Is creativity 99% perspiration, as Edison claimed?

In 1903, when asked about his work, Thomas Edison stated that, “what it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.”

I'll take his word for it. Edison holds 1093 patents. He certainly knows about what it takes to be inspired and to be creative.

Louis Bachrach, Bachrach Studios, restored by Michel Vuijlsteke - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c05139.

Think about two things we enjoy for a many hours on most days: manufactured light and recorded sound. Both the light bulb and early technology for recording of sound, were invented by Thomas Edison. Imagine that!


​Here is a link to a blog post I wrote discusses the technology behind wax cylinders and early recording of music.

George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, (1907-1990) solved a glitch in his daily hikes by examining the irritating, although mundane, problem of cockle-burs sticking to his socks and his dog’s fur. The tiny hooks of cockle-burs attached themselves certain surfaces, like fabric or fur. Hence the invention of Velcro; a combination of one side of loops and an opposing side of hooks to form a structure to stick things together.


What motivated him to find a solution while the rest of us settle on picking off cockle-burs?


To be creative (to create), one needs inspiration. In his case, cockle-burs.

Inspiration is “a motivational state that compels individuals to bring ideas into fruition.” Inspiration is NOT creativity; they are two parts of the process.

Perhaps inspiration is the spark; that colliding of the quest for a solution and an inkling of options for a solution.


Maybe creativity is the perspiration; the sweat and tears, of the boxing match in your head. That mental duking it out between “what ifs” and “wait, what?”

Between the “no, that won’t work,” and hopefully, and ultimately the “Aha!”



Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) created more than 600 works before his death at age 35. He once observed, “Those ideas that please me I retain in memory, and am accustomed, as I have been told, to hum them to myself. If I continue in this way, it soon occurs to me how I may turn this or that morsel to account so as to make a good dish of it.”


I can’t fathom having a tune in my head, and after humming it to myself, developing it into a symphony or an opera. Unimaginable!


Many times in my career I directed teams of creative people to create a logo, a slogan, a new illustration, or a product.



One time my boss walked with me through the creative staff room while we were on a deadline for a client. He looked around and angrily shouted at me because everyone on the creative team was looking out a window.



“We’re on deadline! And, they’re just sitting there looking out windows?”


“They are thinking. An essential part of the creative process,” I responded. I could have said that it was the “perspiration” part of the process. Or Mozart's humming part. You can’t crack a whip and order “create!”


You probably have your own creative process, like starting a phrase and substituting words. Or you may think of synonyms for a key word; or antonyms. Think about how do you solve word problems like Wordle or TV’s gameshow, Wheel of Fortune. Or for more complex dilemmas, you may wait until you get in the shower; or until you distract yourself by doing something completely different. Why is that?


An NIH-funded study attempted to scientifically decipher what happens during the creative process. The scientists concluded:

“During ‘Aha!’ moments, one transcends a mental set and experiences a conceptual expansion and the experience feels automatic and unexpected; it feels evoked. Therefore, certain neural components involved in insight experiences may be present at the onset of an inspiration episode.”

Abraham A., Pieritz K., Thybusch K., Rutter B., Kröger S., Schweckendiek J., et al. (2012). Creativity and the brain: uncovering the neural signature of conceptual expansion. Neuropsychologia 50, 1906–1917 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2012.04.015 , 2012),



Here’s how I break that down:

  • Possibly there are chemical and electrical changes in our brain that occur before the “Aha!” moment.
  • And, possibly this onset of this brain processing creates a sense of “conceptual expansion.” I’m not sure what they meant, but I can imagine it’s an opening up; a widening of the circle; an accordion movement of pulling apart; to allow space for these novel ideas to happen. I think about when I’m editing video, there is an opportunity to click on a small piece of video, and as I do, it expands to allow much more time and space to do the editing. You can monkey around in that newly expanded space and create all sorts of novel connections. I can visualize this “expansion.”
  • The scientists say that the experience of creating “feels evoked.” I interpret this as the creative experience including the process of pulling something out of another place. You are grabbing it and pulling in into the circle. You are plunking it into that new space you have created. There you will mull it over; poke and prod at it and see it if fits.

This term, “conceptual expansion,” is helpful in visualizing a scientific definition of creativity. I love it.

The researchers continue to work to identify and quantify a scientific formula of the actual brain activity that happens before and during the “Aha!” moment.

For me, I am satisfied to hear the likely process that occurs during a successful brainstorming session. Apparently, Matisse had this all figured out years ago. He said, “You see, it is the process of creativity that requires the effort.” From "Art and the Brain," Semir, Zeki. 

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