Seth Godin on Creativity at the Edges

Close up of a knife edge

Photo by kasrak

Seth Godin posted some interesting thoughts on creativity this week:

What does it mean to be creative?

You could watch the most non-creative, linear-thinking, do-it-by-the-book cop work to solve a crime and you’d be amazed at how creative her solutions seem to be. Creative for you, because you’ve never been in that territory before, it’s all new, it’s all at the edges. Boring for her, because it’s the same thing she does every time. It’s not creative at all.

For me, creativity is the stuff you do at the edges. But the edges are different for everyone, and the edges change over time. If you visualize the territory you work in as an old Boston Bruins sweatshirt, realize that over time, it stretches out, it gets looser, the edges move away. Stuff that would have been creative last year isn’t creative at all today, because it’s not near the edges any more.

A couple of thoughts in response:

1. Seth’s cop example is similar to Darwin’s approach to the problem of evolution: by talking to pigeon fanciers, horse breeders, taxonomists and other specialists, he assembled all the pieces of the evolutionary jigsaw. Yet the specialists weren’t doing anything ‘creative’, just the same thing they always did. The creative magic came from collecting the different pieces and seeing how the edges fitted together.

2. Note that Seth isn’t telling us to think outside the box – it’s more subtle than that. Chris Bilton, my old MA tutor, said something similar:

Creative thinking takes place neither inside the box nor outside the box, but at the edge of the box.

(Chris Bilton, Management and Creativity)

Seth and Chris aren’t telling us to abandon everything we know and break all the rules – they’re encouraging us to test the boundaries, to find the razor’s edge between knowing and not-knowing, familiarity and strangeness, confidence and doubt.

That’s what keeps things interesting – working to the limits of your ability, with that twinge in your stomach telling you you’re doing a high wire act and you could fall.

How Edgy Are You?

Where are the edges of your current knowledge and abilities?

How have they shifted from a few years ago?

How do you challenge yourself to keep things fresh and exciting?

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.

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Responses to this Post


  1. My analogy works like this:

    We are all members of the tree and we number three!

    1) Visionaries

    Highly creative visionary types tend to live where the tree shows the most growth – at the end of the branch – the last leaf right at the end!

    These types tend to be loners for long periods as they need to have a 360 degree perspective that is individualistic and yet able to see the whole. There role is to stretch and grow our society.

    2) Artisans

    Those who are creative but are still needing support tend to be on branches that are closer to the trunk. I call these the Artisans.

    They are closer to the tree, usually less introverted and need others to support them. They need to be part of the society they live in.

    3) Supporters

    People who support creative types, recognise their skills and realise they need support keep the tree alive and as a functioning organism.

    Supporters are usually conformers to society in the area of creativity, but may have a hidden yen to be more creative and are learning through observation what they need to do. (I should point out here that they may have equal capacity to bethe Visionary in their field of expertise e.g. administration, financing etc but may not recognise their creativity in this area of their life)

    Each type is essential to the whole creative world we live in, each person plays his part.

    Each type has its shadow – the shadow is needed to incubate its growth and allow the glory of creative actualisation.

    Enjoy the role you have in the tree aand know that at anytime you can change your role, should you wish to learn other aspects of the creative process.

    Till next time


  2. Edges were how I moved from cross-stitching others’ patterns to creating unique embroidered collages. One little stretch at a time through changing colors to trying free embroidery to working with collage to making unexpected combinations.

    Then there were the stretches I didn’t realize I was making at the time, ones about learning blogging and busines principles, until it was natural for me to want to apply those interests to my career.

    Now I’m circling back around and applying some of the mental stretches I learned through art to trying to be more creative with the whole product development process, both the scientific areas I currently work in and the management/marketing areas I want to work in.

    Sometimes I have to reframe things at work to keep them fresh and exciting, since I haven’t undergone any major changes there lately. I’ve had to sit down and think about where I could stretch, where I could try out a principle that I learned some place else. In my personal endeavors the stretching tends to happen naturally.

  3. I’m very interested in the idea of moving to the edge of both your comfort zone and thinking zone.

    It’s like Apollonaire’s quote about coming to the edge, taking the plunge and flying.

    I found in my day to day job even though I didn’t know what I would be doing every day I would know how to handle the problems that arose because they were always the same, just in a different order.

    Personally I felt stunted creatively, I was familiar with my work to the point where my reactions were automatic.

    Since leaving for a freelance career i’m certainly on the edge with that twinge in my stomach, but i’m learning more about what i’m capable of, I’m having to be resourceful and creative because I’m faced with completely new problems, and I also have final say and ownership on how things get done, which I think is an important freedom in being creative.

    I also feel that no matter how many promotions I could have had at my old position, by being out on my own I will always learn so much more because I have to constantly work creatively to find, secure and complete work.

    Great post.

  4. Success = The edge + 1


  5. I’ve described it like this in the past:

    If I know that something can be doneβ€” how to do it, that it falls within my existing abilities β€” then my motivation dries up because it feels like it’s *already* been done. There’s no point, no drive, no risk, no thrill. Why would I do something that’s already been mapped? (which is not always a convenient reaction if the thing actually *does* need to be done!)

    On the other hand, when I have what feels like a good idea but there are huge gaps in my knowledge of how to implement it, *that’s* when I get excited about a project and jump in. The most exciting projects are the ones that may not be possible, or entail a risk of failure, or require inventing a new way to get from here to there.

    Part of it is a desire to learn or grow or invent something new for each project, to keep things fresh. Part of it is that I enjoy problem-solving, suspense and a puzzle. And, of course, it’s a good feeling to do something that didn’t seem possible at the outset or something that just hasn’t been tried before.

    This seems to have worked out equally well for me in art, in business and marketing, and in writing code for the web. But it also seems to require major shifts in direction from time to time to find new areas where I can come up with good problems to dig into.

  6. Thanks everyone.

    Amy – great quote.

    John – “which is not always a convenient reaction if the thing actually *does* need to be done!” – I feel your pain! πŸ™‚

  7. Such a powerful, concise definition of creativity. One of my top aims in living is to constantly press boundaries and explore borders. I get antsy if I don’t, and it’s really the ultimate stimulation.

    The beauty of it is that you can push boundaries in all sorts of ways. My senior year of college, I applied to do an honors thesis to push myself academically. A few months after I graduated, I moved to Thailand to push the boundaries of my cultural experience. Once in Thailand, I started a freelance business to see if I could pull it off. That twinge in the stomach that you mention — I get that quite often, and it’s both a wonderful and jittery feeling!

    Thanks for another excellent post.

    Melody, I like your breakdown of creativity — a really interesting view!