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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    10 Responses to “How to Be More Creative (Step 1: Destroy)”

    1. TomWatson says:

      Oh Yea! It’s like the old adage that a artist never really appreciates his work, for he can always do better. When I shoot my videos I hate to release them for I see so many falacies that I can do better. Good article.

    2. Carri says:

      That’s funny, I always thought that the fact that I have to do something more a few times to get it right was a curse. It reminds me of a quote by Einstein: “It’s not that I’m so smart, It’s just I stay with problems longer.” Great post, Dan, Thanks!

    3. Fabricio says:

      The creative is a process that included convergence and divergence tasks. Destroy is a divergence´s task.
      I´ll be sharing with my students.
      Great Post

    4. MJ says:

      This explains why I keep tearing up my pocket-notebook ….

    5. Brian says:

      That’s how I write. I started over 3-4 times on my book, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development, and finally published it because I figured that I would re-write and re-write forever if I did not pick some arbitrary point and push send. My girlfriend thought I was crazy to start over and start over, but that’s how I work. Get it down on paper and then use that as a point to start again and again.

    6. VictorNYC says:

      Your timing couldn’t be more perfect. This is exactly what I needed to read. For the last two days, I have had the nagging feeling that a painting—in which I have invested a lot of time and technical effort—is not going where it needs to be going. I have been struggling with it for months now. I considered completely stripping away everything but couldn’t quite make the leap—too much investment. So what does this mean? It means I will pull out the camera, mount it on a tripod to take some good quality shots to record what’s been done so far. Then I will erase everything and start from scratch with the same concept(the idea was never bad), but a different approach.

    7. Dale Kirby says:

      Even though I’ve accepted the need to rewrite, I realize that I have held on to idea that the first draft is the final piece but needs polishing. But I see from this article that perhaps the first draft is a part of a deeper process and may have to be discarded and done again to reach the final product. Not so much rewriting but writing again informed by, but not tied to, the first effort.

    8. Steve K says:

      Sounds like Bono got bored with his own stuff…and maybe John Stewart and the Teachers? Creatively speaking, I think we begin with the end in mind but rarely reach the intended target because it’s too hard to define at the onset. Although we may exhaust ourselves trying, our creative brain can’t accept a final product…is it a blessing or a curse?

    9. Samuel Cartwright says:

      Would there be good without the evil? It is the age old way that we percieve good and bad. A way in which we veiw the world as we know it.I have experienced a great deal of bad in my life but do not regret a bit of it. Although at times I should but without all of the trials I would have learned nothing. I am a true believer that what we learn from this life we take on to the next. Every failure only leads to a victory as long as you persevere. Wisdom does not come from success alone. Every problem can be looked at as an opportunity to acheave. Every situation in our daily lives presents new opportunities. Every person that we meet can be looked at as an extention of our reach into the soup bowl of Life etc ect ect.

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