Creative souls spend their entire lives in the pursuit of that elusive masterpiece, that work of great beauty and significance that would etch their names in the halls of immortality. A masterpiece that would become the hallmark of originality, innovation and creativity is created perhaps once in a lifetime.
And yet we find so many examples — both in the arts and the sciences — where brilliant minds spun not one but several masterpieces, to be remembered across the ages. One would think, perhaps that the secret to creating a masterpiece is quality versus quantity — you refine a work to the point of perfection, and not divert your attention to too many places. But in truth, when we observe the lives of geniuses, what we find is that creative geniuses aren’t necessarily qualitatively far better than their peers; instead they boast a far larger volume of work. What that means is that there are as many false positives in their body of work as actual masterpieces. What it also means is that not all of their works are marvellous and earth shaking at all times. The people considered geniuses by the world had their mediocre days as well. More significantly, it means that the odds of producing a hugely successful idea or innovation werepositively correlated to the number of ideas produced.
Shakespeare, for instance, produced three of his most popular works in the same five year period: Macbeth, King Lear and Othello. But equally interestingly, in the same period he also produced All’s Well That Ends Well and Timon of Athens — both of which are regarded as his worst works, criticised severely for unpolished prose and incomplete plot as well as ineffective character development. In the world of music, Beethoven produced 650 pieces in his lifetime while Bach wrote over a thousand. And yet, when the London Philharmonic Orchestra chose the 50 greatest pieces of classical music, the list included only five by Beethoven and three by Bach.
Mozart’s case wasn’t any different either — out of the 600 odd compositions he wrote in his lifetime, only six were included in this list of greatest classics. In art, Picasso’s creations include more than 1,800 paintings, 1,200 sculptures, 2,800 ceramics, and 12,000 drawings — and rugs, tapestries and prints as well. Out of these hardly a fraction constitutes the most critically acclaimed ones — the ones that garnered fame and recognition.
The situation is pretty much the same with the sciences as well. Einstein, arguably one of the most famous scientists of all time — the one name that might pop up in anyone’s head if you asked them to name a scientist — had 248 publications in physics to his credit in his entire lifetime. But the ones that transformed physics, the one’s that he’s most famous for — the papers on general and special relativity — constitute merely a fraction of his entire work. Edison, another one of the scientific greats, pioneered his most important inventions — the lightbulb, the phonograph and the carbon telephone — in the same five year period in which he filed over one hundred patents for his most minor inventions! The periods in which geniuses create their most fascinating works are also the ones in which they create numerous minor/ average works.
It stands to reason then, that the path to the most mind-blowing ideas is paved with duds, false starts and dead ends. Quantity surprisingly becomes the catalyst for quality, and it is only by practicing your craft over and over again that you gain absolute mastery of it, leaving something behind for generations to marvel over.