Creative Thinking


Despite what many might think, creativity is not the gift of many, but of the select few.  How one is wired, how their neurological pathways were constructed, or fire, has massive influence on who is truly gifted creatively and who’s not.

It is possible to train individuals to improve their creative ability, or help them develop a process that yields repeatable results, but true creativity – someone who sees the world differently – that’s a rare breed.  What the gifted see cannot always be properly communicated or visualized by those that were not endowed with the natural neurological framework that sees things their way.   This applies to problem solving, creativity, coding, and many other abilities in life.

Although there are many definitions of creativity, this version really resonates with me:

“Creativity involves an ability to come up with new and different viewpoints on a subject. It involves breaking down and restructuring our knowledge about the subject in order to gain new insights into its nature.”

Beth Comstock, CMO of GE alluded to this definition, perhaps unintentionally, when she said that “the ability to come in with a set of (carefully) uniformed questions can help people who’ve been to close to something for too long to see new ways forward”.  In many ways, she’s describing the creative process.  Come in with just enough information to be informed, but not so much that creativity is skewed by the data, or external influences and the noise it all brings.  She helps her team break down and reconstruct the task at hand, yielding new solutions.

To excel in an ever-evolving business environment, creative thinking is a must.  But this requires being able to liberate natural instincts of creative thinking from the constraints of the cultural, structured branding and marketing, and business mindset too adverse to risk and overly represented in today’s organizations.

To illustrate this, let me refer to a conversation I had with the CFO of a large national broadcasting company.  In the initial engagement we deconstructed a new business venture they were considering undertaking.  In the evaluation of that potential venture many items were missed.  Let’s call them the color commentary, beyond the basic facts that clearly jump off the page.  Seeing that the organization did not have the ability to see in color, so to speak, I knew from the very early conversation that their limited perspective on the opportunity would also limit its chance for success.  And almost two years later, all of the challenges I quickly saw in color (for which I had solutions to offer), have all surfaced.  The real sign that this project would not be a success came when the CFO (multi-billion dollar company) said, “we don’t like to try new things and prove them out, we wait for someone else to prove they are an opportunity and follow from behind”. Getting this organization to become conscious of persistent, limiting assumptions was more than I wanted to take on, so I passed on the work.

Another critical part of creativity is narrative, the story that the thing created communicates.  How it engages an audience.  This is another area where many claim to be leaders in the space.  Half of the new creative agencies I see launched today claim storytelling as a key strength.

So let’s take a look at how easy storytelling is.  One way to try and figure out just how easy it might be is to take a look at book publishing.  Here are some interesting statistics.  Every year only about 80 new books sell over 100,000 copies. Another source states that an average book at a major publisher sells between 10,000 and 12,000 copies.  If that were a YouTube or Facebook like number one would consider it a mediocre showing.

“A sensational sale would be about 25,000 copies,” says literary agent Jane Dystel. “Even 15,000 would be a strong enough sale to get the publisher’s attention for the author to get a second book.”

So it sure looks like telling stories, at least ones that resonate with the masses, is not an easy task.  Which also means, the authors that sell millions of copies are very special people with a gift that is not common or easily repeated by the majority of authors.  Think about the number mentioned earlier, only 80 or so new books a year sell over 100,000 copies.  And that’s with distribution, marketing, etc., behind them! A needle in a haystack so to speak.

Let’s also take a look at the movies, another form of storytelling.  According to Box Office Mojo, 729 movies were released in 2016.  The average yearly number is around 600+ according to the Motion Picture Association of America.  This does not include documentary and independent films, so maybe the number doubles.  Numbers are hard to get, but out of roughly 729 movies released, less than 1/3 are considered hits, or made back what was invested in making them. Again, if telling stories in any medium were easy, wouldn’t these numbers be higher?  And of the movies made over time, looking at the directors who have made hit after hit, brought stories to life like no others, the real visionaries, that number might be 50 to 100 directors in our lifetime.

This could be proven again using technology, business, or any area where a small select few really rise to the top.  What is tells me is that the real visionaries are few and far between.

So what is my point?  My hope is that we will all learn to really appreciate greatness!  That if you’re lucky enough to meet or be around greatness, you’ll understand how rare it really is. (And that you will realize how many claim it but how few really have it.)  And perhaps most importantly – that although a lot can be achieved through a process, a repeatable formula of collaboration, those single minds that stand above the rest, in industries, art, design, architecture, business, can’t be boiled down to a simple process.

The human brain has approximately 100 billion neurons.  Each neuron can have 10,000 to 100,000 synaptic connections on it formed from other neurons.  Every one of these connections must be attached precisely to form circuits.  The sheer number of axons that are required to connect 100 billion neurons as functional circuits is unimaginable.

Knowing the complexity of thought and our minds, the gift of true creativity is rare.  It comes from minds wired to see the world around them differently. The fact is, it is held by the privileged few.  That does not mean one should be discouraged; it simply means you should push yourself to look at life through your own set of unique filters.  And if you’re not gifted, build diverse teams of minds that can build and grow each other’s ideas and visions, and then guide them to greatness.

And most importantly, if you encounter someone who has many repeated successes, look at the underlying factors, and if in each case they rise to the top at the catalyst of creating what was great, join them, hire them, become an apprentice, do whatever you can to learn from them.

We are at our best, most fully alive, and most impactful when we are challenging assumptions of impossibility.  Pushing to the edge can lead to great things.  In that respect, maybe there’s a tiny speck of the creative spark in each of us after all.


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