The Creator’s Dilemma: A Constant Pursuit for Less of the Same

Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion. 

—Jack Kerouac

The Challenge of Creating Something New

Creativity is defined as “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination.”

Many of the greatest business and technological innovations in modern history have come from creative thinkers and iconoclastic leaders.

If Steve Jobs copied IBM, we wouldn’t have Apple. If Reed Hastings copied Blockbuster, we wouldn’t have Netflix. If Emily Weiss copied any number of cosmetic retailers, we wouldn’t have Glossier. If Yvon Chouinard copied outdoor clothing and gear trends of the 1970s, we wouldn’t have Patagonia.

Remember those colorful shorts, shirts, and jackets that went against every fashion rule of that era? 

Inside the Patagonia Archive in Ventura, CA (Source:  https://www.gq.com/story/inside-patagonia-private-archive )

Inside the Patagonia Archive in Ventura, CA (Source: https://www.gq.com/story/inside-patagonia-private-archive)

The creator’s dilemma is this:

We know that creativity requires original thinking and transcending traditional ideas, yet we’re so inundated with incoming information, that it becomes harder and harder to truly think for ourselves.

As creators intuitively know, it’s hard to unsee something. Once we have an idea or mental image of what big brands and influencers are doing, it becomes increasingly difficult to strike out on our own.

This phenomenon is prevalent in everything from web design to marketing campaigns to business strategy. We’re essentially de-risking ourselves from failure — relinquishing a shot at something groundbreaking for something good enough.

As the old saying goes, “no one ever got fired for hiring IBM.”

If you make a decision — whatever it may be — that is low risk relative to what competitors are doing, you are less likely to severely under-perform the competition. This effect leads to less risky choices overall and makes it harder for new entrants (you) to disrupt the given industry.

What are we to do?

Understanding the Creative Process

You might be tempted to assume that creative people are simply “born with it” — that they contain a unique gene allowing them to see what others can’t.

While that may be partially true, according to James Clear, nearly all great ideas follow a similar creative process:

  1. Gathering new material

  2. Thoroughly working over the materials in your mind

  3. Stepping away from the problem

  4. Letting your idea return to you

  5. Shaping and developing your idea based on feedback

Creativity is a long, imperfect process.

Consider history-altering breakthroughs like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity or Grace Hopper’s first user-friendly computer software program.

Those were not overnight inventions. They were the result of many years of hard, focused work on a singular problem. Observation was followed by consistent experimenting, rethinking, gathering feedback, stepping away from the problem, and never giving up.

Historical accounts (and the media) paint many innovations as overnight successes — seemingly appearing out of thin air. When, in reality, these innovations were a decade or more in the making.

As British artist Adam Westbrook once said of history’s creative superstars:

“All of us have the brain, and the talent, and the creativity to join them. But now, right when it matters, do any of us have the patience?”

—Adam Westbrook

The reality is many of us don’t have the time or patience to be creative. We would much rather create what we know will work. But if you want to break the mold and to truly stand out in a world filled with easy, you must be willing to dedicate a significant amount of time and brainpower to your work.

You must make space for creativity.

Making Space for Creativity

Many times creativity comes in the form of connecting seemingly unrelated ideas from vastly different industries or schools of thought. It’s the ability to take all of the incoming information and synthesize it in a new way.

Those that explore and consume a variety of subjects with a student-like tenacity will be rewarded with the ability to harmonize disconnected ideas into something new and original.

One of my favorite examples of this in action is Adam Gopnik’s first story forThe New Yorker titled, “Quattrocentro Baseball.” This piece combined his knowledge of Renaissance art with his childhood passion for baseball and resulted in what some consider his most successful work.

In order to start connecting unrelated ideas, you might:

  • Journal

  • Take a class

  • Go to a museum

  • Grab a coffee with friends

  • Listen to all kinds of music

  • Read fiction and non-fiction

  • Pick up an instrument

  • Watch a classic movie

  • Attend a musical

  • Meditate

  • Draw

Though wonderful it would be, creativity doesn’t happen between the hours of 9 and 5. It happens when we least expect it — when we’ve finally “stepped away from the problem” and let our minds wander.

As the story goes, Newton first discovered gravity while walking in his garden and watching an apple fall from a tree.

Creativity happens when we’ve considered the implications of art on technology, of sports on management, of the internet on psychology, and millions of other previously impossible permeations.

Championing Your Creative Idea

If you’re to create something powerful and important, you must at the very least be driven by an equally powerful inner force.

 — Ryan Holiday

Here’s the paradox about creative ideas: they’re usually wildly unpopular.

Creativity means change. Change to how things are currently done. Change to the norm. Change to what already works.

For creative ideas to blossom and to thrive, it takes a person or a group of people to champion those ideas. That person is you.

As Henry Ford once said, “If I would have asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’”

Nearly every single innovator in history was met with rejection as first.

But on the bright side, experiencing rejection might actually stimulate — not deter — creative innovation. Cornell professor and researcher, Sharon H. Kim, found that creative individuals have, in one way or another, been rejected by society.

Kim writes, “The experience of rejection may trigger a psychological process that stimulates, rather than stifles, performance on creative tasks.”

When we let go of our grasp on current trends and allow our focus shift away from the distractions around us, we are better able to think critically and creatively. Then, and only then, can we create something new.