I wrote an article for Communication Arts years ago entitled I’m not creative enough. It has been the most republished piece I’ve ever written. From what I hear it’s also the most photocopied of my writing as well, if I believe all the art professors and advertising instructors who tell me it’s required reading for their students.
I’ll tell you the punch line, if you’d like. I believe the hollow feeling of creative uncertainty is one of the greatest forces one can have to fuel creative growth. I believe it perpetuates the hunger.
I hadn’t read the piece in a number of years until just now, and you know what? I still haven’t outgrown the deep, hollow hunger. I hope I never will. Because that will be then end of my creative growth. And as a new year is upon us it feels like a good time to reconfirm this resolution.
I’m not creative enough.
As I sit down to write this article a cold shiver goes down the center of my back.
“What do I write about?”
“CA readers are a pretty savvy audience.”
“Will they like it?”
“Will it be meaningful?”
“Will it be valuable?”
“Will it be useful?”
“Will the column be good enough?”
“Am I creative enough?”
These are just a few of the frightful thoughts that flash through my mind, with a few side trips to my sweat glands.
The blank sheet of paper has been haunting writers and artists for centuries. Or, the blank canvas, or the solid slab of marble, or the empty stage…. All creative people have their boogiemen.
The New York Times recently produced a wonderful little video, The Umbrella Man, featuring Joshua “Tink” Thompson, author of “Six Seconds in Dallas,” an analysis of the infamous Zapruder film depicting the JFK assassination. Thompson devoted a good deal of his various careers to studying the complexities of reality, this is certainly a bending of reality as it relates to creativity.
This short film explains how the cockamamy theory of Kennedy’s umbrella assassin emerged, and shows us how introducing totally random data into a factual senario can lead to otherwise unfathomable conclusions – a pretty cool way to look at creative thinking.
When we’re seeking fresh ideas we’re all slaves to what we know. It’s not wrong. It’s just how the mind works. We can only process what is in our minds; what we recall and what we observe in the present. So the raw material for all of our new ideas is bits and pieces of what we know, all put into our mental Cuisinart.
But introduce a totally incongruous piece of data, and, BAM! the mind, still using rational process, tries to make it all make sense leading to some pretty creative concepts, as this film illustrates.
On many creative days we get these random cues and weave them into our thoughts consciously or not. (More often we miss them, or even dismiss them.) Stephen Tyler hears a Marty Feldmen line in the film Young Frankenstein, “Walk this way” and it leads to a great song hook. Philip Pullman gets the core idea for His Dark Materials Trilogy when he sees a DaVinci painting of a young girl holding an ermine.
When I lead brainstorming sessions we use a simple tool called Intergalactic Thinking™ to trigger fresh ideas. It’s easy and it’s fast. The only thing that causes some people pause is that it forces them to deviate from the linear thinking that dominates their thought process virtually all of the time. But this divergent thought process works. The next time I lead a brainstorming session I’m going to use the umbrella galaxy and see what happens.The Umbrella Man film was brought to my attention by fellow creative thinking enthusiast and all around creative guy Marty Baker of Inotivity.
I hear people say “break the rules” all the time, when talking about creativity. I agree breaking the rules is certainly one of the ways to be creative. You could argue that if you don’t break some rule somewhere, can it really be creative?
I absolutely believe in breaking the rules. As long as you’re willing to break the ruler, that is.
Let me explain by walking you through what happens in a good many of the brainstorming sessions my fellow Before & After creative thinking coaches and I facilitate. Typically we distill the best, freshest ideas throughout the session, building our short list, as it were. At the end of the day we revisit this short list, which if we’ve done our job right, is rather long, and we do a final distillation to get to THE short list, THE action list.
The problem that too often happens is that when distilling to this final list, people often forget to break the ruler that measures these rule-breaking ideas. The effect is that the freshest new ideas frequently get filtered out in the final screening process. So much for breaking the rules.
All brainstorming sessions yield “bad” ideas. And when you go for lots and lots of ideas, as a productive brainstorming session should, you will have lots and lots of “bad” ideas (or “fertilizer” as I like to think of it).
But bad ideas and good ideas, seemingly at extreme points on a continuum, are often more like points on the equator. If you keep following one far enough, you might get to the other point. I mean how many truly great ideas have been met with, “That’s crazy.” Or, “That won’t work.”
So, when brainstorming, the secret is to find these potentially good bad ideas among the riff raff, and push them along the continuum to see if they might actually be good. Sometimes all it takes is a little nudge.
I hear a lot of people who lead brainstorming sessions say, “there’s no such things as a bad idea.” They’re kidding, right? Actually, if a brainstorm session I’m leading doesn’t have a lot of bad ideas, I get worried that people aren’t pushing hard enough for fresh ideas.