Who Killed Creativity?

A lot of people I've seen come up with some really good concepts for new businesses or ventures end up not believing in their own ideas. Why? There seems to be a stopping point in the development process, one which comes with the notion that the term Creative doesn't apply to them. I've seen a few friends give up right at the point of initial concept, comfortably seated in the notion that they won't succeed in taking it any further because they're "just not very creative". The problem could be in understanding that their own definition of the word is too narrow or exotic. Maybe it seems too grand a term, one that's been shelved in favor of other skills we believe more suited to the formal corporate world. Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson would even argue that it's dead. In this Ted Talks video, he'll tell you schools killed it. Personally, I don't think the body's cold. It's merely dormant and contained.

Everyday creativity- the kind that can lead to a fulfilling business or career- can come from a mild case of apophenia, defined as "making new connections where none previously existed". It can be used as a problem solving skill, a tool to help craft your next piece of writing, or a catalyst for developing a new uses for common items. (Anyone remember the Pet Rock?) A case of apophenia is worth cultivating in helping find ways to develop and market your new ideas.

As a kid, one of my favorite games was Sesame Street's "one of these things is not like the other". It was simple enough that I was regularly rewarded with Cookie Monster growling, "yooou so smaart" at the end, but my real appreciation came because it appealed to my need to make connections in order to make sense of the world. Linking is where my own brand of "creativity" started. I'm not a creative. I'm a synergist, and that's a term I find a lot less daunting.

These days I exercise my apophenia as most of us do, as a people watcher and a hoarder of information, juxtaposing snippets of one against the other, tossing all of the pieces together against what's been gathered before. Thinking of ways to solve the problem of useable goods from foreclosures ending up in dumps is a very simple example of linking a problem to a solution. Connecting Budget Car Rentals to Harley-Davidson to rent motorcycles was how American Road Collection linked desires to fulfillment. The basic ideas aren't the least bit complex and required no more than 3 links.

1. Cars are rented.
2. People like driving motorycles but don't always own one.
3. Rent motorcycles.

This is right about the spot I've seen a lot of people stop their creative process. Once the high-level Big Idea has been generated, the same skill used to develop it isn't applied on a micro level. But the method is the same. Continued linking within each segment can lead to new ways to view each piece of the puzzle, and each step in executing a plan. If your links break, make new ones. Mindmapping is an excellent tool to help you visualize your links, and Sentinel World is an excellent place to learn how to get started on the process.

Apophenia has a flip side. For some, this thought process veers into the territory of consipiracy theories and magical thinking, but for most of us, it simply allows a true form of creativity to begin and is a first step in a path to finding and executing the next Big Idea. Besides, Big Ideas always seem like magic.

Further reading:

New York Times article
Where to Get a Good Idea:Steal It Outside Your Group

Breaking Bread with your Monster Under the Bed

To continue the thoughtstream from my last post on creativity and human potential, I'm pointing you to CNN's article:

How to Fail Your Way to Success.

The message is a simple one I'd come across with through reading and studying eastern philosophies. The buddhist view seems to be, as blogger and teller of stories Communicatrix explains, to lean right into it. Move towards it, and sit down with it. Make it a cup of coffee and a poundcake if it means you can get comfortable in its presence. List what you don't like about this monster and think through each bullet point until you can feel the emotions that come with the failure, then decide, one by one, whether you can accept it.

It's ironic that for the most part, every time I've failed spectacularly while attempting something new, I've been pleased with the resulting story I get to tell. And I actually smile hard or laugh whenever I recount each one of them. What's more, I'm nearly compelled to announce my failures. Just like this: There's the time I got stuck (impaled!) on a fence between the Daytona Airport and the Speedway during race week, poised in full view of several sports network trucks with running camera equipment.

Or maybe it was more like the occasion I moved up from riding a Honda 250 to a Sportster 1200 for the very first time and actually tried using the instructor's lessons on putting only one foot down when coming to a full stop. I survived, the bike's clutch handle and exhaust pipes didn't.

These were very small and personal failures. No fortunes were lost this time, and in the end, I'm infinitely more pleased with myself for trying than I am upset with the failure.

Does this pride-in-taking-the-dare over embarassment-for-the-defeat hold true for you as well? How can we keep this feeling in mind and use it to our advantage when we're poised to take our next leap?

We'll have a hell of a story. Do you have one to tell?

Is human potential lost, or just crippled?

The key question isn't "What fosters creativity?" But it is why in God's name isn't everyone creative? Where was the human potential lost? How was it crippled? I think therefore a good question might be not why do people create? But why do people not create or innovate? We have got to abandon that sense of amazement in the face of creativity, as if it were a miracle if anybody created anything.

- Abraham Maslow

Maslow's got a point when he asks, "Where was the human potential lost? How was it crippled?" But I think he's off base in asking why everyone isn't creative. I don't buy it. Part of the reason this blog exists is because over the course of years in the corporate world, I've worked in cubicles alongside some amazingly creative people who were wellsprings of bright and big ideas, regularly churning out three or four at a time. It's possible that one or two of those hundred ideas is currently in the works, but most never made it past the point of being bounced off of a few friends. How many are abandoned only to evaporate into thin air?

The problem is not that we're not creative, but that few of us want to gather up the strength to fail. We know chances are good that a bright new concept will find itself facing a series of tall brick walls. That risk is exactly what big ideas are made of!

Risk aversion is the counterweight balancing human potential.

That statement is an obvious one, but acknowledging it is most often used to give ourselves an out. We can explain away our reasons for limiting our own potential by convincing ourselves we're just being smart. Unlike Maslow, I don't believe the potential is lost at all. Instead, it's crippled by the fact that though we know a degree of risk aversion is necessary, we have no idea how to work past that counterweight even when we'd like to try. Maybe we should try desensitizing ourselves to failure. Why not build, right from our conceptual launchpad, a clearly outlined plan for several potential areas of failure and an even stronger and more detailed plan for the steps to recovery. So what if we don't fail in the exact way we'd imagined, we will still have worked through the exercise. Why not gather a group of friends who not only pat you on the back for your bold new idea, but help you face the potential for public humiliation, then assist in formulating that plan for recovery? Put the possibility that you will make a mess out there for your friends to see and let them give you feedback.

Is a better question the one no one really wants to ask: "How do I practice my failure"?

I want to find a mentor to teach me just that. If you have a wellspring of experience in that area, you can count me in as a fan.

Brand Lessons from Tropicana: Why You are Not Your Orange Juice

Recent blog posts on orange juice have me thinking that branding and packaging humans is a horrible idea. And yes, I realize that my last post outlined a storytelling method of preparing that package, your bright and shiny face to the world, but before rushing out to nail things down it's probably best not to take Brand You too seriously. It would be much better to brand loosely. Make your story one you can weave rather than lay down flat.

And if you're promoting yourself as a Creative, get yourself a disclaimer for the times you may have to trash it altogether.

Take the recent Tropicana package redesign fiasco. I see at least two lessons to take away from the fact that when the tried and true orange juice brand tried to reinvent itself by changing its forward-face, it failed fast and hard. It's a case of failure gone viral, one where sales Titanic'd miserably.

Leave room to try out new flavors.

Since branding is designed so that people can recognize a symbol and instantly know everything it represents, are you sure you're ready, right now, to build that kind of limitation? While it's true that our skills and talents can be offered as products, unlike a juice drink, humans generally don't aim to offer such static content. By creating a neat package, tagline, or symbol, you may gain a loyal following but that also means that to keep them you may risk limiting growth. What's worse, when times and tastes change, if you've buried your heels deep into your own brand, you've left yourself with little wiggle room for reinvention and no flexibility to quickly change course.

Apples (and Oranges) don't fall far from the tree

This idea is an extension of the first. Branding can make you timid. Tropicana has had only two months to evaluate the impact of their package redesign and have already pronounced it a failure. They are wasting no time in having regrets, and their most loyal customers adamantly insist they've been betrayed. Never mind the fact that their objection is not about the contents, but the containers. They are now stuck with a symbol chosen years ago by an entirely different group of people and there's no room for putting a fresher face forward.

Before deciding on your final personal brand and advertising it all over the web, ask yourself this: Do you really want to be googled and evaluated solely on the basis of the haircut you chose at age 18? 25? 40?

Your Next Big Idea: You.

Here's a snippet from comment left on my last post on how to screw up your next Big Idea:

"How do things change if the purpose of your big idea is *you* and not *the idea*? "

What an excellent question, and my assumption is that the writer is asking about promoting their personal brand. Well, it's quite obvious from the long hair on my head and the fact that I don't have my own action figure that I'm no Seth Godin, but I don't think the rules should be changed one iota whether you are asking strangers to look favorably upon a person, place, or thing.

I'm an advocate of promoting things, Big (and small) Ideas, and even people, by the artful weaving of damned good stories. We already know that storytelling is how we most authentically connect to each other. Advertisers who spend hours crafting even the smallest tagline are attempting to condense an entire story, relying on common knowledge to fill in the rest. Do we give that same energy to our own tagline?

As an experiment, write out the story you tell yourself about yourself when no one is looking. While most of us throw a lot of negative self-talk around, why not indulge in crafting yours out in its entirety, then when you've finished your masterpiece run back through the tale and toss out every negative point you've made. Take out the part about how you always say something stupid in the meeting, trip on your high heels, or miss the error in your blog post. Remove the lens of clients, family, and friends, because if you look at yourself through their eyes, that's when you'll have the tendency to describe what you do in cliches.

Rather than: Senior Database Programmer

You are: Knowledgeable in the craft of finding meaning in random bits of information. Weaver of bytes. Restorer of order from data chaos.

You get the idea.

Take your new story from the reworked positive pieces. This is your forward-facing personal brand.

Use it to tell your new story often, and tell it consistently. Create your blog, dream up your posts, write your 140 character tweets, and pimp your LinkedIn profile with this new tale in mind. Let it go viral whether through word of mouth or your social media bio. Append as your story grows and allow everything you publicly post filter through it. That's how you live the Big Idea that is You. Now, I'm off to take my own advice.

So, what's your story? Because that's the Biggest Idea you'll ever have.