Have you ever wondered how successful creative people do what they do? What is their secret? How do they generate work that resonates so well with their audiences? Where do their groundbreaking ideas come from?
Have you ever gotten a straight answer to any of these questions? I haven’t.
Looking in from the outside, it feels a bit like magic, doesn’t it? It’s as if the most successful actors and illustrators and writers and entrepreneurs possess a secret ability that eludes the rest of humanity.
They have it (whatever it is).
And without a satisfactory answer to questions about where this magical it comes from, how one can acquire it, or how it works, outsiders can often become suspicious or jealous. Some resort to treating their creative peers with contempt. Others simply give up on their own creative pursuits. After all, if you don’t already have this secret ingredient and nobody can tell you how to get it, then what is the point of trying? Aren’t you already doomed to fail?
If you are like me, you have probably experienced both sides of this misunderstanding: in one moment, you find yourself trying and failing to explain how you do something that both feels intuitive and requires a tremendous amount of work, and in another moment, you find yourself straining to understand how somebody does something that completely mystifies you.
But what if the secret to creative success isn’t magic? What if it’s a process composed of repeatable steps and skills that can be practiced, improved, augmented by software and community, or even outsourced?
I believe that’s exactly the case.
The formula for creative success as a series of additive equations:
You can think of the journey to creative success (or, to think of it another way: the life cycle of a successful creation) as a series of steps in which each step adds some new element to all the elements that preceded it. It looks like this:
- Ideation = Data + Connections
- Creative Thinking = Ideation + Filtering
- Execution = Creative Thinking + Craft
- Production = Execution + Iteration
- Presentation = Production + Marketing
- Success = Presentation + Adoption
These equations can be further grouped into three phases: Think (Ideation and Creative Thinking), Do (Execution and Production), and Share (Presentation and Success). In the coming weeks, I plan to post a series of articles that will dive deeper into each of these topics. But in the meantime, let’s look briefly at each equation.
Ideation = Data + Connections
Have you ever had a “Eureka” moment — a flash of insight that presented the solution to a problem or the inspiration for a new project or pursuit? What happened there? Did brand new information spontaneously appear in your mind from nowhere, or did you simply make a connection between two or more things that you hadn’t previously put together?
It was a connection, wasn’t it?
I would argue that all ideas, big or small, are simply a mental link between two or more pieces of data. The more disparate the newly connected elements and the more meaningful the connection between them, the more innovative the idea will be. And the inverse is also true: the more similar the elements or inconsequential the connection, the more mundane or obvious an idea will seem. Take the following examples, and consider how innovative each feels and why:
- iPhone = cell phone + touch screen + GPS
- Hamilton (the musical) = American history + hip hop + musical theater
- Cronut = croissant + donut
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy = science fiction + absurdist comedy
It is undoubtedly elating when big ideas strike us like lightning out of nowhere. But just as lightning is no more magical than a tiny spark of static electricity, earth shattering ideas are no more magical than the everyday variety. And sometimes, those everyday ideas come together to form something with more impact than you would ever have imagined (i.e. the invention of the Post-it Note emerging from a supposedly failed glue or the discovery that penicillin could be used as medicine).
At the end of the day, your ideas are made of exactly two ingredients: the data available to you (your knowledge and experience, memories, problems you have been trying to solve, books and articles you have read, things people have said to you, observations you make in the moment, etc.) and your ability to use your imagination to make connections between those data points. So, if you want to produce more ideas, you must consume a lot of information, observe the people and things around you intently, and train your mind to look for and recognize unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated things.
Creative Thinking = Ideation + Filtering
Coming up with a lot of ideas is a great starting place, but it can also be overwhelming. How do you know which ideas are good and which should be tossed out? Which ideas will solve your problems, and which won’t? Which will resonate with your audience, and which will turn them away? You need some way to filter through them.
Many successful creative professionals are not the primary ideators in their organizations. Rather, they are able to get ahead specifically because they are so good at filtering the ideas of others. Magazine editors come to mind, as do art directors, publishing agents, museum curators, and film producers. These professionals know (or at least, have convinced others that they know) how to distinguish the merely good from the excellent, and they succeed by making decisions about what “makes the cut” and what does not.
So how do these people filter so well? In many cases, all they need is a sense of taste or good judgement: this color works, that one doesn’t; this chord is better than that one; cut this paragraph; add a pinch of salt. That sort of intuitive knowing comes with time and experience and repeated exposure to the medium and its audience. This skill can be grown and cultivated.
Often, though, that isn’t enough, and in these cases, a creator may elect to conduct experiments, elicit external feedback, or engage in user testing. There are lots of repeatable and trustworthy methods for validating ideas early and often. And if you don’t have the knowledge or experience, these skills can be outsourced to others who do.
Execution = Creative Thinking + Craft
Execution happens when a creator puts pen to paper, brush to canvas, or fingers to keyboard. This is the point at which craft (the application of tools and technique) joins creative thinking.
Note that the order in which these things happen is not set in stone. A creator may have an idea in mind before sitting down to work, or, depending on the application, she may begin with execution, allowing her creation to become part of the data that sparks new ideas, making thousands of little filtering decisions about what works and what doesn’t in the moment. When my daughter doesn’t know what to draw, she will often scribble on a page (or make me scribble for her) and then turn the resulting marks into something recognizable. Likewise, many of my best photos were the result of simply grabbing a camera and pointing it at whatever was nearby, looking for something to jump out at me, without having planned a particular shot in advance.
And of course, anybody can study and improve their craft. Countless books line the shelves of your local library or bookstore on graphic design, acting, cooking, writing, and more. Private lessons or group classes or can be taken. For some fields, a college degree can be a viable option. Video courses and blogs can be found to teach you how to do whatever you want. The world has never been so primed to help you succeed in your craft. Of all the pieces of the creative journey, this is the simplest (if not the easiest) to grow in.
And it makes sense. Many people live in this step, finding personal fulfillment in the craft itself. They don’t need to come up with a new idea; they are happy to simply execute another person’s creative thinking. This is the relationship between the musicians in a symphony orchestra and the composer who has written a score. It is also the relationship between many software engineers and the product leaders they work with. It is entirely possible to live a successful, satisfied creative life without ever straying from the realm of craft, leaving the rest of the process to others.
On the other hand, a creative thinker or marketer who isn’t the best at a particular craft can still succeed by teaming up with people who are skilled where they are not.
Production = Execution + Iteration
Nothing is ever perfect the first time. Every first draft is terrible. Nobody ever picked up a hammer and chisel and came away with a masterpiece sculpture on their first try. No software application ever came back from beta testers without dozens of bug reports and feature requests.
The worst thing you can do for your creative confidence is to compare your first attempt to somebody else’s masterpiece.
The best thing you can do for your creative confidence is to iterate.
Most of what we create winds up in the garbage. That’s the way of it. Don’t fight it; embrace it. I’ve written thousands of lines of fiction, lyrics, and code that have been deleted and forgotten. I’ve received rejection letters, revised my manuscript, re-submitted it, and been rejected again. I’ve thrown meals in the garbage and ordered pizza. I’ve shot hundreds of photos for every one that I’ve posted or shared. Was all of this effort wasted? No! Both I, the creator, and the things I was creating were improved in the process, and I would never have created any of my favorite end products had I not first typed characters I would later erase, made things I would trash, and tried things that would fail.
Performers practice. Writers revise. Innovators iterate.
This iteration — which includes a healthy dose of reflection and revision as we ideate and filter, experiment, and improve our craft — is absolutely necessary. Without it, no creative work will ever reach its potential.
Presentation = Production + Marketing
Unless your plan is to create artwork on an Etch A Sketch, enjoy it for yourself, and then shake it clean without so much as Instagramming it first, you (or somebody else who plans to profit from your work) probably care about exposing whatever you’ve made to the right audience in the right way at the right time.
This is where marketing comes in.
Marketing is not a synonym for sketchy advertising. Nor is it the science of tricking people into paying for things they don’t need. Rather, marketing is a word that encompasses both the platform on which you present your work and the way you communicate about it to your audience.
If you are a painter, marketing includes not only any announcements about your showing but also the gallery where your painting is displayed, the way it is lit, the painting’s name, and any descriptive text that accompanies it. If you are a rock musician, it’s your band’s name, your album covers, your merch, the venues you play in, and the radio stations and/or podcasts who play and promote your music. If you are a font designer selling on Creative Market, it includes the Creative Market ecosystem, the screenshots and videos you upload, the names you choose for each font, the tags and descriptions and prices you set, and how you engage your audience on social media.
Some creators love marketing. Some hate it. There is a lot of advantage to be found in collaborating or outsourcing at this stage, and there are myriad books and blogs on the subject to help you grow your own marketing expertise. This is one of the more challenging parts of the process, but it’s the final piece you can control in your journey to creative success, and that makes it incredibly important to get right.
Success = Presentation + Adoption
What does success look like for you, as a creative person? How will you know when you have made it? Is success measured in dollars? Is it found in fame or notoriety? Perhaps you want to leave a legacy or simply have your work appreciated by those close to you.
Some creators are fond of saying they would create whatever they make even if nobody else ever saw it or heard it. This sounds noble, but it is almost always a lie (and a safe one at that since it is rarely ever tested). Most creators create not only for ourselves but also for other people. We want our audiences to adopt our work — to love it and to share it. Whether we measure success in dollars or likes or kind words, adoption is ultimately the way we hit those metrics.
And there is a key distinction to be made here: adoption is more than consumption or even appreciation. Consumption happens when somebody purchases a copy of your handmade icon set or watches your indie film. Appreciation happens when somebody compliments your photography, or when people hang around after a show to tell you how much they enjoy your singing. All of those are valid, but they fall short of adoption.
Adoption happens when someone transforms from a consumer or appreciator of your work into a true fan. Would you rather have someone “like” your Instagram post, or would you rather they follow you and share your photos and videos with their friends, recruiting more followers because they love your work? Would you rather sell a copy of your novel, or would you rather have people speculate about the sequel in Facebook groups, write fan fiction, and keep buying more copies so they can loan them out? This is what adoption looks like.
But unfortunately, adoption is the one piece of the process you cannot directly control. All you can control is the production. But that’s okay. Let’s look at the formula for creative success again, combined and expanded this time:
Success = Data + Connections + Filtering + Craft + Iteration + Marketing + Adoption.
In this model, there are seven components to creative success, and you have the power to improve, grow in, augment, and/or outsource six of them. The higher the quality of your data, connections, filters, craft, iteration, and marketing, the higher the likelihood that your end product will find adoption.
And the message here is that, if you are measuring success solely by adoption, you are ignoring at least half of the equation — the half you can affect.
If you want better adoption, focus on generating more ideas, filtering down to the best of them, honing your craft, perfecting your production through iteration, and improving your marketing. If you do all of that and people still do not adopt your work, learn from the experience and try again with something new.
Creative success, after all, is not the result of some magical attribute you may or may not possess; it’s the result of a process — thinking, doing, and sharing — a process you can improve at every step.