Hamilton, Steve Jobs, and the Elements of Creativity

It is hard now not to see the seeds of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical in the life of Alexander Hamilton. His story is that of a talented and ambitious young man, unafraid of strong opinions and even stronger words, who wrote himself out of poverty and into the spotlight. Of course this is a story begging for a Cabinet meeting-themed rap battle!

But even this framing of Hamilton’s biography is influenced by the lens Miranda has invited us to look through. We have to remember that for all of the books, movies, and TV shows about the birth of the United States, perhaps the biggest dent Hamilton had made in pop culture to that point was a “Got Milk?” commercial (whose central joke was actually centered around Aaron Burr). The U.S. Treasury, an institution Hamilton himself founded, was even considering removing his face from the $10 bill.

So how did Miranda come up with the idea that would make Hamilton the country’s hottest history lesson? The answer might best be found in an interview Steve Jobs gave to Wired magazine, almost two-decades before Hamilton debuted on Broadway:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

It is Miranda’s incredible genius, years of hard work, and the talented team around him that produced the final product, but the idea, he says, just came to him. He had finished a huge project, was heading out on vacation, and picked up the 832-page biography of an oft-overlooked Founding Father at the airport. Miranda says that when he was reading the first chapter, he couldn’t help but think of rappers like Tupac, the Notorious B.I.G., and even Kanye West. By the end of chapter 2, he wondered why no one had yet written a Hamilton musical.

Of course, creative ideas don’t just appear, even though it sometimes feels that way. They are born out of connections that our brains make. And, as Jobs explained, those connections can only be made if our brains have the raw material to connect and the time and space to connect them.

Many people have a tendency to emphasize one over the other. Some are consumers, always taking in new information — reading, watching, listening non-stop. They might be really interesting and make great small talk, but they don’t generate the kinds of creative ideas that have an effect because it’s all raw material.

Others are processors who spend plenty of time thinking, but they don’t make a regular habit of exploring and absorbing. They aren’t taking in enough, or sometimes they have too narrow of a focus. They end up stuck, feeling like they are out of ideas or are constantly repeating themselves.

For Lin-Manuel Miranda to make the connection that led to Hamilton, he had to have a familiarity with the lives of hip-hop artists and the desire to read a giant biography. But he also credits the mental space he made for himself, saying, “It’s no accident that the best idea I’ve ever had in my life — perhaps maybe the best one I’ll ever have in my life — came to me on vacation.”

If you’re feeling creatively stuck, ask yourself if you’re lacking in material, space, or both. Maybe you need to give yourself permission to schedule time in your calendar to read, listen to a podcast, or watch a TV show that people in your congregation are watching. Perhaps you need to stop vacuuming up every interesting thing that comes your way and spend some time reflecting and building connections.

When we have a healthy balance of absorbing and processing, we create the kind of environment where creativity can thrive.

Header image by Flickr user Travis Wise. Used under Creative Commons License. Edited/Cropped from Original.

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