Elizabeth Gilbert: Your elusive creative genius


Elizabeth Gilbert is an American author, essayist, short story writer, biographer, novelist and memoirist. She is best known for her 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love.


People associate creative works with mental health issues and a fear that their work won’t be good enough, or not as good as their past work. Indeed a lot of writers in the 20th century have committed suicide or suffered depression. After the massive success of her book “Eat, Pray, Love” Elizabeth believes that her greatest work is now behind her, which is a scary thought. She looked at how to construct barriers between her work and this anxiety about how it will be received.

The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that an artist had a spirit that helped their work – called a daemon or a ‘genius’. This idea insulated the artist from criticism and narcissism – the work was not theirs and they could not take all the credit or blame. In the Renaissance the language shifted slightly so that instead of possessing a genius the artist was a genius – this makes the artist responsible to their critics. It distorts egos, creates unmanageable expectations, and has been killing artists for 500 years.

Why can’t we go back to the classical period? Does their understanding of creativity make any less sense than our own? Elizabeth describes an explanation of a poem coming to a poet like an approaching train, and having to sprint to a pencil to write it down before it passed never to be seen again. This look at creativity (that ideas just come to you) is common, and it does make it sound as if the artist isn’t fully in control of their works.

A musician (Tom Waits) took a different approach when he was driving down the road and a song just came to him. He couldn’t write it down and didn’t have a tape recorder to sing to, so instead of panicking that he would lose it, he started talking to his daemon. “Can you not see I’m driving”… “If you really want to exist come back at a more opportune moment”… “Otherwise go bother someone else today. Go Bother Leonard Cohen”. Elizabeth tried a similar approach while feeling anxious – telling her daemon she’s doing everything she can, and if the daemon wants a better book he should turn up to work to do his bit.

Elizabeth uses this concept of an external daemon to keep working through the anxiety, or the fear that her next book won’t be as successful as her last. She has to keep showing up to work, and if the daemon on loan to her doesn’t, than so be it.

My Thoughts

I like her idea to dissociate an artist from their work – someone frustrated and tormented constantly is unlikely to keep producing creatively. She speaks convincingly on the subject, and her anecdotes are helpful.

David Kelley: How to build your creative confidence


David Kelley is founder, chairman, and managing partner of the design firm IDEO and a professor at Stanford University. He has received several honors for his contributions to design and design education.


People divide themselves into ‘creative’ types and ‘not creative’ – often discouraged by being judged in their childhood. It’s not that they can’t be creative, just that they’re afraid to try.

David talks of phobias, and a treatment for fear of snakes implemented by Albert Bandura (described by David as the fourth greatest psychologist of history). People would be told there is a snake in the next room, then when they were comfortable they’d be taken to a window where they could see the snake, then be led to the doorway, then be in the room and eventually touching the snake. At each point they are held until they are comfortable moving to the next step. At the end they could even see the beauty in snakes, and would be less anxious about other parts of their life – they had gained a new confidence in their own self-efficacy.

He discusses an anecdote from ‘Doug’ – a technician who designs MRI machines. He is a technical type, but forced himself to be creative when he discovered children were terrified of an MRI. 80% needed to be sedated to run the scan, so he made it more exciting for them. The machine was painted in bright colours, with a pirate ship theme. The operators were trained also to make it more exciting – they told the children the story of having to be perfectly still or else the pirates would get them, and described the movement of the machine as if the boat was rocking. The children loved the new machine – with only 10% needing to be sedated and this saved the hospital a lot of time and money in having to call for the anesthesiologist all the time.

David has survived a cancer scare, and through that decided his calling was in inspiring people to regain the creative confidence they had lost. When people regain this confidence, they can a new perspective on what’s important to them. They will change the direction of their lives to achieve whatever their goal is. We should not divide the world into ‘creatives’ and ‘non creative’, people are all naturally creative. We should be able to achieve self-efficacy and touch the snake.

My Thoughts

David has a lot of emotional stories, but I’m disappointed he didn’t describe how to build creative confidence. He tells us to ‘do it’, which is easy to say, but still might be intimidating to some people. There is no list of steps similar to the snake to get people to be more creative.