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JOEL Joel's Blog

On Being Creative: Part 1


On Being Creative: Part 1   1

This is the first essay of what I hope to be an occasional series on being creative.

Running a business means that on some level you have to be creative. It doesn't matter if the business is selling tools, building furniture, or providing some fabrication services. In the most general case, every decision is a creative decision. What are you having for lunch? Chicken or fish? But the result of most decisions aren't that consequential. What is consequential is if you're a designer: What is the thing you are designing going to look like? How will it work? What will it cost? How are you going to make it?
Other questions are also important: Once I make it, will somebody buy it? Will it last and hold up? Those questions can only be answered after the first, and most creative decision has been made: What is it?

As someone who designs tools, and as someone who constantly has to come up with new ideas for this, that and the other thing, I am constantly tasked with tasks of creativity and imagination. You start off with a blank page - with the goal to fill it. Some people have have an easier time of filling the blank page than others. I would like to explore, in this blog entry and maybe a few additional ones, how to make it easier for you to fill that page. I have met very imaginative people who could not get their ideas out the door, and many smart people who weren't able to release their inner creative dragon. In my opinion, a chunk of the process of coming up with creative ideas is about the technique of being creative. Notice I'm not really differentiating between creative ideas - building a piece of furniture that tilts this way as opposed to that way; capturing an effective catchphrase that popped into your head and allowed you to get a million TikTok fans; or picking the right approach that allows you to sell your work. Every one of these moments require someone to be a little creative and understand the creative process.

I also don't want to underestimate or undervalue the importance of having a creative original idea. We can argue whether or not Thomas Edison actually invented the light bulb, but it is certainly a fact that Edison was compulsive in finding out what other people were doing to help him inform his own inventive process. He also took credit for work done by people in his shop. Nowadays every woodworking professional's livelihood depends upon their ability to navigate the competition (both the big chains and other woodworkers). The creative expression is important not only for personal fulfillment, but also as part of the "unique selling proposition," what you can offer that somebody else doesn't. And this is why the creative process is so important.

I have two general principles regarding creativity: the first is, improve your technique. The second and more important of the two principles is, you're doing it all wrong.

When I took a carving class with Chris Pye, he explained the issue of improving your technique. The better you are at something technically, the less time you're going to be spending fighting your equipment, making it easier to express yourself properly. In carving, that means it's only after you have fluency and ease with your tools that you can start thinking of how you want to express yourself, because your technical skill enables you to express your ideas. This applies to every endeavor. If you're a salesperson that always shows up late, you're going to have to overcome that reluctance of a customer who is annoyed that you've wasted their time, and your sales pitch has to be that much better. The simple action of planning to be somewhere on time is it important sales technique.

The second principle is a little less straightforward. The "doing it all wrong" bit is not that you're approaching the problem wrong, it's just that most ideas aren't that good. And what I see in every single creative person is the recognition that ideas are cheap. You came up with one idea and there's always another one right behind it so that if the first idea is crap, you aren't wedded to it. You can come up with another idea that builds on the first idea in a way that makes it slightly less crappy. Hopefully your experience and skill allow you to recognize when you finally come up with an idea that isn't crap. When you work with colleagues, it's the same process, but encouraging constructive group think and idea evolution is much harder than it is when you just have to convince yourself.

New week I want to take these two ideas and turn them into a practical guide. How to actually do this.

Click here for Part 2
Join the conversation
01/18/2023 Jesse Griggs
glad you are tackling such a challenging subject. I'm a full time professional classical musician. i would add: learn to clear your mind of all the day to day clutter trying to track your commitments. when it's time to be creative (or do anything) you need to be 100% focused on the task at hand. it's also critical to have a trusted way to capture your ideas-note pad, voice recorder, etc. for more info read David Allen's _Getting Things Done_. it has changed my life.
01/18/2023 Michael O’Brien
Very insightful and useful blog Joel, I really enjoyed it. Thank you.
01/18/2023 Tod Sukontarak
I am approaching creativity as a means to gain carving skill and have no plans to earn income from it. I have been reading and using Chris Pye’s books for building technique. That said my creativity is limited by my skill and the fact that so far I am unabashedly recreating others projects. Hopefully my skills at design will improve as much technical skills develop so that I will at some point make my own designs. Pye has other good advice such as-collect images for ideas, sketch in a sketch book and keep a journal.
01/18/2023 Eric Weissman
To the points in your last paragraph: I am retired and generally not under time pressure, but even when I was operating my business I found that giving an idea some time to ferment ("sleeping on it") before executing could produce refinements to the original idea – sometimes even a completely different and better one. As for working with others, I am often reminded of some excellent advice from a gifted instructor 40 years ago: "Two heads are better than one – even if one is a cabbage."
01/18/2023 John G Fox

recently for no particular reason, other than that i go thru this exercise about once a decade, i did a seaerch for our old teacher maurice fraser. previously i had never been able to find any information about him so i am very grateful to you for having written such a fine commentary. i found it wonderfully informative, a real portrait of a guy who certainly influneced me.

i only attended one beginning class with maurice at the ywca because i was young and mostly broke and trying to learn interior renovation work around that time. so i have always done some amount of woodworking, mostly of the carpentry type but recently -- well, not so recently now -- decided to work on the idea: "chair". that project of course took me right back to maurice's lessons on sharpening and planing skills and i don't know... he has been an influence in my life for a long time despite the brevity of my study with him. he had a great, modest, open-minded manner. i would so have liked to find him still alive and able to appreciate everything.

anyway... just writing to say thanks. interesting to find that you have this tool business. i signed up for you blog so i'll be seeing what you have to say from time to time.

john fox
01/19/2023 Morgan
I love this direction of exploring the techniques for how to be creative. As I work at improving my abilities to build a piece of furniture, I have also realized that I need to develop my skills at how to think about design. This is a question that aligns with your blog. As for your second principle, I translate this into, "you must edit." Indeed, I think one of the key aspects of design is the willingness to edit and then to recognize that "no piece of art is ever done, it is simply abandoned." One can not live in editing paralysis; editing and never finishing. Having written several books, at some point I had to "just stop editing." And it is humbling, after returning and re-reading those books, I could only think: 1) that's pretty good; 2) I could have written it better.
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