What Can We Learn From Studying the Work Modes of Highly Creative People?

Deciphering the work habits of highly creative minds

Creative people at the top of their fields—visual arts, writing, music, architecture, science, technology, and business—have run experiments for us. They have tried various modes of working before finding a system that worked for them. An enormous number of examples are thus available to us. Can useful guidance be extracted from them?

First, a caveat: In this review, science will barely be represented. Not all scientists have the same habits, but by comparison, they have the least variability. Most scientists have actual jobs, and training is uniform. For example, experimental scientists are taught to keep daily notebooks to record their observations, ideas, and experiments in detail. Collaboration is also built in the fabric of modern science. Big labs demand teams and sub-teams. Most of the examples here regard how creative people work alone.

Working environments

As we examine the working modes of creative people, one finding quickly emerges: For every mode of working, an example of the opposite mode exists as well. Take the sound of the environment. Some musicians, like Beethoven, prefer complete silence, while others, like Mozart, could work anywhere, even in noisy rooms.

Some creative people use music as inspiration: Jackson Pollock painted with jazz playing in the background. So did Piet Mondrian. But one could be hard-pressed to find two painters with such completely opposite styles. More predictably, Jean-Michel Basquiat painted with bebop and punk rock in the background. And more on theme, David Bowie drew inspiration from avant-garde composers. Among writers, Haruki Murakami and Stephen King curated playlists that evoke the right mood for writing sessions. Charles Dickens needed absolute quiet.

As for working spaces, Ernest Hemingway wrote standing with the typewriter at chest level in a crude “desk” in his bedroom. Truman Capote wrote in bed. John Updike did his writing above a restaurant. Maya Angelou could not write at home; she did so in hotels and motels. 

Nikola Tesla worked best in the dark. Picasso forbade anyone from entering his studio without his permission.

Among former CEOs, Steve Jobs was minimalist—he favored stark, simple aesthetics. His office had just a desk, a chair, and a lamp. Bill Gates’s office was famously messy, with stacks of papers everywhere.

Work routines

Understanding what hours creative people keep is barely revealing as well. Among writers, some have strict consistent daily routines (Anthony Trollope, Stephen King) while others favor spontaneity and no set routines (Haruki Murakami). Ernest Hemingway wrote every morning as soon after first light as possible. 

The multidimensional Buckminster Fuller catnapped for approximately 30 minutes after each six hours of work. Igor Stravinsky worked on his compositions daily, with or without inspiration, but needed complete isolation. 

It is especially hard to discern working patterns among iconic technology CEOs. Jobs was very disciplined, waking up early and putting in a full workday nearly every day. Gates did not believe in rigid schedules, working at all hours of the day when focused on a problem. Elon Musk functions the same way, working any time inspiration strikes, often pulling all-nighters. Jeff Bezos starts each day with solitary reflection before jumping into meetings, while Mark Zuckerberg keeps regular schedules and blocks focus time daily.

There is a bit more of uniformity among some women artists. Frida Kahlo worked long hours, sometimes painting for 10-12 hours straight, and worked from bed as she was often immobilized due to poor health. Georgia O’Keeffe was extremely disciplined and regimented in her work schedule. She would wake up at dawn, work intensely through the morning, take a short break, and then work again until dusk. Her days involved 8-10 hours focused on painting. It is said that the French sculptor Camille Claudel was completely devoted to her art and worked long, intensive hours. She was so immersed in her work that she often forgot to eat properly for days on end.

Finding and prototyping ideas

In fact, it is hard to find commonality in this area even within one profession, though sketching is prevailing among architects. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright came up with design ideas while wandering outdoors, unlike architect Louis Kahn, who sat intensely at his drafting table.

Rem Koolhaas embraces collaborative discussion and debate as part of his design process. Olafur Eliasson favors hands-on experiments with various materials to create unique sensory environments. Frank Gehry prolifically hand sketches building forms that are later engineered with models and software. Bjarke Ingels favors rapidly prototyping ideas through models and sketches. 

Setting targets

Perhaps one somewhat uniform pattern exists among highly successful creative people: setting targets and goals. After all, one must output creative work to ultimately find success.

John Updike wrote every morning, three or four pages a day, except Sunday. Trollope wrote in fifteen-minute blocks, and he demanded of himself 3,000 words every morning. An extreme example was the Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara. Kawara’s practice was to complete each work within twenty-four hours of starting it. Even his very large, extremely precise typographic date paintings had to be finished within the 24-hour timeframe—or be abandoned and destroyed. Kawara’s studio was in the same building as the studio of sculptor Claes Oldenberg, who would occasionally hear the heart-breaking screams just after midnight, when Kawara had missed a deadline.

Number of projects

Here we find examples of people working obsessively on a single project and others who work on a number of projects at the same time. Composer Igor Stravinsky focused intensely on one project at a time. Painter Roy Lichtenstein liked to work on four or five paintings at the same time. Architect Frank Gehry frequently bounces between developing models and plans for various building projects in different locations. Stephen King usually has two or three book ideas in progress at varying stages, from early notes to near completion. He believes this helps stimulate creativity. Many TV writers maintain multiple show scripts in development simultaneously, as ideas come and momentum shifts. Screenwriter and producer Greg Berlanti often writes several pilots at the same time. Elon Musk pivots, if needed, multiple times between projects.

Operating as a part of a team

Even if highly creative people work with a team, their collaborative and decision-making modes do not reveal uniformity either. Some like to deeply analyze data to guide ideas (Gates) while others made quick decisions based on inspiration (Jobs). Jobs was hands-on. He insisted on being intimately involved in product design, handling and critiquing each prototype and was known for his blunt criticism when designs did not meet his standards. Gates delegated detail work and focused on broad direction and strategies while letting others handle execution. Jeff Bezos values deep dives into data, research, and minutiae to inform business decisions.

Elon Musk’s operating mode is reactionary, making rapid decisions and pivoting multiple times on projects if needed. He wants direct responsibility and being personally accountable, as signified by his titles of CEO and chief engineer. Bezos’s modus operandi could be labelled as distanced leadership; he structured his leadership team and delegated execution to them. Mark Zuckerberg is data-focused, spends lots of time on data analytics to inform decisions. He manages in a consultive approach mode, surrounding himself with key advisors and relying heavily on them.

What conclusions can be drawn?

It is apparent that there is no uniform approach among creative individuals. Flexibility, self-awareness, and finding what conditions suit an individual are key. The ability to experiment and find conditions that best unlock one’s own creativity seems to be more important than conforming to someone else’s model. 

But all the cases above touch only the surface of how people work. We do not see their drivers, motivations, the thinking behind the outcomes.  And even in this driver-motivation space we will find wide gaps. 

Deeper lessons

There are, however, a few deeper lessons that may be extracted, some commonality behind the apparent disorder. Have some kind of routine or structure, even if flexible, and set targets. Focus and perseverance are essential; total chaos and procrastination are rarely productive. 

And if we dig deeper beyond these habits, we find that many creative people are, at their core, continuous learners who aren’t afraid of failure. They take time to reflect but not too much, balancing reflection with action. Too much contemplation causes stagnation, while non-stop activity may miss opportunities for strategic improvement. They surround themselves with diverse inputs, exploring without judgement first. They know that over-editing early on can limit imagination and unconventional connections from developing. 

For more specific advice, we need more of a meta-analysis. And that is what I did, presenting them as admonitions in my book The Nexus. 

Start with a Solid Grounding and Equate Creation with Hard Work

Creative products will eventually emerge.

Learn the Craft and then Set It Aside

I decided to start anew, to strip away what I had been taught. —Georgia O’Keeffe 

Learn How to Adapt and to Thrive with Constraints

The absence of constraints is the enemy of art. —Orson Welles 

Do Not Converge Too Quickly—Step Back and Look at the Entire Picture

Force yourself to look at the problem from afar—everything can be improved by removing unnecessary details.

Take Time to Reflect, but Do Not Wait for Divine Inspiration

La inspiración existe, pero tiene que encontrarte trabajando (Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working). —Pablo Picasso

Pick a Style and Own It, but Be Conscious of Repetition

I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste. —Marcel Duchamp

To these lessons from The Nexus, I want to add another one: Do not Became Trapped by Tools.

A case to be made that Einstein’s relative lack of advanced mathematical training may have benefited his groundbreaking thinking. By not being overly beholden to the prevailing mathematical frameworks of his era, Einstein was freer to reconceptualize problems that more mathematically sophisticated minds may have taken for granted. Einstein eventually did require sophisticated mathematical tools. But his relative naivete may have allowed him to approach problems with a different kind of intuitive, visual thinking before translating his ideas into equations.

Einstein exemplifies the value of preserving a beginner’s mindset and questioning everything.

There is a final lesson. In a previous post, I extracted essential aspects of working from several remarkable creative individuals:

  • Learn how others think. Leonardo da Vinci
  • Recognize the importance of your surroundings. Galileo Galilei
  • Move away to get perspective. Santiago Ramón y Cajal
  • Realize that side activities may be the hidden competitive advantage. Louis Pasteur
  • Know the limitations of solely relying on logical thinking. Niels Bohr / Albert Einstein
  • Learn how to adapt and to thrive with constraints. Frank Lloyd Wright 
  • Take time to reflect, but do not wait for divine inspiration.  Pablo Picasso / John Cage
  • Always keep at it. Louise Bourgeois 
  • Put (at least some) creatives at the center of your strategy. Bernard Arnault

These lessons are admittedly a simplistic and coarse way to capture the multidimensionality of remarkable complex individuals, but they show that it is important to acquire an identity and exploit who you are. Sometimes there is one thing that is at the root of greatnessa central aspect of your past, upbringing, or experiences, a component that defines your identityand that may be what differentiates you from others. Search for it. 

And to end on a note of practicality: If your mode of work does not work, if it is not yielding the results you want in terms of production or impact, do not be afraid to change. A change to an opposite mode may be the reset you need.


Discover the world of nexus thinking

In this provocative and visually striking book, Julio Mario Ottino and Bruce Mau offer a guide for navigating the intersections of art, technology, and science.