As creatives, we tend to fall in love with our ideas. As Ryan Holiday says in Perennial Seller, “Creative people, naturally produce a lot of false positives. Ideas that they think are good, but aren’t. Ideas that other people have had. Mediocre ideas that contain buried within the seeds of much better ideas.” That’s often because they are using the wrong creative strategy
False positives lead authors to spend years writing books no one wants to read and entrepreneurs to develop products no one wants to use. The creative strategy that Chris Rock, Pixar, and the creators of Iconic use to bring ideas to life is an antidote to false positives.
Even though nothing is guaranteed in art, business, or life, you can increase the odds of success by doing what the author Peter Sims Calls Making Little Bets. Making Little Bets is the creative strategy that Chris Rock, Pixar, and other Iconic creators use to make ideas happen.
How I Used This Creative Strategy to Build a Body of Work
Every creative project I’ve done in the last 10 years has been a little bet.
- When I started Unmistakable Creative Podcast in 2009, it was nothing more than a blog post on my personal blog with a few bullet points and an mp3 file. I didn’t even build a website for it until after the 13th.
- The Art of Being Unmistakable became a WSJ bestseller and led to a six-figure book deal. But it started as a series of Facebook status updates.
- This process allowed me to plan a successful conference and cancel one that was doomed to fail before I lost a lot of money
The creative strategy that Chris Rock, Pixar, and others use to bring their ideas to life can be used by anyone if you are willing to experiment, fail and iterate. But there are a few things you need to keep in mind to make it work.
1. Don’t Listen to Your heart. Pay Attention to the Data
If you’re passionate about your idea, you’ll be tempted to listen to your heart, rely too much on your intuition, and ignore the data. This kind of thinking usually leads to reckless risks that don’t pay off.
One of the creative projects I’m most proud of is the conference I put together in 2014. In 2019, I decided it was finally time to do it again. By November, we hadn’t sold enough tickets to break even and were already making a $3000 loss. So we pulled the plug and refunded everyone’s money.
The pandemic started a few months before the conference was supposed to happen. Paying attention to the dates probably saved us from bankruptcy.
2. Strive for Progress Instead of Perfection
Any time you do something for the first time, it will probably suck.
- Writers don’t sit down and write the great American novel in one sitting. They write crappy first drafts and revise their work until they’ve written something worth reading.
- The first version of a product is far from perfect. There are usually bugs in the code, features missing, and more.
Focusing on progress rather than perfection prevents you from having unrealistic expectations. It allows you to focus on the process instead of the prize
3. Accept That it Might Not Work
When people are consumed with passion and enthusiasm for their ideas, they take reckless risks, don’t check their assumptions, rely more on their intuition than data, and make big bets that usually don’t pay off. Their passion comes back to bite them in the ass or blow up in their face.
When we believe wholeheartedly that our idea is destined to succeed and it won’t, we develop unrealistic expectations that leave us disillusioned and disappointed. The more you believe in the myth of passion, the more likely you are to find that perspective cynical or pessimistic.
No one would mistake Seth Godin for a pessimist or cynic. But before he starts any project, he says to himself, “This might not work.” By starting from the premise that our idea might not work, we paradoxically increase the likelihood that it will.
Starting from the premise that what we are doing may not work allows us to detach ourselves from the results and focus on the process. It teaches us to anticipate what might go wrong and prevent it. And it gives us the awareness we need to poke holes in our ideas and challenge our assumptions, which contributes more to success than passion for an idea ever could.
You need to believe in yourself, but not necessarily in your idea, because your idea might suck. If you believe in yourself, but your idea sucks, you’re more likely to adapt, iterate, or come up with a better idea. Idealism, unceasing optimism, enthusiasm, and passion tempt people to think their ideas are better than they are. And if their ideas don’t work, they’re more likely to give up.
Believing that your idea won’t work makes it more likely that it will because you become less emotional and more objective. You become more open to the flaws in your thinking and question your assumptions.
Passion is great as a personality trait. But it’s a dangerous strategy for running a business.
How to Use the Creative Strategy that Chris Rock, Pixar, and other Iconic Creators Use to Bring Their Ideas to Life
1. Develop a Hypothesis and Test it in a Low-Risk environment.
Experiment with your ideas in a low-risk environment. In a low-risk environment, the consequences of failure are minimal.
Chris Rock doesn’t test new material at open-mic nights because those are low-risk environments. No one goes to an open mic night expecting to see Chris Rock, let alone deliver a performance that will make them laugh until they cry.
A national comedy tour, on the other hand, is an environment where the stakes are high. When someone spends $100 to see Chris Rock, they expect it to be funny. Testing material in a low-stakes environment allows him to hone his material. When he’s in the high-stakes environment of a national tour, he knows his material is funny.
Examples of Low-Risk Environments
If you’re getting paid to speak at a conference with 1000 attendees, that’s a high-risk environment. You don’t show up and try to wing it. The living room where you rehearse is a low-risk environment.
For an aspiring writer, a high-risk environment would be thousands of potential readers. But asking one person for feedback creates a low-risk environment.
When we built Unmistakable Prime, our monthly subscription for creatives and knowledge workers who want to make their ideas happen, our community manager Milena didn’t invite our entire audience. She invited only ten people, creating a low-risk environment that allowed us to iterate.
2. Create Low-Risk Prototypes that Help you Save Time and Money.
Before you invest your time, attention, and energy into a project or idea, it’s best to create low-risk prototypes. There are three main criteria for a low-risk prototype.
- First, it doesn’t take too much time. It’s something you can create in hours or days, not months or years.
- Second, it costs very little money. Ideally, it should cost you nothing. If that’s not possible, try to reduce your expenses as much as possible.
- Third, it should provide you with valuable feedback that you can apply to the next iteration of your idea
In the words of Google’s Innovation Director Alberto Savoia, a low-risk prototype is something that allows you to “fail Ferrari fast and Fiat cheap.”
Examples of Low-Risk Prototypes
If you have an idea for a book, write a blog post first to test whether your idea has appeal. And if you’re really lazy, write a tweet or Facebook status update. If it doesn’t catch on, you’ve saved yourself two years you would have spent writing a book no one wants to read.
Instead of creating an online course or app and trying to sell it, create a landing page and send it out to people to see if they’re interested. If not, you just saved yourself a lot of time you would have spent building something no one wants.
Shift your focus from what you’re losing to what you’re learning.
Expecting your first attempt to be a homerun is a recipe for disappointment. There’s no way to predict whether your art will resonate with your audience or whether people will buy your products. It is always possible that you will lose time, money, etc.
Small stakes help you shift your focus from what you’ve lost to what you’re learning. Because you’re not investing a lot of time, resources, or energy into small bets, you’re less likely to get derailed if something doesn’t work out.
Not only does this give you invaluable feedback. You’ll also save yourself a lot of heartaches. You’ll be able to learn, iterate, and adapt.
How a Big Bet Can Distort Your Thinking and Lead to Failure
A few years ago, my roommate Matt and I were playing video games. We had a brilliant idea: a writer’s retreat.
Our first assumption was that people would be interested in me teaching them how to write a book because I had two books published by Penguin. The second was that people in our audience wanted to write a book and were willing to pay to learn how.
With dollar signs in our eyes, we paid a copywriter $1,000 to write a landing page. And one person signed up for our writer’s retreat. Even though we only took a loss of a hundred dollars, we lost something equally valuable: time.
Had we used the creative strategy that Chris Rock, Pixar, and other iconic creators use to bring ideas to fruition, we would have been smart enough not to put time, money, and energy into a creative endeavor that was doomed from the start.
This strategy won’t make you immune to failure. But it will help you reduce the likelihood of failure and increase the likelihood of success without wasting vast amounts of time, money, or energy. If you want to build a thriving career in the arts, use the strategy that Chris Rock, Pixar, and other iconic creators use to bring their ideas to life,
Make small bets. If they work, up the ante, test in an environment where the stakes are higher and create higher risk prototypes. Eventually, you will build something worth buying or create something worth consuming.