Editor’s Note: This post (by the original Editor in Chief, Jon Wesley) is being republished in the wake of the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman – my favorite actor. We spend a lot of time talking about Creativity on this blog and for all of those that aspire to pursue a career in the arts, or for those that simply appreciate these endeavors from a theater chair, as I do – take notes. Creativity this great deserves to be shouted from any soap box you can find. It’s just that rare. RIP PSH, you are simply, one of the greatest that ever lived.
The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources. -Einstein
The biggest misconception about creativity is that it involves a moment of magical creation when the incredible appears out of thin air. The truth is less romantic. Everything comes from somewhere. All ideas have been thought before and all artists, especially the most brilliant, have their sources of inspiration. I’m going to break Einstein’s famous rule by revealing some of my sources and explaining how I use the genius of others to further my own ambitions.
Everyone starts somewhere so I might as well come clean from the beginning. Before I started this website my creative credentials were nonexistent. I had no tangible experience as a writer, designer, marketer, or entrepreneur. Aside from this site I still don’t. All I can say for myself is that I read voraciously and draw fairly well. You’d think a chump like me wouldn’t stand a chance in the hyper competitive online world.
So how did I end up with this fine looking site, a readership that’s growing every day, and over 100 original articles, several of which have been featured on the likes of Lifehacker.com, Problogger.net, lifehack.org and all the major social sites?
By observing how others became creatively successful and combining their genius with my own.
A seed was planted the day I read Steve Pavlina’s, 10 Reasons You Should Never Get a Job. Through that article I found How to Make Money From Your Blog and ever since I’ve been obsessed with creating a profitable website based on my own original writing. It wasn’t Steve’s monetary success that inspired me, it was his literary style. The wit, the humor, the brutal honesty, and the fact that people were eating it up and begging for more made me believe that I could do it too; that I could build a business around my passion.
From Steve I learned the value of lengthy original articles, serving the reader, writing from personal experience, and choosing topics that apply to everyone. More than through his words, I’ve learned from observation; from the locations of his ads, the frequency of his posts, and a thousand other details the casual reader would never notice.
Sure, I could have ignored everything that worked for Steve, but what would be the point of that? Too many people try to reinvent the wheel when a Ferrari’s roaring past. During the Renaissance apprentice artists learned by replicating the works of the masters. The secret to being creative is recognizing the genius of others and re-purposing it for your own ends.
If you want be more creative, you have to learn from people who are smarter than you are. Unless you can find a mentor this means learning from observation. When you see a piece of work you admire, dissect it scientifically and discover exactly what makes it great. Is it the tone of an article? the subject matter? the author’s personality? its usefulness? The same concept applies to design. What creates that feeling of visual pleasure? What made you click that ad? What made you subscribe? The clues to creativity are everywhere. You need to gather them and apply that understanding to your own creative work.
It’s also important to find models that fit your profile. If you’re a nobody like me, don’t try to build the next TechCrunch. It won’t work because you don’t have Mike Arrington’s insider connections. Think of yourself as an engine in need of a body. You can find one that fits by investigating people with a background and style similar to yours.
It’s important to note that collecting inspiration is distinctly different than plagiarism. Although Steve’s work has influenced mine I haven’t stolen any of his content. I’ve taken the model and adjusted it to my own needs, the same way Steve probably followed the examples of other successful people when building his site.
In truth, he’s only one of many influences. If I had to list them all this post would be 100,000 words. Some of the more prominent dead ones include Bertrand Russell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, Henry David Thoreau, and George Orwell. Some living ones you may know include Jason Kottke, Merlin Mann, Brian Clark, Robert Scoble, Darren Rowse, Seth Godin, Hugh MacLeod, J.D. Roth, and Tim Ferriss. But only naming a select few neglects countless others. I draw inspiration from everything I read and everyone I come in contact with.
I need to give an extra special thanks to Chris Pearson for designing the Cutline Theme. When I started this site I didn’t know any CSS or HTML. Like any beginner I downloaded the best free theme I could find. Over time I’ve continuously built on it, doing at least 3 major overhauls and making small changes on a daily basis. The key to making a good design if you have no experience is looking at other sites, finding what works, and blending it into a unique creation.
All art is imitation. The most creative people imitate rarer, more brilliant sources and cover their tracks. That’s why reading nothing but blogs makes you write dull generic posts. If you absorb a mediocre style, your output will be mediocre. If you scour the classics for the most intelligent, passionate writing in existence your own inspiration will follow. Pay close attention and you’ll even notice the passing of ideas through history. No one could read this essay by Oscar Wilde and Plato’s Symposium without noting a remarkable similarity.
There’s a reason great artists are always clustered together, both geographically and chronologically. Interacting with creative individuals makes you more creative. Rival artists exchange techniques and competition increases effort. The present is the ideal age for creative people. The internet has connected everything, allowing us to draw inspiration from classic works of art and our finest contemporaries without leaving the couch.
It’s also important to draw from a wide array of sources. Your best option is to play the statistics. Creativity isn’t a spark it’s a boiling pot. Sample an enormous amount of creative work and you’ll produce an inspirational concoction. The most important creative asset is curiosity.
Genuine creativity doesn’t exist, particularly in a cosmic sense. Living beings don’t create life, they re-purpose existing matter into offspring. Nothing has been created since the Big Bang. All we can do is rearrange the stuff we find around us. If you want to be more creative, stop waiting for inspiration and start experimenting. Creativity isn’t creation at all, it’s reorganization.