The Creativity Paradoxes

Color pencils representing the concept of Standing out from the crowdQuirky traits of creative people.

Look closely at the creative process, and you’ll run into all kinds of fascinating paradoxes. What appears to be true about creative people and companies cannot be, and yet it is.

One of my favorite lists of paradoxical traits (there are others) comes from Michael Michalko, the author of Thinkertoys. These all ring true to me:

To be consistently creative, a person must… Continue reading

Hard-wired for Hope

You have good reasons to be optimistic about the future.

father and son on sunset beachWe are living in troubled times, that’s for sure. But, there’s an ancient human power that is still alive and well in every corner of the world. Regardless of how difficult or discouraging life has become, there is still a persistent belief that the future will somehow be better than the past or the present. There is even a scientific name for this uniquely human trait; it’s called the “Optimism Bias.”

At it worst, the optimism bias can lead us to overly-positive assumptions such as, “I will lead a long healthy life even if I continue to skip routine medical check-ups.”

But, according to a Time Magazine study, the optimism bias also protects and inspires us; it keeps us moving forward in tough times, rather than throwing in the towel. Without optimism, our ancestors might never have ventured far from their tribes. We might still be cave dwellers, still huddled together in the dark, dreaming of light and heat.

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Fail Forward!

Things fall apart so that things can fall together.

Disappointment concept.I once wrote a children’s book called Mistakes are Great. I wanted to alert kids that mistakes aren’t something to fear or avoid, they’re something to welcome with open arms. In fact, cultivating a love of mistakes is a secret sauce for all the best entrepreneurs, scientists, artists and new product developers.

Take James Dyson, for example. Inspired by an industrial cyclone at a timber mill, Dyson set out to invent an unorthodox vacuum cleaner—one with no bag, no dust, no clogging and no loss of suction. Along the way he made some 5,000 mistakes, but, within 18 months of hitting the market, Dyson was the world’s best-selling vacuum.

“I love mistakes,” says Dyson, “it’s a necessity as an engineer. Each iteration of my vacuum came about because of a mistake I needed to fix. What’s important is that I didn’t stop at the first failure, the 50th, or the 5,000th.” Continue reading

“At Last I Think I’ve Discovered the Secret.”

TRUMAN X JONESSome of the best advice we ever receive is also the simplest.

Many years ago I drove from Seattle to San Francisco to spend a few days with the most interesting man alive—my cousin and mentor, Truman X. Jones.

Truman is an accomplished artist, sculptor and designer, and the creative force behind T.X. Jones Design. He is also a street-wise philosopher and truth seeker. Many times through the years a few well-chosen words from TXJ have changed the way I think about something forever.

On the last day of our time together, Truman and I were standing on the sidewalk in front of his place in the Russian District when he suddenly turned to me and said, “Dan, at last I think I’ve discovered the secret: Do whatever your heart leads you to do—but DO it.”

Some of the best advice we ever receive is also the simplest. On the drive back to Seattle I thought a lot about Truman’s 11-word insight. I began to realize that there were several areas of my own life where I had been taxiing down the runway for years, but never actually taking off. Continue reading

How do You Know it’s Bad?

A Taoist tale for the ages

Zen circle background

There was an old man who was considered to be an odd sort of fellow because of the strange way he had of looking at things.

One day, the old man went out to clean his horse stalls, but he forgot to latch the corral. A few minutes later his prized white stallion pushed open the gate and ran away.

When the old man’s friends heard the news, they rushed to console him. “We heard you lost your prized stallion,” they cried. “That’s too bad!”

“How do you know it’s bad?” was all the old man said.

The very next day the white stallion returned with two beautiful wild mares following him. The old man locked the three horses safely in the corral. This brought the neighbors on the run. “Good! Good!” they exclaimed. Continue reading

The Only Person Who Likes Change is a Wet Baby

Change ImageI didn’t write that headline, Mark Twain did. Twain knew a lot about human nature; and he pulled no punches when he wrote about the stubborn way most people cling to old ideas and the comfort of the status-quo.

What was true in Mark Twain’s day is still true today, only more so. You and I are living and working in a time of unprecedented and accelerating change. Overnight, a new idea, product or technology can eclipse what your company makes, or how you make and deliver it. Rapid change brings unprecedented opportunities to companies that are adaptable and creative, but it can bring disaster to those who aren’t. There are thousands of examples; here’s one: Continue reading

30,000 Mornings

This is your life; don’t miss a day of it.

30,000 mornings, give or take, is all we’re given. If you’re 26, you still have 20,000 left. If you’re 54, you still have 10,000. An accident or illness could change all that, of course. But let’s count on you to remain safe and healthy all your allotted life—in which case you still have plenty of time. Sort of.

“We get to think of life as an inexhaustible well,” wrote composer and author Paul Bowles, who lived to the ripe old age of 32,442 mornings. “Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really.

“How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.” Continue reading

Some of the best speeches are also the shortest.

What I learned from addressing 300 hardcore convicts.

One day I was sitting in the Warden’s office at Marion Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Columbus, Ohio. I was there to advise the warden on a publishing project.

At 4:40 PM the warden suddenly turned to me and said, “There will be 300 inmates in the prison chapel at 5 o’clock, and I know they could use some inspiration. Can I count on you to give a little speech?”

“Yes, of course,” I answered—and then I gulped. What could I possibly say to raise the spirits of 300 sad, angry and discouraged men? Fortunately, most speakers have learned to keep a few treasured stories tucked away in a quiet part of the mind. Here is the one I finally retrieved to use as my speech that day. Short as it is, it got a standing ovation: Continue reading

Never Turn Your Back on Your Own Ideas

When people start calling you crazy, you might be on the right track.

Guglielmo Marconi was a foolish dreamer. Marconi was born in Bologna, Italy in 1848. At school he read about Leonardo Da Vinci’s soaring imagination. Inspired, young Marconi did some imagineering of his own.

When he was just 20, he created a clunky wireless device in his Dad’s basement that could actually transmit radio signals. His Dad thought he was lying, but when young Marconi convinced him there were no wires, his Dad emptied his wallet right on the spot for more supplies.

Next, Marconi wrote to the Italian Ministry, explaining his wireless telegraph machine and asking for funding. When the Minister threatened to toss Marconi in the Lungara Asylum in Rome. Marconi thought about quitting. Instead, he built a bigger, crazier machine, dragged it outside the basement, and proved he could transmit a military signal over a hill 1.5 miles away. No one laughed this time.

Soon, Marconi was known as the Father of Modern Radio. He won the Nobel Prize and became a hero on a scale that Italy hadn’t seen since Da Vinci. When the Titanic sank in 1912, the world credited Marconi with saving 764 lives. Why? Because the Titanic’s modern Marconi wireless was able to call in rescue ships at night. Continue reading

How to Unleash “Breakthrough Thinking”

Coming up with great ideas may be easier than you think.

No wonder most companies are starving for bright new ideas. The typical American submits fewer than two ideas per year to his/her company. And most of these are practical suggestions to mundane problems, such as: “Let’s move our file cabinets from the second floor to the first floor where people can access them easier.”

There’s nothing wrong with coming up with safe ideas or improvements. But, c’mon—where are all the risky, half-crazy “breakthrough ideas” that will help you and your company surge ahead of your competitors?”  Typically, our built-in fear of ridicule deters us from even voicing our most exciting ideas. (“No way am I going to submit this—they’ll laugh me right out of the room.”)

Actually, if your initial idea seems too expensive, too wild, too impractical, or too complicated, you might be on the scent of something wonderful. History shows that foolish, unreasonable, outrageous flights of fancy are typically the creative forerunners of what works.

Leonardo da Vinci once dreamed up a 60-foot crossbow that shot trees for arrows. It required two soldiers cranking a powerful winch just to cock the ridiculous behemoth. Foolish and impractical?  Sure, but that outrageous crossbow eventually led Leonardo to envision some of Europe’s most innovative and practical defense systems.  Continue reading