Photo by timsnell
There’s a saying that we all have a book inside us. It’s a lie.
Just ask any X-ray technician.
Now, if that saying has motivated you to actually sit down and start writing your book (or making your film or building your prototype or starting your company) all well and good, no harm done. But if you’ve been telling it to yourself for years, saying it’s just a matter of time and space, and ‘one day’ you’ll get round to writing it, then stop right now.
It’s a dangerous fantasy that’s blocking your creativity.
It’s dangerous because it suggests that the essence of creativity lies in an intangible idea – which is somehow already safe and sound inside us, with no use-by date. Many of us associate the word ‘creativity’ with lateral thinking, brainstorming, and thinking ‘outside the box’.
But as any real writer will tell you, there’s a lot more to it than that. Things like pens and paper, laptops and typewriters, dedication, habit, discipline and frustration. (Poverty is optional.) No wonder Kingsley Amis said ‘the art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair’.
You will either write your book or you won’t. Until you do, it doesn’t exist.
But hang on a minute, didn’t Michelangelo say that he saw his sculpture waiting for him inside the marble, that it was simply a matter of releasing it from its prison? Sure he did:
In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.
The key point here is that Michelangelo used his vision as a spur to action. It guided his eye, his hand, his whole body as he leaned in to get just the right weight behind the hammer. Each chip of marble that landed at his feet was witness to a hammer tap – a definite action he’d taken towards realizing his vision.
Even before he raised his hammer, Michelangelo located the phantom shape inside a specific stone out there in the world – not inside himself. He didn’t run around for years doing other stuff, telling himself his statues were safe and sound inside him, and ‘one day’ he’d get round to taking sculpture classes. He began with a lump of rock and usually a commission. Both of them supplied by a rich, powerful and very demanding client – just in case he needed any extra incentive to put the hours in.
I’ve deliberately used writing and sculpture as examples, because these are creative pursuits that are easy to romanticize. But even in the novelist’s garret and the sculptor’s studio, creativity is a business of toil and struggle. Every time we tell ourselves there’s a book already inside us, we’re taking someone else’s hard work for granted.
If that’s true of the arts, then it’s certainly true in business. Over forty years ago, Theodore Levitt wrote a classic paper for the Harvard Business Review, entitled ‘Creativity Is Not Enough’, in which he attacked advocates of ‘creativity’ in business:
they misdefine ‘creativity’ itself. Too often, for them, ‘creativity’ means having great, original ideas. Moreover, the ideas are often judged more by their novelty than by their potential usefulness, either to consumers or to the company.
Even when the idea is potentially useful, Levitt argued that thinking it up is the easy part:
A powerful new idea can kick around unused in a company for years, not because the merits are not recognized but because nobody has assumed the responsibility for converting it from words into action. What is often lacking is not creativity in the idea-creating sense but innovation in the action-producing sense, i.e., putting ideas to work.
If you are tempted to dismiss Levitt as an old-school businessman who doesn’t ‘get’ creativity, compare his words with those of Roger von Oech, one of the greatest living authorities on creative thinking:
the world isn’t set up to accommodate every new idea that comes along. As a matter of fact, there’s a lot of competition out there. If you want your idea to succeed, you’ll have to take the offensive. So, you become a Warrior and take your idea into action.
(A Whack on the Side of the Head)
Creative vision and flashes of inspiration are all very well, but they are worse than useless unless you actually do something with your ideas. We all do plenty of lateral thinking every night, but nothing much comes of it. What separates real creators from daydreaming amateurs is their willingness to roll up their sleeves and get on with the hard work of creativity.
So we’ve replaced ‘lateral thinking’ with Lateral Action. And if you stay with us on this journey, we’ll offer you some solid practical advice to help you translate your own creative visions into reality.
Another reason we’re emphasizing action is that things have changed since the time of Michelangelo – even since the heyday of Amis and Levitt. Great artists have always been good at getting things done. Some of them, such as Shakespeare and Hogarth, were also excellent businessmen and entrepreneurs. But these days there’s a lot more pressure on artists and creatives to be businesslike and professional, not just in their working habits but in how they (whisper it) sell themselves and their work.
Marla didn’t get where she is by just sitting around daydreaming. That’s often the first stage, but it’s not long before she starts sketching, writing, researching, planning and making phone calls. She’s a visionary who makes things happen, one of the classic definitions of an entrepreneur.
On a bigger scale, businesses are waking up to the fact that creativity is no longer a nice idea but an essential source of competitive advantage. In case you haven’t heard, the creative economy is coming. And as Lou is finding out, routine ‘productivity’ is no longer enough for economic survival, let alone a comfortable and enjoyable life. But those are stories for another time.
Unlike your book, which may well be a case of now or never.
Over to You
Do you have a creative dream you’ve been meaning to start work on ‘one day’?
What would be the very first – maybe very small – step that would get it under way?
When are you going to take that step?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.