Creative Bliss Day 18: Inspiration from 30-Feet Up

The High Line — Manhattan’s wildly popular park built on an abandoned, elevated rail line — attracted two million visitors last year. But the High Line wouldn’t exist at all without the creativity, passion and hard work of Joshua David and Robert Hammond.

David and Hammond were two neighborhood residents who happened to sit next to each other at a 1999 community meeting held to consider the dilapidated railroad spur’s fate. They soon realized that they were the only two attendees in favor of saving the rusty ruin. So after the meeting, they reluctantly decided to try to save the High Line themselves.

Over the next 10 years, they did just that. With the help of enthusiastic collaborators, David and Hammond transformed a decaying eyesore into a 30-foot-high treasure for millions of residents and tourists.

In their book, “High Line: The inside story of New York City’s park in the sky,” David and Hammond discuss this remarkable achievement. Here are five takeaways to help raise your own creativity and levels of success.

 1. Be inspired by the success of others.

David and Hammond weren’t initially optimistic about their chances to save the High Line, since neither had experience with preservation projects.

But while on a freelance writing assignment in Iowa, David met a couple — husband-and-wife farmers — who headed up a local group working to save the Lincoln Highway, America’s first cross-country highway.

Those two farmers had no prior preservation experience, yet they were printing pamphlets, erecting signs and raising money. And they had already succeeded in getting their stretch of the road listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

David’s lights flipped on. If they could do something like that without specialized knowledge, so could he and Hammond.

Sometimes we just need a real-life example to help expand our imaginations. Who can inspire you to stretch your creativity? Read biographical sketches of creative people. Watch documentaries about creative achievements. Find people in your family or town that have successfully tackled “impossible” missions.

If those people can do it, so can you.

2. Learn from the mistakes of others.

Early in the High Line’s planning stages, Hammond heard about and subsequently visited the Promenade Plantee, a Paris park created on an elevated rail structure.

Knowing a similar park existed motivated David and Hammond — and they also were able to learn from the Plantee’s mistakes.

“When we talked to the people at the Promenade Plantee, they told us they had made a mistake in not providing more seating,” said Hammond. “They thought people would use the Promenade Plantee to get from one place to another, but it tuned out that people like to sit and relax.”

This insight led to plans for more seating on the High Line. Today you’ll find people reading, talking and sunbathing on dozens of benches throughout the park.

It’s good to learn from our own mistakes — but it’s much less painful to learn from the mistakes of others. Study the results of projects similar to ones you’re working on and grow from their shortcomings.

3. Work with and for rather than against.

Preservation groups are often anti-business and anti-development. But David and Hammond had a different viewpoint.

They knew a successful High Line could benefit local businesses and that these business owners could, in turn, aid their movement. So early in the process, the two men shared the High Line’s vision with the business community and asked for support. This cooperation provided financial resources and political clout to help make the High Line a reality.

Working for something can empower us, while working against something can weaken us.

We often see this principle played out in sports. Legendary golfers Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus were hurt more than once by being “against” each other rather than “for” their own games.

“We would be playing together in a tournament, and then we would stop focusing on our own games and start trying to beat each other,” Palmer told interviewer Charlie Rose. “And when that happened someone would come along and beat both of us.”

Are you wasting precious time and energy working against? Empower yourself — and your creativity — by switching around to work with and for.

4. Focus on each person’s strengths.

David’s background is writing. Hammond’s is selling. They quickly learned how to best employ each of their skills. For example, David had a hard time with rejection from donors and others, but Hammond saw it as part of the process.

“The key to staring anything is being comfortable with lots of rejection,” said Hammond. “I used to set rejection targets, and I had to get rejected so many times a day or I wasn’t asking enough.”

Hammond made most of the personal calls, while David focused on marketing pieces. “I produced all our written materials,” he said. “I also had a journalist’s sensibility for ferreting out information, which was useful for the research we needed to do.”

When beginning creative projects, teams too often dive in without first assessing strengths and weaknesses. Before collaborating, quickly identify skill sets and personality assets – and put them to work!

5. Never stop dreaming.

In April 2000, the New York City Council held a hearing on the feasibility of a High Line park. During that meeting, David and Hammond were dismissed as pie-in-the-sky dreamers.

“This will never happen,” said one property owner. “It is just too far-fetched. These people are dreamers. It’s a pipe dream.”

But later that day, Amanda Burden, then a city planning commission member, responded to those who belittled the act of dreaming. “Since when is being a dreamer a bad thing?” she asked. “This is a city that is built on dreams. We should all be following dreams like this one.”

Dream. And don’t let anyone try to stop you.

Check 30 Days to Creative Bliss for more daily doses of design inspiration.

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