The Disciplined Pursuit of Accountable Creativity

tl;dr: Great ideas do not magically appear. They emerge from the consistent pursuit of creativity.

I was chatting recently with Dan Garon, who serves as Chief of Staff to Mark Pincus, the founder and former CEO of Zynga.

Zynga is one of, if not the, most popular maker of digital games in the world. You’ve heard of many of them, such as Farmville, which many people credit as the application which helped turned Facebook into a giant.

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With a business that is built in such large part on the need for creativity, our conversation took a turn towards the process of innovation and ideation.

Idea Quality vs. Quantity

As the world moves more and more towards a reality where the logical and data-driven “heavy lifting” is done by Artificial Intelligence, it becomes increasingly critical for humans to develop their creative skills.

Dan Pink (shout out to my first client ever!) identified this trend many years ago (before AI was really a mainstream “thing) in his best-selling book “A Whole New Mind.”

In his book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant emphasizes that most of us have never seen the bulk of the work created by the greats such as Picasso or Hemingway.

That is because they inherently understood the creative process as messy and imperfect. They knew that a huge percentage of the stuff they made would be bad or poor quality. At the same time, they knew that it was only by putting out A LOT of stuff that some absolute masterpieces of creativity would emerge.

In other words, you can’t get quality without quantity.

As I’ve shared, this “workshop” approach is very much the ethos of this blog. With the help of a great editor (critical), a writer can really make a masterpiece.

But it’s not just writing that requires quantity. It’s any type of creativity.

But creativity also requires collision.

How Quality Ideas Evolve

As a student of history, I naturally resonated with the story of idea explosion told in Steven Johnson’s video on Where Good Ideas Come From.

While the seed of the idea may come out of your head, it gets refined as it exposed to the mental forges of others. My son and I like watching “Forged in Fire” on the History Channel. On the show, they are creating knives. Here, we are creating ideas. But the concept is the same.

Take the raw material, put it in the forge, heat it up, melt it down, hammer it, shape it, test it, and refine it.

Committing to the Process

Once you realize that your creativity is dependent upon two factors, quantity and exposure to others, you reach an uncomfortable conclusion.

You have to make yourself vulnerable.

You have to put yourself out there.

And you have to do it consistently.

Some might say…you have to never stop marketing

Interestingly enough, both Dan and I had recently read Atomic Habits and both of us walked away inspired and motivated. I resonated with the idea of “Habit Stacking,” which is the building of automatic routines that reduce the cognitive load associated with doing the things that are important.

For example, I’ve built a series of habits that begin at 5:30 am daily including yoga, abdominal planks, meditation, and writing blog posts that culminates at 6:43 am. (That’s when I need to get my kids up for school.)

So, most days, that is exactly what happens. In fact, I’m writing this during that timeframe right now.

Dan was impressed by a trait of world-class athletes…that they are able to put up with the boredom of repetition. The 1000 shots, the sprints, the drills, etc.

Either way, the concept is the same. The creative greatness comes from your brain, it comes from exposing it to others, but it comes from disciplined practice.

Our build on that concept was that adding a layer of Public Accountability and the risk of embarrassment and/or shame that comes from not delivering on that promise could serve as an extra motivator.

While it’s not as huge for me now, the idea that people might say “hey, you didn’t have a blog post today” and my previous statements of “when I stop blogging, I have stopped marketing,” is that kind of commitment.

By staking a claim…blog daily, podcast weekly, article monthly…whatever you want, you are both committing yourself to the creative process and buying an insurance policy to reduce the risk of failing to deliver.

No Excuses for Not Doing It

I recently saw a TED Talk by Josh Kaufman entitled “The first 20 hours — how to learn anything” which really made an impact on me.

There are so many things I want to learn…programming, data science, bioinformatics, but like many people, I was a bit intimidated.

Kaufman helped me realize that there’s no need to feel that way. You can teach an old dog new tricks.

I had been searching around for one to test out his theory and through a combination of luck, Josh’s talk, and my chat with Dan, I think I may have found it.

The book, Doodle Revolution: Unlock the Power to Think Differently, has been on my shelf for years.

Its premise…anyone can become a good artist.

I’ve always loved the graphics that Ben Thompson puts on Stratechery.

I think I’ve found my challenge.

Yes, I’m a bit nervous and scared of failure, but I’m going to go for 20 hours of practice as a creative doodler between now and the end of June.

I’ll report back then.

Feel free to hold me accountable.

The Disciplined Pursuit of Accountable Creativity was originally published in Data Driven Investor on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.