All the World's a Classroom
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. If you hear someone saying these famed words with a beat, then you’ve come across someone who has been bitten by the Hamilton bug. I’m talking about Hamilton, the Broadway musical that is making waves in the theatre world with ripples in contemporary American culture.
As someone whose day job is as far away as it can be from the Arts, I am immensely fascinated by the artist’s mind. How do artists create? How do they think? What thought process occurs when they work? What is it like to operate with the right brain in dominance?
These questions, of course, are decidedly left-brained, which, I suspect, miss the whole essence of artistic endeavors. It seems to me that the Arts involve more nonlinear processes, merging divergent thoughts and feelings that may at some point converge into a masterpiece. The actual work from the blank canvas to a painting may take a short time, but the process of creation has likely started long before that moment of inspiration.
Which is why I’m crazy about one of my latest reads, Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, that unveils a little of the creative process, the story of how this revolutionary Broadway musical came about. There’s a marvelous story of individuality here.
Individuality: An Asset in Creative Endeavors
Hamilton is about the life of Alexander Hamilton, the guy on the $10 bill (of which I was completely ignorant before this musical), one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and the first Secretary of the Treasury. It traces his life during the American Revolution and the early years of the nation, to his death.
Sounds like a bland historical statement? Yes. But, Hamilton is anything but boring.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer and creator of the musical, said in an interview, “We take it as a given that hip-hop music is the music of the revolution.” That’s right. This is a hip-hop musical, a sound that is not typical Broadway. It’s fast-paced, energetic, delivering high words-per-minute density that covers vast amount of information in mere minutes. Cabinet debates are performed as rap battles, with contemporary language that makes these idealized Founding Fathers accessible to the 21st century audience.
“This is my brain and unless I express it, it’s only going to stay in my brain. It’s more about personal expression than imposing a will on the world. It’s more about…if I don’t get this idea out of my head and on to paper, it dies with me.” – Lin-Manuel Miranda
Lin-Manuel is a master wordsmith. There are 4 dozens of songs in this musical, much more than typical Broadway shows, and he wrote them all. I love the story of how it began, how he connected Founding Father to hip-hop.
About to go on vacation in 2008 from his first musical, In the Heights, he picked up Ron Chernow’s doorstopper book, the biography of Alexander Hamilton. (What kind of person does that? A nerd. Read about Lin’s relationship with books here.) Within a few chapters, something clicked in his mind: this was a hip-hop story. Needless to say, not very many could make this kind of connection! Hamilton, an outsider, an immigrant, wrote his way out of his doomed life in the Caribbean, rose with ambition through his skills with words, and helped build the country. This connection was so obvious to him that he Googled whether anyone had done a musical on Hamilton. (That would be a no.)
As I went through the creation story in the book, it became abundantly clear that Lin was probably the only person on the planet whose brain could birth this breakthrough musical. The marriage of an avid reader, history learner, writer, hip-hop connoisseur, rapper, freestyler, and musical buff in his personhood, plus the friends who collaborated with him, are what made this possible. If that’s not a story of individuality, I don’t know what is.
Lin said something profound about individuality in the last 1 minute of this interview.
The book Hamilton: The Revolution traverses the 7 years between Lin’s first moments of inspiration in 2008 to the show opening on Broadway in August 2015. It tells the stories of how the songs came about and what inspired them. The complete libretto is reproduced here (on gorgeous papers) with Lin’s annotations, plus snapshots of his notebook pages when he first wrote the lyrics. In other words, it’s a little peek into his brilliant mind. It also tells the stories of the many collaborators that built the masterpiece, that even though Lin’s name has the strongest association with the musical, the revolution did not happen just because of one person.
Need more reasons to read Hamilton: The Revolution? Keep reading.
Lessons on History
The biggest reason why I love this book is because of its profound insights on history. It does not treat history as a list of facts, but as stories. Stories of people, real people with real ambitions, emotions, and flaws. The Revolution here is meant to refer both to the American Revolution of the 18th century and the show itself, “a musical that changes the way that Broadway sounds, that alters who gets to tell the story of our founding.”
The book touches upon the fallacies through which we see history, how in hindsight revolutions may look obvious and inevitable, but in fact at the moment, they were “unprecedented and all but impossible to imagine ahead of time.” It’s hindsight bias. There’s also our faulty memory and how unreliable it is in reproducing sequence of events, something they experienced in putting this book together. If we couldn’t keep our recent facts right, how are we expecting something from 240 years ago to be entirely solid.
The book is a precious record of the experiences of the artists today as they are living through them. It is contemporary, and thus can capture thoughts and feelings more accurately. We know how hard it is to piece together something from the past, to capture the atmosphere and essence of the events, even in the presence of evidence. In a way, this book too is a piece of history.
Lessons on Collaborations
Even though Lin wrote the musical, the creation of Hamilton involved many bright minds. Genius work is often a collaborative effort. My favorite story is of Alex Lacamoire who was in charge of orchestrating the music, tweaking each part of the 10-person band to get the music exactly right and tell the story as best as they can. I’ve been listening to the cast album for a few days now, and I am simply blown away by the incredibly layered composition of the music.
There was also the stage director, stressing over little details to reproduce 18th century New York. These are things that the audience may never notice, but contribute to the feel and atmosphere of the stage, which help the actors get into their stories more.
With each piece, the revolution becomes less of a mythical story into a story of community, of hard work, and of ingenuity. There are iterations, false starts, and revelatory moments. But most of all, it’s a composite of individuals, with distinct individuality and gifts, pushing for something that has never been done before.
Quoting Lin in the video above:
“I think that’s what we do as artists. What’s the thing that only I can contribute? It’s not about the confidence to like, “Hello, world, here is this idea that never existed.” It’s… This is my brain and unless I express it, it’s only going to stay in my brain. It’s more about personal expression than imposing a will on the world. It’s more about…if I don’t get this idea out of my head and on to paper, it dies with me.” – Lin Manuel Miranda
Previous posts in this series on Individuality:
See also this NYT article: Why ‘Hamilton’ Has Heat
This is the second post in an article series on individuality. Read the first here. This post is for those curious about what individuality means in the Judeo-Christian perspective, even if you don’t subscribe to it.
“That’s so him.” “Totally something she’d do!” “Who would’ve thought of that?!” These acknowledgements of individuality—what makes you, you—are not foreign to us. The existence of individuality in the human experience is indisputable.
Where does our individuality come from?
Well, this is a worldview question, with answers as numerous as the beliefs that exist on Earth. This post is specifically about the Judeo-Christian perspective and its regard of mankind and individuality. Though you may not subscribe to it, I’m inviting you to empathize and gain an understanding of how those that do see individuality from their point of view.
Mankind as An Image of the Divine
In the Judeo-Christian worldview, a person’s individuality is anchored to the very subject the whole religious system is about: God. The subject of individuality is front and center in the grand opening of its sacred text.
Creation, the beginning of the world, opens the Hebrew Bible in the first chapter of Genesis. It’s a much-debated chapter, but let’s set debates aside for a moment and consider the text through the lens of creativity, to see the narrative in the light of a creative process.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” it begins. The chapter narrates the creation of the world in six days, which builds up to the creation of mankind in the sixth. The text says,
“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”
Mankind is patterned according to God’s image, which is intriguing, because God prohibits the making of images, explicitly stated in the Ten Commandments. Other biblical stories show that mankind is in danger of carving a rock, assembling wood, or creating buildings, even if they were initially made for God, and worshipping these things instead of God. The biblical prophets write against this over and over again. There was to be no idol worshipped in place of Him, because no one thing can adequately represent the fullness of His character and glory. Nothing is big enough to fully represent who He is. But, in mankind there is an exception.
In the collection of essays Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, rabbi Abraham J. Heschel writes,
“And yet there is something in the world that the Bible does regard as a symbol of God. It is not a temple or a tree, it is not a statue or a star. The one symbol of God is man, every man. God Himself created man in His image.”
A person, a human being, is viewed with very high regard, because he is an image of the divine.
“Human life is holy, holier even than the Scrolls of the Torah. Its holiness is not man’s achievement; it is a gift of God rather than something attained through merit. Man must therefore be treated with the honor due to a likeness representing the King of Kings.“
This image of the divine is not limited to one person, group, or nation. It is present in every single person.
“…not one man or one particular nation but all men and all nations are endowed with the likeness of God… the divine likeness is something all men share.”
This foundation is also the Judeo-Christian basis of the equality of all men, the anchor of justice and how we ought to treat one another.
“This is a conception of far-reaching importance to biblical piety. What it implies can hardly be summarized. Reverence for God is shown in our reverence for man. The fear you must feel of offending or hurting a human being must be as ultimate as your fear of God. An act of violence is an act of desecration. To be arrogant toward man is to be blasphemous toward God.”
Power to Think and to Do
The concept mankind being an image of the divine is rich with meaning. One aspect of this is the capability to create, which is demonstrated by the Creator Himself. It is the capability to invent, to see beyond what is into what could be, and to work towards that destination one step at a time.
In the book Education, Ellen White writes:
“Every human being, created in the image of God, is endowed with a power akin to that of the Creator—individuality, power to think and to do.”
The power to think and transform that thought into reality is the most baffling and fascinating trait of humanity. It mirrors the divine pattern as told in the Creation narrative.
“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day.”
First there’s a thought, then words. The words become reality. And God sees what happens and calls it good. Finally, He names what He has just made. What is this if not the core of a creative process?
“The men in whom this power is developed are the men who bear responsibilities, who are leaders in enterprise, and who influence character. It is the work of true education to develop this power, to train the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thought. Instead of confining their study to that which men have said or written, let students be directed to the sources of truth, to the vast fields opened for research in nature and revelation. Let them contemplate the great facts of duty and destiny, and the mind will expand and strengthen. Instead of educated weaklings, institutions of learning may send forth men strong to think and to act, men who are masters and not slaves of circumstances, men who possess breadth of mind, clearness of thought, and the courage of their convictions.”
Those we admire, leaders of the world, makers and changers of society, display this power of individuality—to think and to act. They are thinkers for themselves, not reflectors of other people’s thoughts. They are masters of their circumstances.
Individuality and Creativity
In the last post, I emphasized that individuality is an asset in creative processes, in works that have no set to-do instructions, in the making of something new (as opposed to imitating an existing creation). Where there’s no other guide, individuality, your power to think and to do, is your only resource. Indeed, it is in these types of original work that individuality shines forth the most.
Consider this. When God chose to write His opening act, His first introduction to the world, His grand entrance, His chance for a first impression in the first chapter of the Bible, He chose a creative story, a narrative of Him engaging in creative work.
In that first chapter, God is the sole agent, the ultimate actor, and the decision maker. He stares at His blank canvas, a void and shapeless world, and He begins that journey of creating something new.
I wonder if this creative process is also a discovery, something like the times when we engage in creative endeavors and surprise ourselves at what comes out. Maybe there’s an elevated, divine version of this, because at the end of each creation day, God sees what He has done, pausing for a moment of reflection, evaluation, consideration, and says that it is good. It is almost as if He doesn’t completely know if it would turn out good, at least not as predictable as mass printing labels from a manufacturing process. The artist sees and is satisfied with what He has carved that day.
It is easy to take stories like these for granted, to miss the essence and mystery of the creative process. We take it for granted because when we read stories of how inventors create, we already see the results. Thus we think it’s inevitable, a classic case of hindsight bias. Of course the plane should look that way, it’s obvious! Whereas if we put ourselves in the shoes of the Wright brothers, going forward in time, experimenting and trying out designs, the final product could have taken a different shape amidst the thousands of decisions they had to make.
We already know how important the sun is when we read the fourth day of creation. The trees are already outside our windows when we read about the third day, so it does not occur to us that trees did not really have to work that way. Things didn’t have to work the way they do now, because the creator started with a blank canvas. Someone decided where to put the stars, the waters, the sky, and the eyes. They were design decisions, made by an individual with thoughts and intent, with power to accomplish them.
Most importantly, there was freedom. God had full freedom to choose how He would shape the world among numerous options. He could have chosen a million other combinations, just like a writer could start his book a thousand different ways, a painter beginning with a thousand different strokes. The shape that we see at the end is the culmination of a nonlinear process, the artist’s individuality, mind and heart at work, which is all hidden in that final painting.
It is no small matter that God’s grand entrance—a story of His creativity—is also humanity’s most baffling trait. Stories of human creativity and inventions inspire us. The creators of the world, the change-makers, are those who know how to mine their individuality.
If mankind is made in God’s image, and the first thing He wants us to know about Himself is His creativity, then it must mean that He wants us to employ our individuality and creativity to its fullest measure. Could it be that in engaging in a creative process, we are mirroring divinity? Anyone who has engaged in creating something must know the magical wonder stored within the process, from inspiration to fruition. Could it be that Genesis 1 is an invitation for us to write our own creation stories?
Want more? See also Individuality: What Makes You, You, how genius work happens, and how to use individuality as the engine of learning.
What makes you, you? This is the first of a series of posts on individuality. To begin, here are 10 thoughts on individuality. Agree/disagree? Feel free to comment!
- Individuality. The you-ness that makes you, you. It’s your personality, your character, your history, your responses to situations, your decisions, all combined into one person, you. It’s what makes you unlike any other person on Earth and what makes no two people exactly alike.
- Everything that makes you who you are—your biological traits, genetic heritage, ethnic background, the place of your birth and upbringing, your current location, all the places you’ve been and worked at, the people you’ve met, the people who have impacted your life, your cultural heritage, your entire life experiences, in the particular order that you experienced them, the books you’ve read, the things you’ve seen—all of these enrich you to tell your own unique story. It gives you a unique lens through which you see the world, a unique perspective that will tinge everything you do.
- This unique perspective is a gift that you can give to the world. It’s your contribution to society and to humanity. Your individuality is an asset that will enrich our collective human experience.
- Individuality is especially an asset in creative works, works that have no prescribed formulas and to-do guides, works that haven’t been done before. Face to face with a blank canvas, a blank page, an empty theatre, a research problem, a work emergency, what will you do? Where will you turn to when there’s no manual around? All you’ve got is your wits, your judgment, your wisdom, and your character. The way you use them to tread an uncharted path will be uniquely yours. In these blank canvas situations, I think you’ll find that your individuality is a well, that in your identity lay a treasure of connections and creativity that can manifest into a truly original work. It will not always come out right, but if you keep digging and mining the well, something great and original will come to life.
- The paradox of individuality is that the person next to you is just as unique as you are. This presents no problem at all, because multiple individualities in turn can combine to create unique teams that produce unique results. As you are limited to your own experiences, others’ can inform and add to your life and to your collaborative work.
- No two people can solve the same problem completely alike, if they stay true to their identity and not become a carbon copy of someone else. No two doctors perform surgery exactly in the same way, no two people sing a song the same way, no two engineers do calculations the same way. Even in math, a field with rigid rules and laws, no two mathematicians solve math problems the same way. They may end up at the same final answer, but the road to the solution will bear the mark of the author’s individuality.
- Which is why diversity is an asset. Diversity is both a source of creative inventions and the outcome of originality. The combination of diverse individualities will create diverse solutions, which are needed in solving complex human problems.
- Don’t worry too much about what other people are doing. Don’t worry too much that your work should or should not resemble someone else’s. Look internally and ask yourself, what would YOU do?
- When you have found an outlet for your individuality, a work that truly fits who you are, you have found that rare intersection between self-fulfillment and altruism, something that is good for you and for society. It is self-centered, as in it all is anchored in your individuality, and selfless, in that it blesses other people too. It is rewarding internally, yet it is also a gift to the world. (See this post)
- There’s something that only you can give in this life. There’s work that only you can do, music that only you can create, books that only you can write, pictures that only you can take. This is your gift to all of us, and we can’t wait to see it.
You are more unique than you think you are.
I asked some friends, What does individuality mean to you? Here are their insightful answers.
Want more? See also how individuality and creativity are related, how genius work happens, and how to use individuality as the engine of learning.