My professional career has had me running creative for everything from Volkswagen to the launch of The Affordable Care Act. It’s been a long and pretty solid career as a creative. On top of it, I’ve also had good success as a fine art photographer. In fact, I got my degree in fine art and have been able to keep a kind of dual fine art/commercial art track going through my entire adult life. It’s a lot of time in the creative fields. Which is good, as I’m now ill-suited for just about anything else. This was obvious to everyone at a very early age. Nobody ever expected me to do anything but be creative, as I spent not just all my waking hours in creative endeavors, but most nights, as well. So, while I have a fine portfolio, I feel my real qualifications for writing about creativity comes simply from having lasted this long. I look around at what I’ve been able to amass — a home, a car, a few cameras, kids, love, a treehouse — and I think that’s the real testament to my creativity. Because when I was little, nobody thought that you could eek out a living, much less a career, simply being creative. I’m of an age, now, where just my being here, being a consistent provider to my family, and having a treehouse, proves out the power of creativity.
An extraordinary amount has been written about the creative process, dating back to the Greeks and Romans, if not much earlier, and I’ve certainly read my share of writing on the subject. Truth is, I don’t like any of it all that much. I find the subject of creativity boring at the micro level and broad and unhelpful at the philosophical level. Lifehacks are completely useless, as there are truly no shortcuts in the real world of creativity. But the worst part of writing on creativity is the myths that persist throughout it all. Premises about what creativity is that are just simply untrue.
I plan on writing a lot more about what I’ve learned as a lifelong creative in the coming years, but first, let’s kill a few myths.
The Myth Of Creative Genius
If you’ve been at all interested in creativity, you’ve heard the yarn spun about Saturday Night Live, that “the show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.” Romantic, but hardly a useful antecdote. We’re talking about a group of people who’ve proven out their creative chops over endless hours of stand-up, acting and improv groups. People who’ve spent their entire week, nay their entire lives, preparing for a single show, with an entire crew around them to help make it come together, that happens to have a start time of 11:30pm. Can you imagine if a firefighter said, “I don’t fight fires when I’m ready, I fight them because the bell rings?” Or if Lionel Messi suggested that he “didn’t play soccer when he was ready, he played when the whistle blew?”
Oh, they’re all plenty ready. But while creatives like to hero-ize their craft, others just call it “training.”
I’ve worked with SNL actors before, this mentality and lore about the creative process is entirely ego-driven and is born of the age-old myth that creativity is somehow a magical flow of mystical lava that some have and some don’t. The Greeks externalized this (Daemans), the Romans internalized it (Genius), but either case, it is something beyond normal humanity. But we’ve come a long way since Roman times. Today, we know creativity as a mode of working that one hones, practices, gets good at, gets better at, gets great at and then, if you’re extremely lucky, gets you thrown into a group situation that is also very well-run. One that is designed to get great results out of great people. Like at SNL.
The creative process is messy behind-the-scenes at SNL? Congrats, that puts you in the same world as every fast-running environment with crazy deadlines. Being a wedding planner is messy, too. So is catching crab in the Bering Sea. So is being at an agency, getting ready for a pitch (as I’ll get into later). The first lesson of creativity is that creative people are not as special as they think they are or nearly as much as they so desperately want you to believe. This myth of creative genius is a bargain that talent makes with an audience — who doesn’t want to be put on a pedestal? And, in fact, we kind of like putting them up there. It’s an easy answer to a difficult question about what constitutes creativity, and perhaps excuses the feeling of not having it.
I suggest rejecting this construct immediately and embracing an entirely new one: that nobody has a creative force that you can’t go have yourself. And that great creative prowess comes from one thing: sacrifice. We all have creativity in us, the difference is that some people sacrifice everything else to hone theirs, and that, eventually makes them great.
You want to be creative? Great, what will you sacrifice? Working out? Time with your kids? Sleep? Parties? Your childhood? Money? A relationship? I did my sacrifice, I paid my cost. It sucked in a lot of ways. I’m not saying it’s easy to be creative, I’m just saying it doesn’t make us special.
Here’s to the crazy ones? I don’t buy it. How about: here’s to the ridiculously driven ones. Not as interesting a headline, but far better of an insight.
The Myth Of The Great Creative
Too much focus is put on the accomplishments of people like Einstein, the Wright Brothers, artists who have made great paintings, movies or music, scientists who discover great medical breakthroughs and, oh my god, the guy who invented Post-Its! I can’t get in a conversation these days without it turning to Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre. But you can’t reverse engineer creativity from an end product or the people who made it, though people try to do it all the time.
I was at a dinner table one night at SXSW. Our agency had just had a majorly successful Superbowl, most notably for our ad featuring a little kid dressed in a Darth Vader outfit. There were a bunch of random agency folks at the table and when they learned that I had worked on that spot, the conversation quickly and uncomfortably turned in my direction. One histrionic creative executive — who really should have known better — began guessing at how we came up with the idea. He suggested we simply stomped over to Lucas Arts with nothing more than a “Star Wars” idea and it just kinda snowballed from there. Even in his belittling reenactment, he subscribed to the notion that an idea is born of a single creative “moment.” Some huge “A-ha!” “Star Wars, that’s IT! Genius!!”
The truth about that spot, of course, was far from inspiring. It always isn’t. It was the culmination of 3 months of concept-ing — a lot of teams. We had the bones of that script relatively early, actually, but the client wanted to keep pushing. We tried and tried to top it and just couldn’t. It was painful. People dropped off the account during the process. The client had started to lose some faith in us. Upper management was freaking out, doing drastic, unhinged things. In the end, we actually settled for that spot, everyone was worried. And, the rest is history.
They say “success has many fathers, failure is an orphan.” That certainly holds true, but what it really points out is that we manifest the creative hero only retroactively. It’s a natural and easy explanation to great achievements and over-attributes the work of many to a few, but it holds no secrets as to the making of the idea. The Creative Genius is a myth. There is only the creative process and the calculated guess that it will bear fruit along the way.
The Myth of The Lone Creative
Perhaps the biggest fundamental flaw in writings about creativity is that they are written for one person. If you are a solo artist who paints, writes songs or sculpts, then you aren’t reading articles on creativity — you are discovering, even defining, what it means through your art. And if you are in some form of commercial art, or trying to add creativity to your business, then the lone creative moment of inspiration is only a bit role in the creative process. And, in fact, a pretty simple and basic one.
Creative thinking — coming up with an idea — is innate. Anyone can do it. My 2-year shoots fake webs from his wrists and spends his days alternatingly roaring like a dinosaur and an opossum. You don’t need an article or a study to prove that we are creative, idea-having beings, you can feel this. The real work of creativity is editing, honing and working with others. It’s not having an idea, it’s knowing whether it’s a good one. And how to fix its flaws. This comes with the wisdom of experience and a great team.
In almost every real, working environment of creativity that doesn’t entail a small studio for one, it’s the group that helps creativity thrive. Competition is a factor. Pressure and time are factors. The review process. The ability to present and sell through an idea. Budget. And having someone of taste who can direct people toward a better product. That’s as true in a Silicon Valley start-up as it is in a Madison Avenue ad agency as it is in a Detroit auto plant as it is at Saturday Night Live.
And yeah, that’s a little less interesting, or easy, than the idea that a muse enters into the mind and god speaks through the chosen, crazy ones. It also renders most writing on creativity as frivolous and superficial, simply by assuming that inspiring one person will make much difference in the end product. But here’s the silver lining — it means that creativity is a profession.
And that’s a natural progression into what creativity is. Because while it’s not a muse or an openness to ideas or letting go into the flow or divine selection or being extraordinarily special or maintaining some kind of inspired state of mind (I can’t tell you how many ideas seem to come during the most uninteresting of times), it is still something very awesome.
Creativity is the process by which something new gets made. Photosynthesis, procreation, the universe… it is inherent in our very being and everything around us. It’s as sane and as crazy as that.
By Josh S. Rose, 2017.