How to be Creative: a lecture from Bob

By Chris Hakkens [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Just before the final deadline, which would have meant returning his €900K prize money to the Nobel committee, Bob Dylan delivered his Nobel Prize lecture over the weekend. The Nobel prize for literature is a generally accepted imprimatur on genius, referred to in the creativity literature as the Big C definition of creativity; the miniscule minority of great minds who create masterpieces that live on long after their authors die.

Dylan’s lecture is an eloquent description of the sources and processes of creativity. He describes at the age of eighteen, traveling over a hundred miles to see Buddy Holly who was himself only twenty two, just a couple of days before he died. Holly was everything Dylan “wasn’t and wanted to be”. He played a combination of rock ‘n roll, country ‘n western and rhythm ‘n blues all merged into a new genre. Dylan was mesmerised, and describes it as an almost mystical experience. Ken Robinson, who delivered Ted’s most watched talk ever, on the topic of creativity in schools, recounts many similar accounts of moments in the lives of people who reach their full creative potential. The Olympic gymnast who walks into a gym for the first time, Eric Clapton receiving his first guitar.

At that point in time, Dylan had nothing more than a natural feeling for the ancient ballads, and country blues. But he knew the kind of music he wanted to play and create, and everything else he had to learn from scratch. He immersed himself in listening to and playing songs, performing to small crowds, sometimes just four or five people, and “getting the vernacular down”. He learned “the rhetoric”; “the devices, the techniques, the secrets, the mysteries”.

This is a perfect description of the long process of creativity, from the first sparks of inspiration (mini-c creativity), through to everyday creativity available to most of us (little c creativity), in Dylan’s case learning those first songs. Kaufman and Beghetto (2010) have identified another stage of creativity of many successful creative professionals, still short of Big C Nobel prize standard; Pro-C creativity.  This is the level of creative excellence achieved through long hours of professional practice and of mastering “the devices, the techniques, the secrets, the mysteries” of any craft. These are the people at the top of their game.  From animators to chefs, from clockmakers to gaming programmers, the same type of language of learning, refining, understanding is heard again and again.

There is of course another important dimension which Dylan pays tribute to; the previous contributions of others, the shoulders upon which the masters stand. Dylan credits the influence of the great classic novels on his work. But all creations are a product of the socio-cultural environment the creator is working within. Dylan discusses the novel Moby Dick at length in his lecture, and about the ancient and hodgepodge influences that created it; “high brow, low brow, everything thrown in”. James Joyce is another example of a master of his craft who was similarly immersed the ancient classics as well as the vernacular of Dublin at the turn of twentieth century. Dylan summarises the creative process within this context “I could make it all connect and move with the current of the day”.

The Big C Creativity of the masters may only ever be achieved by the tiniest proportion of people, but achieving professional, high level of creativity in a chosen domain is achievable for many who commit long hours of professional practice and total immersion in their chosen craft. The maxim “2% inspiration, 98% perspiration” is the truer version of creativity, than the notion of sitting in a room brainstorming, or waiting for bolts of inspired lightening to strike.

(see Bob Dylan Nobel Prize lecture here)


Beghetto, R. A., & Kaufman, J. C. (Eds.). (2010). Nurturing creativity in the classroom. Cambridge University Press.

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