How to Be More Creative (Step 1: Destroy)

jon-stewartWhen we think about creative people, we usually think of people who can produce something brilliant and amazing out of thin air. The kind who are, as the saying goes, naturally creative.

But here’s a strange pattern: when you look more closely at the daily habits of super-creative people, they are doing exactly the opposite. They’re not creating out of thin air. Rather, they are creating, then destroying, then creating again. It’s not one step. It’s three.

A few examples.

  1. Jon Stewart. This recent profile provided a vivid X-ray into a typical day. In the morning Stewart and staff write the script for The Daily Show. Then, a couple of hours before taping,  “Stewart and his team go on a nonstop, rapid-fire jag that tears up and rewrites nearly three-quarters of the script.” Then those new ideas are discarded and replaced by better ones. They keep churning until air time, throwing away a huge percentage of what they create.
  2. Great charter-school teachers. When Doug Lemov set out to study the habits of top teachers for his Teach Like a Champion, he found a strange pattern: when he asked about their lesson plans, the best teachers said they didn’t have any lesson plans right now, because they were in the midst of ripping up and rewriting the whole program. This wasn’t an exception or a fluke; Lemov gradually realized: it was a telltale sign that they were high-quality teachers.
  3. U2. A few hours before the kickoff of their stadium tour in Chicago last year, Bono hijacked the dress rehearsal and completely reshaped a 14-year-old song – even writing new lyrics and melodies. The session ended with drummer Larry Mullen wisecracking a sentence that could be the a motto of this approach: “If it ain’t broke, break it.”

The changes that Stewart, Bono, and the teachers are making are not small changes; this could never be called editing or honing. No, this is the equivalent of a skilled carpenter taking the time to build an entire house and then – while the paint is still wet – tearing it down with a bulldozer and building a brand-new house on the foundation. And I’m fascinated by it because I think it takes creativity out of the realm of magic, and into a place we can understand.

The takeaway: To build the good stuff, first you have to build the bad stuff. The bad stuff isn’t really bad – it’s a step; a blueprint that shows you where we need to go next. Without the bad script, there is no good script; without the crummy lesson plans, there is no great lesson plan.

If you think of creativity the traditional way, this makes zero sense. (Why in the world would creative geniuses consistently produce bad first drafts?) But if you think of creativity as a stepwise process – a literal construction of wires in your brain – then it begins to add up. This process is not about simply being picky or relentless. The early attempts are like probes, exploring the landscape, seeing what works and what doesn’t. The later attempts use that information to be more accurate, to deliver a better lyric, or joke, or lesson plan. The bad stuff is not accidental; it’s required. If it ain’t broke, break it.

So how do we apply this pattern to our lives?

  • Cultivate the mental habit of circling back, to reconsider things you take for granted.
  • Have the willingness to chuck what is perfectly good in order to try to try something better. This requires a tolerance we find often in the arts and all too rarely in sports and business, which are more risk-averse. But creativity and innovation are not about being efficient; they’re about hitting the mark.
  • Avoid getting married to one approach. When it comes to ideas, it’s always better to play the field.

(Of course, now that I’ve written this, I can’t stop circling back and trying to see where I might tear it apart and replace it with something better. Damn you, Jon Stewart!)

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