4 Lessons From 3 Creative Minds

An area that I find interesting and I believe many others do also, is that of creativity. What is it? And is it something that can be learnt, developed and harnessed?

Through an exploration of three well known creative figures, I had hoped to gain some insight into potential answers to these sorts of questions.

Whilst a sample size of three is clearly not going to be statistically significant, there were a number of key insights that can provide some useful lessons regardless.

The three people that were the subject of this ‘grueling’ analysis were James Dyson, Richard Branson and Thomas Edison. You might be wondering why the inclusion of Edison, he’s a little of out time with the other two.  

The rationale was that including someone from the previous century (or two) would provide an interesting perspective as to how pervasive (over time) any insights might be.

I had hoped to see if any lessons we might learn would likely have future validity beyond the here and now.


Creativity Requires Impetus

One common theme across all three individuals was the desire to fill a need. Their individual creativity and inspiration didn’t come from boredom, nor necessarily from necessity. But rather from frustration with the status quo.

Dyson was initially frustrated with the poor performance of his vacuum cleaner and the strange hold vacuum bag manufacturers had created on the industry.

Branson’s first major foray into business was brought about by his desire to upend the restrictive commercial practices of existing record labels and music distributors which was creating inflexibility in the pricing of records. 

Even Edison was inspired to find a cheap and commercial alternative to existing light bulb designs. 

It would seem that having some level of intrinsic motivation to solve a problem in one shape or form is critical to generating the energy, both physical and mental, that is required to foster creative solutions. 


The Breeding Ground for Success is Failure

Interestingly, all of the subjects had experience of failure on their path to success. And without question, extensive experience of failure!

Even after having found success with Virgin Records, Branson went on to trial a number of other business opportunities which for a variety of reasons did not progress.

Dyson, after revolutionising the vacuum (and vacuum bag) industry with his cyclonic vacuum cleaner, went on to develop a washing machine.

Using similar principles to the vacuum cleaner, the washing machine with it’s twin rotating drums was not a commercial success.

Also, something to note, it took Dyson around 5 years and more than 5,000 prototypes before his vacuum cleaner finally went to market. And even then, no local manufacturers would take it on - leaving him to go to Japan with his design.

It is Branson’s pragmatic approach to failure though that leaves us with something we can all take away:

I suppose the secret to bouncing back is not only to be unafraid of failures, but to use them as motivational and learning tools… There’s nothing wrong with making mistakes, as long as you don’t make the same ones over and over again.

Determination and Curiosity

It is said that Edison had a poster at his desk with the following quote from Sir Joshua Reynolds:

There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labour of thinking.

I’d like to believe this story to be true, it is certainly a sentiment that resonates with me. Edison was a man who enjoyed puzzling away at problems and actively sought out opportunities to provide that ‘thinking’ time.

As a young man in one of his first jobs working for Associated Press, he request to work the night shift. The night shift would afford him time to devote to reading and experimenting.

Unfortunately, it was one of those experiments that lead to him being fired when he spilt acid over his boss’ desk - from the floor above when the acid spilt and ate through the floor!

All four have demonstrated perseverance in the face of rejection, adversity and failure.

Creativity is Stronger in Teams

Whilst there was likely a level of ego involved for all, one thing they all harnessed was the power of team work.

Dyson, and before him Edison both leveraged R&D type functions, bringing together a range of people with a dedicated focus on innovation.

Edison had a team of researchers and employees who dedicated time to innovation as integral part of their assembly line based manufacturing business.

Edison’s facility at Menlo Park, was the first industrial laboratory. It’s purpose was the creation of new designs and knowledge and then ensuring that new knowledge was put into application.

More than 1,000 patents originating from the Menlo Park laboratory bear Edison’s name.

Years later, James Dyson would go on to develop one of the largest private research and design facilities in the UK. The combined R&D spend in 2017 averaged £7m per week!

And the number of innovative products the Dyson brand has been able to not only generate but find remarkable success with has continued to grow.

In Summary

In short, creativity is not necessarily something that is innate to some and not others. With the right level of motivation, encouragement and support, we can all be creative.

Having teams with a diverse range of people with different perspectives, experiences and backgrounds will lower group think and increase innovation.

Give them room to try and fail. Provide them tools to learn and grow from those failures and to see them as the path to success.

Finally, something that each of our creative people had to begin with was an existing idea.

Their greatest successes did not come from completely new innovations, but rather taking what was and making it better - creativity can be incremental.

And incremental is often very achievable - but once they get started, who knows where they’ll end up!

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