Elizabeth Gilbert on the Link Between Creativity and Curiosity

Elizabeth Gilbert Philadelphia, Pa
Photo: Scott Weiner/Corbis

Follow your passion is the clichéd advice often given at college graduations, and it’s gotten quite a bit of backlash lately, which is understandable. For one thing, not everyone is lucky enough to have a passion that easily leads to gainful employment; for another, the notion ignores the fact that plenty of people work so that they can earn money for food and housing, not so that they might find some kind of existential fulfillment.

And, besides, it can be difficult to figure out what your passion even is. In her new book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, author Elizabeth Gilbert suggests an alternative to the cliché: Instead of following your passion, it might be a better idea to follow your curiosity. Curiosity, she argues throughout the book, is the real key to an interesting life, and often a creative one, too. And she isn’t, by the way, advising that you quit your job in order to chase after the latest little thing to grab your interest. She mostly argues the opposite, that creativity flourishes best when it’s kept as your little pet project, not the thing you’re depending on to make your rent.

Gilbert recently chatted with Science of Us about the link between curiosity and creativity, and how fear threatens to get in the way.

Your book is about creativity, something we’ve covered from time to time on Science of Us — but we’re usually approaching the subject from a scientific perspective, which you don’t really get into much in your book. I just had to ask: Are you interested at all in what scientists have to say about creativity?

Mildly. You know, my work has always been really research-driven — every book I’ve ever written before this book was enormously research-driven. One, because I like that stuff — the genuine thrill of the search. And the second reason is a little bit of insecurity — I’d better be able to prove what I’m saying here. I better make sure I have six experts to back this up here.

I’ve been thinking about writing this book for 12 years, and in the course of those 12 years I have gathered hundreds of books about creativity: about the neuroscience of creativity, about the link between creativity and madness, memoirs written by creative people. And one day I took a look at that bookshelf and thought, If I have to read even one of these fucking books I will kill myself. It’s the first time in my life I haven’t cared. Because I wrote about what I know empirically — all of this is so true to me and my experience.

The very next day, I sat down and started writing, with the intention to trust what I know. I’m smoking what I’m selling here. This is how I live. This is authentically the way I live my life, and it doesn’t need to be backed up by 67,000 footnotes. It’s not for everybody. It’s for whoever finds that it’s helpful for them.

Not to dismiss all of the science — that’s all interesting and important stuff. I just don’t know if it’s going to take me where I want to be, and where I want to be is in what I call the big magic, which means suspending a lot of rational thought. I mean, listen — I have one foot with the fairies and one foot with the real world. I believe in evolution, I believe in vaccinations, I believe the world is round. I am here with everyone in the modern world. But I also think it’s a benefit to keep a piece of ourselves open to the creative process as something that’s a little mystical and magical.

You write a lot about the idea that fear holds people back from attempting anything creative. But there’s also this idea among psychology researchers right now that every human emotion serves a purpose — so, do you think there is anything to be learned from fear?

I don’t think about fear lightly. I know it inside and out, I know its first, middle, and last name, I know its social security number. I’m an exceptionally freaked-out person. It was a trait my family recognized in me really early on. I was the last one to learn to swim, the last one to learn how to ride a bicycle — I was the classic, cower-behind-your-mother’s-leg child. And I’m still a pretty high-vibrational, wound-up person.

But there’s a very important reason the title of the book says “creative living beyond fear” and not “creative living without fear.” I have a tremendous amount of respect for my fear, and even gratitude for it — we all hate it so much, but we also have to take a moment once in a while and thank it for the reasons it has saved our lives. No, you’re not getting in the car with that guy, you’re not walking down that suspicious-looking street. We’re all here because our ancestors had fear in our lives.

So you can’t just throw it away, and you can’t really hate it. It’s just that it doesn’t have a lot of subtlety — it’s a really old part of our brains, it’s not very sophisticated software. So what you have to do is appreciate it, and then try to have a conversation with it. I know that you are very vigilant. All I’m trying to do is write a poem here. No one is going to die from it. It’s just a toggle switch. It’s having a very gentle conversation with that reptilian part of me to say, Thank you, but your services are not needed.

I think the greatest stroke of luck in my life is that I’m 1 percent more curious than I am terrified. Thank god for that — that’s the thing that has [provided for] my entire life, that the balance has always tipped toward, Yeah, but I’m really interested in what would happen if I did this.

So you think curiosity can help you edge past your fear?

We live in a culture that very much fetishizes passion and certainty. I think sometimes people lose their way in the creative path because they’re being told to follow their passion. It can be a really cruel piece of advice, especially when it’s given out at graduations. These are 21-year-olds who are like, Yeah, I don’t really have any clue. The mistake that can happen in that moment is that they start to think, Well, I guess a creative, interesting life really isn’t for me. If I had a central, burning passion, I would probably be the first one to know, but since I don’t have that, I guess I’m not a creative person.

Forget about the notion of passion, and give your attention to your curiosity. Passion burns hot and fast, which means it can come and go. Curiosity is so accessible and available, every single day of my life. Only when I was in very deep, medicated depression did I not have curiosity. But most of the time, when you’re stuck, you can think, Is it possible that you can’t find one little tiny thing in the world that is interesting to you? And it may eventually lead you to your passion.

But it’s also a cultivated skill, to learn to acknowledge and respect your curiosity.

How do you learn how to do that?

You know, I’m always looking for a simpler shortcut to things. But the tragic news of life is, if you want to be in shape, you have to exercise every day. If you want to have a meditation practice, you have to meditate every day. I keep looking for exceptions to these rules. But if you want to live a curiosity-driven life, you must commit to being vigilant about looking for what’s piquing your curiosity.

I have followed things in my life that barely had a pulse, but it was the only thing that was there that day. It doesn’t have to set your hair on fire. You don’t have to get divorced and shave your head and move to India. It just has to hold your attention a little bit more than everything else does. It’s how to have the most interesting possible life — constantly saying, Well, what would happen if I pursued this, even for a month?

Right, you write in the book that this is essentially how The Signature of All Things came about. One day, you were just really interested in gardening, of all things.

It was such a minor impulse, and it was at a point in my life and my career where my passion hadn’t died, but I certainly had no idea what to write about. And I was sick of my own voice, a little bit — I was just bored with myself and bored with my work. I didn’t have an idea that was exciting. So I turned to my curiosity. I asked myself, Is there anything that you are even a tiny bit interested in right now? And the answer turned out to be that action-adventure subject: gardening. I could’ve ignored it — it was so mild an interest.

But part of that path, of leading a creative life, is to believe that there’s a reason that you’re into this thing, whatever it is. And the only way to find out what that reason is is to look a little closer. Soon this little, mild interest led me to reading about 19th-century gardens in Amsterdam and the history of botany and international trading — and by the time I sat down three years later to write the book, I was passionate about the subject. But if I had waited to act until I felt a strike of passion, I would probably still be waiting.

You hear a lot of people talking about the role of discipline in creative work, but your book makes it sound like this is something you are not overly concerned with.  

I think discipline is a bit overrated in the creative field, and self-forgiveness is underrated. We all start our projects on day one with passion and excitement, and all of us look at what we did on day two and hate ourselves. The difference with people who return to work on day three and the people who don’t is the people who return to work forgave themselves, knowing you did the best you could with what you had at that moment.

Every time I hear someone talk about discipline all I see is the scratch marks on the walls they left with their fingernails. All that anxiety. You’ve got to take it easy on yourself. You’re doing an inherently weird thing. You’re investing time and money into making something that nobody asked you to do. It’s inherently a wacky thing to do. You’re going to have strange feelings, especially about the uselessness of it all. But then you think, I’m going to stay with it, because it’s more interesting than anything else.

How Curiosity Leads to Creativity