Zero to One: How to execute on your ideas — Chapter 2

A guide for those stuck in idea mode

Marc Köhlbrugge
Mar 10, 2014 · 13 min read

This is this second chapter of Zero to One, a framework that guides you through the first steps of executing on your idea. In this chapter we will look at the most important elements of creativity and making ideas happen. The underlying concepts and the psychological side of it. If you haven’t already I recommend you to read the first chapter first (~5 minutes).

– Marc


“A creative’s natural instinct is to want to remain only in idea-generation mode, but embracing sweat as a critical element of production is the defining factor between creative and creation.”
Behance Magazine

The (Un)importance of Creativity

There is this stereotype that big businesses all around the world are killing creativity in their workplaces because of closed minds, fear of change or whatever you want to name it. We, creatives, look down upon them. We all know it better. We all have these wonderful ideas which one day will shock the world because of their creativity. At least, that’s the idea. In reality only a few of us really make their ideas happen. The rest of us put our ‘ground shaking’ ideas on the back-burner. For later, when the time is right. Which of course, it never is.

If you don’t produce any work, you will get obsessed with your ideas and the ‘creativity’ that made it possible because it’s the only thing you have. However creativity and ideas aren’t that important. An idea without action is like a Ferrari without gasoline. Sure it might look pretty but in the end you want more than just look at it. You want to use it.

If you really are open minded like you probably tell yourself, be open to the fact we might be able to learn something from those big businesses focussed on results and “killing creativity.” I’m not saying they have found the holy grail of implementing ideas, but they do know their way around unfolding an idea into something real. That’s something we can learn from. Don’t worry about wasting your creative genius. It will show itself when you’re actually working. The real creativity happens when transforming that initial thought, that idea, into something real. Which leads me to something called the open and the closed mode.

Open and Closed Mode

We see a closed mind as something bad. A closed mind now and then is not a bad thing though. In fact, it’s essential when implementing ideas. Luckily, we can have both an open mind and a closed mind. Not at the same time, but we can train ourselves to switch between them. In his lecture ‘Creativity in Management’ John Cleese speaks of an open mode and a closed mode. A research project he was involved in showed the secret behind most successful businesses is their ability to switch between the two modes.

I like to see the open mode as a creative playground. Everything is possible. No pressure, just brainstorming, coming up with crazy ideas. It’s about the process itself. The closed mode, on the other hand, is about implementation, always focussed on the end-result.

Cleese tells us the best way to utilize these two modes is in a cycle. You start in the open mode, come up with an idea, then you switch to the closed mode to implement the first bit. Then back into the open mode looking back at your work and see if it is going into the right direction. Then again, back into the closed mode to implement those changes and the cycle repeats itself.

That all sounds wonderful, but we are not robots. We cannot flip a switch and go from an open mode to a closed one. If it was that easy, there wasn’t any problem. This is the real challenge. This is what the article will focus on.

Cleese argues creativity is not possible in the closed mode. That’s something I have to disagree with. While I agree the mode does not promote creativity, it does exist. It does exist in another form however. It happens on a subconscious level. When a problem arises, let’s say you’re writing a book but your computer crashes. Deciding to call yourself and dictate everything in your voicemail inbox is a creative solution which will probably have an impact on the actual writing as well. I still see this as the closed mode because you keep moving forward. You keep focussed on the end result.

That said, perhaps that’s even not that important. What is important though, and it’s one of the most important discoveries I made when doing research for this article, it that there is not a clear line between the open and close mode. In other words, there is no clear line between the idea and implementation phase. The so-called idea phase already contains a lot of implementation-work and when in the implementation phase you’re still reshaping the idea. The whole creation process is about implementing an idea. These are two things you cannot break apart, therefore we shouldn’t treat them as such.

“You’ve got to get in there and do.”
Twyla Tharp

The First Step

The first step, the one after you’ve come up with the idea and need to actually do some work, is for most people the hardest part of the whole creation process. Jack Foster describes these people in his book How to Get Ideas:

“They get an idea, they tell some people about it, the people all say, ‘Wow, that’s great!’ and then they go on to something else and never do anything more about the idea they told people about. I think the reason is: “Wow, that’s great!” is reward enough. It gives you that nice warm glow that comes from knowing you got a really good idea, that everybody thinks you’re a whiz.”

Foster has a point. For me just telling people about my ideas was rewarding enough. Just looking through my list of ideas at my own felt good. If that’s all you want, that’s fine. No need to pursue your ideas if you’re happy with just “having” them. For me that didn’t last though, slowly my ideas seemed less important to me and stuff I actually created, whether it was client work or something for school, felt more worthy. Even if the initial ideas weren’t that original or clever, the fact that I actually made something felt good. The intrinsic value of an idea faded away, I needed to develop them. Depending on your wants and needs, you can decide not to make the first step at all. But if you’re reading this article you probably want to get more out of your ideas. In that case “Wow, that’s great!” is not enough. You’re not fulfilled, something else is holding you back. Resistance. This is what Steven Pressfield writes about in his book The War of Art:

“There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.”

Of course, that’s not just true for writers, but for all creatives. Working on our projects isn’t difficult. But beginning to work on them is.

So while creative work is beautiful, it gives us a way to express ourselves and if we’re lucky we can even make a living doing it, it does require a great deal of effort as well. Staring at that blank canvas can be daunting. We have to stay focussed, not to fall prey to all distractions that enter our lives. We can’t let Resistance hold us back. But what exactly is Resistance?

“Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard, or smelled. But it can be felt. We experience it as an energy field radiating from a work-in-potential. It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.”

Pressfield goes on explaining how Resistance seems to come from our environment. We locate it in other people or situations we don’t have any influence on. But that’s a lie. “Resistance is self- generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within.” If you want to realize your ideas, you have to be aware of this. You have to be aware of how Resistance manifests itself in your life. “Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work.” Don’t let that happen. Fight it. That’s the struggle that comes with creativity. Take it or leave it.

When you do decide to fight it and you sit down and commit yourself to working on that idea, new doors of opportunity will open which would have stayed closed otherwise.

What this means is you can never blame someone or something else for you not working on your ideas. The Resistance is within you and the only way is to attack it, head-on. Just begin, even if your situation or resources are not ideal. When you begin, things happen.

“Concerning all the acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would not otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man would have dreamed would come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: ‘Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic and power in it. Begin it now.’” — W. H. Murray

You only see a glimpse of the idea when it’s still in your head. But as soon as you act on it, as soon as you begin the creative process, the idea will become clearer and new possibilities will emerge. One of the reasons starting is so difficult is because we don’t know where to start. We’re overwhelmed by all the work we have to do. We just cannot wrap our minds around it, we do not know where to start so we do not start at all. So the first part is to learn where to start, then we have to make starting a habit. Something we don’t think about anymore, but just do. So that we don’t have those internal discussions with ourselves anymore. We have to make starting a routine.

The Elements of a Creative Life

Routine

Every creative professional has their own ways of working. So has dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp, but she decided to write a book about it: The Creative Habit. Tharp is a true artist. Her whole life is about her art. Like Murray, Tharp argues beginning is one the most important steps in any creative endeavor. When she talks about it in her book she doesn’t necessarily mean the beginning of a project, but the beginning of her workday. Tharp has developed a morning ritual:

“I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5:30 a.m., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.”

She then goes on explaining “it’s vital to establish some rituals–automatic but decisive patterns of behavior–at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at the peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.”

The rational mind doesn’t like to start. It’s the Resistance we talked about earlier. So the solution is to make starting a habit. It will take some discipline at first, but in time it will turn into a routine. That’s when the problem is solved.

So how do you get this routine? Work every day.

“Do something about your idea every day. Open your computer or your folder or your notebook and do something. Every day. Even if it’s only to review what you did yesterday, do it. At the end of a month you’ll be surprised at how much you’ve accomplished. At the end of a year you’ll be astounded.”

Tharp talks more about the importance of a routine:

“After so many years, I’ve learned that being creative is a full-time job with its own daily patterns. That’s why writers, for example, like to establish routines for themselves. The most productive ones get started early in the morning, when the world is quiet, the phones aren’t ringing, and their minds are rested, alert, and not yet polluted by other people’s words. They might set a goal for themselves–write fifteen hundred words, or stay at their desk until noon– but the real secret is that they do this every day. In other words, they are disciplined. Over time, as the daily routines become second nature, discipline morphs into habit.

It’s the same for any creative individual, whether it’s a painter finding his way each morning to the easel, or a medical researcher returning daily to the laboratory. The routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration, maybe more. And this routine is available to everyone.”

Commitment

Have you ever worked on a project you didn’t really want to work on anymore, but you kept going anyway because you already had invested so much time in it? You just couldn’t quit project, even when you knew the project was going nowhere or you just had lost interest.

That sounds bad. And you shouldn’t continue a project when it’s going nowhere. However, that’s not what this article is about. First you have to know how to stick with a project, through good times and bad. Then you can learn about when to quit. So for now, let’s just disregard the fact that sometimes quitting is the right answer and instead look at this from a positive angle.

If you invest something, your subconscious can’t stop working until it gets its investment back in one way or another. The same principle is applied in Las Vegas, people keep playing the slot machines because they want their money back. It’s a strong human trait we can use to our advantage. For example, Foster talks about committing yourself by committing your money:

“Take some money out of your savings account or borrow some money from your brother-in- law, open up a checking account with it under the name of your idea, and spend some of it on something you need to do to get your project going.”

This works two ways:

  1. As soon as you try investing money you will know if you’re committed to your idea. If you can’t even invest a little money, how can you invest all your time and mental capacity?
  2. If you do in fact invest money, you will want to get a result somehow which forces you to complete the project.

A more extreme form of commitment Julius Caesar and other generals used when invading foreign countries was to burn their boats. By doing this retreat was impossible, the troops knew they had to conquer the country or they would die. Now I don’t recommend you start burning boats and all, but the underlying principle is very useful indeed. Namely, forcing yourself to go through with something. For example by forcing deadlines upon yourself, something which I will talk a bit more about in a next section.

There are other ways of investing as well. You might not realize it, but when you’re working on a project you’re investing your time and energy. If you keep reminding yourself of all the time already invested you will want to finish the project. In Part 2 we’ll create something to do exactly that.

Staying motivated

If you use a to-do list to manage all your tasks you know how nice it feels to cross off an item as done. It seems like such a silly thing, but knowing you can cross off another item when you have finished the task gives enough motivation to actually do it. Looking at your list full of crossed off tasks at the end of the day feels really good as well. But “when you complete a list of action steps, your instinct might be to throw the list away. After all, the work is completed! However, some creative professional teams take a different approach; they relish their progress. Some go so far as surrounding themselves with it.” (Source: 99u)

So by surrounding yourself with progress, you will stay motivated. You will know all the hard work in the past has paid off and so will the hard work you do now.

Besides looking back, you have to look forward too. Envision your idea fully realized. How will it look? How will it work? How will people react? This will give context to your idea and provides clarity.

Additionally, it also reminds you of what you’re really working for. If you can find a way to visualize the outcome you hope to achieve, for example a drawing on your desk, you will stay motivated even during the hard times. Because you will know what you’re working for.

Deadlines

A deadline is a funny thing. On the one hand it restricts us. We only get a fixed amount of time to complete our work. On the other hand it focusses us on getting things done. It’s different for everybody, but if I don’t have a deadline it can take ages before I complete something.

But what if you’re working on your own project? Of course you can set your own deadline, if that works: good! If it doesn’t, we need to find another way to set a deadline. F. R. Uptone, one of Edison’s closest associates says Edison often got himself in trouble by purposely publishing something prematurely, so that he would have a full incentive to get himself out of trouble.

Edison set his own deadline and held himself accountable. We can apply this principle to our own projects as well.

Conclusion

The problem is clear. We like the idea-phase, but are stuck in it because we don’t like the implementation-phase. However, we saw there are no such things. The creation process doesn’t exist of two (or more) phases but is a continuous unfolding of the initial idea.

It all starts with a thought, a flash of insight, which is then written down on a napkin as the cliché goes. Then we rewrite the idea into something more formal. Which then transforms into a project plan, to a planning, scope definition, the whole shebang. These documents are then turned into something we can use in our day-to-day work, for example to-do lists. Which are turned into actions which result in the implementation of that initial thought. That’s how it really happens. The only “distinction” between the idea and implementation is the time put in. The more time you put in the further it grows and eventually the idea will become a reality. It’s like a seed that turns into a flower.

Now, I can just tell you that, but that doesn’t help you. You need to experience it yourself. In the next part I will guide you to this thought process in the hope you’ll duplicate it.


    Marc Köhlbrugge

    Written by

    @BetaList Founder

    Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
    Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
    Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade