Creative and Extraordinary

(With and Epilogue)

Who the are the creative and extraordinary people you know personally? Are they on my list of 4,300 names? Has your name already been put on such a list by your friends?

I asked three of my most respected friends whom they knew personally to be creative and extraordinary, and they gave me a total of 21 names. I phoned those 21 people and asked them the same question and got over 600 new names. Then I wrote to the 600 asking the same question. From them I got the names of 2,300 additional people. The mailing to that 2,300 brought in only 1,400 new names. (This project was funded by Point Foundation in 1973.)

Are you on that list? Bucky Fuller, John Cage, Stewart Brand, John Lennon, Dick Gregory, Norman Mailer, and Yoko Ono were. Would the list have grown much beyond 6,000 names if I had continued it many more times? I doubt it, which is why I stopped.

The list was on my desk in 1975, with over 4,300 names and all the cross-recommendations showing the names of the people who did the recommending; it was put in a storage file and has never been used since.

In making the list, I answered the question in my mind that had originally provoked the study and satisfied my responsibility to the 2,900 people on the list who knew about the project.

What the People on the List Wanted

I wrote to all of the people on the list, who knew about the project in 1973 to let them know the status of the project and asked what they wanted done with the list. I collated the results and sent it out to them. Nearly all of the people on the list wanted two things: (1) to meet and have access to others on the list; (2) not to be contacted by anyone they didn't know already because their lives were too busy and they had no way to screen out people who would waste their time.

What they wanted made sense, but it was also contradictory. I wrote them about these results and stated that future computer and communication technology might create some mechanism that would permit a solution to these contrary desires.

Nearly three decades later, that possibility has evaporated. Personal networks are so complex and so effective in introducing appropriate people to each other in social circumstances that computers and the internet appear hopelessly wrong for such a system.

Origins of the Research Project

One of my motives for the research was my distress that Carl Gauss, the German mathematician and astronomer, and Gregor Mendel, the Austrian botanist, had such difficult lives. Gauss's genius was so extraordinary that he had no one to talk and work with. When he died, his journals were found to contain unpublished mathematical proofs that were duplicated over the succeeding fifty years by dozens of other mathematicans who re-covered all the paths Gauss had already thoroughly trodden. Mendel developed modern hereditary genetics by working on peas. The one person, an academic leader, who seemed to appreciate him, directed him to work on a cottonlike plant, which turned out to have a pseudo-sexual structure and was a total waste of Mendel's time. Many decades later, after his death, Mendel's original work was discovered.

I wondered if there were lonely, isolated Gausses and Mendels out there who needed to be found. The answer was no. While many creative and extraordinary people were doing work that was not understood nor appreciated, nevertheless virtually all were part of a social system. No one wrote to say nor suggest that they were isolated (although it is fairly clear that Gauss, and Mendel were sufficiently known by creative people in their own time to have been recommended for such a list as this); all seemed to be nested safely among people who wanted to help them.

More surprising was that most considered their creative genius to be the interactive by-product of the people they work with. This view was expressed by scientists, painters, composers, and a dentist. Although this was not quite a team view of creativity, it was certainly a support-group concept.

Another clear finding from the list was that teachers are often very important in creating a milieu of creativity. Such was the case of Trudy Guermonprez, a West Coast weaver who had been driven out of Germany before World War II, whose students include many of the most famous contemporary weavers, far more visible than she. The same thing held true for Mary Caroline Richards, a teacher and author working in pottery.

Not surprisingly, none of these three patterns were different among artist and scientists. The idea of the lone artist may be more mythical than that of the lone scientist, but, based on this research experience, neither is based in reality.


M. C. Richards, Centering in Poetry, Pottery and Personality paperback- 159 pages Rev.& 2nd edition (April 1989) Wesleyan Univ Pr; ISBN: 0819562009

Science, 19 June 1987, vol. 236, pp. 1519 fwd, has a report on the great mathematician Srinivasa Aiyangar Ramanujan, who died early in this century of malnutrition at the age of 32 and whose unpublished diaries are still a goldmine of numerical analysis for computer theorists. His story is similar to those of Gauss and Mendel, except that Ramanujan was appreciated by other mathematicians and had a fellowship to Oxford.

Michael Phillips 1987


After nearly three decades I have come to a new understanding of the Creative and Extraordinary People project. I had looked at historic men who appeared to be geniuses, but had not found people around them to support their creative efforts. My assumption was that they were unknown and unappreciated. I presumed that institutions could be built to support and encourage such people. The Point-funded survey research suggested that that was not and is not the problem.

I now understand what the problem really was and is. These men may not have been geniuses, what they were was creative people working in new domains. The domains in which they were working were unknown to the people around them. No one could have been able to interact with them and stimulate them because they were the sole discoverers of new domains -- in mathematics, in biology, etc. Society ultimately arrived at the same domains that these extraordinary people had found and then they were appreciated. In the meantime, they could not have been truly appreciated. They did not necessarily lack support, friendship or even appreciation for themselves as unusual people. What they lacked was appreciation for their accomplishment in discovering a new domain.

This problem will never go away. The discoverers of new domains will never be appreciated until many others enter those domains as well.


Michael Phillips, May 2000.


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