Does creative genius rub off?

I find the above statement both absurd and undeniable at the same time.

I mean, how can creative genius actually rub off on an individual?  So, any idiot hangs around with da Vinci and he gets brilliant?  Yeah, right?  And if I spend enough time with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar I’ll get taller, too.

But wait a minute.  I’m a working-class kid growing up in a small industrial city in northern England.  I can hang around with the wrong guys on the corner and probably wind up in jail before my 20th birthday.  Or, I can hang around with these other guys with leather jackets, only they have guitars, too, and, if my name is George Harrison, I can grow up to be a creative genius.

Yes, this is hypothetical.  But, hey, it’s fun to speculate sometimes. 

I’ve often joked that Ringo Starr is the luckiest man on earth.  I mean, nice guy and all.  A big heart, if you believe the Beatles Anthology documentary.  But, please, my plumber is a better percussionist when he bangs on the radiators.  (Heck, Sir Paul had to overdub most of Mr. Starsky’s tracks when the lucky one when off to get luckier with some blond.)

But when I’ve thought of George Harrison over the years I’ve often felt that he was a pretty lucky bloke, too.  Frequently, when I’ve considered George’s accomplishments in life I have felt that, as good as he was, great even sometimes, would he have achieved such genius if he had not been around the likes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney?  And I suppose, since The Beatles were such a huge influence on my  interest in things creative, that was the genesis of my “does creative genius rub off?” question.

I must state before I get too far along here that I have utmost respect and admiration for George Harrison’s creative accomplishments.  I think I have purchased more of George’s recording since the Beatles breakup than any other of The Beatles’ solo material.  I believe, while he grew creatively during his time with the Fab Four, he had even more dynamic growth on his own after.

However I can’t help but think that George may not have achieved this level of creative potential had he not been around these two other universally acknowledged creative superstars.

No, we’ll never know.  But even if I’m wrong, it gets me thinking about what brings out creative genius in some people?  And, if not creative genius of the highest order, what is it that helps we average mortals achieve our creative potential?  Can we really be propelled by others?  Of course, we can.  We can be propelled by many things.

In the creative thinking programs I conduct,  mostly for corporate groups and ad agencies, I speak of problems and challenges encouraging, enabling, hell, even forcing creative accomplishment.  Well, wouldn’t being in a band with two grade-AA pop music giants, a group that influenced western society like no others before or since, wouldn’t that be just the kind of challenge that might bring out creative brilliance in a mate?

Of course, genius rubbing off is not guaranteed.  Exhibit A: there’s Ringo again.

So, I guess what I’m saying is, if the potential is there, maybe being in the right place, at the elbow of the right people, might help you fulfill this possibility.

We could say this of the other high-achieving mop tops.  We could say it of individuals in many groups or teams.  I will state unequivocally that I would not have achieved a lot of my creative potential when I was in the ad business had it not been for many of my “band mates;” my first mentor Ernie Schenck,  partners and employees; Bruce Leonard, David Lubars, Fran Kelly, Woody Kay and others.  Not to mention The Beatles, Hendrix, Dylan and other huge influences from my most formative years.

Sure, it’s not a stretch to conclude that others might help shape our own creative reality.  Look at Napoleon Hill’s book  “Think and Grow Rich,” one of the best selling books of all time.  First published in 1937, this book which is considered the first professional development volume of it’s kind, speaks of the “master mind” that most high achieving people of Hill’s era maintained – a diverse collection of individuals, from various areas of expertise, whose wisdom and fresh perspective on your field expand your own possibilities.

You may have seen the photographs from even before Hill’s time of Tom Edison, George Eastman, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone. Great minds sharing? Or great minds because they shared? Maybe both.

When I lead brainstorming groups I like to sprinkle the more creatively realized people throughout the room, if I know who they are.  Yes, their presence could intimidate others.  But, from my experience with some of these high achieving people, they can be as unpretentious and unassuming as anyone, often more so.  Regardless, the rewards of this cerebral cross pollination can be grand, and are probably worth the potential downside.

But before I think this thing through too much, could it be as simple as peer pressure?

So, what peer group are you putting yourself in?  Might they be helping or even forcing you to stretch?  Or, might they be enabling you to slack off, creatively?

Jazz legend, Miles Davis had a penchant for surrounding himself with youth.  Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Edison and other greats also used this type of group dynamic to keep themselves sharp.

In almost any industry there are the hot companies that can seemingly do no wrong.  Could the sharing of creative genius be part of what fuels these organizations?  Is there something you can do to stimulate the kind of brain exchanges that these firms benefit from?  (Hey, I like to ask questions in this space as much as I like to try to find answers.)

As we say in Do-it-yourself Lobotomy parlance, questions stimulate curiosity.  And curiosity is one of the greatest creative forces there is.

That, or maybe hanging around with some creative geniuses.

© 2012 Tom Monahan

Tom Monahan is the Head Creative Thinking Coach at Before & After Inc., a company that works with major marketers and ad agencies worldwide, including Target, Virgin, Novartis and Unilever, among others. Previously, Monahan was founder and Executive Creative Director at ad agency Leonard/Monahan, an incubator for creative talent in the 1980s and ’90s. Monahan has published The Do-It-Yourself Lobotomy under the Adweek imprint, was advertising columnist for Communication Arts for over a decade and was the youngest creative director written up in The Wall Street Journal’s long-running “Creative Leaders” series.