This blog is all about travel for creative development. Ultimately, I see this theme playing out in two ways, on two different levels of analysis:
On the one hand, on a wide, abstract level, I’m interested in viewing the creative process as a journey and an adventure; I want to see how we can take lessons from the tropes and metaphors of traveling, exploration, journeying, and calls to adventure and use these lessons to fuel creative achievement.
But on the other hand, I’m also interested in literal travel narratives, on stories of individuals who made a physical journey from one place to another, and through the journey achieved a breakthrough that spurred creative growth.
Of all such stories in human history, there is one that has always personally inspired me above all others: Darwin’s voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle, his five-year journey from England to coastal destinations around South America and the Pacific which led to his innovative ideas about natural selection and evolution.
On my own personal bucket list of travel destinations is the Galapagos Islands, a place of modern pilgrimage, I’m sure, for many of us who admire Darwin’s achievements and want to pay our respects for the insight the place inspired.
(See what I’m doing here – not only creating a personally meaningful bucket list, but also sharing it. Creative Achievement Tip: try your hand at writing out your own Top 10 List, identifying explicitly the places you’d like to see and why you’d like to see them. Then, share your list with friends or family or, even better, in a public forum you respect. If you do so, I think you’ll find you’re much more likely make your dream a reality).
The thing is, as much as I would like to see for myself the sights that inspired Darwin, the particulars that inspired him are not quite what inspire me. After all, I’m not a 19th century naturalist working to move forward theories about biology. (Though, admittedly, it’s enlightening to spend some time getting wrapped up in Darwin’s world….and you can’t create sound abstract theories without certain substantive knowledge of particulars – perhaps that’s even the most important lesson to learn from Darwin.) That said, what I am most interested in are the abstract lessons about creative achievement we can learn from Darwin’s voyage that can inspire any momentous creative project.
Here are the top 3 lessons about creative achievement I’ve learned from Darwin’s voyage:
- Curiosity that’s Wide-Ranging, but Also Systematic and Purposeful
From his boyhood, Darwin was passionately curious about the natural world, even spending family holidays collecting specimens from nature. He writes in his autobiography that by time he went to school: “I tried to make out the names of plants, and collected all sorts of things, shells, seals, franks, coins, and minerals. The passion for collecting, which leads a man to be a systematic naturalist, a virtuoso or miser, was very strong in me…” (pp. 22-3 in Autobiography of Charles Darwin, ed. 1958, London: Collins).
Darwin was particularly enthusiastic about collecting beetles. In a delightfully characteristic passage, he writes:
“I will give a proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles, and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas! it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one” (p. 50 in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Including an Autobiographical Chapter, Vol. 1., edited by Francis Darwin, John Murray, London).
In The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin writes about his emotional experience collecting insects in the old forests of Sossego, Brazil:
“It is easy to specify the individual objects of admiration in these grand scenes; but it is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, astonishment, and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind” (p. 27 in The Voyage of the Beagle, ed. 1997, Wordsworth).
Darwin showed himself to be someone truly passionate about observing and collecting. His passion was wide-ranging, encompassing myriad aspects of the natural world. But he was simultaneously also systematic and purposeful. It is significant, because in integrating a wide-ranging passion with a systematic pursuit, he was able to go both wide and deep. Both these characteristics are necessary for a project with a scope as grand as his theory of natural selection.
Lesson One: Cultivate a passionate curiosity that pushes you to venture both wide and deep in your explorations.
- Questions Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Darwin was a radically innovative thinker. But his accomplishments were made possible by first absorbing ideas from his predecessors. In this way, he was a living embodiment of Isaac Newton’s famous saying, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Darwin, of course, was not the first thinker to speculate about evolution. His own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, addressed the problem in his book Zoonomia. During his college days, young Darwin was known to associate with other naturalists who investigated questions of Lamarckian evolution. So, by time he set out on the Beagle voyage, Darwin was framing his observations in reference to these questions.
Arguably the most important book he read during the voyage was Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which was first being published in multiple volumes between 1830 and 1833 as the Voyage of the Beagle progressed. Lyell presented the geological argument for slow, gradual change of the earth over eons of time, a framework that provided a base for Darwin to consider gradual biological change.
Darwin’s observations during his voyage were clearly informed by his reading. For example:
“No one fact in the geology of South America interested me more than these terraces of rudely stratified shingle…the grand and broken chain of the Cordillera, instead of having been suddenly thrown up, as was til lately the universal, and still is the common opinion of geologists, has been slowly upheaved in mass, in the same gradual manner as the coasts of the Atlantic and Pacific have risen in recent period. A multitude of facts in the structure of the Cordillera, on this view receive a simple explanation” (p. 301 in The Voyage of the Beagle, ed. 1997, Wordsworth).
This point about a “multitude of facts” receiving “a simple explanation” is also characteristic of Darwin’s method. Darwin was someone who, in his own words, was “habitually searching for the causes and meaning of everything which occurs.” Not only did Darwin ask lots of questions, he was specifically interested to ask questions about the causes and meaning of what he observed, seeking out the few fundamental reasons that could explain many seemingly disparate facts.
Lesson Two: Read the latest works by the best minds of your time, not so you can memorize what they say, but to inspire you to ask better questions about the causes and meaning of what you observe first hand.
- Productive Obsession Balanced by Productive Relaxation & Productive Relationships
Reading through Darwin’s writings, it seems to me he was a man who absolutely obsessed about his theory of evolution. Not only did it take him decades to finally publish his new ideas about natural selection (the Voyage of the Beagle took place from 1831 – 1836; Darwin did not publish On the Origin of Species until 1859), but it seems he spent those decades with this one idea continually at the forefront of his mind, while he integrated countless observations, facts, and experiences to it.
Creativity expert Eric Maisel has written about the importance of what he terms “productive obsession” for creative work. In his book, Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions, Maisel argues that when you choose an idea for good reasons and pursue it with all your brain power, you not only are more likely to launch and finish creative projects but to live a fulfilling life filled with meaning. One of the keys, though, to practicing productive obsession effectively, I think, is to balance it with productive relaxation and productive relationships.
Darwin may have filled his years thinking about natural selection. But he also, notably, took time to play billiards in the evening in order to take his mind off the topic. He also built a long, loving marriage and thriving family life, not to mention friendships and strong professional relationships with intellectual colleagues he admired.
The text of The Voyage of the Beagle itself is rich in details pertinent to his work as a naturalist, but simultaneously we see Darwin simply having fun. For example, what he did upon encountering the strange giant tortoises of the Galapagos:
“I frequently got on their backs, and then giving a few raps on the hinder part of their shells, they would rise up and walk away – but I found it very difficult to keep my balance…” (p. 366, in The Voyage of the Beagle, ed. 1997, Wordsworth).
Who needs a pony when you can have fun riding giant turtles! 😊
Lesson Three: Find a topic that sparks your passion, then obsess productively – ideally choosing a topic that can integrate many of your life experiences and observations. But make sure to also spend quality time with family and friends, and just have fun!
If you’re interested in learning more about Darwin’s grand adventure aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, the American Museum of Natural History offers a fascinating multimedia experience available online that’s based on their Darwin exhibition in New York City. Another Darwin resource I especially enjoy is Darwin Inspired, which uses Darwin-inspired teaching and learning to promote excellence in science education.
Have you studied Darwin’s journey, his big ideas, and his ways of working? What lessons have you learned to inspire your own creativity?