The Creative Push

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When does creativity strike?

I struggle with this concept on a daily basis. An old friend of mine is a creative copywriter. I remember back when we were in university how consumed he was with great advertising creative. At the time, there was no Internet and he would wait – patiently – for the latest advertising annual to come out. He would go through these annuals like a detective surveying a murder scene for the first time. These magazines were never loaned. They were reference material and a mythical gateway of ideation. With a notepad constantly in hand (in case an idea struck), there would be times in our friendship when he would simply disappear because something had come to him and it needed to come out (dozens of napkins died by his pen). One summer, a bunch of us did a roundtrip to visit him at university. Over some chicken wings and beer, he said something that stuck with me to this very day about the creative process. We were ruminating about how stressful it can be to have to come up with great ideas on a tight deadline with a limited budget. He said: it’s like jumping off of a cliff naked and hoping that there’s a branch somewhere on the way down to snag some part of your skin (at the time, I think he said an eyelid!). Sounds like more luck than experience, but it isn’t.

The waiting isn’t the hardest part.

Some people, wrongly, assume that waiting for these ideas to strike is the hardest part. Those who have put time into their craft (and this can be anything from writing or being a creative director to painting or programming an app) know that it’s not the waiting… it’s the starting. It’s a message that you will read in every book about creativity, and it’s the same concept you will uncover in every book about personal development. Coming up with goals is not the hardest part: starting to make that list and putting real deadlines against it is the hardest part. Hoping you will overcome your anxiety after seeing a therapist is the wrong approach to take. Once you begin the process, you realize that most of our psychological issues begin to fade when we start to push through that fear by actually starting to heal ourselves. I often reflect on two books by Steven Pressfield: The War Of Art and Do The Work. I am in love with Pressfield’s blue collar work ethic when it comes to writing and creativity. If your neighbor wakes up, brushes their teeth, takes a shower, feeds the kids, gets them off to school, kisses their spouse goodbye for the day and heads off to the office, why don’t creative people do the same? I wish I could say that I bring this type of work ethic to my work, but I don’t.

Forcing it.

I do force myself to write. Writing is the catalyst for my ideation (it may be shooting videos or doodling for you). No new ideas come to light in my life without the act of writing. While a good chunk of my day is spent tinkering with words for clients, this blog, a book, an article, a presentation, a pitch or whatever, I can’t follow Pressfield’s dedication to a tee. I do like to wander, procrastinate, complain, occupy myself with distractions (they could be serious distractions like a client meeting or silly ones like a need to buy more socks). In the end, I do force myself to write. Often. Frequently. Daily. Why? Because I know one thing: starting leads to creating. Creating leads to ideation. Ideation leads to excellence. Not always. But, often enough. You can’t fake the critical thinking that gets developed from writing.

My water broke.

I’m in the middle of editing my second business book, CTRL ALT DEL (it will be out in Spring 2013). It took me longer than expected. Not to write it, but to create the right framework. What got it to the place where the concept felt meaty enough for a book? It’s a squiggly and jagged journey, but the timing may not have been perfect. When I let my other three business partners at Twist Image know that the second book was being written, one of them said it would be important for us to figure out if the timing was right and how to make everything work. I (half-jokingly) said, "my water broke… this baby is coming." Again, the creative push came because from the act of starting. Once I got started, neck deep in the words, finding inspiration and ideas was not the problem: finding enough time to let the words tumble out was.

The blank screen.

My MacBook Air is the most intimidating tool I have ever encountered. It just sits there, lid down, waiting for me. With it, I have access to create, nurture, publish and ideate anything. Is it possible for the next big idea to come out of it? Why not? Without the tools, one could complain that they simply can’t create. When you write, produce or nurture, having a MacBook Air makes you realize how lazy and insufferable we all are. What a magnificent tool of creation and I’m squandering it by not using it as frequently as I probably should (why did I watch four episodes of Pawn Stars this weekend when I could have been writing and ideating more?). Your work is your art (don’t believe me? Go and read Seth Godin‘s book, Linchpin) and we have these tools to do things we could have never imagined before. My creative tension doesn’t come from finding a wall to tag, it comes from finding the nerve to lift the lid up.

Lift the lid.

I see people all of the time who are simply not spending enough time starting. It could be scribbles in a Moleskine it could be cracking open a PowerPoint and it could be opening up that blank Word document. Start. Start now, Lift the lid. Start creating.

Change the world.

I’m on my way to Silicon Valley for a few days. I just finished watching a great documentary about famed architect, Frank Gehry, called, Sketches Of Frank Gehry. In this film, Gehry’s therapist is interviewed and he talks about the difference between treating patients with issues like fear and uncertainty and then people like Gehry. Here’s the distinction: the majority of people are trying to figure out how to heal themselves so that they can get on with their day to day lives. People like Gehry (and some of the more renowned artists of our times) are trying to figure out how to change the world. Wow. It was a very profound moment. The difference is that these people start – as hard and as gut-wrenching at it can be. They force it. They force it because they know that something always does happen.

What are you waiting for?


  1. Congratulations on CTRL ALT DEL, Mitch! Looking forward to it! I, too, need to write to get the engines churning. It’s been important to return to every day writing even if I don’t post every day.

  2. Great article, we are tackling similar concepts in our business – keep up the great work. Can’t wait for CTRL ALT DEL – Six Pixels really was one of the more mind expanding reads in the genre.

  3. Thanks for the post Mitch…I didn’t start my adult life ever thinking I would be needing to write on a daily basis. I do get stuck – waiting for creativity to hit- but, you’re right, every book on the subject says to just start. Its a hard habit to get into, but the more I try it and see that it works, the easier it becomes.
    I tell my business clients to ‘just start’ – whatever it is we are working on – the same applies to writing. I don’t think of myself as a writer. I think of myself as a business advisor and mentor, first. The reality is, the further along you progress in your career you often end up having to write more. Whether it be business correspondence, speeches, bios…etc.
    Your advice is simple and applicable to everyone – no matter what they are doing, no matter what their profession. JUST START!
    Thanks for the post, Mitch!
    Steve Baines

  4. Mitch, I’ve been hearing you talk about your book on SPOS podcast and I am anxiously awaiting CTRL ALT DEL. It was your interview with Pressfield that got me to read The War of Art and you continue to be a conduit of intelligent ideas that extend well beyond Marketing. My personal struggle is not with lifting the lid, I can come up and start jotting ideas down but my flaw lies in the finish, sticking with the work to see it through and “ship” it. The work I do with my company gets shipped but it’s the more creative works that come from me that get sidelined through resistance.

  5. It’s definitely that first step which is the hardest to take. It’s like being in your comfort zone, and finding the courage to step out into the wilderness. BTW, congratulations on your new book. Cheers!

  6. This piece got me thinking about disciplined vs. forced creativity. Especially as it relates to great creatives like Thomas Edison. I wonder if his was forced or disciplined or maybe just pigheaded stubbornness. At any rate, it is interesting to listen to creatives grapple with their craft and it holds out hope for the rest of us. That in the end, being creative and brining projects to fruition is hard work fought on the battlefield of an individual’s mind.

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