Breaking the Mold
by Ian Doescher
It is so easy to do the easy thing. To say to yourself, “Well, we’ve always done this and that for our marketing campaigns, so let’s keep on doing this and that.” Or: “This idea seems good enough, so we can just use it.”
When you settle for “good enough,” it’s clear to anyone who sees your work. You look mediocre, or you look like you’re phoning it in.
Unfortunately, all of our metaphors for being fresh and creative sound pretty old. How many times have we heard the phrase “thinking outside the box,” “breaking the mold” (oops! my blog title!), “taking it up a notch,” “going to the next level,” or whatever stock phrases tend to get thrown around to express the idea of innovation and creativity? It’s a serious problem when our vocabulary around creativity isn’t even creative.
I don’t have any secrets to share about creativity. No set of four rules or three simple things to remember or five things I learned from Coach Englestadt. I suggest we stop looking for the secret sauce that helps us be creative and, instead, pay attention to and surround ourselves with the people and things that did, in fact, break the mold in their respective fields. Here are three examples:
1. The musical Hamilton: If you haven’t heard of Hamilton, you are missing out, and I don’t care if you don’t like musicals. When you think of musicals, you may think of big chorus lines or dippy numbers that make up so many popular musicals. (Which I love, by the way.) Into this scene, enter Hamilton: the intensely detailed history of Alexander Hamilton, told through the medium of hip-hop and rap. Hamilton was the brainchild of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who read Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton and had the amazing idea to express the grittiness of the Revolutionary War and the struggles of Hamilton’s life in a thoroughly modern way. The show is an incredibly fresh take on American history, and a breakout in the world of musical theater. Here’s an example:
2. Facebook: Okay, go ahead and grumble about this example, about how tired you are of hearing about Facebook. Or how you joined the social network seven years ago but now you’re TOTALLY over it. Or how you’re still one of the proud holdouts. Or admit that you’re on it every day, multiple times a day. It doesn’t matter which camp you fall into—social media in general and Facebook in particular redefined the word “website.” Before social media, websites were places you went to gain information (without interaction), or to meet other people randomly in chat rooms, or to make anonymous comments on the handful of sites that let you express your opinion. For all the annoying things about it—and I confess that while I’m a devoted Facebook user I also find it deeply problematic—nothing else does what Facebook does: connecting me to people I have known in the past, allowing me to connect with and stay up to date on the lives of people I thought I’d lost touch with forever. Yes, other social networks do essentially the same thing, but none have been as widely embraced as Facebook. Even by those who resist embracing it.
3. The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon: You may not like Jimmy Fallon, and that’s fair. He’s not everybody’s cup of tea. Regardless, it’s hard to deny the creativity of his writing team. I think it must be a blast to sit around everyday and say, “What awesome thing should we create today?” Harrison Ford piercing Jimmy’s ear on stage? Sure! Emma Stone in a killer lip-sync contest with Jimmy? Absolutely! (This phenomenon created its own entire spinoff show on Spike TV.) The cast of Star Wars performing an a cappella arrangement of the theme songs? Why not! The writers of the Tonight Show make the most of every televised minute they have, and—although I haven’t been a fly on the wall at 30 Rockefeller Plaza—it seems like they push each other to be better and better, resulting in crazier (and more entertaining) skits and stunts. Collaboration sharpens creativity.
Don’t go looking for the secret to being innovative—watch the people who are already doing it. If you’re paying attention, it will rub off and can’t help but make your work better.