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How the World's Most Creative People Bring Their Ideas to Life
What's the secret to creative success?
Coming up with a brilliant idea is the easy part. Bringing it to life is where the real work takes place.
The best artists, writers, and innovators have a creative process that requires rigorous iteration. They cut, edit, slash, rip apart, and start over many, many times before the final version of their work comes to life. It’s frustrating, and it’s beautiful.
My friend Ali recently introduced me to Songland, a show in which undiscovered songwriters pitch their original songs to recording artists. Many of the songs pitched on the show become hits — but not before an arduous workshopping process.
For example, you may have heard Lady A’s song Champagne Night. It took a while to get it there. In the video below, you’ll see the songwriter Madeline who comes in to pitch her song, I’ll Drink to That. After she's done performing, the panel comes up with a totally new hook. On the spot, they come up with the lyric: “We're drinkin' beer on a champagne night.”
“The bones of this song were extraordinary,” says country music singer-songwriter Shane McAnally. “She had the feeling right, but there’s a way to say it that’s more interesting.”
Creativity isn’t only about revision, though. It’s about constant innovation — even in the good times.
Grant Achatz, who's featured in this week's Profile Dossier, is one of the most creative and cutting-edge chefs in America. He founded Alinea, which has been named the best restaurant in the world, in 2005. Alinea is one third laboratory, one third sensorium, and one third theater. A guest is served anywhere between 17 to 24 courses, a meal experience that mirrors chapters in a book. Alinea's most iconic dishes include the pillow of nutmeg air, the black truffle explosion, and the edible helium-filled, floating balloon.
“Every restaurant exists to entertain,” says Achatz. “We want to grab you by the hand and pull you into a great performance.”
Achatz explains he's constantly bombarded with ideas because he views the world through "a kaleidoscope of food." So for him, ideas can come from the most unlikely sources — it could be while listening to song on the radio, watching leaves fall to the ground, or seeing a large-scale painting in a museum. Watch the video below to better understand the way his mind works:
Achatz's greatest competitive advantage is perhaps the fact that he's willing to start over even when things are going well. He's terrified of the complacency that often comes hand-in-hand with great success, so Achatz regularly blows up the entire menu and starts over.
"It's about having a restaurant philosophy where creativity is the priority," he says. "We could have created a greatest hits menu, but I think if we do that we fall into that trap of almost counter-creativity."
Perhaps the most creative period of his life was when he was forced to come up with new ways to develop recipes. In 2008, Achatz was diagnosed with stage-four tongue cancer, and he had to accept that his sense of taste could disappear forever.
He began thinking from first principles once again. He found out that taste relies much more on our eyes and our nose than it does on our tongue. The cancer diagnosis forced Achatz to use his other senses and figure out new ways to push the envelope that ultimately made Alinea even more cutting-edge.
Why is this important? Because it busts the myth that you sit around and wait for creativity to show up. It doesn't. It requires persistence and relentless determination. As Achatz says:
"People like to think the creative process is romantic. The artist drifts to sleep at night, to be awakened by the subliminal echoes of his or her next brilliant idea. The truth, for me at least, is that creativity is primarily the result of hard work and study."
YouTuber Casey Neistat is the king of creative storytelling. He's made videos for clients like Samsung, Adobe, Google, and Mercedes-Benz that evoke emotion and humanize the brand. His latest video for Nike has been called "the best branded story ever told."
Nike hired Neistat to make a commercial for its Nike FuelBand featuring the slogan "Make It Count." But at the last minute, he and his buddy film editor Max went rogue and set off on a journey around the world using Nike's money and advice to "Make It Count." It became Nike's most-watched video of all time.
It's creativity at its finest.
So what's Neistat's secret to creative success? Learning to push through the hopeless, gut-wrenching troughs of frustration and boredom and stress. Even though the first movie Neistat ever made 20 years ago was terrible, he says the "doing" is the most crucial part of the creative process. In 2015, he set a personal challenge to vlog every single day for over a year.
"To sit around and say, 'I’m not motivated, so I can’t do anything,' to me is the same thing as being like, 'I’m so hungry, I can’t eat.' The only way you’re going to alleviate your hunger is to eat some food. The only way to fix your motivational problem is to do something.”
Because if you sit around waiting, your muse will never come. Remember, creativity is a practice — not a state.
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