People tell me I’m creative. OK, so maybe they mean off-the-wall-crazy creative, or maybe it’s a nice way of saying weird. You know, not normal. Free-spirited. A tick off-center. Personally, I think it’s that at times my filters suck.

Filters, as in that common sense thing everyone seems to be so wild about. The talent/ability/skill (pick one) that enables a person to sift through the choices at hand and make a selection that promises the best/most rational/desired outcome (again, pick one).

My *ahem* deficit has given rise to some interesting situations, but has gotten a lot better with age. This may or may not be a good thing.

Flip back bunches of years. Oh, say, to forty-six years ago.

At twelve, I thought Jean Shrimpton strikingly beautiful and, because she was the most famous model of the day and her totally hip face was attached to the even more hip Yardley cosmetic line, of course my preteen heart believed the advertisements featuring her.

 

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Did I want The London Look? Oh, yes! Did I want to be fabulous? Yes, yes! Yardley would do this. I just knew it. I could look like Jean Shrimpton. Well, closer than in my then current state.

My twelve-year-old self saw three problems — little money with which to buy Yardley, no transportation to a department store, and parents who didn’t like make-up.

These were the ’60s, people. Kids didn’t hang out at malls, and they definitely didn’t paint their faces.

Up until then, I’d used only Vaseline on my lips as a faux makeup version of lip gloss, but I was ready to advance to the big leagues. The logical place to start was in my mother’s bathroom. She had plenty of lipstick, all brightly colored — a far cry from the pale, natural shades that resembled the coveted London Look. The closest thing in hue on the shelf was a sheer nail polish, tinted to a pinkish shade.

 

I did the math.

 

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Looked like a winner.

Applying it was easy. Keeping my lips perfectly still while the polish dried was another matter. I paced in front of the picture-window-sized bathroom mirror, keeping a deadpan expression and vigorously fanning my mouth with a cardboard swatch. Then it dawned on me…

BONUS, BONUS, BONUS

I’d not only have gloss and color…

It would last all day! I wouldn’t have to worry about it wearing off or having my hair blow into it and stick to Vaseline. Ha! Genius idea. I felt pretty darned proud, admiring my reflection, and stopped to run a finger over the dried shine. It was Formica-top smooth.

Anyway, after fanning, my handiwork did indeed resemble this:

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Happiness, happiness. And problem solved. It was a natural enough color, so my parents might not be too upset, and it hadn’t cost a dime.

I had my hip and happening look, and imagined prancing into school the next day, decked-out in white go-go boots and a polka dot mini-skirt, and sporting my Jean Shrimpton mouth.

Life was good.

I smiled.

And my lips cracked.

 

HOT TIP – A word to the wise here from someone who learned through bitter experience — don’t pull nail polish chips from sensitive areas like lips, because it lifts the top three layers of skin along with the polish. And if you do this, definitely don’t try to finish the job with polish remover. It stings beyond belief and can render you allergic to all but the most expensive lipsticks for the next forty-six years rest of your life.

 

Maybe you’ve had a problem and have come up with, um, a less than well-advised solution. Come on, it’s OK to admit it. There’s a reason for the oft-repeated, “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time…”, which, let’s face it, is usually epilogue to disaster.

Ideas are solutions. Some are good. Some are better. Some are just plain lousy.

So, where do ideas come from? Ideas that change the world. An idea for a new product, a plot twist in a novel, a spin on a family recipe. A medical breakthrough, a blockbuster advertising campaign. A way to get your child to clean his room.

This is not about creative methods or techniques, per se. It’s not about hot tips on mind mapping, creative flow, or Eureka moments. Those are easy enough to find. Do a Google search and you’ll end up with a potato chip list of links that will likely leave you full but not satisfied. You’ll find lists of steps to follow that promise to generate or boost creative output, which may or may not work depending on your process and on whether you are actually able to use them.

Don’t misunderstand, I believe methods are the framework, the techniques we attach to the foundation of creative process. But, as with many things, it’s what you start with that matters most. It’s the quantity and quality of raw material that ultimately determines utility of product. This raw material is the foundation — the cement that supports the walls, the base that determines where and how those walls are placed. And that goes back to filters.

 

BUT FIRST, A LITTLE BACKSTORY

Flip back further in time, to 1916 and Mind and Society by Pareto. The same Pareto of the 80/20 business rule. Dude was a real eclectic, but focused on sociology and economics, eventually with a Machiavellian bent.

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One of his notions was that a new idea was the result of combining two or more old elements.

Another was that there are two sorts of people:

  • those who can’t leave well enough alone and are preoccupied or driven to tinker with businesses, products, government, etc. in search of profit or gain,
  • and those who prefer things safe and just the way they are (the status quo).

In Pareto’s world, the two groups naturally clashed, and their memberships were fluid. In other words, depending on social, economic and/or personal circumstances, a person could shift from one group to the other, but never existed simultaneously in both.

 

Hop forward twenty-six years to 1942 and James Webb Young’s A Technique For Producing Ideas. As an advertising exec, Young read Pareto and agreed that indeed there were two sorts. But Young believed a person was either one or the other, essentially a creative or not. And once in a group, one couldn’t jump ship.

Because of this non-fluidity or fixed personality aspect of the individual, methods designed to produce more ideas or to increase creativity will never help a status quo thinker.

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Young also described the ideal sequence of creative action:

  1. Collect the raw material
  2. Digest the material — break it down and write down (exhaust) all possible combinations.
  3. Give up. Relax. Let the subconscious do its good work.
  4. When you are doing nothing, an idea appears
  5. Shape the idea to usefulness

We’ll come back to this list in a minute.

 

How To Get Ideas by Jack Foster in 2007 is basically Young’s work redux, except that he makes no mention of groups, creative or otherwise. Foster also believes that anyone can improve before using his “Ten Ways to Idea-Condition Your Mind”, which is a really snazzy collection of methods designed to help ideas flow.

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All right. The issue is two-fold. The first harkens back to the age-old argument of nature versus nurture. Is the creative bent that one possesses born or made? If so, to what degree? And, second, how can one improve or amplify creativity?

My belief echoes that of Young’s. I think you’re born with it.

Having said that, I also suspect that it’s a matter of degree, and the amount of benefit derived from creativity techniques is on scale with where on the creativity continuum one falls.

Or, in Earthspeak, if you’re naturally creative (on a ten point scale, say you’re an eight), ways to help you be more creative will work very well (again, at a seven or eight). If you’re like everyone else in my blood-family, except my son, and trend towards the lower end of the scale/status quo lovers, creativity techniques yield little help.

 

Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig. — Robert Heinlein

 

If you are a highly creative (and you know it if you are one), I can guess certain things about you:

  • You’re curious about most everything
  • You collect information, both general and specific
  • Maybe you don’t collect consciously, but you’re likely a voracious reader and/or you watch a variety of film, including documentaries
  • You like to make things — objects, books, music, shortcuts that save, etc.
  • You have a life-long love affair with learning, and see nuances in the subject matters you absorb

What you’re doing with all this information is shoring up your stockpile. Since ideas come from combining or connecting two or more elements, and the larger the store upon which to draw, the more combinations are possible. You are also likely somewhat preoccupied with this combining and recombining, at least in the back of your mind, on some barely conscious level.

 

SO, WHAT ARE THESE FILTERS YOU SPEAK OF?

Filters serve two functions — they selectively allow things in, and they rule what comes out.

Think of them as the mesh of a screen on a flour sifter. The finer the mesh, the less that gets through. The fineness of the mesh is (or should be) determined by:

  • How naturally creative you are- the higher the creativity, the wider the mesh…near unlimited flow..this is the raw stockpile of info you carry always…it’s also the base or foundation that I referred to earlier and to which methods are attached
  • Task at hand- you’re collecting specific information to help solve a defined problem, so the mesh tightens considerably…creativity methods have the most effect here, opening the mesh a bit and allowing you to see nuances and new connections or combinations

A look back at Young’s list gives us a hint that the first and last stages in creativity are where filters have the most impact.

We’ll use my Yardley make-up adventure as a brief example.

1. Collect the raw material (First Stage)

  • Stockpile (or Open Filter) – a whole history I’d accumulated of what is culturally attractive via family/education/media/friends, my youthful belief in advertising (if it’s in print, it must be so), peer pressure
  • Task at hand (or Fine Filter) – make-up, shiny, not too noticeable in color, something already in the house, Mom’s bathroom

5. Shape the Idea to Usefulness (Last Stage)

  • Stockpile (or Open Filter)- I had nothing, nada, except maybe how to apply polish by watching others. Though for some strange reason, I knew enough to keep my lips still while drying, but didn’t make the connection between that and the cracking after. Perhaps it’s because I’d seen women use polish to stop runs in nylon hose and there it registered as sometimes being flexible. Believe me, that bit of misinformation was corrected and immediately added to my stockpile.
  • Task at hand (or Fine Filter)- Simple application of polish. Again, I had nothing except what I’d envisioned my lips would look like afterward. You know, like JEAN SHRIMPTON. Initial Success, quickly morphing into Epic Fail.

 

I know, I know. Get on with it. You want ways to get more ideas. Cut to the chase.

Because this is about filtering, I’ll limit the methods below to Stage 1. Collecting the Raw Material because they have the most effect there. This is all about getting more raw stuff to work with, stuff to make connections, stuff to increase the Task at Hand info, therefore allowing you in Step 2. to create useful connections or a web between that and your existing stockpile.

Collect the Raw Material (First Stage)

  • Turn off the censor – This means not censoring raw data as well as not censoring yourself. Putting the kibosh on nixing material as soon as it occurs. If it occurs to you, write it down. Right now, you might not know what Uncle Ermo’s guitar has to do with creating a new lunch menu for your restaurant. It may have nothing to do with it. But the subconscious is a lot smarter than you are, and there’s shot that a musical instrument popped into your head for a reason. (By the way, the subconscious uses images, not words, and those images can have multiple meanings.)
  • Visualization – Also known as creative visualization and guided imagery. Made popular by Shakti Gawain in the late 1970’s. There are many other sources, including The Silva Method and Mike Dooley. At this point in the process, use the method to cement the belief that you can and do get ideas. Lots of them.
  • Reframe – Do you really know what the task at hand is? Time to examine more closely. Perhaps your assignment is to sell a car, but are wheels, a carburetor and a steering wheel what customers are buying? Bet not. Depending on demographics, they’re after some combination of status, identity, dependability, utility, economy or social statement. I’d focus gathering Task at Hand info on those areas and not headlights. Reframing is simply looking at things from another angle or viewpoint, or changing your perception of what they are.
  • Count high – Remember there is always more than one answer. As Foster mentions in How to Get Ideas, as soon as you realize there are many solutions to a problem, you’ll find them.
  • Get dirt under your fingernails – There’s nothing like doing. A story in direct mail copy writing that’s legend describes how the famous Aeolian Piano headline was created. The lesson of the story is that the writer couldn’t have come up with the headline sitting behind a typewriter. He physically went to the factory and asked questions. Plan to collect your specific Task at Hand information the same way.
  • Encourage courage – This is related to censoring yourself, but not based on what you think of an avenue to pursue. Rather, it’s quashing a line of thought because of what you fear others will think. Trust me, you can have a party in your head and no one has to know unless you tell them. And at this stage of idea generation, it can be your secret.
  • “Permission to fail, sir.” – In other words, plan on it. And it’s more than all right. It’s great. First, you’ll have silenced that haranguing fear-of-failure voice — freedom! — and, second, you’ll come up with a lot more possibles. So at Stage 2, instead of five ideas with one or two that may work, you’ll net twenty-five with five or six that may work. I’ll take those odds.
  • Ask! – This one is obvious. Get input from other people, preferably those you consider creative. I tend to use this method last. (Maybe based on some of my disasters rather interesting outcomes, I should rethink and do it sooner.)
  • Break it down – Quick, you’ve got five seconds. Make up a story about a meadow…5…4…3…2…hit a snag? Try one about a circus in a meadow…5…4…3…2…sketchy? How about a clown standing in the circus in the meadow? Holding balloons…5…4…3…2…better? A story about the single red balloon in the balloon bunch? The idea is that making the starting point smaller or more focused can help. How far you need to break it down is up to you. And yes, you can use multiples and piece them together as you like. (A story about just the circus plus a story about the lone red balloon.)

Remember these methods work best during Stage 1 of Idea Generation, though they can be used in Stage 5. Shaping the Idea to Usefulness. You can also weave bits of the above in with other techniques such as mind mapping in Stage 2.

I joke about some of my creative debacles — and, boy, have I had some. But I’ve also had a fair share of success. The methods I’ve described are the hands-on, practical ones I used in creating over twenty years worth of promotions and advertising for turn-around properties in the food and beverage industry — the same promotions I included in two books, used by food and beverage operations in all branches of the U.S. Military, properties such as Disney and The Grand Ole Opry, and thousands of smaller venues worldwide.

I hope you’ll give a few of the techniques a try and that you’ll have equal success.

 

So how about you? Have you used any of these techniques to bump your creativity? Got some others that have worked for you? Do you have a creative disaster story?

Share the love and comment about them below. (Especially if you’ve got a fun one about a disaster!)

As usual, you’ll be helping others with what you have to say.

Plus, I love hearing from you!

 

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3 Responses to Permission to Fly…Creatively (Part I)

  1. Wonderful, wonderful post! You’ve said everything and more. (So effectively in fact, that I still have a peculiar pain about my lip area …)

    My filters have always been somewhat out of whack, and if not for an over-taxed-to-the-max guardian angel (and undoubtedly a fair share of luck) protecting me from collusion with disaster, I likely would have picked-up my ego-bruised and broken self, and crept away to live in a cave long ago.

    To my credit, I do “generally” learn from my harebrained schemes gone awry–although it can take a ridiculous amount of time for the learning curve to kick-in. Which isn’t to say I’m not still prone to painful mistakes, it’s just that with wisdom (LOL) and age (not so LOL)they have become less severe. In fact,sometimes I even manage to hold back long enough to look before I leap.

    Lots of writerly wisdom here, Erica! Thanks for putting it all together so beautifully.

  2. Erica Miles says:

    Barbara, you’re lucky to have a vigilant guardian angel. I think mine has a warped sense of humor.

    On the plus side of disaster, I think that people who try the new and different make the most interesting friends. Others can call us many things, but boring is never one of them.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  3. corajramos says:

    What a wonderful post. It explains why I throw all kinds of things against the wall to see what sticks. Always the creative, I scratch my head at all the nay-sayers and people who are stuck and can’t move forward. Thanks for all your hard work on this article.