The heart of creativity is discipline.
- Bill Bernbach
Misconceptions concerning creativity abound, but one of the most widespread and harmful is that there's some magical vein of creative thought lurking in the mysterious reaches of our minds. The myth is, those of us who aren't creative types will either never be privy to these lofty thoughts or should jump through a series of quirky, "outside the box" hoops to attain them: brainstorming, creativity training, and hipster culture to name a few.
The reality is, creativity is an applied utility. Bill Bernbach, one of the creative giants of advertising history, once said, "Is creativity some obscure, esoteric art form? Not on your life. It's the most practical thing a businessman can employ." Being creative in some intangible, general way isn't an asset; applying creativity to your work, whether it's "artsy" or not, is.
It's true, illustrators, designers, and art directors are regularly expected to be creative, but so are strategists, developers, and a slew of other individuals in the interactive space. What creative individuals have in common is a certain level of mastery, a sufficient understanding of the fundamentals to be able to bend them appropriately, combined with the discipline to pursue new ways of doing things.
The root of creativity then, in fact, has nothing to do with living a creative lifestyle or being a creative type, and everything to do with practice, the art of perfecting your skills so that you can use them in new, innovative ways. I know this probably isn't the most exciting or easy advice to read, but it's the truth. The old cliche "practice makes perfect" might as well be "practice makes creative."
Most companies look for certain qualities in the interview process. Technical skills. Achievements. Past jobs. But one that often goes under-valued or completely missed is the ability to provide quality feedback.
How do you know if someone will be any good at giving feedback? It's actually quite simple, and it starts with experience.
One of the most valuable things that experience provides is a vocabulary for explaining shortcomings and successes. An experienced writer can function as his own editor; he can review his work, find a flaw, and say to himself, "That semicolon shouldn't be there. That's not the kind of statement I want to make. That's not the type of pause I want the reader to take."
The inexperienced writer goes back and says, "I know something isn't right, but I'm not sure what." Telling the difference between good writing and bad writing, or good design and bad design, isn't difficult -- what's difficult is turning that knowledge into actionable feedback.
Based off this knowledge, evaluating someone's ability to provide feedback should be straightforward. If they're going to be overseeing some of your employees, show them those employees' work, then get their feedback. If their feedback is clear and detailed, bingo! You've got a ringer. If their feedback is vague and imprecise, you might want to reconsider. If they can't give actionable feedback, then they're going to be ineffective.
Today, and for every foreseeable day to come, the world of consumers will grow more complex. The media space will become more crowded. Information will come more frequently. Industry will continue to complicate.
Now more than ever, it's the marketer's job to cut through all that with a simple, clear message. Without a passion for clarity, great marketing doesn't exist. Consider some of these iconic ads: Avis, Reagan, Tommy Hillfiger, Apple. The message is always crystal clear.
And while creating a message that speaks simply to the heart of a customer may seem daunting (the company is too complicated, the customer is too distracted), it shouldn't be. It's what makes our work exciting.
The philosopher Robert Wolffe has an exemplary attitude. Of his experiences in psychotherapy he recollects:
One day, however, I started talking about my work. I tried to explain to Dr. Boling that in all of my writing, whether it was on Kant's First Critique or Hume's Treatise or Das Kapital, my goal always was to plumb the depths of the author's central idea and recast it in a form so simple, so clear, so transparent that I could hold it before my students or my readers and show them its beauty. As I said these words, tears started to well up in me, and I finally had to stop talking because I could not finish. It was the only time in twenty years of psychotherapy that I cried openly in a session.
As marketers, we should aspire to the kind of passion that Wolffe has for clarity, for making even the most obfuscated ideas (and trust me, philosophers know how to muddle it up) transparent. Anything less is bound for mediocrity.
Over the last three weeks, I've noticed a decrease in my productivity. Instead of accomplishing two big tasks off of my to-do list and multiple small tasks each day, I've only been averaging a single large task each day. As I mapped back my performance to my calendar, I noticed an immediate correlation between my productivity and the number of meetings I participated in that day. Any day with more than one meeting resulted in a decrease of my productivity by more than half. Even if it was only two meetings, my productivity plummeted.
Now, we've never been a meeting-centric organization, but I do end up getting pulled into a lot of unnecessary meetings. So moving forward, I'm implementing a new rule for myself. I'll only participate in one scheduled meeting per day (not including lunch).
Is it possible to be President of a company and not get stuck in non-stop meetings every day? I guess we'll just have to find out. I'll let you know how it goes.
The inverted pyramid is a simple principle: important things first, not-so-important things later. In fact, it's so simple it sounds not worth mentioning. Does anyone in this fast-paced age really need to be told to get to the point? Unfortunately, yes. Content producers all over the world, from big brands to hobby bloggers, unknowingly violate this principle on a regular basis.
What follows is the report of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination, a report that would not only shake America to its core, but also establish the inverted pyramid as a precedent for journalists and content creators for years to come. Take it. Learn from it. Use it.
War Department, Washington
April 15, 1:30 A.M. - Maj. Gen. Dis.:
This evening at about 9:30 p.m., at Ford's Theater, the President, while sitting in his private box with Mrs. Lincoln, Miss Harris, and Major Rathbone, was shot by an assassin who suddenly entered the box and approached the President. The assassin then leapt upon the stage, brandished a large dagger or knife, and made his escape in the rear of the theater. The pistol-ball entered through the back of the President's head and penetrated nearly through the head. The wound is mortal. The President has been insensible ever since it was inflicted and is now dying.
About the same hour an assassin, whether the same or not, entered Mr. Seward's apartments, and under the pretense of having a prescription, was shown to the Secretary's sick chamber. The assassin immediately rushed to the bed, and inflected two or three stabs on the throat and two on the face. It is hoped the wounds may not be mortal. My apprehension is that they will prove fatal. The nurse alarmed Mr. Frederick Seward, who was in an adjoining room, and hastened to the door of his father's room, when he met the assassin, who inflicted upon him one or more dangerous wounds. The recovery of Frederick Seward is doubtful.
It is not probably that the President will live throughout the night. General Grant and wife were advertised to be at the theater this evening, but he started for Burlington at six o'clock this evening. At a cabinet meeting at which General Grant was present, the subject of the state of the country, and the prospect of a speedy peace was discussed. The President was very cheerful and hopeful, and spoke very kindly of General Lee and others of the Confederacy, and of the establishment of government in Virginia. All the members of the cabinet, except Mr. Seward, are now in attendance upon the President.
I have seen Mr. Seward, but he and Frederick are both unconscious.
-Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War
Thanks to the folks who wrote Universal Principles of Design for pointing out this fascinating letter and highlighting this timeless principle of content creation.
In the early 19th century, poetry rhymed. Period. End of story. Free verse didn't exist yet, and anything that didn't descend from a long line of European traditions dictating style, content, and form was quickly dismissed as commoner's gobbly-gook. It might be called sentimental, perhaps moving, but not poetic.
Walt Whitman changed all that. The ideal American poet, according to Whitman, did not elevate himself above the common man. He didn't hold fast to tradition for tradition's sake. And, above all, he did not identify with Europe, it's land, people or society. He was American through and through.
Whitman wasn't preaching to the choir; his high-minded ideals directly contradicted everything about modern American poetry and American poets. He was preaching equality and free verse to sonnet-clinging elites. Moreover, while the Good Gray Poet is now known world-over as the father of free verse, when he published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 he was a nobody.
But Whitman's audacity knew no bounds; he wasn't content with coming out of the woodwork to call out the literati, and he wasn't content to take risks with his style. At the age of eleven, Walt left school to begin a career that included stints in teaching, printing, publishing, and journalism. He learned how to set type, and he acquired a feel for popular culture and, in a sense, marketing. In turn, this would lead to his ultimate show of panache -- the promotion of his own work.
Upon the debut of Leaves of Grass, Walt sent complimentary copies to a number of prominent literary figures (now a common promotion tactic, then a rare move of boldness). And when Ralph Waldo Emerson responded favorably to the copy he received, Whitman took the liberty to publish the response in the New York Daily Times without asking for Emerson's permission. He even went so far as to anonymously publish reviews of his own work in several newspapers. There would be no shortage of praise for Walt Whitman.
But Whitman and his poetry were not well-received by all. His poetry was regarded by many as obscene, and he was frequently perceived to be arrogant beyond belief. When it came to light that Whitman had published a number of self-written reviews, needless to say, people were not pleased. And in 1882 the sixth edition of Leaves of Grass, by now his life's work, was prohibited from being published in the city of Boston on grounds of obscenity. However, despite, or perhaps because of, all the controversy surrounding him, Walt Whitman accomplished a feat that most poets and authors do not: he lived to see his work rise to prominence.
Regardless whether you enjoy his poetry or agree with his methods, Whitman's audacity serves as an inspiration to us all. He's a reminder that sometimes you need more than talent; you need a bit of chutzpah, too.
image via Marcelo Noah