Second Helpings: Todd Henry on Creative Blocks

Todd Henry_Die EmptyThank you for coming back for second helpings of my interview with TED and HOW Design Live Conference speaker Todd Henry. We’ll be reviewing his new book Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day. Enjoy!

Todd, I’d like to discuss with you some interesting points you raise in your book …

How is suffering key to creating one’s legacy through a body of work?
Many people think of the word passion as meaning a general interest in a particular thing, but the root word of passion actually means “to suffer.” I think it’s helpful, when thinking about passion for work, to consider what outcomes we are willing to suffer on behalf of. We should be less obsessed with which tasks we enjoy doing, and more obsessed with how we will achieve an outcome that we believe to be worthy of our efforts. When we do this consistently, we build a body of work we can later be proud of.

What’s more detrimental for a creative to encounter in trying to achieve success (or brilliance): comfort or failure.
Failure is an integral part of striving. If you are never failing, you probably aren’t stretching yourself enough in the pursuit of your goals. The reason could be an over-attachment to comfort, or a desire to protect your sense of identity. (Some people would rather live with the illusion of invulnerability than test their limits and discover they have some.) We have to be strategically stretching ourselves, which means that we will occasionally fail. However, neither failure nor success is permanent. It’s how we respond to them that matters.

All creatives have experienced mind-numbing blocks at some point in their careers. How can the principles of defining the edges of a problem help break through the levy of conceptual and executional blocks?
The biggest reason we get stuck creatively is that we’re not asking the right questions. If we ask better questions, we are likely to unlock new avenues of exploration. Thus, when we explore the “edges” of a problem – the places where there is the most uncertainty – we are likely to discover new ways to think about it.

There are four “A’s” that I discuss in Die Empty to help do this: challenging Assumptions, considering Affinities or parallel problems being solved in other industries, using the Attributes of the problem as a jumping-off point for ideas, and getting really clear about the Aspirations of your work, or the desired end state. When you spend some time asking intentional questions in each of these areas, it creates traction and helps you with the forward momentum of your work.

I really connected with the concept of the four “A’s.” Thank you.

What are some of the best ways for corporate creatives to incorporate a plan for experimentation into their daily workflow?
The best way is to ensure that you have time built into your life for “unnecessary creation.” In other words, make certain that you aren’t just making things when you’re getting paid for them. Instead, block off time in your life to make, experiment, develop new skills, and play around with techniques. It’s even better if you’re exploring peripheral skills or areas of interest that can then be attached to or used to augment your existing skills and experiences.

Final question: If you could grab a bite with anyone (alive and or died) who would it be?
I’ll go with someone living, because the options for people throughout history are too broad. I think I’d want to spend some time with Jeff Bezos of Amazon. I’d simply ask him to paint a picture of the future as he sees it. I respect Amazon’s long-arc vision, and would love to learn more about how they understand where the marketplace is headed.


HOW January 2014 Cover-100pxThe In-House Design Annual
Take a look into the in-house design team of “Bloomberg Businessweek” who Ed Roberts had the pleasure of interviewing, and get inspired with this year’s In-House Design Awards. Be sure to download or pick up your copy of the January Issue of HOW magazine now on newsstands.