David Brooks: What the Beatles can teach us about creativity

How am I fulfilling my responsibility to shape the desires of the people around me?

This Feb. 28, 1968, AP file photo shows The Beatles, from left, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison.

Let’s say you’re a musician, artist or actor with dreams of making it big. How do you do that?

The standard answer is: Be really excellent at your craft and you will become renowned. Sadly, it’s not that simple. Excellence is a requirement, but often it’s not enough.

Let me hold up the Beatles to explain what I’m talking about. If ever there was a group that could rise to the top on the basis of sheer creative genius, it was them.

But that’s not how it looked at first. Every record label they approached rejected them.

“The boys won’t go,” one company’s representatives said. “We know these things.” A dejected John Lennon said that they thought “that was the end.”

So how did the Beatles make it? Obviously, they had talent that was going unrecognized. But they had something else: early champions. They had a fanatically committed manager in 27-year-old Brian Epstein. They had two enthusiastic admirers who worked in the music publishing arm of EMI who pushed until the company offered the Beatles a recording contract. When “Love Me Do” was released in late 1962 with little support and low expectations from their label, a different kind of champion — fans back in Liverpool — helped build up a wave of support for the song.

I take this example from a paper by Cass Sunstein that is awaiting publication with The Journal of Beatles Studies (you knew there had to be one, right?). Sunstein is a celebrated Harvard Law professor who studies, among many other things, how informational cascades work.

One of the things I take from Sunstein’s work is that people don’t rely only on their own judgments; they think in social networks. We use informed others in our network to filter the mass of cultural products that are out there. If a highly confident member of your group thinks something is cool, you’ll be more likely to think it’s cool. If holding a certain political opinion or liking a certain band will help you fit in, you’ll probably do so. If a group of like-minded people get together, they will tend to push one another to a more extreme version of their existing views.

In his paper, Sunstein cites a study done by Matthew Salganik and others that illustrates the immense power of social influence. The researchers recruited about 14,000 people to a website where they could listen to and download 48 songs. Some of the people were divided into subgroups where they could see how often other people in their subgroup downloaded each song. Sunstein summarizes the results: “Almost any song could end up popular or not, depending on whether or not the first visitors liked it.” If people saw the early champions downloading a song, they were more likely to download it, too.

In a later experiment, researchers inverted the download figures, so the most popular songs suddenly appeared least popular and the least popular suddenly looked most popular. They found that some of the formerly unpopular songs rose to the top of the rankings and some of the formerly popular ones sank. Some songs seemed so appealing that they could recover popularity in the long run, but for many of the others, a song’s perceived popularity was more influential.

These findings support the work of René Girard, a French thinker who is enjoying a vogue these days. Girard exploded the view that we are atomistic individuals driven by our own intrinsic desires. He argued instead that we explore the world by imitating other people. If we see someone wanting something, then that can plant a desire in us to want it, too. “Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind,” Girard wrote.

You can tell a negative story based on all this: Human beings are mostly pathetic lemmings, blown about by peer pressure. But that’s not how I see it.

The greatest thing a society does is create its own culture. Each society creates a landscape of stories, symbols, assumptions, iconic artworks, prophets and meanings, and then we live within that landscape. We create our culture collectively, as a community. A culture doesn’t exist in a single mind, but in a network of minds.

We create a culture in response to the most pressing concerns of the moment. Of all the talented people out there, we lift those who help us see and understand our current conditions. In the 1960s, millions seized upon the Beatles because they so brilliantly embodied the dreams and values of the collective consciousness at the time.

Artists are not the only creative ones here. The early champions, who play such a powerful role in sculpting the cultural landscape, are playing a profoundly creative role. They are architects of desire, shaping what people want to listen to and experience.

If you are an artist, you probably have less control over whether you’ll become famous than you would like. Social conditions are the key. The better questions for the rest of us may be: Who am I an early champion for? Who are the obscure talents I can help lift up? How am I fulfilling my responsibility to shape the desires of the people around me?

For most of us, that’s how the real creative acts are performed.

(Nam Y. Huh | AP photo) New York Times columnist David Brooks at the University of Chicago, Jan. 19, 2012.

David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.