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More Thoughts on Creativity

Sometimes, creativity is taking what others have done well and building upon it. 

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In that vein, here are some longer reads for your longer weekend to get those creative juices flowing. Dive in and let the creative waters wash over you. Here's to hoping you find that creative inspiration somewhere (because you do have to find it; it won't find you while you're idle).

Isaac Asimov’s Advice for Being Creative (Hint: Don’t Brainstorm) from Cal Newport

While group activities like brainstorming might be useful for lightweight projects, like coming up with a new slogan for an advertisement, if you’re instead trying to solve an unsolved proof, or, more pressingly, improve ballistic missile defense, there’s no way to avoid learning hard things and then thinking hard about what you learned, hoping to tease out a new connection.

Young Delacroix on the Importance of Solitude in Creative Work and How to Resist Social Distractions from Brain Pickings

I must work alone. I think that going into society from time to time, or just going out and seeing people, does not do much harm to one’s work and spiritual progress, in spite of what many so-called artists say to the contrary. Associating with people of that kind is far more dangerous; their conversation is always commonplace. I must go back to being alone.

The 10 Qualities of Creative Leaders from Farnam Street

One of the qualities that David Ogilvy looks for in creative leaders? The courage to make tough decisions.

And, here are my thoughts from last week on why you must make time to be creative.

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Easier or Stronger

When trying to motivate someone (to lead them somewhere, to inspire them), you either need to make something easier for them, or make them stronger in the process.

But these choices don't have equal consequences. 

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This is the hard work of parenting - deciding when to make something easy for your child or when to use an opportunity to make her stronger as she grows older. Likewise, it's the choice that leaders must make every day with those in their care. 

Of course, making something easier for someone is the more pleasant route, usually. You can play the hero and savior, the one who comes swooping in to save the day. Who doesn't like things easier, be they homework, office work, or yard work?

This is most true in sales. Will your invention or subscription make things easier for me? Easier to cook breakfast, tend the garden, or balance my household budget? If so, I'm in! 

The harder sell is to convince someone they want to be stronger. Strength only happens when we're challenged or pushed to our limits. That's a place of discomfort, inconvenience, or struggle. A place where things are hard, sweaty, complicated, and confusing. Who's signing up for that?

But, when you emerge from that place, you're better for it. You're stronger, smarter, and more confident. The only byproduct of ease is apathy. Easy and meaningful are opposites, after all. 

Leaders and parents: we have to err on the side of stronger, not the side of easier. We're playing a longer game than the salesperson who is only striving toward that month's quota or that quarter's commission. We're in this for life, and so are our children and employees. We're not converting prospects; we're building people. 

When faced with the choice between easier or stronger, choose stronger. Even if it's not easier, you'll be stronger for it, too.

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What's Right

Are you doing the right thing? 

Or the thing that's right for you?

There's a big difference, of course. (And only one of those is the choice of leadership.)

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The Alternative

She asked me, "Who's your competition?"

I was speaking with a potential investor and they were doing their due diligence in terms of sizing up the market and our position in it. I wanted to proudly proclaim, "No one!" in order to stake our claim on market dominance and convince her we were a worthy bet. 

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Of course, that wasn't true. We all have competition. 

Yes, Wal-Mart competes with Target and Amazon. But they also compete with your savings account, a trip to the beach, or just not getting your friend a birthday present this year.

If you're a realtor, you're not just competing against other realtors. You're also competing with the thought that not moving is the better decision.

Hotels fight against AirBnB, but also crashing on a friend's couch or just driving home after the meeting. The burrito place is up against the pizza place, but it's also up against your grill, that steak marinating in your fridge, and this incredible weather.

Competition isn't just about an alternative product. It's also about an alternative activity. 

We're all competing. Even if you don't think you are.

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The Creative Hour

Creativity is not feeling. It is an act. And it is not something you do when the time is right. It is something you do. 

Period.

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What could you do in a single hour dedicated to being creative each day? How much effort could you put into your life's work in those 60 minutes?

You could write a blog post. Or three. You could get started on a painting. Or finish one. Design a website. Write a new speech. Perfect your slide deck. Read wise words. Write wise words. Understand a new topic. Take in a fantastic film. Make a fantastic film.

There's no telling what you can do when you carve out time to be creative. 

Go. Steal a creative hour today from your schedule and fill it with your wildest dreams.

(And you do have to steal it. It will not just be handed to you.)

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What We Say No To

I bought some underwear last month.

My goal last year was to not buy any new clothes. I was looking to save money, and the reality is that I have plenty of clothes already. So my resolution for 2017 was not to spend any money on new clothing.

I did it.

When 2018 rolled around, I was happy with what the prior year's discipline had taught me. I learned to make do with what I already had. I became more resistant in the face of temptation: to grab a souvenir I didn't really need or spend money just because the word "sale" graced an email promotion. 

I finally broke my new clothing fast by buying some underwear at Target, because hey - when you need 'em, you need 'em. But I'm still not back to my old ways of seeking out a deal or filling my closet.

More importantly, I've decided to keep abstaining from certain things. I fast on Mondays now. I've unsubscribed from a lot of e-commerce newsletters. And rarely do I stock my fridge or pantry with sweets or empty calories. 

It certainly matters what you say yes to in life. But take stock of what you say no to as well. What won't stand. What doesn't matter. What shouldn't belong. What you can let go of.

When we say no to the things we don't need, we free ourselves for the things we really want.

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The Problem with Everyone

I saw Justin Timberlake in concert last week. So did a lot of other people. 

In fact, on this tour, he's sold out every show so far. Thousands of people chant and cheer and sing and dance at each concert. Pyrotechnics and highly choreographed lights and sounds add to the spectacle. It's the perfect experience to impress tens of thousands of people at once. For 100 nights in a year.

I also went to a house concert not too long ago. A handful of us gathered in a room and listened to someone sing and strum a guitar. No lights. No microphones. No merch table. Just raw songs delivered in a heartfelt way to a couple of folks. The next time it happens, it'll be completely different.

Two different experiences. Two different feelings. 

Intimacy doesn't scale. Anonymity does. That's why the house show was unforgettable and the arena concert was just like all the others. That's why your marriage is meaningful and Twitter is a headache. 

From a business standpoint, one isn't necessarily better than the other and they each have their profitability models. So the question isn't where you can make money. It's why you want to do what you do. 

Building for scale can lessen the room for error, but it also lessens the space for connection.

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Maybe the Mona Lisa Isn’t Finished

Maybe the Mona Lisa isn’t finished. I have an idea. Let's find the best living artist to add some flair. Touch it up. Put a bird on it. 

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Would that make it better? Does even the thought that maybe it’s not done enhance your appreciation of it? Or does this idea make you nauseous? 

Musicians sample from other great songs endlessly. Sometimes, the results are mashups and remixes that sound quite good. They don’t make the original any worse; they just build upon a foundation to make something else that’s beautiful. 

What’s beautiful is usually what’s not done yet. 

Something is only done when you're ready to walk away, when you say it's over. Otherwise, keep painting something beautiful. Your masterpiece is waiting for you to get to work.

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10 Things That Stand in the Way of Progress

Any of these 10 things can derail progress toward a goal, a milestone, or an accomplishment:

  • Pride
  • Fear
  • History
  • Comfort
  • Routine
  • Superstition
  • Solitude
  • Haste
  • Ignorance
  • Safety

You thought it was risk? No - risk is the very thing that makes progress possible. If something isn't at stake, then there's nothing that needs improving or changing.

Stare risk in the face and move past it by leaving these 10 inhibitors where they belong: on the other side of history.

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What Do You Protect?

I received an email a few weeks back, from someone I hadn’t met yet, asking to get together and ask a few questions. This happens often and as long as I can fit it in my schedule and you’re paying for coffee/lunch/beer, I’m happy to get together. But this email jumped at me because he wrote this sentence:

“I imagine you’re very protective of your schedule, but I’d like to find 30 minutes on your calendar soon."

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I love the assumption he made. Yes; I do protect my time. I schedule my days ruthlessly while trying hard to leave room for spontaneity and still "get it all done". I stack meetings, batch tasks, and try my best to fit in all that needs fitting in, from being inspired to running a company, from parenting my daughter to being a good friend and fiancé.

But do I protect my time enough? Do you?

I think that the best way to determine what someone believes in or values is to take a look at their credit card statement and their day planner. How any of us spend our time and our money is a clear indicator of what we prioritize. Since these are limited resources for all of us, the choices we make (directly or indirectly) ultimately say what it is that matters most to us. 

Sure; some things we (feel like) we have very little control over. We need to pay the rent/mortgage because shelter is a basic human need. But we also can choose the size of those monthly payments based upon the kind of abode we’d like to occupy. Same goes for food. Filet mignon and black beans both have protein, but the taste and cost are quite a bit different. 

Each of us have tasks we must accomplish each day at work or even at home. We all need sleep. Presumably, we also want to spend time with people we love, be they partners, friends, family, or colleagues. 

But once your needs are met, what time choices are you making? What exactly are you protecting time for? 

The difference between protection and planning

And herein lies the difference between just planning something and actually protecting it.

I can fill a Google Calendar up like a pro. Gimme a few minutes in my email each day and I’ll drape that sucker in multi-colored fashion with meetings, drive times, phone calls, and any number of tasks and obligations. But, the moment a conflict arises, I’ve got to choose. What on this calendar am I willing to protect? What will I not move for something else?

The ultimate indicator of what you value is what choice you make when conflict arises. 

A few things I know I protect; things you can’t touch on my calendar. Very rarely will I miss out on picking up my daughter or spending time with her in the evenings on weeks she’s with me. Exceptions occur, but because my time with her is limited and I’m unwilling to be in her life any less than I already am, I protect that time with her. This choice eventually doesn’t feel like a choice because it’s not a point of decision for me. I’ve made the decision before I actually need to make the decision. 

My Monday mornings are protected. This is when the Batch team gathers as a staff to cover key ideas and strategic work objectives. I won’t take a sales meeting then or answer my phone or email. I won’t be traveling then. This is sacred time. I believe in the power and possibility of that space and hour. 

Dinners and phone calls with my fiancé are protected. When we've made plans or when I have a marinating tenderloin waiting for the grill and she's picked up a bottle of red, then if you want my attention during the dinner hour, good luck. 

How protective are you of your time? What could never get moved? You - and you alone - get to call the shots here. 

How to protect your time

The fear of missing out - exacerbated by social media these days - is an ever present lament, of course. But the more we devote time to those things we protect - and the more we clearly define what it is we want and need to protect - the less we’ll feel like we’re missing out because we’re exactly where we should be. 

But, in order to determine and then protect what matters most, you’ll need a few tools and skills at your disposal.

1) Get a system

The system itself is irrelevant. Grab a giant paper calendar, use the app on your phone - whatever works will work. But, write it down or type it out. Put it in bold or circle it with a red marker. That which matters most must be protected and top of mind. Otherwise, you’ll let it slide when something pops up (that ultimately isn’t as important) or your favorite episode of Friends comes on. Determine what matters, write it down, and then fight for it. 

2) Say no

When those moments arise, whether it’s the temptation for a nap or the allure of the friend who just wants to get one more drink, you need to say no. You’ve got something to protect. The person who emailed me gave me that out - I could have said no if meetings with strangers weren’t something I protected, time-wise. 

For some of us, saying no is hard. But, if you know what you protect and are willing to fight to protect it, you’ve now got a very beautiful out. You can say, “I have to decline this opportunity to meet/drink/skydive. My heart says yes, but my calendar says no.” 

Boom. You didn’t offend the person (you really want to go!), but you’re booked, saving room for more important stuff. The stuff that really matters. Soul stuff. 

This is the point of protection, after all. You’re not protecting something out of fear. You’re protecting it out of love.

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When There Are No Grades

While you may have hated report card day back in grade school, it certainly made it easy to know how you were doing in 5th grade math or US History. 

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But now that you're all grow up, save for a few select jobs, you're not getting semesterly grades or monthly progress reports. There is no head of the class to go to. 

Annual reviews and raises help, but there is no teacher and there is no curve. 

How do you know how you're doing?

Regardless of what metrics and stats may be available in your particular position at your particular company, it's better to have your internal grading system active and ready. Exterior grading stopped when you graduated.

You know how well you're doing. How hard you're working. How much real effort you're bringing to the office each day or leaving there on the conference room table. You know how creative you're being, how fresh your ideas are, how much better you are than the person at the competitor at the other end of the block.

Would you give yourself an A? Four stars? A gold turkey? A sideways clarinet? (The upside to an internal grading system is that you can measure however you like, so as long as you're measuring.)

Ms. Stanley isn't going to walk in this door anytime soon and pat you on the head. It's up to you now. If you're not working for a grade anymore, what are you working for?

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The Three Problems You'll Face

Any problem you need to solve will fall into one of three categories. Get to work accordingly.

Short term
These are urgent problems that must be solved today. If we don't solve these, we won't have a shot at deeper, important work tomorrow. Bills need to be paid, the broken air conditioner must be fixed, and you need to go into work since your sous chef called out. Devote immediate time and energy to these problems and they'll soon go away so real work can be done.

Long term
These are important problems that must be solved soon. If we don't solve these, we won't have a shot to scale and grow. The shipping contract needs to be renegotiated, a decision needs to be made about future product launches, and the operations manual needs to be written. Devote strategic and steady time and energy to these problems so you can keep doing the critical work of the business.

Lifetime
These are worthwhile problems that may not be solved in the next decade. But we want to spend time considering and chipping away at them. Diseases need curing, poverty needs ending, and worlds need building. Solving these problems can define a legacy, and not just a news cycle. Devote deliberate and passionate time and energy to these problems and you may just change humanity.

Knowing what kind of time and energy to throw at each problem that lands on our desk ensures that we get to keep doing our work, contributing to society, and creating meaning. 

(This post inspired by a great chat with Ryan Gaines a while back, and the work of Plywood People.)

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