Work Rituals of Famous Inventors and Artists

If people close to you perceive your work habits as quirky, compulsive or outright outlandish, then take comfort. You are in good company. Two books, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey and How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors expose the eccentricities of famous artists and inventors of history.

Nikola Tesla
Nikola Tesla

Take for instance Nikola Tesla. His daily routine started at noon and went straight through until midnight. Well, almost. There was his dinner at 8pm, which Mason describes in his book:

These dinners were carefully scripted affairs. Tesla ate alone, and phoned in his instructions for the meal in advance. Upon arriving, he was shown to his regular table, where eighteen clean linen napkins would be stacked at his place. As he waited for his meal, he would polish the already gleaming silver and crystal with these squares of linen, gradually amassing a heap of discarded napkins on the table. And when his dishes arrived — served to him not by a waiter but by the maître d’hôtel himself — Tesla would mentally calculate their cubic contents before eating, a strange compulsion he had developed in his childhood and without which he could never enjoy his food.

Pablo Picasso
Picasso at work

Pablo Picasso was equally eccentric about meals. After emerging from his art studio for dinner, he was rarely in a cordial mood. Said Fernande, his girlfriend of seven years:

“He hardly spoke during meals; sometimes he would not utter a word from beginning to end,” Fernande recalled. “He seemed to be bored, when he was in fact absorbed.”

Frédéric Chopin

Polish Composer Frédéric Chopin was likely an introvert. On the rare occasion that he performed, it was in the more intimate atmosphere of the salon rather than to large audiences. To support himself, he sold his compositions and taught piano, for which he became highly in demand.

However, despite Chopin’s genius, writing music was anguish-inducing, as described in Daily Rituals:

His creation was spontaneous and miraculous. He found it without seeking it, without foreseeing it. It came on his piano suddenly, complete, sublime, or it sang in his head during a walk, and he was impatient to play it to himself. But then began the most heart-rending labour I ever saw. It was a series of efforts, of irresolutions, and of frettings to seize again certain details of the theme he had heard; what he had conceived as a whole he analysed too much when wishing to write it, and his regret at not finding it again, in his opinion, clearly defined, threw him into a kind of despair. He shut himself up in his room for whole days, weeping, walking, breaking his pens, repeating and altering a bar a hundred times, writing and effacing it as many times, and recommencing the next day with a minute and desperate perseverance. He spent six weeks over a single page to write it at last as he had noted it down at the very first.

Jonathan Franzen

In How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors, writer Jonathan Franzen confesses that what keeps him productive is a beat-up office chair which he scavenged off a street in Rockland County, New York, in 1982. Says Franzen:

It squeaks horribly and irremediably, but it’s been many years since I’ve been able to hear the squeak, just as I can’t hear myself talking when I write dialogue, even though, when I leave the office, I can tell from my hoarseness that I’ve been talking loudly all day.

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