Not in a vacuum

It can be easy to look at great geniuses like Newton and imagine that their ideas and work came solely out of their minds, that they spun it from their own thoughts—that they were true originals. But that is rarely the case.

~ Shane Parrish from,

There’s a perennial discussion around creativity that gets described various ways: “Steal like an artist.” “Repurpose what’s been done before.” “Creating new from the old.” I like Parrish’s point, (in the article but not the quote above,) that “geniuses” first mastered the best that others had to offer. Then they go onward and farther to create something new.

If the only thing someone has ever done is sample and remix others’ work… meh. But if someone has mastered some field—art, math, music, whatever—and then recombines and extends, (or pares down or transmogrifies)… then, ok. My distinction feels very close to the, No true Scotsman, logic fallacy, and yet I think it’s a useful distinction.


Genius working alone

The team must consist of three sorts of specialists, he says. Otherwise the revolution, whether in politics or the arts or the sciences or whatever, is sure to fail. The rarest of these specialists, he says, is an authentic genius — a person capable of having seemingly good ideas not in general circulation. “A genius working alone,” he says, “is invariably ignored as a lunatic.”

~ Kurt Vonnegut, from Bluebeard

Meta: Copy-paste-and-search if you want to read the entire, surrounding passage. As a creator of content myself, I decline to copy and paste the much longer passage as many others have.

This passage from Vonnegut is brilliant, but it makes me a little nervous. Am I the genius? …or more likely, the lunatic? Perhaps I’m one of the other two specialists. Or worse, I’m not any of the three.


I remember why I keep bourbon on hand.