Creative Talent: Genetics, A Muse, Or Hard Work?

How we think about having and developing abilities can have a strong impact on actually using our talents.

For example, if we think creative expression has to wait for inspiration from a muse, or that there are only a few “chosen” geniuses with exceptional “gifts” in computer graphics, fashion design, writing or whatever, and think we aren’t one of those few, we may not even explore our potential abilities well enough to create something worthwhile.

In his Demon Muse post A Brief History of the Daimon (and the Genius), Matt Cardin presents a rich overview of concepts related to creative inspiration and entities such as muses.

He writes, “In Hellenistic Rome (circa 4th – 1st centuries BCE), the word genius, like the Greek daimons, referred to spirit beings in general — and also, tangentially (and interestingly), had a direct connection to the word genie, which itself came somehow from the ancient Persian desert demons known as djinnee.

He notes the idea of the personal genius evolved to mean “the individual attendant spirit that accompanies a person and represents his or her divine intelligence and inbuilt life pattern.”

With “the outburst of Renaissance-style and Enlightenment-style humanism in the 15th through the 18th centuries… genius as a guiding and inspiring separate spirit morphed rather suddenly  into a perceived quality of extraordinary intellectual intelligence and/or artistic giftedness possessed by only a few titanic and heroic people.

“This was a significant reversal, since it meant the idea of genius went from referring to a separate force that guided and, in effect, occasionally possessed people to referring to a special inner quality that people themselves possessed.”

Painting: Kiss of the Muse by Paul Cezanne [From]

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Video: Author Elizabeth Gilbert (“Eat, Pray, Love”) made a presentation for a TED Conference (Technology, Entertainment, Design) on these ideas, and the video description notes she considered ‘the impossible things we expect from artists and geniuses — and shares the radical idea that, instead of the rare person “being” a genius, all of us “have” a genius.’

For more of her quotes, see my post Just Show Up, With or Without Your Muse.

Only a “genius” can do it?

Creative achievement – especially the sort that gets mentioned in books and the media, by notable Artists with a capital ‘A’ – has often been considered something special, that only a “genius” can do.

Professor of psychology R. Keith Sawyer, among others, disputes that idea.

He was asked, “What advice can you give us nongeniuses to help us be more creative?”

His answer: “Take risks, and expect to make lots of mistakes, because creativity is a numbers game. Work hard, and take frequent breaks, but stay with it over time. Do what you love, because creative breakthroughs take years of hard work. Develop a network of colleagues, and schedule time for freewheeling, unstructured discussions.”

He added, “Most of all, forget those romantic myths that creativity is all about being artsy and gifted and not about hard work. They discourage us because we’re waiting for that one full-blown moment of inspiration. And while we’re waiting, we may never start working on what we might someday create.”

Quoted in my book Developing Multiple Talents: The personal side of creative expression.

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It takes practice

Sophia LorenWriting in his New York Times Op-Ed Column on “Genius: The Modern View,” David Brooks declared:

“The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not a divine spark.

“It’s not I.Q., a generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess.

“Instead, it’s deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft.”

Sophia Loren expressed a similar perspective:

“Getting ahead in a difficult profession requires avid faith in yourself. That is why some people with mediocre talent, but with great inner drive, go much further than people with vastly superior talent.”  []

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Genes and serendipity and hard work

In his article Is genius genetic or is it nurtured?, Joe Smydo includes comments by Christopher Beard, who received a MacArthur Foundation grant, and is curator and head of vertebrate paleontology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

“Dr. Beard said he had his parents’ guidance, along with their genes. He’s worked industriously to make a mark in his profession. And he believes that serendipity has been on his side. “Some people would call it luck,” said Dr. Beard.

“The question of whether high-performers are born or made long has captivated the scholarly community, whose search for answers has led to studies of chess players, musicians and leaders in various fields.

“In the 1980s, Howard Gardner, professor of cognition and education at Harvard Graduate School of Education, published a ground-breaking work proposing multiple kinds of intelligence. Dr. Gardner, a 1981 MacArthur grant recipient, also proposed multiple kinds of creativity.

“In Dr. Gardner’s view, “Picasso probably could not have been Mozart and Mozart probably could not have been Picasso because they had different kinds of intelligence,” said Kenneth Kiewra, professor of educational psychology at University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“In recent years, the mystique of high-performers has been grist for popular books, such as Daniel Coyle’s “The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How,” Geoff Colvin’s “Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else” and Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers: The Story of Success.”

“The books downplay the notion of genetically predetermined greatness and suggest that other factors, including many hours of strategic practice, differentiate high performers.”

“Talent is cheaper than table salt.”

Stephen King by Jill KrementzHere is more of the quote by novelist Stephen King :

“Talent is a dreadfully cheap commodity, cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work and study; a constant process of honing.

“Talent is a dull knife that will cut nothing unless it is wielded with great force…

“No writer, painter, or actor – no artist – is ever handed a sharp knife (although a few people are handed almighty big ones; the name we give to the artist with a big knife is ‘genius’), and we hone it with varying degrees of zeal and aptitude.”

From his book Danse Macabre.

[Photo: Stephen King at his desk, by Jill Krementz in her book The Writer’s Desk – also used in my article Tolerating Chaos to Create.]

Just Do The Work

In her post “Creative Inspiration vs. Creative Resistance,” Jenna Avery asks if it is necessary to be “creatively inspired” before pursuing creative projects, “or is waiting for creative inspiration a pitfall that trips us up?”

She adds, “Another way of saying this is: Do you have to be in the ‘right mood’ or ‘right energy’ in order to be creative? Steven Pressfield would call this ‘resistance,’ and say instead that what we need to do is show up and ‘do the work’ no matter what pain, doubt, terror, or mood we might encounter in the process.”

Jenna Avery is an intuitive coach who works with clients to enhance their creativity and life purpose. Learn about her programs at

Steven Pressfield is author of The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles.


Related articles:

Genius: The Modern View, By David Brooks, New York Times

It takes more than talent.

Grit and perseverance mean more than talent.

Outliers and developing exceptional abilities

Audio podcast interview with creativity researcher James C. Kaufman, PhD

R. Keith Sawyer on developing creativity with time, risk, love and hard work

Self Care For Your Creative Life


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Originally posted 2011-08-15 16:44:39.


  1. Thanks for the shout-out. I’m glad you found my daimon/genius post to be useful. We’re obviously tracking some of the same territory; in a forthcoming Demon Muse post, which was already written before I discovered your new one here, I’ve included a link to your exellent interview with Stephen A. Diamond.

What do you think about these topics?