Frankly, I was skeptical. Partly because I’ve always preferred an open sheet of paper when allowing my mind to wander, hoping to go outside the usual boxes of my thoughts in order to be creative. So my eyebrows arched when I spied Todd Henry’s structured-looking layout of shaded boxes with words like “nutshell” and “assumption” and little letters and numbers. It looks vaguely like an ancient Hopi Indian pattern. But I wanted to give him a fair test, so I read not his book, but just the short instructions that come with our new Circa Idea Book. In other words, I did just what customers would do if they were adventurous enough try this unusual new page layout. I grasped one of my favorite fine-point pens, slowed down to print my neatest, and gave it a go.
Fifteen minutes later, I was amazed. I had written as the challenge in the center box Levenger launching a case for Apple’s rumored mini iPad (which, in our best-of-both technologies designs, would also hold paper) and have it ready for the holidays—a record development time for us. Working by Todd’s methods, I discovered that, ironically, we would have to slow way down (on some things) if we wanted to move at light speed here. But it could be done. The exercise gave me confidence to float this concept to our team, and they grasped the torch and ran it ahead. You’ll see the result soon.
Levenger: Is there really such a thing as creativity on demand?
Todd Henry: There is no formula for creativity, and there’s no “magic bullet” that will ensure great ideas when you need them. There are, however, practices that can better position you to have the energy, focus, and time you need to zero in on a problem effectively, and to be able to recognize a great idea when it appears. The punch line of the book is that if you want to be brilliant at a moment’s notice, you need to begin far upstream from the moment you need a brilliant idea. My goal is to help people experience more frequent moments of serendipity because they’ve instilled purposeful structure around their creative process.
Levenger: You have a three-part formula for creativity: prolific + brilliant + healthy. Many of us would say it’s easier to be healthy than prolific and brilliant.
Todd: I think it depends on your organization. There is an expectation in many companies that you will be prolific and brilliant, regardless of what it costs you. My argument is that this is not a sustainable way to exist as a creative professional, and that if you ignore the healthy piece of the equation, you’ll eventually be less capable of producing great work consistently.
The path to getting all three (prolific + brilliant + healthy) is to structure your life in such a way that you’re prepared for the demands of the create-on-demand world and better positioned to have ideas when you need them most. This means establishing practices that support and fuel your creative process, rather than expecting creativity to happen in the cracks and crevices of your already-busy life.
Levenger: You recommend that people keep weekly, monthly and quarterly checkpoints. How do these help keep us on creative track?
Todd: Over time, the problems we need to solve change, but we love to develop permanent solutions to temporary problems. Those once helpful, but now obstructive, solutions become residue that we have to navigate every time we tackle a project. Having frequent checkpoints in your life to think about the best way to approach your work, and to re-commit to practices that unleash your creativity, is the best method I’ve found for staying purposeful about work instead of slipping into drone mode.
Levenger: One piece of advice you give is “don’t be a cover band.” What does that mean?
Todd: Cover bands are bands that play other people’s music. They earn their living by imitating what others have already made. Many cover bands enjoy a run of success, but because they haven’t developed a unique voice or a platform for their own music, they’re quickly forgotten when a better cover band comes along. I see a similar thing happening a lot in the marketplace. There are individuals and companies that are quick to jump on the latest fad or to imitate what is popular, but there’s a kind of shallowness to their work because it’s not rooted in something authentic and unique to them.
One of the most poignant thoughts about this came from the twentieth-century mystic and monk Thomas Merton. He wrote, “Hurry ruins saints as well as artists. They want quick success and they are in such a hurry to get it that they cannot take time to be true to themselves.” We need to take the time to allow our voice to develop, which means being purposeful about how we engage our work, trying to add value, and not settling for shortcuts.
Levenger: At a time when digital dominates, why did you want to create a physical notebook for budding accidentals to use?
Todd: Digital tools are helpful for so many things, but often “soft connections” are lost when they’re not worked out in a physical space. By “soft,” I mean connections between concepts that may not be apparent on the surface because the concepts aren’t directly adjacent, but that become intuitive over time.
By working on a problem on a sheet of paper, you have every possibility in front of you and are more likely to notice connections that could be lost in the digital ether. Additionally, something about the tactile nature of pen on paper seems to root the mind in the problem at hand.
Levenger: What do you feel is the most helpful element of your Circa notebook?
Todd: Most great creative ideas are the “smashing together” of existing concepts into something new. The Circa Idea Book is designed to help people play with ideas and concepts and see connections they may not have otherwise noticed. By engaging in free association, they will look for solutions in places they otherwise wouldn’t, and will increase their chances of generating more novel ideas.
Levenger: What’s been your most creative thought today?
Todd: If all goes as planned, I haven’t had it yet.
Now to you, dear reader: What’s been your most creative thought today? I’d love to hear. Just click on the Comments link below. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you’ll connect to Comments). And if you decide to own Todd’s Circa Idea Book, come back to the same question and see how you answer it then.