17 Ways to Think Like a Creative Genius
A pragmatic approach to liberating your mind to think laterally
This is going to probably be the most pseudo-scientific article I'm ever going to write. But there's a good reason for it. Let's break it down:
The goal of marketing is to sell more products.
To sell more products, you need to stand out from the crowd.
Rational thinking will lead inevitably to rational solutions. Rational solutions rarely stand out, because chances are your competitor came to those conclusions before you did.
Therefore, to stand out, you can't settle for rational solutions. You need irrational ones.
To come up with truly creative ideas, you need to feed your mind with irrational thoughts.
This article will explore how I go about thinking irrationally, which is to say how I get creative ideas.
1) Accept that you have a genius inside of you.
Albert Einstein, the quintessential genius, said that curiosity was more important to genius than intelligence. If you're curious, you have genius potential.
No, I'm not suggesting we can all become the world's greatest physicists. Mostly because very few of us are sufficiently curious about physics to do so.
But if you follow your curiosity, don't be surprised when you start getting genius moments. They may be fleeting, but they'll change your business and your life.
2) Embrace your curiosity.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: To succeed in marketing, you have to be passionate about your field. You need to be deeply curious about every aspect of your area of expertise.
However, one of the best things you can do is to be broadly curious. In other words, to be a great marketer, you need to be curious about things beyond marketing. That’s how you get yourself into a space that no one else occupies: by mashing together different fields and seeing where they overlap or resonate with each other.
For example, I have a strong interest in the theory of mimetic desire. This is not a field known for being filled with marketers, but I see the overlap so clearly that I’m tempted to write a book about it. (I do touch on it in Insurgent Marketing, the book.) René Girard, who first developed the theory, was in turn inspired by his studies of classic literature.
Charlie Munger, the famous and wildly successful investor, credits his success with being curious about a broad range of topics. He aims to master 80% of the big ideas in any given field. This allows him to see the world, and the businesses within it, very differently from other investors. While others only see cap tables and quarterly earnings, Munger is able to see how advances in one field will impact the future of another. It's almost like a crystal ball.
3) Brainwash yourself
I like to think of myself as a fairly rational and level-headed person. Left to my own devices, I'm inclined to think in linear terms: A leads to B, B leads to C, etc. But I know that type of thinking doesn't lead to breakthroughs.
So I listen to motivational tapes. During my daily commute, I allow completely irrational ideas to fill my mind. Often, it's a challenge. It requires that I shut off my critical thinking to an extent.
But my goal isn't to be right. My goal is to be original. I accept that some of the ideas I'm listening to are almost certainly scientifically bull shit. But I'm willing to force myself to at least act like I believe in them because it helps me to think more creatively.
Think and Grow Rich, by Napolean Hill
The Strangest Secret, by Earl Nightingale
The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale
To be clear, these are cheesy books full of overly confident statements of fact that are anything but factual.
What matters is what it does to your thinking, and what your thinking can, in turn, do for you and your work.
The rational side of my mind agrees with this, for one simple reason: It works. My theory is that by brainwashing myself into looking for big ideas and big opportunities, I'm training my brain to recognize them when they occur. Even if it requires holding onto some strange beliefs.
Speaking of which…
4) Believe in the absurd
The most widely acclaimed graphic novelist of all time is, hands down, Alan Moore. He's the genius behind The Watchmen, Batman: The Killing Joke, V For Vendetta, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. He's a graphic novelist's novelist. The fella all other graphic novelists measure themselves against, much like how film directors tend to be obsessed with Stanley Kubrick.
(Don't judge Moore's works by the movies made from them. He universally hates all the adaptations.)
Moore believes in something called chaos magic. Chaos magic simply states that whatever you believe has a real impact on the world around you. The more you believe in it, the more powerful it is.
Being an otherwise rational guy, Moore chooses to have fun with this. He opts to believe in a snake sock puppet deity that was an infamous hoax from Ancient Roman times. He knows it's absurd. That's the point. By channelling his innate human ability to believe in the irrational, he frees his mind to do things it otherwise could not.
After all, if you could believe in something as ridiculous as a sock puppet, what else could you free your mind to do?
I have no idea if there's a single bit of truth to the magical aspect of his beliefs. But he chooses to believe them every day, and the results on his body of work are astounding.
5) Write every day
I don't care if anyone will ever see your writing. This isn't about blogging, although blogging is a great way to go about it.
Clear writing is clear thinking. It forces you to think through your challenges in methodical detail.
On my desk at work, I have a rubber duck. My partner got it for me as a joke, but I love it. The idea is simple: When I’m stuck on something, before I go ask anyone for advice, I explain it to the duck (quietly, in my head). The process of simply explaining the problem often leads to a solution. If nothing else, it helps me to understand the problem better.
This is what writing every day will teach you.
6) Review your past writings
Something that never fails to surprise me is reading over something I'd written in the past, and finding myself agreeing with myself. Or being surprised by what I'd written. Or disagreeing and realizing I've grown since then.
Either way, reading my old writings often triggers new ideas.
7) Read every day
I don't care if it's a book, the news, blogs, a short story, or whatever. Read every day. It keeps the mind in tip-top shape.
8) Play games every day
Most games require some amount of strategic thinking, so playing games is a great way to train yourself to think strategically. There's a reason the military loves to hire hardcore gamers.
9) Do nothing for at least 15 minutes a day
This can be done at any point of the day. There's no harm in doing it more often. My instructions to you are simple:
Sit down and shut up.
I don't care if you call this meditation. I don't care if you're sitting on a Zafu or a lazy boy recliner. I don't care if you can hold a perfect lotus position or if you have to be lying down.
For at least 15 minutes a day, do absolutely nothing at all. I assure you it will be the hardest thing you'll do all day.
You'll find your mind flooded with new thoughts within minutes of trying to do nothing. Doing nothing creates a void in your mind, and it's as if your brain finally has room for creative ideas.
Resist the urge to write them down until you're done with your 15 minutes.
Just sit down and shut up.
10) Exercise every day
Anyone who's met me knows I don't do this one very well. But there's something about exercise that gets the mind working overtime.
It's almost as effective for creative thinking as sitting down and shutting up.
It doesn't have to be a hardcore workout. It could be a stroll outside, yoga, a light jog, or lifting some weights. For the sake of creativity, it really doesn't matter what form your exercise takes. Exercise simply changes how your brain thinks for a little while, and that's what we're after.
You'll be amazed at the quality of ideas you can come up with in a middle of a workout, as long as you're also training yourself to recognize them when they hit.
11) Write down your ideas, especially the bad ones
Your goal is to generate as many crazy ideas as you can every day. Later, your rational mind can go through them and pick out the winners. But you absolutely have to allow your irrational mind to run wild, without judgments.
As soon as you start judging an idea, you've switched to rational thinking mode. This is important, of course, but it kills creativity. Allow yourself time to create ideas freely.
Although I wouldn't recommend it, there's some truth to Hemingway's advice: Write drunk, edit sober. Hopefully, you don't need to be drunk to free your mind. But it speaks to the freedom necessary in the creative process: to be so disconnected from judgment that you might as well be drunk as a skunk.
12) Bounce ideas off a friend
At most major ad agencies, as well as in Hollywood studios, creative people have partners. Often it's a writer and a visual artist. They work together, bouncing ideas off of each other. The most effective teams do not worry about who comes up with the words versus who comes up with the visuals. They just bounce ideas off of each other.
13) If an idea makes you feel something, go deeper
The most powerful thing in marketing is emotion. People are already cynical AF when they see anything marketing related. Their guards are up. In order to break through that wall, you need to make them feel something. A great starting point is whatever makes you feel something.
If you get an idea and it causes you some type of emotion, dig deeper. Explore that idea further. There's something about it that's connecting with something inside of you, which means it will likely connect with others too.
By the way, the feeling doesn't have to be positive. Anger, sadness, grief, fear, anxiety, loneliness... these can all be used effectively. They can also be abused, so tread carefully.
14) Sketch it out
You don't have to be a great artist. The point of sketching is simply to engage more of your mind on the quest for a solution, while also avoiding perfectionism.
That’s right: Despite what your teachers told you, mindless doodling is great for creativity.
15) Sleep on it
When you feel like you've exhausted yourself and can't come up with any more ideas, put it aside. Do something else. Go to bed. Have a shower. Come back to it with a fresh mind.
16) Embrace constraints
Often, when I'm trying to come up with an idea, I'll start with the most constrained medium I can think of. Usually, it's a billboard. I'll take out a piece of paper, draw a tiny 3"x2" rectangle, and try to come up with a few words I can fit in that space that conveys my message.
It's incredibly difficult, but incredibly liberating. It frees me from worrying about all the supporting copy and the design and all that jazz. I'm just trying to sketch something that would stand out when flying down the highway at 120km/h.
It's much easier to expand on a simple idea than it is to simplify a complex one.
17) Yes, ask ChatGPT
ChatGPT is a stochastic parrot, a statistical analysis machine. It cannot be truly creative. If you understand the underlying technology, you know that any Large Language Model (LLM) like ChatGPT is fundamentally just doing a statistical analysis to produce the most likely and obvious answer to any question.
So why use it for creativity?
Because it'll help you get the obvious ideas out of the way faster. Aim to get 100 good ideas out of it. Read them over. Then do better.
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