Bad Habits that Kill Creativity
by Dean Rieck
If we're all creative to some degree and if creativity is a learned behavior, why aren't more people highly creative?
Well, you don't have to be a psychologist to know that people are generally pretty lazy. There's a natural human inclination to do things the easy way. And let's face it, most things in life don't require too much creativity. So for the average person, there's really no motivation for the extra effort.
The truth is, most people who display higher levels of creativity have simply learned this behavior by chance. Perhaps their parents or friends did creative things. Or maybe certain random events inspired a different approach to life. It doesn't matter how you become creative, of course, but there's a downside to this randomness. Because if you can pick up good creative habits, you can pick up bad creative habits, too. And you usually don't know which is which until they're deeply ingrained.
But bad habits can be broken if you are determined to do so. The first step is to identify these behaviors so you can start making productive changes. Here are some of the more common bad habits that hamper creativity in direct marketing.
- The "Expert Syndrome." This is a big problem in the advertising and marketing field, where egos often balloon to the size of small planets. I suppose it takes a healthy ego to succeed in this business, but if you think you know everything there is to know, you're blustering more than thinking. And you'll inevitably make mistakes and miss opportunities. In direct marketing, this could be called the "Guru Syndrome," since we too often think that there is an inner circle of initiates who hold the dark, hidden secrets of success.
- The "Novice Trap." This may be almost as bad as the Expert Syndrome. You don't know the basics. You don't have experience. Or you think you're too smart to spend time learning the basic formulas and rules of thumb. Needless to say, novices are quickly humbled in direct marketing. Of course, you can easily hide your ignorance. All you have to do is carry out sloppy tests and fudge the results. But this only works long-term if your business does not rely on direct marketing channels for most of its income. Many Fortune 500 companies are notorious for their novice approach to direct marketing while their sales charts soar with dollars from a direct sales force, retail sales, and other revenue streams.
- The "One Right Answer Disease." As a student in school, your teachers probably said they wanted you to think for yourself. However, come test time, you knew you'd better memorize the facts and give the "right" answers or your grade would suffer. This simplistic right and wrong orientation pervades our society and it's the very antithesis of creative thinking. Except for simple problems like 2 + 2 = 4, there's seldom just one right answer for anything. And in advertising, where just about everything is based on psychology, there's never just one right answer.
- Trying to create and evaluate simultaneously. You can't drive a car in first and in reverse at the same time. Likewise, you shouldn't try to use different types of thinking simultaneously. Creating is generating new ideas, visualizing, looking ahead, considering the possibilities. Evaluation is analysis and judgment, which is picking apart ideas and sorting them out into piles of good and bad, useful and useless. Most people evaluate too soon and too often, and therefore create less.
- Mistaking hunting for creating. There are two forms of creative imagination: Hunting and Changing. Hunting is finding something that already exists and applying it to your problem. Changing is modifying something you already have and transforming it into something new. Both are useful, but they are not the same. In direct marketing, hunting usually takes the form of what has been called "stealing smart," or copying the success of others to assure your own success. This is a safe approach, but very limiting. By sticking to what others do, you are forever trapped by the past. You will never have the chance to break out, stand on your own two feet, and make your business all that it can be.
- Going with the first solution. One of the secrets to creativity is playing around with alternatives. Finding one solution is just the beginning. Many ad writers, for example, claim to come up with a hundred headlines or more before choosing the one they like best. When you go with the first solution, you're not creating, you're just recalling. You are settling for a "near miss" or a ballpark answer. Sometimes that's fine, but if you do it all the time, you will certainly miss some very lucrative ideas.
- Being too logical. Ours is a practical profession, but trying to be sensible and rational all the time will strangle a creative idea before it's born. The brain is not a computer, after all, it's a vastly complex organ designed to process emotion, intuition, language, symbols, dreams, and all manner of illogical data. That's what it does best. Confining yourself to practical lines of thought is limiting and, frankly, illogical. After all, your customers base 99.99% of all their purchases on emotion. The only time logic comes into play is after a decision has been made, and then it is used to justify the decision.
- The fear of failure. Most people remember baseball legend Babe Ruth as one of the great hitters of all time, with a career record of 714 home runs. However, he was also a master of the strike out. That's because he always swung for home runs, not singles or doubles. So he either succeeded big or failed spectacularly. No one wants to make mistakes or fail. But if you try too hard to avoid failure, you'll also avoid success.
- The fear of ambiguity. Most people like things to make sense. In direct marketing, we are particularly fond of neat and tidy solutions to problems. Unfortunately, life is not neat and tidy. There are some things you'll never understand and some problems that you'll never solve. I had a client who tested a catalog with a newsletter enclosed. Then they tested the same thing but put the catalog inside the newsletter. The second version got a much better response. Why? Because the audience got more involved when the newsletter was on the outside? Because the catalog looked too similar to other catalogs? Frankly, I don't know. What I do know is that most great creative ideas emerge from a swirl of chaos. And if you're not comfortable with that, you're in for a difficult career.
- Curing "symptoms" instead of "illnesses." Our industry is chock full of "technique hounds," yapping twits who prattle on at length about how clever it is to tilt a stamp or fold a letter differently. Such techniques often raise response to be sure, but big results more often come from solving big problems, not from manipulating surface details. If a direct mail package isn't working, for example, it's more likely that the offer is off-target than the envelope color is wrong.
- Overusing or misusing pet techniques. Results are the only important thing in direct marketing. If you fall in love with a format, phrase, offer, or some favorite technique, you will certainly use it at the wrong time. Techniques are tools, nothing more. They are there to help you attain your goals; they are not a goal unto themselves.
- "Functional Fixedness." This is a common human shortcoming. A person suffering from functional fixedness sees a wrench as a wrench and nothing else. A creative person sees a wrench as a wrench, but also as a hammer, or a lever, or a weapon, or whatever else is needed at the moment. Whoever thought you could advertise prescription drugs on TV? That you could give away software programs as a way to sell them? That you could use postcards to get magazine subscribers? Not people with functional fixedness to be sure.
- Thinking you're not creative. Everyone is creative. Some are better at using their gifts than others. Some are more open and free in their thoughts. However, every human being on the planet has vast, untapped creative abilities, including you. One of the real problems that gets mistaken for lack of creativity is ignorance of the creative process. To take full advantage of your natural gifts, you have to know how ideas are created.
- Being overwhelmed by information. If your brain is crammed with too much data, it can't function efficiently. You can't see the forest for the trees. This is a problem I sometimes have myself. When I start a project, I usually ask for lots of information. Usually a client can only get a fraction of what I ask for, but sometimes they actually deliver a one- or two-foot stack. And when that happens, it's far too easy to get mentally buried in all the data.
- Being trapped by false limits. Ask a direct mail guru how to solve a problem and you'll get a direct mail pitch. Ask a telemarketing guru how to solve a problem and you'll get a telemarketing pitch. Without an open mind and the ability to solve problems from scratch, you can't arrive at the best solution. This is where your own experience can hold you back. And it is why defining your problem and generating lots of ideas are key elements in the creative procedure. By forcing yourself to go beyond past solutions, you are more likely to come up with a new solution that works.
- Letting your environment get in the way. The phone won't stop ringing. Your chair makes your butt hurt. The heater is busted. Your stomach is growling. Conditions may never be perfect, but when things get too distracting, you simply won't be able to concentrate on your problem. Always try to establish a creative space with optimum conditions for creativity.
Do you have any of these bad habits? Maybe you have several. Well, if you're a little woozy from this blast of reality, take a break. Stretch. Get a cup of coffee. Then come back and check out the next session, which will give you a few simple ways to combat these bad habits.
By understanding the good habits you learned in the previous session and starting to change the bad habits you've identified in this session, you'll be well on your way to creative mastery.
Copyright © 1999 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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