Standing out from the crowd
Last Friday Daan Roosegaarde was in College Tour, a TV program in which Twan Huys interviews inspiring celebrities (writers, singers, actors, etc.) in front of a student audience. Huys – who is well known for presenting a daily news show and for having been a news correspondent in the US – asks the celebrities questions together with the students, which makes the program a little superficial, but at times also quite inspiring – after all, even bad questions can evoke interesting answers.
Young Global Leader
Daan Roosegaarde is a Dutch artist and inventor who in the past years has become quite a celebrity in the Netherlands. He was also declared ‘Young Global Leader’ at the World Economic Forum in Davos last year. There are two reasons for his fame. The most important one is that he constantly comes up with impressive artworks that have quite an impact and catch a lot of attention; interactive light sculptures, a cycle path that lights up in the dark, a light show depicting the Netherlands when flooded and – most recently – a smog-free tower that works as a vacuum cleaner.
The second important reason for Roosegaarde’s fame is that Roosegaarde is equipped with a very charming enthusiasm and that he understands PR extremely well. That’s why he is constantly seen in the company of public figures, such as CEOs, political leaders and even the royal family, who collaborate and pose with him.
I expected an interview in which Roosegaarde could share his drive, inspiration and different personality traits that support his creative achievements
Since College Tour is a program that venerates its guests – even one of Holland’s most dangerous criminals, Willem Holleeder, was treated with respect – I expected an interview in which Roosegaarde could share his drive, inspiration and different personality traits that support his creative achievements. Strangely enough though there was hardly room for that. The program clearly had the premeditated plan to simply frame him as a society figure who adorns himself with borrowed plumes. Twan Huys did so by somewhat cowardly asking other people (on film) what they thought of Roosegaarde and letting them make the critical notes.
Is this really art?
The first person was Tracy Metz, journalist and director of the John Adams Institute. She ended her short commentary by saying that his works contains a show element and appeals to a large audience, so that you ask yourself ‘is this really art?’ And since he has become a society figure she hopes his art won’t suffer from that. Roosegaarde replies in the program by saying that his meaning of art is different; “you have dreams, but at the same time you need to connect with the world around you so that they actually have an impact.” He continues: “The myth that Tracy Metz suggests here, that of the genius artist on his attic that is nibbling pieces of his ear, has never existed.”
Roosegaarde: I have the naive ambition that I can impact the world, you can call this egocentric or you can call it guts
Philemon Wesselink, the second commentator who studied at the same art academy as Roosegaarde, explains that Roosegaarde was extremely focused when studying. Paraphrasing: “Everything revolved around him, he is an incredible narcissist. He sometimes works with other people and then takes all the credits for it.” Roosegaarde, who doesn’t seem to be affected by this, replies (paraphrasing): “The focus has remained, but I’ve become better at working in a team. I am not a narcissist though, I serve the dream, not my ego. I have the naive ambition that I can impact the world. And you can call this egocentric or you can call it guts.”
Invented somewhere else
In the third video snippet Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands wishes Roosegaarde (among other things) that he remains the same person as before he became a celebrity and that he keeps both feet on the ground. Roosegaarde, again, tries to stay positive and answers; “staying curious, I think that’s what we have in common”. But Huys subtly reminds Roosegaarde that it contains a warning. Now Roosegaarde gets a little irritated; “Again a warning?”
The fourth negative comment is made by Bob Ursem of the TU Delft. He is the inventor of the technology used inside the smog tower and tells the camera that he has worked for 16 years on the technology and that Roosegaarde claims it as his own invention. He adds that another project of Roosegaarde, the sustainable dance floor, was also developed at the TU Delft.
And that’s when Roosegaarde snaps. He tells Huys: “Jezus, why are we nagging like this?” He then decides he needs to take a break, which becomes an 18-minute break. He returns, but tells Huys he does so for the students not for Huys’ TV ratings – he even gives him a ‘fuck you’. He then explains that the views shared by the commentators on his work are way too narrow-minded.
How creativity really works
Indeed, the entire program was narrow-minded. It was not just embarrassing to see how eagerly Huys seemed to want to frame Roosegaarde as a showman and a fraud. It was also shocking to learn how badly Huys seems to understand how creative minds work. So, to educate him and all the people that attacked Roosegaarde after the program, I’ll share a few important lessons on creativity that will hopefully shed a more nuanced light on how Roosegaarde thinks and works and why this is crucial to make an impact.
1. Groundbreaking creativity requires a big ego
The most important definition of creativity contains two important elements: novelty and value. Creating something new is relatively easy. Theoretically, even kids doodling can make novel things. The harder part is turning your novelties into value, which means translating your ideas into something that is appreciated by an audience. To do so, you first of all require a vision and a big ego.
Visionaries like Elon Musk – who wants to overthrow the oil based car industry and travel to Mars – need to be extremely focused in reaching their seemingly impossible goals. In doing so, you must ignore the people that tell you: ‘this can’t be done’. Steve Jobs was known for what others mockingly called his ‘reality distortion field’. They used it when he wanted to make the impossible possible – like finishing a project within an impossible deadline. Philemon Wesselink explains this side of Roosegaarde (paraphrasing); “He was maybe not the most talented student, but the most driven one. (…) If you have one single goal that’s what you’re heading for, you don’t look at anything else.” In other words, everything and everyone must serve your vision.
It’s the confidence, focus and leadership that is easily perceived as egocentric, but it’s also what makes ambitious dreams happen.
It is this focus that many great artists and inventors have in common. And when executing a vision is complicated and requires many different specialists, the creative collaboration that gets your there needs to be guided by clear leadership. It’s like making a blockbuster; there are many different skills involved, but the director gives the single-minded direction. If you’re too democratic, the process becomes a mess and nothing gets done.
So, in short, it’s the confidence, focus and leadership that is often perceived as egocentric, but it’s also what makes ambitious dreams come true.
2. Creativity also requires a social side
The other side to adding value to your creation is that you need to be sociable, because you need to work with others and be able to convince the influential people in your domain that you’ve created something that deserves attention. As the interview shows, Roosegaarde also has this social side. He has his own “dream factory” in which he closely collaborates with a team of specialists and at the same time is extremely good at charming and persuading people around him to buy into his dreams.
Picasso was, apart from quite vain, also a social character, a networker who had friends everywhere – even in higher circles
To illustrate the importance of both sides of Roosegaarde (having an ego and being social) I describe the difference between Van Gogh and Picasso in my book ‘Defining Creativity’. Picasso was, apart from quite vain, also a social character, a networker who had friends everywhere – even in higher circles. He knew how to sell his work. Van Gogh, on the contrary, was solitary, learned how to paint in a relatively short time by being very focused, but didn’t sell any paintings during his life – except to his brother Theo. So, in this context Roosegaarde is not a Van Gogh, but a Picasso.
3. Creativity makes an unfamiliar combination of familiar ideas
Another important definition of creativity is making unfamiliar combinations of familiar ideas. A creative idea is always a combination of ideas that already exist. Steve Jobs – who, for that matter, also had the aforementioned two sides – stole his revolutionary graphic user interface for the Macintosh from Xerox PARC. This proved a hugely important element in the groundbreaking leap the computer made in becoming personal. And Gates, in his turn, stole the idea from Jobs and launched Windows, which became the standard for personal computers – the word ‘windows’ actually literally refers to a part he stole.
Another example from Apple: The iPod was not the first mp3 player. But Steve Jobs, who understood design extremely well took the idea but combined it with an intuitive user interface and a very attractive design – heavily inspired by Dieter Rams, for that matter. Though I can imagine Bob Ursem was a little frustrated when Roosegaarde gained much international attention with the technology that took him 16 years to perfect, the learning here however is that Roosegaarde not just ‘stole’ his technology. Instead, with a clear vision in mind, a broad team of specialists, and two years of hard work, he turned it into an elegant ‘iPod’.
4. Creativity doesn’t reside in one single creative domain
Ada Lovelace, who wrote the very first algorithm in the 1840s, was born out of the famous British poet Lord Byron and Baroness Wentworth, who was a mathematician. Lovelace inherited both her parents’ minds, on the one hand she was good at maths and analytical and on the other she was imaginative. It was this combination of minds that helped her to write the first algorithm and, on top of that, imagine a computer that could be programmed to make music at some point in the future – which was complete science fiction at the time.
You could say he is an inventor that uses art to draw attention to his inventions
Tracy Metz, however, does not seem to believe in these cross-domain combinations. She judges Roosegaarde as an artist, full stop, who should be sophisticated and can’t be appreciated by a large audience (how banal would that be). But as Roosegaarde explains in the interview he needs to interact with the world around him to make an impact. You could thus say he is an inventor that uses art to draw attention to his inventions. Or, the other way around; he is an artist that applies technology in new ways to draw attention to his art. Either way, he combines art with technology and a vision about sustainability.
So, the learning here is that you shouldn’t categorize creative people in these simplistic boxes; creativity per definition works across different domains and is even catalyzed by it.
The irony of it all is that Twan Huys shares many of the personality traits that are held against Roosegaarde in College Tour
The irony of it all is that Twan Huys shares many of the personality traits that are held against Roosegaarde in College Tour. After all, Huys was not the most talented student either – as he recently confided to Volkskrant Magazine. It was mostly his drive that helped him to become successful. And just like Roosegaarde he also sometimes ignores reality when he is focused on his work. In the interview one of his colleagues reveals how he visits her after she has given birth. He is hardly interested in the baby and only talks about work. Another example; when he spends half of his vacation writing a book about the Clintons he isn’t there for his children. His comment: “Of course others have to suffer [for me writing a book, WB]”.
Another similarity is that he also works in a team to make his TV programs, while he is happy to take the credit and attention for it. At the end of the interview in Volkskrant Magazine Huys admits to have a big ego when the interviewer asks him: “You are quite good at summing up your own successes. In your book too, you regularly mention how it’s often difficult to get someone to talk to you and then, tada, you get it done!” Huys answers: “you have to” and then explains that in the Netherlands you’re always told to act normal and not stand out from the crowd (a remnant from our Calvinistic past). That’s the reason he always tells the students before College Tour starts; don’t be modest, show yourself.
You would guess these similarities should help Huys to understand Roosegaarde’s psychology and ways of working. So the one thing that still puzzles me is why Huys so badly wanted to frame Roosegaarde in such a negative way.