Tough Room

This is an old “This American Life” about the writing room at The Onion. I was reminded of it the other day at work. It is an excellent example of the creative process at work and a pretty funny behind-the-scenes look at one of the most consistently funny publications in the country.

The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry

I read a handful of books on creative thinking and management every year. Some are more helpful than others. The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry is one I found full of good advice from both perspectives. In a nutshell, Henry’s focus is on practices that help us make the most of our creative resources (time and energy). It also has some good advice about managing a creative environment. 
My review is below, along with some random notes (I post reviews of everything I read on my personal blog). 
Additionally, Henry runs The Accidental Creative podcast. And he has a new book out, Die Empty. I haven’t read that book. If anyone has, let me know what you think of it. The title’s a little cheesy, but he usually has smart stuff to say. 

Anyone who works in a creative industry knows the pressure that comes with having to solve creative problems against a deadline. Or being required to generate ideas every day within the constraints of budget, timing, politics and the chaos of the modern work environment. This is a book on applying rigor to the creative process. This is not meant to confine creativity—Henry cautions that structure should not be confused with formula. Formula is a prescriptive process. Structure is a scaffolding within which surprising creative solutions can still flourish. By understanding the rhythms of creativity, its inputs, its enemies and various tricks of the trade, one can learn to coax ideas out reliably. As Henry says, “people who succeed are often those who do the little, everyday things that other won’t.”
Henry identifies elements of the process for creative individuals as well creative teams, some of the barriers that can hinder creativity and gives some practical tips for working more productively as a creative person. I’ll include somewhat random notes and my favorite slide-worthy quotes about creativity below, but in general what I love about this book is that it articulates process problems I experience all the time, both at work and with my own projects, both as a creative and a creative manager. Identifying the barriers is often more helpful than the solutions because the barriers sometimes become so ingrained in the way we work that they become invisible. Shining a light on them, naming them and calling them out as problems is critical.
We all want a greater sense of purpose in our lives and in our work. We want to feel that our efforts contribute to a greater good, and that our personal goals align with our professional ambition. That all our motivations are in sync. What this book provides is a pragmatic and sometimes inspiration outline to better align our individual goals with our professional realities (and vice versa). It’s a handbook for becoming a more productive, more reliable, happier creative person.
Key elements of the creative process
Focus: Know your true objective. Articulate it. Be aligned with team members on what this is and constantly check back against it to maintain alignment.
Relationships: Identify and build the relationships that positively empower your process. My buddy Jon, when I asked him what advice he’d give a younger version of himself, called this one out. In a nutshell, he said that you only have so much time and energy—focus on the relationships that push you to grow and make you stretch.
Energy: Establish practices around energy management. You have to maintain a healthy, sustainable lifestyle in order to maintain a sustainable creative output.
“It’s all too easy to waste the energy we need for important creative objectives on unproductive or unfocused behaviors.” (e.g. constantly answering email) [p116] The opportunity cost of sitting in unproductive meetings or answering emails, dealing with politics and other BS has a huge opportunity cost. Which, smartly, Henry defines with this quote: “You can have anything you want, but you can’t have everything you want.” [p128]
“You are defined by what you say no to.” [p130]
Stimuli: Beauty in, beauty out. Austin Kleon says creative people are a mixtape of everything they consume. Be purposeful with what you put in. Henry suggests you have a defined “study plan” and figure out a way to keep what your study provokes—the ideas you come up with—organized. A notebook, note cards, whatever—but return to those notes from time to time. Study can be inspiration for ideas, but not if it’s quickly forgotten.
Hours: The tension between possibilities and pragmatics is the source of most of the burnout, frustration, and conflict within teams. “…it’s difficult to stay excited about the work when we feel that practical limitations will ultimately prevent us from really doing something we believe to be truly great.” [p23] Henry dedicates a chapter to the various types of tensions that can cause strife within a team, but they are all variations of possibilities vs pragmatics.
Assassins of Creativity (I love that name)
Dissonance/Unclear Objectives: Everyone not being on the same page with the “What” and, more importantly, the “Why?” The common purpose for existing as a team is…? If everyone can’t answer that, you got problems. If there are differing objectives, the boat will go in circles, maybe sink. The creative process, without proper management, will naturally trend toward entropy. In the generative portion of the creative process, this can be normal. But to be successful, the creative process also requires decisive pruning (convergent thinking). This is where a clear objective is critical—it is the guide to what is pruned away and what is left to flourish and given more resources. Lack of a clear goal invites chaos.
Unnecessary Complexity: Maybe Einstein said it best: “Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Included in this section is a point that I think Henry glosses over too quickly, which is that complexity can lead to obfuscation of how an individual contribute to the overall mission of the organization. Daniel Pink, in his TED Talk, lists this understanding as one of the three key motivators in the workplace.
My favorite illustration of this point is a story. In 1962, JFK was touring NASA’s space center. He saw a janitor mopping the hallway and broke away from his group and walked over to the janitor. As the story goes, he said, “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What do you do here?” The janitor replied, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon, Mr. President.” Whether or not that story is true, it’s a great illustration of an ideal. Every member of the team must know how their efforts contribute to the project, and their goals must be in line with the goals of the project and, ideally, the organization. It’s not only good for cohesion, it’s good for motivation.
Fear: Fear can take any number of forms, all of which cause hesitation or, worse, paralysis in the creative process. The creative process, specifically the generative part of it, relies on momentum and energy. Fear drags its big heavy feet in the mud. Henry describes the forms that fear can take, and he makes the point that while fear of failure certainly exists, fear of success can be even more stifling, especially to an individual. Comfort is the enemy of success, “the single biggest factor that causes creative to shrink back from opportunity.” [riCardo Crespo, p56]
“Fear of success is often more destructive than fear of failure because it’s masked in the guise of wisdom.” [p59]
Comparison: This is, I think, a specific manifestation of fear rooted in our insecurity that our final product won’t be good enough. We compare it to our past work, the expectations placed on us by our co-workers, benevolent (or malevolent) overlords, or to our industry heroes. We don’t see our work measuring up, and it plants a deadly seed of doubt. This can be crippling, particularly early in the process, when a germ of an idea will never live up to a fully realized, polished and celebrated project. There may be a time to compare our work to others, but early in the creative process is not that time.
“It’s great to stand on the shoulders of giants, but don’t let the giants sit on your shoulders.”
-Stephen Nachmanovitch.
Said less poetically, “there is a form of oppression that emerges when we allow the work of our influences or competitors to drive our creating in an unhealthy way.” [p62]
Creative Rhythm: In order for us to create, we need to get into the zone, the right headspace, whatever you want to call it. We need to be able to focus. This is the most important element in our work—time to think—yet the modern work environment conspires to steal this time from us. Make sure you structure time into your day to actually think about things. Put it on the calendar if you need to. Good ideas rarely come about when ticking off menial tasks and answering email.
The Ping is technology and culture colliding. It is the constant sensation that an email has come through, a need to check in on social media, etc. It prevents us from truly being present in any task or situation. When I’m writing, I’ve anecdotally experienced that it takes me 15-20 minutes to get to anything good. So if I’m only spending 10 contiguous minutes on any task, I’m denying myself the ability to do my best work. Linda Scott calls the way we live and work “continuous partial attention.” Again, structure time into the day to do these things, or time when menial tasks and Facebook updates are off limits.
Assumptions: “We develop systems to replicate our past successes—or to prevent replicating our past failures—but all we really do is fossilize these processes and create rigidity in our life.” [p72] We make assumptions that we reinforce time and again, each time deeper ingraining those assumptions and making it more difficult to think in new ways. What are those assumptions? Stepping back and literally your assumptions can be one one way to break through creatively.
The Big Three. One suggestion Henry makes to help focus is to define “The Big Three.” Creative people tend to have many irons in the fire. It allows them to self-medicate with distraction. His suggestion is to pick three. Identify the three top priority projects (not tasks, projects) and focus on those. Dedicate time, bandwidth and any other resources to accomplishing those three projects. In addition to resource management, this sends a signal to your brain that these projects are the ones that are important. It relieves your mind of trying to solve 15 things at once. This is true in a collaborative environment as well.“One of the greatest gifts any creative leader can give to their team is to regularly refine focus by utilizing the practice of establishing the Big 3.” [p86]
Relationships. Henry dedicates a section to the importance of building and maintaining important, inspirational relationships. Meaningful connections, rather than maintaining relationships of necessity. Be structured with it—create a group that meets regularly to share ideas and provide motivation.
Unnecessary Creation. I engage in this quite a bit, personally. Take time to make things that don’t need to be made, that won’t be judged, that are important for no other reason than they are personally fulfilling. Creating work for ourselves, under no pressure from anyone else (or ourselves), with no expectations, is a great way to explore ideas and a pressure release valve—the urge to create has been temporarily relieved. And the feeling of “getting lost” in your work is, from my experience, therapeutic. It can be meditative, can lead to total immersion, what some refer to as “in the flow.”
“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”
– Jack London
“An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea.”
–Edward de Bono
“Few things in life are less efficient than a group of people trying to write a sentence.”                                                                      -Scott Adams (Dilbert)
“Creativity is a natural extension of our energy.”
–Earl Nightingale
At the beginning of every season, Vince Lombardi would give a talk to his players. He would start that pep talk by holding the ball in the air and saying to the professional football players around him: “Gentlemen, this is a football!”

Do ad schools turn out the best talent?

If you’re a student in a portfolio school, you need to watch this video on

Sorry I can’t embed it. But I’ve got to say I agree with a lot of what they say. (Craft is often neglected, junior creatives struggle to create “scaleable” work, a lot of schools turn out a vanilla product, etc.)

You should spend eight minutes watching then, then go back and reassess your book.

I’m curious to know what some of you portfolio school students think about this. Love to hear your comments.

Actors vs Announcers vs Ghosts

The other day, I directed via remote patch an 8-year-old actor who was lending his voice to our spot. Every time I work with kids, I end up shaking my head and saying, “I will never work with kids again.” They’re notoriously flaky, they can’t follow exact direction, they have short attention spans, and their range is often limited. Most of them act like children half the time.

When you’re directing any person, you have to figure out what works for them. With voice-overs, they tend to break down into two groups–actors and announcers. An actor is someone who likes to be directed with motivation and emotion–a little sadder, say it with more empathy, see if you can do something more cowboy. An announcer, on the other hand, likes specifics–emphasize this word, go up instead of down on that word, use an accent. It’s important to understand what direction works better for the talent you’re working with.

For the 8-year-old, we realized pretty quickly that he wasn’t responding to announcer direction. No surprise there, really. I’d tell him to emphasize a word more, and he’d give me the exact same read. I’d tell him to do it with more energy–exact same read. But then we started playing around a little. In the spot, we have a little boy ghost. So we told him “Pretend you’re a ghost telling a secret to another ghost.” His read changed. Instead of telling him to be louder, we said, “Now tell the same secret to another ghost, but it’s very windy out and he can barely hear you.” For more energy, we asked him to “Tell the secret to another ghost, but you’re being chased by a dinosaur through the jungle.”

It was a blast. And we got an awesome range of reads from him. He ripped off over 70 reads in a short amount of time because he had a great imagination–most kids do.

We always talk about how this business requires creativity at every phase of the process. This was the first time I had to be so creative while giving direction to talent. But it was also the most fun I’ve ever had at the studio. And maybe the first time I didn’t say, “I’ll never work with kids again.”

Avoid This Pile

If you’ve got a subscription to (and there’s no reason you shouldn’t), check out the Cannes Diary by Cannes Judge, Blake Ebel, ECD of EuroRSCG in Chicago.
He posted this picture of the print work that didn’t make it to the shortlist:

I’m guessing there are a lot of pieces in that pile that will still be featured on the agency web site, and in the books of the ADs and CDs who created it. There are probably some really nice lines and cool art direction in there. But even though they paid the $350-per-piece entry fee, they still ended up in this pile.

If you’re really trying to do amazing, Cannes-shortlist-caliber work, you’ve got to do more than a nice line and cool art direction. Even in print. It’s becoming a platitude, but it’s true: good enough simply isn’t good enough.