Tag Archives: Creativity

How to Get Unstuck and Solve Problems

light bulb

The most valuable thing in the world is a good idea.

Sometimes we think up something fantastic and find out it’s already been done and feel discouraged. But so what? Now we know we can think of really good ideas.

Many years before Apple invented the iPod and before the internet was commonplace, I thought of MP3 players.

I didn’t think of portable ones, though, so my idea would have never worked. But I did think of a large stereo amplifier where you could buy songs and they would be stored there (just in that one place!) like a jukebox. Essentially, a really crappy version of iTunes.

I always liked that something I thought up one day became an awesome thing. I like the real version so much better than my idea, so I’m glad Steve Jobs was on the case.

I’m getting obsessed with idea generation. As someone who works in marketing, writes stories and aspires to write books, I can’t think of a skill I’d rather have than the ability to generate solid, actionable ideas anytime I want or need to.

My favorite writer James Altucher has been writing about this over and over and over again. He writes down 10 ideas every day. For what? For whatever. Anything. Everything.

Ten ways to improve a cable company’s customer service.

Ten ways I could lose weight.

Ten ideas for getting a better night’s sleep.

Ten things for which to feel grateful.

Ten local businesses I could help with my skillset and knowledge base.

Ten places I can visit this year.

Ten people I could introduce to one another for business or social reasons.

Ten things I could do today to have more fun and feel happy.

There is no subject too big or too small. The reason Altucher writes down 10 ideas a day is to exercise what he calls the Idea Muscle. He insists whatever parts of our brain (I’m not a neurologist) are responsible for idea generation can be flexed and pushed and strengthened through repetitious exercise.

I believe him.

But, It’s Too Hard

My son says that about tying his shoes or reading advanced books or accurately throwing a frisbee or about any number of things he’s still learning how to do. He’s 6.

I know what he means.

There are so many things I used to be terrible at doing, but now I’m really good because I’ve done them thousands of times.

I still forget that lesson even though I’m 36 and am supposed to be an adult now.

I couldn’t write 10 ideas every day because when I have a million things to choose from I can never make a choice.

I do much better with prompts or with parameters. Constraints, if you will. Creative constraints are a valuable thing, and Twitter and it’s 140-character limit is probably the best modern-day example of it.

I would talk about this 10-idea-a-day concept with friends and associates. But I never really had any personal experience to back it up because I found it so difficult to do.

But then me and a couple partners started a side business, and one of the first things we do with prospective clients is thoroughly go over their business and come up with a list of 10 things we think we could do to improve it. It’s a fantastic exercise, and I’m pretty good at it.

My problem isn’t that I’m not capable of generating 10 ideas. I’m actually decent at it. I just have a lot of trouble honing in on specifics. Once I learned the value of artificial constraints on my ability to generate new ideas, the shackles came off. And now I’m getting better.

Enter James Altucher’s wife—Claudia Altucher. She wrote a book recently called “Become an Idea Machine,” based on this very idea. And in the book, she provides 180 idea prompts because if you come up with 10 ideas every day for 180 days, you will be an idea machine, she writes—someone capable of brainstorming viable, actionable ideas for any problem you might face.

I can’t think of one thing I’d rather be good at than the ability to come up with creative solutions on demand—in business meetings, in helping my son learn to think and problem-solve, in my personal life to help others and myself.

I’ve been writing 10 ideas a day based on Claudia Altucher’s prompts. Ten online courses (with curriculum) that I’d like to take. Ten mobile apps that would improve my life. Ten things that would improve commercial airline travel. Ten new recipes.

The point isn’t necessarily to generate phenomenal ideas (though you might!).

The point is simply to exercise the muscle. To get better at the part where you come up with creative solutions to problems.

At work. At home. In your social life. In your spiritual life. Financially. Physically. Et cetera.

The first few ideas are always easy. Then it gets hard and you make your mind sweat a little. That’s when the growth happens.

At some point, I’m pretty sure the prompts will ask me to come up with 10 new ideas by combining ideas that have already been thought of.

Endless possibilities.

Rad.

Someone who reads this blog wrote me. They’re sad. And they feel stuck. And I don’t want them to feel stuck.

And they don’t have to.

There are 10 groups or clubs or gyms or hobbies or classes they could join today to learn a new skill and meet new people.

There are 10 new careers they could pursue.

There are 10 things they could do that might make a spouse or partner feel more loved and appreciated.

There are 10 things they know more about than most people and could write books or make videos or teach an online course about.

There are 10 ways to laugh more.

There are 10 people to call or email or text RIGHT now because you love them and they need to know in case someone doesn’t wake up tomorrow or the world ends.

There are 10 people to hug. And 10 people to help. And 10 people to forgive.

There are always 10 things you can do this week, and tomorrow, and later tonight, and right now.

Things that might change the whole world. Or things that might only change you.

Sometimes, there isn’t any difference.

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Cancelling ‘The Interview’: Terrorism, Tough Choices and Madmen

the interview

A man holds a gun to your child’s head in one hand.

He holds a gun to your spouse’s head in the other.

“Choose,” he says. “Or I’m going to count to 10 and choose for you.”

“Please. God. No,” you beg. “I’ll do anything.”

“You’ll choose. Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven…”

Maybe he’s bluffing, you think.

But it doesn’t look that way.

Maybe he feels his cause is just and maybe it even seems legit.

Maybe he feels his cause is just but he’s completely insane.

Maybe he’s just evil.

Regardless, you have a choice to make. And every option is unfair and horrible.

After a month of heavy promotion, Sony Pictures cancelled its scheduled December 25 release of The Interview—a satirical comedy starring goof-off funnymen Seth Rogan and James Franco. The premise of the film is that these two guys who work in the television news business scored an interview with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. And the CIA recruits the two men to assassinate him.

About a month ago, hackers launched a cyber attack against Sony Pictures. Skulls appeared on Sony employees’ computer screens. Sensitive email content, including reportedly “embarrassing information,” was leaked.

The FBI has named North Korea as the primary suspect in the attack, but the country has denied it. While denying it, North Korean officials did praise the attack as a “righteous deed” while referring to The Interview as an “act of terrorism” and promised “merciless” retaliation should Sony release it.

The hackers further threatened 9/11-style terrorist attacks on movie theaters who dared to show the movie.

Upon being threatened, the three largest cinema chains in the United States decided to postpone showing the film, and Sony Pictures subsequently cancelled the movie in its entirety and currently has no (publically announced) plans to distribute it, even for home-video viewing.

The film cost $42 million to make.

The outrage from Hollywood creatives was fast and predictable.

Actor Rob Lowe wrote on Twitter: “Wow. Everyone caved. The hackers won. An utter and complete victory for them. Wow.”

Comedian Jimmy Kimmel called the decision “An un-American act of cowardice that validates terrorist actions and sets a terrifying precedent.”

As a writer, the freedom of speech I’m awarded as an American citizen is of great value to me. I can insult the President of the United States—inarguably one of the two or three most-powerful people on Earth. Right now, if I want. And the only consequence is that other people with the same rights I have can exercise their freedom of speech to disagree with me.

It’s a freedom most of us take for granted, until things like this pop up.

Here’s the problem with cancelling this film because some disgruntled North Korea lovers are offended by the premise:

Sony Pictures has now set the precedent that if you infiltrate their security and threaten to murder innocent movie goers, they will cancel a $42 million film.

A film called Selma will be released Christmas Day about the extraordinary courage of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights marches in Selma, Ala. in 1965. Looks like a good one.

Maybe some white supremacists will be offended by the premise. Maybe they’ll threaten a Christmas Day massacre on movie goers seeing it.

Should we not show it?

We watched Middle Eastern terrorists kill thousands of people in United 93 and World Trade Center.

We watched the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor in the not-very-good Pearl Harbor.

We watched Germany do horrible things to innocent people in countless World War II films.

Would we have tolerated threats from any of their sympathizers?

Does Sony’s decision invite more threats? Does this affect how courageous a writer or film producer is willing to be moving forward?

We won’t know the extent of the fallout for a while. But there will be one.

I stand with the free-speech warriors.

But, Wait 

What if there is credible information that if these movie theaters DO show this picture, that scores of innocent people will die?

What if the powers that be are absolutely convinced there will be legitimate terrorist-style attacks on movie theaters, killing untold numbers and effectively changing movie theater business and security forever?

If they know?

Can we blame them?

As an American, a writer and a quasi-creative, I am appalled that a group of fucksticks has threatened to kill innocent people and that that threat is being taken so seriously that a major movie studio is cancelling the release of a SATIRICAL COMEDY. It’s tragic.

But someone at Sony had to make a decision: Show it and risk feeling responsible for the deaths of customers? Or pull it, and be viewed a coward and someone who will bow to the whims of madmen?

I must admit that I may make that very same choice if I’m convinced lives are at stake. I’m not proud of it. But it’s the truth.

There is no black and white.

No right and wrong.

This is what it means sometimes to be a human being.

Making the impossible choice. Because life has never been, and will never be, fair.

The guns are still pointed at those you love most. You don’t have a lot of time. But you better do something.

“Six. Five. Four. Three. Two…”

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Rethinking the Problem

The Penrose Stairs. Every corner is the both the top AND bottom. Artwork by kitkat93 at Deviant Art.

The Penrose Stairs. Every corner is both the top AND bottom. Artwork by kitkat93 at Deviant Art.

Because I’m keeping myself really busy with life problems, the holidays and self-imposed chores related to a business start-up, I’m worse than ever at keeping a queue of writing topics.

I have decided to try a Monday-Wednesday-Friday posting schedule after my nearly daily posting fizzled out early this year.

It’s Wednesday. I want to write. And I’m drawing a blank.

It would be easy to just move on. But I want to be the kind of person that accomplishes goals even when they’re hard.

But how?

Finding a Different Angle

I took my son to see Big Hero 6 last weekend. I went to see Interstellar on Monday. And I saw this from the marketing world’s thought leader this morning.

My takeaway from all three experiences was a fervent desire to be the kind of problem solver that can approach obstacles from a totally unique point of view and find workarounds no matter the odds.

It’s hard to keep going even when it’s hard. Really hard.

We have trouble fighting for our relationships when it’s hard. It’s easier to quit.

Shouldn’t being in love be easy!?!?

We’d all like that. But I think it’s probably exactly as it’s supposed to be. Our muscles only get stronger when we work them hard. Our minds only get sharper when we work them hard. Our resolve only escalates when we overcome emotional adversity.

Maybe love is exactly as it should be. Challenging and messy. So only the few, the proud and the strong are rewarded with its infinite beauty after walking the walk heroically.

We have trouble trying to master new skills when it’s hard. It’s easier to quit.

I had this fantasy about being a good guitar player one day. I love music and thought (knew) girls would dig me more if I played.

I bought an acoustic guitar. I was gifted a nice Fender Stratocaster electric guitar for my 16th birthday. My parents couldn’t afford guitar lessons, but I went to the music store and acquired all the Learn How to Play the Guitar materials I could find.

My fingers hurt trying to learn how to hold the strings in place and I found chord transitions nearly impossible. So I quit and never picked up a guitar again.

I sometimes wonder if that same weakness is the reason I got divorced.

We have trouble developing good habits and routines when it’s hard. It’s easier to keep our lazy bad habits.

We have trouble committing to, and following through on, working out and healthy eating. We have trouble reading all the books on our bookshelf. We have trouble breaking unhealthy spending habits.

Even though it can’t possibly be that hard to quit (I did for a couple years in my early 20s), and even though it’s totally disgusting, I bite my fingernails all the time.

Why don’t I stop?

Maybe because it’s easier to just keep doing it.

In Big Hero 6, a young genius is tasked with wowing a crowd of geniuses at a robotics convention. He has to learn how to approach problems from new angles, ask new questions, discover better angles.

In Interstellar, an aeronautical engineer is tasked with traversing the universe in search of a habitable planet for humans.

This morning, Seth Godin wrote about redefining rules and boundaries to come up with creative solutions.

It reads:

“The thing about a clean sheet of paper

… is that it still has edges.

It’s tempting to believe that creativity comes from starting fresh. But even when we start fresh, we approach projects and problems with self-created boundaries.

You can’t do real work without edges, without something to leverage, but those edges don’t have to be the same edges as everyone else uses.

Creative people often excel because they change the shape of the clean sheet.”

Have Crazy Idea Sex All the Time

My favorite writer James Altucher is constantly reminding us to train our minds to become “idea machines.” He insists the part of our brain that generates new ideas is like a muscle, and that with regular work, you strengthen this muscle and new idea generation becomes easy and routine.

How do you become an Idea Machine?

He says you write down 10 ideas a day. Every day. And after six months, you’ll strengthen this muscle enough to be constantly churning out new, creative solutions to problems, big and small.

You can have ideas about anything.

How to build a gas pump that will pump fuel twice as fast.

How to make the world’s greatest pizza crust.

How to encourage robust economic development in rural towns.

Whatever. There are no limits to the topics that could benefit from new ideas. If you write down 10 ideas a day (even the bad ones!) for an entire year, you will have 3,650 new ideas.

Altucher says you can bank on at least a few of those being the kind of ideas that can turn into legitimate business ideas, or useful life hacks that can radically transform your life, or the lives of others.

Furthermore, there are endless possibilities of combining these ideas. Idea sex!

Endless possibilities make my heart race. Endless possibilities prevent boredom, which murders the little explorer that lives in our hearts and souls.

We were made to explore and discover and create and build. These are the things behind every great human achievement since forever.

I haven’t perfected the (very challenging) task of generating new ideas every day.

But I believe in it. That new ideas—new good ideas that change lives, whether it’s just one life or many—are our most-precious resource.

We forget to think.

It’s because we get so busy stressing about all the things that don’t really matter because we’re all going to be dead someday, and because we watch sitcoms and reality TV, and because we eat McDonald’s and Cool Ranch Doritos.

We get so caught up in the routines of our lives and intimidated by the boundaries we create for ourselves that we totally forget we can build rockets and fly into outer space because there are almost no unsolvable problems.

Anything that looks like one just means we need to turn the problem around and upside down and find a new way to look at it.

Anything that looks like one just means we haven’t asked the right question yet.

For instance: What am I going to write about?

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It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

Have you heard? The earth used to be flat.

Have you heard? The earth used to be flat.

My uncle saw the yellow piece of paper stuck under the windshield and walked over to investigate.

A police ticket with a $175 fine.

One of the service vans he owns as part of his flooring store operation in a small Ohio town had expired tags.

The man makes plenty of money. $175 doesn’t mean much to him.

But the man is also principled. And the more he thought about the ticket, the more irritated he became.

It doesn’t have to be this way, he thought.

All of his friends and family told him not to. But he decided to fight the ticket.

His “guilt” was not in question. The van had expired tags that everyone at the company had simply forgot to renew.

But he was having trouble with the spirit of the law.

“If my van is sitting still in a parking lot with expired tags, is that somehow a public threat or nuisance?” he said. “Why not give residents a 24-48-hour warning period, where they can go pay the registration fees and get updated tags without the added penalty from the police department? What good does any of that do?”

I had never thought about this before. But he’s right. I’m all for making sure vehicle owners have an updated license and registration. But why tax people simply for being busy or forgetful? Why not give them a chance to do it right? An expiration date, where the fine is waived if they register in time?

What harm could that possibly cause?

My uncle argued with the judge in court. She got pissed, told him he was wasting the court’s time and piled on some community service hours in addition to his fine.

Six years ago, we were having a new garage built at our house after a large tree had fallen in a wind storm and destroyed our old garage.

We left town to visit family more than 500 miles away for the holidays. Because the contractors needed to back up trucks and equipment into my driveway while we were out of town, I parked my other car on the street in front of the house.

While we were gone, a snow storm hit.

There is a city ordinance requiring people to not park in the street when the snow plows are out. But because I was out of town, I, A. Didn’t know about the storm, and B. Couldn’t move the car even if I had known.

The city towed my car, and it cost a few hundred dollars to get it back.

That was bullshit.

The Things We Do

Why, I wonder, do we do all these things?

Who decided we’re all going to send our kids in herds to school and teach them the same things and tell them “Be yourself! Be a leader, not a follower!” but everything we do is encourage them to do the same things everyone else is doing.

When you’re a little kid, you don’t question why you’re doing anything. Your parents tell you and all your friends are doing it, so you just do it also.

WHY ARE WE DOING THIS!?!?

I want to know.

I want to know why we don’t give parents more choices. I want to know why we don’t let kids learn about whatever they want to learn about and help them master something. I want to know why we all seem to blindly agree and go along with this being “the way.”

Some less fortunate kids think all you do is get through junior high, hustle through high school, and try to live as long as possible in adulthood, dodging cops and bullets. Because it’s all they know.

Really fortunate kids like me were herded into school and encouraged to do well because we “HAD to go to college to get a good job!!!” and everyone else was doing it anyway, so even if you didn’t HAVE to, you just assumed that was the way.

We never questioned it. We just followed the crowd. The existing rulebook that said: 1. Go to school. 2. Go to college. 3. Get a job. 4. Get married. 5. Try to make as much money as possible. 6. Try to not die. 7. If you’re lucky, retire at 65 and have enough money to not live in poverty for as long as you can survive. 8. Die and pay estate taxes.

I sit in a cubicle every day.

It’s because I make just enough money where I feel like I can’t afford to quit. Why can’t I afford to quit?

Because I have to pay my mortgage. And for a car. And for cable TV and Internet access. And for my son’s tuition. And all these little things I’m convinced I “need.”

It’s a pretty good job and I’m grateful to have it. Very. I’ve been unemployed. It’s a real shit show. This is better.

But still I ask: Why? Why are we doing it this way?

We wear business-casual every day. Khakis and button-ups and polo shirts and dress shoes. And always arrive at the same time, even though the only thing I require to do my job is a computer with Internet access. I could do it from almost anywhere.

The company invests my salary and benefits package in me (which I appreciate!) and in return, I make them a lot more money than they pay me through strategic execution of my duties—many of which are measureable, and I take great pride in improving those numbers as much as I can.

But despite that value I—and all my co-workers provide—we still have to wear these clothes, and sit at these desks, and be here at this time, and leave at that time. We’ll all get almost-4 percent raises if we’re lucky that should end up almost offsetting the cost of rising healthcare.

I’m not bagging on my employer. They really are wonderful relative to “companies.”

But I am bagging on rules that no longer make sense to me.

Three hundred years ago, if you sailed on a boat too far in any direction, you would fall off the edge into a chasm of nothingness.

A hundred years ago, black people, women and people attracted to the same sex were commonly considered second-class citizens by assholes who look like me. Huge groups of marginalized immigrants experienced the same level of discrimination.

A hundred years ago, alcohol was illegal.

Fifty years ago, basically every single person smoked tobacco.

Twenty years ago, almost none of us had ever used the Internet.

Ten years ago, the iPhone was three years away from invention.

Today, marijuana is legal for medical use in 15 or so U.S. states, and legal for recreational use in two.

Momentous changes that we somewhat take for granted but required enormous courage and fortitude to affect for those passionate to the cause.

We don’t need to fly to Mars, but we could.

We don’t need to cure cancer, but we will.

We just need to be courageous enough to look at all the things happening around us and ask: “Why are we doing this? 

Sometimes, it makes a lot of sense. Sometimes, there are excellent reasons why.

Other times? Small business owners are getting fined because someone they employ forgot to pay $50 for a sticker with a new number on it.

So my uncle is going to run for mayor and try to change the law.

So I’m going to make my own job where maybe someday I can hire people and make sure all of the “rules” at our company make sense to everyone who is helping grow it.

How can we do this better? How can I help?

Because there’s always another way.

Because there’s always a better way.

Because it doesn’t have to be like this.

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The Level Playing Field

typewriter

I will never be able to run faster than Usain Bolt or swim faster than Michael Phelps.

I will never be as intelligent as Neil deGrasse Tyson or Stephen Hawking.

I will never throw a football as well as Peyton Manning or dunk a basketball like LeBron James.

I lack the physical prowess, mental aptitude and genetic resources necessary to be a great athlete or a genius astrophysicist.

But I look down at these keys I punch expertly like an old pro: 26 letters, 10 numbers and a handful of symbols.

That’s it.

That’s all there is.

And my fingers dance. A beautiful sound I fell in love with during my days in the newsroom. An orchestra of tapping. The sound of a thousand word choices being made simultaneously in the great exchange of ideas.

One of my biggest childhood regrets is that I never learned how to play an instrument. I’ve owned two guitars, pianos and keyboards, and a full drum set. And other than some average-at-best trumpet playing in middle school, I’ve never been able to make music—something I love very much.

I have a mother and sister who are both very talented, musically.

I wish I’d inherited those same gifts.

Equal Opportunity – Since 1878

The modern QWERTY standard keyboard has been around since 1878. I once made the keyboard a metaphor for dating after divorce. It totally worked.

That’s how long everyone has had to get to know these keys: 136 years.

I haven’t taken any polls, but my guess is there is a higher percentage of proficient typists living in 2014 than there’s ever been given that so much of our time is spent in front of computers or mobile devices all using the same keys.

I just look at it. It’s simple genius. My brain completely ill-equipped to understand how I’m able to punch all these keys in exactly the right order to make each sentence. Endless possibility. That’s what this device represents. A world without limits.

This is the keyboard used by William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe and the New Testament Gospel writers. (Just kidding.)

But it WAS used by Mark Twain. By George Orwell and Hunter S. Thompson. By Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac. By Ernest Hemingway.

It was also used by Mark Zuckerberg to create Facebook. By Bill Gates to create Microsoft. By Larry Page and Sergey Brin to create Google.

Just look at the keys in front of you.

Punch these buttons one way, and you have Not-So-Bright-Internet-Message-Board Guy: “wtf your a idiot every moran know the knicks goin all teh way !!!!!111!!!!11!!!”

Punch them another and you end up with my drivel.

But somewhere in that endless sea of possibilities is the perfect combination of keystrokes. The perfect combination of words that make magic. That change lives. That introduce new ideas. That will pen the next Oscar-winning film. That will earn the TV news anchor her first Emmy. That will win the Noble Prize for literature.

And you don’t have to be the strongest. Or the fastest. Or the smartest. Or the best. You just need to have the keyboard and be brave enough to tap it. Disciplined enough to rewrite. And courageous enough to ship it.

You might even rescue someone 1,000 miles away.

The internet has made it easy. And we have no more excuses.

You have a song to write that will stir our insides.

An idea to share that can help change the world.

A story to tell that might save a life.

Everyone uses the same keyboard. No advantages. The same keyboard. The world’s greatest achievers. Using this exact same tool. What might be possible?

I was wrong.

I am a musician.

This keyboard, my instrument.

Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap.

A glorious symphony.

Calling you. Calling me.

Go create.

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