Emory Report
April 13, 2009
Volume 61, Number 27


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April 13
, 2009
Five (personal) lessons about creativity

Roberto Franzosi is professor of sociology and linguistics at Emory.

For some years, I have been doing research on Galileo, Newton and Goethe. This work has now crystalized in a new book project, “Triptych: Portraits of Art and Science.” My research on the history of science has allowed me to put my personal experience in perspective, with several lessons about creativity.

In the summer of 1609, Galileo got news that a Dutchman had invented a new instrument (later known as the telescope) that could view faraway things as if they were close by. He immediately set himself to work, developed a 2X telescope, quickly brought it to a 20 magnification, and with it made major discoveries: Jupiter’s satellites; the surface of the moon being no different from the Earth, with mountains and valleys, rather than a perfect celestial sphere as Aristotle (and the Church) believed. Indeed, in a handful of months Galileo’s discoveries brought down two millennia of Aristotelean doctrine and changed the world as we know it.

In 1981, while a postdoc, I learned a technique that allows social scientists to quantify textual information. Unhappy with some features of the technique, I set out to improve it for me to use on a project on the rise of Italian fascism (1919-22), collecting data from newspapers. With my characteristic enthusiasm and lack of realism, I thought I could crack the problem in no time, but 30 years later I am still at it. And, even if eventually successful, I will hardly have changed the world.

Lesson No. 1: Whatever we think of ourselves, it is sobering to put one’s creativity in comparative perspective.

Yet, even Galileo spent the rest of his life bringing to fruition the methodological and theoretical advances he so quickly made in the fall and winter of 1609-1610.

Lesson No. 2: You get an idea perhaps early on in life, and you spend the rest of your life to develop it in all its details. Along the way, if lucky, other innovations may come; innovations driven by the development of that original idea. Hedgehog and fox live inside each of us, in different proportions.

Make no mistake — ideas are a dime a dozen, but the full development of an idea takes a great deal of very hard work. Galileo became nearly blind and very ill from spending many cold nights gazing at the stars. We know that Newton nearly went mad (“mad as a hatter,” from mercury) after working day and night on his alchemic experiments at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Lesson No. 3: Luck no doubt plays an important role in a scientist’s life, but you have to be ready to take advantage of luck when it comes, and hard work is the real crucial ingredient.

With a project lasting 30 years, and requiring so much hard work, people have often asked me: Aren’t you bored with it? That word doesn’t enter my vocabulary. Not once have I thought of giving up, even during some very hard times. “Research” — I often say — “it’s like a bone in a mean dog’s mouth. Try to pull on that bone! The more you pull, the more the dog clenches its teeth.”

Lesson No. 4: If you give up, no one will ever hear of you. If lucky, persistence will pay off. But, you need a great deal of intellectual arrogance (or self-delusion!) to carry on.

With so much uncertainty and hard work, what drives us to be creative? For me, within the framework of a tragic-romantic personality, the source has always been adversity. I have done my best work with my shoulders against the wall. Back then, few believed that this project of mine of going from words to numbers could ever bear fruit (“What’s Franzosi gonna do with thousands of words in the computer?”). Yet, I am now tantalizingly close to bringing to fruition that work (thanks to Emory as well).

Lesson No. 5:
For those of us for whom scholarship is not just a job, a job no doubt better than most jobs, deep-seated, personal motivations sustain us through a life-long commitment to scholarship and through the risks and perils that come from that commitment.

And if lucky, we will have produced something beautiful in the process. And that’s the beauty of it all.

This essay was adapted from Roberto Franzosi’s presentation at the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence’s workshop, “The Challenges of Staying Creative: Stories from Emory.” See a related story in this issue and look for the May issue of Academic Exchange to read more about Franzosi’s creative journey.