Creative Operations

Creativity according to John Cleese is “A way of operating.” This smart 1991 YouTube talk, is full of lightbulb jokes and advice on creativity. How many socialists does it take to change a lightbulb?

The problem with creativity is that it seems difficult. It’s like running a 5K for someone who doesn’t run. Like, c’mon, I can’t do that. Cleese nips this complaint right away and offers two helpful pieces of advice.

First, is to be a designer, and we are all designers. We are all designers because designs influence actions. Some designs tightly constrain action, like this Mario 1-1 walkthrough on YouTube. Other designs constrain loosely.

To design for creativity requires two things: space and time. Set the phone to DND. Sit at the desk. As Steven Pressfield notes, put your ass where your heart wants to be. Like a chef ready for the dinner rush Cleese offers his next piece of advice: think.

Rather he says ‘to play’. That’s the second step. Creativity is the subconscious bubbling up and it’s the conscious shutting up.

“As a general rule, when people become absolutely certain that they know what they’re doing, their creativity plummets.” Jon Cleese

Without interruption, think widely.

This will be hard. Most people, says Cleese, don’t like it. It’s hard to just sit or walk or be. It’s hard to just think. Annie Duke faced this. When she coached poker players they wanted to act, to do, to play the hand. But a lot of poker is not playing. Duke’s challenge was to get players to feel like they were poker players while also making good decisions. So, she reframed the actions.

Rather than playing hands as the action, Duke explained that deciding was the action. Thinking through the hands, the outcomes, the pot odds, the base rates and the game-theory-optimal case was what good players did. That was the secret for being a good poker player. This is the secret too, according to Cleese, for operating creatively.

Creative people are comfortable with the lulls. They understand that the time of play is time working on the problem.

There aren’t good metrics for this. There’s no word count. There’s no investment return. There’s no miles or dollars or calls made. There’s nothing to count which means no numbers which means no comparison which implies no value.

Do not fall into this trip says Cleese. Trust that the moments of wide-open thought matter.
After the play it’s time for work.

How many socialists does it take? Five, but they don’t change it and instead insist that it works.

How jokes, and all things, work

Here’s Jerry Seinfeld telling Tim Ferriss about an idea he’s got. It’s still early. We don’t know yet if it’s a joke. Seinfeld said, “I don’t know what to do with that”

“When you’re on a cell phone call and the call drops, and then you reconnect with the person, they’ll go, “I don’t know what happened there.” As if anyone is expecting them to know anything about the incredibly complex technology of the cell phone, they offer this little, I don’t know if it’s an excuse or an apology. They go, “I don’t know what happened there.”

After Seinfeld has an idea he writes it down (there’s a lot of good writing and creative tips in this episode) and he works at it. Seinfeld explores the idea like my mother-in-law explores the home goods stores. Is this a good decoration? Does this match what else I have?

Seinfeld writes on yellow legal pads until a joke is pleasing to the ear. Then, it’s time to see how it works. And to remember, nothing is above the laugh.

At a comedy club the joke thrives, it dies, or it suffers enough damage to limp home and recover to emerge stronger and better prepared the next time. The comedy club is feedback.

“That’s the paradise of stand-up comedy. You don’t have to ask anyone anything. Stand-up comics receive a score on what they’re doing more often and more critically than any other human on Earth.”

Jerry Seinfeld

All things work like this. From idea to iteration to feedback in the market. Stand-up from Seinfeld is the cleanest version of this. Jerry’s method is the IKEA instruction of comedy, down to the simple paper it’s printed on. A comedian can have a joke in the morning, work it over over lunch, and deliver it after dinner.

All creations follow this process, but comedy is the gold standard because it’s clear and clean and quick. Write a newsletter (neé, blog) and the feedback is slow. Create a product and after development, marketing, and distribution you might know if people like it.

Poker’s appeal is principally the same. It’s cause-and-effect world. It’s easy to see. We like that. Comedy too.

Life is messy. But this helps. Keep in mind that the same process underlies everything creative: idea, iterate, feedback. The loop may be longer, but the process is the same.

Nearby Solutions

Solutions to your problems may not be under your nose but they’re probably not further than next door, next block tops. 

Creative ideas work for two reasons, neither of which is inherent creativeness.

  1. There’s an untapped JTBD. Consumers have a latent need. Current solutions are ‘fine’.
  2. There’s limited competition for a new product. But the market responds rapidly, and similar people in similar places at similar times make similar things.

One way to wrangle a creative idea is to find areas where something is already being done but not done in your particular industry. There’s only so many things consumers need; ease, trust, consistency, etc. It’s likely that a creative solution for you is old hat to someone else. 

Scott Alexander brought this up writing about the Amish health system. There are multiple reasons the Amish system is more cost effective than the English (non-Amish-but-American) system, but one is how they’ve dealt with the costs.

From Alexander:

“Much of the increase in health care costs is “administrative expenses”, and much of these administrative expenses is hiring an army of lawyers, clerks, and billing professionals to thwart insurance companies’ attempts to cheat their way out of paying. If you are an honorable Amish person and the hospital knows you will pay your bill on time with zero fuss, they can waive all this.”

And.

“Doctors around Amish country know this, and give them the medically indicated level of care instead of practicing “defensive medicine”. If Amish people ask their doctors to be financially considerate – for example, let them leave the hospital a little early – their doctors will usually say yes, whereas your doctor would say no because you could sue them if anything went wrong.” 

Amish medicine costs less because it’s less costly to provide.

Duh.

But this obviousness was SoFi’s insight.

When SoFi started, the company looked at the loan default rates across a variety of metrics. Where did someone go to college? How much money do they earn? What degree does this person have? Which default more, art or vocational degrees? (Art). SoFi realized that some people defaulted less and paid promptly more. With lower costs for collections, SoFi could offer these customers a better rate. 



 Waitress At A Lunch Counter To Customer. 
Food Wood Print featuring the drawing We Use The Cheapest Ingredients And Pass by Robert Weber

This can be any insurance that’s sliced and diced. And it’s been happening all along.

What’s common between the Amish, the SoFi Henrys, and homes in floodplains since 1968? Legibility. 

We don’t know a solution exists until we see it.

Tony Hsieh succeeded enormously in the early days of the internet. Before joining Zappos, Hsieh sold an advertising network to Microsoft for hundreds of millions. Like anyone else who’s young, wealthy, and (maybe) smart, Hsieh started angel investing. Which is where he met Nick Swinmurn. 

It’s 1999. Everything internet was hot. It’s the year Webvan started taking orders for groceries in San Francisco. We can imagine Swinmurn meeting Hsieh.

‘Footwear is a forty-billion-dollar a year market and there’s no good way to buy shoes online.’ 

‘Of course, why would someone buy shoes online?’

‘Because of the selection!’

‘I just don’t see it.’

‘It’s already happening!’

‘People are buying shoes without trying them on first?’

‘Yes.’

‘Prove it.’

‘Have you ever opened a catalog?’

‘Sure.’

‘Weren’t shoes in there?’

‘Sure.’

‘There you go.’

‘Sure, but how many?’

‘Right now, five percent.’

Hsieh’s problem had already been solved. Now he just had to solve it better—and he did, selling Zappos to Amazon a decade later. 

During the coronavirus quarantine (or whatever we’re calling this) there’s been a lot of trouble with the data. Part of the problem is a collection issue. But part of the problem is a heterogeneity issue. The data is fine it’s just that the conditions are different. There’s culture, ethnicity, practice, government and so on. It’s hard to compare one place to another. 

But what makes the pandemic devilishly confusing makes business slightly easier. Your answers are out there. 

Note, in a related post we addressed this idea through sports. Our Jenn Hyman post addressed this too. Thank you for reading.