When we say “creativity,” we seem to uproot ourselves from the work itself in favor of some nebulous, ephemeral ghost that, apparently, can guide us forward. When the goal is to be creative, we like to think that we’re now in the business of creating something from nothing, but we’re never truly able to start from nothing. There’s always a status quo into which we introduce something different.
Okay, so “creativity” is doing something different? But not just “different,” right? I could write this entire post backwards, so you’d have to read it from the bottom up, from right to left. It’d be one hell of a difference. In fact, it’d be different from every other article written in English on the internet.
But does that make it any good? Is that a different anyone actually wants?
No, it’s not enough to just be different. If it were, any stunt we pull would earn us the love and respect of others we wish to serve. We’re not merely seeking to be different. We’re seeking to be different and good, different and welcome. Let’s call that “refreshing.”
Creativity is doing something refreshing compared to the status quo.
So how do we execute on that? Clearly, it’s not to invent something from nothing. It’s not about invention at all. Creativity is all about reinvention — making refreshing changes on the status quo.
There are only five ways we can reinvent the status quo:
1. Reuse: Increase the number of times others encounter something that’s working inside the same experience.
People adore your brand’s podcast host? Great! Give her a monologue. Let her spread her creative wings a little and fly. Give her more airtime, because that’s reusing something that’s working inside the same experience.
(Reusing is probably the most common type of reinvention on the status quo that we rely on, and used all by itself or used too much, it can merely perpetuate a stale status quo. That’s why we need the rest of this list.)
2. Repurpose: Increase the number of times others encounter something, but in a different experience.
People adore your brand’s podcast host? Great! She now hosts a video show, too. She emcees your annual event, or interviews speakers on the showroom floor., That’s repurposing something, moving a beloved element of an experience from one project to a different one.
3. Replace: Substitute something that’s growing stale for a refreshing new element.
Know that lightning round of questions at the end of your show? Yeah, everyone is doing those. We’ve grown tired of hearing them as listeners. Maybe replace it with something else, like an inspirational section of narration summarizing the episode and urging action, or else skip the frills and conclude the interview with gusto. Either way, replace that lightning round: substitute something that’s growing stale for a refreshing new element.
4. Remix: Combine an existing trait or piece of the experience with refreshing new elements.
People love your podcast, and that’s great, but you’re worried they’ll lose interest after 5, 10, 50 episodes done in a similar style. So every quarter, answer fan mail. Every month, launch a special behind-the-scenes episode. Every year, partner with a brand or show that shares our belief system to create a miniseries inside our show. Remix the show.
5. Refine: Remove unwanted pieces of the element of your work in question, or the entire thing.
This is addition by subtraction. Your podcast gets better when you cut a meandering intro style and jump right into the hook, the cold open, the reason people might care. Refine the intro by removing the unwanted pieces. Or maybe the entire brand gets better when you kill the show entirely. It’s sucking up resources, it’s not beloved by others, and it lacked a strategy when you started it. Refine your brand experience by eliminating the show entirely. Remove unwanted parts of a project or an entire project. That’s refining the status quo.
We adore these big notions like “creativity” and celebrate the seemingly ineffable parts of the work. It can’t be explained. They found their answers “out there,” or else they have The Gift.
But really, when it’s time to do the work — which is all creativity really is, in the end — we need to make this big idea more knowable. We need to hold creativity in our hand like a tool, not wander the wilderness in search of “it.”
Creativity doesn’t mean big. It’s just the sum of lots of smaller moments of reinvention, all rolled together. And there are just five ways to reinvent the status quo, five refreshing changes we can make on the status quo: reuse, repurpose, replace, remix, or refine something.
Make one change. Make all five. Just don’t make zero changes.
The great John Cleese once said, “Creativity is not a talent. It’s a way of operating.” The way we operate is a choice, and when we want to be creative, it’s a choice among these five changes.
What will you choose to do?
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