I’m here in beautiful Aspen, Colorado, at the tenth annual Aspen Ideas Festival. Yesterday afternoon, I gave a tutorial session about how to be more creative, drawing on my new book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. This morning, I woke up very early, and was reading the New York Times during morning coffee. With lots of spare time, I did something I rarely do: I read the obituaries, and I learned about a fascinating creative life, with lessons about creativity for all of us.
The musician and composer Michael Brown died on June 11th at his home in Manhattan. He was 93. You’ve probably never heard of him, but he’s one of those behind-the-scenes creators who rarely comes up when we’re talking about exceptional creativity. Brown was a true creative genius. He wrote, produced, and directed a musical that has been performed and viewed 17,000 times, more times than any other. After Brown’s musical, the second most watched musical is “Phantom of the Opera,” with 11,000 performances since opening in 1988.
The musical was called “Wonderful World of Chemistry,” performed at the DuPont pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair–at least 40 times a day, by at least 8 different companies, for months on end. “Wonderful World of Chemistry” is what’s known as an “industrial musical.” Many of these musicals were paid for by large corporations in the middle of the 20th century for advertising and promotional purposes.
Mr. Brown was “one of the genre’s most sought-after creators,” according to today’s New York Times obituary. Brown created musicals for the J.C. Penney company, Singer sewing machines, and DuPont. He made big money creating a musical fashion show for Esquire magazine in the fall of 1956. In the 1950s, industrial musicals were a big deal. Companies paid as much as $3 million to produce Broadway-style extravaganzas for their employees. (Hollywood musicals, by contrast, typically were produced for $500,000.) The musicals were usually performed only once or twice at sales conferences and managerial meetings, to build employee loyalty and motivate the troops. “Wonderful World of Chemistry” was the rare exception that was performed for the public.
A fascinating creative life, right? But wait, there’s more. In addition to his many big-budget musicals, Michael Brown played an important role in the creation of Harper Lee’s famous novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Michael and Joy Brown had met Harper Lee through her friend Truman Capote; Brown came to know Capote when he wrote the lyrics to a song in the 1954 Broadway musical “House of Flowers” with a book by Mr. Capote and music by Harold Arlen. Ms. Lee was a basically a starving artist; she had no time to write because she was barely scraping by, working as an airline reservations clerk. But both Capote and Brown saw potential. In 1956, the Browns were flush with cash thanks to the windfall from creating the Esquire fashion show musical. As a Christmas present that year, the Browns gave Harper Lee a special gift: they told her “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” That year off allowed her to write “To Kill a Mockingbird”. She told this story long ago, in a 1961 interview in McCall’s magazine, but she never identified the Browns by name.
Everyone kept the secret for almost 50 years. The story didn’t become public until the 2006 publication of “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee,” a biography by Charles J. Shields.
I’m here at the Aspen Ideas Festival, with several of my creativity research colleagues, giving talks about “The Age of Creativity.” So naturally I’m making connections between Michael Brown’s life and the many lessons about creativity that we’ve been discussing over the last few days.
- We have many stereotypes about creative people, about famous creators like Einstein or Hemingway. But imagine: how many other creative geniuses are there, like Mr. Brown, that never make it into the popular consciousness as creative figures?
- We associate creativity with pure art, inspiration coming from an inner inspiration or intuition. But so much creativity is in service of a customer, a client, an audience. Mr. Brown created for large companies. Does that make him less creative, somehow, than an artist who works without constraint, guided only by an inner demon or genius?
- We think of Harper Lee as “the creator” of the famous novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But before this work could be created, supporters and friends like Truman Capote and Michael Brown provided essential support. It turns out that this is always the case with great creativity–as documented in the brilliant 1982 book by sociologist Howard Becker, Art Worlds.
In my session here at Aspen, I described one of the creativity techniques from my book Zig Zag: I call it “strange magazines.” The next time you’re in a bookstore–for example, in the airport–make a point of buying a magazine that is completely unrelated to anything you know anything about. It could be a jewelry making magazine, or a motorcycle magazine, or a guns or tattoo artist magazine. Then, thumb through and try to figure out the key concepts and issues facing readers. Make sure to look closely at the advertisements. After you’ve gotten through the magazine, put it aside, and start thinking about a creative challenge you currently face. Then, by analogy, work to find links between your problem, and the issues and concepts you’ve identified in your magazine.
If I ever write a second edition of Zig Zag, I’m going to add another creativity technique: Make a point of reading New York Times obituaries, especially of people who work in fields very different from your own. The more diverse ideas and information you put into your brain, the more creative you’ll become.