Leveraging the Creative Curve

Creativity.

The word may make you feel uncomfortable or inferior. In all likelihood, your mind starts to visualize creative greats like Mozart, da Vinci, and Steve Jobs.

They seem so special.

It’s easy to adopt the general consensus that we aren’t special enough to be creative. And even if we think that creativity is within our reach, we may be still waiting for the metaphorical lightning bolt to strike, hoping that an idea will simply arrive in our heads.

In the latest episode of The Power Of Bold, my goal was to address these myths and explore ways that we can become more creative. I had a fascinating discussion with Allen Gannett, the founder and CEO of TrackMaven and the author of The Creative Curve: How to Develop the Right Idea at the Right Time.

You can find my complete interview with Allen on iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.

The Creative Curve isn’t your standard book on creativity. Allen not only explores the myths and misconceptions about creativity, but he explains how we can model our thoughts and behaviors off of creative A-listers and generate our own creative ideas.

To do this, we leverage the Creative Curve. We generate ideas that are familiar, yet novel.

Allen has clearly done his homework on creativity and our discussion touched on a wide range of topics involving the science and practice of creativity. That said, here are my top insights from my discussion with Allen.

Flashes of Genius Are Rarely That

Some people, when hearing the word creativity, tend to think of those lightning strike moments, where innovators are simply the recipients of brilliant ideas.

The fact is that this general consensus is wrong. To prove this, you only need to look at one at one of the most famous bands of all time.

The stereotypical story is that Paul McCartney of The Beatles simply woke up one morning and created the smash hit Yesterday. The general understanding is that the chord progression of Yesterday came to him in a dream. Once he woke up, he sat at his piano, immediately putting together the pieces that would become the most recorded song of all time.

The reality is quite different.

The story of Yesterday is not of a sudden lightning strike of genius. It’s the story of years of preparation and consistent hard work.

Sure, McCartney awoke and recalled from a dream a simple chord progression that would form the foundation of Yesterday. However, the lyrics and overall sound structure were missing. It would take McCartney 20 months to go from the simple chord progression of Yesterday to a full-blown song.

There was no simple, linear progression from the simple chord progression to the legendary song. It took many months of hard work and sidestepping dead ends. And the simple chord progression itself that came to McCartney in the dream was the end result of many years of consuming music that he loved.

The story of Yesterday is encouraging, as it shows that creativity is a long, laborious process—even for the greats. It is the result of hard, thoughtful work.

If you’re waiting for a lightning bolt to strike, stop waiting. Instead, take action, whether that’s consuming content in your sector, speaking with people in your field, or simply tinkering on side projects.

Listen to the Market and Iterate

It’s easy to think of those creatives who follow their own vision, regardless of the attitude of their colleagues or of their market.

The often-cited example is Steve Jobs. Many people cite Jobs’s quotes where he disparages market research and relies on his intuition to serve Apple customers. Consequently, some creatives and entrepreneurs believe that they can rely on their own gut on what customers will want, rather than going out, speaking with customers, and doing painstaking market research.

But by studying Jobs and his track record at Apple, Allen argues that it is when Jobs disregarded the customer that he developed products that flopped.

Apple’s Newton, for instance, had many features and was technically impressive, yet it wasn’t the right idea at the right time. The audience wasn’t ready for an Apple PDA in the early 1990s.

However, Apple’s product development in the 2000s and 2010s is the story of customer feedback and iteration.

The iPod was a better mp3 player, the iPhone was an iPod with a phone, and the iPad was an iPhone without the phone.

The sweet spot of creativity—as will be discussed below—is a combination of the familiar and novel. And to discover that sweet spot, it is critical to understand the current thinking of the market that you are targeting. Even once you understand where the market is, you need to keep iterating to keep up with consumer preferences.

So when you are searching for your next creative idea, don’t disregard the current market consensus. From there, continue gathering more customer data and innovate. Doing this will increase the odds of finding a killer creative idea.

Leverage the Familiar and the Novel

Allen’s so-called Creative Curve is based on the relationship between familiarity and novelty. The curve itself is essentially an inverted “U.”

When we’re first exposed to something new, we are somewhat scared of it and don’t necessarily like it. Our unfamiliarity makes it difficult to accept the new concept or idea. That said, when we’re further exposed to the concept or idea, our unfamiliarity and fear dissipate, and we tend to like it more and more. Eventually, however, our novelty-seeking wins out and we get bored of the concept or idea. Traditional exposure makes us like the concept or idea less and less.

For a visual explanation of the idea, you can see Allen’s Creative Curve below:

This balance of familiarity and novelty is critical.

But how do you know where you are on the curve?

Allen suggests following the lead of the Ben & Jerry’s flavor team, which asks customers to evaluate a shortlist of potential flavors. The flavor team sends an email survey to customers asking two questions for each flavor:

How likely are you to buy this flavor?
How unique is it?

These two questions essentially ask customers about a flavor’s familiarity and novelty. By asking the questions together, the flavor team can pinpoint a creative idea.

So ultimately, the great creative achievers, whether people or organizations, incorporate feedback to understand their idea’s timing and where it falls on the Creative Curve. By following their model, you increase your chances of hitting the sweet spot of the curve.

Consumption is Underrated

Tell me if this sounds familiar.

You’re browsing the Internet or social media and find a motivational image or meme explaining the difference between consumers and creators. It goes something like this:

Consumers are simply dreamers who do not act to achieve their dreams. Creators are putting themselves out there, they’re doers, and they’re making the world a better place.

Allen says that these social media memes are wrong. In fact, consumption is a key ingredient of the creative process.

The best creators are massive consumers in their niche because they need to understand what is familiar, what will be novel, and how to combine the two.

As one example, Allen references Ted Sarandos, the chief content officer at Netflix. As a child, Ted worked as a clerk at a video rental store. He was so passionate about movies that he watched every single film in the store. That experience was a huge part of his success, as it gave him his underlying taste, knowledge of the current marketplace, and his knowledge of what was familiar and novel in films.

While this is just one example, the natural conclusion is that consumption and creativity aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, consumption is a necessary part of the creative process.

You clearly don’t want to spend all of your time consuming, but consumption will help you understand the familiar and novel, which will ultimately allow you to ride the Creative Curve and generate more creative ideas.

Speeding Up the Process

It’s easy to understand what the Creative Curve is. However, it’s an entirely separate thing to go out and generate a creative idea.

It is likely going to take a long time. And that’s OK.

But if you are looking to speed up the process, Allen suggests that you try being creative in a new platform.

It’s much easier to become world-class in certain areas over others. As just one example, it’s much harder to become a world-class piano player than a world class digit memorizer, as there are more people “competing” in the former than the latter.

Therefore, it can be easier to become a world-class creator when you are creating on new platforms, whether that’s virtual reality, smart speakers, or something else.

Alternatively, you can reverse this strategy. In other words, you can focus your creative efforts on old, stodgy industries.

Whether it’s law or insurance, for instance, it’s helpful to pay attention to areas where creativity is underdone. Most actors in these industries are used to doing things a certain way, so it may be easier to leverage the Creative Curve when individuals within the industry are simply fine with inertia.

Go Out and Create

It can be easy to think that we aren’t creative. Our society is controlled by creativity myths that are nearly all false.

We need to ignore these myths and truly believe that we can create awesome, innovative products and services. Luckily, Allen’s book provides a clear-cut explanation of how we can find creative ideas by pursuing both familiarity and novelty.

True, the road is long and it isn’t easy. But by having confidence in our abilities and by putting in the work, we increase our chances of generating awesome creative ideas for whatever project in front of us.


Thanks for reading! Once again, you can access Allen’s interview on The Power Of Bold by visiting our page on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, or Stitcher. If you’d like to read a full transcript of the episode, you can access the episode’s show notes on our website. You can also join my monthly book club by clicking here.


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