Creativity is an innate human ability — but one that many struggle to understand and implement. Even Questlove, a talented and successful musician and entertainer, admits to struggling with his own creative identity. In this book summary of Creative Quest, you’ll learn how to find ideas, collaborate with others, grow through failure, and persist in your creative endeavors. Creating new things requires that you open yourself up to inspiration where you least expect it.
Find and pursue your creative process.
READ THIS BOOK SUMMARY IF YOU:
- Want to understand the creative process
- Have your own artistic identity to develop
- Need to find new ideas for your projects
Although he’s been a creative professional for decades, Questlove still grapples with the idea of being creative. Some days it feels like he’s consuming other people’s art more than creating his own.
Most books about the creative process take one of two routes: They approach it in a straightforward, how-to manner, or they treat creativity like a therapy that will make you a better version of yourself.
But Questlove wants to give you both of those things. He wants to provide concrete, actionable techniques for finding inspiration while also encouraging you to grow as an artist and a human being.
The following stories of both Questlove’s and many other artist’s experiences can help you better understand your own creative process, but it’s up to you to take these lessons and actively use them.
Ideas are flying around you at all times. Learn how to grab and develop the best ones and be confident in your own creative process.
One of Questlove’s first memories is his dad’s record collection. It was expansive in both quantity and genre, from soul to jazz to arena rock. Every night after dinner, Questlove’s parents would put on a stack of records and they would all listen together. He was amazed that an idea from someone’s mind could be captured in something solid and tangible.
What defines a creative person? There are countless definitions, but Questlove keeps it simple: A creative person is someone who creates things. Put another way, a creative person is someone who makes something out of nothing except their own ideas.
Anyone can be creative. The execution may vary, but everyone has that spark. Thus, everyone needs to learn how to receive, capture, and implement their ideas.
Creativity requires an openness to inspiration. This means removing the filter that’s often used in daily life to prevent information overload. Harvard psychologist Shelley Carson calls this openness “cognitive disinhibition.”
Another psychologist did a study on college students and found that students who were less alert were more successful at innovative problem-solving. Being tired allowed more random ideas to slip in, helping the students to create and solve puzzles.
What this means for creativity is that it’s imperative to let more ideas in. Only after you’ve let them in and considered them should you start filtering out what works and what doesn’t.
Mentors and (Apprentices)
When Questlove was a young artist and The Roots were still getting started, he learned about the creative process through his mentor, Richard Nichols. But not everyone has a specific individual as a mentor.
In his book somethingtofoodabout Questlove interviews dozens of chefs about their careers. While many of them did learn under the guidance of a mentor, they all stress the importance of learning from everyone around them at all times.
Whether you have a mentor, influencers are all around you. Some of them pop up when you least expect it, like when Questlove heard a young drummer years ago named J Dilla who totally changed the way Questlove felt about his own drumming. J Dilla became a long-time friend and influencer after that. Another time, Questlove heard a DJ that profoundly affected him. He never saw the DJ again, but what he heard that night has continually influenced the way Questlove DJs.
Knowing that anyone around you can be an influencer should inspire you to be receptive.
Some people worry about being open to influence because they want to remain original. Even Questlove himself often worries that he isn’t actually creative since he’s trying to emulate those who have had an affect on him.
But art is rarely totally original. Most artists see or hear something they love and create something similar so they can experience it again. Young creators especially should spend less time worrying about being original and more time welcoming influence and creating.
Ideas are always around you, but some days it feels impossible to connect with them. Maybe you’re tired, or stressed, or ill. Or maybe you’re just in a creative dry spell with no end in sight. In these moments it’s important to try anything you can to get the creative juices flowing.
Use organization to immerse yourself in art. Rearrange your bookshelf or rehang the art on your walls, for example. Questlove goes through his MP3 playlist and “prunes” it for duplicate songs.
You can also change your perspective on something you’re already familiar with, like playing a song backward or looking at a painting upside down. One great exercise is to think of something you’ve accepted as true and imagine you feel the complete opposite. What if the world were flat and the sky were green?
If one of these exercises teases an idea out of your brain, don’t just stop there. The point is to get a continuous flow of creativity, not a single drop. Improv comedy uses a method called “Yes, and…” to keep creativity running. This means that the comedians in the troupe always accept the ideas put forth by one another and expound upon them. All ideas, whether good or bad, get developed instead of rejected.
Creators must play “Yes, and…” with their own ideas. In the idea-generating phase you must accept everything regardless of how silly it feels. Innovation requires flexibility and open-mindedness. It’s about constantly moving forward instead of halting and overanalyzing.
Questlove met Tariq Trotter in high school. Back then, they had no idea that they would form The Roots and create together for decades. All they knew was that Trotter could create rhymes and lyrics and Questlove could lay down tracks on his keyboard. They complemented each other’s talents so well that working together just came naturally.
All creativity is collaborative: Even solo artists have competitors, mentors, and contributors. So much of the growth you will experience as a creator will be through collaborations. Sometimes, other people hold the missing pieces you may not even realize you need.
After forming The Roots, Tariq and Questlove began to expand their collaborations to include other people. Questlove opened his house for local musicians to have jam sessions, and that big pool of ideas and creative thinking was like a huge dose of cognitive disinhibition. The Roots ended up working with many artists they met during these jam sessions.
But these partnerships will come with challenges just as much as any relationship. It’s always going to require give and take.
When you partner with someone, there should be mutual respect, openness, and acceptance. Just like you shouldn’t brush off your own ideas, always be willing to say “Yes, and…” to your partner’s ideas. Even the strangest idea can turn into something great with some development.
Nowadays collaboration has taken on a whole new meaning thanks to the internet. Social media alone has made it possible to connect with anyone from anywhere. But the instantaneous answers provided online have decreased our ability to dig down deep and think critically.
Creators don’t have to unplug completely, but it’s important to keep using your mind, digging deep, and finding your own ideas instead of relying too heavily on the internet and social media. Use the web to connect with artists and form collaborations, but don’t let it replace your creative brain.
Reduce Reuse Recycle
After musician D’Angelo released his album Brown Sugar in 1995, he found himself creatively blocked. Although Brown Sugar was a huge success, D’Angelo just couldn’t find the inspiration to write more songs. The well was dry.
Most artists hit dry spells at times. What should you do when you find yourself totally devoid of inspiration and ideas?
D’angelo started recording cover songs. Among others, he covered “Heaven Must Be Like This” from the Ohio Players Ballad and Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin.” After doing this for a while, D’angelo was finally able to write his own songs once again.
Copying someone else’s work is a fantastic creative exercise when you feel blocked up. Covering or parodying a song, film, or any piece of art forces you to use your imagination and focus on the details. Even if you aren’t creating something totally new, you are still creating.
Many artists struggle to create not because they are blocked, but because they are distracted. There are countless apps fighting for our attention, and we often jump from one thing to the next to prevent any twinge of boredom.
But boredom may actually help generate ideas, because your mind with scrounge for something interesting. Feeling distracted means you won’t feel that urgent need to make something new and meaningful. Take some time to step away from your phone and television and simply be. You may be surprised at the ideas that hit you.
You will feel blocked and dried out at times. That’s just the nature of being a creator. But never stop looking for inspiration, and, in the meantime, keep adding new perspectives to art that has already been produced.
Curation as Cure
Imagine walking through a gallery completely covered in art. There isn’t a square inch of free space: Everywhere you look you see yet another piece waiting to be absorbed and analyzed.
Talk about overwhelming.
The internet makes it possible — and easy — to connect with other artists and absorb lots of creations. While it’s good to branch out and be exposed to new ideas, artists more than most people, run the risk of overloading themselves with too much information.
This is why creative people need to start thinking of themselves as curators as well as artists.
Imagine that cluttered gallery is your mind. It’s your job as a curator to pick and choose what kind of art is in your gallery. Only by tossing some pieces out do the ones you keep become meaningful.
When Questlove DJs, he has to curate which songs will produce the kind of mood and atmosphere he wants to facilitate. Similarly, you must curate which creations are going to influence your own work.
Carefully curate yourself and your art in a way that is truly genuine to you and isn’t simply a reflection of everything that flickers before your eyes.
In the 1970s, Miles Davis took a break from the trumpet and started painting. He said that he was trying to use the canvas to capture what his songs would look like.
Because creative people have so many ideas coursing through them, it’s easy for them to become restless. A great way to cope with restlessness while remaining creative is to take what Questlove calls a “departure.”
At their most basic level, departures can simply be immersing yourself in a different discipline. If you’re a painter, listen to music. If you’re a sculpter, look at paintings. But creators can also take departures a step further and actually participate in new forms of art.
Painter Julian Schnabel decided he wanted to get into filmmaking, so he directed a movie called Basquiat. Questlove departed from music to focus on food and chefs, opening food salons in Manhattan and writing his book somethingtofoodabout.
Departures give you a chance to find new inspiration and to hone your existing skills. They also have the ability to change you in profound ways. Every time The Roots make a new album, they try a different method or sound and end up better musicians for it.
A departure should be a return trip. It’s not about constantly moving on like a nomad: You should always return to your craft with new skills and ideas thanks to your fresh experiences. Creativity requires discipline, after all. Think of departures as excursions rather than relocations.
Commercial artists like Questlove make things that enter the public sphere. Although the inspiration and ideas behind the work might be personal, it becomes available to the masses. This means that being a commercial artist requires a dual mindset. You must create for yourself while also considering the effect your work will have on your audience.
And you will have an audience; the internet has made sure of that. On one hand this is great, because everyone has the opportunity to be heard. But it also means that literally anyone can evaluate your work.
Before the internet became a part of daily life, The Roots were reviewed by people who specifically sought them out and understood their music. They had the expertise to give an educated opinion. Now, anyone — including people who have never heard of The Roots — can give a quick thumbs up or thumbs down. They can assign a star value without context.
This isn’t to say that their opinions aren’t valid, just that you should take online evaluations with a grain of salt depending on many factors, including the experience of the evaluator and the effort they put into their review.
Then again, knowing that you will have a wide audience means you must put some thought into how your art will be received. Remember that it’s about having a dual mindset.
The technological world has the luxury of beta-testing before releasing creations into the general public. A sample of people get to try things out first, helping to refine the product into something great. Art does not have this luxury, so the artist must be both the creator and the beta-tester.
You must be both present and displaced from your work. Imagine yourself as the consumer and how the song or piece could reach you.
Success and Failure
John Mulaney was a successful comedian and sketch writer for Saturday Night Live when he decided to branch out and create his own sitcom. Despite his previous success and obvious talent, the new show was a failure. Viewers hated it, and the show was soon canceled.
As a rule, being a creator means that you will face failure eventually. The same process that elevated you at one point can knock you to the ground on your next attempt. Everyone from John Mulaney to Chris Rock to Questlove and The Roots have experienced it, and you will, too.
But you shouldn’t fear failure. Although it is painful to experience rejection or disdain, it doesn’t break you or ruin your career. David Bowie once remarked that creativity is the only arena where you can crash your proverbial plane and still walk away.
Not only can you walk away, you can use failure to improve and grow. There is a sense of freedom in failure that allows you to take risks and branch out. If the worst has already happened, what do you have to lose?
But even more than that, the sting of failure can motivate you to keep creating. In the late 1990s, Questlove was in the studio with several other musicians. They were each sharing their latest tracks, and Questlove’s was the only one that wasn’t received well.
After that, he went back to the studio and totally reworked the song, which eventually wound up on a successful album. He never would have elevated it into something better had he not felt the pain of falling flat.
Success isn’t always the best thing that can happen to you as an artist. Think of all the famous movie stars who end up playing the exact same character over and over again after their initial success. It’s great that they are still working, but their talent and creativity will never evolve or expand.
The only true, lasting failure is to stop creating completely. Expect setbacks, embrace them, and channel them into something new.
In one of Aesop’s fables, a fox tries to snatch some grapes hanging from a tree branch. After trying a few times, the fox says that he doesn’t want the grapes because they were sour anyway.
You must stay on your creative journey. If you dismiss the grapes as sour, you’ll have ruined the whole point. It’s always worth reaching for the grapes. Being a creator is a lifelong pursuit.
Dick Van Dyke has continued creating in a variety of disciplines, including acting and writing, well into his 90s. The secret, he claims, is not to acknowledge age as a limiting factor in your life. If you stop taking the stairs, you’ll quickly lose the mobility to do so. Likewise, if you stop creating, you may never start again.
Persistence is inherent to creativity. Cliché as it may sound, the journey is more important than the destination.
About the author
Ahmir Khalib Thompson, popularly known as Questlove, is a musician, DJ, entrepreneur, and author. He is a four-time Grammy Award winner and his book somethingtofoodabout was nominated for a James Beard Award. Questlove is the cofounder of the hip-hop band The Roots and is the musical director for The Tonight Show.
Questlove is a drummer, DJ, producer, culinary entrepreneur, designer, New York Times bestselling and James Beard Award–nominated author, and cofounder of Philadelphia’s most influential hip-hop group, the Roots. He is the musical director for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, where the Roots serve as the house band, and a four-time Grammy Award–winning musician. He is also an adjunct professor at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts.
Psychology, Nonfiction, Creativity, Music, Art, Memoir, Self Help, Writing, Biography, Business, Literature
Table of Contents
The Spark 17
Mentors and Apprentices 49
Getting Started… 75
The Network 97
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle 131
Curation as Cure 171
The Departure 199
The Market 223
Success and Failure 239
No End 269
A Note on the Cover 278
NAMED A MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK OF 2018 BY Esquire • PopSugar • The Huffington Post • Buzzfeed • Publishers Weekly
A unique new guide to creativity from Questlove—inspirations, stories, and lessons on how to live your best creative life
Questlove—musician, bandleader, designer, producer, culinary entrepreneur, professor, and all-around cultural omnivore—shares his wisdom on the topics of inspiration and originality in a one-of-a-kind guide to living your best creative life.
In Creative Quest, Questlove synthesizes all the creative philosophies, lessons, and stories he’s heard from the many creators and collaborators in his life, and reflects on his own experience, to advise readers and fans on how to consider creativity and where to find it. He addresses many topics—what it means to be creative, how to find a mentor and serve as an apprentice, the wisdom of maintaining a creative network, coping with critics and the foibles of success, and the specific pitfalls of contemporary culture—all in the service of guiding admirers who have followed his career and newcomers not yet acquainted with his story.
Whether discussing his own life or channeling the lessons he’s learned from forefathers such as George Clinton, collaborators like D’Angelo, or like-minded artists including Ava DuVernay, David Byrne, Björk, and others, Questlove speaks with the candor and enthusiasm that fans have come to expect. Creative Quest is many things—above all, a wise and wide-ranging conversation around the eternal mystery of creativity.
“[Creative Quest] is an indispensable resource for anyone looking to understand the impulse, psychology and spark behind creative ideas.”
— Rolling Stone
“Powered by the pistons of Questlove’s ever-curious mind and his decades of experience in varied artistic projects with top entertainers, thinkers and creators, this book feels fresh and personal. Credible research is buttressed by “here’s how it played out for me” stories, and his humor and geniality shine through” — BookPage
“Creative Quest is a comprehensive, funny, and honest exploration of artistic process. My favorite read this year.” — Donald Glover
“I read so many books, and I have time for so few of them. This book paid off every minute: I loved keeping company with Questlove’s agile mind as he worked through the problems and promises of creativity.” — Issa Rae
“Creativity presents an opportunity for people from all walks of life to be heard. Questlove brilliantly delivers a must-read guide for all creatives, who desire to define and cultivate their own, unique voice.” — Lena Waithe
“[Questlove’s] mind is literally a galaxy of stars. In this book, we witness the astronomer mapping the constellations, reminding us to keep our heads to the sky and remember that our greatest gifts are hiding in plain sight.” — Hank Willis Thomas
“When Questlove says he’s going to do something, he will find out how to do whatever that is, and become a master at it. I can’t think of a person more suited to write a book about being creative.” — Jimmy Fallon
“Questlove’s generous, provocative guidebook offers experienced wisdom about tapping into the creative process.” — Publishers Weekly
“Think of this book as a remix that might help you tap into your own creativity and trust your intuition.” — Esquire