What Made Our Most Influential Figures Successful?
There is no single path to insane greatness. Picasso and Gogh are both artistic geniuses, but they pursued very different routines to stay prolific. Success is more a deliberate practice of what works than a serendipitous streak of luck or privilege. The path to greatness is paved with tiny consistent rituals.
Here are the self-described daily routines of some of the world’s most prolific minds in history — past and present. These routines and habits might inspire you to create your own. After all, we all aspire to be remarkable at what we do.
It is paradoxical, yet true, to say, that the more we know, the more ignorant we become in the absolute sense, for it is only through enlightenment that we become conscious of our limitations. Precisely one of the most gratifying results of intellectual evolution is the continuous opening up of new and greater prospects.
Tesla was a Serbian-American inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, physicist, and futurist who is best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system. Tesla gained experience in telephony and electrical engineering before emigrating to the United States in 1884 to work for Thomas Edison, in New York City.
In his autobiography, Tesla describes how he works:
My method is different. I do not rush into actual work. When I get an idea I start at once building it up in my imagination. I change the construction, make improvements and operate the device in my mind. It is absolutely immaterial to me whether I run my turbine in thought or test it in my shop. I even note if it is out of balance. There is no difference whatever, the results are the same. In this way I am able to rapidly develop and perfect a conception without touching anything.
When I have gone so far as to embody in the invention every possible improvement I can think of and see no fault anywhere, I put into concrete form this final product of my brain. Invariably my device works as I conceived that it should, and the experiment comes out exactly as I planned it. In twenty years there has not been a single exception.
Why should it be otherwise? Engineering, electrical and mechanical, is positive in results. There is scarcely a subject that cannot be mathematically treated and the effects calculated or the results determined beforehand from the available theoretical and practical data. The carrying out into practice of a crude idea as is being generally done is, I hold, nothing but a waste of energy, money and time.
He further talks about his brain training exercises as a child:
Although I must trace to my mother’s influence whatever inventiveness I possess, the training he gave me must have been helpful. It comprised all sorts of exercises — as, guessing one another’s thoughts, discovering the defects of some form or expression, repeating long sentences or performing mental calculations. These daily lessons were intended to strengthen memory and reason and especially to develop the critical sense, and were undoubtedly very beneficial.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
When I am … completely myself, entirely alone… or during the night when I cannot sleep, it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly.
A prolific artist, Austrian composer Wolfgang Mozart created a string of operas, concertos, symphonies and sonatas that profoundly shaped classical music. He composed more than 600 works, many acknowledged as pinnacles of symphonic, concertante, chamber, operatic, and choral music. He is among the most enduringly popular of classical composers, and his influence is profound on subsequent Western art music.Mozart did most of his composing during the night, owing to his busy schedule.
In a letter to his sister penned in 1782, Mozart outlines a routine so intense that it left him a mere five hours of night’s sleep:
At six o’clock in the morning I have my hair dressed, and have finished my toilet by seven o’clock. I write till nine. From nine to one I give lessons. I then dine, unless I am invited out, when dinner is usually at two o’clock, sometimes at three, as it was to-day, and will be to-morrow at Countess Zichi’s and Countess Thun’s. I cannot begin to work before five or six o’clock in the evening, and I am often prevented doing so by some concert; otherwise I write till nine o’clock. I then go to my dear Constanze, though our pleasure in meeting is frequently embittered by the unkind speeches of her mother, which I will explain to my father in my next letter.
Thence comes my wish to liberate and rescue her as soon as possible. At half-past ten or eleven I go home, but this depends on the mother’s humor, or on my patience in bearing it. Owing to the number of concerts, and also the uncertainty whether I may not be summoned to one place or another, I cannot rely on my evening writing, so it is my custom (especially when I come home early) to write for a time before going to bed. I often sit up writing till one, and rise again at six.
We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.
Hemingway was an American novelist, short-story writer, and journalist. His economical and understated style had a strong influence on 20th-century fiction, while his life of adventure and his public image influenced later generations.Hemingway beautifully describes his relationship with writing as a kind of life force.
In a 1958 interview with The Paris Review, Hemingway explains his daily routine and work habits.
When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.
You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until that next day that is hard to get through.
Seventy percent of success in life is showing up.
Allen is an American actor, author, filmmaker, comedian, playwright, and musician, whose career spans more than six decades. Here is how Woody thinks about ideas:
I’ve found over the years that any momentary change stimulates a fresh burst of mental energy. So if I’m in this room and then I go into the other room, it helps me. If I go outside to the street, it’s a huge help. If I go up and take a shower it’s a big help. So I sometimes take extra showers. I’ll be down here [in the living room] and at an impasse and what will help me is to go upstairs and take a shower. It breaks up everything and relaxes me.Woody thrives off motion and change as a catalyst for his creativity.
My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.
Maya Angelou published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. She was an American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist.
Maya described her routine in a 1983 interview:
I usually get up at about 5:30, and I’m ready to have coffee by 6, usually with my husband. He goes off to his work around 6:30, and I go off to mine. I keep a hotel room in which I do my work — a tiny, mean room with just a bed, and sometimes, if I can find it, a face basin. I keep a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry in the room. I try to get there around 7, and I work until 2 in the afternoon. If the work is going badly, I stay until 12:30. If it’s going well, I’ll stay as long as it’s going well. It’s lonely, and it’s marvelous.Maya kept a hotel room to work in, and made an effort to separate her work from her home life.
I edit while I’m working. When I come home at 2, I read over what I’ve written that day, and then try to put it out of my mind. I shower, prepare dinner, so that when my husband comes home, I’m not totally absorbed in my work. We have a semblance of a normal life. We have a drink together and have dinner. Maybe after dinner I’ll read to him what I’ve written that day. He doesn’t comment. I don’t invite comments from anyone but my editor, but hearing it aloud is good. Sometimes I hear the dissonance; then I try to straighten it out in the morning.
Vincent van Gogh
If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.
Gogh is among the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. In just over a decade he created about 2,100 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings, most of them in the last two years of his life.Van Gogh devoted most of his time and energy to his craft.
In an 1888 letter to his brother, Theo, Gogh wrote:
Today again from seven o’clock in the morning till six in the evening I worked without stirring except to take some food a step or two away. I have no thought of fatigue, I shall do another picture this very night, and I shall bring it off. Our days pass in working, working all the time, in the evening we are dead beat and go off to the café, and after that, early to bed! Such is our life.
Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.
Stephen’s books have sold more than 350 million copies, many of which have been adapted into feature films, miniseries, television shows, and comic books. He is an author of horror, supernatural fiction, suspense, science fiction, and fantasy.King emphasizes the importance of establishing a routine for creative time.
In his memoir On Writing, King reveals his creative writing process:
Like your bedroom, your writing room should be private, a place where you go to dream. Your schedule — in at about the same time every day, out when your thousand words are on paper or disk — exists in order to habituate yourself, to make yourself ready to dream just as you make yourself ready to sleep by going to bed at roughly the same time each night and following the same ritual as you go.
In both writing and sleeping, we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives. And as your mind and body grow accustomed to a certain amount of sleep each night — six hours, seven, maybe the recommended eight — so can you train your waking mind to sleep creatively and work out the vividly imagined waking dreams which are successful works of fiction.
So it turns out great minds don’t think alike.
Whatever you do, it’s important to find your ideal creative time and stick to it. Do your creative and meaningful work at your peak times, when your energy is high and distractions are minimal.