Three Ways to Be as Creative as Don Draper
Lists of the “Best Books”, “Best Music” or the “Best Art” suggest that the best of everything was made long ago. Not just decades, but hundreds of years. Were there more geniuses in the 1700s than today? Or are today’s geniuses simply spinning up new memes on Twitter?
This question got me thinking about historical geniuses and their habits. If we can steal the habits of historical geniuses, maybe we can create more of them! And if the future belongs to the “creators”, then having more seems better. I’m especially curious about habits that have stood the test of time. Watching TED Talks while wearing blue lens glasses in an infrared sauna *might* make you think more clearly, but I’m more curious about “Lindy” methods that helped Beethoven. I did some research and found three.
I bet you feel guilty if you take a nap. I do. But taking a nap is like a cheat code to life, like re-filling that energy bar on a video game.
Most of us have relatively “normal” sleep schedules, sleeping when it’s dark and rising when it’s not. There are exceptions, like Jocko waking up at 4:30 and comedians sleeping until noon. But some of the most creatively successful people through history had VERY different sleep habits that might be worth stealing.
While many geniuses have enjoyed an afternoon nap, a few others utilized a pattern called “biphasic” sleeping. For instance, Winston Churchill would average seven hours of sleep but in two shifts, from 3am-8am and from 4:30–6:30pm. Franz Kafka slept from 6am-9am and then from 3:30–7:30pm. (With a seven month old at home, this approach speaks to me)
Thomas Edison was an aggressive napper and Edison’s personal secretary, Alfred Tate, identified these “catnaps” as Edison’s “secret weapon” and declared that “His genius for sleep equaled his genius for invention.” Frank Lloyd Wright advised his architecture students that “a short nap was a must”, because it would “divide the one day into two and helped to refuel the creative spirit.”
As we re-think what the “future of work” looks like, maybe we need to consider offering our workforce some better places to get those naps in.
Steve Jobs famously took walking meetings with his subordinates. Beethoven spent his afternoons walking around Vienna, always with a pen and paper to record his thoughts. Not coincidentally, he found that he created his best music in the warmer months. Darwin had a gravel path installed at his home, and calibrated the number of laps taken to the difficulty of the mental problem at hand.
I love walking, and this research into historical geniuses makes me feel better. As does this study from Stanford showed that walking improves creativity. Surprisingly, the results showed that walking on a treadmill was just as helpful in getting the creative juices flowing.
Charles Dickens was famous for taking 20 mile walks through London. These helped fuel the creative juices that led to his memorable characters. Kierkegaard wrote in the morning, then took a long walk through Copenhagen and then wrote the rest of the day. He found that walking gave him his best ideas. Hawthorne and Tchaikovsky look multiple long walks per day.
Of course, it helps to have places like Vienna, Copenhagen and London to walk through. Even if we don’t live in these beautiful cities, the value of walking does make interesting, safe and walkable neighborhood an even more important amenity in life.
The third habit is less enjoyable than napping and walking. It’s this: just get uncomfortably chilly, for a bit of time. Cold therapy has been gaining popularity recently, boosted by research showing that it decreases inflammation, increases metabolism and improves mood. And while cryotherapy and other new age approaches have gained popularity, getting cold is about as Lindy as it gets.
Benjamin Franklin — always doing his thing — would take naked “cold air baths” for 30 minutes, in his chamber. So that’s one option. Composer Gustav Mahler would go down to the lake and get in and out 4–5 times. After that he would take a 3–4 hour walk along the shore.
This reminds me of the saying “Discipline Equals Freedom” from Jocko Willink. After forging the mental discipline to get moderately uncomfortably cold, you gain the benefit of greater creative work later in the day.
The pandemic has changed how people work, offering more freedom to create unique schedules. This should be helpful, as they can better shape their work schedule to their most productive routine. As Paul Graham wrote in Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule, your daily schedule should reflect your priorities and a single hour-long meeting has high costs to creatives.
In studying these habits, two authors stood out. John Cheever owned one suit and would wear it down the elevator with the folks heading to their office jobs (similar to how many people would continue to get dressed for the office during the pandemic). He would go down to his storage unit, take off his suit and write from 9–12. The rest of the day he would walk around the New York City.
George Simenon might have the best example. Oa a typical day he would have his coffee from 6am to 6:30, and write until 9:30. Between 9:30 and 12:30 he would take a walk, take a nap and then spend an afternoon with his kids. He would then take another walk (see why he’s a genius?) followed by TV and bed at 10pm. A perfect creative day. It does seem that this “typical’ Simenon schedule has some unaccounted gaps, as he estimated that he bedded a Chamberlin-esque 10,000 women in his life.
 His wife put the estimate at 1,500. But still.