“Working harder and staring more intently at the problem to achieve better ideas is like trying to control the weather by staring at the clouds. Rather, you need to incorporate practices that instill a sense of structure, rhythm, and purpose into your life.”
The Accidental Creative, page 11
Todd Henry is the self-professed “arms dealer for the creative revolution”. Author of The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at Moment’s Notice and founder and CEO of Accidental Creative (a company that helps its clients achieve many of the same goals that this book promises), Henry reminds us that we are living in a create-on-demand world, where we are forced to be creative and come up with knock-your-socks-off-amazing work at a moment’s notice (as the book’s tagline says). And if we can’t follow through, we will likely be replaced by someone who can. This well written, comprehensive book offers practices to help stoke the fires of your creativity, but wisely does not promise any quick fixes. Rather “[y]ou will unleash your latent creative ability through regular, purposeful practice of the principles in this book,” writes Henry. “There are most certainly insights and ‘aha!’ moments to be found in these pages, but knowledge alone won’t do the job any more than knowing the fundamentals of how to exercise will keep you physically healthy. You must be purposeful and intentional. The results are worth it.”
Indeed they are.
Newsflash: You’re a Creative
“In some circles, the word ‘creative’ has recently morphed from adjective to noun. If you are one of the millions among us who make a living with your mind, you could be tagged a ‘creative.’ Every day, you solve problems, innovate, develop systems, design things, write, think, and strategize. You are responsible for… creating value that didn’t exist before you arrived on the scene.”
The Accidental Creative, page 1
I fear that many won’t read this summary, and even worse, the book on which it is based, because of our existing conception of who is creative. Creatives aren’t limited to painters, writers, graphic designers, architects, etc. While Henry defines these jobs as traditional creatives, any other job where you’re expected to create-on-demand (come up with great ideas on short notice), but do not fit into the traditional mould, is a nontraditional creative. These jobs can include (but are not limited to) managers, strategists, consultants, salespeople, and client service reps. One the surface it might seem as though traditional and nontraditional creatives don’t share much in common. When we think of traditional creatives, such as writers or painters, we think of individuals toiling away in solitary isolation, trying to create their art. But in reality, traditional and nontraditional creatives are more alike than they are different. “Astonishingly,” writes Henry, “I’ve found little difference among the pressures experienced by these diverse groups of people. They each use a different set of specific skills in their work, of course. While a designer will solve a problem visually, a manager may solve it by developing a new process. But they’re both employing the same creative tools and wrestling with many of the same obstacles.”
Now that you’ve realized that you are indeed a creative, the following GEMs will be beneficial to you regardless of whether your occupation defines you as a traditional or nontraditional creative. If you’re the former, the GEMs will help you to make the most of your time for maximum creativity. The latter group (aka, most of us) will be able to unleash the creative potential you didn’t realize was lurking inside you.
Avoid the Ping
“You don’t need to get rid of technology; you just need to use it in a way that increases your capacity to do what matters to you. You need to set priorities and home in on them rather than living in a state of continuous partial attention. You can’t do your best and most insightful work when you allow the Ping to rule your life.”
The Accidental Creative, page 75
We all do it. You’re hard at work, but suddenly, for whatever reason (and it doesn’t even have to be boredom), we check our e-mails or Facebook, and our work is disrupted. I’m guilty of this. I even experienced it completing this summary. Referring to my Kindle highlights on Amazon necessary to write this summary, the lure of Facebook proved too difficult to resist, especially when I saw the blinking number in brackets in the tab I had opened notifying me of a new message. (Okay, it wasn’t blinking, but it felt like it was!) You get the idea, and can probably relate. This lure is what Todd Henry has termed the “Ping”, and it’s a big threat to our daily work. It seems like these little interruptions aren’t major time wasters, but they are. If you need proof of just how much of a time waster it is, this calculation is quite sobering: “if on average we work an 8-hour day, 50 weeks per year, and check our e-mail every 5 minutes—just to see if anything is there—we check our e-mail 24,000 times per year”. That amounts to 66.6 hours per year of just checking your e-mail and doesn’t actually include the time it takes to answer the e-mails, and is low-balling the amount of time it takes to recover your focus after the interruption (Henry factored in 10 seconds, when it’s arguably anywhere between 30 seconds to 3 minutes!)
There are some easy ways to avoid the Ping, and it starts with giving some consideration to where in your life you Ping the most. If it’s e-mails, perhaps designate certain times to check them, like the beginning of each hour. Or maybe one day a week leave your Blackberry at home. Whatever it is you decide to do to avoid the Ping, the fewer interruptions will allow your creativity to flow rather than be constantly interrupted.
Study the Supertexts
“I’ve… found that reading great works not only stretches my creative expression but also helps me identify patterns in human behavior that haven’t changed much over time.”
The Accidental Creative, page 145
This was my favourite practice in the entire book. Whether it’s the works of Shakespeare or Plato’s Republic, it’s important to read the canonical works of literature, plays, spiritual texts (such as the Bible or Quran—in fact many of the great Western books contain allusions to the Bible, including John Steinbeck’s East of Eden). I myself try to read these great “supertexts” in order to improve as a writer. (My Amazon “to read” book list is now swelling with over 800 titles, and I look forward to reading them over my lifetime…I’m realistic enough to know it’s not going to happen overnight!) While this may seem like a practice more suited to the traditional creative, it can benefit both traditional and nontraditional creatives. Henry writes, “In many ways it’s like communing with the great minds of history and allowing them to illuminate your understanding of how the world works. This improved understanding increases your platform for expression and creative problem solving.” These books demonstrate that human behaviour is essentially standard, more or less, and remarkably unchanging over time. The philosophies in these books are the basis of many of the books we read today, so instead of reading distilled versions, why not read the originals?
To go a step further, you can create a Stimulus Queue of the “supertexts” you want to read. But most of all it’s important to set aside some time, perhaps an hour a day in the evenings (any time that is most convenient to you), to study these texts, or study anything that will continue your learning. Just because you’re done school doesn’t mean you’re done learning. When you stop exposing yourself to new ideas, you become stagnant and so does your creativity. You can’t allow that to happen. Stay curious!
Todd Henry’s The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Whether we realize it or not, we’re all expected to create and add value every day in our jobs. If we can’t do that, we will be replaced by someone who can. It’s as simple as that. If you work hard to implement some of the practices in this book, there is little fear of that ever happening.