Book Review: The Accidental Creative: How to be Brilliant at a Moment's Notice by Todd Henry
I read the summary of The Accidental Creative on Goodreads and this thought stuck out: "It isn't enough to just do your job anymore. In order to thrive in today's marketplace, all of us-even the accountants-have to be ready to generate brilliant ideas on demand."
The summary goes on to identify Todd Henry as a business creativity expert, and he definitely writes with the business creative audience member in mind. However, as a teacher, I was nodding, taking notes, and agreeing with just about every point he made.
He writes, "You must not confuse structure with formula. They are not the same. A formula is something you apply to get a predictable result on the other side. There is no formula for effective creating. Structure, on the other hand, is the undergirding platform that gives you enough stability to feel free taking risks. It gives you a sense of mastery over your process."
The Accidental Creative is the undergirding platform that intends to give creatives structure. So his opening chapter hooked me and then he hit me with his style. Throughout the book, he quotes famous creatives and he references various studies and research. He even lists the resources he mentioned in an appendix, which I love.
While he's presenting his platform, which he refers to as a Creative Rhythm, he also writes realistically. He acknowledges that people will be modifying and adjusting his platform to suit individual needs. And I like realistic people. Like when John Green says, "Books belong to their readers." Everyone who reads takes away their own interpretations and meanings.
The rest of this review is going to focus on my interpretations and meanings, specifically the connections I made in Part 1 and my plan to implement some of Todd Henry's platform to build my Creative Rhythm, which he expands upon in Part 2. Really, I have a few friends who would benefit from reading this book, but since they tend to read fiction as their one escape, they asked me to write a really good book report.
- He quotes Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, "Few things in life are less efficient than a group of people trying to write a sentence. The advantage of this method is that you end up with something for which you will not be personally blamed." Sounds like every hellish attempt I've witnessed and miserably participated in to write a school's mission statement with the entire staff. I have worked in five different school districts and I have yet to find a staff that can agree 100% on a gum policy, but administrators think we can crank out a mission statement that everyone is happy with.
- Henry writes about "having weeks of work judged in a matter of minutes" as "de-motivating to say the least." He shares a story from a friend who refers to these decision makers as "'vampires,' because they tend to suck all the creative energy out of the room." Basically, tension ensues because the vampire is focused on product and the creative is focused on process. While most of my administrators have been fabulous educators who I hold a great deal of respect for, I have had a couple who I just could not...not! I had an administrator walk into my classroom within the first quarter for my evaluation. Nothing unusual, except he had never spoken to me before. No introduction. No polite conversation to get to know each other. Just taking notes about everything I did wrong. In the spring he showed up again. By that time, we had engaged in a few conversations. Oh, and my test results were impressive. Suddenly, I was doing everything right. This vampire didn't care about any process, he just wanted to ensure that my product made him look good. De-motivating really is the right word!
- Henry identifies three assassins of the creative process: dissonance, fear, and expectation escalation. If these three assassins are skulking about the workplace regularly, then "rationalization and mediocrity become the norm." There were multiple examples of dissonance, all of which could apply to schools as well as corporate culture. My favorite was a scenario, "We deliver innovative solutions to clients! (But just give the clients whatever they ask for.) Makes me think about inflated graduation rates or being forced into changing a student's grade to appease a parent even though I have writing samples and data to back up my assessment.
Plan of Action:
1. Clustering, or chunking similar tasks, is meant "to keep you engaged and focused more deeply and for longer periods of time." As a teacher, I have to follow my schedule, but most of my other time is mine to direct. I've learned to cluster email. Generally, I check email in the morning and about thirty minutes after school is out. I sit down and knock out as many replies as possible. The rest of my time I use to focus on other tasks. I can display student work during lunch. I can create materials during my entire planning period. I can grade an entire set of quizzes after school.
Henry's points about clustering have me considering what other teacher tasks I can cluster in a meaningful way to improve my focus.
2. Developing quality relationships and circles is critical to sharing insights. Create a circle of people who inspire and who would want to help everyone in the group achieve their aspirations. For these meetings, each person answers three questions:
- What are you working on?
- What is inspiring you?
- What would you like prompting on? Gulp. This is giving the circle members the go-ahead to ask "How's that book coming?" Henry's advice is to be realistic and reasonable with these milestones that you ask for accountability on.
Henry makes the point that this circle may be the most significant factor in having creative insights, so he encourages the reader to take this step most seriously. I'm thinking that I know enough teachers in different districts, who also know a variety of teachers, that I may want to initiate a teacher circle.
3. Whole-life planning. Often people compartmentalize life at work and life at home without giving thought to the energy expended. I completely understand this point. For years, I taught. I lesson planned. I created. I assessed. I collaborated. I had no life. Seriously, for several years, I wasn't even dating. My thought was "Where would I find the time?" Time wasn't my enemy. My energy deficit was. I expended all of my energy on teaching and left nothing over for me.
Henry recommends three checkpoints for whole-life planning: weekly, monthly, and quarterly.
My Person and I already schedule a weekly Strategic Planning session to go over our goals and schedules. And I've integrated my systems so that I have three main productivity programs guiding me. iCal holds my entire calendar for my personal life, my shared life, and my work life. Evernote is my filing cabinet. And Trello manages my tasks and projects.
However, I like the idea of using three checkpoints to structure my time and direct my energy. While I will continue with weekly Strategic Planning, I'll be much more intentional with how I schedule my time - trying to place buffers between draining activities. I'll also be integrating the monthly and quarterly checkpoints as well to identify obligations, projects, or activities that I need to address and possibly prune. Henry encourages that the quarterly checkpoint is also a great place to record the projects that seem impossible, but I wish for.
4. I loved the section on stimuli. Henry compares a stimuli diet to the saying "You are what you eat." Meaning if the only stimuli I experience center around pop culture, then I'm just consuming junk food. I need to feed my mind with healthy stimuli with the occasional pop culture crap.
I'll be setting aside Study Time each week to explore targeted gaps in my knowledge, topics I'm curious about, and information that would be good for me. I'll create a list in Trello of various stimuli ideas so that I can maneuver them around my calendar. Henry mentions David Allen's Someday/Maybe Projects list, and I like the idea of creating that list in Trello as well. My notes for each study session will be kept in Evernote for regular review. Henry prefers notebooks and index cards, but I just can't go backwards.
5. Henry spends some time writing about hours. Really. He encourages people to spend one hour every week generating ideas. He points out the benefits of unnecessary creating, which is a hobby you truly enjoy, but there are no due dates or commitments beyond what you set voluntarily. He writes about flow, that experience of losing all sense of time because you're in a creative groove. And he even incorporates a "Come to Jesus" moment. If you think you don't have time to start putting these strategies into place, then you're just making excuses. You're wasting time on activities that are easier and if you truly want to expand your Creative Rhythm, then you need to quit wasting time.
I'm on board with these ideas and I believe that scheduling the majority of the activities he recommends will help keep me on track. I do think I need to reconsider some activities that are major time sucks in my life. I stopped playing World of Warcraft because Azeroth just teleports me to a land of uselessness. But I am playing The Sims a bit. And it really is a bit. If I were to schedule that Sims time, I think I could keep it in check.
6. Henry wraps up his book with some great points to consider. He includes this great quote from Steve Jobs, "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma–which is living with the results of other people's thinking." He goes on to distinguish between an occupation, which is our job or how we make a living versus our vocation, which is what we're wired for and consists of a set of deeper themes. He asks the reader to write a seven word biography. And for their definition of greatness. He ends by asking the reader to join him "in the effort to empty yourself each day, and to strive to find your unique voice. Don't go to the grave with your best work still inside of you. Die empty."
I need to write my seven word biography. And I need to define greatness for myself. And I'd like to read Todd Henry's second book titled Die Empty.
Even though I can't count this book toward any of my available categories for my Reading Challenge, I am quite happy that I read it. I feel like I have actual strategies to put into place to help boost my creativity. I may not start all of these activities at once, but I can roll them out over some time.