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Are you an accidental creative?

I used to say I was a developer and “creativity” was not my thing. Actually, that’s not true and has not ever been, if you look at creativity as more than artistic talent. Apart from the fact creativity – like laziness – is what leads to innovation in programming, there’s a lot of creative thinking required in the various scheming projects which occupy most of my time these days.

This is a review of The Accidental Creative: How To Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice by Todd Henry. The author describes himself as an “arms dealer for the creative revolution”.

Curse ye, Amazon

I sometimes feel I’ve lost the ability to be creative, while at other times I generate ideas at a much faster rate than I could possibly execute them. So the title of this book caught my eye. I had finished a Kindle store book on my phone and it was flashed up as a recommended title. I wondered if there were perhaps tricks and tips that I could use to tap into my creativity with more regularity and less randomness. I was waiting for a plane to the UK at the time. It’s a testament to the effectiveness of Amazon’s “One Click” ordering that I purchased it after taking my seat and the download was just finishing as the flight attendant gave me the “this is your last warning” glare.

The Accidental Creative has two kinds of concepts: those I am aware of but do not put into practice, and those that I practice but had not recognised as significant. I struggled a little with the dryness of the first part – when are we getting to the insights? – but found much of value in the later material. Just knowing things is not enough – you need to implement them. This is an area of weakness for me.

An infrastructure for creativity

Part 2 of the book is concerned with setting up a personal workflow/life framework to allow you to be creative. Much like David Allen’s Getting Things Done requires you to develop a trusted system, The Accidental Creative framework requires you to be crystal clear about your current areas of focus. Getting Things Done  stops you needing to think or worry about anything other than the next well-defined achievable action. The Accidental Creative allows you to find patterns and cluster similar work for greatest effectiveness, optimising your time around your periods of greatest creativity. The two systems are quite complementary.

Going further than just time and workload management, the book outlines some solid techniques for generating ideas and looking at problems from different perspectives – but a central concept is that creativity requires a holistic approach.

Creativity cannot be scheduled – but if you don’t have time scheduled to allow for creativity, it’s never going to get a chance to pop up.

The necessity of the unnecessary

Henry lauds “unnecessary creating” as an important creative tool: creating for ourselves rather than for others. What form this takes is up to the individual. In my case, it takes the form of creating and maintaining blogs, which I do for fun rather than any kind of monetary benefit. Sounds like a crazy thing to do for fun but each to her own, ok?

People will say they do not have time for that kind of thing – but the second point Henry makes that very much resonates with me is you always make time for things that are truly important to you.

Time is available; you just need to find it. Most of us waste hours weekly that could be used effectively. The phrase “I don’t have time” really means “There are things that are easier/ less threatening/ more comfortable that I’d rather spend my time on.” If that’s the case, I won’t argue with you, but you need to be honest with yourself about the fact that doing your best work may not be a priority at this point in your life.

Circle of peers

I’m a big fan of tech communities and user groups – and I’ve done plenty of that kind of thing over the years. Henry places a lot of importance on a circle of peers with whom you can ask for feedback, vent frustrations, bounce ideas off, etc. While physical meetings are emphasised, it’s possible that participation in virtual communities can have many of the same benefits. My current, small circle of peers is geographically diverse, but all the richer for it.

Personal board of directors

An idea that I  liked and am in the process of implementing is the “personal board of directors”. This is a personal team of mentor-style figures whose opinions you trust and value, and who you can consult with on important decisions. As it turns out, there are people like this in my life already, but I’m changing the way I approach my relationship with them to get maximum benefit.

(On a related note: here’s an interesting article on signs that your mentor may be giving you bad advice).

Different perspectives

Henry seems to be super-focused on work. Incredibly driven to succeed. And you know what? I just do not have that drive anymore, or any interest in redeveloping it. Despite this, I think the core principles can still apply to my life, and I did get a lot out of the book.

Life does not drive itself. You need to be actively directing and not just going with the flow or you’ll never end up anywhere interesting, just the same places as everyone else.

Finally, one of my favourite quotes from the book – not a radical concept, but phrased very succinctly:

Choice means that by saying yes to a set of practices, you are inherently saying no to a lot of other things. You can do almost anything you want, but not everything you want.

The Accidental Creative: How To Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice by Todd Henry has a companion web site with additional information and resources.

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