How to Access and Unleash Your Creativity

A few years ago, Tom Monahan was a key player in the advertising world, a respected copywriter turned creative director. He was recognized by The Wall Street Journal as an innovative leader whose work for major accounts such as Lotus Software, Keds and Polaroid earned him many prestigious awards. But 15 years into running his own hot-shot New England-based advertising agency, an oversight caused him to take a hard look at himself. The result? A sharp right turn in his career.

“About five years ago,” Monahan recalls, “I found myself in Iceland doing a two-day program on creativity. I realized I had booked the trip, but it conflicted with the biggest award show in New England. The show was very important for our agency, but I had completely forgotten about it. I realized my priorities had shifted. Once I realized that, I got out of the ad business.”

Instead, Monahan turned to what he loves best: teaching people how to expand and exploit their own creativity. Through his company, Before & After in Tiverton, RI, Monahan helps companies, professional organizations and individuals learn how to “grease their minds.” Before & After has reached more than 50,000 people working for clients ranging from Hewlett-Packard and Hasbro to ABC Sports, The Washington Post and Tommy Hilfiger.

HOW recently asked the maestro of imaginative thinking to explain his thoughts on creativity:

HOW: Why is creativity such an important part of life today?

Monahan: Our great-grandparents made their livings with their arms, backs and legs, but low technology took away those jobs. Most people now make a living sitting on their butts and using their heads. Recently, high technology has eliminated the analytical jobs where you use rational thinking and other people’s ideas. A spreadsheet can do linear thought and come up with a conclusion, but it can’t use its imagination.

Ironically, high technology—or at least the Information Age—is devaluing information because everyone has it. People still say, “Knowledge is power,” but it’s less powerful than ever before because more people have it than ever before. It’s really not knowledge that’s so powerful anymore—it’s imagination. Seventy years ago, Einstein told us that imagination is more important than knowledge, and it’s especially true today.

HOW: Are some people more naturally creative than others?

Monahan: There’s a huge misconception about the difference between “creativity” and “talent.” In any endeavor, there are tremendously talented people who aren’t creative—people who can sing someone else’s songs really well or do a totally beautiful painting, but who don’t necessarily bring in new ideas. Creativity is bringing new ideas.

While I believe talent is genetic, I think everyone has creativity. Everybody has good days when they come up with decent ideas. So one of the things I try to do is get people to recognize what it is they do on their good days so they can do it more frequently. Interestingly, highly realized creative people tend to be very conscious about creativity, but most people are unconscious about how they think. So I put them in situations that force inspiration and show them that they can force it to happen every day.

HOW: Isn’t one of the greatest creative challenges trying to teach people to be creative?

Monahan: I don’t truly believe you can teach it, because everyone is born with creativity. Kids prove that every day. My job, rather than to teach, is to help people access the freedom to imagine that they had when they were kids.

The reason kids imagine so much is because they don’t know much. We’re trained as adults to know, and when you know, you’re not imagining. Picasso said it took him 70 years to have the mind of a child. In a short amount of time, I try to give people the tools, techniques and insights that will help them access their imaginations.

HOW: Is there any difference in the way men and women approach their own creativity and use it?

Monahan: Yes, and there’s an advantage to either programming. Women are much more open to their intuition than men. Men, whether they’re right or not, act like they are. So even though women might be more open and childlike in trusting intuition, they aren’t usually as aggressive as men in pulling the trigger.

HOW: How do you address this in your training?

Monahan: Two ways. One, I try to give the whole group strong tools so that those who need to have more conviction will get it. And I also try to give the whole group tools on how to be more open-minded and to trust their intuition.

When we do applied creativity exercises in our seminars, we try to have mixed teams of men and women. Men can stifle a group because they’re often too self-conscious about being wrong and they’re not as prolific in idea generation; women are usually prolific in coming up with ideas, but are they going to pull the trigger? So the mixed group works best.

Still, I don’t flag this as a male or female message. I put it all out there and think of it this way: We’re staining some floors at home and when you do the second coat, the spots that didn’t get covered well on the first coat soak in more. I’d like to think that when you’re talking to a large group, the right people soak in the right information.

HOW: What are some of the major blocks to creativity?

Monahan: By far, the principal block is knowing. When people have an answer, they tend to not look for better answers. Then there is fear of failure, fear of what others think, fear of success.

Ironically, those who fear failure tend not to stick their necks out and, consequently, they don’t succeed as much as those who don’t fear failure so much. You need only look at Michael Jordan to see this. Jordan missed more shots than anybody else in the history of basketball, yet in the last three of the NBA finals he was MVP [most valuable player]. Babe Ruth struck out more than everybody else; Tom Edison failed miserably many, many times. That’s just the way it is—high-achievement people fail more because they take more chances. Einstein said, “Show me someone who hasn’t failed, and I’ll show you someone who hasn’t tried hard enough.”

Judgment is another major reason people don’t come up with better ideas. Let’s say you’re trying to solve a problem. You come up with three or four solutions and you judge them. Are they any good? If they’re all horrible, you give up and take up a career in hotel management. And if one of them is good, most people stop. So by judging, you lose either way—either you get down on yourself or, if you’re like most people, you stop at that one good idea. The reason you don’t come up with a great idea is because you had a good idea, so you stopped.

HOW: Are you saying people should build off that good idea, or should they also be looking for other solutions in completely different directions?

Monahan: Try to generate many, many ideas and don’t judge them. Your mind works in two ways: a “linear, logical-proof” mode and a “spark idea” mode. You can’t be in both at once. Some people spark an idea, then immediately launch into their linear and logical-proof mode. When you’re in there, you’re not sparking new ideas. The judgment mode forces you to always come up with things that work, but with new ideas, there’s no proof that they’ll work. So you have to stay in that nonjudgmental, let’s-try-this-out mode.

HOW: How do you get around fear of failure and other creative blocks?

Monahan: I show people how to build failure into their thinking, then they don’t have so much fear of it. Intergalactic Thinking, 100MPH Thinking, 180 THINKING [creative-thinking techniques], which I teach in my seminars, all have failure built into them. Most people are unconscious thinkers, but if you understand better how you think, then you recognize the role of failure, the role of random inspiration, the role of shutting down judgment.

HOW: How do you achieve a balance between being creative and producing a product that’s going to fulfill what you need it to do marketing-wise?

Monahan: There are very few individuals or organizations who have that problem yet. We’re so short of having the creative part figured out that it will be a nice problem if and when it occurs.

Of course, that’s what having balanced teams is all about, because highly realized creative people tend to have very short attention spans. Da Vinci pissed off a lot of monks because they’d ask him to do a mural and by the time he had it half sketched, he was on to the next thing. But if highly realized creative people are working side by side on a team with people who are more execution-oriented, then the whole is a nice combination.

You also have to know when to stop. I’m one of those guys with a short attention span; when I used to go into the editing suite to do TV, at a certain point I would have to say, “OK, I’m going to have to shut off my creative brain, I’m going to stop doing what-ifs, and I’m just going to execute now.” At some point, you have to stop creating and pull the trigger. The truth is, you can always keep going, but you have to recognize that you’re out of time and you need to finish. And that takes either management or maturity and understanding.

HOW: What about those designers who have to work solo? Any creativity-stretching tips to share with them?

Monahan: One of the tools I recommend is what I call “collaborate with genius.” We do it every day, but not consciously. Ninety-nine percent of the thoughts going through your mind are other people’s thoughts that have become public domain. This means that when you’re working alone, you’re not alone. You have access to all these other minds.

Napoleon Hill’s book Think and Grow Rich, written in the 1920s or ’30s, was an analysis of high-achieving people of the time. He recognized that high achievers back then—and if you think about it, this applies to almost any period—surrounded themselves with other high-achieving people and, when they couldn’t, they studied them.

Now there are some cautions here. Most people make the mistake of collaborating with geniuses in their own category, which means they’re either basically ripping off or mimicking, and that can only take you so far. I don’t recommend if you’re a designer you say, “How would Woody Pirtle do this?” because he’s in your domain and you’re just going to be mimicking what he would have done. Instead, study someone like Bill Gates, Henry Ford or Copernicus and borrow from their brilliance. And use publications like HOW and Communication Arts [for which Monahan writes on advertising] as thought-starters, not thought-enders.

HOW: What about when you’re on deadline? How can you spark creativity under the gun?

Monahan: The good news about thinking fast is that, by definition, “thinking fast” means you’re taking judgment out of it. Fully half the people I work with tell me they work better under pressure. To those who say they don’t, you were born in the wrong century. Things move much faster today than ever before, and obviously the race goes to the swift.

HOW: How can designers help their clients open up to creativity so the clients might buy into a solution that’s outside the box of what they were expecting, but could be the best solution?

Monahan: That’s a very involved question with a very involved answer—if there is one. But the closest thing to a panacea is to listen to your client. If you listen, you’ll hear your client say things that support what you want to do. I like to use the clients’ own words, terms and concepts, and point this out to them when I’m selling them.

I like to get clients to buy in early, before I’ve invested a lot. If you don’t listen and just try to shove it down their throats, they’ll resist. Also, approach the job as problem-solving and not page decoration. If you come up with a good solution for their problem, they won’t care too much about how you decorate the page.

Personally, I love to show people roughs. They’re going to stick their nose in it one way or the other—they’re paying for it, it’s their design, so they have a right to have an opinion. Whether they’re qualified is another thing. But when you keep people informed, they’re much less likely to throw in a monkey wrench.

HOW: So, make them feel a part of the process and actually let them be a part of it?

Monahan: Yes, and when you’re selling your idea, the best way to do it is to present your case and shut up. If there’s resistance, give in some. It’s one of the laws of the universe: During a hurricane, the trees that don’t bend, break; the trees that bend make it through.

I’m not saying to give in to everything, but some people defend their work too much and they wind up defending fonts and illustrations. Those elements don’t win the war: Ideas do.