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The habits that encourage creativity, according to Questlove

Questlove arrives at the Oscars
AP Images/Invision/Chris Pizzello
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Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

If we’re all pining for more creativity in our lives, Questlove, the hip-hop musician best known as cofounder and drummer in The Roots, has a theory that might explain why: “More creative work,” he writes, “is one way to save the world.”

“Is that a grand claim? I hope so,” he continues in his book Creative Quest, which was published last month (and is notably free of any cheapening subtitles). But, he says, we know that creative people “tend to be more sensitive to the feelings of others and to fluctuations in the social fabric around them. At the same time, they are often less equipped to deal with those things,” he writes. “The result can be withdrawal from the world. Defense mechanisms, depression. Creative production is not only a way to avoid those pitfalls, but a way to connect those people to the rest of the world.”

Questlove is exactly the kind of teacher with whom you want to study the habits of mind that coax more imagination and connective thinking out of your mental patterns. Nicknamed “America’s Band Leader,” he was born into a family of musicians in Philadelphia and once was described by an eminent critic as “one of the smartest motherfuckers on the planet.” These days, in addition to his regular gig with The Roots on NBC’s The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, the 47-year-old Questlove (né Ahmir Thompson) also is hosting a podcastcurating food salons, producing music (including the Hamilton Mixtape project with Lin-Manuel Miranda), and writing books (before Creative Quest came 2016’s Something To Food About).

It isn’t only his accomplishments that give him authority, however, and this is one of the lessons of the book: Questlove, who started The Roots with high school friend Black Thought (né Tariq Trotter) in 1987, is deeply curious about what makes the magic of a truly great piece of art come together. When he hears music that causes him to freeze, he needs to know precisely why it stands apart from other songs; he looks for the originating idea, the influences, the context, and if he ever gets the chance, no matter how many years later, he asks the artist about the process behind the work.

Although you wouldn’t call Creative Quest, co-written with the journalist Ben Greenman, self-help, it’s not not self-help, either. With Questlove, you can be sure this is intentional—if he didn’t want to write a self-help book, he wouldn’t have, which we know from another lesson in the book: Before embarking on a new project, he writes, it’s essential to define what you want something not to be. Negative affirmation is a concept he first encountered through his late manager Richard Nichols, who, he writes, “used to talk about Maimonides’s concept of ‘negative theology,’ where you know God only by what you can say that God is not.”

Questlove wants us to give our ideas “that same respect,” urging readers, “If you know you are about to paint a portrait, make a list of all the things you don’t want it to be: overly realistic, say, or brightly colored. It’s sometimes hard to see the heart of an idea, so chip away at all the things that aren’t the heart.”

His natural and constant references to those whose grand ideas he has absorbed and polished here into sparkling axioms illustrate the oft-repeated truism about a common source of “new” creations: other people’s creations. Einstein, rebelling against his doctor’s health warnings, stuffed his pipe with tobacco he’d find left in cigarette butts on the streets of Princeton, New Jersey, Questlove tells us. We all have to stuff our pipes with found material. This will not be a novel idea to the reader, but the wider point is to stay open to the widest possible range of influences.

Of course, merely listing such “rules” risks flattening the book’s dimensions, and steals some of the joy out of reading it. Sure, single lines and short sections do rise like hooks or melodies….

  • “You can always come back to your own convictions if they’re real. But be a tourist in other perspectives.”
  • “Don’t be worried if an idea or a scene or a song comes to you in its most simplistic form first. That partial arrival is a form of gestation. The seed is expert at turning into something else.”
  • “Being creative is a mix of unfocusing your eyes in the right way, while still remaining focused on the picture.”

… but Creative Quest is actually album-like in that it works best as a whole, and is dotted with satisfying solos that feel spontaneous. You can watch Questlove—known for his savant-like ability to remember events that happened the same day as major musical milestones, and for recognizing Prince songs in as little as one fourth of a second—digress and connect, turning an aside within an aside into something poetic, all the while proving his point. Here’s Questlove falling into marvelous rabbit hole while describing what happens when you unfocus “in the right way,” practicing what Harvard psychologist Shelley Carson calls cognitive disinhibition:

I remember being at a friend’s house and sitting outside at night. Birds and crickets were chirping. I don’t know very much about birds and crickets. But I wanted in on the discussion. I imagined that they were talking to each other in the lyrics of songs that I knew. One of them was singing “Changes,” the David Bowie song, because it had a little ch-ch to it. Another one was making z’s, and I told myself that it was “Rump Shaker,” because of the “zoom zoom zoom in the boom boom.” After a while I started noticing something else, not the alphabetical aspect of the sounds, but the fact that they came in clusters. One of the animals (a bird?) was doing triads, and the other one (a cricket?) was doing pairs. That meant something more to me: 3-2-3-2. I got a little rhythm going from there. Da-da da, da-da. It was “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen, which meant also that it was another David Bowie song, “Blue Jean.” I remembered being disappointed that it was Bowie’s follow-up to “Let’s Dance.” Was that all there was? (Side note: toward the end of that song, as he keeps singing “Somebody send me,” Bowie got more and more intense, to the point where I started to worry that he was going to throw up.) That made me think of the Jackson 5’s version of “Mama I Gotta Brand New Thing (Don’t Say No),” and how Dennis Coffey’s guitar sounded like someone was saying “pick it up,” and then I realized that I was thinking about that because I had dropped a paper cup. I picked it up. (That song is also an example, by the way, of Motown’s consistent abuse of the abrupt creepy synthesizer ending.) None of this is especially consequential except to suggest that there are patterns and links everywhere, and if you are trying to remain in a creative frame of mind, you should let your brain find its way to them.

The self-helpy bits are more pragmatic. Questlove teaches readers how to find the best time of day to unfocus properly, stop analyzing ideas before they can open up, and describes the”micro-meditations” that allow him to step inside himself for a minute or less, be present, but also far away, examining a problem from a distance. He has strategies for writer’s block that he says have liberated musicians he’s known, and he dedicates a chapter to knowing how to recycle and reuse material.

But it is his generous view of creativity that could incite your next artistic act. We all have this “basic human energy” within us, but it’s “unevenly distributed within one individual,” he argues.

“It operates differently in different disciplines. It operates differently in different times. We all have blind spots and creative areas where we wilt,” he writes, “but we also have bright spots and creative areas where we flourish.”

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