August 22

3 Questions that Kill Creativity

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Creativity begins with an impulse or desire to express something or act on that impulse. This can manifest in many ways: 


  • It could be handing out 3000 self-addressed stamped postcards asking people to share an anonymous secret. 
  • It could begin with the desire to photograph 10,000 strangers in New York City and plot them on a map
  • One of my favorite Instagram accounts is Happy Strangers. The premise is simple. A collection of photographs of random strangers with a caption about what makes them happy. 


Postsecret, Humans of New York, and Happy Strangers started with an impulse to express something.  We deny, write off, and invalidate these impulses because they seem frivolous and there’s no straight line from a project to a paycheck. So we don’t start at all.  Anytime we ask the following three questions we kill creativity.  

1. How can I build a massive audience for this?

When you put the audience before the art and the promotion before the product you do yourself and your potential audience a great disservice. Caught up in metrics you can’t control, your creative efforts lead to anxiety instead of joy and madness instead of meaning. Your focus is on the prize instead of the process when it should be the other way around. Perhaps a more appropriate question would be 

“How I can create something worthy of an audience’s attention?”  

2. How am I Going to Monetize This?

Think about all the art that people haven’t created because they don’t know how they’re going to monetize it. And think about all the art that wouldn’t exist if people had asked themselves this question before they started. 


Letting go of the intention of commercial success isn’t easy. Our culture reinforces the narrative that it’s only worth doing if it leads to some monetary result.  


We create bestseller lists, publish income reports, and quantify every aspect of our humanity.  But if the only things we’re willing to try are those we know will be profitable, this becomes a self-imposed limitation on creativity and innovation. 


Just imagine if Google implemented it’s 20% time program with the following caveat:  You can spend 20 percent of your time on something unrelated to your work, but if you don’t know how it will make money, it’s not allowed.  It’s possible the policy wouldn’t have led to so many innovative products.  


What have you chosen not to do because you don’t know how you’re going to monetize it? What if it was worth doing anyway?   

3. Can I add This to my Resume?

The fact that we have access to tools, technology, people, and resources is kind of a blessing and a curse. As I said in An Audience of One, “the paradox of technology is that the very tools that facilitate our creativity also inhibit it. Resolving this paradox is essential to our creativity.” 


When I was in college, it was hard to do something like building a website. If you didn’t have the technical skills to execute your idea, it became an afterthought.  If you’re a college student reading this, consider the following. 


You have access to tools, resources, and distribution channels at decreasing costs You have access to some of the most brilliants minds of our time through blogs, podcasts, and more.  Last but not least, you have time, and time is the most valuable asset at your disposal.  There has never been more fertile soil to plant the seeds for the person you want to become. 


But the myth that you should follow your passion keeps people from taking advantage of this.  Don’t write off what you find engaging just because it’s not a skill that you can add to your resume.  Indulge your curiosity, and it becomes easier to express your creativity.  


When I started writing in 2009, I had no idea it would lead to the Unmistakable Creative Podcast and books like An Audience of One.  In fact, The three questions above were my filter for many of the ideas I was willing to explore. It was only when I stopped asking those questions that my best ideas started to emerge. 

So What If…


  • Your inner child played a few innings while your outer adult sat on the bench 
  • You acted on that impractical seemingly batshit crazy impulse 
  • You didn’t limit the definition of creativity to what we typically think of as art like painting, music, movies, and books.  


You might leave behind a trail of magic and make an unmistakable dent in the universe.  


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