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Sparking creativity with curiosity and joy

Words from a creative genius

Maybe the essence of creativity isn’t complicated. Or maybe we should replace the word “creative” (to help those who doubt that they are creative) with more accessible words like  “radically curious” and “passionately playful.” 

This week, I took a deep dive into the words of a creative master, who has achieved technical virtuosity while holding on to his enthusiasm and delight in discovery. The young musician Jacob Collier, whom I referenced last week, has been called a “combination of mastery and joy.” That’s an amazing polarity for any of us to achieve—the ability to lead with play while developing artistic excellence.

If you don’t know who Jacob Collier is (I didn’t), I discovered him by stumbling into his cover of “Here Comes the Sun,” not knowing I was listening to a five-time Grammy award-winning artist.

Creativity unbound

Instead, my reactions to the video were, “Well, this is goofy and fun.” “But why is that young guy singing in a funky furry bear hat?” and then, “OMG, he has a great voice!” With that, I was off and running to learn more about the 29-year-old musician the music industry has been raving about since he was a teenager, including his mentor, the legendary musician and record producer, Quincy Jones.

Creativity unbound

Over the past years, I’ve thought a lot about creativity, particularly as I wrote Meeting the Muse After Midlife. I find Jacob both creative and remarkably articulate about the creative process. Listening to him was equally charming, insightful, and a bit like drinking from a firehose of spontaneous wisdom. 

Many musical prodigies endure years of hard work as children, forced to practice by parents who want to promote their talent. Jacob’s “mum” supported him differently. A musician and conductor, raising three children as a single mom, she gave violin lessons with two-year-old Jacob sitting on her lap. She exposed him to many genres of music, while never telling him what he should listen to, what instrument he should play, or requiring him to practice. Instead, she encouraged him to be himself, and to follow the trail of what he loved. He didn’t “practice,” but experimented and played with different instruments and musical genres—spending hours in his room exploring. He followed his preferences, instincts, and intuition, developing a trust in what he knew, however different it might have seemed from what others were doing.

As a seven-year-old, he began playing with music software. As a teen, he released a series of videos created in his room that became an online sensation. The musician and record producer Quincy Jones heard his cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing,”and signed the young Jacob to his label. I could go on about the collaborations, records, and Grammies that followed, but today the bottom line is this: Collier’s genius comes in part from his willingness to trust himself and allow curiosity and wonder to open creative doors for him.

We could all take a page from the way he makes play a world-class art form.

Words of Wisdom

Listening to his interviews, I felt expanded, hopeful, and uplifted—feeling a faith in the creativity possibilities inherent in all of us. Reading his words can’t convey the animation with which he speaks, but I want to share a bit of “Jacobean” wisdom (edited just a bit for readability).

Listening to him speak, I felt expanded, hopeful, and uplifted—for me, a sign of words worth listening to. I’ve edited the following a bit (unofficially) to share some of his wisdom with you.

Why you don’t have to have a goal

“I think that embracing the idea that there’s not necessarily one goal…is a crucial thing to bear in mind.

Because the goal of your idea is within the idea, rather than being within your intention sometimes. You can also set out and say, I’m definitely going to do this one thing. And I find myself in my life doing that actually less than setting out to kind of unpack what’s already there. It’s almost like you’re chiseling away the sculpture.”

Why you don’t need to have a dream

“I personally find myself quite freed by the idea that you don’t need to have a dream. You don’t have to set out and think, this is my dream. You can just be curious.

If you’re curious, then your dreams will take you by surprise.

And that’s a really lovely, gladdening kind of mind-opening space to be in. Because your life will be like that.”

About not worrying what professional musicians or general audiences think of you

“I try and just kind of make the music that is the right music for me to make—and the music that feels the newest and the freshest and the most thrilling.

In some ways, what other people think of you is not really your business. That your business is to be you to the fullest, most expanded extent.”

Why it’s important to stay present.

He described the risk, excitement, and aliveness he felt shaping an audience of 30,000 into an impromptu choir.

It’s nice to be in the present and just to think, well, I wonder whether they will take me [and acceot his choral direction] today.

They (the audience) did become a chorus and the results were electric. But had his attempt to wordlessly join them together in sound not worked, he would have discovered the next thing.

On staying open and playing

“The richest moments in my creative life are the moments where I feel the youngest, not the oldest and most accomplished and most knowledgeable and most gathered and most collected.

[I feel most alive in] the moments where I’m the most open. I think openness is the opposite of [being in a high status] VIP club.”

To which he clearly could have had entrance with his five Grammies. But for him, play prevails.

On being simple with the complex

Musicians, including ones he worked with during a weeklong seminar he gave at MIT, are awestruck by the complexity and technical brilliance of his music. Yet, in performing, he conveys a sense of simplicity and joy.

“I think that the world is inherently so complex and …one of our jobs as people is to be able to receive all of those frequencies that life gives us, whether it’s the very blunt blows or those super complex, rich subtle elements that you have to be really, really, really quiet, internally quiet to really perceive.

So I would say that complexity at its finest is very simple indeed because it’s built into the natural world and it’s built into what it means to be a human being.

On sense and nonsense

“I’m drawn to nonsense more than I am sense, especially in the beginning of an idea.

Because nonsense frees you from the idea that it’s serious and there are straight lines…It’s made up. There were no lines. People put the lines there…

So if you take a piece of paper and you try to make the least amount of sense you possibly can, you’ll be surprised at how much sense it makes.

And if you reverse engineer the kind of backward sense, you end up with really interesting kinds of ideas that come from deeper in your consciousness than the surface.”

No set rules

He has said, “There are no wrong notes,” hearing the seemingly discordant note as an opportunity to create something new. He eschews the rules of making music, first discovering possibilities on his own, then delighting in what he finds in music theory. 

Balancing business and self-trust

He has come to appreciate help with the business aspects of producing and touring without losing sight of why he is creating.

“I firmly believe that if you make really beautiful things that you just love and you articulate them really clearly and well and and and and and fearlessly and kind of leave them in the world for people to find…there’s a particular kind of gravity that comes to those things when they’re thrown with freedom and abandon and a kind of trust.

And a lot of times I’ve found there’s not really an established place for”Jacob music” in the world,—there’s not a playlist for it.

You have to make a space for yourself first.

If you don’t make a space for yourself, then no one’s going to make space for you.

You have to say, ‘this is my space.’ And if you mean that, and you really, you go about it with strength and commitment, and time, it takes time, then the world has no choice.

About the spark

When I look back at the music that I have made and the music that I learned as a boy, a lot of it came – literally just came down to, what do you like? … I think it’s a question that’s not asked enough in education, where someone says, ‘what do you like? What feels the most important thing to you to make in the whole wide world?’ Because that’s what you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to figure out.

I know when my enthusiasm dries up, or it’s not there, it’s normally because I’ve kind of migrated to something that I maybe think I should like or other people like, or whatever. But it’s not really connected to something that I’m enthusiastic about at that moment.

I think it is important to seek out the underlying source of … that spark because in a certain kind of way, when you get that spark you just know. It’s not something that you decide or needs much thought.

You think, ‘I love this.’

[Then I think] how can I share it? How can I share that enthusiasm? How can I explore it, expand it and give with it? Because I think that’s what we’re here to do as people. I think if there’s something that gives us a spark, then we have to give that spark right back.

Reflecting on what I heard

After hearing Collier, I’m left wondering what life would be like if we trusted the call of our inner star and let it lead us to what was next. We wouldn’t have to worry or map out the future, as we unpacked the world of opportunities in the present.

Our creative edge could develop as we trusted ourselves and played with nonsense until an innate sense revealed itself.

What others think about our work could become irrelevant—or at least less important. We could have collaborators, helpers and producers without letting go of what we believe.

We have to make space at the table for ourselves—before the world will.

When we are true to ourselves, our best work can emerge, and we can support ourselves. Or, if that doesn’t happen, we let that experiment lead us, with curiosity as our guide, to the next step in the path of being human and giving our best to the world.

Source material: NPR “The Whimsical Process of Creating Art” Interview with Jacob Collier.  Collier USC interview with Dr. David Belasco 2022.

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