-in-law, with a small pensive nanosecond of silence after the utterance—which makes you realize that he just made a comparison. It was involuntary, but he made one.

Holidays can be terrible. You run into your brother-in-law at family reunions and, invariably, detect unmistakable signs of frustration on the  part of your wife, who, briefly, fears that she married a loser, before remembering the logic of your profession. But she has to fight her first impulse. Her sister will not stop talking about their renovations, their new wallpaper. Your wife will be a little more silent than usual on the drive home. This sulking will be made slightly worse because the car you are driving is rented, since you cannot afford to garage a car in Manhattan. What should you do? Move to Australia and thereby make family reunions less frequent, or switch brothers-in-laws by marrying someone with a less "successful" brother? Or should you dress like a hippie and become defiant? That may work for an artist, but not so easily for a scientist or a businessman. You are trapped.

He also goes on to explain the risks associated with creativity, the artist's dilemma and the toll constant, small failures take on you. He explains:

Many people labor in life under the impression that they are doing something right, yet they may not show solid results for a long time. They need a capacity for continuously adjourned gratification to survive a steady diet of peer cruelty without becoming demoralized. They look like idiots to their cousins, they look like idiots to their peers, they need courage to continue. No confirmation comes to them, no validation, no fawning students, no Nobel, no Shnobel. "How was your year?" brings them a small but containable spasm of pain deep inside, since almost all of their years will seem wasted to someone looking at their life from the outside.

Then bang, the lumpy event comes that brings the grand vindication. Or it may never come. Believe me, it is tough to deal with the social consequences of the appearance of continuous failure. We are social animals; hell is other people.

Nasim is attending to the same problem Elizabeth Gilbert tried to attack in her TED talk on why do artists go through a lot of torment. Nasim's take on the solution is rather interesting. He calls these creative actives where the results and outcomes are unpredictable and non-linier Back-Swan-Dependent activities or activities that depend on spotting what he calls "the black swan" and advices:

We are local animals, interested in our immediate neighborhood—even if people far away consider us total idiots. Those homo sapiens are abstract and remote and we do not care about them because we do not run into them in elevators or make eye contact with them. Our shallowness can sometimes work for us.

It may be a banality that we need others for many things, but we need  them far more than we realize, particularly for dignity and respect. Indeed, we have very few historical records of people who have achieved anything extraordinary without such peer validation—but we have the freedom to choose our peers.

If we look at the history of ideas, we see schools of thought occasionally forming, producing unusual work unpopular outside the school. You hear about the Stoics, the Academic Skeptics, the Cynics, the Pyrrhonian Skeptics, the Essenes, the Surrealists, the Dadaists,  the anarchists, the hippies, the fundamentalists. A school allows someone with unusual ideas with the remote possibility of a payoff to find company and create a microcosm insulated from others. The members of the group can be ostracized together—which is better than being ostracized alone.

If you engage in a Black Swan-dependent activity, it is better to be part of a group.

A rather innovative form of shielding yourself from moral discouragement which anyone who has tried to do anything unconventional with his life, or a part of his life, picks up rather instinctively.

Now you know, why, if you are one of my far off acquaintances who bumps into me and announces to me in all his glory, how successful you have been with your life and ask me what it is that I do, I might hold a straight face and tell you, "Who me? I'm just studying law. I never quite got to doing anything yet".  It's not personal. It's not meant to be an insult to you or my attempt at hiding specifics of my profession from you. It's a small joke. A prank. A way of shielding myself from your way of evaluating success and happiness.

This is also the primary reasons why I also ask companies to hire people not just by talent or capability, but by matching overall thoughts and beliefs. If you are an organization who believes in looking for black swans or doing any activity which is remotely black swan dependent, hiring people who form a like minded group and nudge each other to continue even when you are encountering constant short term failure and frustrations each day is hugely important.

That is your only chance at spending the ten thousand hours on something and crossing the dip without breaking down both emotionally and psychologically. Go on, build or join a community other black swan spotters and surround yourself with them. That way, you can focus on your work without being taxed for it, emotionally and psychologically.

I wish you good luck.