“The amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time.” ~ John Stuart Mill
We’re all familiar with the image of the troubled eccentric genius, who partakes in strange habits and behaviors, in order to push himself to extreme creative breakthroughs.
Oddly enough, this archetype is fairly accurate. Many, if not most of the geniuses throughout history have been very strange men and women. They have been as unorthodox as they have been intelligent, which stands as an excellent lesson to the rest of the world.
We can see these geniuses who lived strangely and take comfort; our eccentricities are not just negative symptoms of intelligence. They are intelligence freely expressed, and to eliminate eccentricity would be to eliminate individuality.
These great minds give us permission to be weird, in so far as our weirdness pushes the boundaries of our own creativity, and ignites in us a passion for the innovative and imaginative.
Genius comes in many forms. Someone may be gifted with numbers, paints, words, or even steel and concrete. The commonalities between geniuses are seldom the works themselves, or the results of those works– the commonalities lie in the general attitudes of the individuals who produce great works. And these attitudes are usually apathetic or flat-out contradictory to the prevailing standards of the time.
This rejection of common societal rules combined with immense creativity is often expressed in baffling behaviors. In this article I will describe a few of these behaviors, and what we can learn from them.
The Composer Igor Stravinsky’s Headstands
Igor Stravinsky is widely considered one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. His compositions were diverse and innovative, in such a way that they changed modern music forever.
Every morning he would engage in a 15 minute head stand, in order to “clear his brain”.
While a 15 minute head stand is an extreme example of a morning routine, it provides us with an excellent model with which to start the day.
Find some sort of meditation activity that allows the chaotic thoughts to drift away and allows room for focus on the day at hand.
Whether this activity be sitting meditation, a cup of tea, or an acrobatic head stand, it will serve to empty your head and allow you to set goals and aspirations for the day.
Balzac’s Bizzarre Addiction
Honore de Balzac was a highly regarded French Novelist and playwright. He is known as one of the founders of the realism movement, with his books depicting incredibly vivid, multi-faceted characters.
He was a massively prolific writer, who published large, dense novels. Such an output was only possible because of his prodigious and eccentric work habits.
Balzac would eat at six at night, sleep until midnight, and then rise and work for a more than 15 hour stretch. This massive block of work time was fuelled by his drug of choice: coffee. It is claimed Balzac drank around 50 cups of coffee a day in order to keep up this amazing work schedule.
I obviously don’t condone such a massive daily consumption of any drug, but the spirit with which Balzac consumed can be appreciated. He did whatever it took to produce work after work of meticulously crafted prose. Any creative should admire a man who could work in 15 hour stretches, and still reliably produce quality work.
Balzac illustrates for us the value of hustle. Artists should strive to do whatever it takes to create great works. Our inner genius often only reveals itself after countless hours of uninspired slaving. Balzac embraced that slaving, and thus his inner genius embraced him.
So what if it took (more than) a few cups of coffee to get there?
“When your madness is creative and necessary, people will not notice the fact that you are crazy.” ~ M.B. Johnson Click To Tweet
Da Vinci’s Strange Sleep Schedule
Leonardo Da Vinci may very well be the smartest man to have ever walked the earth. Aside from painting the Mona Lisa, he invented the Bicycle, tanks, flying machines, parachutes, and formed the basis for modern anatomical study.
His sleeping habits were also expressed in a way that allowed for such a productive life.
Da Vinci slumbered only about two to four hours a day, but not in a single uninterrupted block. He instead slept in short naps, about 10 to 20 minutes each, throughout the day. These naps would come once every four hours, and allowed him to have far more active time than the average human.
There is a modern version of this sleep schedule, called “Polyphasic Sleep”, and the benefits are numerous. Thomas Jefferson is said to have adopted this schedule during highly productive periods. The schedule is difficult to assimilate, however, and can result in a loss of coordination and energy.
But whether or not you adopt a polyphasic sleep schedule, much can be learned from Leonardo’s example. Our days are often filled with hours of unproductive laziness. If we strive to maximize our productivity each day, we can hope to achieve so much more than the average person.
Who knows what amazing works the world would have lost if Da Vinci slept the normal eight hours? Perhaps we would not have the Mona Lisa.
So consider maximizing your day for productivity, in order to not deprive the world of your own great work.
Benjamin Franklin’s Nudity
Benjamin Franklin is most known for being one of the founding fathers of the United States of America. That alone could prove his huge creative capacity. But he was also an inventor, a writer, a socialite, and a man who succeeded in nearly all of his endeavors.
One such endeavor was medicine, an area where Franklin held some strange theories. One of these theories was that prolonged nudity could prevent disease. Franklin would strip off his clothes, open all the windows of his house and sit in front of them in order to be in the midst of circulating air.
This eccentric behavior went against notions of the time about the cold causing disease. Franklin thought that being cramped up with other human beings caused disease, and modern medicine has proved him correct.
This goes to show how strange personal habits can actually be far ahead of their time, and be beneficial in ways we don’t even understand.
So keep the weird habit if it makes you happy! In a hundred years people may just look back at you as a genius for it.
And somebody might now want to ask me, 'Can't you ever be serious?' The answer is, 'No.' ~ Kurt Vonnegut Click To Tweet
Demosthenes’s Hardcore Practice Rituals
Demosthenes was an Athenian political and orator. He was known for a great intellect and a profound ability to sway people with his powerful public speaking. People with such charisma always make us wonder how they got so good. In Demosthenes’s case, we have the answer.
Demosthenes was said to rehearse his speeches in a room underground, or a cave by the sea, where no one could hear or bother him. He would apparently also orate running uphill, and to the sea, attempting to make himself heard above the waves. Running the speeches again and again (sometimes with things in his mouth in order to perfect his enunciation) he would perfect his delivery. He even went so far as to shave half his head to prevent himself from giving the speech before he was completely ready.
Demosthenes demonstrates for us how true the old cliché of “practice makes perfect” is. Demosthenes was considered a master orator because he commanded words in a way that appeared effortless. But those he spoke to did not know the countless hours Demosthenes slaved over each word in order to achieve “effortlessness”.
So whenever you’re feeling down about training, practice, and the many hours of work that make effortless inspiration possible, remember Demosthenes.