What is creativity?
The definition of creativity itself is controversial. Is Taylor Swift creative or mainstream? Is body fluid art (this can of artist’s shit was sold for $150,000 in 2008) creative or obscure?
According to Allen Gannett in his excellent book The Creative Curve: How to Develop the Right Idea, at the Right Time, creativity is about balance.
More precisely, it has to check three boxes :
- the popularity of your subject matter
- the acceptance of the gatekeepers
- your own personal abilities
How to get there? You’ll have to handle two diametrically opposed forces and juggle with them: familiarity and novelty.
Too much of familiarity and you’re cliché, too much originality and you’re a psycho.
This model echoes the one developed in Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson, who calls it MAYA (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable).
BELA. (Because Everybody Loves Acronyms).
That ability to stay at the top of the curve (and preferably on the ascending side of the curve to enjoy your success a bit longer) is ruled by four laws that Allen explains to a great extent in his book.
The 4 laws of creativity
If you want to be a good mama’s boy, there are 10 commandments you should abide by, but it only takes 4 to be creative.
Let’s dig in.
LAW I – Consumption
That goes without saying, to excel in your creative field, you need to know what it’s about.
You can’t have insights about things you don’t know anything about.
– Allen Gannett
And by “knowing”, Allens means really knowing, in the vain of how humanists of the 15th century used to learn, not in the way we’re doing it now with a quick tutorial on YouTube. Da Vinci didn’t become a superstar overnight as many lazy-ass determinist people like to think. He actually studied and even worked with the greatest of his time. At 15, he became the apprentice of Andrea del Verrocchio, the leading artist of Florence and the early Renaissance. Now your time to shine at your next high society swinger party.
You just can’t call yourself a shoemaker if you have no idea who Christopher Nelme is (I didn’t know either, but I’m no shoemaker, you party pooper).
Being a painter requires more than stopping by Blick Art Materials and painting a daub that you’ll hang over your mother’s fireplace. I know what I’m talking about:
Following his studies, Allen comes up with the 20 percent principle:
20% of your time (roughly 3 hours per day) should be devoted to consuming content from your fellow creative peeps.
And here, we’re not talking about mindless art consumption, like when you browse Netflix looking for a good standup that you’ll watch while you’re on the phone with your latest Tinder date.
We are talking about mindful practice, where you’ll study the structure, the details, the machinery behind the end result.
Mindless automaticity is the enemy.
You’ll focus on each point one after the other, dissect the artwork into small technical specific bits. The brush stroke. The word order. The finger placement on the trumpet. The sole thread stitches. The feces texture in that can. Whatever works for you.
And while you’re at it, try to consume from the most critically acclaimed ones. When I study standup, although I’m pretty sure Papanov Urvan Yegorovich is the funniest ex-Soviet Union comic of our time, I’d rather stick to a good Seinfeld or Carlin bit.
Consuming and storing creative endeavors from the greatest will be the staple of aha-moments that the author classifies in three types:
- Shower moments: those moments when you just relax, your analytical left brain goes to sleep, and your right creative brain fires up. I would have named those moments the toilet insights, but I’m not the author.
- Combination: when your right brain connects the dots between multiple concepts that you stored unconsciously, boom! All of a sudden, you just invented the Judas cradle.
- Triggers: when it’s the environment itself that ignites ideas already stored in your right brain.
LAW II – Imitation
In the age of the search for uniqueness of millennials who’ve been told there’s no one like them (myself included, thanks Mom), imitation might be a hard one to swallow.
What? Am I supposed to steal other artists’ work? But I’m more than a simple epigone! (Yes, I learned that word today).
Well, I won’t quote Picasso about stealing art (I’m different from the common inspirational blogger ok?!), but yeah, all in all, you’re gonna first learn how to do what your creative role model did.
Because you need to know the structures, rules, and constraints of your field to innovate.
Again, ramming a few water balloons filled with paint into your orifices and then flexing your abs to spray colors on a canvas and calling the end result art is somewhat self-indulgent.
If you can’t master the basics of painting, don’t call yourself a painter. Yet.
Oh yeah? Have you looked at Picasso’s portraits? Do they look like a grown-up made this to you?
Well, Picasso was totally capable of drawing a pixel-perfect picture. Once he mastered the technics, he innovated.
It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.
Don’t skip the first part of that quote.
You might think:
Everything has been said, and we have come too late, now that men have been living and thinking for seven thousand years and more.
– Jean De La Bruyère (1645-1696)
So how come about 1.5 M books have been published this year alone? Because:
Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.
– Andre Gide (1869- 1951)
Understand what makes the building stand straight, and then become the interior designer.
LAW III – Creative Communities
This one is tougher. Because you won’t be spending time on your art and skills, but on the filthy word: “networking.”
Guess what, no one’s waiting for you, and if you want your creation to ever become public, and not end up on top of my mother’s fireplace (yeah, on my mother’s, not even yours), you’re going to have to do it, my fellow artist.
That sucks. But you don’t have a choice.
Allen defines four archetypes of people that will form your creative community:
1. the master teacher
Or the Mentor. Allen insists on the fact that it’s not a one-way street, that you also have insights and knowledge to bring to the table as a mentee. For instance, your time.
Also, the mentor doesn’t have to be one person, it could be a constellation of recognized experts in your field, each of them bringing their 2 cents. You can find those teachers in clusters, and any art tends to have its own Mecqua, be it physical (think Silicon Valley for tech) or online (think Medium.com for writers).
2. the conflicting collaborator
I know, I know.
We’d love to think as artists that we can do it all by ourselves, that it will diminish the merit of the creative accomplishments if other people get involved. Well, maybe that’s just me.
The thing is, we all have flaws and weaknesses. The hardest part for me is to be able to precisely identify what those are. Once you know, you need to partner up with someone that will balance those flaws, and will challenge you on a daily basis.
You can’t start a collaboration with your alter ego.
You need somewhat of a conflict in the way you work, or you’ll never push yourself outside of your comfort zone.
3. the modern muse
Let me get things straight here. Allen is not talking about getting a bunch of naked ladies constantly strolling around you. Don’t do it the Greek way, it’s probably forbidden by law in your country.
The modern muse should be a constant source of inspiration for your art.
It doesn’t have to be an acquaintance: a late artist, a social/religious /whatever group, etc. Just like Chris Rock who uses the black community as a constant source of jokes, the muse can be an entity, rather than the obsolete Greek stripper.
4. the prominent promoter
That’s the weak link of my personal strategy. The prominent promoter is basically a known and successful artist in your field that you will associate with to draw the spotlights on you too. Again, it’s not a one-way street. You’ll bring novelty to the promoter who could be fearing the dangerous cliché / too-familiar zone.
Here’s the main issue: the supply of prominent promoters is pretty low. Otherwise, any up-and-coming comedian would perform his opening monologue on SNL. The spots are limited, and the luck factor steps in big time here.
On the other end, a sure way to never find that promoter is to never try.
Social media brings new opportunities and more to barter for upcoming talents. If you can grow an audience online, you’ll have something to offer: the eyes (and frenetic thumbs) of a fresh generation.
And that’s the reason why I’d like to add to Allen’s 4 archetypes my own personal touch:
MY BONUS: your audience
The first step is, define your audience.
Who are they? What do they look like? Where are they? How many? Where do they gather? What interests do they have? What experience do they share?
The best way to find your audience is to find yourself. Yes, you can make an Instagram quote of out that, but don’t forget to tag me. I need attention too. Well, you know what, I even did it for you. Here you go.
Most reasonably, you belong to your audience. You create what you like and find worthy of sharing with the world, so your safest bet is to promote your creations to like-minded people.
The second step is, create accordingly.
You’ll narrow down the scope of possibilities, and you’ll focus on your niche.
Well, first of all, you can’t. I mean, I like you, don’t worry. But there are probably people who won’t. Look, if Mother Teresa couldn’t win unanimous support, you probably can’t either.
Conquer your niche. And then cross the chasm. Expand to a broader niche. Find synergies and common points of interests. But first, find your niche.
The audience is part of your creative community because it impacts your output. It forces you to make decisions and stick to them. It drives your work. Don’t neglect it.
LAW IV – Iteration
Even God didn’t get it right from day 1. Neither will thee.
There’s a massive discrepancy between what you think your audience wants and what it actually wants. And even the audience itself can’t tell you what it wants until you show it.
What does that mean?
That means you’re going to fail a lot to succeed.
And that’s ok.
I’m not putting failure on a pedestal as common modern wisdom and self-soothing trends like to do.
Failure hurts. It demotivates.
Especially in the art realm where the product is… you. Your vision, your emotions, your skills. Now, here’s my best hard-to-implement advice:
You are not your art.
You are not your art.
You are not your art.
Ok, that’s enough.
You have to – that’s a necessity, trust me – be able to dissociate your person from your creative output. The simple fact that you’re putting out there what’s in your mind and guts and show it to the world makes you braver than most commoners.
Whatever the outcome, you have to remember how ballsy you are: you’re not hiding.
That’s the price to pay to live in the sunlight.
But remember: treat your art as an accountant would treat his spreadsheet. There’s a typo on cell B12? My bad. I’ll fix it and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Next.
No emotional attachment to your art is key to a sustainable and fulfilling life of creative endeavors.
Now that we’re clear and we know we all suck in the beginning, and probably for a while after, here’s the process.
That’s the brainstorming part, where you come up with as many ideas as you can. No restrictions, no judgments, the sheer pleasure of creating dumb and smart stuff. Creation is not done in a closed bubble, and the input of others can help a lot: other artists, their works, a discussion over coffee, observing people, etc.
Write down everything. It’s not a one-time step, it’s continuous. Whenever an idea pops into your mind, log it.
You’re probably a brilliant person (you didn’t quit reading this even though it’s way longer than a tweet, that puts you already way above average), but you’ll also come up with a bunch of crappy ideas. I recently had this business idea of a fake ankle monitor that you’d put on to scare people away in the subway and get a sure spot at rush hour. If you’re interested, I still need to sell my inventory. $30 a pop. You’re welcome.
Select ideas based on their feasibility, but also their appeal to the audience you’re aiming for. Remember, you need its approval.
That’s the testing and slap-in-the-face phase. Trial and error. Lots of them. During that phase, you’ll test your ideas on a sample of your final audience.
Does it work? Do they like it?
Discard what doesn’t work, keep what does. I probably throw away 90% of my ideas. I mean, I recycle. It doesn’t matter.
Ideas are overrated. People tend to protect them way too much.
It’s mine! It’s my brain!
Nah. It’s your brain fart.
Detach yourself from your creative self. If an idea doesn’t land after a few attempts, just drop it all together and move on.
BUT, before forgetting about the defects forever, learn your lessons. Why didn’t it work? Can you spot the anomaly? Can you ask the guinea pigs what they didn’t like about it? Most of the time, they won’t even know themselves. But read between the lines. Understand their fears, their needs, their expectations and confront them with your failed ideas.
The same goes for what did work by the way: why did it work? What are the common denominators between all your achievements and successes?
Learn and repeat.
I believe happiness is found when your vision meets the audience’s liking.
Don’t prostitute yourself for a like. But also, don’t become an old maid who gave up on finding love.
It’s all about balance. Find that sweet spot where you’ll do what you love and people will love what you do.
Know what you’re willing to give up and know what makes you, you. And act accordingly.
From body fluid art to Taylor Swift, there’s an audience for everything.
Also published on Medium.