Creativity is defined as the productive use of ideas and imagination.
Unfortunately, because of widespread preconceptions about creativity, people tend to go about it the wrong way. Here are the three rules of creativity—two of which are counter-intuitive—that will improve your approach to creativity. I realize that “creative rules” may seem like an oxymoron, but the first rule will put that idea to rest.
Rule #1 – Limit Your Options & Narrow Your Focus
A false definition of creativity is “considering all ideas.” It sounds appealing to consider all possibilities, but it’s also impossible. And even if we could do it, which ones are we to use if there are an infinite number of them?
Don’t aim to “be creative,” either. That means nothing. Aim to write a creative storyline. Set out to design a creative business model. Be specific about what your aim is, and it will constrain your creative ideas in a way that’s useful. It’s counterintuitive to consider fewer options, but being specific is a boon to creativity.
To be creative, you need hard constraints within which to work. And there’s even a study to prove it.
A study on knitters of equal skill found that those who had moderate yarn choices—as opposed to a significant number of choices—created more creative scarves (as determined by impartial judges). The scarves made from more yarn choices look rather dull and uninspired in my opinion, and they are all “scarf-shaped.” The scarves made from fewer choices, though, have more dynamic patterns and shapes, and one was even made to look like a snake! See for yourself which scarves you think are more creative.
Narrowing Your Focus: A Creative Marketing Example
One of my favorite examples of creativity was what Mark Hughes, former Vice President of Marketing at Half.com, did to get the company national media attention. Under Hughes’ guidance, the company struck a deal with the city of Halfway, Oregon to rename the city “Half.com, Oregon” for one year. It was the first city to ever be renamed to a website, and a unique enough story to get the attention of national media (a major marketing success).
But how would you come to a creative idea like this? I don’t know his exact process, but it may have gone something like this:
- Creative marketing idea needed for website.
- Something that’s never been done.
- Renaming something else with the company name, Half.com
- What sounds close to Half.com? Halftime, half and half milk products…Hmmm…maybe something bigger and more noteworthy? What would shock everyone? Renaming a road wouldn’t be noteworthy. But a city? That would be something.
Again, his process was certainly different than this, but notice how the narrowing and specifying actually lead to greater and greater creativity.
When they got to this crazy idea of renaming a city to Half.com, they wrote down several cities with “half” in their name. After making calls, and gauging interest, they continued to work to make it happen, and offered Halfway, Oregon compensation and perks in exchange for the renaming to make it mutually beneficial (as well as the perk of being “put on the map” with such a unique story).
Six months after the story got Half.com an invaluable amount of exposure through national media, eBay bought them for $300 million. This story is found in greater detail in Hughes’ excellent book, Buzz Marketing.
The takeaway from this story is that in order to come to a highly creative idea like this, thinking must get narrower and narrower. Don’t be afraid to narrow down early on in the process—you can always zoom out again if you don’t like where it’s leading you.
The problem many people have when trying to be creative is thinking so broadly that they won’t commit to explore an idea. This KILLS creativity. Set some limits (even time limits) and remember that limits help, not hurt, your creativity.
Rule #2 – Believe You’re Creative
Creativity is largely defined by your self-perception. A group of psychologists were hired to come into a corporation and determine the difference between creative and uncreative employees. The only difference they found was belief—the creative ones believed they were creative.
Some people believe creativity is a mysterious and magical thing, and that you’re born with it or not. These people are wrong; and they would have trouble explaining how the “uncreative” people at the aforementioned company became “many times more creative” than the creative ones. They became more creative through a creativity program, suggesting that creativity is a learnable skill. I read about this story in Michael Michalko’s book, Thinkertoys.
Believe you’re creative and that you can improve further. It’s essential for creative success.
Rule #3 – Embrace “Bad” Ideas
The idea of a “bad” idea is bad. Ideas aren’t bad because they’re just ideas. When a bad idea is acted upon, of course it can be harmful. Counterintuitively, bad ideas are a boon to creativity because they can easily combine with another idea to become a good idea.
Jumping off a tall bridge is a bad idea—it kills people. But if you discard it because it’s a bad idea, you might never think of bungie jumping, which adds a tether to the “bad idea” to give you a rush while keeping you safe. Bungie jumping is a multi-million dollar per year business for thrill seekers.
Bad ideas often turn into the best ideas. Since bad ideas are avoided by most people who try to be creative with “only good ideas,” there’s less creative competition in bad ideas, and you’re more likely to come up with something truly creative and unique. Just ask Ed Debevic, who didn’t even change his bad idea, he just made it into a good one by reframing it in our minds.
Ed Debevic’s restaurant in Chicago is rude to customers. That’s a bad idea because we all know the customer comes first and is always right, right? But this exact bad idea is what makes Ed Debevic’s a very popular tourist destination; it’s one of the few places where you can get servers so rude that it’s comical. I’d like to go someday because it sounds hilarious, but I hear the food is average at best (sorry Ed).
When you limit your options, believe you’re creative, and entertain “bad ideas” as viable starting points, your creativity will improve. Try it!