How to be a Creative Genius: Lessons from William Shakespeare

The Renaissance period (15th to 16th century) was a high mark of creativity and innovation in Europe. Many original and indeed phenomenal works were produced in every major field: art, science, engineering, literature, philosopher, politics and more. Striking contributions came from the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Michel de Montaigne, Niccolo Machiavelli, and William Shakespeare.

There are many lessons to learn from such a great period of time. The best of these lessons come from studying the way in which those prominent figures of the Renaissance worked from day-to-day, their methods so to speak. Everything, including their accomplishments and contributions to the world, are a result of those methods. Perhaps then we can learn to become Renaissance people ourselves.

The book How to Think Like Shakespeare looks at the methods of William Shakespeare and how they led him to become a creative genius during the Renaissance. There are 14 key pillars of Shakespeare's methods that we can learn from.

(1) Of Thinking

"Education must be about thinking, not training a set of specific skills"

When we are acquiring new knowledge, we typically aim to develop wisdom in a  specific area: writing, coding, math, marketing, business, accounting, or whatever else. But the most valuable type of learning is not for specific wisdom, it is for thinking itself.

Learning how to think better means getting good at organizing your thoughts, understanding new concepts, connecting ideas, solving problems, and ultimately learning itself. Such thinking can be applied in any situation and to learn any new subject, which makes it the most valuable method of learning possible.

This mindset also helps with understanding how we can learn from the ways of other people, whether Shakespeare or someone else. You don't just look at what the person said or what someone wrote about them. You have to look at their habits, upbringing, environment, family, work, methods of action. That's how you will see the deeper source of their knowledge, just like how effective thinking is the deeper source of great wisdom.

(2) Of Ends

"If you have good form, aiming takes care of itself."

When learning, we often look at external prizes: getting a job, making money, or other desirable rewards. Yet daydreaming about the external prize is no way to get any closer to capturing it. It is your actions that get you the prize, not the fact that you’ve set the goal.

It makes more sense to focus on your form rather than your target. A good archer focuses on holding the bow and drawing back the string perfectly. A good football player focuses on being in the right place at the right time. Get your form right and the results will follow.

It is interesting to note that many great inventions in history were not made out of a desire to be useful, but rather a desire to scratch an itch, to fulfill a curiosity. When Shakespeare was around, there weren't any classes for making plays. His studies were in Latin, yet the act of writing itself made him curious. Steve Jobs studied calligraphy which gave him have a passion for beauty and design. There were no goals, just curiosity and really good form. Actions executed with precise, consistent form are what get the job done.

(3) Of Craft

"The craftsman's firm is learnt in the process of making, by innumerable examples, not by recipe and precept"

Craft is the highest form of skill in your field of work, where you are totally in tune and can naturally produce greatness. Such beauty can only be gained through hands-on, real-world experience. You have to be in the trenches doing to develop muscle memory and a keen feeling for the work – a natural intuition.

That craft knowledge takes time to build; you won’t get it on the first attempt. You have to try, progress, pause, evaluate, iterate, and improve hundreds, maybe even thousands of times. It's an ongoing, progressive process that must be done consistently. It's not easy, but it is the only path to true craft.  

(4) Of Fit

"These crafts all require pliability, threading things in the right place, at the right time, thereby strengthening them."

Fit is all about having the right thing in the right place. Something may be richly suited (something great), but unsuitable (unfit for the situation or environment). You must put things in the right context. You could have the most valuable thing in the world, but if it doesn’t fit your audience or your market, it will fail.

Fit the art to the audience, don't try to force the audience on the art. Adapt what you do so that it can be absorbed easily; people have to be able to absorb it to appreciate it. Delivering your work in the right place, at the right time, and in the right way is half the battle.

(5) Of Place

"Today's cognitive science validates what memory practitioners already knew in Shakespeare's era: physical configurations reinforce recollection, whether on the page of a book or on the stage of a theatre."

Place is about being both physical and mentally present. There is something so much better and more real about learning in person. Direct interaction, direct experience, direct conversation. That physical connection, being in the place is a key part of a rich learning experience.

If you’re learning any new thing, get yourself into the direct environment. Learn Spanish in Spain, technology by building with technologists, and cooking by pairing up with the best cooks. Surround yourself with the people that have the character and skills that you wish to develop. Reading things and watching videos is helpful, but can never replace direct interaction and experience.

(6) Of Attention

"Distraction means loss of alignment. In contrast, attention recovers alignment."

Attention is one of the most valuable things you have. It's limited and currently under assault by smartphones, laptops, and all forms of digital media. Those technologies are meant to empower us... but do they really? Especially in recent years, they have become more of a distraction and time suck for most people.

Spend your valuable attention wisely, on the important things: people, ideas, and experiences. That's where the real value is and where creative genius comes from. Technology might be able to enhance those, but be sure to use it as a helping tool without allowing it to take your attention away from the real things.

Attention also means alignment. Your actions must align with that which you think and intend. When you make something, review it: did it align with your initial vision? If not, is the new vision something that you are happy with? Always keep the final product in mind.

(7) Of Technology

"It's human to avoid hard work of thinking, reading, and writing. But we all fail when technology becomes a distraction from, or, worse, a substitute for, the interminable yet rewarding task of confronting the object under study."

Don't mistake the technology (like online courses) for the idea itself. The technology is a means of delivery, an instrument if you will. But it's not the music or the acting or the people or the place which are the true creativity and value.

Judge things based on their true value, not the means through which they are delivered. When making something, focus on creating value and the delivery will naturally follow.  

(8) Of Imitation

"Imitating good models strengthens every human endeavour, from infant sensorimotor development to the gruelling pratice of Olympic athletes. And, after a period of disciplined imitation, something remarkable happens."

Shakespeare “borrowed” a lot from other plays, bible verses, poems, and books. That doesn't mean a direct copy, but rather using the base idea as inspiration and then creating something new out of it. It is the way of the artist to transform an existing thing into something different with its own kind of unique beauty.

Imitation helps you practice as you attempt to replicate the art and quality of great things. It also helps you to sample many different things to see what you like and in the process develop your own style and voice. If you want to for example learn how to build a website, start by replicating someone else’s and then adding your own improvements and style to it.

Re-producing something helps you to fully understand it since you must focus to think of and rebuild every aspect and feature. Then, when you're ready, you add your own touch of creativity to it to enhance it. This is how knowledge is built over history.

(9) Of Exercises

"The end of all these exercises was a fluent performance. It takes a great deal of experience to become natural."

Habitual practice in a thing does more than just build your basic skills; it eventually builds up to a fluent performance, to mastery. You practice your skills, you refine, you iterate, and go through it until you develop a natural perfection. Continuous practice leads to fluency in the long run.

Thinking itself is a skill that you must practice to become good at. You must build up your capacity to make good decisions, control your emotions, communicate, analyze, and overall just use your brain. You do that by continuously practicing: work on challenging problems, explore new concepts, and try to control your thoughts in emotional situations. It's all "thinking practice."

(10) Of Conversation

"Shakespeare's era prized conversation's capacity to rub and polish our brains by contact with those of others."

Training of the mind is important. One of the best ways to do it is to have conversations. You can do this with others or yourself.

With others, have deep conversations with deep people about various ideas, ranging from simple to complex. Try to talk to people with different points of view to yours as you may then see things from a different perspective.

For yourself, you can “argue against yourself.” Think of a problem and argue hard and deep for one side. Then, once you've exhausted everything, argue for the opposite side in the same way. This method will expand your mind as it gets you to think of all the angles.

(11) Of Stock

"The secret of stock is that it gives you the base to make something else. This is true whether it's Cather's soup stock or the wonderful stew of culture more generally. Knowledge matters. It provides the scaffolding for further inquiry"

There is some base level, fundamental knowledge that people often forget in their chase for innovation and modernity. Philosophers must study Socrates, chemists the periodic table, and a surgeon all the medical terms and facts. This "stock" lays the foundation for all other advanced knowledge in the respective fields. Modern things like computers may be a refinement, but still, the world mostly operates on the fundamentals; we should take advantage of this.

Focus your learning on these fundamentals in whatever skill or subject area you're trying to develop. If learning personal finance, study the fundamentals of money and wealth. If learning sales, study the fundamentals of people skills.

Old problems have old solutions. Communication, relationships, finances, happiness, strength, achievement, work, and other fundamental things of life have been around in some way, shape, or form for thousands of years. Work on these fundamentals to lay a strong foundation for your life. Books are fantastic for this as there will often be some book out there, written long ago, that has stood the test of time and has the answers to your problems.

(12) Of Constraint

"Perhaps giving oneself a tight structure, making limitations of oneself, squeezes out new substance where you least expect it"
– Dorris Lessing

Constraints force you to adapt, become flexible, get creative, change the form, and combine things in different ways. Constraints are what make literary works beautiful and sports competitive.

Putting time constraints on the delivery of your work is a great way to produce your best. Time pressure is a catalyst for creativity and productivity.

(13) Of Making

"Aristotle suggested that the function of the maker's mind resembled the revealing function of light, which does not cause vision but makes vision possible.... There's a reciprocal process of making, as when Comenius insisted: 'thus, by good practice, all will at last feel the truth of the proverb: fabricando fabricamur [By creating, we create ourselves]'"

We must see "making" as more than just building the thing itself. A person who makes a movie isn't just making a movie. They are creating a story, one that makes people feel love, joy, happiness, and nostalgia. A teacher doesn't just make money, they make a difference, they make knowledge in students, they make careers.

When you are going to start on something, some project or career, think about what you are truly making. Knowing what you are making will drive you to produce great things because it has more meaning than just completing the work.

(14) Of Freedom

"The craft of intellectual freedom emerges through an ongoing conversation with past thinkers"

Many of us will naturally start out by copying, “Imitation,” which is a perfectly fine start for getting you on the right track. As Seneca said: "the best ideas are common property.... Whatever is well said by anyone is mine."

But you see, that's only the first stage, it's imitation. You must eventually move to the higher stage of using it in a novel way, which is an act of freedom. That is the true hallmark of great work, to apply your own uniqueness to your work. Follow your heart and you'll find producing works of creative genius natural.

Final Words

Ultimately, How to Think Like Shakespeare will bring you back to the fundamentals of learning and creativity. There are a lot of great ideas about how Shakespeare and other creative individuals became as successful as they did. The beauty of the book’s ideas is that they strike the perfect balance between simple and incredibly powerful.

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