I’m going to be writing a series of longer articles on creativity. I’m going to explore these myths a little more, giving you not only Breen’s findings but also the results some other studies. Most importantly, I’ll tell you my own personal techniques for stimulating creativity, both in the people I work with and in myself. You’ll be reading all about it … right here in ETR.
JP was not my idea of a superstar. He hardly spoke at meetings … and when he did speak, he showed that he was smart, but his wit was full of sarcasm. He did his job, but as far as I knew, never volunteered to do anything. Although I several times suggested that he come to me for mentoring, he never did. In short, he was a prime candidate for getting the heave-ho when his three-month trial period was over. And I was going to recommend to his boss that he should fire him. But there was something in JPs attitude that challenged me. It reminded me of myself at one point in my life. Having grown up in a poor, academic family, I had no experience with business. I had read a reasonable amount – including “Das Kapital” and other seminal works of literature on the subject of economics and class structure. So, as you can imagine, I was prone to be uncooperative with my bosses. Looking back, I’m shocked at how tolerant they were of my early shenanigans – sneaking off to sleep in the storage racks, drawing rude pictures of the foreman in the men’s room, etc. I remember one anecdote in particular that pretty much sums up my attitude at that time. It was a summer job between freshman and sophomore year. Paul, John, and I were working at a warehouse for a chain of supermarkets. We were members of Teamsters local something.
On our first day, Hank, the foreman, warned us: “There are three troublemakers down there that are causing us all kinds of grief. If you can avoid those guys and focus on doing a good job, you’ll do fine here.” He didn’t tell us who those three were, but we found out soon enough. Given our attitudes, it’s not surprising that we became good friends with them. By the time the summer ended and a new crop of guys were hired to replace us, one of them told us that Hank had said to them: “There are six guys down there who are real troublemakers …” I spent those three months goofing off. I got paid, but that was it. I learned nothing about the business. And there were things to learn. And I developed no new skills. I could have turned that time into a genuine opportunity to improve my life. Instead, I sabotaged myself. Hank should have fired us right away. Or he should have cornered us individually and tried to get us on the right track. Because if he had, I have a feeling I could have been saved. (I became an extremely hard and effective worker soon thereafter.) I might have even contributed to making the warehouse run better. (I had plenty of ideas that I never expressed.)
Now, back to JP … Seeing a bit of myself in him, I made up my mind that I wouldn’t give up on him. Instead, I’d redouble my efforts to “convert” him, to bring him over to the positive side of the business (of every business) where good ideas are born and profits are made. I began by changing my behavior at meetings. Whenever he’d attempt to undermine a meeting by making an unproductive remark, I’d resist the urge to scold him. Instead, I’d find some way to compliment him on some aspect of what he said and let him and everyone else know that I thought he had the spark of a marketing genius in him. This helped … mildly. And so I did more. I had some private meetings with him where I challenged him, took him down a peg or two, and then brought him up again. I reviewed his work periodically (even though I wasn’t his direct supervisor) to let him know that I was paying attention to him, that I believed in him, and that there were skills he could learn that could make him a superstar. I wouldn’t be telling you this story if it didn’t have a happy ending.
Encouraged to take on some projects on his own, JP had some initial successes. These, I praised strongly. His boss did the same. Then one day he walked in with a brand-new, completely original marketing idea. It was so new there was some apprehension about testing it. But we sensed that the idea had merit – and he’d earned his right to get it tested. It worked phenomenally well. That was a big feather in JP’s cap. And that made a deep and lasting impression on him. He has experienced the pleasure of using his wit and talents to create something good. That’s the kind of feeling that, once enjoyed, is hard to forget. I expect great things from JP in the future. I thought of him this morning after reading an article titled “The 6 Myths of Creativity” by Bill Breen in an issue of Fast Company that was sitting on top of my to-read pile. Breen concluded that a good deal of what people believe about creativity is bunk. And that anybody of normal intelligence – even someone with a negative attitude – can be coached into being creative. The article was based on a study Breen had done.
Here, in brief, are the myths he discovered:
1. Myth: You are either creative or you’re not. The Truth: Creativity is a skill that can be taught just like any other complicated skill. (Think copywriting, direct marketing, networking, speaking a foreign language, etc.)
2. Myth: You can boost creativity by giving your people financial incentives. The Truth: People become creative when they believe they can create positive change. If you can stimulate that belief, you’ll have a creative employee.
3. Myth. People get more creative when they are under time constraints. The Truth: People come up with ordinary ideas when they are pressed for time. The breakthrough ideas usually come when they are temporarily (or even momentarily) away from the time demands of their work.
4. Myth: Toughness can often spark creativity. The Truth: Positive reinforcement, intelligently applied, is the secret.
5. Myth: Competition is a great way to stimulate creativity. The Truth: Competition has little to do with it. Yes, positive competition stimulates hard work – but the creative breakthroughs come when people on a team share ideas and cooperate with one another.
6. Myth: A lean workforce stimulates creativity. The Truth: People need time to be creative. You do want to get rid of your laggers, because they tend to drag down the team. But you don’t want to make your workforce so thin that everyone is stressed all the time. To these six, I’ll add one of my own – in my view, the most damaging myth of all.
7. Myth: Creativity is an individual thing. The Truth: All new ideas are the product of group effort, even if one person claims credit for coming up with the breakthrough idea. If you bring a “marketing genius” into a group for the purpose of creating a breakthrough, he won’t have much luck unless he participates with your people, hears what they have to say, and hears what they’ve already done and have failed to do because of certain problems. It’s generally through discussions like those that the creative guru comes up with his big idea. Having been in the publishing and advertising business for 30 years, I’ve had a lot of experience with creative people. And if there is one thing I’ve learned in that time, it’s that creative breakthroughs are not the product of a small group of naturally talented, highly paid geniuses who work in a creative frenzy.
[Ed. Note. Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]
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