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Creativity (Part 1)

7 min read

Note: This is a reprint of a previous Emergent Marketing Newsletter. If you're not receiving our email newsletter, you can subscribe here.

Happy Friday.


That's how many days are left in 2021.

It seems like we were just ringing in the new year, excited about all of our plans for 2021, and here we are, racing toward 2022 like the Orient Express.

Knowing we only have a few opportunities left to create and share value with each of you, we've decided to focus on something very important to both of us.


Or, more accurately, our creative process.

Because creativity, by itself, isn't enough…

Ideas are a dime a dozen.

We know because we have lots of ideas every day.

“To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions.” — Steve Jobs

But turning those ideas into something valuable — well, that's entirely different.

Everyone can generate ideas. Some people can generate good ideas. Few others can generate great ideas.

But the truly rare ability is to turn good ideas into something useful — for you and your audience.

Not occasionally, but consistently.


How do we do that?

And more importantly, how can you do that?

We're glad you asked…

Today's email will be the first in a two-part series where we give you a behind-the-scenes look at our creative process.

Is our creative process perfect? Hell no.

But we're confident you'll find some inspiration and maybe a tip, trick, tool or two that'll make your creative process even better…

OK, let's start with the big picture…and a little science.

Creativity can feel magical (and we think there's more than a little magic involved). But, underneath the magic is a four-part process.

Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Richard Benson has researched creativity for decades. His book, The Breakout Principle, identifies four parts of the creative process.

Today we're going to talk about two of them. (We'll dig into the others in Part 2 of this series.)

The first part — struggle — may be our favorite.

Struggle is when we do the work to gather inspiration and collect inputs.

Books, interviews, articles, podcasts, conversations, and lectures are fuel for our creative process.

Sometimes we start with questions (deliberately looking for answers).

Other times thematic interests guide our attention.

And often, we'll follow our curiosity and see where that leads (and something interesting always emerges)…

During the struggle phase, it's not enough to be exposed to inputs. You also need to capture inputs.

Analog is one option. (Ryan Holiday's description of his commonplace book is a good place to start.)

If you're looking for analog tools, we love JetPens, The Gentleman Stationer, Rustico, Levenger, and Paper Republic.

(Shawn thinks the Blackwing Matte is the perfect pencil, and the Uni-ball Signo UM-151 is the perfect pen.)

(André thinks Blackwing Natural is the perfect pencil; it has the hardest graphite. André doesn't use a pen.)

Digital is another option, and there has been an explosion of (mostly amazing) digital tools recently.

If you're hellbent on digital-only: André recommends Noteshelf (paid), his perfect digital-analog journaling app. It's superior to Notability or GoodNotes. CollaNote is a free alternative; while not as good as Noteshelf, it is still excellent.

André collects inputs primarily in Loqseq, a free, local-first, non-linear, infinite outliner.

Shawn collects inputs primarily in Evernote.

We both have used Roam and we both love Obsidian (we'll talk about those in Part II).

We also use other tools to make input collection easier.

André likes Castro for podcasts paired with Drafts to capture his “fleeting” podcast notes. Shawn likes Pocket Casts.

Shawn uses Instapaper to highlight articles. André and Shawn both highlight books in Kindle.

Shawn syncs his Kindle and Instapaper highlights automatically to Evernote using Readwise, which also has an integration for Obsidian.

Broadly speaking, collecting during the ‘struggle‘ phase can happen in two different ways.

One option is time-bound, focused, and intense

If we're answering specific questions, completing a project, or pressure-testing an idea, hours (or days) of single-minded struggle may be necessary.

Another option is ongoing and dynamic…

Some days we might listen to a podcast, read a chapter in a book, read a few articles, or complete a few sections of an online course.

The ‘struggle' is less intense, but we're still taking in information, which adds up over time. Consistency vs. intensity. (Or, occasionally, consistent intensity…)

During the struggle phase, don't try to make sense of what you're gathering. Instead, collect whatever seems interesting — quotes, ideas, your thoughts at the moment in response to what you've experienced, etc.

You HAVE to capture it.

Your memory isn't good enough. You may think you'll remember something, but trust us, you won't.

Unless you capture it.

When that happens, it's yours. Forever.

Everything that follows depends on you capturing inputs — struggling — so take that work seriously!

Struggle takes a solid physiological foundation (first) and benefits from some creative enhancements (second).

Consistent sleep is the critical physiological component of creativity. We take sleep seriously, and both of us love our Oura rings (which we've had for 3+ years each).

Miss a day or two of quality sleep and the world won't end. Make that a habit, and your creative work will fall off a cliff.

(If you want to deep dive into the importance of sleep for basically everything, we recommend anything by Matthew Walker.)

We've experimented with a dizzying array of creativity-enhancing supplements, both legal and illegal.

A few that have stood the test of time are coffee for both of us, good quality coffee. (If you love coffee, this is a brilliant channel!)

We both have benefitted from nicotine gum (start with 2mg, unless you want to stagger around your office like someone who will remain nameless…)

(If you're interested in learning about the cognitive benefits of nicotine, we recommend All Things Nicotine: deep dive into its cognitive and physical benefits, risks, and mechanisms of action, AMA with Peter Attia, MD.)

Lion's Mane tea (and Om powder for shakes/smoothies) are excellent for turning up the attention dial without the jittery feeling associated with caffeine, and Reishi tea is great when you're looking to bring a little more chill to your creativity.

Hypothetically speaking, we could supplement our creativity in other ways too but we're certainly not saying that we do that because we're both law-abiding citizens…

After the struggle phase we move on to the second part of the creative process, which may be the most important and the most difficult.

Before we tell you what that is, however, let's take a moment and tell you what it isn't.

In our experience, working individually for decades and collaboratively for nearly two years, we've noticed that the struggle phase is often followed (unproductively) by the ‘struggle more' phase.

You've probably experienced that too.

You spend hours, days, maybe even weeks taking in information and then you take a deep breath, brew a pot of coffee (or a double shot of espresso), and try to jump right in and create something.

And, if you're like us, you fail…miserably…

Nothing seems to work.

The ideas aren't there.

Just the chirp-chirp of crickets.

You're trying to push a boulder uphill.

The far better alternative is to embrace what Breakout Principle author Richard Benson calls the release phase of the creative process.

Release means that we stop focusing on whatever we're working on — we stop struggling — and we do something else that is not cognitively demanding.

We could go for a walk or other light exercise, pursue a hobby, work on a puzzle, do some busy-work — anything that takes our conscious mind off whatever endeavor we've been struggling with.

That sounds crazy, right?

But here's the thing: it works!

And it doesn't work a little, or occasionally.

It ALWAYS works — and it works exceptionally well.

The release phase may last an hour, an afternoon, a day, or a couple of days. It all depends on how much you've been struggling.

If you devoted the morning to researching answers to a question, a leisurely lunch may be all you need for the next phase to appear (which is the BEST experience, ever).

Or, if you've been deep in struggle for days, gathering and capturing inputs, you may need to walk away from that project for a day or two.

That doesn't mean you have to stop working — but it does mean that you have to stop working on that project.

During the release phase, you're giving your conscious mind a break and letting your unconscious get to work without distraction.

(If you're interested in a ‘how to' for managing the release phase of the creative process, Lee Zlotoff's The MacGyver Secret is exceptional. He was the screenwriter and creator of the TV series MacGyver, and wrote every episode using this technique.)

How do we know when it's time to move on from release to the next phase of the creative process?

Trust us when we say don't worry, you'll know…beyond a shadow of a doubt!

That's when the magic happens and you have to experience it to believe it.

More about that, and how to engineer the experience for yourself, in Part 2…

…see you then.

Enjoy your weekend!

—Shawn & André