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Collective Crazy: The Seven Characteristics of Creative People

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From the author of
Callahan Creek Creative Director and Creative Boot Camp author Stefan Mumaw lays out the common characteristics found in creative people and inadvertently stumbles on the most important quality a creative can possess.

I sat in the first row, looking at the floor and shaking my head in that common creative disbelief that comes from experiencing something novel and knowing that I would never have thought of it. I was attending a keynote by Ideaspotting author Sam Harrison and he had just convinced 3,000 people in this auditorium to identify the number one creative fear they have, write it on a piece of paper, bond with it, then tear up that paper and shower the room in glorious, freedom-inducing confetti. The visually stunning moment was the crescendo of a session that broke down the barriers keeping us from our best work and in that moment, while shards of white paper rained down from the celebratory atmosphere, I couldn’t help but marvel at the man who had managed to do something in 75 minutes of stage time that I couldn’t do in a decade of public speaking. For this reason, it is clear to me that I both love Sam Harrison and I hate Sam Harrison.

Creatives can identify with the feeling. This is one of the ‘we understand’ moments that folks within a certain lifestyle share. Creatives, more than any other group, get the idea of both loving and hating something simultaneously. We love the experience but hate the fact that we didn’t, or more accurately couldn’t, make it. Perhaps that’s the very definition of jealousy. Or perhaps it is part of the neurotic mindset of those that create for a living. Regardless, these experiences cause us to inflect on our own creative self-esteem.

Sam is easily the most creative person I know, someone that seems to be able to solve problems unremittingly and with astounding ease. He would, of course, disagree and claim that he struggles through every problem he faces just like the rest of us but that’s the hallmark of the creative savant: make the effortful look effortless.

The experience got me to thinking about character revelations of the creative. Are there common traits that creative people share? Is there a set of behaviors that we can collect from serial problem solvers that could teach us how to be more creative? The answer, quite simply, is yes. As I explored the philosophies and behaviors of a number of uber-creative people and organizations, I discovered an unusual common bond: they were all a little crazy. Not certifiable by academic standards but not far from it, either. I call this state The Collective Crazy and it is made up of seven unique characteristics that are found in hyper creative people. Not all characteristics are found in all people, of course, but most exhibit behavior that can be tied back to some or all of these traits. They provide a comparison mechanism for those of us who desperately wish to inherit even a smidgen of the ability found in the people we would define as most creative in our lives. Of course, this won’t keep us from hating them any less but it at least offers an outlook on what has helped shaped their creative genius and what we mere mortals can work on to strengthen our own creative self-esteem issues.

They Are Aware

There’s a difference between being present and being aware. Presence is a physical matter. You are where you are. Awareness, however, is a cerebral matter and one that is common among creative people. They have an innate ability to see what others have missed because they seem to see the world through a different set of eyes. They are not numb to the environments that they are present within. They just choose to see the things we miss, the subtlety and nuance of everyday life. Those quiet, hidden details are often the subjects of their work, making a mockery of what we mere mortals passed over as we traversed those same environments blind to what was right there for us to take.

Designer and illustrator Von Glitschka is one of these acutely aware creatives. He engages in what he calls “texture exploring,” a photographic exercise that originally began as a defined activity but now manifests itself in his every day process. He would take his camera out into any number of urban or rural environments and seek out textures to use in his work. From tree bark to street cracks, he would photograph these elements then digitally enhance the photos and use them as texture in his artwork. Now, he carries a camera wherever he goes and is known privately and publicly for stopping along his path and photographing a texture he encounters. What we pass by as error or insignificance he sees as opportunity because he is not only present but aware.

They Are Easily Inspired

Attention is a fleeting state. Some people can be focused and steely in their attention while others can be tempted to mentally stray with even the slightest divergence. This is often called “Shiny Object Syndrome,” as in the attention that can be diverted by introducing a shiny object into the sightline. The highly creative, however, have another type of Shiny Object Syndrome that works to their benefit: Shiny Object Inspiration. They are easily inspired by any number of novelties in their lives, from art and music to architecture and relationships. They can find inspiration literally anywhere and this state constantly feeds them with the motivation to use that inspiration in their work. While we seek inspiration externally, they seem to find it anywhere and everywhere.

John Lassiter, head of animation studio Pixar, was once asked where he got the idea for Luxo, the hopping desk lamp that was not only Pixar’s early flagship animated short but became the brand symbol for the studio. As he sat in his office thinking about how to best marry this new type of computer-generated storytelling with his love of animating inanimate objects, he kept staring at a luxo desklamp that sat on one of the desks in his office. He moved the lamp around like a puppet, exploring the human-like characteristics it displayed. This inspired Luxo Jr., the 1986 Pixar short film that started it all and now begins every Pixar feature-length film as part of the Pixar title logo.

They Are Indiscriminate

Serial problem solvers don’t care what type of problem they are asked to solve, they can’t help but bleed into mediums that are outside of their core competencies in an effort to solve any problem they encounter. These indiscriminate creatives are not territorial, they will take on whatever challenge they are presented not out of obligation but rather an unquenchable desire to find novelty and relevance. While we mere mortals will tend to shove any problem into the box that suits our skills best, they will tinker and tailor away from what they know without hesitation, refusing to choose a medium before the message is defined. Where we see the hard lines of our experience defining what we have the ability to solve, they only see the opportunity to apply their unique perspective to the problem and as such, find uncharted territory in the possible solutions.

No one is as indiscriminate in their approach to problem solving as product innovation firm IDEO. They have developed a creative process that they can apply to any problem, from toothbrushes to space shuttles. They don’t look at experience in an industry as a positive thing. In fact, they believe just the opposite. They believe their inexperience in an industry helps them see solutions others miss. They are not influenced by the past, so they can innovate from scratch each time they tackle a problem. In a strange, new way, they welcome ignorance because this brings new insight and allows them to take on any project in any category.

They Are Early Adopters

Early adopters are the group of people in any company, product, or technology cycle that are the earliest customers, the ones that are willing to be the first to try a product or service. These are also the ones that tend to be the trendsetters, the ones that seek novelty and are willing to risk acceptance or rejection based on that novelty. These tend to be the explorers in any group and it is this exploratory tendency that is common among creatives. While we regular folk wait for a product or service to be fully tested and pause to gauge the acceptance rate in our societies, the hyper creative seek out opportunities to take risks and blaze their own trail. Every product or service we now consider crucial to our lifestyle was once adopted by only a few and it is safe to say there was a healthy number of creatives in those groups if for nothing more than the curiosity that a new product or service offers. Creatives understand the power of curiosity and these curious minds are often tempted by the novelty of anything new.

Few know the power of curiosity better than filmmaker JJ Abrams. He tells a story of his childhood love for magic that captures the purity of the explorer mindset. As a child, he would frequent a magic shop down the street from his home. While he would buy small tricks and cheap wonders, he was saving for something larger. Behind the counter on a shelf was a large box that read ‘Tannen’s Mystery Magic Box.’ He had no idea what was in it but he knew it was a box full of amazing things so he saved every dime he earned until he finally bought the box. This same box sits on his shelf in his office today… unopened. He’s never even looked inside. Why? Because it reminds him of the power of curiosity and encourages him to keep that early adopter spirit.

They Are Fearless

The greatest obstacle a creative must overcome to do great work is fear, but it isn’t the fear of failure that most creatives battle, it is fear of the consequence of failure that gets to us. As a group, we’re pretty good at taking risks if those risks aren’t tied to our jobs, families or self-esteem. Then again, they wouldn’t be risks then, would they? The uber-creative has the unique ability to shrug off the consequence of failure and buy in whole-heartedly to ideas that have little to no success history or ROI. They share half-baked ideas, try new techniques and mediums, and shed the inherent failures that come with both quickly and easily. In short, they simply don’t let the outcome effect the process.

If there was a Creativity Hall of Fame, Walt Disney would be in the Ring of Honor. Walt understood the creative process and was rarely swayed or influenced by failure. He was, quite simply, a fearless creative. Despite business failures riddled along his path, he stayed fearless in his pursuit. His first animation studio went out of business, his distributor stole his first successful character from under him, Mickey Mouse was originally rejected by MGM, he lost a million dollars in the first release of Pinocchio and the list goes on. Regardless of the mounting setbacks, Walt’s resolve remained and he was able to realize his creative vision of both the most successful animation studio and theme park empire in history.

They Are Playful

Creativity shares many of the same characteristics as play: both support a positive mind-set, both are driven toward a purpose, and both need restrictions to thrive. Play provides the optimal training environment for creativity because the very characteristics you need to be creative, you express through play. Creative people tend to be playful people. Even Albert Einstein, commonly regarded as the most creative scientist to ever live, was notoriously playful. Within the constructs of play, creatives find the most powerful propellant to creative thought: minimalized consequence. When consequences are reduced, we’re free to innovate and prototype to our heart’s content. This makes play creativity’s activist and a popular characteristic of highly creative people.

Earlier, I talked about product development firm IDEO. Tim Brown is IDEO’s CEO, and he is a huge advocate of strategic play as an initiator to creative thought. “The first thing to remember is that play is not anarchy,” Brown says. “Play has rules, especially when it’s group play. When kids play tea party, or they play cops and robbers, they’re following a script that they’ve agreed to. And it’s this code negotiation that leads to productive play. But there aren’t just rules about how to play; there are rules about when to play. Kids don’t play all the time, obviously. They transition in and out of it, and good teachers spend a lot of time thinking about how to move kids through these experiences. As designers, we need to be able to transition in and out of play also.” Great creatives know to use play to initiate ideas then return to process to see the idea through to fruition.

They Are Resourceful

As I summarized all that I had discovered researching the behavior and philosophies of highly creative people, I stumbled upon an anomaly. While many creatives possessed a different mix of these traits, no one trait could be attributed to them all save for one: resourcefulness. Each of them found ways to solve problems by traveling outside of the traditional methods and they did so regularly. They weren’t bound by their experience or the obstacles that arose through the process. They often found solutions in unusual places using unusual materials. And this makes sense because creativity is defined as problem solving with relevance and novelty. By it’s very definition, it would seem leaving the normal behind and traversing into the abnormal would yield the greatest volume of novelty. What each of them was able to do was to see solutions where mere mortals only saw the absence of solutions.

In what has become internet lore, a nine-year-old boy spent his summer building an elaborate cardboard arcade inside his father’s auto parts store and the world came to celebrate his resourcefulness. The story of Caine’s Arcade has over 3 million views on YouTube and has reminded us all that creative people find a way. There is no greater characteristic for a creative to have than to be resourceful, to solve problems with what you have, and to see what others miss. In the end, what other characteristic could define creativity better? It is the perfect creative summary, the composition of all of the other traits combined. And one that makes me, and every other pseudo creative poser wannabe, both love Caine and hate Caine. I’m sure you can understand.

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